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“Becoming Blind” in Virtual Reality

Can technology convey experiences that are not our own, ones we can at the most imagine experiencing from a first person perspective? Furthermore, can technology help us understand the multisensory and deeply emotional qualities of such experiences? Central to this post is the consideration of how the Virtual Reality (VR) documentary Notes on Blindness may enable us to experience a ‘world without images’. I explore these questions through touching upon the problem of individual experience contra the universal. Indeed, if there is no such thing as a “universal” experience of blindness (Cupitt 2017; Hull 1990; Sacks 2005), and if VR experiences are also highly individualized (Aardema et al 2010), is there still value to be found in the personal experience? In an auto-ethnographic description of my experience with Notes on Blindness, I will focus mostly on my bodily sensations, changing emotions and how I went about “looking for my legs” in a VR. (read more...)

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Locating Servers, Locating Politics

When we think of servers, like web servers and Amazon servers, we don’t usually think of them as occupying physical space. We might think of a remote data center, thanks in large part to images that have been circulated by companies like Facebook and Google. But still, these only visualize unmarked buildings and warehouse rooms, showcasing a particular tech aesthetic of colored wires and tubes, and neatly assembled rows of blinking machines (Holt and Vondereau 2015). Such imagery is hardly meant to provide the public with a sense of where servers are actually located. For most day-to-day computer users, it often doesn’t matter at all whether servers are in the U.S. or China or Russia, so long as they work.     But server location matters, and many groups of people value certain material benefits and effects of the placement of servers and their own proximity to servers. It matters (read more...)

Policy-Making and the Public: Where are the People in Bureaucratic Rulemaking?

I’m a lawyer-turning-cultural anthropologist and I study rulemaking (please don’t go away just yet!). In policy-setting circles, rulemaking has a specific statutory origin and a particular meaning, denoting a process that most federal agencies must undergo as they create policies (also known as “regulations” or “rules”). Though never a sexy topic of conversation, rulemaking is gaining public traction as a process that imposes a duty upon the government to solicit feedback from the public on proposed rules. News outlets report that President Trump is reviewing and likely revoking some of President Obama’s policies. As new presidents usually review the previous president’s policies, this is neither unusual nor unexpected. But the urgency with which such news is received by some Americans indicates an opportunity to learn what it takes to revoke or alter a rule: a new rulemaking.[1] (read more...)

This House Harvests the Rain: Multiple Waters and Infrastructure in a Changing Climate

Seventy-five year-old Mary-Jean climbs up on a short ladder to clear the fruit from her rain gutters. “The gutter likes grapefruit, and they like to plug the little hole where the water goes,” she explains, referring to the opening between the gutters and the downspout. The aluminum downspout drains the rainwater that falls on her roof into an 1100-gallon plastic cistern sitting in her backyard. She has two cisterns, and in early September they are halfway full, fed by the summer monsoon rains. Her yard is sparsely landscaped with reddish gravel and a handful of native trees and succulents. If she were not collecting the rain, she would be sweeping the gravel from the street back to the yard after every heavy rain. “It really slows down the water,” she tells me referring to the runoff and pointing to her front yard and steep driveway. The grapefruit tree came with the house, so she kept it. To water the thirsty tree, she connects a hose to the valve at the bottom of the cistern. The hose has little holes on the underside, so she can leave it running. “It works like a slow drip,” she explains. In front of her house there is a small sign made by the city that reads: “This house harvests the rain.” (read more...)

Democratizing Credit: An Interview with Historian Josh Lauer

Since the consumer credit reporting agency Equifax revealed on September 7th that the personal information of 143 million Americans had been compromised in an attack by hackers, leaving more than forty percent of the population vulnerable to identity theft and damaged credit scores, questions about the responsibilities and accountability of the credit bureaus, the fairness of the credit rating system, and the vulnerability of consumers’ data have reached a new level of urgency. While Equifax has been widely criticized for its incompetent, and maybe even criminal, response to a disaster that quite possibly could have been prevented, what is at issue are not just the security practices and corporate ethics of a single company, but also, more generally, the structure and viability of the credit rating system itself. No one is in a better position to help us make sense of how the Equifax breach fits into the history of American capitalism than Josh Lauer, associate professor of media studies at the University of New Hampshire. His book, Creditworthy: A History of Consumer Surveillance and Financial Identity in America, which was published in July, is the first to tell the story of credit reporting in the United States, tracing its evolution from its 19th century beginnings to the regime of commercial surveillance and algorithmic calculation that tracks us today. (read more...)

Order and Adat in the Forests of West Papua

Papua is Indonesia’s poorest and least populated region, but, as they say, rich in natural resources. It is developing quickly in the era of pemekaran, an Indonesian word that literally translates as “blossoming,” or “subdivision”. It describes the rapid proliferation of local government institutions that is happening throughout Indonesia, penetrating regions that just a decade ago were totally bereft of infrastructure or public services (McWilliam 2011). Even in the few months that I have spent researching in the district of Tambrauw, on the Bird’s Head of New Guinea, I’ve watched the pipes being laid and the roads being built, slowly reaching out from the main coastal town to the mountainous interior. Throughout the rural regions of Papua, development and pemekaran are more or less synonymous, people seem to want it, and it’s happening quickly. (read more...)

Harvey, Vulnerability, and Resilience in Context on the Gulf Coast

There has been no shortage of rapid assessments in the wake of Harvey, many of which point to endemic vulnerabilities embedded within US gulf coast communities (risk of hurricanes, large at-risk populations and critical infrastructure, the role of a changing climate, energy infrastructure, vulnerable petrochemical processing plants, etc.). Harvey’s impacts have also led to a “rediscovery” of past reporting and analysis that foreshadowed many of the hurricane’s more devastating outcomes. (e.g. ProPublica’s series on Houston flood risk, (lack of) zoning, and rapid development in the Houston area). They have also shifted media coverage to heavily emphasize context in Houston and Texas gulf coast (e.g. the Washington Post article on Houston’s “Wild West” growth and expansion). On top of rapid urban growth and development in flood prone areas, the stochasticity of weather and the persistent trend of a changing climate also played key roles in how Harvey unfolded (and continues to unfold). A large high pressure ridge over the West had the effect of placing what amounted to an atmospheric wall in the path of the storm (Fig. 3). A climatologist colleague put it simply: “If we had a large sprawling ridge across much of the US like we often do in the summer, Harvey would have kept moving west-northwest and probably would have sheared apart and turned into a rainy day for New Mexico.” (read more...)

Down to a Science with Michelle Murphy

Today, Platypus brings you the inaugural edition of our “Down to a Science” podcast. On the podcast, we’ll be serving up science studies in a format accessible to a wider audience than our regularly scheduled programming (even if that wider audience is your class of undergraduates). In this episode, we bring you an interview with historian Michelle Murphy on her new book, The Economization of Life. In conversation with Lily Ye, Murphy discusses how in the second half of the 20th century, economic logics were used to continue racist programs of population control when the biological evolutionary logic of eugenics fell out of favor. She argues that programs to “invest in a girl” come out of the same tradition of co-governing economy and population. We’d love to get feedback on this series, how we might make it better, and what subjects or scholars you’d like to see featured. Send us a note! (Listen Now...)