Category: Beyond the Academy

Precarity, Exclusion, and Contract Work in the Tech Industry

At the satellite office of a Fortune 500 company, employees buzz around the main floor of the building. At first glance, they all seem similar. Dressed in business casual – jeans and a dress shirt— people wait in line for coffee at the coffee cart, stop and chat with coworkers, or zip past one another on the way to meetings. However, if you look at their badges, hanging from lanyards on their necks or trousers, a pattern appears. Some have dark green badges, while others have bright red ones. Those with the bright red badges, standing out in the crowd, are the contract workers. A 2018 NPR/Marista Poll reports that in the United States about 1 in 5 workers are employed under contract, and that number will only grow in the next decade. This number is especially high in the tech industry. In 2018, both Fortune and CNBC reported that (read more...)

Computable Norms: Clinical Practice Guidelines and Digital Infrastructure

I’m a sociocultural anthropologist by training. Until recently, my research focused on environmental issues in Ecuador. Yet, my attempt to address the gaps left by traditional anthropological approaches to environmental issues quickly brought me into topical areas that the anthropology I was trained in infrequently touched on: institutional change over historical time, knowledge infrastructure work, and particularly the functioning and interaction of modern forms of expertise. I’m now a postdoctoral fellow in medical informatics at the U.S. Veterans Affairs Administration.  It is an odd organizational context to find myself in, as someone who conceived of himself as an environmental anthropologist for years. Yet many of the big themes are strikingly familiar. In particular, I am surrounded by (and participating in) the expert design of sociotechnical contexts intended to be inhabited by other experts – an aspect of environmental expertise that fascinated me in my environmentally-focused research. In my postdoc, I’m fortunate to have exposure to many of the technical nuts and bolts of infrastructure design for clinicians. In my remarks below, I share some reflections about “clinical practice guidelines,” a specific form of formal medical guidance that increasingly constitutes part of the digital infrastructure used by medical providers, designed and implemented in part by informaticists. (read more...)

Heredity, Genealogy, and Popular Knowledge: An Interview with Carl Zimmer

For three decades, Carl Zimmer has researched and written on both professional and popular understandings of science and technology for readers of Discover and The New York Times, as well as contributing regularly to NPR’s Radiolab and This American Life. His books and articles on evolutionary theory and microbiology have covered the winding histories of scientific revolutions and the broad impacts of expert knowledge entering into public discourse. In She Has Her Mother’s Laugh, Zimmer turns to the troublesome science of heredity, tracing its changing manifestations, from Gregor Mendel to the eugenics movement, from the Double Helix to 23andMe. (read more...)

Modern Lives and Stone Age Minds: The Ambiguous Rhetoric of Evolutionary Mismatch

Over the last three decades, popular science authors have used evolutionary mismatch theory to shed light on a vast number of modern social problems, pointing to differences between contemporary environments and those of humanity’s distant ancestors. These authors argue that the majority of Homo sapiens’ existence took place in the Pleistocene (approximately 2 million to 10,000 years BCE), and so this epoch presented the greatest adaptive challenges to the species’ survival and reproduction. These were the contexts that shaped modern human physiology and sociality through natural selection. Large-scale civilizations, they argue, no longer resemble this so-called “environment of evolutionary adaptedness,” even though the humans that inhabit them retain the genetic and psychological makeup of their Pleistocene precursors. Many contemporary problems of Western social life, the story goes, can thus be attributed to this mismatch between the evolved human-animal and the novel problems of the present. As evolutionary psychologists John Tooby (read more...)

Busting Myths of Human Nature: An Interview with Dr. Agustín Fuentes

Many of our most enduring social problems are propped up by equally enduring beliefs in the inherent, biological nature of human beings – our perceptions, behaviors, and potentials are ‘hard-wired’ through genetics and evolution. This is particularly true in matters of racial and gender inequality, as well as beliefs in humans’ supposedly innate aggressiveness. In the past, professionals in the human sciences helped to perpetuate these myths, lending their voices and authority to assertions that lacked evidence and allowing stereotypes and biases to stand in for genuine research. Dr. Agustín Fuentes, biological anthropologist and primatologist at Norte Dame University, takes on these assertions in his book Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You: Busting Myths About Human Nature. (read more...)

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...)