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 word has become a topic of some debate as data has been increasingly employed as a singular noun. What can this shift towards the singularity of data tell us of the operation of personal data in popular thought? (read 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 study them, these injunctions raise critical epistemological questions about the nature of data, and by implication, of contemporary scientific inquiry—anthropology included. (read 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 initiated action on creating a committee devoted to particular concerns of anthropologists in science and technology studies. He was also a friend to the CASTAC Blog. He helped lend our fledgling endeavor gravitas by writing posts and graciously being interviewed. Please join me in honoring his life and work by enjoying this gem from the Platypus vault, which originally appeared on the blog in January 2013. I was honored to have the opportunity to interview him and hear more about his big ideas on big data. I first met David at a CASTAC summer conference (remember those?) nearly twenty years ago. Over the years, I personally benefited from his wise mentoring and vibrant disposition. I was deeply saddened to hear of his passing. He will be greatly  missed. Colleagues who would like to share public remembrances about David for a longer tribute post should contact the editor, Jordan Kraemer. Patricia G. Lange May 6, 2016 (read 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 rise of inequality and artificial intelligence—would mean every citizen receives a basic income that insulates them from the rise of automation and the progress of technology. (You can apply for the job here.) In this post, I want to reflect on Silicon Valley’s political leanings, which allows me to bring in the fascinating political surveys of start-up founders that journalist Greg Ferenstein has conducted. There are some obvious (and important!) things to say about Graham’s essay and the Basic Income advertisement: that these writings take technology as an autonomous force that shapes society rather than seeing technological change as an outcome of negotiations between interest groups. They are articulations of very Silicon Valley notions of progress. What I really want to talk about, however, is good old-fashioned electoral politics. In the kinds of political alliances and interest groups that will come to define the United States over the next few decades—perhaps as inequality takes an even bigger role in political discourse—could it be possible that Silicon Valley might be an ally for progressive causes rather than a foe (as it often emerges in critical theory analyses)? (read 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 few years toward in making a demonstration earthquake early warning system called ShakeAlert function across a frankly massive swath of seismic geography. The technology is promising, but the way that it will be used remains troublingly vague. (read 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 first I wanted to make sure that my kids’ first encounter with the piece would not be traumatizing as the news of events.[3] Indeed, as people around the world in an act of support and friendship were singing this patriotic march, as they were giving life to lyrics from—what seems like—another time, French and American airstrikes on ISIS headquarters in Raqqa, Syria [4] had already started and the word “war” was on everybody’s lips, with incredulity and sideration but also determination.[5] Following the multiple Paris attacks in the lively and popular 10th and 11th Paris arrondissements on November 13, 2015, I want to reflect on the complexity of witnessing from a distance, and engaging with, catastrophic events, disasters or, in this case, terrorist attacks. Whether we choose to pay attention or not, looking at, and participating in, the social construction of these events, has become part of our (almost) everyday lives. For those of us with computers, smartphones and social media accounts, looking at the unfolding of catastrophic events on our screens has become a routine of our modern life. But the way in which we engage with a crisis, a disaster, or a catastrophic event in social media frames the understanding of it for some time. Building on Susan Sontag and Virginia Woolf’s asynchronous discussion, I also want to reflect on questions of attachment and othering that emerged from this first moment of public definition. Along the way, I will also discuss the concept of resilience from an STS perspective, which has been used by journalists and politicians in the public debate as a performative concept (“we will be resilient”), within hours of the attacks. (read 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 wrong. These features of American society and health care organization have spurred our lively national conversation about whether staving off death is always the best thing to do. And, those features have created the quandary, experienced by millions, of where to draw the line between ‘enough’ and ‘too much’ treatment. (read more...)