Distraction Free Reading

2015 Year in Review: Deflating Footballs, Twins in Space, Women (not) in Tech, and More

Last year on the CASTAC Blog began with anthropological ruminations on what the “Deflategate” football scandal has to do with questions of expertise, and closed with discussions of citizen science, earthquake warning systems, the (anti-)politics of women in tech, and deeply personal engagement with experiencing crisis or catastrophe—in this case, terror attacks in Paris—over social media. One of the great perks of editing this blog lies in reading the array of topics, perspectives, and modes of analyses from our contributors. This year, I’m taken by the variety in tone, from the (somewhat) tongue-in-cheek (the aforementioned Deflategate post; the anthropology of rigged games), to the deeply affecting (again, Charlotte Cabasse-Mazel “Looking at the Pain of Others [on Social Media]”), from the boundary-pushing (Abou Farman’s call to envision radical alternative futures) to the experimental (a Twitter fieldwork experiment from Rice’s Ethnography Studio). Beyond timely, weekly engagement with climate change, artificial intelligence, changing media ecologies, infrastructure, design, energy, and more, the blog is becoming a repository cataloging—and pushing forward—the driving concerns of social scientific and humanistic inquiry in these areas.CASTAC 2015 Word Cloud

In this review post, I consider four central conceptual questions animating this year’s coverage on how science, technology, computing and more are shaping (and shaped by) diverse lives, worlds, and experiences. These include: the mutual production or constitution of conceptual categories; questions of knowledge production and expertise; concerns with the future and futurity; and key political dimensions of science, technology, and computing. Although these themes unfold differently across intellectual projects and modes of inquiry, they elucidate the value of critical, reflexive, and empirical approaches to scientific and technological worlds.

Platypus 2015 top five posts

Before diving in, a quick look at the year’s most-read posts:

  1. How Influential Was Alan Turing? by Shreeharsh Kelkar
  2. Social Science, Socialist Scientists, and the Future of Utopias by Abou Farman
  3. High-Tech Handwork: When humans replace computers, what does it mean for jobs and for technological change? by Ben Shestakofsky
  4. Nothing Special: Standards, Infrastructure, and Maintenance in the Great Age of American Innovation by Andrew Russell
  5. Decolonizing Design Anthropology with Tinn by Bryce Peake

The history (and future) of computing was big, with Kelkar’s post on Alan Turing’s legacy (Hollywood depictions notwithstanding) and Ben Shestakofsky’s fascinating take on new technologies that generate jobs—mostly, the low-paid, flexible kind. Farman’s thinkpiece continues the thread of imagining the future, as I’ll discuss, while Andy Russell reminds us that tech innovation owes more to the unglamorous work of building and maintaining infrastructure than the heroic, inspired lone inventor (Turing’s biopic notwithstanding…). Meanwhile, Bryce Peake’s reflections on building a tinnitus app throws into relief how design anthropology must grapple with anthropology’s colonial history, to address ethical questions of designing vs. designed for—even as such projects require a measured pragmatism.

Future-thinking

The top five posts encapsulate many themes threading through the year, among them, the future and futurity, or future-directedness. Farman proposes recuperating telos—end-goals, in a sense—in science studies, recalling the history of socialist scientists and their work, to make possible imagining—and realizing—radical alternative futures. As he explains: “a forward-looking left must move forward with science and recuperate its alternative possibilities rather than retreat into escapist utopias or relativist futility. More than that, and pointing in the other direction, science in today’s world might re-engage its socialist past and turn it into a much more radical and moral present.” Adam Webb-Orenstein’s post on venture capital in tech development, takes up the future as an object that entrepreneurs manage strategically, thereby giving an outsize role to speculation: “the result is that Silicon Valley innovation is guided directly by finance capital’s future-oriented logic of speculation.” Canay Ozden-Schilling’s piece on smartgrids similarly addresses implicitly liberal economic understandings that shape the development of high-tech electricity grids, and the future of electricity markets. David Valentine reflects on failed predictions of the future, whether lost modernist futures, or the likely failures of the Mars One privately-funded colonization initiative, noting that different approaches to spanning the past, present, and future “introduce a possibility for thinking futurity not simply in terms of modernity’s failed progress but along lines of multiple ways of becoming.” Studying technoscientific assemblages, from transhumanism to entrepreneurial innovation to space exploration, then, requires accounting for the future—or possible futures—as an object that shapes our present in ways we cannot ignore, analytically or programmatically.

Whose authority?

Other posts engaged a core area of inquiry in STS, the production of experts and expertise, especially in relation to claims about knowledge. These pieces turned to unexpected contexts, however, from football to cinema, journalism to popular media. Michael Scroggins got the year off to a start by cutting to the epistemological core of pro football, following the “Deflategate” controversy. Whether or not the Patriots cheated by deflating their balls came to hinge on who counts as an expert on the topic—what kind of knowledge about the world is required to determine whether or not it could have been caused by atmospheric conditions? Others, like Kelkar, took up representations of innovation in popular media, such as The Imitation Game, which portrayed Turing as a lone, fatally misunderstood genius, even though scholars think Turing’s theories weren’t necessary for building early digital computers. This theme reappears in Russell’s essay on how dreams of the new dazzle and blind us to the everyday forms of labor that make technological practice possible: “stories about technology that revolve around geniuses, labs, and innovation efface the everyday labor of the technological workforce,” that is, is the majority of labor necessary to make technological change happen. Ian Lowrie explores a different angle in his work with Russian data scientists in higher education. Lowrie calls for taking the university broadly as ethnographic object, to understand how it shapes knowledge-making practices. Russian data scientists in his account, are highly self-aware and reflexive, yet must work in fast-paced conditions that require pragmatism: “our own untimely [here in the sense of leisurely] sentimentality might be an essentially conservative product of our position within the self-same political economy as our object of criticism.”

In “Trusting Experts,” Kelkar pushes further questions of experts in public discourse, asking why many reject scientific findings. He seeks a rapprochement between social psych-based theories like “motivated reasoning” (human reasoning is shaped by the needs and motivations driving us, preventing us from separating facts from values) and STS critiques that publics reject science when it’s reduced to facts and truth, divorced from cultural values and context. Kelkar concludes that facts and values should not be debated separately, but must be addressed together by both experts and non-experts alike. Other pieces explored professional anthropological expertise in applied settings, such as corporate User Experience (UX) and Human Factors Engineering (HFE) research, how advertising companies are interested in consumers viewed as online “influencers,” requiring advertisers to consider questions usually left to social theory, and outsourcing expertise through “crowd computing.” Finally, Hanson’s two-part series on doing citizen science pushes forward models for collaborative amateur and professional scientific practice. He documents organizations developing principles for conducting science outside formal contexts (in part I), including access, research dissemination, and ethics, and draws attention to a new web platform to build digital capacity for citizen science initiatives (in part II).

Binaries that matter

Binary encoding undergirds digital computing, by definition; binary oppositions also characterize much of human thinking and meaning-making, especially the categories through which we understand—and engage with—the world. Many provocative posts explored emerging formations that require rethinking such categories. Valerie Olson, for example, challenged how the language of the anthropocene divides the Earth from outer space. This form of planetary scale-making limits our view of environmental change to the Earth, even as human intervention exceeds the immediate stratosphere, and repeats classic human vs. nature binarism: “this other environment we call “outer space” is made to stand outside of an inner, terrestrial, post-natural human environment. It becomes, in effect, a new Nature.” A visually arresting post by Elizabeth Ferry, “The Life and Times of Minerals,” documents comparisons mineral collectors make to flowers, concluding that it’s not the similarity between the forms that’s appealing, but the opposite: the pleasure in radical—and ontological—differences between rocks (hard, inorganic) and blossoms (living, delicate). Category-making also informs Emily Wanderer’s analysis of efforts to eradicate invasive species on a Mexican island. Palm trees and lionfish give lie to the premise that islands represent isolated ecosystems, disconnected from broader human and ecological worlds: “conservationists and scientists have spent years making Mexican islands into model ecosystems and ecological laboratories…. demonstrating the extensive human labor required to produce isolated, uncontaminated nature.” This theme recurs in her musings on the securitized wildnerness of an upstate New York prison manhunt, where a world once experienced as serene nature is revealed as carefully tracked and monitored. In Alison Cool’s “Twin Astronauts” (I couldn’t stop mentally adding “in space,” thanks to a lifelong love of The Muppets ), binaries become unstable, as they often do in STS and anthropology. Twins have historically been seen as an ideal subject for investigating the nature/nurture divide, yet the era of molecular-level “omics” research calls this divide into question: “life science in the omics era is posing new challenges to old ideas about nature and nurture.” Across these varied posts, studying how forms of difference produce one another provides insight into categories of being and knowing that constitute human living and world-making—even, or especially, when they falter.

The technoscientific is political

The final thread I observed this year concerns the inherently political nature of technoscientific projects, despite representations of science and technology as neutral and independent. In Eliot Storer’s piece on bioengineering, for instance, biopolitical perspectives link together two dissimilar projects—ocean fertilization and stratospheric aerosol injection—through similar economic practices. Yet underlying similarities can’t resolve the ambiguities of Foucauldian biopolitics, as Storer asks (after Roberto Esposito):“a politics of life or a politics over life?” Questions of power and the implicitly political recur in Peake’s piece on designing Tinn, attempting to “decolonize” anthropological methods in the process, as mentioned, as well as in Beth Reddy’s critique of California’s early earthquake warning system that inadequately includes users in its design. Politics become equally evident in Sayd Randle’s aesthetic evaluation of a water treatment and replenishment facility in Southern California, whose managers carefully cultivate a gleaming, futuristic façade for visiting tours. Yet water managers themselves focus on pragmatics in reusing wastewater in a time of unrelenting drought. Finally, an insightful piece by Samantha Breslin proposes an alternative analysis of the tech industry’s “woman problem,” reframing gender inequality as a political problem that requires structural solutions. Yet many in Silicon Valley and other tech hubs construe the problem in terms of numbers—too few women—and emphasize quantitative, technical solutions. Accepting “men” and “women” as stable, given categories of gender—in contrast to lived realities which are often more fluid and contextual—permits what Breslin considers “anti-political” solutions, recalling James Ferguson’s (1990) “anti-politics machine” of development that increases government’s control without solving anything.

Experimental and transformative technologies

This review post isn’t exhaustive, of course, and I don’t have space to cover all the excellent posts. But a few pieces warrant further mention that don’t fit into the four overarching themes. Some were reflexive or experimental, like Andrea Ballestero, Baird Campbell, and Eliot Storer’s report (mentioned earlier) on an experiment producing ethnographic fieldnotes (and field sites) through Twitter. As a project of Rice’s Ethnography Studio, they used Twitter to communicate from their respective field sites, provoking issues of context collapse, the (often productive) limitations of Twitter’s 140-character cap, the situatedness of fieldwork, digitally connected or not, and the emerging genre of the ethnographic Tweet. Lisa Messeri, meanwhile, shared experiences teaching the anthropology of outer space to STEM undergrads, using classic anthropological topics like myth and ritual to illuminate the sometimes mysterious practices of astronauts, and found this helped students care about epistemological questions and approaches they might otherwise dismiss (perhaps such as epistemologies of exploration she lays out elsewhere). Other posts highlighted the role of digital communication technologies in reworking scholarly publication and communication, such as Hanson on how emerging digital communications are upending established ways of doing things—and longstanding hierarchies—in paleoanthropology, or O’Donnell on the importance of traditional academic publishing and citation practice, on one hand, and new, very different venues like social media and blogging on the other. Another thought-provoking post came from Daria Savchenko on Estonia’s move “into the cloud,” in which digital technologies provide new spaces for nation-states: “Estonia argues that it doesn’t need a territory at all to be the state, insisting upon its ability to exist ‘in the cloud.’” Derek Woods considers questions of technology and place from a different angle, bringing together themes of category-making and futurity, by asking how technology might be not an extension of people but of geographical context, that is, place.

Taken together, last year’s posts advance questions that will continue driving ethnographic and anthropological research into the environment, energy, digital technologies, infrastructure, and other areas of technoscientific practice—not to mention football, Hollywood, TV, and an architecture studio. Common themes of futurity, expertise, category-making, and politics remind us that such inquiry is valuable because it calls attention to implicit dimensions of science, technology, and computing that shape human worlds and lives in surprising, serious, and sometimes amusing ways.

Jordan Kraemer, Editor

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