January 2nd, 2012, by admin Comments Off
Welcome to the CASTAC blog, the official blog of the Committee on the Anthropology of Science, Technology, and Computing!
Power is an interesting word. For most social scientists “power” stands for authority, control, sovereignty, economic capital, military-industrial hegemony, social stratification, and similar ideas. But power—especially in everyday usage—is synonymous with something seemingly more immediate, proximate, and concrete. Thus we may commonly talk of “engine power” that allows us to drive faster, of “physical power” that enables us to jump higher, or of “domestic power” that permits us to live comfortable, connected, and convenient lives. What is truly interesting about this is that the dictionary definition of power—the ability or capacity to act—refers to all of the above, an idea that only a handful of scholars have capitalized upon.
It’s an irremediably cloudy, intermittently soggy day on Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula. But not even an unexpectedly miserable stretch of bad late spring weather can cast a wet blanket over the elation in the air. It’s the last interview—with informants number 173 and 174—of a two-year long fieldwork project that has taken me and photographer/videographer Jonathan Taggart across all of Canada’s ten provinces and three territories to document the day-to-day lifestyles of people living off-grid. Few events can jostle an ethnographer’s body more intensely than the end of fieldwork. The feeling is so powerful that melancholia, or anxious thoughts about writing this whole thing up, haven’t even started to settle in yet.
Off-grid is an abused expression. I’ve heard people say they’re off the grid if they switch off their cell phone for the weekend, or if they go on holiday somewhere quiet and remote. But people can’t quite be off-grid. The official definition passed on by engineers refers to a house or an entire community, not a person, in state of disconnection from the electricity and natural gas infrastructure servicing a region. It’s the definition Jonathan and I have gone by to understand how comfort, convenience, cleanliness, sustainability, connectivity, and sense of place can be re-assembled when the powerful life lines entangling homes into the modern world are severed.
We’ve come to think of off-grid homes as unique power constellations. We view a power constellation as a historically and geographically specific pattern of power generation, distribution, and application. A constellation is an assemblage of practices, experiences, and narratives that make sense together.
Power and energy resources are moved around, thus they are subjects and objects of practice. Power is experienced through sensations, feelings, emotions, moods, and affects. And power is talked about, mapped, politicized, debated, thus it is the matter of multiple representations. We understand all practices, experiences, and representations of, and about, power as inevitably entangled in more-than-human relations and therefore knotted in meshworks of organic and inorganic materials and objects, technologies, infrastructures, food-, land- and waterscapes, regional and international boundaries, and multiple other forces.
These meshworks are the sites where everyday power is lived and differentially enabled—sites that may be locally unique or globally hegemonic, temporary and idiosyncratic or historically recurring. There are arguably many more components of power constellations but we have been working with ten: motive, friction, route, sensibility, interconnectivity, availability, cost, externality, pace, and efficiency.
Take the idea of motive, for example. People need power for different reasons. To some degree we are compelled to use power by sheer survival needs, but in most instances our use is informed by degrees of choice. The concept of motive force captures these dynamics of compulsion and choice and the degree of their imperativeness. Off-gridders for example need power to light up their home, keep warm, refrigerate their food, extract water, and operate a few appliances. This is unsurprising—as they, like others, take pleasure in domestic comfort, cleanliness, and convenience. But the real question here is why do they, as opposed to much of the rest of the Western world, seek to do it on their own, off the grid? In other words, how are the motive forces of off-grid households different from those who live connected to the grid?
Many off-gridders elect to live off-grid for the sense of independence it begets. Take Murray and Naan, for instance. Their independence is relative, of course, but the heightened sense of self-reliance and self-sufficiency they enjoy allows them to hold a sense of sovereign power over their home. Their quest for sovereign power does not come without its downsides. Off-grid living requires toil and onerous involvement, so the force of the motives for living off-grid must be intense enough for them to embrace such onuses, or at least make them feel bearable. Living off-grid also demands mindfulness, knowledge, skills, and responsibilities that many of us living on-grid are much happier to delegate to experts, planners, and distant infrastructures.
The concept of motive force, in sum, prompts us to ask not only why people need and want power, as well as what they need it and want it for, but also what people are willing to do to obtain power; what type of power assemblages people prefer and why; what kinds of power applications people are willing to sacrifice if necessary; what reasons, values, and ideologies inform people’s choices for power; and what lifestyle philosophies inform the choices behind different groups’ motives to do with or without certain kinds of power and certain power applications—only to name a few possible questions.
The tortuous “Irish Route” winds its way slowly to St. John’s along the spectacular coastal views over the Atlantic, weaving through sleepy communities gazing forlornly at the former bounties of the sea. We pull over at an old lighthouse to record a final file of b-roll for our upcoming documentary. The wind is blowing with great force. Free clean energy which off-gridders have learned to enjoy, so much more than the rest of us. I wonder if their lessons will be powerful to teach us all something.
Phillip Vannini is an ethnographer and Canada Research Chair working in the School of Communication & Culture at Royal Roads University in Victoria, BC. His off-grid ethnography blog can be found at: http://publicethnography.net/off-the-grids-blog
Jonathan Taggart is a Boreal Collective photographer and Ph.D. student in Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia. His website is: http://jonathantaggart.com/
Years ago a colleague commented that the AAA meetings were becoming, well, a bit predictable. There would probably be scores of papers on social injustice expressed through ethnicity, race, gender, nationalism, class, and other familiar socio-cultural variables. I have spoken in my own work about how we must begin including, in a more systematic way, notions of injustices based on technological affiliations and values. But even if our recognizable list were expanded further, it still leaves anthropology operating within a particular paradigm of investigation. This paradigm might be conceptualized, as Lyon-Callo (2013) puts it, as a project of “critical thinking,” in which anthropologists as educators engage in “critically [problematizing] common sense things like race, class, gender, sexuality, family structures, migration and trade policies.” He writes quite insightfully about these patterns in his article, “Teaching for Hope?” which appeared in Anthropology News (January/February, 2013). I will extrapolate on these ideas and refer to this model as the “critical thinking paradigm.” (If you don’t like the word “paradigm” you can substitute the word, “orientation”).
Lyon-Callo argues that the critical thinking paradigm in pedagogy comes close to presuming ignorance of these issues on the part of all students. In anthropology, this paradigm is often treated as a form of “secret knowledge” that only we as experts can see. It is up to us to reveal this knowledge as well as the cultural and political conditions under which it becomes hidden. However, he argues that today’s students are different. Many of them are personally familiar with injustices such as class exploitation and racism. In the western Michigan area where Lyon-Callo teaches, students have direct experience with class and poverty issues. Even when the critical thinking paradigm remains powerful, Lyon-Callo observes many students leaving his classroom with a sense of hopelessness and a “what do we do now?” feeling. Lyon-Callo is concerned that this orientation will just produce a legion of pessimists.
This article obviously made an impact on me, as my colleague and I also observed anthropology’s patterned pessimism. Certainly many studies show that if you seek negative patterns you will find them—and only them. Books such as The Happiness Advantage (2010), which one of my students recommended, argue that it is important to seek out positive ideas and messages, even if they are not immediately visible. The exercise should not be done in a vacuous, Pollyanna way, but in a way that helps create tangible change, instead of focusing one’s entire lens on problems that initially feel intractable.
Similarly, Lyon-Callo looks to inspiration from JK Gibson Graham and Stephen Healy, who recommend rejecting the idea that exploitation is inevitable and “work instead toward producing a politics of possibilities.” Some might read in this the resurrection of an age-old debate between applied and basic research. Do we have the right to interfere in other people’s lives on this level? But the better question is, can we continue to morally ignore all the things we might do to help people move beyond their situation?
For Lyon-Callo’s students at Western Michigan University, ideas about exploitation and the failure of capitalism are all too real. Do they really need a continued stream of pedagogy filled with the attitude adjustment of critical thinking? Maybe some do, but many others are experiencing it first hand. For many students, problems are so chronic that, according to Lyon-Callo, “The fantasy of the American Dream has been replaced with a fantasy of the loss of the middle class as inevitable.” There is really no need to upend these students’ common sense—they are not the children of privilege that need a new world view. In response, he has turned his pedagogical focus toward imagining tangible change in his students’ lives through creative solutions, such as cooperativism, and other problem-solving, novel approaches.
I like the way he advocates for a “politics of possibilities,” and I too am interested in how imagination and visions of the future might pave the way for alternative approaches to doing anthropology. The vision described here goes beyond the simple debate about applied versus basic anthropology. At their core, these ideas speak more broadly to the orientation of an entire discipline, one which advocates moving beyond observing problems to turn its lens toward collecting data about what is going right in the world.
Could it be that my colleague and I recognized the pessimistic panels at AAA because that is what we were primed to see? We are quite well aware that anthropology is a huge discipline with many projects that are obviously complex and involve more than reiterating a list of patterned injustices. But it feels as though there are, at least, “hot buttons” that tend to get pressed more than others on particular topics when viewed through an anthropological lens. Perhaps it is time to change the paradigm away from only “critical thinking” and analysis.
The idea is not that we are abandoning basic research on social injustice; clearly these projects will and must continue. Just because people are sensitive to one thing, such as economic injustices, does not mean they understand all the other means of discrimination. The economically oppressed, for example, may not understand issues of sex and gender, or what it might mean to feel prejudice as a transgendered individual. Anthropology deals with an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of issues. Further, injustices continue to happen all over the world in places that dominant populations continue to ignore.
Critical thinking and exposure of hidden problems are not going away. Nevertheless, the suggestion here is that it is time also to embrace and incorporate a new orientation toward a future that hasn’t yet occurred—and doesn’t have to. It is time to turn our orientation in part toward a future anthropology that is a hopeful anthropology.
I look forward to having my own orientation expanded through the stories and research projects that will hopefully appear on The CASTAC Blog in the coming months.
For the last three years, I have used Korsakow, an open-source application for making database films (K-films) and other types of non-linear, interactive narrative, in classes with both undergraduate digital art students and graduate students in visual anthropology. I expect visual anthropologists will have the most interest, but these reflections also have broader relevance to the anthropology of technology and computing.
I heard about Korsakow in Jan or Feb 2010 from Steve Anderson at USC’s Institute for Multimedia Literacy. At that time I was teaching video production in a newly launched MA program in visual anthropology at USC and was also a lecturer in Studio Art at UC Irvine where I taught visual culture and the foundation series in digital art. In spring 2010, I got assigned a class I hadn’t taught before, “Interdisciplinary Digital,” an intermediate projects course focused on the art-making affordances, imaginaries, and practices of networked, digital media. I decided to have the students make K-Films for their first project so I could learn Korsakow alongside them. While it may seem risky to teach a system one is also learning, this is actually the best way to model the process of trying out new software–something that comes up again and again for anyone working in this territory.
Using Korsakow, students can make a database of video clips, thumbnail images, and text, and set up relationships among the clips, or SNUs (smallest narrative units), to create structured pathways through their material without any programming expertise. Readings I have paired with Korsakow assignments include:
- Digital Revolution is a Revolution of Random Access, Grahme Weinbren, 1997
- Generation Flash (.doc), Lev Manovich, 2002
- Database as Symbolic Form (.rtf), Lev Manovich, 1998
- Prologue, The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich, 2002
Lectures and discussion focus on sequence, structure, and narrative and I talk about Manovich’s conception of database and narrative as primary cultural forms in contemporary media culture.
Korsakow is a free download (both Mac and PC) with excellent documentation and a strong showcase of examples. Students can download and install it on their own computers. This option presents some valuable challenges that I’ll discuss shortly. For less intensive engagement with the technology, installing Korsakow (and making sure Flash is up-to-date) on lab computers is the way to go.
Through this initial experience, I found the value of the Korsakow assignment lies as much or more in the process as the product. That was certainly true for the many students who chose to download and install Korsakow to their own laptops and PCs. These students ran in to all sorts of technical difficulties on many different combinations of platform/OS/browser/Flash version, both with K-film builds and the display of finished projects. This gave me the idea and opportunity to add bug reporting and beta testing to the assignment. Both activities, by the way, that benefit from and hone observational and note taking skills so central to ethnography.
Most of the students had never before downloaded and installed an app like Korsakow and had never used non-commercial, free/open source software (F/OSS). The experience of troubleshooting on their own computers, learning to write meaningful bug reports, and in some cases, posting these to the Korsakow.org forum and getting help, was tremendously valuable. I was able to explain how software like Korsakow is developed, and talk about the difficulties of cross-platform development with a budget and user base far, far smaller than the Adobe and Microsoft suites they’re more familiar with. They come to see the similarity between software development (of Korsakow) and their own work as artists who want to explore digital, code, and networked art. Both involve interface, usability, cross-platform accessibility, and require backend structures and processes that don’t exist in quite the same way in the plastic arts (sculpture, painting, etc.).
For digital arts students, I push the lesson of cross-platform complexity and inter-operability even further by extending it to consumption (distribution and display) of their K-films. This is a highly effective way to demonstrate the many social conventions and shared protocols required to make media technologies work. Students were required to post their films online by the due date and, over the next few days, view and post feedback on all peer projects, including detailed bug reports on projects they could not view, had missing images, or other errors. I provided a template for them to fill-in system information on hardware/software they were using to view. After the project was done and graded, we wrote up a comprehensive report and posted it back to the Korsakow forum. The whole experience was a valuable initiation into testing and bug reporting as vital parts of the production process.
After this I wanted to use Korsakow with my ethnographic film students at USC, but our MVA program is cinema-centric, with the thesis requirement a 20- to 30-minute video. My strategy for introducing these students to non-linear, interactive media is to schedule the K-film assignment late in the second semester of my yearlong production seminar. At this point students have already spent time analyzing narrative structures and developing treatments for their thesis. They’ve all shot interviews and other video, logged footage, transcribed interviews, and learned paper-edit techniques, such as making index cards for all selected clips and playing with arrangements. I introduce Korsakow and the genre of the database documentary, showing pieces like Planet Galata: A bridge in Istanbul and The Border Between Us. I point out that the stacks of index cards representing interview clips and other sequences selected for potential inclusion in a film is a database of material through which there are many possible paths. The K-film assignment is an opportunity to get a fresh perspective on their material, explore some possible paths, and discover new relations among clips. Even if they have no interest in making this type of new media, I argue that the K-film is an exercise that gives them an opportunity to play and take a break from the heavy and serious burden that all thesis projects become after 9-months work.
This year’s MVA cohort, a remarkable group, produced some fine work in the 3 weeks they had for the assignment and the 2013 MVA K-Films demonstrate the possibilities of the database documentary for ethnographic representation. In using Korsakow, I bring my own research on new forms and social imaginaries of media production and consumption into my teaching of ethnographic filmmaking. My argument is that, while cinema remains a dominant and relevant cultural form, it exists today within an entirely new media ecology that radically alters both production and consumption processes and contexts. My students will need to thrive in this ecology and I believe having both hands-on and theoretical understandings of it will be a great benefit.
Though they write about new media, both Weinbren (1997) and Manovich (2001) privilege cinema and make their arguments in cinematic terms, which goes over well with my MVA students, young ethnographic filmmakers embarked on their first serious missions. The fact that Manovich devotes his prologue to Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, a film they study in depth as a formative influence on documentary and ethnographic cinema, only furthers their connection and sense that, however great their devotion to cinema, it is always already part of a much wider cultural sphere. Theorizing the practice of cine-ethnography within this sphere is the book on which I’m currently working.
Internet technologies are only the most recent form to provide consumers access to global images and narratives. But virtual spaces (from simple message boards to fully rendered worlds like Second Life), afford individuals the opportunity not just to watch, learn, and communicate about other people and places, but also to go so far as to assume aspects of those identities. Of course, Internet technologies not only collapse geographic space, they can also blur the physical distinctions of voice and body typically used to categorize people as different from each other. This idea has been well discussed in terms of gender, age or disability, where degrees of anonymity, or the mutability of physical presence, of online communications allows users to craft versions of themselves that may appear to have little connection to their own “real” attributes. In avatar-driven virtual worlds like Second Life, ethnicity doesn’t predetermine appearance (of course, it is also possible to chose to be a robot or an animal). For example, anyone can create an avatar with Japanese features and fashions, even a Japanese name, to interact in Second Life’s environments. Assuming “Japaneseness” in virtual Tokyo evokes the unique possibilities of online technology that allow individuals to connect to frameworks of identity uncontained by national borders.
Erving Goffman argued that identity is always performed opportunistically during social interactions; however, in the popular imagination, a disconnect between online and offline identity is often thought of as playacting—or a falsehood—where the actual, someone’s physical characteristics for example, is privileged as the truth against which all else is measured. What can happen then to national identity or ethnicity when visitors to online spaces not only consume this foreign-ness, but also go a step further, electing to adopt and inhabit these alternate identities?
Many Western fans of Japanese popular media belong to a vocal transnational community of desire that is engaged in the direct performance of a kind of “Japaneseness.” Frequently appropriating the term otaku (translated as geek), this community of fans not only purchase and pirate Japanese media and import Japanese commodities, often they also study Japanese history and culture, learn to speak Japanese, and even live and work in Japan. Because of what’s viewed as their excessive interest in Japan, these fans are perceived to be both racist and shallow. While some do adopt the affected cadence of anime characters, or pepper their speech with simple Japanese phrases and cultural references (as lampooned in the Saturday Night Live skit J-Pop America Fun Time Now), there are just as many fans who are self-conscious about the mediated nature of their interests in Japan.
Online, is it possible for American fans to shed what marks them as, in this case, other, and “become” Japanese? In particular, when their performances, however essentialized, don’t stay tethered to virtual origins but instead circulate into daily conversations and cross linguistic and national boundaries, the dividing line between what is Japanese and what isn’t can become muddied; anime inspired artwork, posted online and then circulated as an artifact separated from its creator, is one example. This is made only murkier when American fans move to Tokyo and find work in the videogame and anime industries, helping to produce the very commodities that brought them to Japan in the first place.
What then is the relationship between being virtually Japanese, and actually Japanese? Tom Boellstorff and others have already investigated this relationship in a broad sense, suggesting that the question cannot be easily dismissed. Yet some scholars who study Japan have argued that Western fans are merely consuming “J-cool,” an empty brand signifier, and that such fans are unable to understand, in fact are not even interested in connecting to, the “real” Japan. Others might argue that this fan community remains marginalized to small, and eccentric English-language websites, circulating only in a feedback loop of other fans and disconnected from real Japanese people. However, this assumption is also complicated by the fact that communications technologies afford not only the performance of Japaneseness by non-Japanese, but also, again, the incorporation of these performances within Japan. Virtual locations are themselves of course intensely transnational; for example, “real” Japanese citizens also inhabit Second Life and play within it, and with what it means to be Japanese.
As the intensified global circulation of people and things continues to reinvigorate national gate-keeping practices, and new technologies are utilized by states to limit and contain the movement of people across national borders, any answer to this question then must also go beyond considering the affordances of new technologies; it must also contend with asking who is invested in maintaining the dividing line between who is, and who isn’t, appropriately Japanese.
As I conclude a semester teaching anthropology of technology, one of my favorite themes has to do with how people perform affiliations to technologies, as well as related beliefs, practices, and values. In that spirit, I’d like to repost here, on The CASTAC Blog, a brief summary of some themes I’ve developed and worked with in order to understand the relationship between technology and identity. This post was originally written for Savage Minds, but I’d like to re-post it here to continue the conversation among folks directly researching issues of anthropology and technology. As always, comments welcome!
There’s a new sociological variable in town, one which I call performing technical affiliation. Technically speaking, it is not a new way of thinking about identity. For many years, perhaps millennia, people have enacted aspects of identity by interacting with and through technologized objects, forms of knowledge and related practices and values. Nevertheless, technical affiliation is not recognized on the same level of analytical importance as are traditional variables—such as class, sex, gender, ethnicity, and social race—that are most often cited in anthropological studies of sociality. It is time that technical affiliations are brought more systematically into analyses of identity and negotiations of the self.
Performing technical affiliation means displaying in words or actions, alliances to objects, values, beliefs, or practices that are often assumed to be associated with particular technical cultures (Lange 2003, 2011). A basic example might be someone declaring, “I can’t live without my iPhone!” meaning that they prefer this device and its interactional implications over those offered by other devices or other brands of mobile phone. When people affiliate toward something, they also tend to affiliate away from something else. Performances may be much more subtle and complex. They refer to more than purchasing decisions (which are of course laden with many other beliefs). Performances can indicate how people accomplish being a competent, moral person in the world. For instance, some people believe that learning about technology is best accomplished in a self-directed way, rather than through taking classes in schools. How one should learn to use technical systems, or how one should share information through media are important aspects of everyday identity performance. Performing technical affiliation routinely occurs in offline, as well as online contexts.
The concept draws on Goffman’ (1959) notion of performing the self in everyday life, but does not imply a simple binary that equates performances with being “onstage” versus hiding a more true self “offstage.” Such a notion has often simplistically been applied to studies of computer-mediated communication to dichotomize online (onstage) versus offline (offstage) behavior. But writing many years ago, Goffman (1963: 9) demonstrated that such an assumption over determines how much identity information is actually shared in person. Speaking about in person interaction, he used the term “virtual” identity to refer to incorrect assumptions that people impute onto others, such as assuming they have never been in prison, have never had a depression, or have never harbored other stigmas. A binary application of the performance concept also under determines what identity information is shared online. Studies too numerous to list here have shown how much identity information is given and given off (in Goffman’s sense) in online contexts.
The concept of performing technical affiliation instead emphasizes Goffman’s (1981) work on footing, which acknowledges that people may exhibit different levels of intensity or commitment to beliefs and practices. Some people may be animating someone else’s original statements and technologically-inflected worldviews. Others may be the authors or originators of such beliefs, and hold them to be very influential in their everyday decision making. The concept is purposefully broad to accommodate many levels of affiliation. An analogy may be drawn to the metaphor of affiliation to a club. One person may receive the newsletter and read it now and again; another person may be the club’s president.
Another vignette may illustrate the concept. Years ago, I gave a talk at the American Anthropological Association meeting. At one point, a speaker who was using a laptop PC struggled to get his audio-visuals to display properly. Another person on the panel quipped, “You should have used a Mac.” A few knowing chuckles traveled around the room. Later, after hearing my talk, this panelist told me that his quip was not a good example of performing technical affiliation, because he had no personal affiliation to the Macintosh computer. I assured him that it was an excellent example.
Recall that the concept takes into account different levels of performativity and varying commitments to the affiliations contained therein. His remark performed affiliation to the idea that Macintosh computers are better for manipulating media than are PCs. He was animating a notion that was commonly held (although may or may not be true), among Macintosh supporters, and others who believe it. His was a performance that would not be intelligible if people did not think that this belief was common. The joke would unintelligibly fall flat if everyone “knew” that PCs and Macs were equally effective for working with media. He himself does not have to believe the idea in order for the joke/performance to “work.”
Performing technical affiliation is a part of human life; people cannot get particular jobs or have certain kinds of successful relationships if they do not convincingly display particular orientations to specific technologies or technically-inflected worldviews and values. But sometimes performing technical affiliation can be problematic not only for individuals but society as a whole. For example, in her classic ethnography of physicists, Traweek (1988) noted a competitive tension between the theoretical physicists and the experimental physicists in an advanced research lab. The latter designed experiments to test the theories of the former.
Advances in physics could not proceed without their collaboration, but identity displays often coded in-group members as superior to out-group members. A theoretical physicist told Traweek that it was appropriate for an anthropologist to study such a “primitive tribe” as experimentalists. Each group learned to display a “studied disregard for each other’s judgment” (Traweek 1988: 112). One empirical question is, to what extent do such displays advance or impede the production of human knowledge? How might their collaboration change if their cultural disregard was seen as a performance of technical affiliation that, if changed, could advanced the field much further?
It may be objected that technical affiliations only apply to specialized groups or elite technologists. But such an assumption ignores the anthropological record, and how technologies influence how people conceive of the self and how they choose to be a moral person in the world. For example, consider Gershon’s (2010) book on breaking up on the social network site of Facebook. She argues that people held definite ideas about how one should end a romantic relationship. Using particular media was seen to reflect something important about the morality and sensitivity of the person breaking up. If a person chose to break up over Facebook rather than in person, people used this information to make moral judgments about them. Their media choices often had more salience in determining a person’s social character in those situations than any of the other traditional identity variables. To argue that Facebook is or is not a true “technology” are, in and of themselves, performances of technical affiliation.
Another objection may be that people do not consciously orient toward technical affiliations in everyday life. Yet, the impact of any identity variable such as class, ethnicity, gender, and so forth must be empirically shown to be important in analyses of social behavior. Just because people do not verbalize or understand the impact of their affiliations is not sufficient proof that the variable is unimportant for understanding contemporary self-construction. The same argument may be forwarded with regard to other variables, such as class. Americans often say they are in the “middle class” and do not necessarily orient around class. Yet these elisions do not prove that class is irrelevant for people’s social negotiation of the self, nor that society is “class-blind” with regard to determining socio-economic opportunities.
Perhaps hesitancy about adopting the construct exists because identity variables such as gender and class may influence people’s technical affiliations. But such variables are not predictive of technical affiliations. Knowing that someone is a man of a certain economic class, for instance, does not determine his views on whether computer platforms should all be open source, or whether he should take certain drugs to address health issues, or whether learning the programming language of Python is a good use of his time. Certainly, technical affiliations have interactions with other variables, as is the case with traditional identity variables. For example, in reaction to second wave feminism, which explored universalized experiences of womanhood, third wave feminists convincingly showed that other variables such as ethnicity and class brought much to bear on the experiences of being a woman in particular cultural groups. The same is true of technical affiliations. Important interactions between such affiliations and other identity variables should be empirically studied to broaden understanding of how technologized worldviews impact self-construction.
The time is right to acknowledge what has been discussed for a quite some time. As long-standing cyborgs, people’s technologized identities have historically been part of the human condition (Haraway 1991). Affiliations to technologies and related values and world views speak volumes about who we are as people, as members of cultures, and as individuals. Technical affiliations are crucial aspects of social identity. Scholars should systematically incorporate them in analytical studies of social behavior as routinely as any other traditional sociological variable.
Gershon, Ilana. 2010. The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting Over New Media. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Goffman, Erving. 1981. Forms of Talk. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Goffman, Erving. 1963. Stigma: Notes on the Management of a Spoiled Identity. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc.
Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday.
Haraway, Donna J. 1991. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.
Lange, Patricia G. 2011. Video-mediated Nostalgia and the Aesthetics of Technical Competencies. Visual Communication 10(1): 25-44.
Lange, Patricia G. 2003. Virtual Trouble: Negotiating Access in Online Communities. Ph.D. Dissertation. University of Michigan. Available from UMI at: http://disexpress.umi.com/dxweb.
Traweek, Sharon. 1988. Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High Energy Physicists. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
It’s been nearly four years since The Asthma Files (TAF) really took off (as a collaborative ethnographic project housed on an object-oriented platform). In that time our work has included system design and development, data collection, and lots of project coordination. All of this continues today; we’ve learned that the work of designing and building a digital archive is ongoing. By “we” I mean our “Installation Crew”, a collective of social scientists who have met almost every week for years. We’ve also had scores of students, graduate and undergraduates at a number of institutions, use TAF in their courses, through independent studies, and as a space to think through dissertations. In a highly distributed, long-term, ethnographic project like TAF, we’ve derived a number of modest findings from particular sites and studies; the trick is to make sense of the patterned mosaic emerging over time, which is challenging since the very tools we want to use as a window into our work — data visualization apps leveraging semantic tools, for example — are still being developed.
Given TAF’s structure — thematic filing cabinets where data and projects are organized — we have many small findings, related to specific projects. For example, in our most expansive project “Asthmatic Spaces”, comparisons of data produced by state agencies (health and environmental), have made various layers of knowledge gaps visible, spaces where certain types of data, in certain places, is not available (Frickel, 2009). Knowledge gaps can be produced by an array of factors, both within organizations and because of limited support for cross agency collaboration. Another focus of “Asthmatic Spaces” (which aims to compare the asthma epidemic in a half dozen cities in the U.S. and beyond) is to examine how asthma and air quality data are synced up (or not) and made usable across public, private, and nonprofit organizations.
In another project area, “Asthma Knowledges”, we’ve gained a better understanding of how researchers conceptualize asthma as a complex condition, and how this conceptualization has shifted over the last decade, based on emerging epigenetic research. In “Asthma Care” we’ve learned that many excellent asthma education programs have been developed and studied, yet only a fraction of these programs have been successfully implemented, such as in school settings. Our recent focus has been to figure out what factors are at play when programs are successful.
Below I offer three overarching observations, taken from what our “breakout teams” have learned working on various projects over the last few years:
*In the world of asthma research, data production is uneven in myriad ways. This is the case at multiple levels — seen in public health surveillance and our ability to track asthma nationally, as well as at the state and county level; as seen through big data, generated by epigenetic research; in the scale of air quality monitoring, which is conducted at the level of cities and zip codes rather than at neighborhood or street level. Uneven and fragmented data production is to be expected; as ethnographers, we’re interested in what this unevenness and fragmentation tells us about local infrastructure, environmental policy, and the state of health research. Statistics on asthma prevalence, hospitalizations, and medical visits are easy to come by in New York State and California, for example; experts on these data sets are readily found. In Texas and Tennessee, on the other hand, this kind of information is harder to come by; more work is involved in piecing together data narratives and finding people who can speak to the state of asthma locally. Given that most of what we know about asthma comes from studies conducted in major cities, where large, university-anchored medical systems help organize health infrastructure, we wonder what isn’t being learned about asthma and air quality in smaller cities, rural areas, and the suburbs; what does environmental health (and asthma specifically) look like beyond urban ecologies and communities? We find this particularly interesting given the centrality that place has for asthma as a disease condition and epidemic.
*Asthma research is incredibly diffuse and diverse. Part of the idea for The Asthma Files came from Kim Fortun and Mike Fortun’s work on a previous project where they perceived communication gaps between scientists who might otherwise collaborate (on asthma research). Thus, one of our project goals has been to document and characterize contemporary asthma studies, tracing connections made across research centers and disciplines. In the case of a complex and varied disease like asthma — a condition that looks slightly different from one person to the next and is likely produced by a wide composite of factors — the field of research is exponential, with studies that range from pharmaceutical effects and genetic shifts, to demographic groups, comorbidities, and environmental factors like air pollution, pesticides, and allergens. Admittedly, we’ve been slow to map out different research trajectories and clusters while we work to develop better visualization tools in PECE (see Erik Bigras’s February post on TAF’s platform).
What has been clear in our research, however, is that EPA and/or NIEHS-funded centers undertaking transdisciplinary environmental health research seem to advance collaboration and translation better than smaller scale studies. This suggests that government support is greatly needed in efforts to advance understanding of environmental health problems. Transdisciplinary research centers have the capacity to conduct studies with more participants, over longer periods of time, with more data points. Columbia University’s Center for Children’s Environmental Health provides a great example. Engaging scientists from a range of fields, CCCEH’s birth cohort study has tracked more than 700 mother-child pairs from two New York neighborhoods, collecting data on environmental exposures, child health and development. The Center’s most recent findings suggest that air pollution primes children for a cockroach allergy, which is a determinant of childhood asthma. CCCEH’s work has made substantial contributions to understandings of the complexity of environmental health, as seen in the above findings. Of course, these transdisciplinary centers, which require huge grants, are just one node in the larger field of asthma research. What we know from reviewing this larger field is that 1) most of what we know about asthma is based on studies conducted in major cities, 2) that studies on pharmaceuticals greatly outnumber studies on respiratory therapy; that studies on children outnumber studies on adults; that studies on women outnumber studies on men; and that many of the studies focused on how asthma is shaped by race and ethnicity focus on socioeconomic factors and structural violence; finally, 3) that over the last fifty years, advancements in inhaler technology mechanics and design has been limited in key ways, especially when compared to a broader field of medical devices.
*Given the contextual dimensions of environmental health, responses to asthma are shaped by local factors. What’s been most interesting in our collaborative work is to see what comes from comparing projects, programs, and infrastructure across different sites. What communities and organizations enact what kinds of programs to address the asthma epidemic? What resources and structures are needed to make environmental health work happen? Environmental health research of the scale conducted by CCCEH depends on a number of factors and resources — an available study population, institutional resources, an air monitoring network, and medical infrastructure, not to mention an award winning grassroots organization, WE-ACT for Environmental Justice. Infrastructure can be just as uneven and fragmented as the data collected, and the two are often linked: Despite countless studies that associate air pollution and asthma, less than half of all U.S. counties have monitors to track criteria pollutants. And although asthma education programs have been designed and studied for more than two decades now, implementation is uneven, even in the case of the American Lung Association’s long-standing Open Airways for Schools. This is not to say that asthma information and care isn’t standardized; many improvements have been made to standardize diagnosis and treatment in the last decade. Rather, it’s often the form that care takes that varies from place to place. One example of what has been a successful program is the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America’s Breathmobile program. Piloted in California more than a decade ago, Breathmobiles serve hundreds of California schools each year and more than 5,000 kids. Not only are eleven Breathmobiles in operation in California, but the program has also been replicated in Phoenix, Baltimore, and Mobile, AL. Part of the program’s success in California can be attributed to the work of the state’s AAFA chapter, and partnerships with health organizations, like the University of Southern California and various medical centers. Importantly, California has historically been a leader in responses to environmental health problem.
As we continue our research, in various fieldsites, grow our archive, and implement new data visualization tools, we hope to expand on these findings and further synthesize from our collective work. And beyond what we’re learning about the asthma epidemic and environmental health in the U.S., we’ve also taken many lessons from our collaborative work, and the platform that organizes us.
Bodybuilders, split between “all natural bodybuilders” and those who, in failing to specify, are marked out as “drug” bodybuilders, are explicit about both the health consequences of using growth hormones and steroids, and the fact that they are absolutely necessary to success. “All natural” I was told, “is dead.” “You can’t get anywhere without taking drugs.” Yet these same interlocutors also told me that “drug bodies are fake.” With drugs the muscles are not “you,” “it’s just this skinny little guy in a muscle suit.”
Setting aside, for a moment, the fact that “you” is always a “guy,” though when this conversation took place we had actually been talking about women, I want to think/talk/write for a moment about the tension, the distance between fake and winning bodies.
I come to this discussion out of the excellent recent post by Chris Furlow on competitive cycling. Chris suggests that discourse amongst cyclists centers on a notion of “performance.” Here, I want to suggest that fake bodies and winning bodies, while they are both “drug” bodies, point to different kinds of performances.
I use “performance” here differently than Chris did, but in rather interesting relation to it… I will get to that later. For the moment, I am thinking along the lines of Judith Butler’s citations. Bodybuilders practice highly disciplined regimes of diet, exercise, and sleep toward transforming themselves into an ideal form. In competition, men and women display their bodies and compete for who most closely approaches the “ideal body.” The ideal body for both men and women is a combination of more muscle (for size), less fat (for “definition”) and symmetry, a somewhat ineffable balance of proportion. This goes for competitions across the board, whether “all natural” or not. Yet I would argue that these performances, these citations of an ideal, are not the same, and the distinction is embodied in the tension between authenticity (the alternative to fake) and winning (the alternative to “dead”).
When I first began researching bodybuilders in 2005-6, I was intrigued by the notion of “drugs” as a kind of moving target. For some, drugs were “anything that isn’t legal” while for others, the purists of the pure, all supplements were artificial and therefore suspect, though vitamins were described as a necessary evil. Clearly, they pointed to a boundary, a sense of what is and is not the proper domain of the natural human. What I discovered over the course of my dissertation research in 2006-2007 was that the distinction between “real bodies” and “fake bodies” for the all natural athletes I worked with pivoted on notions of what muscles said about the person. To develop a bodybuilding physique without the aid of growth hormones or steroids takes time, discipline, and an understanding of nutrition, physiology, and ones own body that informants called, broadly, “knowledge.” While steroids also demand careful management and in that sense a good deal of knowledge, “drug bodies” were seen as fake because they came too easily, without the kinds of qualities that a muscular body would represent if it were “real.”
Yet members of the all natural gym where I did the bulk of my research were sympathetic towards those who “went over to the dark side.” It was understandable, they told me, in a sport where drugs were the condition of possibility for success. While some said they preferred a more “natural aesthetic,” even those role models were drawn from amongst competitors who were known to have used steroids to achieve their looks (most commonly, Frank Zane). It was in reading Chris’ post regarding “performance” and cycling that I began to think about what kinds of “performance” the elite bodybuilder embodies.
What comes to mind, more or less simultaneously, is the continuity between the Olympic Games motto of “faster, higher, stronger” and “Moore’s Law” of the technology industry where I now work, which foretold (quite accurately, it would seem), that the number of transistors on a computer chip would roughly double every year. Across these very different contexts, it strikes me there is an ideology of surpassing, of endless and exponential growth that, the housing crisis of recent years notwithstanding, articulates a particular ideology of what “success” is that is common to both. In a bootstrap nation where success and failure are seen as a question of personal responsibility, and a reflection of individual capacity, winning means going above and beyond oneself, doing “whatever it takes.” The bodies of champion bodybuilders, the “monster bodies” of Jay Cutler, Ronnie Coleman, or Phil Heath, represent an ideal of “performance” as surpassing to the nth degree, an ideological refusal of glass ceilings, limits, or boundaries.
In their own way, the all natural bodybuilders I spoke to were also very much concerned with surpassing overcoming limits. The difference between all natural and elite bodybuilding was a question of what limitations were to be surpassed, and what various kinds of surpassing signified.
This is a tension that continues to fascinate me now; it is this issue that ties together my past work on bodybuilders where at first glance “technology” seems mostly the kind with weights and pulleys, and my current research on data, technology and the body. It is the dynamic movement between constrained notions of a proper, authentic, all natural “human,” and the effervescent rejection of those boundaries as mere challenges to be surpassed in hard work, discipline, and the next-gen technological innovation. What makes us human? How do we want to be human in the future? When, in the incorporation of technologies, by ingesting them, or as physical prosthetics such as spectacles that extend our capacities to see (farther, sharper, clearer), do these technologies become part of us, of what and who we are, and when are they mere fakery, muscle suits that conceal the diminished skinny guy within?