Category: Member Sound-Off

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 how hackers have the knowledge—and by extension the power and ability—to build and maintain the technological spaces, whether it is IRC or mailing lists, that are partly, or fully, independent from the institutions where hackers and geeks otherwise labor. Image: “You call it piracy” by Anonymous – Operation Payback IRC channel. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons. (read 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, a massive one spanning more than a year’s research and development, is one among many for which I am currently acting as a participant observer at [Intellisoft Inc.] In foregrounding research, this company is not unique, but they are among an ever-growing number of organizations appropriating anthropological methods to understand how audiences interface with technological artifacts. Occasionally, these methods employ terminology that diverges between the academic and applied social sciences; it took me a moment to realize, for example, that “contextual inquiry” is field research, that is, ethnography. (read more...)

Tracking the Wilderness: Secur(itiz)ing nature in a New York manhunt

Thatcher Hogan was standing on his dock on Lake Titus on Friday, June 26, when Steve, a family friend and carpenter who had worked on Hogan’s house, stopped by. Steve, accompanied by his brother Darren, an off-duty corrections officer, had taken a borrowed boat down to the end of the lake. Armed with two rifles, they were hunting for Richard Matt and David Sweat, the two convicts who had recently broken out of nearby Dannemora Prison. Subjects of a massive manhunt for the past three weeks, they had been making their way through the Adirondack woods, leaving occasional evidence—DNA on a peanut butter jar here, a pair of underwear there—of their apparently convoluted path from Dannemora to Lake Titus, outside of Malone, NY. Steve and Darren were headed down the lake to hunt the prisoners. The border patrol had claimed they checked every cabin, boathouse, and shed on the lake for the presence of the escapees, but Steve had determined that they missed the camps on the far end of the lake. Unconnected to any road, they were only accessible by boat or by foot. These camps were perfect potential hideouts for someone on the run, and therefore also a prime place for two men with knowledge of the area and skill with firearms to hunt for two convicts with a $150,000 bounty on their head. (read more...)

Shifting Fields of Academic Publishing

I’ve been thinking about academic publishing lately. Some of that is related to being in the middle of Michigan State University’s tenure process. It also has to do with having chaired an ad-hoc committee to revise my department’s annual review process. It also has a bit to do with Issue 30.1 of the journal Cultural Anthropology (CA) being released last week. Since graduate school, I have wandered the borderlands between Anthropology, Game Studies and Science and Technology Studies. I’ve been (somewhat oddly sometimes) employed by “communication” colleges of various sorts, in part due to Game Studies having found its most disciplinary home in such locations. But I think most importantly it has put me in conversation with a variety of approaches to and perspectives on what academic scholarly activity should/ought/might look like. Add to this my work as a game designer/developer and conversations within the institutions I inhabit how those materials should/ought to/might be evaluated. (read more...)

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

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? 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. (read more...)

Farewell (But Not Good-Bye)!

When Jennifer Cool, Jordan Kraemer and I co-founded this blog we began on a web page and a prayer, or if you prefer, an incantation. Drawing on an “if you build it, they will come” inspiration, we felt that starting a blog would be a great way to encourage more conversation about science and technology studies. As members of CASTAC, the Committee on the Anthropology of Science, Technology and Computing, we felt excited about the organization’s goals, and we sought ways to connect to the other members of the group who chose to hang their hat in this corner of the American Anthropological Association. We launched with a “start-up” mentality in which content was king. Our goal was to bring in guest authors while also sharing our work. Our initial goals were modest: as long as we could consistently put up one interesting post per week, we were happy. I was excited to see our blog grow and eventually garner several hundred views a month. Going forward, we realized we would need to create a sustainable model to expand the blog’s content and reach, and thus the idea of an Associate Editing team was born. I crafted a structure roughly modeled after publication organizations in which Associate Editors (AEs) managed particular “beats” or specific topic areas of interest. The idea was to encourage AEs to contribute posts about their own research as well as solicit exciting up-to-date content from other CASTAC members, researchers, and practitioners engaged in projects conducted within the auspices of the anthropology and sociology of science, technology, and computing. (read more...)

Knowledge Transfer, Transparency, IT: An Infrastructure Report from Co-Chairland

“Does CASTAC still serve a purpose?” “Should it continue?” This was the discussion at the first CASTAC meeting I attended at the 2006 AAAs in San Jose. It was like coming upon a cadre of fascinating people who share your intellectual proclivities only to hear tell of how this had been a most excellent and renown party—a veritable Cambrian explosion of Anthro-STS—but that was back before you got here, and there was beer. (read more...)

Ethics of User Experience Research: What Anthropology Can Tell Us about Facebook’s Controversial Study

Where is the line between industry user research and academic human subjects research? And what rights do—or should—users have over how their (our) data is used? As user research becomes an established part of technology design, questions of research ethics become even more pressing. These issues came to the fore in the wake of Facebook’s recent controversy over a study of “emotional contagion” (Kramer et al. 2014) conducted by in-house researchers, namely Adam Kramer (no relation), with input from scholars at Cornell and UCSF, to test whether users’ moods can spread through what they see on their News Feeds. The study has generated vociferous debate among user researchers, academics, and designers (for a good overview, start with The Atlantic’s coverage) over whether the study was ethical (such as this article at The Guardian), expressing serious misgivings about its potential harm. The British Psychological Society (BPS) officially labeled the study “socially irresponsible,” and even the scholarly journal in which it was published, PNAS, has issued an (admittedly murky) “statement of concern.” Still others point out that the methodology, determining mood based on snippets of text, was deeply flawed. These critiques have sparked a wave of pro-user-research apologists, claiming that on the contrary, suppressing such research would be unethical, and that the study could plausibly have passed more stringent IRB regulations, which already make it too difficult for academics to conduct the kind of research undertaken in corporate settings. But much of this debate sidesteps a key issue social scientists have been contending with since at least Stanley Milgram’s studies of how far test subjects would go in delivering painful shocks to actors if an authority figure told them to—and that is, how to conduct research ethically. (read more...)