Entertaining Science: A report from a colloquy at the intersection of science and entertainment

June 9th, 2015, by § 4 Comments

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Image courtesy the University of Manchester’s Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine.

As you read this post, members of a community of like-minded scholars are unwinding after a weekend symposium at the UK’s University of Manchester. The symposium Stories About Science—Exploring Science Communication and Entertainment Media explored the intersections of science with entertainment from various disciplinary perspectives and as experienced by a diverse range of publics. Organized through the University of Manchester’s Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (CHSTM), the SAS symposium was the brainchild of the Playing God Project of CHSTM ‘s Science and Entertainment Laboratory research group.

So what, you may ask, does any of this have to do with CASTAC? Well, as an anthropologist invested in exploring ethnographically the cultural qualities of humanity’s intersections with science, I was interested in efforts by the symposium’s presenters, not unlike CASTAC’s own, to understand significant cultural aspects of science in contemporary society. Perhaps more intriguingly, I saw it as a potential opportunity to further our goal of fostering discussions between anthropologists and other STS scholars. To that end, I contacted several SAS symposiasts to get a sense of what they presented at SAS. Colloquy topics ran from explorations of gender for fictional television scientists to the ways legitimate scientists are presented in the media to the power of comics in science communication. « Read the rest of this entry »

From Academia to Business: How Barry Dornfeld brings ethnography to the business world

March 10th, 2015, by § Leave a Comment

Barry Dornfeld’s 1998 book Producing Public Television, Producing Public Culture was a formative one that knocked me from media studies to media anthropology (and made me realize that my “revolutionary” new idea for fieldwork had been scooped). For my first post on the CASTAC Blog as an Associate Editor, I want to return to my intellectual roots to interview Dornfeld, and discuss his transition from NYU assistant professor and University of Pennsylvania Communication program director to ethnography evangelist in the business world.

Producing Public Television saw Dornfeld conducting full-fledged participant observation amidst the producers at PBS while they assembled a transnational documentary called Childhood. This book has influenced both my dissertation and my fieldwork among television producers, particularly for its treatment of expertise. Dornfeld, for example, addresses the degree to which producers consider themselves proxies for their audiences, vehicles for a kind of mass-mediated paternalism, or feel shackled by a necessity to communicate reductively. But in learning about his professional trajectory, I found myself curious about his unconventional movement(s) between academia and industry. And as our potential for engagement with the business (or at least non-academic) world is on the minds of some in the CASTAC community, I thought I’d talk to Dornfeld about his work on media production, the use of ethnography in the business world, and his most recent book on how ethnography can help organizations adjust during periods of intense change. Below, he graciously answers my questions.

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Elizabeth Rodwell: First, how aware are you of the legacy your book “Producing Public Television” has had in anthropology and media studies? What has been the legacy of that publication in your professional life?

Barry Dornfeld: I am aware that some folks still use and refer to the book, which I am pleased to be reminded of after all these years. Not being in academia any more limits my exposure a bit, but I do hear periodically from people who are studying media production and find the book useful. And I have some old colleagues who still assign the book. I think the perspective and method hold up well, even if the world of media and media theory have evolved.

ER: Do you think television corporations have become more sophisticated in their understanding of audiences than they were when you conducted your doctoral fieldwork? « Read the rest of this entry »

Are You Singing of Science?

March 3rd, 2015, by § 1 Comment

In January, researchers from National Chung Cheng University in Taiwan and Alpen-Adria-Universität in Austria published a study in the journal Public Understanding of Science exploring the use of science words as lyrical elements in popular Taiwanese mainstream music. The intent of the study was to understand better how non-scientists were using science terminology in creating pop music songs, and perhaps learn something about bridging social contexts by exploring aspects of the most fundamental element of science communication: words.

De Musica Mundana, Robert Fludd, 1617. Sonification of the elements of Earth, pyramids as symbol of the interaction between divine ones and terrestial ones. Courtesy of Deutsche Fotothek, public domain.

De Musica Mundana, Robert Fludd, 1617. Courtesy of Deutsche Fotothek, public domain.

The study examined the content and quantity of scientific terms and expressions distributed throughout mainstream music lyrics as a potential reflection of the presence of science into Taiwanese popular culture and life. Starting with a list of 4526 songs created between 1990 and 2012 generated from the Golden Melody Awards, Asia’s mainstream music awards, the authors then reduced the sample based on the “relation of lyrics to science/technology” criterion. A total of 377 songs were ultimately selected for analysis by a panel of three researchers from the fields of science communication, communication, and popular culture. They examined the lyrics looking for scientific and technological terms, scientific metaphors, and/or expressions of scientific implications, and then categorized them as scientific activity or products, scientific research subjects, or cultural idioms. In those 377 songs, the researchers found 858 science words or phrases.

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Developer’s Dilemma and Making as Privilege

February 3rd, 2015, by § Leave a Comment

A book I wrote, Developer’s Dilemma [Press, Amazon Physical Book, Amazon Kindle, iBooks], was recently published by MIT Press. It is an ethnography that explores the secretive everyday worlds of game developers working in the global videogame industry. There is an excerpt of the book over at Culture Digitally if you’re interested in checking out some of the words prior to making a commitment to the rest of the text.

Developer's Dilemma Cover

Developer’s Dilemma Cover

But I didn’t really want to start this year off just plugging my book. I mean, I did plug it. Just then. You should check it out. But that isn’t the point of this post. I recently Skyped into Tom Boellstorff‘s graduate seminar to discuss the book. One of the questions they asked me had to do with “game talk” and if I thought game talk had to do more with boundary policing than it had to do with actually having real utility and functionality. Game talk, in essence, is the use of game names as a shorthand means by which to reference the rather complex mechanics and ideas that set certain games apart. It was a wonderful question, because in the book I write:

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Deflategate, or Ballghazi, and the Conundrum of Expertise (or: why anthropologists should write about football)

January 30th, 2015, by § 1 Comment

It is the week of Super Bowl Sunday and I live with a Patriots fan. For the last two weeks all serious conversation in our house has revolved around some aspect of the upcoming game. Unless you have been living under a rock (or inside a book), you can probably guess that most of our conversations center around why a set of footballs used by  the Patriots during the AFC Championship game were found to be under the minimum psi level specified by the NFL. Were the Patriots cheating by manually deflating footballs? Or is there a “natural” explanation for the deflation?

Photo by Flickr user Frankieleon, https://www.flickr.com/photos/armydre2008/.

Heaving a big psi. (Photo by Flickr user Frankieleon, https://www.flickr.com/photos/armydre2008/)

The interesting question from an STS perspective, and the hinge which cheating allegations revolve around, is whether or not the atmospheric conditions at the AFC championship game could have caused a football to deflate what the NFL has called “a significant amount.” The question is a thorny one because it is entirely unclear who counts as an expert on football deflation, where one might turn to find an expert opinion, or even what criteria might be appropriate in determining who is, or is not, an expert on football deflation. Worse, how might one find a deflation expert who does not have a rooting interest for or against the Patriots at this late date? In short,  who may enunciate the truths of football deflation?

Patriots head coach, and noted gridiron alchemist, Bill Belichick was the first to turn to science for an explanation. Like a modern day Boyle, he held a press conference in which he detailed an experiment conducted at the Patriots facility which he claimed demonstrated that natural conditions caused “significant” football deflation at the AFC Championship game. His explanation was detailed and involved a special method of preparing the football for play (that is, getting the correct feel for the quarterback) that can change the psi level without manual deflation.

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Technology and Religion: An Interview with Michael Sacasas of The Frailest Thing (Part 2)

December 23rd, 2014, by § 1 Comment

(Michael Sacasas is a PhD candidate in the “Texts and Technology” program at The University of Central Florida. He blogs about technology at The Frailest Thing. This post follows on our conversation from earlier in the year which touched on some of the foundational work on the relationship between western religion and technology.)

I am glad you brought up Nye’s pessimism over the consumer sublime and his consternation over the potential drying of the technological well. Nye wrote of the consumer sublime, as embodied by Las Vegas, as a “rush of simulations” and as marking a change from a technological sublime emphasizing production, particularly in the sense of new knowledge, to one concerned solely with consumption. How do you see the relation between simulation and technological production? Do you think Nye’s pessimism is warranted?

Timely question. There’s been more than a little angst of late about technological stagnation, much of it recently associated with PayPal founder Peter Thiel. For the past few years, Thiel has been warning about trends which, in his estimation, suggest that technological innovation may have stalled out over the last thirty or so years. We were promised flying cars, he is fond of saying, and we got 140 characters instead (a passing shot at Twitter, of course).
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On the Ethnographic Butterfly Effect

December 18th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

More than three months ago I wanted to write about the ethnographic butterfly effect and a key informant’s book. But there were strange things happening around games and social media at the time coupled with tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri. So I wrote about those things. It is more than three months later and there are still strange things happening in social media around games and everything in Ferguson, Missouri (and other parts of the United States) is somehow impossibly more sad.

So I’m going to write about the ethnographic butterfly effect and a key informant’s book on the game Jagged Alliance 2. « Read the rest of this entry »

And the State of American’s Understanding of Science is…Not Bad

December 1st, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

For me, Christmas sometimes comes twice a year. The release of the National Science Foundation’s biennial quantitative data report to Congress on the state of American science, engineering, and technology, The Science and Engineering Indicators (SEI), made 2014 one of those years. This year, the SEI has mostly good news about public attitudes and American’s understanding of science and technology. Good enough, I think, to merit sharing here.

For starters, Americans seem to be getting a bit more science news in their lives. For example, the number of minutes of annual nightly weekday television newscast airtime devoted to science, space, and technology has averaged about 2% of broadcast network (ABC, CBS, and NBC) news between 2000 and 2012, but crept up above 3% in the most recently reported data. « Read the rest of this entry »

Doing Critique in K-12: Kim Fortun on Ethnography, Environment, and the EcoEd Research Group

November 17th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

By Beth Reddy and Kim Fortun

Since 2012, the EcoEd Research Group (http://sustainabilityresearch.wp.rpi.edu/k-12-resources/eco-ed-program/) has run over thirty workshops in New York. The group brings faculty and college students (mostly from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) together with K-12 students in collaborative environmental education. EcoEd workshops have focused on green building, environmental photography, and county-level sustainability assessments, among other topics – engaging both the environment and education in new ways.

Dr. Kim Fortun is an anthropologist and professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at RPI, and has been a key participant in the development of EcoEd. I sent her a few simple questions about what EcoEd is up to and how she’s thinking about this kind of work. Her responses, below, touch on issues that won’t be unfamiliar to many CASTAC readers: experiments in ethnography and in the classroom that engage with what Fortun calls “late industrialism” in creative and critical ways.

Fortun: We think through what we have learned about environmental problems – how they play out, the conceptual and cultural challenges they pose – and then try to observe, read about and think through how environmental problems are out of synch with the education and thinking of U.S. kids – so that we can design and deliver K-12 curriculum that speaks to both. It is one way to make ethnographic knowledge “relevant;” it is one of many possible forms of activism.
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The 2014 Ebola Outbreak: How Many Deaths Will it Take?

October 20th, 2014, by § 1 Comment

Ebola

The Ebola Virus
Photo: CDC Global

When I began writing this brief statement in mid-September, 2,630 deaths had been attributed to probable, suspected, or confirmed cases of Ebola. The World Health Organization projected as many as 20,000 cases in the West African region before the outbreak could be brought under control. The epidemic had received little news coverage and felt, to many in the U.S., as yet another disaster taking place in countries reputed for their many dangers. By mid-October, 4,033 Ebola deaths had been reported by the World Health Organization and projections on number of cases had risen to 10,000 per week in West Africa. Concerns are heightening that the epidemic may be a greater threat than originally perceived. The number of news reports providing coverage on the epidemic has increased exponentially, reaching over 30 million by the beginning of October. This dramatic increase appears to be spurred by the death of Thomas Eric Ducan, the first reported death occurring outside the epidemic hotspot of West Africa, which made headline news around the world and sparked fears that the epidemic could spread out-of-control around the globe. « Read the rest of this entry »

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