Something is changing. We know it, but we can’t say what’s happening. Not yet. But there is something uneasy in the air. It’s playing out both in grand narratives and the tiny shifts of attention that stitch together a sense of the real.
There are social feelings here, emergent in a time of rapidly changing modes of connection and circulation, and the ineffable shifts in embodiment and encounter that go along with changing technological habits. Performance here is always for an unseen and unpredictable audience. What would an ethnography of this emergent feeling be like?
I want a rash of little stories here to mimic rapid fluctuations of attention, which to many of us are becoming as natural as blinking. But all these little stories link outward, to something harder to pin down. Or maybe they link back in, to something that’s always been there. Tensions between the naturalized and the strange come to the surface.
You don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to believe in ubiquitous surveillance anymore. Paranoia sounds like a 20th century word.
You told me that something came over you while driving and you decided to trail the Google Street View car as it cruised your city’s streets. The Google brand was painted brightly on the doors like a pizza delivery car, and its world management device seemed gamely stuck on the car roof like an oldtime TV antenna. When you pulled up beside it at a red light, the young guy driving waved to you. You waved back and took his picture with your iPhone. His face performed a series of quick changes: first the bashful pleasure of mini-celebrity, shifting into a small frown as your act of recording him re-charged the air between your cars. You turned off that street, and went your separate ways.
There was a deer problem in the neighborhood. They were more abundant than squirrels; on an evening stroll in the neighborhood you would always encounter several groups of deer. This particular doe must have run a while before collapsing in front of my house. She was lying half on the sidewalk, half on my lawn. Her hind legs were crossed at the delicate white knees, and the front legs were bent in two symmetrical Vs, freezing the last moment of running. A raw sliver of her chin, sticking out like a beard, must have been where a car made contact. She appeared there on Saturday morning, but Animal Control could not come to remove her until Monday. By that afternoon bugs had collected on her white underside in a frantic darkening. By Sunday morning areas of the white fur had been replaced by black holes. It was odd, for the neighborhood, to watch the natural process begin. All weekend the alien deer eyes remained open and it was impossible not to try to read in their inscrutability some kind of animal knowledge about death.
Finally on Monday morning, a man from Animal Control came out in an old unmarked pickup, dragged her by the hoofs into a lowered truckbed and drove her away. There were a lot of fawns around our neighborhood, and usually if you saw fawns you would see a doe too, watching them from across a short distance. Then one day the fawns were wearing collars. Scientists from a university in another city were tracking them. Occasionally one saw the small white science truck, with its tracking device stuck on its roof like an oldtime TV antenna. We didn’t know what kind of data they were collecting exactly, but the exploding deer population was controversial and obviously it was necessary to track them. Quickly, for the residents, the animals changed from seeming wild to not-wild. The collars were a dull pink shade, with a large buckle at the throat, making the fawns look uncomfortable but dapper. A single wire stuck up from the back of the collar. The collars with their wires didn’t surprise people anymore. This is what fawns looked like, now.
I thought it must be the dead doe’s orphan I saw a few times, ambling alone in yards with little branches and twigs stuck in its collar; it looked at first glance as if the tracking wire had begun to multiply, but really this orphan fawn was just getting tangled and stuck in the suburban bush.
For a long time, I listened with an ethnographic ear to people talk uncanny conspiracy theory. They told of surveillance by the powers that be. I heard disenfranchised social feelings and a mourning for nature entangled with overarching plots and underlying structures, all centered on a covert panopticon. In people’s intellectual beliefs and gut instincts, they – the nameless, faceless they — were always watching us. They tracked the moves of the little man, while they shifted powerful global agencies and destroyed nature, negotiating with space alien agendas to follow and abduct people. As they gathered medical and intimate information, discourses of intertwining knowledge and power tumbled out of a Foucaultian dream, grew legs and wings and nested in roofs. The huge black animal eyes of the alien evoked endless hidden watching. They sometimes emerged from the all seeing Illuminati but morphed into new coalitions behind the surface, as things sped up towards an end. I wanted to get a vernacular theory of power. It emerged in small communities of UFO experiencers and uncanny theorists, describing a power that was too big to see in its entirety but whose effects made patterns you could follow. People kept saying in many ways: something’s coming. Something’s changing. Something’s been lost.
Of course, all that covert government watching and listening stuff came true.
Back then, surreptitious watching, listening and tracking were imagined as the sole provenance of enormous, uncanny power. But as modes of surveillance also integrate down into the techniques of the ordinary, and to saturate the fabric of things, their association with power both splinters and intensifies in ways we still can’t sum up.
John Jackson Jr. (2012) muses on the vanishing of an ethnographic “backstage,” recalled as a place to test scholarly ideas in an oral talk before the finality of publication, since any academic talk (or classroom lecture, or seminar) will now most likely be recorded on a phone and posted online to sustain a “potential afterlife” (Jackson 2012: 494). Now the context of any performance, including the performance of an anthropological talk, shifts into the unknowable, making it impossible to plan for its reception; Jackson wonders, “does [the] ethnographer talk about his project the same way in the academy as he does when he’s … representing himself and his work to his subjects?” (Ibid).
Anxieties of an unknown audience transcend the disciplinary ethics of anthropology. We’re not just anthropologists immersed in our discipline’s longstanding concern about the power implications of representing others. We are also just subjects of the same changes in technology and circulation as everyone is; we are not above any of it. Reflections on unknown audiences resonate as much with vernacular discourses about shifting power and surveillance as they do with thinking specifically about writing culture in the digital age. Ethnographic authority and its dilemmas then play on more widely unpredictable channels of circulation, the permanence of the seemingly throwaway moment, and the ubiquitous anxiety of being tracked from above or below…
A shift in the air drifted from the margins to the center of things. It went along with a habitus shifting in subtle ways, a glimmer of perceiving rapid change – about bodies in relation to devices, to information, and to each other as we speak.
My middle school nephew sits on the couch, laptop open, while adults drink tea. He looks up with a quick nostalgic smile, the kind we use for shared memories, and says, “Remember when everyone used to get all upset because the N.S.A. reads our email?”
Jackson Jr., John. 2012. “Ethnography Is, Ethnography Ain’t.” CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY, Vol. 27, Issue 3, pp. 480–497.
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.
« Read the rest of this entry »
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 »