The term “big data”  brings up the specter of a new positivism, as another one in the series of many ideological tropes that have sought to supplant the qualitative and descriptive sciences with numbers and statistics.
But what do scientists think of big data? Last year, in a widely circulated blog post titled “The Big Data Brain Drain: Why Science is in Trouble,” physicist Jake VanderPlas made the argument that the real reason big data is dangerous is because it moves scientists from the academy to corporations. « Read the rest of this entry »
In my previous blog post, I wrote about the relationships between people, policy, and materiality that make catastrophic landslides possible in Teziutlán, Mexico. In this second entry, I want to explore how the development of a landslide early warning system by National Autonomous University of Mexico researchers and National Center for Disaster Prevention engineers becomes a site where humans and non-humans become increasingly interconnected in the making of disaster mitigation techno-science. While doing this, I want to pay particular attention to those arrangements among people and between people that materiality engineers and researchers envision as optimal and those that are feasible in the context of contemporary Mexico.« Read the rest of this entry »
On the first days of October 1999, the city of Teziutlán, Puebla, Mexico, experienced levels of precipitation that tripled its annual rainfall. Throughout the city, a number of hillsides occupied by working class family homes reached a critical point at which upper layers of soil and environmentally degraded rock began to give way under the weight of accumulated rainwater and settlements, creating major landslides. The most dramatic of these landslides occurred in the neighborhood of La Aurora, where settlement and land use practices came together with geological history and environmental factors to create a massive movement of soil, trees, rocks, and houses that killed 109 of the 200 people who died in similar events throughout municipality that week. The catastrophe was deeply traumatic at the local level, leading to a period of mourning that overtook the city, and it also gained national attention, resulting in a visit of the devastation by then president Ernesto Zedillo.
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The Pedagogical Paradox
Two human inventions can be regarded as the most difficult, — namely, the art of government and that of education; and yet we are still contending among ourselves as to their fundamental nature.
- Immanuel Kant
Kant here is referring to the pedagogical paradox presented by education. This paradox of moral authority most often occurs in the context of schooling: How does education, in the sense of external regulation), lead to the internally regulated autonomy of thought and action? Stated more generally, the pedagogical paradox is assuming the existence of something for which education is the precondition. For example, can someone declare oneself to be a biologist and launch an independent course of inquiry without recognized credentials? The pedagogical paradox is also a question of legitimate knowledge; in this case, who may speak the truth of biology? « Read the rest of this entry »
Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, premiered on Fox on March 9, 2014 and will run until June 1, 2014. Hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space, it is a ‘reboot’ of Carl Sagan’s series similarly titled Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. Ann Druyan and Steven Soter serve as lead writers for both series (Sagan also co-wrote the original, though Tyson is not involved in the writing process for this series) and there are clear aesthetic connections between the two series.* Today’s Cosmos, though, is airing on Fox, not PBS, and American science in 2014 operates in a different landscape with a different set of concerns than Sagan’s series of 1980.** There has been an active social media engagement with Cosmos (#cosmos) and many historians of science, STS scholars, and journalists have been blogging and live tweeting their reactions to how the science is portrayed. I recently had a conversation with two historians of science who have been engaged with the Cosmos conversation, Ben Gross (@bhgross144, a research fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation) and Audra Wolfe (@ColdWarScience, an independent scholar), to discuss how Cosmos can offer insight into the current state of science and society.
Earlier this month, I wrote about potential risks of sharing preliminary findings from the field, especially when they are related to a major social media company like Facebook. As anthropologist Daniel Miller discovered, doing anthropology in public carries the danger that journalists, bloggers, and others will pluck an ethnographic morsel from its context, and circulate it unmoored from those origins. Some news commentators, for example, reacted with panic to his contention that Facebook is “dead and buried” for some teen users in the UK. But if we don’t reach out to share our work, we equally risk provoking those who castigate academics for being too insular and our research too inaccessible. The debate about scholarly engagement in public resurfaced with renewed vigor last week (Just Publics @ 365 has a nice roundup) in response to New York Times’ columnist Nicholas Kristof’s piece “Professors, We Need You!” (Feb. 15, 2014). « Read the rest of this entry »
Over the last two years I have been conducting research into amateur biology in and around Silicon Valley. During that time, I have worked as a volunteer in a DIYBio lab and on a pair of laboratory projects, one an unlikely precursor to the Glowing Plant project and another which fell into the dust bin of scientific history. Which is to say, for every project that captures media attention and attracts funding like Glowing Plant, there is an equally interesting project struggling to generate interest and find collaborators. With that in mind, I want to discuss some of the tensions within DIYbio laid bare by success of the Glowing Plant Kickstarter campaign. « Read the rest of this entry »
Anonymous is a banner used by individuals and as well as multiple, unconnected groups unfurling operations across the globe from Brazil to the Philippines, from the Dominican Republic to India. Since 2008, activists have used the name to organize diverse forms of collective action, ranging from street protests to web site defacement. Their iconography—Guy Fawkes masks and headless suited men—symbolically asserts the idea of anonymity, which they embody in deed and words. To study and grasp a phenomenon that proudly announces itself “Anonymous” might strike one as a futile and absurd exercise or exercise in futility and absurdity. A task condemned to failure.
Over the last five years, I felt the sting of disorienting madness as I descended deep down the multiple rabbit holes they dug. Unable to distinguish truth from lies, and unable to keep up with the explosive number of political operations underway at one time, a grinding doubt settled deep into my mind many times. There was no way I could get the story right, get at all the nuances, much less all the cabals that populate Anonymous, I often told myself. Gaining access and the trust of scores of individuals who tunnel and mine and undermine, who desire to be incomprehensible, concealed and enigmatic to slightly rephrase Nietzsche’s opening to DayBreak, often felt like an impossible task.
They have been devilishly hard to study but not impossible. Time has been a kind friend. Sticking around over a five year period has certainly helped, especially as I met more participants in person. I protested with Anonymous on the streets in New York City and Dublin and attended court hearings as hackers received sometimes light, sometimes stiff sentences. A handful would come by to say hello or thank me heartily after a public talk. I spent time with them in pubs in Europe and bars in North America, and even had the rare opportunity to picnic with a group of them in a sun-drenched park in an area of the world—Ireland—when it was undergoing a rare two week heatwave. Although I preferred evenings in the pubs and day time picnics, I spent most of my time with them online using various chatting protocols, usually Internet Relay Chat (IRC).
As will come as no surprise, the ethical conundrums flowing out of my research were many, so many it is a theme I explore time again in the book now under works. But I can’t help but think of what anthropologist Danilyn Rutherford calls—kinky empiricism—a term she uses to define the (often tortured) nature of anthropological research. By kinky she means to convey a shape which captures the notion that knowledge is not smooth or straightforward but comes with knots and kinks. By kinky she also means to convey a spirit of “S and M and other queer elaborations of established scenarios, relationships, and things.” Foremost, she introduces kinky empiricism to portray the deeply ethical character of anthropological research: “[anthropological] methods create obligations, obligations that compel those who seek knowledge to put themselves on the line by making truth claims that they know will intervene within setting and among the people they describe.”
My obligations to Anonymous have been many and they range from writing letters to judges pleading for leniency, to translating their world to multiple publics. But the one obligation on my mind the most these days is self-imposed and it has to do with my desire to balance between two opposing forces: the rational and the mystical, the Apollonian force of empiricism and logic, and the Dionysian force of pleasure and ecstasy.
In my writings, I want to stamp out misinformation, to be critical of some of their actions, and to clear up the confusion of the so-called chaos in Anonymous; they are sensible, and must be rendered such, given that nation-states and prosecutors and judges would like to cast them as mere criminals unwilling to entertain their actions as politically motivated. But I also want to keep the magic of Anonymous alive. To disenchant them would be, in my estimation, tantamount to breaking my own moral pact and also to miss what makes them interesting.
Only with time and the judgements of others (and, hopefully, through the process of writing my book) will I know whether I have the cunning to simultaneously make chaos seem like order and order seem like chaos, the cunning necessary to give justice to Anonymous. For now, I will leave you with a rather Apollonian nugget, a report I wrote for the Center for International Governance Innovation, that seeks to stamp out some misinformation about Anonymous through a detailed, though basic, introduction to their politics and hope I can bring you some nugget of pleasure and ecstasy in the not so distant future.