January 2nd, 2012, by § Leave a Comment

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.

Destination: You

October 6th, 2015, by § Leave a Comment

On a recent trip to California I took the train down to San Jose to visit the Tech Museum of Innovation where a new exhibit focused on wearable technology and data—Body Metrics—had just been unveiled. I study the proliferation of digital self-tracking, a phenomenon made increasingly widespread by the popularity of sensor technology and wearable devices (think Apple Watch, Fitbit wristbands, or OMsignal shirts) that generate data about one’s self. In my research I pay particular attention to the way these new technologies of knowledge are shifting the way we think about and view our bodies so I was keen to see the way the museum expressed the relationship between data and bodies. My visit would become haunted, however, by another display of the body—the Body Worlds exhibit—that I had seen months earlier in New York City. Considered alongside one another, the two exhibits say a lot about the way we commonly conceptualize personal data. « Read the rest of this entry »

Announcing the 2015 CASTAC Junior-Senior Mentor Program at AAA!

October 5th, 2015, by § Leave a Comment

Now Recruiting for CASTAC Junior-Senior Mentor Program at the 2015 Annual Meeting of the AAA

CASTAC, the Committee on the Anthropology of Science, Technology, and Computing, seeks to support the professional development of scholars in the anthropology of science and technology. To this end, we are pleased to announce our second Junior-Senior Mentor Program for the 2015 AAA Annual Meeting in Denver.

We invite faculty and researchers at all levels and career trajectories to participate in our mentorship program. CASTAC will match mentors and mentees according to overlapping research interests and facilitate their initial contact. Participants will then arrange a time to meet during the conference.  Meetings may last about an hour, potentially touching upon a range of topics such as funding, professionalization, job preparation, and new directions in STS and anthropology.

As CASTAC members can attest from participating in this and similar programs at other conferences, mentorship is an invaluable source of information to early career scholars, and offers numerous returns for mentors as well, strengthening our field through the exchange of ideas and professional connections.

If you are interested in participating as a mentor or mentee at the AAAs, please contact castac.aaa@gmail.com by Thursday, October 15st, 2015. We ask that in your e-mail you indicate whether you want to act as mentee, mentor, or both.

  • If you would like to be a mentee, please include a brief paragraph about your current project, research interests, and challenges in your e-mail.
  • If you would like to be a mentor, simply e-mail us several keywords about your professional experience and interests.
  • For those interested in both roles, we ask that you e-mail us both paragraph and keywords.

Forward this message widely, and do not hesitate to contact Beth Reddy (ereddy@uci.edu) with any questions.

Social Science, Socialist Scientists, and the Future of Utopias

September 29th, 2015, by § Leave a Comment

As space colonization becomes a more serious project and an influential utopian imaginary, I am reminded of British scientist and communist JD Bernal’s 1929 warning about “human dimorphism”: Bernal wondered about a future in which “mechanizers” would live an enhanced, technoscientifically-evolved form of life, separated from the “humanizers,” the masses whose physical needs would be equally gratified thanks to scientific advancements—but who would prefer to exist in an atavistic human way, enjoying mundanities such as friendliness, poetry, dancing, drinking, singing, and art. His figure for that version of the good life seems to have been filched from whatever exposure he had to colonial anthropology—he calls it the “idyllic, Melanesian existence.” The mechanizers, on the other hand, would transform themselves biologically and psychologically, moving down a different evolutionary path towards a different destiny—a vision dear to present-day transhumanists, who from early on were among the strongest advocates of space colonization, and have been involved in various aspects of it, through NASA and DARPA as well as a number of smaller, more esoteric organizations. The word transhumanist was, in fact, coined by Bernal’s more famous acquaintance, Julian Huxley—Julian was Aldous’ socialist brother, who had his own visions of a quasi-eugenicist utopia.

Image: The assembly of the 'Stanford Torus' space colony. By Don Davis for NASA.

Image: The assembly of the ‘Stanford Torus’ space colony design. By Don Davis for NASA.

There are alternative and instructive histories, as well as an important present, buried in these entanglements with utopia, science, and the left. It seems worthwhile to reconsider some of the visions and insights embedded in that history and, possibly, to find a lens that might point a way out of the directionless quagmire we find ourselves in as we try to think beyond the black box of market capitalism. I wonder whether, in our over-determined rejection of utopianism, we have not also thrown out something valuable, or maybe simply useful. In putting forward a “recombinant tale of social and scientific consciousness” (a phrase I steal from Debbora Battaglia), I am especially interested in utopianism and forms of teleology [rationalization based on end-goals], because telos seems to matter, somehow, and I am interested in finding out not so much why it matters, but how it matters in thinking politically and morally. « Read the rest of this entry »

Trusting Experts: Can we reconcile STS and Social Psychology?

September 22nd, 2015, by § 2 Comments

A protest against fracking. Picture taken from here. Creative Commons License.

Image: A protest against fracking. Picture taken from here. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Numerous battles are being fought today within and across America’s political landscape, from global warming to the regulation of new technologies (e.g., GMOs, fracking). Science plays a big role in these debates, and as a result, social psychologists, political scientists, economists, and other social scientists have become interested in the question of why people (or rather, certain people) don’t accept scientific findings. These social scientists have converged on a concept called motivated reasoning: that because our reasoning powers are directed towards particular ends, we tend to pick facts that best fit our needs and motivations. Motivated reasoning, in this explanation, is a universal concept, perhaps a product of evolution; all human beings do it, including experts. It also raises the profoundly disturbing possibility of a scientific end to our Enlightenment hopes that experts—let alone publics—can be rational, that they can neatly separate facts from values and facilitate a harmonious society.

Influential science journalists have now started drawing on those findings. Chris Mooney, who made a name for himself writing The Republican War on Science, drew on social psychological and brain imaging research on political bias in a well-cited Mother Jones piece, “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science: How our brains fool us on climate, creationism, and the vaccine-autism link.” Other political scientists have written about this in high-profile outlets, such as Brendan Nyhan for the New York Times. It has also made several appearances on The Monkey Cage, a political science blog that is now part of the Washington Post.

« Read the rest of this entry »

Twin Astronauts: The Perfect Research Subjects

September 15th, 2015, by § Leave a Comment

Expedition 45/46 Commander, Astronaut Scott Kelly along with his brother, former Astronaut Mark Kelly speak to news media outlets about Scott Kelly's 1-year mission aboard the International Space Station. Photo Date: January 19, 2015. Location: Building 2. Photographer: Robert Markowitz

Image: Scott and Mark Kelly. Source: NASA.

In March 2015, astronaut Scott Kelly embarked on a one-year stay aboard the International Space Station, while his identical twin brother Mark Kelly, a retired astronaut, remained on planet Earth. This remarkable event—accompanied by a frenzy of media attention—created a degree of separation between twins that scientists could previously only imagine. For science journalists and their readers, the Kelly twin astronauts were like a dream come true, a perfect marriage between popular fascination with twins and Americans’ boundless enthusiasm for space travel. Attention-grabbing headlines like “Meet the twins unlocking the secrets of space”, “Nature vs. Nurture vs. NASA”, and “NASA twins to embark on year-long space experiment” began to appear in the news. Friends and colleagues were quick to forward these stories to me, knowing of my personal (I’m an identical twin) and professional (I’m an anthropologist who studies twin researchers) interest in twins. Scientific research on twins has a long history, so as I read about the plans for experimentation on the Kelly twins, there was much that was familiar to me. In a way, the twin-in-space and twin-on-earth scenario is a logical conclusion of long-standing scientific fantasies about twins and their power to reveal the hidden workings of nature and nurture. Interestingly, however, by the time it became possible to realize this older vision of twin research, the life sciences had entered the molecular era, with new methodologies and technologies threatening to replace the classical twin study. So, we might ask—how did we end up with this improbable study of twin astronauts?

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Understanding Users through Data: UX, Ratings, and Audiences

September 9th, 2015, by § Leave a Comment

Understanding how audiences move through information (c) Luca Mascaro via Creative Commons

Image: Understanding how audiences move through information. Photo by Luca Mascaro, some rights reserved (Creative Commons license).

“It needs to be usable by distracted individuals in a hurry. It needs to be extremely legible and intuitive,” began the client emphatically as he leaned forward, one of several people  gathered at a conference table on the 16th floor of an office tower in Houston, Texas. He rested back in his chair and waited, drumming his hands on the table. The project lead and two of the designers nodded, as one called a vast library of application mockups up onto the demo screen. As she scrolled through these, the other explained the rationale behind its user-interface elements: “we tested this prototype with [x user base]. We have seen that they need to take [y action] immediately, and if they are hindered in this, the company itself cannot track projects or time spent by employees. [Staff] are too busy on the job to engage in lengthy bookkeeping procedures.”

This project, a massive one spanning more than a year’s research and development, is one among many for which I am currently acting as a participant observer at [Intellisoft Inc.] In foregrounding research, this company is not unique, but they are among an ever-growing number of organizations appropriating anthropological methods to understand how audiences interface with technological artifacts. Occasionally, these methods employ terminology that diverges between the academic and applied social sciences; it took me a moment to realize, for example, that “contextual inquiry” is field research, that is, ethnography.

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Note from the Editor: Summer vacation

September 4th, 2015, by § Leave a Comment

The CASTAC Blog is on (late) summer vacation this week. See you next week!

Jordan Kraemer

Steadying the Plays: Rhetoric and Risk in the Shale Boom

August 25th, 2015, by § Leave a Comment

“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.

A tall white drill tower stands on and orange rig, with mountains and a partly cloudy blue sky in the background.

Image: Drilling the Bakken formation in the Williston Basin. By Joshua Doubek (CC BY-SA 3.0).

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 »

Seeing California’s water future(s) at Orange County’s Groundwater Replenishment System

August 18th, 2015, by § Leave a Comment

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.

pipe image.001

Image: Pipes, pumps and filters at the Groundwater Replenishment System. Photo by author.

« Read the rest of this entry »

Making Rain and Letting Shine: Geoengineering’s Biopolitics

August 11th, 2015, by § Leave a Comment

Geoengineering [1] 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 [2]. Just as geoengineering is argued to be an expression of capitalist eco-colonialism [3], others welcome its opening towards new relations with/in earth-systems [4].

Examples of geoengineering. Source: Kiel Earth Institute / Geomar. Wikimedia Commons

Image: Examples of geoengineering. Source: Kiel Earth Institute / Geomar. Wikimedia Commons.

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 »