Craig Young: an interview in SF

I did this interview for a project called Automated Anthropologist.  (I went to San Francisco and let it be known that I was prepared to do anything anyone told me to do, within the limits of morality, legality, and being Canadian.)

With the help of Maria Elmqvist (now a Strategic Planner at Perfect Fools in Amsterdam), I talked to Craig Young.

I like this interview for a couple of reasons but chiefly it’s Craig. Really clear, forthcoming, and helpful. I paid him, so I was making some small contribution to his economy. But he went above and beyond the call. (Maria and I approached another guy for an interview and he said, “not so much” in a way that sounded unmistakably like “go f*ck yourself.”  Craig’s generosity was especially welcome.)

Another thing I liked about the interview was the glimpse it gives of city life. In this case, of the invisible distinctions of space that are perfectly clear to Craig and a surprise to the rest of us (if and when discovered by the rest of us). The world is filled with this invisible distinctions. They surround us all the time. The secret of ethnography: keep an eye out. Ask everyone.

A third point to make is methodological. Interviews a guy like Craig is difficult because you are (I am) concerned that you are (I am) going to ask something insensitive. In addition to invisible spaces, there are invisible sensitivities, and the last thing you (I) want to do is blunder into them.

Hence my tone, which is deliberately convivial, kinda loud, and bit clueless.  The cultural logic is this: if this guy (me) is incapable of certain subtleties, he may give offense, but he doesn’t mean to give offense.  (We may think of this as the “big stupid labrador” defense.) I know this is counter-intuitive, but then it is a cultural logic, not a logical logic. Ironically, the more you signal an effort not to give offense (by agonizing over choice of words and so on), the more likely you are to give offense.

A fourth point, this one moral: there are people in the research community who believe that an interview with Craig offends morally and politically. The notion is that I am taking advantage of a power asymmetry. Yes, it’s true, asymmetries raise the possibility of exploitation. And then it’s incumbent on me to see and say what my motives were. The answer is that for the purposes of Automated Anthropologist I was talking to anyone who would talk to me. Did I take more than I gave? That’s a tough one. I paid Craig. So there was an exchange of value. Only Craig can decide whether he was properly compensated. The danger is that if we decide that we shouldn’t interview Craig for political reasons, he is denied the engagement and the pay. I think it’s for Craig to decide whether he wants to do the interview, and to remove this choice from him really does enact a power asymmetry. Apparently, we know better than he does. We decide for him. But this is not an easy issue.

A fifth point: I am glad to know even a little more about Craig and what life is like in the street. The idea of having to worry about people “stealing your stuff” is a revelation. I can’t imagine this order of disorder in my life. It’s all interesting to see that there is more order than I would have expected, certain work arounds, a schedule, a support network. All of these discourage the idea I tend to have of life on the street, that it is radically unstable and always on the verge of the cataclysmic. And I guess that’s one thing to take away from the interview, that life on the street is both quite stable and always on the verge of the cataclysmic.

A sixth point: the defense of this interview, the defense of all ethnographic work, is perhaps that the other is a little less other. I don’t think I carry diminishing ideas of people who live in the street. (I don’t romanticize them. I don’t blame them.) But it’s also true that, beyond that, I don’t know what to think. Ethnography, even a very brief interview of this kind, helps give us access to one another. And this is a necessary condition, I think, of empathy and aid.

One last point, everyone with a smart phone is now in possession of a fantastically good piece of recording technology. I wish I were doing more of these interviews. I wish we all were.

Post script: thanks to Maria Elmqvist who did the camera work and participated in Auto Anthro with intelligence and a real ethnographic sensitivity.

4 thoughts on “Craig Young: an interview in SF”

  1. Wow. I always want to ask these folks about their story Grant. Of course many of our homeless people suffer from a variety of disabilities but that theme of ‘just walking away from everything’ is profound. I’ve heard that from young homeless people also. I’d love to know what causes people like Craig to just say “fuck it” and capitulate to the street.

  2. I always love reading anything that reinforces my sense of purpose as a freelance video ethnographer. Thanks for this! I very much believe in complete transparency and fair compensation (which I deliberately always make a cash transaction). I agree with you, it is up to the subject to decide if they feel participating on video is an equitable exchange. I continue to ruminate on the delicacy of the relationship between the interviewer, the technology, and the subject. Before yielding to the impulse to whip out the camera in one’s pocket and document, I’d be thrilled just to see folks listen more to each other. On a final note, your “big labrador” analogy cracked me up. I’ve found that being a bit of a country bumpkin from Indiana has served me well with regard to telegraphing an earnestness that people trust. Thanks again.

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