Amber Case

Amber Case

The work of Amber Case, a cyborg anthropologist, focuses on the interface of culture and technology. She discusses how she merged her studies in sociology, anthropology, and engineering with her passion for making technology more efficient and user-friendly, allowing people to connect and better understand one another.


4 - 12+



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Amber Case is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and the director of the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) Research and Development Center in Portland, Oregon. As the daughter of two broadcast engineers, Case learned early how to engage her curiosity for science, mathematics, and engineering. While attending Lewis & Clark College, she combined her engineering experience with studies in sociology and anthropology. This merger developed into a passion for understanding the symbiotic nature of humans and technology, which launched her career in cyborg anthropology.

As a cyborg anthropologist, Case explores the interface between humans and technology and how those interactions impact people and culture over time. A cyborg is an organism that has had external components added to it so that it can better adapt to changing conditions. According to Case, human interactions with technology, especially interactive devices like computers, tablets, and cell phones, make us all cyborgs. Anthropology is the science of the origin, development, and culture of human beings. Cultures are formed, in large part, by the tools and technologies they create. Throughout human history, tools have been important extensions of the physical self, and now, anthropologists like Case believe tools are extensions of the mental self as well.

The result is that humans are able to connect more easily and more quickly than ever before. Social networks, online gaming, and virtual interfaces are just a few examples of tools being used to extend the mental self. Case believes these human-technology interactions amplify humanness because they allow people to overcome the geographic and social barriers that would otherwise prevent them from connecting with one another. One practical application of Case’s work in cyborg anthropology is Geoloqi, the location-sharing company she co-founded. The Geoloqi system works to better integrate technology with real life by providing location-based information in real time.

Through her ongoing research, Case continues to support the philosophy of computer pioneer Mark Weiser, who said, "The best technology should be invisible, get out of your way, and let you live your life."

Transcript (English)

- So there was this moment in childhood where after dinner, my dad and I would hang out and talk, and he took a sheet of paper one day and he said, "What's the shortest distance between two points?" And I said, "That's a straight line, "you told me that yesterday." And he said, "Well, no, there's a even shorter distance "between Point A and Point B." And he drew a Point A and Point B on a piece of paper and folded the paper together so that Point A and Point B touched. And he said, "That's the shortest distance "between two points." And when I went into college and I started studying anthropology and sociology, I was writing my thesis on cell phones and examining all of these people talk on cell phones, and I realized that everyone is Point A and the person they're calling is Point B. And when they pick up that phone and they press the button to call that person, it's this immediate wormhole that compresses space and time and Point A and Point B are right together. And I look at how technology affects culture over time. We're basically carrying around devices that our pockets that are larger on the inside than they are on the outside. We're storing memories outside of ourselves. People are interacting with our online personas when we're not even there. For a very long time, our tools have been extensions of our physical selves, and now, our tools are extensions of our mental selves as well. And so an anthropologist goes through and says, "Well, how does that really affect people? "And what are we going to see in the future? "And are there risks and opportunities associated with that "over a longer period of time than just the one year "that you're using the interesting device "that you happen to have in your pocket?" So I came from an engineering family. My parents were both broadcast engineers. They put television on the air, put the commercial breaks in. My dad invented stuff in his free time. And I grew up with a computer as if it was a pet. I basically had a computer instead of somebody having a dog. So by all intents and purposes, I was doing mathematics and science, I was doing programming, and I thought, "Yes, I will be an engineer." And it was really important to me to find a way to study people so that I could make better technology for them. And so I found out in college that there was a field called anthropology where you could study people. And then I found out there's a field called cyborg anthropology where you can study people's interaction with technology. And that married with my background in engineering and mathematics and science was perfect, because suddenly not only could I create the technology, but I could create the interface with which people actually interacted with it. And I could fundamentally change how things worked or reduce friction and annoyance in everyday life through the use of technology. The thing that I've been experimenting with most recently is what I call the invisible interface. Basically an invisible button that is also called a geofence. You can put this fence on a map and it's completely invisible. And when your phone enters the fence, something happens. In this case, when I go home, my phone knows I'm home. It automatically tells the lights in the house to turn on, and when I leave, the lights turn off. Hi, my name is Amber Case. I'm a cyborg anthropologist and a National Geographic Explorer.

Transcripción (Español)

- Hubo este momento en la infancia donde después de la cena, mi papá y yo nos quedábamos a charlar, y un día tomó una hoja de papel y dijo: "¿Cuál es la distancia más corta entre dos puntos?" Y dije: "Eso es una línea recta, me lo dijiste ayer". Y dijo: "Bueno, no, hay una distancia aún más corta entre el Punto A y el Punto B". Y dibujó un Punto A y un Punto B en una hoja de papel y dobló el papel para que el Punto A y el Punto B se tocaran. Y dijo: "Esa es la distancia más corta entre dos puntos". Y cuando fui a la universidad y empecé a estudiar antropología y sociología, estaba escribiendo mi tesis sobre teléfonos celulares y examinando a todas estas personas hablando por celular, y me di cuenta de que todos son Punto A y la persona a la que llaman es Punto B. Y cuando levantan ese teléfono y presionan el botón para llamar a esa persona, es este agujero de gusano inmediato que comprime el espacio y el tiempo y el Punto A y el Punto B están juntos. Observo cómo la tecnología afecta la cultura con el tiempo. Básicamente llevamos dispositivos en nuestros bolsillos que son más grandes por dentro que por fuera. Estamos almacenando recuerdos fuera de nosotros mismos. La gente interactúa con nuestros personajes en línea cuando ni siquiera estamos allí. Durante mucho tiempo, nuestras herramientas han sido extensiones de nosotros mismos físicamente, y ahora, nuestras herramientas son extensiones de nosotros mismos mentalmente también. Y así, un antropólogo revisa y dice: "Bueno, ¿cómo afecta realmente eso a la gente? ¿Y qué vamos a ver en el futuro? ¿Y hay riesgos y oportunidades asociados con eso a lo largo de un período de tiempo más largo que solo el año en que estás usando el dispositivo interesante que tienes en tu bolsillo?" Vengo de una familia de ingenieros. Mis padres eran ingenieros de transmisión. Ellos ponían la televisión al aire, insertaban los cortes comerciales. Mi papá inventaba cosas en su tiempo libre. Y crecí con un computador como si fuera una mascota. Básicamente tenía un computador en lugar de tener un perro. Entonces, en todos los aspectos, estaba haciendo matemáticas y ciencias, estaba programando, y pensé: "Sí, seré ingeniera". Y para mí era muy importante encontrar una forma de estudiar a las personas para poder crear una mejor tecnología para ellos. Y así descubrí en la universidad que había un campo llamado antropología donde podías estudiar a las personas. Luego descubrí que había un campo llamado antropología cíborg donde podías estudiar la interacción de las personas con la tecnología. Y eso, junto con mi formación en ingeniería, matemáticas y ciencias, era perfecto, porque de repente no solo podía crear la tecnología, sino que también podía crear la interfaz con la que la gente realmente interactuaba. Y podía cambiar fundamentalmente cómo funcionaban las cosas o reducir la fricción y la molestia en la vida cotidiana a través del uso de la tecnología. Lo que he estado experimentando más recientemente es lo que llamo la interfaz invisible. Básicamente un botón invisible que también se llama una cerca geográfica. Puedes colocar esta cerca en un mapa y es completamente invisible. Y cuando tu teléfono entra en la cerca, algo sucede. En este caso, cuando llego a casa, mi teléfono sabe que estoy en casa. Automáticamente enciende las luces de la casa, y cuando me voy, las luces se apagan. Hola, mi nombre es Amber Case. Soy una antropóloga cíborg y una exploradora de National Geographic.

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Angela M. Cowan, Education Specialist and Curriculum Designer
Julie Brown, National Geographic Society
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Elaine Larson, National Geographic Society
Last Updated

April 15, 2024

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