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Pokémon GO and the visibility of digital infrastructure

This blog post is about the popular augmented reality game, Pokémon GO. If you are unfamiliar and/or want a brief overview of it and its cultural history, this is a useful resource.

As a virtual world anthropologist and a Pokémon nerd, I have become immersed in Pokémon GO. As the game continues to gain traction and I wander around meeting strangers and friends who are also playing the game, I have taken note of numerous issues of anthropological concern, like new forms of social interaction and the re-mapping and flattening of cityscapes. Colleagues and I have even speculated about whether Pokémon GO is a virtual world—by which I mean a computer-simulated, persistent, and shared environment online—and, if it is such a world, how it represents one that is visible even to non-players.

Participating in and observing the Pokémon GO phenomenon, I’ve found that players have been confronted by another recurring topic related to visibility: the visibility of game servers. I recently attended a large gathering of about 1000 Pokémon GO players in downtown Riverside, CA. We all walked around together, yet apart, huddled among small groups of friends with phones in hand, capturing virtual pets. Servers are the typically invisible and distant machines that allow such an event to happen. They connect people to the game world and to one another by receiving and returning signals to and from our mobile devices. They are an integral part of the ecology of media that enables the shared experience of being in a virtual space overlaid upon the actual world—and, curiously, players have a vague understanding of this. Pokémon GO servers have become very visible. If you ask any Pokémon GO player, servers are to blame for some of the greatest downfalls of the game, like faulty connections, glitches, outages, and lag. Developers have repeatedly mentioned servers as the root of many issues with the game, and, as a result, many players continue to point fingers at servers. So why have servers, things we can’t see or even explain, become the targets of so much anger and frustration? How can we characterize the very visible role servers play in the social worlds of Pokémon GO? (more…)

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The Problem of Expecting Privacy on Social Media

In May of this year, Danish researchers released a data set containing the profile information of 70,000 OkCupid users. OkCupid is a free online dating site to which, as you would expect, users post information in hopes of making a connection. The researchers collected this data by scraping the site, or using code that captures the information available. The data set included usernames, locations, and the answers to the personal questions related to user dating, sexuality, and sexual preferences. In other words, the researchers published personal information that the dating site users would expect to remain, at least theoretically, among the other members of the dating site, and could also be used to discover the users’ real names. But should OkCupid users, and the denizens of social media in general, expect what they post online to not be made “public”? In my last blog post, I briefly pondered the normalization (more...)

Gender and Tech in India: From Numbers to Gender Equality

In the US, technology companies and the press alike regularly frame the debate about gender and technology in terms of a supply problem, arguing that there are too few women in STEM fields. In a previous CASTAC blog post, Samantha Breslin suggested that focusing on the number of women in tech hides the political aspects of the technology sector that oppress marginalized groups more generally.[1] In India, much higher numbers of women enter STEM fields from an early age as compared to the US. For example, in 2008 in the US, women earned only 18% of computer and information science undergraduate degrees, while in 2011 in India women made up 42% of undergraduate students in computer science and engineering. In both technological companies in Silicon Valley and in India women make up roughly 30% of the overall workforce (NASSCOM 2015b; Vara 2015), but in India women now make up over half (more...)

Data: Raw, Cooked, Shared

(Almost) everyone makes data. People browsing the internet or buying stuff generally do so without knowing much about the data that their activities generate, or even knowing that they are doing so. Scientists, though, are supposed to be a little more conscientious about the data they collect, produce, share and borrow (at least in their professional capacities). They’re lately supposed to be, among other things, data managers. This is largely the product of the funding and institutional environments; program officers, science managers, and university administrators increasingly demand rationalized, comprehensive data management plans (DMPs) from researchers. In many cases, such as those from the NSF, these demands include requirements to store data for a specific period of time—often five or ten years beyond completion of the project—and to make such data publicly available. For some scientists, this is just a formalization of existing disciplinary best practices. For many, though, and for anthropologists who (more...)

Facebook as research field and research platform: an e-seminar

CASTAC is proud to be co-hosting, with the Media Anthropology Network and Digital Anthropology Interest Group, an e-seminar on the many uses of Facebook in anthropological research. The seminar begins today, June 22, 2016, and it is being kicked off with a set of statements [PDF] by researchers whose projects have engaged Facebook, as part of their fieldwork or as a platform for disseminating and discussing their research: Philipp Budka (University of Vienna), Jordan Kraemer (Wesleyan University), Martin Slama (Austrian Academy of Sciences), and Sydney Yeager (Southern Methodist University). All readers of the blog are invited to participate in the discussion. The e-seminar is taking place on the medianthro list, so if you're interested in joining the conversation, be sure to sign up there.

Animal Sex Work

Crouched beneath a stallion’s hot undercarriage, bearing the weight of a two-foot long sterile tube on my shoulder as the horse thrusts into it, I vocally encouraged him to ejaculate along with a team of human handlers dedicated to the business of equine sperm. “Come on, boy,” we all chirp, “don’t stop now!” This particular kind of human-assisted animal sex is repeated all spring and summer long at equine breeding facilities across the globe. The proliferation of Artificial Insemination (AI) techniques and technologies over the past two decades has revolutionized the equine breeding shed, making it possible to produce offspring from two horses with no physical, or even geographical, proximity. As recently as fifteen years ago, performance horse breeders imported actual horses from Europe, Russia, or South America to improve the American strains of particular breeds. Now it is possible to breed American mares to international stallions without either party (more...)

Data Visualizations: The Vitruvian Man, Open Data, and Body Real-Estate

How does data look? The answer to this question is often seen as a matter of Data Visualization, a new field increasingly tasked with the role of imaging and imagining data. As a sign of the times, Strata + Hadoop World, the central conference of data professionals, just hosted its first Data Visualization conference in California. With growing urgency the central issue in this field mirror those that had afflicted design before it: where to draw the line between art and science, fact and fiction, form and function. Seeing data, however, is not simply about the skillful manipulation of statistics into visual form. The way data is represented is necessarily tied up with the way and by whom it is presented. Therefore, to ask how data appears is to think about the broader politics of representation, that is the socio-cultural framework that guides how we are invited to view data, how we expect data to (more...)

The Second Project Project: The Security to Feel Insecure

Editor's note: Platypus is launching a series called "The Second Project Project" that asks scholars to reflect on the process of developing new research projects at the intersection of anthropology, science, technology, and computing. Anthropologists, and most qualitative social scientists and humanities scholars, typically produce book-length research projects rather than series of articles, so the "second project" refers to the next major, book-length research project following the dissertation and  first book. During the week of March 21, I attended the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) international annual conference on developments in virtual reality. Though I had been reading up on virtual reality for the past few months, this was my first dip of the toe into an ethnographic field I hoped to explore in depth. I knew exactly zero people at this 500-person conference. The language on the conference posters in the hallway was mystifying. The thought of (more...)