Author Archives: Ian Lowrie

I'm currently a doctoral student in the sociocultural program at Rice University, and the editor of Platypus, the CASTAC blog. I work on data science and computational neuroscience in Russia and the United States.

The More Things Change…

Things are more than a little unsettled, lately. The past ten days since the Inauguration have been a maelstrom of activity, leaving many of us feeling profoundly uncertain about our political, technological, and scholarly futures. Of course, we haven’t been passive. Whatever else it has been, the rise of Trumpism has been an occasion for a great deal of anthropological activity. Anthropologists from around the world have been hard at work attending to the emergence of this phenomenon as both scholars and citizens. If our activities at each of these levels have seemed somewhat disconnected, somewhat divorced from one another, it is perhaps a testament to the profound challenge to our inherited sensibilities, our disciplinary and political commonplaces, represented by the transformations we are witnessing. I think, however, that this is in some respects a constitutive feature of our discipline; anthropology has long been haunted by a tension between its ethical commitment to engagement and its methodological commitment to untimeliness. (read more...)

Weekly Round-up | January 27th, 2017

Stories on data archaeology, global medical infrastructures, mushrooms, and open-access futures weekly round out this week’s weekly round-up of cool stuff from around the web. Remember, if you stumble across or create any blog posts, open access publications, or objets d’internet art that you think might fit here, just shoot a link to editor@castac.org. Help break us out of our habitual media itineraries and parochial corners of the internet! (read more...)

Weekly Round-up | January 20th, 2017

Starting today, we’ll be posting a weekly round-up of cool stuff from around the web that the editorial collective thinks might be interesting to readers of the blog: posts from other blogs, news stories, art objects, internet ephemera. If you stumble across anything that you think might fit here, just shoot a link to editor@castac.org. Help break us out of our habitual media itineraries and parochial corners of the internet! (read more...)

Data: Raw, Cooked, Shared

(Almost) everyone makes data. People browsing the internet or buying stuff generally do so without knowing much about the data that their activities generate, or even knowing that they are doing so. Scientists, though, are supposed to be a little more conscientious about the data they collect, produce, share and borrow (at least in their professional capacities). They’re lately supposed to be, among other things, data managers. This is largely the product of the funding and institutional environments; program officers, science managers, and university administrators increasingly demand rationalized, comprehensive data management plans (DMPs) from researchers. In many cases, such as those from the NSF, these demands include requirements to store data for a specific period of time—often five or ten years beyond completion of the project—and to make such data publicly available. For some scientists, this is just a formalization of existing disciplinary best practices. For many, though, and for anthropologists who study them, these injunctions raise critical epistemological questions about the nature of data, and by implication, of contemporary scientific inquiry—anthropology included. (read more...)

Let’s Think about the University: Anthropology, Data Science, and the Function of Critique

There have been surprisingly few sustained, ethnographic studies of the university that aim to understand it as an institution devoted at once to the production of knowledge and technologies, the circulation of those products, and the cultivation of particular types of subjects. Ethnographers have largely worked at it piecemeal, with admittedly excellent work from both the anthropology of education and of science carving out various areas of inquiry: classrooms, laboratories, admissions offices, student groups, start-up incubators. To my mind, it seems that the lack of a synthetic approach to the knowledge work going on in the university might be due to the disappointing fact that these two camps within anthropology don’t talk to each other very much. In part, this is a result of their different goals, positions within the ecology of anthropological knowledge production, possible sources of research funding, and available career paths both within and without academia; yet, despite the sociological intelligibility of this lack of communication, it remains intellectually unfortunate. As the business of research and education becomes increasingly corporatized, increasingly shaped by wider forms of rationality that rely upon quantification, standardization, and the devolution of responsibility to the individual, it becomes correspondingly urgent to develop a rigorous, holistic understanding of the university as such. This has only been underscored by my fieldwork among Russian data scientists, who are themselves involved in the ongoing reorganization of higher education here. That is to say, the neoliberal university qua institution, with its own internal forms of organization and expertise as well as its place within the broader political economy, deserves to be the object of a newly shared inquiry. The current shape of the university has profound implications for the professional lives of anthropologists of both science and education, and similarly thorough-going epistemological consequences for their ongoing, ultimately complementary attempts to understand how contemporary people make knowledge. I’m working through the latter half of this proposition in my current research project. Data science has emerged as a key site of intervention into the educational system in Russia; elites from both industry and academy are working together to modernize and re-purpose Russia’s formidable pedagogical infrastructure in pure mathematics and theoretical computer science to train a new generation of algorithmists, developers, and programmers in both the practical skills and professional attitudes that they see as necessary for the creation of a truly Russian knowledge economy. The result has been both the creation of a number of hybrid, industrial-academic institutions and wide-ranging modifications to curriculum and requirements at more traditional institutions. These changes are occurring within a broader context of profound reforms to post-graduate education1 and the science system more generally.2 (read more...)

Political Economy and the Internet of Things

According to Cisco, the number of things – smart phones, cars, delivery vehicles, smoke detectors, outflow sensors, electricity meters – connected to the internet surpassed the number of people connected to the internet in 2008. Projections for the coming decade vary, but corporate researchers at firms like Cisco, Intel, IBM and Siemens are betting big on the exponential growth of networked sensors and microcomputing devices. These companies are working in loose concert to shepherd this emergent swarm of networked things into a truly infrastructural data-collecting system. They see in the so-called “Internet of Things” the consummation of promise held forth to the corporate world by big data analytics; comprehensive, actionable, real-time data about production and consumption, allowing for ever more agile and sophisticated extraction of value from human activity. (read more...)

Dominic Boyer on the Anthropology of Infrastructure (Part II)

This is the second half of my conversation with Dominic Boyer about the emergence of “infrastructure” as both ethnographic focus and analytic within anthropology. You can read the first part of the interview here! Ian Lowrie: I’d like to circle back to the question of how infrastructure is related to politics and liberalism. There’s a recent article by Kim Fortun calling for a revitalized, engaged anthropology of not just infrastructure, but infrastructural expertise, in the context of precisely the degradation of the most visible aspects of our infrastructure. At the same time, I think we also see strong, robust development of other types of infrastructures. Things like technical arrangements, financial instruments, logistical services, the computational and digital. I wonder if part of what makes the urge to expand the concept of infrastructure to include things other than things like roads and sewers is a political urge. Dominic Boyer: I think it is, and I think you’re right to point out that the story of infrastructure in the neoliberal heyday is not simply about abandonment. It’s a story of selective investment, and also of abandonment [laughs]. This is also the era in which informatic infrastructures, for example, develop. The Internet is one, but also the specialized information infrastructures that allowed finance to exert global realtime power that far exceeds the capacities of most governments to effectively regulate it. And that becomes a pivotal part of the story of the rebalancing of powers, I think, during the same time period.  So the neoliberal era saw some remarkable infrastructural achievements in certain areas, whereas at the same time you might find your roads and your sewers decaying, which is interestingly often-times the focus of infrastructure studies. Most seem focused on what I would describe as basic biopolitical infrastructures and their fragmentation. A lot of research is, more or less latently, interrogating the aftermath of neoliberalism, specifically through the lens of biopolitical infrastructural decay. But you could tell a different story if you looked at different infrastructures. And maybe that’s a story that still needs to be told. (read more...)

Dominic Boyer on the Anthropology of Infrastructure

Lately, anthropologists have been doing a lot of thinking about infrastructure. Although there have been anthropologists working on the large technical systems subtending modern sociality since at least the early 1970s, infrastructure today appears to be coming of age not only as a robust area of ethnographic engagement, but as a sturdy analytic in its own right, part of widespread resurgence of materialist thought across the humanities. As Brian Larkin puts it in his recent piece for the Annual Review of Anthropology, contemporary work in the anthropology of infrastructure attempts to understand how underlying material structures function to “generate the ambient environment of everyday life.” In so doing, the conceptual ambit of the term has been expanded beyond sewers, roads, and telecommunication systems to include everything from modes of sociality to economic instruments. Recently, I spoke at some length with Dominic Boyer about the emergence and expansion of anthropological interest in infrastructure. Dominic has devoted considerable organizational and intellectual attention to thinking through the human aspects of energy infrastructures, both in his role as the director of Rice University’s Center for Energy and Environmental Research in the Human Sciences and in his own fieldwork, with Cymene Howe, on energopower and the renewables transition in Mexico.  The first half of this conversation appears below, with the second to follow later this week. Ian: Your current work with Cymene Howe, on the development of wind energy in Oaxaca, focuses quite explicitly on infrastructure in the most literal sense. I’m curious, however, whether there were precursors of this focus in your earlier work? Dominic: Our project does focus on infrastructure in the sense that, early on, we realized that the electric grid and the utility that manages it in Mexico were going to be central actors in telling the story of the politics of renewable energy transition. But, really, infrastructure as analytic wasn’t really present to us as we were conceptualizing the research design. What’s interesting about the conversation around infrastructure to me is that it’s been a storm hovering on the horizon for a long while, and now the downpour has come and we’re all awash in infrastructure talk. (read more...)

Some Thoughts on Computing, Materialism, and the Virtual

In the past decade, social scientists have paid increasing attention to a series of novel approaches to the analysis of materiality. Lately and loosely grouped under the rubric of the “new materialisms,” work by scholars such as Jane Bennett, Graham Harman, and Hans-Jorg Rheinberger has pushed for a robust expansion of our understanding of the social to include the material world. While engaged in a polyvalent intellectual undertaking, these materialists are bound together by their shared assertion of the significance of matter, its properties, and its effects for truly robust social analysis. In a sense, this should be old news to anthropologists; the analysis of material culture has been part of our stock in trade since the foundation of the discipline. However, the new, interdisciplinary focus on the material by these thinkers seems to me to offer an occasion for anthropology to revisit certain issues in the anthropological study of (read more...)