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.

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 (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 (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. (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 (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 (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 (more...)