Why Should I Obey a Machine?

February 26th, 2013, by § Leave a Comment


It is evening, in the sky over southern Germany. Two commercial aircraft are flying on a collision course: a Russian charter flight from Moscow to Barcelona, and a DHL cargo flight from Bergamo to Brussels. Their courses should be corrected by an air traffic controller in Zurich, but he is doing the job of two controllers, at two different work stations, as his equipment is degraded by ongoing maintenance work. Both planes are equipped with TCAS, an automated warning system that is the last line of defense if air traffic control fails to separate planes soon enough.

Less than a minute before the crash, the air traffic controller notices the collision course, and gives the Russian crew a command to descend. Seven seconds later, the automated warning system orders the Russian crew to climb, while ordering the DHL crew to descend.

The Russian crew begins to follow the human’s command to descend, ignoring the later automated command to climb (except for a highly mitigated objection by the lowest ranked crew member).

The result was a mid-air crash: the DHL crew followed the automated warning to descend; the Russian crew obeyed the human air traffic controller and also descended.

Regulations for the use of TCAS state that a TCAS instruction takes precedence over an air traffic controller’s instruction: that is, “Obey the machine.”

Why did the Russian crew obey the human command? One reason suggested by the accident investigation is that they did not have simulator training on TCAS. They had paper and pencil training, but not the near-realism of simulator training.

Another possible reason is that the human command came first. They were already committed to the descent when they heard the TCAS command seven seconds later. A Russian pilot with the same training interviewed after the accident made the interesting argument that the human voice sounds intense and passionate, while the machine voice is robotic: of course one would obey the voice that sounds more concerned.


I am involved in this question because I am working at a project at NASA doing formal modeling of the FAA’s development of the next generation of air traffic control (NextGen).

The area I am working in is called “Authority and Autonomy (or Automation). “Authority” covers humans, human and machine systems, legal and regulatory structures, and rules of procedure. As a social scientist on the project, I am particularly focused on the authority issues, and how they work with what we know about

As a first approach to the question of authority, it’s useful to return to Max Weber’s classic question: What is the basis of legitimate authority. If A gives B an order, why should B obey? What makes B believe that A has the right to issue that order, and that B should obey? The issue of legitimate authority is mostly discussed in the context of large scale, state authority or religious authority.

I am looking at legitimacy in the short term: conflicts or ambiguities of authority that take place in minutes or seconds. If the Russian crew had received an instruction from TCAS before they heard from the air traffic controller, they might have obeyed TCAS and disregarded the controller. The ordering could make the difference.

Within the world of aviation, authority questions are often believed to be solvable by training the humans to automaticity. Yet in the moment, human judgment is always required. Further, many of these conflicts of authority are a result of design decisions in complex socio-technical systems. It is important to look at these decisions, rather than assuming that the humans can be trained to work with whatever design is produced.

Other examples of authority questions in the aviation domain include:

Who do I obey if I believe the legitimate authority has gone crazy? (The 2012 JetBlue incident is an example.)

What mode of automation are we in, and therefore what does an automated indication mean?

What happens when multiple authority regimes are giving conflicting commands?

More on these questions later.

Meanwhile, it might be worth looking out for issues of authority and authority deflection the next time a service person tells you: “I’d like to help you here, but the computer won’t let me do it.”


Summary of Überlingen accident

Dramatization of Überlingen accident

Official accident report, Bundesstelle für Flugunfalluntersuchung
German Federal Bureau of Aircraft Accident Investigation

Big Data Panel at 4S Conference [CFP]

February 25th, 2013, by § 1 Comment

We are looking for people who are interested in presenting a paper at this year’s 4S Annual Meeting (October 9-12, 2013, San Diego, California) in a session we are organising on Big Data: Symbols, Practices, and Epistemic Uncertainties (see details below).

Session Proposal
Title: Big Data: Symbols, Practices, and Epistemic Uncertainties

Convenors: Chiara Garattini (Health Strategy & Solutions, Intel Corporation) and Dawn Nafus (Intel Labs, Intel Corporation).

Abstract: In the last couple of years “Big Data” has attracted increasing attention in academic, industrial and popular discourse. But what is being exactly referred to as Big Data and what are its implications? In images of data as a “gold mine” or “the new oil,” or even in Manovich’s (2012) notion of big data as a collapse of substance and surface, the sheer size and heterogeneity of these data bring back the analogue into the digital world in both the imagination and the practical lives of users. Practice, too, suggests its own trajectories. Keating & Cambrosio (2012) see an intensely debated shift from a hypothesis-driven to a data-driven approach in the world of medical scientific enquiry.

Our own work suggests that movements like the Quantified Self constitute sites of dialogue between those who approach big data as a panoptical stabilization of populations, and those who are devising alternatives in response to more immediate social and material contexts. This panel explores what happens when big data practice and big data discourse confront each other in a variety of domains. What socio-technical trajectories, new and old epistemics, and even forms of resistance emerge? This panel seeks paper proposals that offer perspectives on this issue from different spheres such as finance, health, entertainment, security and demographics.

Conference: Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) Annual Meeting, San Diego October 9-12, 2013.

Please write to chiara.garattini@intel.com if interested.

Best regards,

Chiara Garattini, PhD
Anthropology & UX

HSS UK Health and Life Sciences Innovation Team,
Intel Corporation

1st Floor, Faculty Building, Exhibition Road, SW7 2AZ
Imperial College London

iNet: 87776951
t: +44 (0)20 7977 6951
e: chiara.garattini@intel.com
w: www.intel.com/healthcare

CASTAC: Past, Present, Future

February 19th, 2013, by § 2 Comments

As a longtime CASTAC member, I’d like to offer my take on where we’ve been and where we, as an organization might go in the future.

My first encounter with CASTAC came at the 1992 AAA meetings in San Francisco. I was a new grad student of Gary Downey’s in the STS program at Virginia Tech; however, CASTAC had been founded earlier. The following brief history is based primarily on “corridor talk,” oral histories passed along informally at AAA meetings and other fora by folks like David Hakken, Lucy Suchman, Julian Orr, David Hess and others.

CASTAC, as an organization, began as CAC (Committee for the Anthropology of Computing) at the initiation of David Hakken and a few other anthropologists who were pioneering anthropological studies of computing. David approached Marvin Harris who was, at that time, the President of the General Anthropology Division (GAD) about creating CAC as a Committee within GAD. Harris and the GAD board at the time supported the idea and CAC began its long association with GAD. CAC expanded to CASTC (and later modified to CASTAC) as anthropologists interested in the related areas of science, technology, medicine, work, and engineering joined the nascent group. The 1992 and 1993 AAA meetings were a coming out party with invited sessions that included both anthropologists and scholars from other fields like Donna Haraway and Susan Leigh Star, among others. During the same period, the same anthropologists were crashing the sociology-dominated 4S conference—a pattern recently emulated by the Science, Technology, and Medicine interest group within the Society for Medical Anthropology.

The 1990s were in many ways the high point of CASTAC activity. Sessions were organized at both the AAA and 4S meetings. CASTAC business meetings were always crowded and productive. The tragic death of Dianna Forsythe resulted in the Dianna Forsythe Prize celebrating her legacy and the work of anthropologists working on science, technology, and medicine. CASTAC held summer conferences at RPI and Columbia and CASTAC chairs were active participants at GAD board meetings. And the “science wars” raged in anthropology, STS, and the academy in general—halcyon days indeed.

I became chair of CASTAC in 2005 after a period of relative decline and inactivity during the early 2000s when CASTAC did little beyond award the Forsythe Prize. The summer conferences ended and CASTAC didn’t hold a business meeting at the AAA meetings for a number of years. I offered to serve as chair because I considered, and still consider, CASTAC to be my intellectual home within the AAA and wanted CASTAC to continue to serve as a place that mentored young scholars. Senior scholars in CASTAC have always been extremely generous with their time for junior scholars and I hoped this would continue.

The first challenge, aside from walking into the middle of a GAD board meeting immediately after being elected as CASTAC chair (I was the only volunteer to take the position), was to deal with an existential crisis. We broached the question of whether we thought CASTAC still served a purpose and ought to continue as an organization and, if so, in what form. There was discussion of merging with the Society for the Anthropology of Work (SAW), of forming our own section or independent interest group within the AAA, or of maintaining the current status of staying a committee within GAD. There were benefits to each organizational model and after extensive discussion on the listserv we voted to stick with GAD. GAD provided a $500 annual budget and required much less work to maintain the organization—all we needed was a chair to represent CASTAC on the GAD board and two representatives to serve on the Forsythe selection committee. However, CASTAC still had a problem—we weren’t exactly sure what we wanted CASTAC to do or be—a problem that we are still facing today.

When CASTAC began and for most of the 1990s, CASTAC was about the only place within AAA that folks working on the boundaries between anthropology and STS could go. But by the mid-2000s, STS was emergent in all kinds of places in anthropology. All kinds of anthropologists working in all kinds of areas like medical anthropology, environmental anthropology, media studies, development anthropology, linguistics, and even biological anthropology had discovered STS. And most of these folks had never heard of CASTAC and some were forming their own groups like the STM interest group in SMA. I saw the proliferation of STS-inspired ideas outside of CASTAC not as a threat to CASTAC but as an opportunity to develop collaborative relationships to enhance all of these groups.

I reached out to many of these groups and individuals to let them know that CASTAC existed and that we would love to work together with them to expand the visibility and influence of STS in anthropology and anthropology in STS. I worked with a number of CASTAC members, the GAD board, the STM interest group, and SAW to organize a series of prominent CASTAC invited sessions including a session celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Forsythe Prize. I also produced a new CASTAC Directory to facilitate collaboration among people working on related areas.

My term as CASTAC chair ended after four years and current co-chairs Jenny Cool and Rachel Prentice are leading CASTAC into the digital age of the internet and the blogosphere—ironic that it has taken CASTAC so long to create a strong presence here when the organization was founded by folks studying computing. I urge CASTAC to continue to remain open to new perspectives and new areas of anthropology that intersect with STS. Finally, and most significantly, I urge CASTAC to continue to be a place where senior scholars mentor junior scholars whose research interests, much like their own research interests, may be the proverbial squares that don’t quite fit into the circles of the traditional research areas within anthropology.

My special thanks to Patricia Lange for inviting me to contribute to the blog. I hope many of you will consider adding comments and your own posts to keep the CASTAC momentum moving forward. Participating in the blog has helped me realize that it is the longstanding collegial relationships that make CASTAC my anthropological home.

The Power of Metaphors

February 12th, 2013, by § Leave a Comment

Metaphors are important elements of science and technology practice and pedagogy. They influence how knowledge is produced, interpreted, and represented. Many courses in science and technology studies introduce students to how metaphors inspire and orient investigations into the unknown. Sometimes, metaphors do not introduce new knowledge so much as overlay what we think we know onto interpretations about how the world works. As educators, it is instructive to find and share materials that help our students understand the power of metaphors, and how they influence our very perceptions.

Over the years, I’ve benefitted from educators who have generously shared their teaching materials online. This blog post is an attempt to pay it forward, and share an exercise that I’ve developed for my class on anthropology and technology at California College of the Arts. This exercise is meant to inspire discussion on how metaphors influence our thinking in daily life, as well as how they shape design and use of technological products and systems.

Lakoff and Johnson (1980) long ago noted that metaphors are things that help us understand and experience one kind of thing in terms of another. Words and images from one realm of experience may be used to structure not only action, but our thinking. Metaphors tend to spawn or are accompanied by whole families of associated expressions. Saying that “argument is war” for example, brings to mind other expressions such as “demolishing” or “attacking” a position, or using argumentative “strategies” that are “right on target.”

In addition, metaphors exhibit certain entailments, or assumptions or consequences that result from the use of particular metaphors. For example, saying that “argument is war” entails a winner and a loser. Such entailments structure perceptions of our choices and possible courses of action. Lakoff and Johnson invite the reader to reconsider their metaphors. They ask us to imagine what it might be like to envision a culture where arguing is not equivalent to war. In this alternate universe, “winning” is not the desired outcome of verbal conflict; rather participants strive for empathy and mutual understanding.

The exercise below invites students to consider the entailments and potential impact of metaphors that are used in daily life. Such an exercise might be paired with many classic readings on metaphors in science and technology, such as Cohn’s (1987), “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals,” or Martin’s (1991), “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles.” A more recent work by Rene Almeling, winner of the 2012 Diana Forsythe prize, has also discussed how sex cell donations are gendered through metaphorical concepts. Men are encouraged to consider donating sperm as a “job,” while women are invited to see their contribution of eggs as a “gift.”

But use of metaphors is not limited to biology or defense industries. They are part of everyday life. The following exercise, which might be useful as a homework assignment or a classroom exercise, provides a list of metaphors that are used today and exhibit particular entailments that influence our options in terms of understanding complicated processes, solving complex problems, protecting our identities and security, or conducting new quests for knowledge.

In preparing this exercise, I combed the web for contemporary metaphors that might spark productive discussion. Please feel free to share other metaphors that might be useful for similar discussions about science and technology. Students are also encouraged to explore their own technological metaphors that bring new perspective and insight to this conversation. Educators are invited to discuss how this exercise may be adapted to various contexts or subject areas.

Let us know what you think!

Exercise in Exploring Science and Technology Metaphors
For the following metaphors, list as many entailments as you can. How do these metaphors influence thinking on a particular subject? How do they influence choices people might make? How do they privilege certain solutions or worldviews over others? What steps might people take to overcome the limitations of particular metaphors, or of metaphorical representations in general?

#1 Battling cancer

#2 Surgical strike (an attack without warning on a planned target)

#3 War on drugs

#4 Astronaut (star sailor)

#5 Cloud computing (the practice of using a network of remote servers on the Internet to host, store, and process data)

#6 Desktop computing

#7 Information highway

#8 Cyberspace

#9 The universe is a clockwork

#10 The mind is a printing press

#11 [Insert your metaphor here]

If this exercise was interesting or useful, let us know!


Almeling, Rene. 2011. Sex Cells: The Medical Market for Eggs and Sperm. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Cohn, Carol. 1987. Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals.
Signs 12(4): 687-718.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. 1980. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Martin, Emily. 1991. The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles. Signs 16(31): 485-501.


February 7th, 2013, by § Leave a Comment

In keeping with the 2013 AAA meeting theme of ‘Future Publics, Current Engagements,’ this double panel brings junior and senior scholars into dialogue in order to explore how current engagements with (bio)technologies shape attitudes, behaviors, and subjectivities, and thus affect—or have the potential to affect—future publics and future bodies in meaningful ways. This panel, which we intend to submit for Invited status, is being co-organized by the Science, Technology and Medicine (STM) special interest group of the Society for Medical Anthropology (SMA) and the Committee on the Anthropology of Science, Technology and Computing (CASTAC).

A number of senior scholars have agreed to contribute papers and serve as discussants on this panel. We are currently soliciting abstracts for 3-4 ‘open’ slots on the panel. While we encourage potential participants to think broadly – and critically – about this topic, preference will be given to abstracts that complement the interests of our senior scholars.

Panel topics might include:
• Genetic testing: How is the emergence of genetic testing technologies affecting public understanding and discourse about concepts of ‘race’ and ‘risk’ for disease? How does access to information about increased genetic risk for future disease(s) shape future bodies through identity, practice, and policy? As access to this technology becomes more widespread, how will consumer genetic testing products and whole genome sequencing (e.g., the $1000 Genome) affect individual behavior, as well as reproductive decision-making and parenting practices?

• E-health: How is the use of technology in e-health and telemedicine influencing the way patients and providers define and experience clinical interaction and the doctor-patient relationship? How does this technology shift notions of what constitutes successful consultation and efficient treatment?

• Robotics: How do we evaluate the spectrum of robotic technologies – from prosthetic limbs and exoskeletons to full-bodied robots designed both to provide care to and receive care from socially isolated individuals? How are these devices incorporated into the bodies and lives of the patients they are intended to serve?

• Pharmaceuticals: What kinds of bodies and publics are being shaped by long-term and concurrent pharmaceutical regimens (e.g., hormonal manipulation of reproductive-age women, post-menopausal women, and transgender youth)? What role do assumptions about bodies and publics play in the distribution and uptake of pharmaceutical technologies (e.g., ‘racialized’ pharmaceuticals, gender and heteronormativity play in STD vaccination)?

• Nanotechnology: How are nanotechnologies currently understood by the medical publics they are designed to serve? What are the deliberative processes through which these new technologies are socially incorporated and do perceptions of nanotechnology shift across national and/or cultural contexts?

Access to (bio)technologies is unevenly distributed across the kinds of differences with which anthropology is engaged. This panel examines at access in bidirectional terms, where technology is insisted upon the bodies of some and withheld from others. For example,
• How does unequal access to (bio)technologies (such as dialysis, contraception, or abortion) interpolate distinct future publics?
• How do the states of limited and excessive access to medical technologies and scientific knowledge contour the emerging bodies and futures of unevenly located individuals and groups?
• What lines are being drawn—and blurred—between “enhancement” and “medical” technologies? What are the frames of reference through which various publics distinguish between these two modes of (bio)technology?
• How will the Affordable Care Act impact the deployment of and access to medical technologies?

For consideration, please send abstracts (max. 250 words) to jjthomp@uga.edu, by February 22.

Jennifer Jo Thompson (University of Georgia)
Christine Labuski (Virginia Tech)
Tanja Ahlin (University of Amsterdam)
Allan Hanson (Kansas University)
Co-organizers of ‘Emergent Technologies, Future Publics’

The Asthma Files: Anthropological Learning Through Technical Practice

February 5th, 2013, by § Leave a Comment

The Asthma Files is a collaborative ethnographic project focused on the diverse ways people in settings around the world have experienced and responded to the global asthma epidemic and air pollution crisis. It is experimental in a number of ways: It is designed to support collaboration among ethnographers working at different sites, with different foci, such that many particular projects can nest within the larger project structure. This is enabled through a digital platform that we have named PECE: Platform for Experimental, Collaborative Ethnography. PECE is open source and will become shareable with other research groups once we work out its kinks.

PECE has been built to support collaborative, multi-sited, scale-crossing ethnographic research addressing the complex conditions that characterize late industrialism – conditions such as the global asthma epidemic and air pollution crisis; conditions that implicate many different types of actors, locales and systems – social, cultural, political-economic, ecological and technical, calling call for new kinds of ethnographic analyses and collaboration. The platform links researchers in new ways, and activates their engagement with public problems and diverse audiences. The goal is to allow platform users to toggle between jeweller’s eye and systems-level perspective, connecting the dots to see “the big picture” and alternative future pathways.

The Asthma Files has taken us “beyond academia” in a number of ways. Ethnographically, we are engaging an array of professionals, organizations and communities, trying to understand how they have made sense of environmental public health problems. We want to document their sense-making processes, and what has shaped them; we also want to facilitate their sense-making processes – through ethnography that help them understand their own habits of thought and language, and those of others with whom they likely need to work cooperatively. For example, we’ve recently been contacted by a New Orleans housing contractor who wished to know the kind of research being done on asthma and housing in Louisiana. PECE is designed to support this, making space for different kinds of participants at different points in the ethnographic process.

We’ve also gone “beyond academia” to learn how to think about and build a digital platform to support ethnographic work. One step involved selection of the best – for our purposes, for now – online content management system. Quickly, it became apparent that most technical professionals had strong preferences, sometimes based on assessments of functionality, sometimes – it seemed – as a matter of habit. Through a long, comparative process, we ultimately decided on Plone, an open source content management system known for its security capabilities (important in creating space where groups of ethnographers can work together with material, perhaps IRB restricted, out of sight even though online), for its capacity to archive original content (such as interview recordings), and for the ways it supports our effort to nest multiple projects within a larger project structure.

Another important step, which we are still figuring out, is to hire the ongoing technical help we need for PECE. We need ongoing technical help because the platform isn’t finished, as we now envision it. But also because we want the platform to continually evolve as we continue to figure out what kinds of functionality we need to support collaborative ethnographic work. And this may be specific to each project housed on PECE. So we need on-going, ever learning relationships with people who can provide the technical support PECE requires, such as computer scientists, IT specialists, or programmers. As ethnographers, we know that technical professionals will think very differently about the work that we do. And we need to learn to work with this. We need to engage with skills and knowledges that are traditionally outside of the discipline of anthropology by taking on, in a practical way, the continual anthropological challenge of figuring out how difference works.

The Asthma Files and PECE are experiments that have taken us in many new directions – beyond academia, as well as back to basic questions about what should be considered ethnographic material, where theory is in ethnography, how ethnographic findings are best presented, etc. We keep open a call for new collaborators. Let us know if you would like to be in our mix.

Where Am I?

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