Category: Beyond the Academy

Human-Machine Interactions and the Coming Age of Autonomy

“Together we embark.” “Together we adjust.” “Together we drive.” These tag lines describe the Intelligent Driving System (IDS) concept car used in Nissan’s recent demonstration of possible futures in electric and autonomous driving. Unveiled by Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn at the Tokyo Motor Show in 2015, the IDS concept car[1] suggests rich possibilities for future driving experiences. What I’m especially curious to explore as an anthropologist who has long been engaged in ethnographic and anthropological research in the context of technology development is how the seemingly dichotomous notions of “togetherness” and “autonomy” come together in advancing self-driving cars.  What visions of collectivity and sociality are at play amongst those involved in the development of self-driving cars, and how will the vehicles themselves embody these visions? My thoughts reflect my stance as a social analyst interested in socio-technical endeavors generally, and the social effects of automation specifically. It also reflects my (more...)

The Rise of Citizen Science, Part II: Building Capacity

Earlier this month, I posted about how a principled approach to citizen science could help shape the field. In this second part, I look at one novel online project that's helping citizen scientists connect both with each other and with scientific researchers and research teams that want (or need) their help. Thanks to a Pathways grant from the National Science Foundation, a web-based resource called SciStarter 2.0 is a global public science engagement tool in-the-making. While SciStarter 2.0 is now simply a website, it may someday be much more. I asked Darlene Cavalier, Professor of Practice at Arizona State University, and founder of the original SciStarter program, to tell me a bit about it. According to Cavalier, the NSF funding and recent move of SciStarter to ASU enabled the team to pivot from an initial emphasis on the web-based system as a project finder (helping people find science projects) toward providing more (more...)

The Rise of Citizen Science, Part I: A Principled Approach

This is the first in a two-part series about the rise of citizen science, from CASTAC Contributing Editor Todd Hanson. When it comes to science, Albert Einstein was an amateur. Well, at least he was during the time he made his most groundbreaking contributions to physics. From 1902 to 1908, Einstein’s day job was that of an assistant patent examiner at the Swiss Federal Office for Intellectual Property. It was during these six years as an avocational scientist that he developed his theories that transformed physics. Working as what we would today call a "citizen scientist," the four papers he published would become a foundation of modern physics. While Einstein’s case may be unique, a lesson from his life is that ignoring the contributions of those scientists and scholars unaffiliated with university or research institutions is done at society’s risk. The bifurcation of scientists into professional and amateur is a relatively recent (more...)

Looking at the pain of others (on social media)

Reflections on the November 2015 Paris attacks from afar I can’t recall the last time I heard “La Marseillaise” [1] as often as I have in the past few weeks. This is never a great moment for me. As for many fellow French citizens, the vindictive and blood calling lyrics of our national anthem have always triggered a feeling somewhere between discomfort and straightforward rejection.[2] Things were not different on that Sunday morning, November 15, 2015. Like many others—Francophiles or not, Francophone or not, or French or not—I was struggling to find words to explain what happened in Paris on the night of Friday the 13th to my five and seven year old kids. I was thinking our family could later join the crowd gathering in front of the San Francisco City Hall to grieve collectively, which was important as we felt so far from friends and relatives, and powerless. But (more...)

Who are the Influencers?

It’s not a new idea, but the term “influencer” likely has not crossed the desks of those outside the world of marketing and advertising. On the surface, it’s a relatively straightforward concept: some individuals have more of an audience online than others. Among these, some have a knack for recommending products or services that are then purchased by others. For anthropologists and media researchers, the concept of an influencer recalls Bourdieu’s theory of social capital, and is a contemporary example of the kinds of influence addressed in social and actor/network theory (see here and also here). Attempting to understand the social uses of technology without considering monetization and the role of commerce is to ignore one of the strongest forces driving interpersonal dynamics online. Therefore, my intention here is to argue for both the relevance of “influencers” as an emerging concept, but also to highlight the ways in which it extends (more...)

On the Relevance of a $5.9B Videogame Industry Deal

I spend an inordinate amount of time watching the news, blogs, and social media that swirls around what can at best be vaguely called "the videogame industry." There are multiple industries, markets, cultures, interests and to pretend that it is a kind of unified monolithic industry doesn't really seem to fit much an more (if it ever did). Yet, many CASTAC readers and authors are interested in structure. Why do particular socio-cultural-political-economic formations persist remains an important question that seems to cut across the interests of CASTAC readers. For context, Activision, one of the already largest videogame publishers, announced on Tuesday their acquisition of King, a developer and publisher of popular web-based and mobile-based "free to play" (F2P) games. To put this in context: The giant company’s acquisition of King is the biggest merger in gaming since the combination of Activision and Blizzard in a nearly $19 billion deal in (more...)

Trusting Experts: Can we reconcile STS and Social Psychology?

Numerous battles are being fought today within and across America’s political landscape, from global warming to the regulation of new technologies (e.g., GMOs, fracking). Science plays a big role in these debates, and as a result, social psychologists, political scientists, economists, and other social scientists have become interested in the question of why people (or rather, certain people) don’t accept scientific findings. These social scientists have converged on a concept called motivated reasoning: that because our reasoning powers are directed towards particular ends, we tend to pick facts that best fit our needs and motivations. Motivated reasoning, in this explanation, is a universal concept, perhaps a product of evolution; all human beings do it, including experts. It also raises the profoundly disturbing possibility of a scientific end to our Enlightenment hopes that experts—let alone publics—can be rational, that they can neatly separate facts from values and facilitate a harmonious society. Influential science journalists (more...)

Twin Astronauts: The Perfect Research Subjects

In March 2015, astronaut Scott Kelly embarked on a one-year stay aboard the International Space Station, while his identical twin brother Mark Kelly, a retired astronaut, remained on planet Earth. This remarkable event—accompanied by a frenzy of media attention—created a degree of separation between twins that scientists could previously only imagine. For science journalists and their readers, the Kelly twin astronauts were like a dream come true, a perfect marriage between popular fascination with twins and Americans’ boundless enthusiasm for space travel. Attention-grabbing headlines like “Meet the twins unlocking the secrets of space”, “Nature vs. Nurture vs. NASA”, and “NASA twins to embark on year-long space experiment” began to appear in the news. Friends and colleagues were quick to forward these stories to me, knowing of my personal (I’m an identical twin) and professional (I’m an anthropologist who studies twin researchers) interest in twins. Scientific research on twins has a (more...)

Understanding Users through Data: UX, Ratings, and Audiences

“It needs to be usable by distracted individuals in a hurry. It needs to be extremely legible and intuitive,” began the client emphatically as he leaned forward, one of several people  gathered at a conference table on the 16th floor of an office tower in Houston, Texas. He rested back in his chair and waited, drumming his hands on the table. The project lead and two of the designers nodded, as one called a vast library of application mockups up onto the demo screen. As she scrolled through these, the other explained the rationale behind its user-interface elements: “we tested this prototype with [x user base]. We have seen that they need to take [y action] immediately, and if they are hindered in this, the company itself cannot track projects or time spent by employees. [Staff] are too busy on the job to engage in lengthy bookkeeping procedures.” This project, (more...)

Steadying the Plays: Rhetoric and Risk in the Shale Boom

“Please God, give us another oil boom. We promise not to piss it away this time.” – Popular bumper sticker in oil producing regions after the 1980s oil markets crashed In the 1970s, there was much to be celebrated for those involved in the US oil and gas industry. The OPEC oil embargo coupled with events like the Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War led to a shortage of oil on the world market and precipitated a boom for US producers. This boom, however, was short lived. By 1981, world production had stabilized and oil prices had plummeted, bankrupting a significant number of producers and inspiring the use of “Please God” bumper sticker in places like Texas, Oklahoma, and Alberta. Throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s, the bumper sticker didn’t seem to help, and the oil and gas industry limped along. Against financial engineering and IT novelties that sent (more...)