This year’s American Anthropological Association Meeting saw a number of active CASTAC and STS-inspired panels, many of which featured scholars from our own community. We discussed engaging with the Anthropocene, which is becoming a hot new topic, perhaps replacing the ontological focus from last year. Panelists explored whether this term is the “gift” that Latour proposes. The meeting also saw fascinating explorations of issues in design and elitism, as well as theoretical and methodological issues that we must all consider when moving our research trajectory from “studying up” to “studying with.”
Critically Engaging with the Anthropocene
Associate Editor Lisa Messeri learned from a fellow conference-goer that whereas AAA 2013 was marked by discussions of ontology this year the hotel was abuzz with talk of the Anthropocene. As someone who studies the anthropology of outer space, she notes that she was shocked to find herself for the first time at the center of a major topic of conversation. She gave a paper (co-authored with Valerie Olson) entitled “Un-Earthing the Anthropocene: An Extraterrestrial Perspective on a Planetary Concern” on the panel Critically Engaging the Anthropocene, organized by Amelia Moore. Though the other papers were grounded on Earth, there was a common conversation as to how the Anthropocene is being operationalized not only by analysts, but by activists, scientists, and communities.
To “Critically Engage” with the Anthropocene, the panel (one of about 10 anthropocene panels) took the stance that we must question, rather than accept, this descriptor which is being handed to us from the scientific community. Latour, in his standing room only keynote on “Anthropology in the Time of the Anthropocene,” called the term “Anthropocene” a gift, one he seems ready to accept even as this panel was wary. A key takeaway from the AAAs is that with the rise of the Anthropocene in anthropological discourse comes also the repositioning of STS to a more central location within this conversation. After all, Latour has long been the charismatic spokesperson for STS. Since the Anthropocene is first and foremost a scientific term, Messeri argues that this is an excellent moment to mark the many positive ways that STS and anthropology build upon each other.
For this year’s AAA, Editor Elect Jordan Kraemer and Web Producer Angela VandenBroek co-organized a panel called Accidentally By Design: Producing Difference and Inequality Through Technological Designs. Their panel explored the interplay of technology design and cultural difference in a variety of contexts, from the construction of gender on Facebook to material realities and inequalities of Internet access in Brazilian favelas. In “Producing Gender on Facebook: Complicating Social Media through Gender Transitioning,” Amanda Guitar analyzed the possibilities for expressing gender identity on Facebook, looking at ways the interface does or doesn’t allow for a range of gender expressions, especially for transgender and genderqueer users. Facebook, for example, now allows users to select among over 50 different gender categories, yet still only provides three pronouns, he, she, or they, allegedly because additionally more options represents an enormous task, in terms of back-end programming.
In her paper, “Can the Subaltern Innovate,” Lilly Irani investigated design practices in India in which discourses around innovation render only some subjects designers, highlighting how design operates as a social category. Design comes to mean innovation by elites, creating products that fill particular needs, and realized through mass production. Everyday forms of making-do with available resources are dismissed by formal designers, for whom village residents just reiterate government policy and ideology rather than truly innovating. In “Designing Inequalities: The Digital Artifacts of the Favelas in Brazil,” David Nemer presented on the complex, material assemblages of Internet access points in a Brazilian favela, such as LAN houses and telecenters, where physical and embodied properties of digital technologies shape online access in unexpected ways. These include worn-out QWERTY keyboards that those without typing training find difficult to use; heavy, aging monitors that shield residents from bullets as much as providing windows into digital worlds; and illicit siphoning of electricity that potentially harms these Internet access points.
Kramer’s talk, “Minding the Gap: Constitutive Forms of Power, Difference, and Personhood on Europeans’ Social and Mobile Media,” examined implicit understandings of mobility, sociality, and personhood that shape “user experience” on emerging media platforms in Berlin, particularly mobile technologies such as cell phones and laptops. Young people she studied often took up mobile devices in ways that exceed or contradict their design. Sharing phone handsets, laptops, and WiFi networks, for example, facilitated collective forms of sociality in contrast to normative forms of mobility and discrete, individualist understandings of personhood.
Finally, in her paper “It Knows the World: What the Wolfram Language Can Teach Anthropologists about the Problematic Nature of Ontological Approaches,” VandenBroek considered implicit ways of knowing the world that structure a new programming language from Wolfram Research, noting parallels to the ontological turn in anthropology. She traced how Wolfram used an expository approach to ontological theorizing from A New Kind of Science in the production of WolframAlpha and the Wolfram Language. Using this perspective and the experiential nature of Wolfram’s products, she explored how expository ontological theorizing creates problematic boundaries and assumptions about realness and alterity when put into practice. VandenBroek’s presentation is available online here.
The panel’s discussant, Keith Murphy, brought the papers together in his comments by raising the issue of unanticipated or unintended consequences—which gets to the root of “design” as a problem in the first place, especially when it comes to everyday technologies. The wider world is always impinging, shaping technology design and use, while the act of design in itself produces inequalities, such as who designs and who gets designed for—yet it’s not always clear when this creates, exacerbates, or ameliorates extant forms of difference. Finally, approaches to design must also take into account the complicated psychologies of human beings, to avoid conflating discourse with knowledge, and must address these unintentional effects on their own terms. In the different papers, it became clear that design—as a social construct and normative project—can never fully predict or contain how technologies are taken up, and instead operates as a politicized category already implicated in late-capitalist cultural logics.
Angela VandenBroek also publicized a Twitter hashtag for the panel, #byDesign, and you can view the Twitter conversation that resulted.
From Studying Up to Studying With
CASTAC Co-Chair Nick Seaver and Madeleine Elish organized a panel, Studying With: Relation and Method in the Technoscientific Field, that engaged with conceptual and methodological problems posed by contemporary fieldwork among technical experts, from the developers of music recommender systems to the designers of sex toys. Yuliya Grinberg, one of the members of the audience, shares her takeaways from the session:
The panel offered a means of evaluating my positionality as an ethnographer for whom, as Jennifer Cool had noted, the ‘field’ is not easily circumscribed in time and space, but in fact remains always porous. I thus read “studying with,” in the title of the panel, as a nod towards recognizing and contending with this ethnographic continuity.
‘Studying up’, as Nick Seaver’s provocation suggested, continues to be marked by a critique ‘down,’ where the anthropologist’s work often becomes a corrective issued against the faulty cultural assumptions of powerful others. To ask, as [Seaver] does, how this difference had been produced rather than taking the difference itself as the ground of analysis, is an important question to ask of my own research.
Madeleine Clare Elish’s study of the US military drone operators reminds us that “studying with” is both the desired mode of integration and immersion—participation—that is at the center of our discipline and precisely that which remains at large for many of us studying power.
The projects pursued by many CASTAC members bring us into new methodological relationships with a variety of experts, and this panel surveyed some of these relationships’ key consequences.
See you Next Year!
Thanks to all for sharing these amazing insights! We look forward to hearing more about our STS adventures in anthropology and beyond. If you have attended a conference and would like to submit material for The CASTAC Blog, please send your write up to: Jordan Kraemer at: firstname.lastname@example.org.