“We need to know more about technologised human interaction.” Interview with Maja Hojer Bruun

  • Maja Hojer Bruun, interview, anthropologist, technology, PEOPLE project

To provide insight into the everyday practice of an anthropologist engaging with technology, we talked with Maja Hojer Bruun, a member of PEOPLE project’s Advisory Board. Maja is an associate professor in the Department of Learning and Philosophy of Aalborg University (Denmark) where she is associated with the Techno-Anthropology research group. Maja explores technological communities and questions of sociality, democracy, ethics and societal interests in relation to emergent technologies such as robots, drones, smart energy technologies and telecommunication devices. The interview was originally published in the 2nd issue of the PEOPLE newsletter.


Why is it important for anthropologists to engage with technology?

I think technology is part of the human condition – all interactions, all communications are somehow mediated by technology. Now there is an enormous focus on new technologies, but we could also study some of the old technologies to compare what happens when you go from paper and pen to the iPad – another kind of technological mediation. We need to teach our students ethical and social issues around technologies, because a lot of them get jobs working with user insights and communication and even product development; but also implementation of new technologies. A lot of Danish anthropology students work in municipalities and public agencies where technology is implemented: for example, in schools, workplaces, hospitals. They need to have a critical understanding of it, because there’s a lot of Hallelujah around new technologies – with electronic patient journals, integration of data systems, and so on. We need to know a little bit more about ‘technologised’ human interaction.


So it is useful for anthropologists, but also useful for technology …

Yes. I think there is also a growing interest among technology developers to get anthropologists and social scientists on board, next to their developers. They are used to working with designers – many of the engineers I talk to know user-experience from design programs – but they don’t get deep into understanding technology use or the ethical aspects of it. And they have really fundamental questions – ’What does it mean to trust a system?’, for example, and these are not questions that you can ’design’ yourself. If you want to have people deliver data into new data systems for smart technologies and so on, they just ask us – ’how can we program/ operate an optimal this or that for incentives for people to trust the system?’ ’Under which conditions do they trust the system and do they want to give their personal data about their use, their mobility patterns and so on?’ So what is trust? What does it depend on? They simply don’t have the tools and the concepts to understand these kinds of questions. So I think that there is a genuine interest and real job opportunities for anthropologists.


Do you want to say a little bit about your own experience with Techno-Anthropology? Specifically, what are the goals of the Techno-Anthropology group at Aalborg?

The overall goal is to equip students to participate in producing socially robust and environmentally sustainable technologies. So there’s both strong commitment to green transitions/ environmentally-friendly technologies and health technology systems: socially sustainable systems for the health sector and for socially sustainable transitions for green energy. This is also to support regional industries. Aalborg is really a regional university, far from the capital (even for a small country). So there is a lot of industry interest in the region – the university was founded because local industries wanted to have more academic and they couldn’t get academics to move from Copenhagen to the North (Nordjylland), so they decided to start a university. From the very beginning, there was a PBL learning philosophy [Problem-Based Learning]. But then they added more and more humanities. And over the years the university expanded and added more and more disciplines.


How do you deal with some of the challenges of interdisciplinarity, or with working with industry? What kinds of problems do you encounter and how do you deal with them?

To be honest, I think our students are often frustrated, because they learn in so many different genres. It’s very openly stated in the board regulations that they have to read the literature and know the methods from different scientific fields. So in the case of anthropology, they have to learn how to write ethnography. But when I start teaching ethnography and we read monographs, they have just completed a semester in which they worked more with product development where they are not allowed to write in their report ‘I do’ and ’I did’ and ’I learn’; they cannot use the first person. So they ask ‘In this report can we write about ourselves in the first person?’ ‘Yes. You have to. You have to reflect on that learning process. You have to reflect on how you generated the data.’ So for them it’s a big eye opener: how differently these disciplines work, how they write and how different the outcome of their work is. So it must be a frustrating experience, also because many of the teachers are disciplinary. We have philosophers, anthropologists, different kinds of engineers – teaching their own subject.


It sounds like you’re very explicitly teaching them to reflect on those issues and to become more aware of different epistemologies …

Yes. We try to do that. And we also have integrated theory of science courses now, where we teach together. We decided to have discussions, for example on questions like, What is quality? What is good research? What is knowledge? And then we have three teachers in a roundtable or a panel debate, and our students listen in to our conversations. Or we take a concept like ‘intervention’ seen through these different perspectives, and bring those together. Of course it’s a lot of work to bring these people together and have these discussions. We are not trained in doing that , so it is actually difficult – you never know what will happen! When I did it the first time, I was scared! New kinds of questions come up.


Maja Hojer Bruun, anthropologist, technology, interview, PEOPLE project, advisory board
“Students start out with real world problems and not disciplinary problems,” says Maja Hojer Bruun. (Photo: Maria Șalaru)

So what kind of higher education environment do you think enables that kind of learning? What kinds of things should be put in place to facilitate that?

First, the PBL teaching philosophy [Problem-Based Learning] is really helpful, because students start out with real world problems and not disciplinary problems. They don’t start out with a theory and then what is lacking in that theory to understand the world. They start out with a real world problem and then they see what kinds of theories could be helpful, what kinds of methods could be helpful for understanding that problem, for analysing it and finding a solution. So I think that the education environment is interdisciplinary from the very beginning, although teachers are often from different disciplines. So problem-based learning and project work is really helpful. Second, there is time set aside to do project work. I have been reflecting on how many institutions have to be in place in order to do this kind of work. For example, the funding that students can apply for to go somewhere for fieldwork or to buy materials. It’s just a small pot (maximum €350 each) – but even a little money is helpful, because it signals to students that we really prioritise this. And then there are lots of agreements and regulations prepared in advance – the students can go online and there are various templates that you can fill in for agreements with companies and so on. So that’s also really helpful.


What advice would you have about building and managing partnerships between higher education and industry?

I think the institutions have to think through these things and not leave them up to individual teachers. What I would really like, and I don’t think we have it, is a database of all the companies our students have worked with, for example. We can then say ’Oh, you are interested in waste management. We already had people working with this company and this municipality and so on.’ We don’t collect this information, but it would be really useful. What we did do was have a whole-day event to which we invited companies and municipalities, where we presented the new study programme of Techno-Anthropology. And we also invited some people to be on the advisory board for it. That was a nice thing.


And how did you encourage these potential partners to come?

Well, we were asking “What kinds of competencies do you need in your company?” – that was actually the question, so they talked about that. The companies that came typically had somebody from the social sciences or humanities working for them already, and they sent this person, who said ‘Ok, this is what I experienced.’ So in that sense, we already have a lot of ’ambassadors’ from the social sciences and humanities in companies. So it wasn’t difficult to get people to come. I am really surprised with companies willing to take students. It may be because we’re in the North of the country and there is not such a big distance between the university and the rest of society, but this isn’t a problem for us.


Look inside the PEOPLE Newsletter No. 2 to find out more about PEOPLE project’s case studies in energy and sustainable living, where students of anthropology, sociology, psychology, and related disciplines, work side by side with mentors from industry and higher education. See how the PEOPLE project contributed to this year’s Why the World Needs Anthropologists symposium and what Dan Podjed, PEOPLE team member, told us about his experience in interdisciplinary and industry-oriented projects.