Welcome to the CASTAC Blog, the official blog of the Committee on the Anthropology of Science, Technology, and Computing! We publish new content weekly on Tuesdays and sometimes more often. If you’d like to contribute or have an idea for a post, please contact one of the Associate Editors and check out our guide For Authors.
“Please God, give us another oil boom. We promise not to piss it away this time.”
– Popular bumper sticker in oil producing regions after the 1980s oil markets crashed
In the 1970s, there was much to be celebrated for those involved in the US oil and gas industry. The OPEC oil embargo coupled with events like the Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War led to a shortage of oil on the world market and precipitated a boom for US producers. This boom, however, was short lived. By 1981, world production had stabilized and oil prices had plummeted, bankrupting a significant number of producers and inspiring the use of “Please God” bumper sticker in places like Texas, Oklahoma, and Alberta.
Throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s, the bumper sticker didn’t seem to help, and the oil and gas industry limped along. Against financial engineering and IT novelties that sent the stock-prices of energy firms like Enron soaring (Zellner 2001)—and, in California’s deregulated energy market, allowed Enron to keep itself afloat at the expense of “Grandma Millie” (C-SPAN interview with B. McLean; Oppel 2002; Roberts 2004)—the capital-intensive technologies of the oil and gas industry seemed dull and unable to capture the general public’s imagination. By 2010, however, this story had almost entirely changed. Where financial and IT services had once seemed to be at the forefront of innovation, two stock-market crashes coupled with the technological advances in oil and gas production that enabled the “Shale Boom” seemed to suggest the reverse. They seemed to suggest that creative accounting and financial engineering may make a company appear healthy— even forward thinking—but they cannot replace tangible contributions to technology and production. « Read the rest of this entry »
Tucked away in suburban Fountain Valley, California, the Orange County Water District’s Groundwater Replenishment System (GWRS) smells vaguely of chlorine and looks like something imagined by a 1950s sci-fi writer. Sleek, shiny, and minimalist, the wastewater treatment plant feels like somewhere a robot would be very, very comfortable.
It’s also a soothing place for another kind of visitor: the Southern California water manager. My fieldwork shows these managers to be a community of expertise that likes recycled water, a steady source of supply they feel confident in their ability to treat, monitor, and deliver. “It’s here and it’s never going away, and yet most of the time we just dump it in the ocean. Reusing it just makes sense,” one 34-year veteran in the field told me with a hint of exasperation at having to state something so glaringly obvious.
Geoengineering  is a diverse set of environmental technologies proposed to intervene strategically in Earth processes in order to combat climate change. Take for example, a plan to reduce solar radiation via aerosol clouds emitted from airplanes, or one that attempts to remediate ocean acidification by means of algae blooms created by dumping iron from ships. But like the anthropocene, geoengineering is an ambiguous term. Social scientists seem to criticize both the anthropocene and geoengineering as much as they praise them. However many “Good Anthropocenes” emerge in climate discourses, there are just as many millennarist visions . Just as geoengineering is argued to be an expression of capitalist eco-colonialism , others welcome its opening towards new relations with/in earth-systems .
But since geoengineering eludes the confines of a single attitude, historical precedent, or political motive, it may not be analytically prudent to treat as a totality. Thus anthropological inquiry, never content with reductionist critique or blind advocacy, could be especially adept at understanding this thing called geoengineering. This might be possible, in an admittedly indulgent yet I believe necessary fashion, by defining and differentiating its characteristics using a particular rubric: a Foucault-indebted biopolitics. Biopolitical analysis, always concerned with the specificities of a given apparatus, could allow an anthropologist to drive a stake between two geoengineering proposals’ different political histories perhaps, or conversely, to uncover common economic practices hidden in otherwise unrelated proposals, for example. « Read the rest of this entry »
Corporations are increasingly interested in hiring anthropologists for human factors engineering (HFE) and, most recently, user experience (UX) research, roles many of us are interested in pursuing when we look beyond academia. I researched and wrote the following piece to help anthropologists of science and technology who want to approach these professional fields. Both HFE and UX research rely on methods that resemble the skill sets required by ethnographic fieldwork. Whether you expect to end up in such a role or not, much work being done in UX and HFE draws on similar theoretical perspectives to that of the anthropological literature addressing users and interface design, and is interesting as a source of case studies and data. This isn’t coincidental, of course–there’s long been anthropologists in industry, and overlap between anthropology and design research in major tech companies. « Read the rest of this entry »
For most of its history in the US, electricity has been a monopoly commodity: in a delimited territory, only one company was legally allowed to produce and deliver electricity to consumers. This state of affairs started to be challenged in the 1970s, when, in accordance with the neoliberal wave, a number of infrastructural services (e.g., airlines, telecommunications) were deregulated, meaning, they were made competitive by law. Electricity followed in the 1990s. First, the Energy Policy Act of 1992 allowed states to break monopolistic utilities into separate production and delivery companies. This act also allowed states to take technological measures to ensure that new companies could plug into the electric grid to sell or buy electricity. And then the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) introduced the concept of electricity markets—computational processes through which prices are set for all buyers and sellers, and which are operated by non-profit operators of the transmission grid.
I can’t stress enough the computational nature of these new markets: they exist because the grid is wired up with many kinds of sensors and computational devices that are calculating continuously and zigzagging “information.” Making these markets requires not just economists, but also engineers, programmers, traders, and database specialists—all concerned with making sure that the nature and order of information flows are just right. « Read the rest of this entry »
On the “Flowers of the Mineral Kingdom” Facebook group and on Pinterest, collectors and enthusiasts post photos of minerals that resemble flowers or are flower-like in their delicacy and beauty. Specific mineral species that look like flowers are also called by names like “desert rose” or “azurite blossom.” Two well-received books by the collector and amateur historian Van King, entitled Nature’s Garden of Crystals and Flowers of the Mineral Kingdom, are illustrative examples of this interest. A lily blooms in a single year and calcite crystals over millions of years, but comparing them—or indeed, calling one by the name of the other—is not uncommon among these mineral collectors. « Read the rest of this entry »
High-Tech Hand Work: When humans replace computers, what does it mean for jobs and for technological change?
Are computers coming for our jobs? A new wave of worry about “the end of work” and “the jobless future” has arisen of late among professors and pundits alike. Innovations in artificial intelligence and the rise of Internet and mobile communications appear to portend a “second machine age” in which an ever-expanding set of human skills will be supplanted by robots and computer programs. The manufacturing jobs that have driven the growth of China’s economy will soon be swallowed up by smart machines. With “big data” and “machine learning” at their disposal, software engineers will create algorithms that make more accurate and less biased judgments than well-trained humans. If automation has threatened manufacturing jobs since the dawn of the factory system, the 21st century will bring a fundamentally new danger: that even the middle-class “knowledge workers” who have managed to survive the past 40 years of structural economic shifts will soon be rendered obsolete.
If contemporary technological advancements seem poised to have far-reaching consequences for workers and societies, then how are these changes playing out inside of a “new economy” software start-up that is at the forefront of replacing at least one kind of human job: that of the broker? « Read the rest of this entry »
That’s not meant to be a comprehensive design drawing. That’s meant to say, ‘Scape is comprised of people, plants, hardscape materials,’ and that’s the language. So, we should squint at it, see the language, accept the language, the density, how it’s allocated over the site, and—boom—move on. But we get struck with confusion that says, ‘What’s that green thing? How does that fit into the scape?’ So we end up having a conversation about what it is we’ve done, or how we’ve done it, or communicated it, rather than the substance of the idea. We have to note that—we can’t build consensus on stuff we can’t communicate—because everyone’s trying to figure out what we’ve done.
With these comments, the architecture professor tried to reclaim control over his students’ design review, which had been sidetracked by the jury’s questioning. The jury, composed of other faculty in the architecture and landscape architecture departments, was confused about a secondary element of a project to redesign the façade and site of an American university school of architecture building. I was there as an ethnographer of architecture pedagogy and design process for a comparative multi-institutional research project involving four Canadian and American schools of architecture. The discussion revolved around a series of digital drawings, and a student’s narration of those drawings, displayed on a large flat screen placed in front of the audience. The time spent trying to parse and probe the “meaning” of the drawings, mediated by both the visual and linguistic dimensions of the presentation, was diluting what the students and their professor had hoped would be the principal thrust of the presentation, and drawing attention to an area of the design that was less well-developed. As Luke, the professor, pointed out, the conversation was not only distracting from the “the substance of the idea” (i.e., the design); it was threatening to undermine consensus—in a sense, the approval of the audience—which would allow the project to move forward.