Category: Beyond the Academy

Harvey, Vulnerability, and Resilience in Context on the Gulf Coast

There has been no shortage of rapid assessments in the wake of Harvey, many of which point to endemic vulnerabilities embedded within US gulf coast communities (risk of hurricanes, large at-risk populations and critical infrastructure, the role of a changing climate, energy infrastructure, vulnerable petrochemical processing plants, etc.). Harvey’s impacts have also led to a “rediscovery” of past reporting and analysis that foreshadowed many of the hurricane’s more devastating outcomes. (e.g. ProPublica’s series on Houston flood risk, (lack of) zoning, and rapid development in the Houston area). They have also shifted media coverage to heavily emphasize context in Houston and Texas gulf coast (e.g. the Washington Post article on Houston’s “Wild West” growth and expansion). On top of rapid urban growth and development in flood prone areas, the stochasticity of weather and the persistent trend of a changing climate also played key roles in how Harvey unfolded (and continues to unfold). A large high pressure ridge over the West had the effect of placing what amounted to an atmospheric wall in the path of the storm (Fig. 3). A climatologist colleague put it simply: “If we had a large sprawling ridge across much of the US like we often do in the summer, Harvey would have kept moving west-northwest and probably would have sheared apart and turned into a rainy day for New Mexico.” (read more...)

The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction: A Conversation with Heather Dewey-Hagborg

Walter Benjamin’s well-known piece the “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” has long been a canonical essay on the role art plays in the age of automation. Benjamin saw art both as fueled and altered by mechanization. In a conversation with artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg, a partial transcript of which follows below, the role of art in the age of digital reproduction, to paraphrase Benjamin, emerged as a critical theme. Heather’s work, which spans over a decade, is a complex meditation on the contemporary experience of widening digitization. Her work Stranger Visions is perhaps the best known: a project where she reconstructs faces from DNA left on refuse she’s found on the street – a chewed up piece of gum, a stray piece of hair, a lip stain on a glass – into voluptuous, three dimensional portraits. During our conversation, we talked about the creative and the intellectual (read more...)

How (Not) to Talk about AI

Most CASTAC readers familiar with science and technology studies (STS) have probably had conversations with friends—especially friends who are scientists or engineers—that go something like this:  Your friend says that artificial intelligence (AI) is on its way, whether we want it or not.  Programs (or robots, take your pick) will be able to do a lot of tasks that, until now, have always needed humans.  You argue that it’s not so simple; that what we’re seeing is as much a triumph of re-arranging the world as it is of technological innovation. From your point of view, a world of ubiquitous software is being created; which draws on contingent, flexible, just-in-time, human labor; with pervasive interfaces between humans and programs that make one available to the other immediately. Your comments almost always get misinterpreted as a statement that the programs themselves are not really intelligent.  Is that what you believe, your friend asks?  How do you explain all those amazing robot videos then?  “No, no,” you admit, “I am not saying there’s no technological innovation, but it’s complicated, you know.”  Sometimes, at this point, it’s best to end the conversation and move on to other matters. (read more...)

Trolls, Trump, and Truth: How Much Does History Matter?

In an article published last week on Motherboard, Whitney Phillips, Jessica Beyer, and Gabriella Coleman argue strongly against the widely-circulating idea that that the rise of Donald Trump and his supporters in the alt-right and white nationalist movements can be traced back to early incarnations of the internet-based “trolling” communities such as 4chan. These scholars of trolling culture suggest that a careful historical analysis will show that the recent upsurges in racism, misogyny, and anti-Semitism in our politics are distinct from what their own work treats as the core cultural practice of “trolling.” They argue that 4chan, Anonymous, and trolls in general have never been fully aligned with any single political agenda, and so it is a mistake to reduce the fluid and complex trolling communities of the past to one particularly unlikable segment of what they have become. While I am appreciative of the authors’ insistence on a more precise and causally-nuanced account, I also think we should be careful not to let the pursuit of accuracy distract us from the identification of homologies between these cultural trends. (read more...)

Stephen Hawking, Automation, and Politics

This year has been particularly charged with emotion. The stars that have lit up our Universe for a decade, or a century, have slipped away, one after another: Prince, Bowie, Princess Leia and her Mother. Stephen Hawking, who was doomed to an early death more than 50 years ago, celebrated his 75th birthday this past weekend. One never knows what life puts in our path… Hawking thinks he knows, though, and he is warning us. Hawking, indeed, seems to have become an Oracle, the Faust of the 21st Century. This is how, in 2015, he and Berlioz’s Faust were simultaneously reinvented under the demiurgic hand of the director Alvis Hermanis and the bemused eyes of its Parisian audience at the Opera Bastille in Paris. This was nearly one year ago. What’s next? The one, whose existence and career as a physicist has been made possible thanks to technology, as he likes to recall himself, is now warning us about the consequences of accelerating technological change. In so doing, he is making visible what has been the slogan of my field (Science and Technology Studies) from its inception: that the political, the social, the scientific, and the technical are always intertwined. This we should never forget. (read more...)

DDoS, DNS, and The Remarkable Case of Seven Crypto-Officers

Something big happened on October 27. Something unprecedented. And like much high-level change that impacts the Internet’s basic infrastructure, this change came down to the actions of a handful of carefully chosen people. It involved a ceremony straight out of a sci-fi movie–seemingly rife with opportunity for espionage, intrigue, or a massive telegenic heist. For STS-focused social scientists, this story is compelling for the layers of trust involved, and the way technical security and human relationships intersect. That something so critical to global infrastructure can be reduced to concepts like duty and accountability is neither surprising nor novel, per se—but it is remarkable. But let me backtrack, as this is really about two news stories. Friday, October 21, 2016 saw a massive disruption in internet traffic, particularly for the Northeastern United States. The outage, a distributed denial of service attack (DDoS) started at 7am EST, appears intended as a show of force, and was directed at New Hampshire-based Internet infrastructure company Dyn. (read more...)

Finding a ‘Home’ Online

An oft-repeated mantra in scholarship on privacy is that you have the greatest expectation of privacy inside of your home, and the least expectation of privacy in public. What this means is that you can legitimately assume what happens inside your home will stay in your home (to use a phrasing usually connected with visits to Las Vegas). But if people can view or hear an event or occurrence, whether you are having an argument on your cellphone or you trip, fall, and people can see it without technological assistance, you cannot reasonably believe that what happened will remain ‘private.’ This perspective permeates law and how cases involving privacy and the use of personal information are resolved. But in an era in which many people live their lives online where some much is publicly accessible, what does the concept of home mean and how should it influence how we view privacy? (read more...)

The Five Scientist Pledge: Who are the scientists in your neighborhood?

Three weeks ago, on August 15 and the eve of Australia’s annual National Science Week, Australia’s Chief Scientist issued a challenge: by the end of that week he wanted everyone to know the names of at least five living Australian scientists. This did not mean just Nobel laureates or the historically famous, but five living Australian university professors, corporate researchers, or postgraduates—anyone professionally involved in scientific R&D. The Australians were challenged to get to know the scientists living among them, to learn who were the scientists living in their neighborhoods. Growing up in Wisconsin, the only bona-fide scientist I ever met as a child was an aging astronomer who had been recruited from nocturnal life to conduct visitor tours of Yerkes Observatory. Pale and phlegmatic, he was deeply passionate about celestial studies and our meeting would be influential in furthering my interest in astronomy. Strangely, I would not meet any more of these curious geniuses until college, where they then populating the various departments of biology, chemistry, geology, physics and the like. For my children, the story has been profoundly different. (read more...)