A Message From the Co-chair: Greetings and Introduction

February 11th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

At the 112th annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association last November, I was pleased to take the reins as co-chair of CASTAC alongside returning co-chair Jennifer Cool.  I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my predecessor Rachel Prentice for all of her hard work in building our organization up to its current strength and numbers. In what follows, I’ll introduce myself and share some thoughts about CASTAC and its future. 

I come to CASTAC and, more broadly, to science and technology studies via the study of sustainable development in non-urban spaces. My current project explores the intersection between renewable energy projects and ordinary life in a northern German village on the path to zero-sum living. Germany’s current “energy turn,” its transition from nuclear power to alternative energy sources, is transforming rural communities into sites of lucrative speculation, where capital investment and environmental politics take form around the technoscientific promise of renewables.  In the two decades since the transition was coded into federal law, the village where I work has been terraformed by the installation of wind turbines, solar arrays and now biofuel processing technology.  Practices that were already commonplace in the village (such as the harnessing of wind for land reclamation, the use of sun for heat or the use of biomass for fertilization) have been mutated and scaled up into engines of ecocapital (as wind turbines, solar panels, and biogas processing plants) at the same time that villagers have been recast as energy citizens who take part in the transition by recycling, installing solar panels or investing in wind parks or biofuel ventures. « Read the rest of this entry »

Hopeful Anthropology

June 4th, 2013, by § 1 Comment

Years ago a colleague commented that the AAA meetings were becoming, well, a bit predictable. There would probably be scores of papers on social injustice expressed through ethnicity, race, gender, nationalism, class, and other familiar socio-cultural variables. I have spoken in my own work about how we must begin including, in a more systematic way, notions of injustices based on technological affiliations and values. But even if our recognizable list were expanded further, it still leaves anthropology operating within a particular paradigm of investigation. This paradigm might be conceptualized, as Lyon-Callo (2013) puts it, as a project of “critical thinking,” in which anthropologists as educators engage in “critically [problematizing] common sense things like race, class, gender, sexuality, family structures, migration and trade policies.” He writes quite insightfully about these patterns in his article, “Teaching for Hope?” which appeared in Anthropology News (January/February, 2013). I will extrapolate on these ideas and refer to this model as the “critical thinking paradigm.” (If you don’t like the word “paradigm” you can substitute the word, “orientation”).

Lyon-Callo argues that the critical thinking paradigm in pedagogy comes close to presuming ignorance of these issues on the part of all students. In anthropology, this paradigm is often treated as a form of “secret knowledge” that only we as experts can see. It is up to us to reveal this knowledge as well as the cultural and political conditions under which it becomes hidden. However, he argues that today’s students are different. Many of them are personally familiar with injustices such as class exploitation and racism. In the western Michigan area where Lyon-Callo teaches, students have direct experience with class and poverty issues. Even when the critical thinking paradigm remains powerful, Lyon-Callo observes many students leaving his classroom with a sense of hopelessness and a “what do we do now?” feeling. Lyon-Callo is concerned that this orientation will just produce a legion of pessimists.

This article obviously made an impact on me, as my colleague and I also observed anthropology’s patterned pessimism. Certainly many studies show that if you seek negative patterns you will find them—and only them. Books such as The Happiness Advantage (2010), which one of my students recommended, argue that it is important to seek out positive ideas and messages, even if they are not immediately visible. The exercise should not be done in a vacuous, Pollyanna way, but in a way that helps create tangible change, instead of focusing one’s entire lens on problems that initially feel intractable.

Similarly, Lyon-Callo looks to inspiration from JK Gibson Graham and Stephen Healy, who recommend rejecting the idea that exploitation is inevitable and “work instead toward producing a politics of possibilities.” Some might read in this the resurrection of an age-old debate between applied and basic research. Do we have the right to interfere in other people’s lives on this level? But the better question is, can we continue to morally ignore all the things we might do to help people move beyond their situation?

For Lyon-Callo’s students at Western Michigan University, ideas about exploitation and the failure of capitalism are all too real. Do they really need a continued stream of pedagogy filled with the attitude adjustment of critical thinking? Maybe some do, but many others are experiencing it first hand. For many students, problems are so chronic that, according to Lyon-Callo, “The fantasy of the American Dream has been replaced with a fantasy of the loss of the middle class as inevitable.” There is really no need to upend these students’ common sense—they are not the children of privilege that need a new world view. In response, he has turned his pedagogical focus toward imagining tangible change in his students’ lives through creative solutions, such as cooperativism, and other problem-solving, novel approaches.

I like the way he advocates for a “politics of possibilities,” and I too am interested in how imagination and visions of the future might pave the way for alternative approaches to doing anthropology. The vision described here goes beyond the simple debate about applied versus basic anthropology. At their core, these ideas speak more broadly to the orientation of an entire discipline, one which advocates moving beyond observing problems to turn its lens toward collecting data about what is going right in the world.

Could it be that my colleague and I recognized the pessimistic panels at AAA because that is what we were primed to see? We are quite well aware that anthropology is a huge discipline with many projects that are obviously complex and involve more than reiterating a list of patterned injustices. But it feels as though there are, at least, “hot buttons” that tend to get pressed more than others on particular topics when viewed through an anthropological lens. Perhaps it is time to change the paradigm away from only “critical thinking” and analysis.

The idea is not that we are abandoning basic research on social injustice; clearly these projects will and must continue. Just because people are sensitive to one thing, such as economic injustices, does not mean they understand all the other means of discrimination. The economically oppressed, for example, may not understand issues of sex and gender, or what it might mean to feel prejudice as a transgendered individual. Anthropology deals with an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of issues. Further, injustices continue to happen all over the world in places that dominant populations continue to ignore.

Critical thinking and exposure of hidden problems are not going away. Nevertheless, the suggestion here is that it is time also to embrace and incorporate a new orientation toward a future that hasn’t yet occurred—and doesn’t have to. It is time to turn our orientation in part toward a future anthropology that is a hopeful anthropology.

I look forward to having my own orientation expanded through the stories and research projects that will hopefully appear on The CASTAC Blog in the coming months.

CASTAC: Past, Present, Future

February 19th, 2013, by § Leave a Comment

As a longtime CASTAC member, I’d like to offer my take on where we’ve been and where we, as an organization might go in the future.

My first encounter with CASTAC came at the 1992 AAA meetings in San Francisco. I was a new grad student of Gary Downey’s in the STS program at Virginia Tech; however, CASTAC had been founded earlier. The following brief history is based primarily on “corridor talk,” oral histories passed along informally at AAA meetings and other fora by folks like David Hakken, Lucy Suchman, Julian Orr, David Hess and others.

CASTAC, as an organization, began as CAC (Committee for the Anthropology of Computing) at the initiation of David Hakken and a few other anthropologists who were pioneering anthropological studies of computing. David approached Marvin Harris who was, at that time, the President of the General Anthropology Division (GAD) about creating CAC as a Committee within GAD. Harris and the GAD board at the time supported the idea and CAC began its long association with GAD. CAC expanded to CASTC (and later modified to CASTAC) as anthropologists interested in the related areas of science, technology, medicine, work, and engineering joined the nascent group. The 1992 and 1993 AAA meetings were a coming out party with invited sessions that included both anthropologists and scholars from other fields like Donna Haraway and Susan Leigh Star, among others. During the same period, the same anthropologists were crashing the sociology-dominated 4S conference—a pattern recently emulated by the Science, Technology, and Medicine interest group within the Society for Medical Anthropology.

The 1990s were in many ways the high point of CASTAC activity. Sessions were organized at both the AAA and 4S meetings. CASTAC business meetings were always crowded and productive. The tragic death of Dianna Forsythe resulted in the Dianna Forsythe Prize celebrating her legacy and the work of anthropologists working on science, technology, and medicine. CASTAC held summer conferences at RPI and Columbia and CASTAC chairs were active participants at GAD board meetings. And the “science wars” raged in anthropology, STS, and the academy in general—halcyon days indeed.

I became chair of CASTAC in 2005 after a period of relative decline and inactivity during the early 2000s when CASTAC did little beyond award the Forsythe Prize. The summer conferences ended and CASTAC didn’t hold a business meeting at the AAA meetings for a number of years. I offered to serve as chair because I considered, and still consider, CASTAC to be my intellectual home within the AAA and wanted CASTAC to continue to serve as a place that mentored young scholars. Senior scholars in CASTAC have always been extremely generous with their time for junior scholars and I hoped this would continue.

The first challenge, aside from walking into the middle of a GAD board meeting immediately after being elected as CASTAC chair (I was the only volunteer to take the position), was to deal with an existential crisis. We broached the question of whether we thought CASTAC still served a purpose and ought to continue as an organization and, if so, in what form. There was discussion of merging with the Society for the Anthropology of Work (SAW), of forming our own section or independent interest group within the AAA, or of maintaining the current status of staying a committee within GAD. There were benefits to each organizational model and after extensive discussion on the listserv we voted to stick with GAD. GAD provided a $500 annual budget and required much less work to maintain the organization—all we needed was a chair to represent CASTAC on the GAD board and two representatives to serve on the Forsythe selection committee. However, CASTAC still had a problem—we weren’t exactly sure what we wanted CASTAC to do or be—a problem that we are still facing today.

When CASTAC began and for most of the 1990s, CASTAC was about the only place within AAA that folks working on the boundaries between anthropology and STS could go. But by the mid-2000s, STS was emergent in all kinds of places in anthropology. All kinds of anthropologists working in all kinds of areas like medical anthropology, environmental anthropology, media studies, development anthropology, linguistics, and even biological anthropology had discovered STS. And most of these folks had never heard of CASTAC and some were forming their own groups like the STM interest group in SMA. I saw the proliferation of STS-inspired ideas outside of CASTAC not as a threat to CASTAC but as an opportunity to develop collaborative relationships to enhance all of these groups.

I reached out to many of these groups and individuals to let them know that CASTAC existed and that we would love to work together with them to expand the visibility and influence of STS in anthropology and anthropology in STS. I worked with a number of CASTAC members, the GAD board, the STM interest group, and SAW to organize a series of prominent CASTAC invited sessions including a session celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Forsythe Prize. I also produced a new CASTAC Directory to facilitate collaboration among people working on related areas.

My term as CASTAC chair ended after four years and current co-chairs Jenny Cool and Rachel Prentice are leading CASTAC into the digital age of the internet and the blogosphere—ironic that it has taken CASTAC so long to create a strong presence here when the organization was founded by folks studying computing. I urge CASTAC to continue to remain open to new perspectives and new areas of anthropology that intersect with STS. Finally, and most significantly, I urge CASTAC to continue to be a place where senior scholars mentor junior scholars whose research interests, much like their own research interests, may be the proverbial squares that don’t quite fit into the circles of the traditional research areas within anthropology.

My special thanks to Patricia Lange for inviting me to contribute to the blog. I hope many of you will consider adding comments and your own posts to keep the CASTAC momentum moving forward. Participating in the blog has helped me realize that it is the longstanding collegial relationships that make CASTAC my anthropological home.

Looking Ahead to 2013: A Question of Scale

January 10th, 2013, by § 2 Comments

The CASTAC community joined together in 2012 to launch this blog and begin dialogue on contemporary issues and research approaches. Even though the blog is just getting off the ground, certain powerful themes are already emerging across different projects and areas of study. Key themes for the coming year include dealing with large data sets, connecting individual choices to larger economic forces, and translating the meaning of actions from different realms of experience.

Perhaps the most visible trend on our minds right now involves dealing with scale. How can anthropologists, ethnographers, and other STS scholars address large data sets and approaches in research and pedagogy, while also retaining an appropriate relationship to the theories and methods that have made our disciplines strong? As we look ahead to 2013, it would seem that a big question for the CASTAC community involves finding creative and ethical ways to deal with phenomena that range from the overwhelmingly large to the microscopic, in order to provide insight and serve our constituents in research and teaching.

Discussing large-scale forays into education and research

In the past two weeks in her posts on MOOCs in the Machine, Jordan Kraemer, our dedicated Web Producer, has been reflecting on how higher education is grappling with MOOCs, or “massive open online classes,” which open up opportunities to those who have been shut out of traditional elite institutions. At the same time, serious questions emerged about the ramifications of trade-offs between saving money and providing high-quality education. Kraemer points out that much of the debate ties into larger arguments about why it is that people have been shut out of education and how concentration of wealth and the neoliberalization of the university are challenging the old equation of supporting open-ended research that ultimately strengthens and supports teaching. She proposes new forms of graduate education in which recent graduates are supported by their universities with teaching jobs, to complete teaching experience, transfer teaching loads from full-time faculty, and support graduate students as they transition into full-time positions.

Part of the issue with MOOCs has to do with questions of scale, and how or whether individual lectures and course preparation can be generalized to large-scale audiences in ways that provide solid instruction without compromising quality. Higher-education depends upon staying current with research, and so far, we do not have enough evidence to support the idea that MOOCs will work or will address all of the concerns emerging from the neoliberalization of the academy. Those of us interested in online interaction and pedagogy will be watching this space closely in the coming year.

Questions of scale also came into play with Daniel Miller’s discussion of doing Eight Comparative Ethnographies. Miller argues that doing several ethnographies at the same time will enable comparative questions that are not possible when investigating one site alone. He provides an example from social network sites. He asks, to what extent are particular behaviors the product of a type of site, a single site, or the intersection of cultures in which a site is embedded? Is the behavior so because it is happening on Facebook or because the participants are Brazilian? A comparative study enables a level of analysis that is more inclusive than that derived from a single study. Expanding scale without compromising the traditions and benefits of ethnographic work remains a challenge for these and other large-scale projects in the future, which have the potential to provide crucial insights.

Making small-scale choices visible

As one set of researchers bring up issues with regard to enormously large-scale education and research, other STS participants on The CASTAC Blog are dealing with the opposite issue, which involves grappling with how the dynamics of extremely personal and individualistic acts—such as the donation of sex cells—interact with large-scale economic and cultural forces. In her post on The Medical Market for Eggs and Sperm, Rene Almeling, the winner of the 2012 Forsythe Prize, provides an inside look into how human beings’ donations of sex cells are connected to much larger economic forces that play out differently for women and men. Women are urged to regard egg donation as a feminine act of a gift; men are encouraged to see donation as a job. Almeling ties our understanding of what might be an individual act into economic forces, as well as gendered, cultural expectations about families and reproduction. Gendered framings of donation not only impact the individuals who provide genetic material, but also strongly influence the structure of the market for sex cells.

Promoting responsibility

Another key issue on our minds has to do with dealing with personal responsibility and showing how individual choices impact much larger social and economic forces in finance, computing, and going green.

In his post, On Building Social Robustness, David Hakken raises the question of how individuals contributed to large-scale economic and social crises, such as the recent disasters in the world of finance. His project is informed by work that is trying to deal with the first “5,000 years” in the history of debt. He proposes developing a notion of social robustness, parallel to the idea of the technical notion of robustness in computer science.

His work provides an intriguing use of ideas from people whom we study, and applying them as an inspiration for making social change. When Hakken asks about the extent to which computing professionals are ethically responsible for the financial crisis, he is proposing a way of asking how a large-scale disaster can be traced to more individual, micro-units of action. By investigating these connections, his project informs a conversation that is increasingly picking up steam in the area of the anthropology of value.

Hakken’s reflections are especially haunting as he warns of the difficulties of building a career in anthropology and STS. As he is moving towards retirement, his perspective is especially valued in our community. As an antidote to more provincial institutional perspectives, he urges a more consolidated and community approach that involves supporting each other in doing the important work that the CASTAC community has the potential to achieve.

Questions of scale and responsibility are once again intertwined in David J. Hess’s post on Opening Political Opportunities for a Green Transition. Hess points out that a non-partisan political issue has become partisan despite the fact that the planet has now surpassed a carbon dioxide level that it has not had for at least 800,000 years! But because change is imperceptibly slow to the human eye, politics is allowed to complicate change. Hess has worked to investigate what he calls the “problem behind the problem,” which involves the lack of political will to address environmental sustainability and social fairness, which considerably worsens the environmental problem itself. He provides real solutions through an ambitious three-part series of books that propose “alternative pathways” or social movements centered on reform in part through the efforts of the private sector.

Notably, personal experiences in anthropology inform Hess’s work. Although he is in a sociology department and in an energy and environment institute, he points out that an anthropological sensibility continues to inform his thinking. While the discourse on these issues has traditionally revolved around a two party system, Hess’s more anthropological approach makes visible other ideologies such as localism and developmentalism that may pave a more direct path to “good green jobs” and a more sensitive and responsible green policy. Again interacting with questions of scale, Hess’s notions of responsibility are grounded in understanding the “broad contours” of the “tectonic shifts” of ideology and policy that are underway in working toward a green transition in the United States and around the world. Without real action, however, his prognoses remains pessimistic.

Translating phenomena across different realms of experience

A theme that also emerged from our nascent blog’s initial posts had to do with understanding the ramifications of processing one realm of experiencing by using metaphors and concepts from another. In her post on the Anthropological Investigations of MIME-NET, Lucy Suchman explores the darker side of entertainment and its relationship to military applications. She investigates how information and communication technologies have “intensified rather than dissipated” what theorists have described as the “fog of war.”

The problem is partly one of translation. How is it possible to maintain what military strategists call “situational awareness,” which has to do with maintaining a constant and accurate mental image of relevant tactical information. Suchman is studying activities such as The Flatworld Project, which bring together practitioners from the Hollywood film industry, gaming, and other models of immersive computing to understand these dynamics. Such a project also involves analyzing how such approaches “extend human capacities for action at a distance,” and present ethical challenges to researchers as they grapple with military realms and connecting seemingly disparate but interrelated areas such as war and healthcare.

Lisa Messeri’s post, Anthropology and Outer Space, offers an absolutely fascinating look into human conceptualization of place. She asks, why should earthlings be concerned about what is happening on Mars? Her work focuses on how “scientists transform planets from objects into places.” Significant milestones in space exploration such as the passing of Venus between the Earth and the Sun (not scheduled to do so again until 2117) and the landing of the Mars rover, Curiosity, provide rich areas to mine for understanding cultural notions of place and human exploration. Curiosity has its own Twitter account (!) and tweets freely about its experience of “springtime” in its southern hemisphere. Messeri argues that this kind of language “bridges” our worlds in that Curiosity somehow seems to experience something that is familiar to humans—springtime. Scientists are now studying things that are so far away that telescopes cannot take an image of them. Somehow, these “invisible” objects become familiar and complex. Planets begin to seem like places because of the way in which language “makes the strange familiar,” and bridges the experience between events on an exoplanet and life on Earth.

Astronomers become place makers, and observing these processes shows how spaces become “social” even as Messeri argues, “humans will never visit such planetary places.” Messeri shows how such conceptualizations can lead to the spread of erroneous scientific rumors that get reported on national news organizations. Her work shows not only how knowledge production is compromised by the use of such metaphors but also provides an intriguing look at how humans process invisible objects through the cultural production of imagined place.

Tune in next week!

Given that questions of scale were on our minds in 2012, it is especially fitting that we launch 2013 with a discussion about Big Data, and the challenges and opportunities that emerge when entities collect and combine huge data sets that are far too large to handle through ordinary coding schemes or desktop databases. Social scientists, technologists, and other researchers must grapple with numerous issues including legibility, data integrity, ethics, and usability. I am particularly pleased that David Hakken agreed to be interviewed by The CASTAC Blog to discuss his views. Next week, he provides fascinating insights into what the future holds for dealing with Big Data!

Before signing off, I would like to thank everyone for their participation in The CASTAC Blog, especially those who wrote posts, left comments, read articles, and tweeted our posts to the world. I very much appreciated everyone’s participation. The richness of the posts makes it too difficult to adequately cover all the content of the past year in one commentary, but rest assured that everyone’s post is contributing to the conversation and is valued by the CASTAC community.

In an effort to include more voices and keep a continuing flow of content, The CASTAC Blog is now seeking a core group of “frequent” contributors to keep pace with new developments in this space in 2013. Notice that I use the term “frequent” sparingly—even a few posts throughout the year makes you a frequent contributor. Please consider sharing your thoughts and views with the CASTAC community. If you would like to join in, please email me at: plange@cca.edu.

I look forward to an interesting and productive year ahead!

Patricia G. Lange
Editor-in-Chief
The CASTAC Blog

Inaugural Post from the Editor

November 7th, 2012, by § 2 Comments

Greetings! Welcome to the CASTAC Blog, an exchange for ideas and information about science and technology as social phenomena. We hope to build on a thriving community of scholars from around the world who are concerned about the implications of technologized products and worldviews that are impacting human beings and other forms of life. Our focus is interdisciplinary and welcoming to a variety of scholars interested in a diverse set of research issues, ethics, and impacts of technology on increasingly blended forms of humans and machines in contemporary life.

The CASTAC Blog was created by Patricia G. Lange, Jennifer Cool, and Jordan Kraemer, who are all members of the Committee on the Anthropology of Science, Technology, and Computing (CASTAC). CASTAC is a sub-committee of the General Anthropology Division (GAD) of the American Anthropological Association (AAA). For more than 20 years, CASTAC has had a thriving presence at AAA, as researchers have come together to exchange views about what it means to conduct anthropological research in technologized arenas. Sometimes the opportunities and challenges we face are very different, given that we research everything from nanotechnology to new media. In other instances, though, we face similar challenges, such as public perception of how we as researchers question the effects and processes of science, technology, and computing (the so-called “science wars”). Other challenges we often face include working in interdisciplinary terrain and receiving resistance from the academy or industry about our contributions. Many of us simply wish to geek out and connect with other people who are doing cool things in the intersection of anthropology and sociology and science and technology studies.

Our goal is to encourage dialogue—in a truly polyvocal space—on research findings, tools, new events, and social connections to others in this intersection of domains. We welcome contributions from interested parties within and outside of CASTAC to post about their research, contribute off-the-cuff comments or ask stimulating questions that can bring greater understanding to processes and products of humans’ engagement with technology.

Even writing a simple description of this domain presents challenges. The discipline of anthropology has exhibited a long-standing, anthropos-centric focus; but scholars within our community are already writing about the importance of microbes, biological organisms, and artificial life in ways that inevitably broaden the terrain of consideration of anthropological inquiry. Those of us engaged in research of new media have also pushed the boundaries of anthropological practice by following the “action” and going online to investigate new social formations that increasingly rely on mediated communication.

In an important way, we are all pushing the boundaries of anthropology. We wish to create a space where this kind of intellectual risk-taking is safe and welcome. I think we all realize that what we are doing today is, in fact, going to be the taken-for-granted anthropology of tomorrow. When I faced resistance from certain quarters about my dissertation project on MUDs (multi-user dimensions) and the social implications of tech talk, a wonderful mentor at the University of Michigan told me that I was ahead of my time and that my colleagues would catch up one day. We suspect many, if not all of us, have similar tales to tell, and the stakes are considerably higher in a number of technical and scientific areas. Happily, we have a community to hand that is ready and eager to hear what you have to say!

Consider this space a dialogue in progress that’s about promoting community both within and outside of CASTAC. We are interested in hearing many voices rather than gathering journal-ready copy. Scientific and humanistic insights need not be produced from the single peer-review journal path, as we all know. The backstage conversations often spark the big ideas, and provide much-needed support in challenging times.

Of course social spaces like this only work if everyone contributes in some way. After many years of being relatively quiet, CASTAC’s business meeting at AAA in the Fall of 2011 showed that many of us wish to continue to meet and keep a space alive for interacting with our colleagues in this space. We have devised The CASTAC Blog to accommodate different kinds of dialogue and contributions. We welcome submissions from all scholars in this area and people from different perspectives, including students, faculty, practitioners, policy makers, and other interested readers.

  • People are encouraged to post about their initial observations, ongoing work, or research results in the Research section of the blog.
  • Other people may wish to talk about methods or tools that they found useful or problematic in our Tools & Techniques section.
  • Our section Beyond the Academy may be of particular interest to those who grapple with these issues in non-academic settings.
  • We have also included a Member Sound Off section to encourage ideas about how the community can be improved, and to encourage personal statements of what it means to be part of a community like this.

What do you hope being part of this dialogue will bring? What can The CASTAC Blog, the organization of CASTAC or even other scholars in this space do to help you attain your goals? Join us!

COMING SOON! We have wonderful posts from Lucy Suchman, David Hakken, and David J. Hess in the pipeline, so stay tuned to the CASTAC Blog!

– Patricia G. Lange, Editor-in-Chief

Where Am I?

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Speak up about you what you’d like to see and do within CASTAC. Email cool@usc.edu.