Category: News, Links, and Pointers

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...)

How does a platypus taste? About the flavours of STS at 4S Sydney, 2018

The 2018 meeting of the Society for the Social Studies of Science (4S), was held from August 29th to September 1st, (mostly) in the International Conference Center (ICC) in Sydney, Australia, and was dedicated to the theme of TRANSnational STS. As Kim Fortun, the current president of the society, asked: What, How and Why TRANS? This four-day event, itself made of so many sub-events, was convened for in the Southern Hemisphere for the second time ever (the first was Buenos Aires back in 2014); it was also the second time the meeting was held in the Asia-Pacific Region (after Tokyo, in 2010). As its theme and location demonstrate, the annual 4S conference and the organizing society itself have been undergoing a transformation to include a more global community. Nevertheless, this does not necessarily mean that STS itself is becoming globalized. As 4S 2018 revealed, this international expansion is part of (read more...)

Three Videos of Dead Media Theorists

One of the benefits of access to YouTube’s vast sea of content is that by finding and watching videos that relate to our scholarly interests, however indirectly, we are able to tell ourselves that there is something productive about time spent drifting around the internet. There are, for example, plenty of videos of old lectures by our favorite thinkers and authors floating around out there. However, as the three theorists featured in this post would well understand, the conventions of this sort of presentation do not make the most of the medium. It can be a lot more revealing to see concepts and arguments we usually encounter on the written page play out in formats that are more unusual and more dialogic. In this post, I’ve collected a few of my favorite examples of the sorts of casually meandering discourse I find particularly illuminating. (read more...)

Academography and Disciplinary Ethnocentrism

Donald Campbell (1969) famously blamed the “ethnocentrism of disciplines” for academics’ tendencies to spawn “a redundant piling up of highly similar specialties leaving interdisciplinary gaps”. While Campbell never gives an extended definition of his term, disciplinary ethnocentrism would seem to entail, for instance, that one views everything through the prism of one’s field; that one avidly defends the boundaries of one’s field; that one becomes blind to closely related work outside one’s field; and that one comes to apprehend disciplinary identities as quasi-natural kinds, just as “ethnicities” are often misconstrued as essences. (read more...)

Data for Discrimination

In early November 2016, ProPublica broke the story that Facebook’s advertising system could be used to exclude segments of its users from seeing specific ads. Advertisers could “microtarget” ad audiences based on almost 50,000 different labels that Facebook places on site users. These categories include labels connected to “Ethnic Affinities” as well as user interests and backgrounds. Facebook’s categorization of its users is based on the significant (to say the least) amount of data it collects and then allows marketers and advertisers to use. The capability of the ad system evoked a question about possible discriminatory advertising practices. Of particular concern in ProPublica’s investigation was the ability of advertisers to exclude potential ad viewers by race, gender, or other identifier, as directly prohibited by US federal anti-discrimination laws like the Civil Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act. States also have laws prohibiting specific kinds of discrimination based on the audience for advertisements. (read more...)

DDoS, DNS, and The Remarkable Case of Seven Crypto-Officers

Something big happened on October 27. Something unprecedented. And like much high-level change that impacts the Internet’s basic infrastructure, this change came down to the actions of a handful of carefully chosen people. It involved a ceremony straight out of a sci-fi movie–seemingly rife with opportunity for espionage, intrigue, or a massive telegenic heist. For STS-focused social scientists, this story is compelling for the layers of trust involved, and the way technical security and human relationships intersect. That something so critical to global infrastructure can be reduced to concepts like duty and accountability is neither surprising nor novel, per se—but it is remarkable. But let me backtrack, as this is really about two news stories. Friday, October 21, 2016 saw a massive disruption in internet traffic, particularly for the Northeastern United States. The outage, a distributed denial of service attack (DDoS) started at 7am EST, appears intended as a show of force, and was directed at New Hampshire-based Internet infrastructure company Dyn. (read more...)

Pokémon GO and the visibility of digital infrastructure

This blog post is about the popular augmented reality game, Pokémon GO. If you are unfamiliar and/or want a brief overview of it and its cultural history, this is a useful resource. As a virtual world anthropologist and a Pokémon nerd, I have become immersed in Pokémon GO. As the game continues to gain traction and I wander around meeting strangers and friends who are also playing the game, I have taken note of numerous issues of anthropological concern, like new forms of social interaction and the re-mapping and flattening of cityscapes. Colleagues and I have even speculated about whether Pokémon GO is a virtual world—by which I mean a computer-simulated, persistent, and shared environment online—and, if it is such a world, how it represents one that is visible even to non-players. Participating in and observing the Pokémon GO phenomenon, I’ve found that players have been confronted by another recurring topic related to visibility: the visibility of game servers. I recently attended a large gathering of about 1000 Pokémon GO players in downtown Riverside, CA. We all walked around together, yet apart, huddled among small groups of friends with phones in hand, capturing virtual pets. Servers are the typically invisible and distant machines that allow such an event to happen. They connect people to the game world and to one another by receiving and returning signals to and from our mobile devices. They are an integral part of the ecology of media that enables the shared experience of being in a virtual space overlaid upon the actual world—and, curiously, players have a vague understanding of this. Pokémon GO servers have become very visible. If you ask any Pokémon GO player, servers are to blame for some of the greatest downfalls of the game, like faulty connections, glitches, outages, and lag. Developers have repeatedly mentioned servers as the root of many issues with the game, and, as a result, many players continue to point fingers at servers. So why have servers, things we can’t see or even explain, become the targets of so much anger and frustration? How can we characterize the very visible role servers play in the social worlds of Pokémon GO? (read more...)

The Problem of Expecting Privacy on Social Media

In May of this year, Danish researchers released a data set containing the profile information of 70,000 OkCupid users. OkCupid is a free online dating site to which, as you would expect, users post information in hopes of making a connection. The researchers collected this data by scraping the site, or using code that captures the information available. The data set included usernames, locations, and the answers to the personal questions related to user dating, sexuality, and sexual preferences. In other words, the researchers published personal information that the dating site users would expect to remain, at least theoretically, among the other members of the dating site, and could also be used to discover the users’ real names. But should OkCupid users, and the denizens of social media in general, expect what they post online to not be made “public”? In my last blog post, I briefly pondered the normalization of doxxing and what that means for privacy online. My question, for the most part, was whether courts would see how common doxxing has become as an indication that it is not as highly offensive to a reasonable person as necessary for a judgment of invasion of privacy. In that post I focused on doxxing by individuals, and sometimes the media. It’s important to note, however, that researchers have begun to participate in the same kind of behavior with little to no remorse. Which leads to what I think is the overarching question of what expectation of privacy people can have in information that they place on social media or connected sites like newspaper comment forums or review sites like Yelp. (read more...)