Category: Member Sound-Off

Is Data Singular or Plural?

“Is Data Singular or Plural?” I googled as I sat down to write this post. In my dissertation on the Quantified Self movement and the types of subjects produced by the collection of personal data, I had all but taken for granted that the word ‘data’ has become a singular noun. “Data is” announce countless articles and industry conference sessions putting forth definitions of personal data as a shadow or footprint, digital double or virtual copy. My advisor patiently suggested that I check my grammar. Turns out my mistake, at least, was not singular. Derived from the Latin dare, meaning “the givens,” grammar and history instruct us that ‘data’ is the plural form of the singular ‘datum.’ Alexander Galloway has helpfully noted that the word’s original plural sense can still be read in the French translation of data as “les données.” In recent years, however, the proper usage of the (more...)

Data: Raw, Cooked, Shared

(Almost) everyone makes data. People browsing the internet or buying stuff generally do so without knowing much about the data that their activities generate, or even knowing that they are doing so. Scientists, though, are supposed to be a little more conscientious about the data they collect, produce, share and borrow (at least in their professional capacities). They’re lately supposed to be, among other things, data managers. This is largely the product of the funding and institutional environments; program officers, science managers, and university administrators increasingly demand rationalized, comprehensive data management plans (DMPs) from researchers. In many cases, such as those from the NSF, these demands include requirements to store data for a specific period of time—often five or ten years beyond completion of the project—and to make such data publicly available. For some scientists, this is just a formalization of existing disciplinary best practices. For many, though, and for anthropologists who (more...)

Remembering David Hakken

This week, the CASTAC community received the sad news that Professor David Hakken had passed away. Hakken was Director of the Social Informatics Program at The University of Indiana. Trained as an anthropologist, Hakken conducted research at the intersection of ethnography and cyberspace. He was concerned about how digital technologies and culture are continually co-constructive. His prolific career included publication of a recent book co-authored with Maurizio Teli and Barbara Andrews entitled, Beyond Capital: Values, Commons, Computing, and the Search for a Viable Future (Routledge, 2015). Hakken presciently focused on critical areas emerging at the intersection of digital anthropology and science and technology studies. The outpouring on social media from his colleagues and former students has been truly touching and shows the depth of his impact on the community. Hakken was a principal founding member of CASTAC. As a pioneer in anthropological studies of computing in the early 1990s, Hakken (more...)

Silicon Valley as Ally or Foe? Reflections on the Politics of Income Inequality

The meteoric rise of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries—and the Occupy movement before that—have officially put income inequality on the political radar in the U.S., after years of slow wage growth and a near-catastrophic financial crash. In keeping with the times, Silicon Valley too has begun thinking about inequality. Resident philosopher Paul Graham, venture capitalist and founder of the famous YCombinator startup incubator, wrote an essay on inequality that caused a bit of a ruckus (in Silicon Valley and without). The short version: Graham is not happy with the current rhetorical war on inequality that politicians are waging. He thinks inequality is a natural product of a culture that values startups and innovation, and that a full-scale political fight against inequality is inadvisable. YCombinator recently put out a “Request for Research” to sponsor social science research on Basic Income guarantee schemes. Such a scheme—Silicon Valley’s go-to solution for the (more...)

The Earthquake Early Warning System that the West Coast (Almost) Already Has

1. West Coast earthquakes People on the West Coast of the U.S. see movies about seismic disaster in their major cities. They read articles about forecasting and safety strategies. They retrofit their buildings, buy insurance, and worry. When I tell them about my research on earthquake early warning systems in Mexico, they ask me, “Why don’t we have something like that here?” Networks of sensors arrayed across territory are set up around the world to register earth motion and send warnings to users speedily enough to warn them seconds or even minutes before the quake hits. Mexico’s was the first to make alerts available to the public almost a quarter of a century ago, and today there are similar systems around the world. The fact is that we are going to have something similar on the West Coast, too, though it depends on how you define “we.” Tremendous strides have been made in the last (more...)

Looking at the pain of others (on social media)

Reflections on the November 2015 Paris attacks from afar I can’t recall the last time I heard “La Marseillaise” [1] as often as I have in the past few weeks. This is never a great moment for me. As for many fellow French citizens, the vindictive and blood calling lyrics of our national anthem have always triggered a feeling somewhere between discomfort and straightforward rejection.[2] Things were not different on that Sunday morning, November 15, 2015. Like many others—Francophiles or not, Francophone or not, or French or not—I was struggling to find words to explain what happened in Paris on the night of Friday the 13th to my five and seven year old kids. I was thinking our family could later join the crowd gathering in front of the San Francisco City Hall to grieve collectively, which was important as we felt so far from friends and relatives, and powerless. But (more...)

Forsythe Prize Author Sharon Kaufman on Ordinary Medicine

I am delighted to be the recipient of the honorable mention, Diane Forsythe Prize for Ordinary Medicine: Extraordinary Treatments, Longer Lives and Where to Draw the Line (Duke University Press 2015). The book is an ethnography of the invisible social, economic, and bureaucratic forces that have made once extraordinary therapies seem ordinary and necessary. Medicine’s ability to prolong wanted life through both low-tech and high-tech interventions is a positive development in many respects. Yet the socio-medical imperative to employ death-defying techniques now exists in an ever-aging society in which private industry churns out greater numbers of interventions than ever before; in which no age or cost limits exist for insurance reimbursement of those procedures; in which many older persons, their families and their health providers must consider whether additional treatment will bring with it pain and suffering; and in which saying ‘no’ to new technologies seems somehow suspect or ethically (more...)

Biella Coleman, 2015 Forsythe Prize Winner, on IRC, Anonymous, and Wild Publics

It is truly an honor to join the cast of previous Diana Forsythe Prize winners and honorable mentions. In this blog post I decided to consider briefly a topic left unexplored in Hacker Hoaxer Whistleblower Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous that may be of interest to scholars working at the intersection of anthropology, media studies, and science and technology studies: the type of public Anonymous enacts with a lens directed at the communication infrastructure—Internet Relay Chat (IRC)—that helps sustain it. In many regards, IRC is one of the core communication technologies that helps support what Chris Kelty has elegantly defined as a recursive public: “a public that is vitally concerned with the material and practical maintenance and modification of the technical, legal, practical, and conceptual means of its own existence as a public” (2008:3). His work addresses various features of this public but one of the most important concerns (more...)

Understanding Users through Data: UX, Ratings, and Audiences

“It needs to be usable by distracted individuals in a hurry. It needs to be extremely legible and intuitive,” began the client emphatically as he leaned forward, one of several people  gathered at a conference table on the 16th floor of an office tower in Houston, Texas. He rested back in his chair and waited, drumming his hands on the table. The project lead and two of the designers nodded, as one called a vast library of application mockups up onto the demo screen. As she scrolled through these, the other explained the rationale behind its user-interface elements: “we tested this prototype with [x user base]. We have seen that they need to take [y action] immediately, and if they are hindered in this, the company itself cannot track projects or time spent by employees. [Staff] are too busy on the job to engage in lengthy bookkeeping procedures.” This project, (more...)