In retrospect, 2014 may appear a pivotal year for technological change. It was the year that “wearable” technologies began shifting from geek gadget to mass-market consumer good (including the announcement of the Apple Watch and the rising popularity of fitness trackers), that smartphone and tablet usage outstripped that of desktop PCs for accessing the Internet, along with concurrent interest in home automation and increasingly viable models for pervasive computing (such as Google’s purchase of smart thermostat Nest), and that computer algorithms, machine learning, and recommendation engines came increasingly to the fore of public awareness and debate (from Apple buying streaming service Beats to the effects of Facebook’s algorithms). Many of these shifts have been playing out world-wide, or at least, in diverse contexts, such as Chinese online retailer Alibaba going public and Xiaomi smartphone maker speedily surpassing most rivals. It also proved to be an exciting year on The CASTAC Blog, where our team of Associate Editors and contributors brought our attention to this rapidly shifting technological landscape, and to pressing questions and debates driving anthropological inquiry into science and technology.
In today’s post, I continue my predecessor Patricia Lange’s tradition of reviewing themes and highlights on the blog from the past year. Some of these are topical, and included energy, the environment, and infrastructure, crowdsourcing and the “sharing” economy, wearables, algorithms and the “Internet of Things,” science communication, science’s publics, and citizen science, while others were more conceptual or even experimental—reflections on longterm ethnographic engagement with technology, broader issues of scientific (and ethnographic) authority, technological infrastructures as social infrastructures and tacit knowledges (such as Jenny Cool’s co-chair report), and broadly, how to make anthropological research into science and technology relevant within and beyond academic circles.
Beyond human: Anthropocene at the edge of collapse
One of the most significant topics, in academia and on the blog, was the concept of the “Anthropocene,” the current geological age determined by human activity and technological change. Associate Editor Beth Reddy introduced this topic in an April post, “What Does It Mean To Do Anthropology in the Anthropocene?” calling attention to the contradictions of approaching the earth and the environment from the perspective of the human, while asking what focusing on “environments and the material world” can do for anthropology today. As Abou Farman pointed out in his December post, “Misanthropology?” on various dis- and misanthropies, there’s an irony to this moment happening on the heels of scholarly interest in the post- and nonhuman, from multispecies ethnographies to object-oriented ontologies and related materialist turns. It also seems to me a further irony that we are acknowledging human entanglement with the earth, on a geological scale, just when we are (potentially) facing unprecedented environmental devastation and mass instability. AE Ian Lowrie’s interview with Dominic Boyer explored this topic in more depth, reflecting on the selective abandonment of public infrastructure while investing in information infrastructures, and locating the human in techno-material assemblages, by attending to “distinctive forms of subjectivity and sociality [that] emerge in combination with these assemblages.”
Roberto Barrio investigated these issues more concretely in his post on landslide catastrophes and mitigation in Mexico, “Waiting for the Rain: Techno-Scientific Landslide Mitigation in Teziutlán, Puebla, Mexico (Part I),” as did Emily Brooks in her post on water crises, deserts, and intersections of the social and physical sciences, pointing out that “while large-scale, long-term ecological disasters like water scarcity and climate change draw together human and non-human phenomena in unexpected ways, they also spark interest in innovating interdisciplinary research and systems thinking.” CASTAC co-chair Jenny Carlson’s interview with John Hartigan, meanwhile, pushed forward discussions of thinking alongside the human, to consider nonhuman forms of culture and society, especially as cultivation and technology. AE Luis Felipe R. Murillo’s review of a panel he co-organized with Sharon Traweek for the 2014 meeting of 4S touched on these topics, and drew our attention to conversations happening in CASTAC and beyond on what it means to study technoscience anthropologically, writing: “these overlapping and intersecting identities opened up a whole field of possibilities for renewed modes of inquiry which, after ‘Anthropology as Cultural Critique,’ consisted, as [Gary] Downey suggested, in the juxtaposition of knowledge, forms of expertise, positionalities, and commitments. This is where we operate as STS scholars: at intersecting research areas, bridging ‘fault lines’ (as Traweek’s felicitous expression puts it), and doing anthropology with and not without anthropologists.”
Automata: automating the human
Another vibrant area of research and discussion were developments in computing and automation, especially those that haven’t unfolded as predicted. AE Todd Hanson reflected on why quantum computing still hasn’t come to fruition as expected when he was conducting his doctoral research, while AE Shreeharsh Kelkar described the shift from symbolic, language-based models of Artificial Intelligence to machine learning based instead on statistical functions. AE Nick Seaver, meanwhile, proposed the idea of “auxiliary motives,” such as context and culture, irrationalities, and informalities that shape allegedly rational decision making, especially in the context of technological development, as a bridging concept to make the interests of software engineers and STS scholars legible to one another.
Göde Both took up these conversations to consider the limits of machine learning in developing self-driving cars, parts one and two, while Yuri Takhteyev described how actually writing code, in this case, a wiki engine written in the programming language Lua, provided a means to conduct participant-observation of software development:
Once I started writing code myself, all the same things that felt like dead traces of other people’s work suddenly acquired meaning, came to life. Part of this change was internal: I started looking at things as a participant, trying to make sense of things in a practical rather than just a theoretical way. Part of it was external: once I started making tangible contributions, others started treating me differently, as a fellow participant rather than a guest. Before they were telling me things they thought I would want to know as a scholar.
Science and its publics
Another major theme coalesced around long-term issues in STS of expertise and knowledge production, especially in relation to public engagement and communication. As an AE I wrote, for example, about the perils (but also importance) of doing scholarship in public, and in relation to debates about the visibility and relevance of academic research. A few posts looked specifically at representations of science in television, such as AE Lisa Messeri’s conversation with two historians of science, Ben Gross and Audra Wolfe, on Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “reboot” of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, especially ways the new version depicts science differently from its predecessor and what this tells us about science in society today, AE Michael Scroggins’ rumination on how hit series Breaking Bad could become a staple for teaching and thinking about laboratory studies, and Todd’s report on Years of Living Dangerously as a somewhat alarmist cheerleader for science. Other posts took up questions of science’s publics, such as Lisa’s popular “Diary of a Space Zucchini,” on making such publics, Todd’s discussion of the state of science literacy in the U.S., and broader issues of who gets to do science, such as Michael’s post on how nature educates DIY bio enthusiasts, and Todd on amateur astronomy and star parties.
Digital infrastructures and the Internet of Things
The last major theme I observed concerned shifts in digital media technologies, especially around the “Internet of Things,” a promised network of smart devices, protocols, and data analytics that will allow objects in one’s environment to communicate with one another, such as a smart refrigerator that alerts you when you need to buy milk. AE Adam Webb-Orenstein offered a thoughtful provocation on anthropological studies of tech innovation, arguing that differences in technical infrastructures cannot necessarily account for differences between one media product and another. Despite the premise of digital infrastructures leading to a world of zero marginal costs, AE Ian Lowrie, writing about political economy and the Internet of Things, contended that solely technological solutions will be inadequate to address issues of power, inequality, and exploitation, and therefore must be social as well, adding: “this should be no huge surprise to the readers of this blog; as the work of Chris Kelty and others has shown, the work of building the technological ‘standards’ underlying networked systems is complicated, and is not only a technical problem.” Digital technologies, moreover, come up against material realities and cultural formations (which is not to say that the digital isn’t already both material and cultural), as illustrated in Leah Zani’s piece on mapmaking without postal codes in Laos, especially in mapping ordnance clearance sites. Along similar lines, Gökçe Günel described NYU’s Urban Observatory initiative, an urban informatics program that sees big data as a raw material for policymaking, addressing environmental issues, and so forth, yet risks serious breaches of privacy and inadequate attention to which subjects have a right not to be observed and recorded, while drawing intriguing parallels between big data collection as an observational mode not so different from ethnographic ones.
A few of our most popular posts were outliers to these topics, such as Nicola Bulled’s very timely piece on the Ebola epidemic and imbalances in global health, in which she addressed how anxieties toward western biomedicine must be understood in the context of historical power differences. CASTAC co-chair Jenny Cool also commented on the #ALSIceBucketChallenge viral videos, examining them as a form of “templatized self-expression” that proved highly spreadable and potentially fostered a sense of collectivity at little cost. Michael Scroggins interviewed Michael Sacasas of The Frailest Thing on religion and technology, in parts one and two, a topic that merits exploring further, while Beth interviewed Kim Fortun on her Eco-Ed project, making anthropological and ethnographic insights relevant to K-12 science education. A few posts were more experimental, such as Susan Lepselter’s ethnography of feeling that explored experiences of paranoia and surveillance, while reflecting on what it means to do ethnography when opportunities to think through our work can easily be recorded and disseminated, and calling into question how we represent our work to those we study. Shreeharsh proposed using the Knee Defender, a tool for preventing an airplane seat in front of you from reclining, to illustrate object agency, and AE Casey O’Donnell reflected on a decade of fieldwork at GDC (the Game Developers Conference) and on what he calls “the ethnographic butterfly effect,” especially around issues of access, loyalty, and possibilities for critique. Finally, one of my favorite posts was Marcel LaFlamme’s engagement with qualitative tools for data analysis recently made available for Mac OS X, which raised questions of how these tools shape our analyses and findings, for example, around understandings of personhood: “the architecture of the case node [in NVIVO] strikes me as friendly to ethnographers, because it acknowledges that we are interested in people both as individuals with whom we have specific, noninterchangeable relationships and as instances of broader categories. Case nodes allow us to move between these scales of analysis.” He concludes that “regardless, the problem of who Barbara is underscores the importance of taking software and its affordances seriously, recalling that our tools are never neutral and asking how, inevitably, they shape the intellectual work we do.” This post, furthermore, garnered numerous responses, including from developers at both NVIVO and Atlas.ti.
It’s clear from this collection that The CASTAC Blog has become an excellent place to keep up with technological shifts and developments in science, from ethnographic and anthropological perspectives that offer intriguing insights. Blogging is still in some ways a new medium for scholarship and research, with attendant risks and promises, as we are often still thinking through our ideas as we post them. Given the value we’ve seen in this process so far, I’m excited to see where future expeditions take us.
Editor-in-chief, The CASTAC Blog