Category: General

The Surveillance Cyborg

Editor’s Note: This post is part of our ongoing series, “Queering Surveillance,” and was co-written with Alexander Wolff. Surveillance is an embodied experience, both being watched and watching. The sheer number of concert-goers recording Cher’s “Here We Go Again” concert this past year with their phones had them trade singing and dancing for an act of documentation. Whether the recordings are to remember the experience later, share the experience with others, or to simply document one’s presence in that space and at that time, recording the concert on one’s phone becomes an experience in its own right. They are present in the space, but their attention is about both what is happening in the here and now and the recording that filters the experience in the future. Their phones and recordings are central to their embodied experience, fused into one like a cyborg traveling across space and time in the moment. Add to this that countless concert-goers are recording the same concert from their individuated perspective, and thus the concert becomes infinite and virtual—of course, the way Cher was always meant it to be. (read more...)

Dumbwaiters and Smartphones: The Responsibility of Intelligence

“I don’t have to drink alone,” she paused for comedic effect, “now that I have Alexa.” Thus was the punchline of a story told by a widowed octogenarian at a recent wedding. Alexa is a mass-produced personality that can play music, suggest items for purchase, monitor consumption and health habits, or, like any good friend, just listen. While all these tasks could be performed in silence with various algorithmic appliances, Alexa and her cousins from Google and Apple are imbued with a perceived autonomy directly stemming from their capacity for vocalization. Speech, it seems, beckons the liberation of abiotic materials from their machinic programming. (read more...)

Out-of-Body Workspaces: Andy Serkis and Motion Capture Technologies

Over the last two decades, the entertainment industry has experienced a turn to what Lucy Suchman termed virtualization technologies in film and videogame production (Suchman 2016). In addition, production studies scholars have described authorship as linked to control and ownership, sharpening distinctions between “creative” and “technical” work, a divide with significant economic repercussions (Caldwell 2008).  These ideas are useful in understanding film studio workspaces, where visual effects (VFX) workers and actors collaborate in creating believable virtual characters, using three-dimensional (3D) modeling software and motion-capture (mo-cap) systems to capture the attributes and movements of human bodies and transfer them to digital models.  Once captured, digital performances become data, to be manipulated and merged seamlessly with those of live actors and environments in the final film. The introduction of virtualization technologies and computer graphics tools have surfaced tensions over creative control, authorship, and labor. British actor Andy Serkis has been a high-profile apologist for the human actor’s central role in bringing virtual characters to life for film.  Serkis, who Rolling Stone called “the king of post-human acting,” is known for using motion capture (mo-cap) to breathe life into digitally-created, non-human characters. His notable performances include the creature Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003), the ape Cesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), as well as  Supreme Leader Snoke in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), and work on several characters in the 2018 Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, which he also directed. While Serkis’ performances have made him highly visible to audiences, digital labor historians have begun documenting the often-invisible film workers creating 3D models and VFX (Curtin and Sanson, 2017). The tensions between mo-cap performers and VFX workers reveal the contours of an emerging hybrid workspace that combines actors’ physical bodies and movements with VFX workers’ manipulations of digital geometry and data. (read more...)

Critiquing Big Data in China and Beyond

“I do think that the Internet truly makes us feel the world can become a smaller place,” an interlocutor, whom I will call Bo, told me in his parents’ home in Shijiazhuang, a city in China’s Hebei Province. It was late 2014, and he was studying to become a filmmaker in Beijing. During our conversation, he told me about discovering Google Earth when he was younger, recalling how, suddenly, he could “see any place in the world” from the comfort of his home. He could zoom in to explore a mountain village in Iceland, a house, and even a village dog, feeling that, without Google Earth, he would never have been able to visit such faraway places. The experience might have been virtual (xuni), he mused, but it had also been real (zhenshi). His account expressed a kind of enthusiasm for the digital that I often encountered during my ethnographic fieldwork on digital opportunity in China. However, his story was made especially compelling by the oppressive smog plaguing the city outside. While neighboring buildings disappeared in a toxic fog, he expressed his excitement about “seeing” a digitally mediated “Google Earth.” (read more...)

Voided Spaces: Architectural indices of ravines in Guatemala City

Deep, canyon-like ravines fracture forty-two percent of Guatemala City. Covered in thick, wet, and dense foliage, these ravines are contentious ecological forms for Guatemala City residents, who have often described ravines as physical borders that disconnect their city; opportunities for landfills that are out of sight, out of mind; informal housing for gangs, violence, and the city’s poorest[1]; as well as precarious locations where damage from earthquakes, floods, and landslides is felt the most. However, in 2006, the city municipality reclassified these ravines as an “ecological belt” (Cinturón Ecológico Metropolitano), identifying them as sites in need of ecological and developmental attention. Architects in particular have taken special interest in these ravines, arguing for sustainably-minded designs that would develop and connect ravines to the broader city landscape. Ravines, they argue, are underutilized and contaminated spaces that work against, rather than with, the built environment. Interested in the classification and production of space, in what follows, I describe the conditions that led architects to recognize ravines as sites of developmental potential in Guatemala City. In order to be designated as spaces for development, I argue that ravines first needed to be redefined volumetrically and epistemically, revealing new parameters for thinking about where the built environment can reside. (read more...)

Forecasting Earth Futures

This is the second in a series of posts by scholars who attended the Anthropocene Campus Melbourne, an event hosted in September by Deakin University as part of the larger Anthropocene Curriculum project. Over the four days of the Campus, 110 participants from 49 universities (plus several art institutions and museums) attended keynotes, art exhibits, field trips, and workshops based around the theme of ‘the elemental’. Read the first post in the series here. It is not difficult to recognize the ubiquity of nature forecasting in our world. Every day we hear some claim about the future of nature: what it will do, where its consequences will be felt, and by whom. Not only is mundane weather forecasting integral to daily life, even climate change is structured by experts’ claims about the future of oceans, temperature, and carbon levels. In the early 20th century, when weather forecasts began to share media space with economic digests, even the economy took on the language of weather forecasts and began to be described in terms such as “economic barometers.” The fundamental structures of society began to act like the weather; they too were liable to depressions and tempests. My intention here is not to make a forecast but to understand the process of forecasting itself. This means understanding how futures emerge and pass away, how they are discarded, mobilized, distributed, and enacted in the present. The future, in this sense, is not self-evidently given but is something that is brought into being; something that is achieved. (Listen Now...)

Of Camels, Platypuses, and the Future of the Blog

It has been said that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. We might think of the platypus in much the same way, though the key difference is perhaps that—as of yet—it is unclear what the Platypus Committee was trying to create. Regardless, the platypus has long been emblematic of the limitations of scientific classification. An egg-laying, duck-billed, poisonous mammal: the only surviving member of its species and genus. It is this persistent and natural spirit of disruption and provocation that led the founders of this blog to christen it with the name of this thoroughly confusing and fascinating creature. Its defiance of orderly categorization serves as both a metaphor and motivation for the continued intersection of anthropology and science and technology studies, sometimes considered strange bedfellows. (read more...)

The Sounds of STS: In conversation with Prof. Stefan Helmreich

I was first introduced to the work Stefan Helmreich, an anthropologist of science at MIT, as a first year PhD student. As an STS student, I’ve always been intrigued by different methodologies used within the field, and I was compelled by Prof. Helmreich’s ethnography of microbial oceanographers Alien Ocean and its affective, narrative quality and engagements with various traditions of thought. Our conversation below covers Professor Helmreich’s  research, its relevance to the contemporary sociopolitical landscape, and the future of STS and anthropology of science, with a particular focus on the study of race, sound, biology and the arts.   AC: You’re a prolific anthropologist of the life sciences/biology, but you are also a sound studies scholar. How do those two domains of interest interact for you in your research, or have they always been intertwined for you? Do they influence your methodological choices?   SH: I arrived into conversations on (read more...)