Welcome to the CASTAC blog, the official blog of the Committee on the Anthropology of Science, Technology, and Computing!
Bruno Latour’s Science in Action remains an unparalleled introduction to science studies because of its conversational style and clever use of the conventions of the “how-to” genre. And Latour has other shorter, more pedagogical, articles that show wonderfully how non-living objects are deeply embedded in complex social relations. But I sometimes wonder if his examples–the door-closer, the speed-bump, or sometimes, even the gun — are too simple. I worry about teaching these examples to savvy undergraduates in an introductory STS class. Will they just laugh it off dismissing it as obvious? Will they look at it as philosophy, as a conceptual case, rather than as anthropology? Could there be a more immediate example where the politics is not abstract, but more concrete? Where the students can use the immediacy of their own experience, but also where the stakes are higher?
So I was overjoyed the other day (I mean pedagogically!) when I read about the recent incidents on airplanes with passengers fighting about legroom and reclining space. Apparently, three such incidents have occurred recently–and in each case, this has led the flight-crew to execute an unscheduled landing. One of these cases involved a little device called the Knee Defender, created by an enterprising little company. Available for $21.95 + taxes, this little gadget “has been helping airline passengers around the world protect themselves and their things,” circa 2003. Basically, you attach the device to the seat in front of you so that it doesn’t recline and deprive you of your legroom. The use of Knee Defenders might be adding extra spice to what might just routine arguments about legroom and reclining space.
I submit that the Knee Defender might be a great test-case for an introductory STS class (right there with the speed-bump) to teach undergraduates about the relationship between technology and politics. Three reasons: there is a big-picture story about the air-line industry that undergraduates might enjoy parsing; there is a concrete material environment–the inside of an aircraft–that the Knee Defender operates in; and finally, debates over this device can be a great introduction to the vexed concept of ideology.
Thank you for agreeing to an interview for CASTAC. I read your blog on a regular basis, largely because you write cogently on the relationship between religion and technology. Both are traditional anthropological topics currently undergoing a renaissance within the discipline, yet they are not commonly set in explicit conversation. In contrast, you write within a tradition of thought in which technology and religion are commonly set in explicit conversation.
For example, in a February 2014 post, Traditions of Technological Criticism, you suggestively compare the place of theology as an organizing and animating principle in the medieval university to the place of technology in the modern university. Can you elaborate?
Thank you for the invitation to contribute to the conversation at CASTAC. I’m an outsider to the discipline of anthropology, but I’m glad to hear that there is renewed interest in both religion and technology. As you note, my work, such as it is, has been influenced by scholars who have enriched our understanding of technology by exploring its religious dimensions.
In the post you mention, I’d begun by considering the semantic challenges that arise from the word technology. As Leo Marx noted in an article titled, “Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept,” the term technology initially designated the study of human making; in time it came to designate the things that were made by humans. Marx worried that the word, which became a catch-all for all manner of human-made objects and systems, reified what it sought to name and consequently made possible, perhaps even encouraged, the attribution of agency to “technology” as if it were a force independent of human design, action, etc.
Marx raised a valid point; at the same time, as Langdon Winner has argued, the same vagueness and indeterminacy that led Marx to take issue with technology tells us something about the pervasiveness and opacity of our present technological milieu. It also suggests that we are becoming more aware of the consequences of what we make.
It’s in this context that I suggested we imagine that technology still named a field of study and, if that were the case, that it could serve the same unifying function that theology served in the medieval universities. It was a way of suggesting that technology was a thread that could be traced through most, if not all, disciplines. I imagined this in both the sense that (a) many disciplines now depend on technology for their advance, particularly in the sciences of course, and (b) that each discipline can contribute to our understanding of technology and its place in human affairs. The economist, the social scientist, the anthropologist, the psychologist, the engineer, the philosopher, and so on—each of these can tell us something important about the role of technology in society.
Additionally, as I wrote in that post, we might also think of technology as St. Paul thought of God, as the reality in which “we move and breathe and have our being.” Technology, in other words, is the material base of human culture; it is both a product of culture and that through which culture is produced.
Increasingly, I find that the study of technology is best understood as the study of human beings. The needs technology addresses are human needs. The aspirations, desires, and values expressed by and through technology are human aspirations, desires, and values. Our economic, political, and legal quandaries regarding technology are ultimately about justice for human beings. Etc.
Put all of this together, then, and we might say that all disciplines can speak to the topic of technology and in doing so they ultimately help us understand the contemporary shape of human culture.
I wonder if you can comment on some of the divergences and points of confluence between David Noble’s Religion of Technology, particularly his notion of the “prelapsarian impulse”, and David Nye’s American Technological Sublime. The first work dealing with the perfection of the individual and the latter with the perfection of the American republic.
These two works pair well together. Each considers the religious aspects of the technological project but from different vantage points. I frame their complementary perspectives this way. Noble’s approach is historical, and Nye’s sociological.
For his part, Noble insists that the relationship between religion and technology is not merely metaphorical. It is not simply that we might usefully characterize the relationship people have to their devices, for example, as something akin to worship or idolatry. Rather, it is a matter of historical fact. From roughly the tenth century onward, the advance of technology in the West has been spurred by a quest for transcendence whose point of departure was the Christian theological tradition. (I think it useful to characterize the religion of technology as a Christian heresy.) Noble demonstrated how from the high middle ages through the Renaissance, the early modern period, the Enlightenment, and on into the twentieth century, technological innovation was spurred by the impulse to transcend our natural limitations and perfect our human nature. While the explicitly Christian aspects tended, for the most part, to fall by the wayside over the ensuing centuries, the motives and aspirations driving the development of atomic weaponry, space travel, artificial intelligence, and genetic engineering still reflect this quest for transcendence and perfection. The Transhumanist movement is an excellent example of the religion of technology as Noble understood it.
As you suggest, the motive forces Noble documents tend to focus on the perfection of the individual (although there is also a concurrent hope that technical advance will usher in a new society). In the formative stages of the religion of technology, technology came to be understood as a means toward the recovery of a lost Edenic, or prelapsarian, state of moral, intellectual, and physical perfection. Individuals made in God’s image, but compromised by sin and the resultant curse, could, through technical ingenuity, reverse the effects of the curse and regain their original perfection.
Nye, however, is more interested in a social phenomenon than he is in individual experience. His focus is also narrower, chronologically and geographically: he takes under consideration roughly 200 years of American history. But his conceptual tool kit is a bit broader. While Nye’s argument is grounded in historical research, he frames his investigation philosophically and sociologically. Leaning on Burke and Kant, he theorizes American encounters with new technologies of impressive scale and dynamism as encounters with the sublime (these include, for example, railroads, suspension bridges, skyscrapers, electrified skylines, the Hoover Dam, and the Saturn V rockets). And, in a Durkheimian twist, he shows us how these sublime encounters were channeled within a tradition of public ritual and ceremony that functioned as a civil religion. Furthermore, Nye argued that, in its role as a civil religion, the experience of the technological sublime became a unifying force in American culture.
Nye’s closing chapter discusses what he calls the consumer sublime, a degradation of the American technological sublime into fabricated commercial simulation exemplified by Disney and Las Vegas. In other words, the experience of the technological sublime has been on the decline. But one need only think of the gatherings surrounding the farewell tours of the retired space shuttles and the crowds that gathered for their final launches to see that bursts of the technological sublime as civil religion still occasionally present themselves. The fanfare surrounding the landing of the Mars rover, Curiosity, also exhibited some of the same qualities. On the whole, though, it seems to me that we will see less and less of the technological sublime in its role as a civil religion.
We could say, then, that the difference between Noble and Nye is this. Noble focuses on ideas or beliefs that motivate action, and Nye focuses on practices that channel and shape powerful quasi-spiritual experiences. Or, to put it another way, Nye describes the ritual shape of the religion of technology in its American manifestation.
One last point of complementary difference between both works: Noble helps us understand the forces that have driven technological innovation, and Nye helps us understand how technology has been integrated into American culture after it has been developed and deployed.
Together, they have amply demonstrated that the techno-scientific project in the West has not been the coolly rational and wholly secular affair that it is often assumed to be.
Something is changing. We know it, but we can’t say what’s happening. Not yet. But there is something uneasy in the air. It’s playing out both in grand narratives and the tiny shifts of attention that stitch together a sense of the real.
There are social feelings here, emergent in a time of rapidly changing modes of connection and circulation, and the ineffable shifts in embodiment and encounter that go along with changing technological habits. Performance here is always for an unseen and unpredictable audience. What would an ethnography of this emergent feeling be like?
I want a rash of little stories here to mimic rapid fluctuations of attention, which to many of us are becoming as natural as blinking. But all these little stories link outward, to something harder to pin down. Or maybe they link back in, to something that’s always been there. Tensions between the naturalized and the strange come to the surface.
You don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to believe in ubiquitous surveillance anymore. Paranoia sounds like a 20th century word.
You told me that something came over you while driving and you decided to trail the Google Street View car as it cruised your city’s streets. The Google brand was painted brightly on the doors like a pizza delivery car, and its world management device seemed gamely stuck on the car roof like an oldtime TV antenna. When you pulled up beside it at a red light, the young guy driving waved to you. You waved back and took his picture with your iPhone. His face performed a series of quick changes: first the bashful pleasure of mini-celebrity, shifting into a small frown as your act of recording him re-charged the air between your cars. You turned off that street, and went your separate ways.
There was a deer problem in the neighborhood. They were more abundant than squirrels; on an evening stroll in the neighborhood you would always encounter several groups of deer. This particular doe must have run a while before collapsing in front of my house. She was lying half on the sidewalk, half on my lawn. Her hind legs were crossed at the delicate white knees, and the front legs were bent in two symmetrical Vs, freezing the last moment of running. A raw sliver of her chin, sticking out like a beard, must have been where a car made contact. She appeared there on Saturday morning, but Animal Control could not come to remove her until Monday. By that afternoon bugs had collected on her white underside in a frantic darkening. By Sunday morning areas of the white fur had been replaced by black holes. It was odd, for the neighborhood, to watch the natural process begin. All weekend the alien deer eyes remained open and it was impossible not to try to read in their inscrutability some kind of animal knowledge about death.
Finally on Monday morning, a man from Animal Control came out in an old unmarked pickup, dragged her by the hoofs into a lowered truckbed and drove her away. There were a lot of fawns around our neighborhood, and usually if you saw fawns you would see a doe too, watching them from across a short distance. Then one day the fawns were wearing collars. Scientists from a university in another city were tracking them. Occasionally one saw the small white science truck, with its tracking device stuck on its roof like an oldtime TV antenna. We didn’t know what kind of data they were collecting exactly, but the exploding deer population was controversial and obviously it was necessary to track them. Quickly, for the residents, the animals changed from seeming wild to not-wild. The collars were a dull pink shade, with a large buckle at the throat, making the fawns look uncomfortable but dapper. A single wire stuck up from the back of the collar. The collars with their wires didn’t surprise people anymore. This is what fawns looked like, now.
I thought it must be the dead doe’s orphan I saw a few times, ambling alone in yards with little branches and twigs stuck in its collar; it looked at first glance as if the tracking wire had begun to multiply, but really this orphan fawn was just getting tangled and stuck in the suburban bush.
For a long time, I listened with an ethnographic ear to people talk uncanny conspiracy theory. They told of surveillance by the powers that be. I heard disenfranchised social feelings and a mourning for nature entangled with overarching plots and underlying structures, all centered on a covert panopticon. In people’s intellectual beliefs and gut instincts, they – the nameless, faceless they — were always watching us. They tracked the moves of the little man, while they shifted powerful global agencies and destroyed nature, negotiating with space alien agendas to follow and abduct people. As they gathered medical and intimate information, discourses of intertwining knowledge and power tumbled out of a Foucaultian dream, grew legs and wings and nested in roofs. The huge black animal eyes of the alien evoked endless hidden watching. They sometimes emerged from the all seeing Illuminati but morphed into new coalitions behind the surface, as things sped up towards an end. I wanted to get a vernacular theory of power. It emerged in small communities of UFO experiencers and uncanny theorists, describing a power that was too big to see in its entirety but whose effects made patterns you could follow. People kept saying in many ways: something’s coming. Something’s changing. Something’s been lost.
Of course, all that covert government watching and listening stuff came true.
Back then, surreptitious watching, listening and tracking were imagined as the sole provenance of enormous, uncanny power. But as modes of surveillance also integrate down into the techniques of the ordinary, and to saturate the fabric of things, their association with power both splinters and intensifies in ways we still can’t sum up.
John Jackson Jr. (2012) muses on the vanishing of an ethnographic “backstage,” recalled as a place to test scholarly ideas in an oral talk before the finality of publication, since any academic talk (or classroom lecture, or seminar) will now most likely be recorded on a phone and posted online to sustain a “potential afterlife” (Jackson 2012: 494). Now the context of any performance, including the performance of an anthropological talk, shifts into the unknowable, making it impossible to plan for its reception; Jackson wonders, “does [the] ethnographer talk about his project the same way in the academy as he does when he’s … representing himself and his work to his subjects?” (Ibid).
Anxieties of an unknown audience transcend the disciplinary ethics of anthropology. We’re not just anthropologists immersed in our discipline’s longstanding concern about the power implications of representing others. We are also just subjects of the same changes in technology and circulation as everyone is; we are not above any of it. Reflections on unknown audiences resonate as much with vernacular discourses about shifting power and surveillance as they do with thinking specifically about writing culture in the digital age. Ethnographic authority and its dilemmas then play on more widely unpredictable channels of circulation, the permanence of the seemingly throwaway moment, and the ubiquitous anxiety of being tracked from above or below…
A shift in the air drifted from the margins to the center of things. It went along with a habitus shifting in subtle ways, a glimmer of perceiving rapid change – about bodies in relation to devices, to information, and to each other as we speak.
My middle school nephew sits on the couch, laptop open, while adults drink tea. He looks up with a quick nostalgic smile, the kind we use for shared memories, and says, “Remember when everyone used to get all upset because the N.S.A. reads our email?”
Jackson Jr., John. 2012. “Ethnography Is, Ethnography Ain’t.” CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY, Vol. 27, Issue 3, pp. 480–497.
The Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos) does not have postal codes, street addresses, or mail delivery. Streets rarely have codified names. Since I started doing fieldwork in Laos in 2012, I have been fascinated by the ingenious maps that people make to navigate a country without codes. Every day, people make-do by making their own maps. Map making technologies (like GPS, digital mapping software, graph paper) are also important tools for my informants in the bomb clearance sector, where I do much of my fieldwork. Here, as well, people learn to make do by making their own maps. The present writing, however, is the first time that I have consciously tried to chart the source of my fascination.
“Does CASTAC still serve a purpose?” “Should it continue?” This was the discussion at the first CASTAC meeting I attended at the 2006 AAAs in San Jose. It was like coming upon a cadre of fascinating people who share your intellectual proclivities only to hear tell of how this had been a most excellent and renown party—a veritable Cambrian explosion of Anthro-STS—but that was back before you got here, and there was beer. « Read the rest of this entry »