Ethnography: saved by technology?

Livescripe_smart_pen_iiThis is the new smart pen by Livescribe.

Ethnographers sip from a fire hose.  If they have done their job, if they have set up the interview and engaged the respondent, said respondent talking several hundred words a minute. 

The answer is not a tape recording.  The only way to access a tape recording is to go back through it in real time.   If we have 30 hours of interviews, we have to commit at least 30 hours to listening to them.

The answer is not a transcription.  This is 30 hours of listening plus what might will be another 30 hours winding back and forth to get the transcript just right. 

The answer is the notes we take at the moment of the interview, and these are necessarily a rough record, often a collection of key words, not to much a perfect topographical map of the interview as a treasure map.

Enter the Smart pen from Livescribe.  The Smart pen allows us to take notes even as we capture a taped version of what is said, and then to interpolate between them as need be.  The Smart pen gives us both the topographical map and the treasure map. 

Here’s what they say on the Livescribe website:

“Paper Replay,” … allows total recall from lectures, meetings or conversations by simply tapping on your notes. When used to take notes during a discussion or lecture, the smartpen records the conversation and digitizes the handwriting, automatically synchronizing the ink and audio. By later tapping the ink, the user can replay the conversation from the exact moment the note was written. Notes and audio can also be uploaded to a PC where they can be replayed, saved, searched or sent.

It remains to be seen how well this technology works.  I think the Smart pen doesn’t hit the market for a few months yet.  But I have one on order.  Looks promising!


Speaking of ethnography, the new book by Denny and Sunderland is now out (Denny, Rita and Patricia L. Sunderland.  2007.  Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research.) and you can buy a copy here.   

More more on the Smart pen, see the Livescribe website here.

8 thoughts on “Ethnography: saved by technology?

  1. Brad

    Yes indeed, the potential for this system is enormous for a whole range of applications.

    From a technological point of view, the pen & paper process works without a problem as I use digital pen & paper technology on a daily basis. I am looking forward to seeing the integration of the voice recorder and playback functionality.

    My problem is similar to your Canadian reader – down in Australia I can’t actually get one yet.

  2. Adam Richardson

    Have you seen the Logitech Io pen? It works using the same technology, but doesn’t have the audio recording. From what I’ve seen it works very well. If the Livescribe works as advertised then the audio/writing syncing does sound very good.

    Note that it only works on their paper, you can’t use any old paper. This has been one of my reasons for not trying this technology out, as I’m very particular about my notebooks and don’t want to get locked into their tiny selection. Also, none of these so far seem to have Mac compatability.

  3. chi

    this would be really cool to have for taking notes in class. i always find myself drifting off for a few seconds in chemistry and then missing something really important. the pen sounds almost to good to be true.

  4. Laurie

    In journalism school, we had to pass shorthand, worth 1/4 credit, and admittedly, I didn’t see its use until I discovered the taperecorder letdown. Taperecorders, you see, made me lazy; I figured I didn’t have to assimilate or concentrate on what was being said in the interview, because I could go back and listen to the tape. That may be true, but it was also time-consuming. I discovered the best option was to listen and take good notes. I can hear a taperecorder in my head, which is about 10 seconds behind what my hand is writing; the end product is a great set of notes, full of quotes, which follow a reasoned line of questionning. Relying on the latest technological creation, however, would short-circuit that process, perhaps encouraging lazy notetaking, which encourages lazy thinking. Nothing beats listening, analyzing and good note-taking.

  5. katrina

    As a fellow ethnographer, I have been waiting for the LiveScribe pen since the summer. The Logitech pen will be left in the dust. Be sure to place a pre-order on their website. Their teaser campaign ( looks like it is just for college kids, but this has very practical implications for our industry. I plan on never paying additional for focus group audio tapes or transcribers again.

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