Maybe a pen doesn’t quite free those of us who have toiled under 125 years (I’ll carbon date anthro to Lewis Henry Morgan, but entertain arguments from those in favour of Ibn Khaldun) of oppression in the field, but the folks at Live Scribe are about to drop a new tool on to the market that could unleash as-yet untapped ethnographic potential.

In a nutshell, the Live Scribe Pulse Smart Pen records audio while you’re taking notes. Then, when you go over your notes with the pen it plays back what was recorded at this word, that word, the next word and so on.

Details available at include:
-Samsung ARM 9 (32-bit, 150 MHz) processor
-high-speed infrared camera (over 70 images/sec)
-1 GB NAND (100+ hours of recording time or 16,000 pages of digital notes)
-2GB NAND (double that, baby!)
-300 mAH rechargeable lithium battery (but you can’t remove it)
-dual embedded, mono-recording mics
-embedded speaker for audio playback and an audio jack for 3D recording headset
-USB mobile charging cradle
-250 MB online storage
-My Livescribe Account
-and, of course, the must-have ‘community’ for posting and sharing content

For those who might take notes and want to check them for more detail, context or language, target customers like students (professors) and business people (clients) are obvious. But who knows what possibilities could open up for consumer researchers and ethnographers? As Rob Tannen, who maintains the blog for the Human Factors Professional Interest Section of the Industrial Designers Society of America (whew!) says, “Audio recording can be more than just a means of documenting what was said in an interview. It can provide high fidelity reproduction of an environment effective for communicating a situation or developing a solution.”

What does that mean? Well, surveys could be conducted in tandem with ‘interviews’. You could play back user/customer talk to clients in presentations. Field notes could be written and then framed in some (the audio) of the context in which they were written, adding new layers of narrative to analyses. The audio-visual spaces in which anthropology is presented could be enhanced. And then, of course, there are issues of accountability and consent.

Few, if any, anthropologists would go into the field and engage informants in any formal inquiry without requiring their consent. Yes, participant observation might lead you towards experiences and data that weren’t exactly negotiated at the beginning. And yes, had I had something like the Live Scribe during my informal fieldwork in Kashmir I might have returned with more ‘hard’ field data. But the Live Scribe could open up the research game to the grey-area rules of covert ops. It will, after all, be easier to conceal than a police wire, iPod or micro-cassette recorder. If researchers use it, I hope they remember to also carry the ethics of informed consent. Or lyricists penning their next ode to the Canadian tundra while on a noisy tour bus.

Then again, researchers, students and business people probably won’t even get close to cracking the potential of this simple little tool. Imagine recordings of the busy market place somehow encoded into the hand-written manifestos of the next Mao Tse Tungs of the world.