Greetings from Paris: A View from Ethnografilm 2014

April 21st, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

Recently I had the pleasure of attending an exciting new film festival called Ethnografilm, a showcase of ethnographic and academic films that visually depict social worlds. Helmed by the festival’s Executive Director Wesley Shrum (Professor of Sociology, Louisiana State University), the event took place April 17-20 at Ciné XIII Théâtre, a unique venue in the Montmartre district of Paris.

The variety of films was indeed impressive, and ranged from old-school anthropological investigations of disappearing peoples to animations that stimulated the eye and illustrated interactive tensions in visual forms. Despite fears about the disappearing anthropologist filmmaker, it was interesting to see that Jean Rouch’s classic film Tourou et Bitti (1971), which was screened on Saturday night, played to a packed house! Given that co-sponsors included the International Social Science Council and The Society for Social Studies of Science, it is perhaps not surprising that the festival included many technology-related films. Themes included both opportunities and tensions in areas such as online interaction, ethics, “primitive” technologies, and high-tech bodily enhancements. Below I profile a few of the films I was able to screen. Ethnografilm Poster ImageJ

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Associate Editor Intro: Jordan Kraemer on digital culture, tech trends, and why anthropologists can’t predict the future

February 4th, 2014, by § 1 Comment

As one of the new Associate Editors for the CASTAC Blog, I want to introduce myself and the kinds of topics I’ll be presenting here. In my work as an anthropologist of media and technology, I focus on how social and mobile media are reshaping experiences of space and place, especially in contemporary Europe. Ethnographic studies of social media have been in the public spotlight recently, when anthropologist Daniel Miller asserted that, for a group of teen users he is currently studying in the UK, Facebook has lost its coolness (“What will we learn from the fall of Facebook?” Nov. 24, 2013). Miller was sharing preliminary findings from a project still in progress, but his findings quickly got spun and distorted, in some cases by tech reporters more interested in Facebook’s stock value than its social implications. Miller and his team found that teen users (16-18 years old) in his fieldsite north of London no longer consider Facebook a cool space to hang out with peers, which isn’t shocking in light of previous research. He attributed this shift both to older family members joining Facebook and to younger users seeking to carve out their own spaces on newer sites. He also predicted that teens will continue using Facebook less and less, relegating it to communication with family. Facebook isn’t going to disappear, he argues, but its use is stabilizing as primarily a platform for adults: “it is finally finding its appropriate niche where it will remain.”

(Clip from NBC Nightly News: “Study: Teens leaving Facebook as parents flood site”)

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Welcome to the New Team for 2014!

January 14th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

The CASTAC Blog is pleased to announce our new team for 2014. Joining our Web Producer Jordan Kraemer is our new Associate Web Producer Angela Kristin VandenBroek! Angela brings to the position significant experience in web design and development, and was the recipient of an EduStyle Award. We are excited to have her on board!

I will be continuing on as Editor and will oversee the Blog’s content. At the same time, we are very pleased to announce our new team of Associate Editors (AEs) who will be responsible for bringing exciting new content to the Blog! Below please find their names and contact information listed for your perusal. Please feel free to contact them if you have ideas for blog posts in their areas! « Read the rest of this entry »

Happy Birthday to The CASTAC Blog! We Need YOU!

November 5th, 2013, by § Leave a Comment

Well, this week marks The CASTAC’s Blog’s first birthday, and I think cake is in order! I’m ordering chocolate of course! It has been a wonderful and exciting year as we have kicked off a new blog that is dedicated to exchanging ideas about science and technology as social phenomena.

We thank everyone who has posted about their research or their opinions on a staggeringly impressive range of topics, from drones to steampunk! I look forward to all the wonderful posts and commentary that we’ll see in the coming year!

Happy Birthday Chocolate

The CASTAC Blog is now working through some growing pains! We are pleased to announce that it is time to expand our team! We are seeking 6-7 Associate Editors and 1 Associate Web Producer to ensure the continuously high quality of content that you’ve come to expect from The CASTAC Blog. The job duties and descriptions are as follows:

Associate Editors – During the year-long position, responsibilities will include bringing 6-7 posts to the blog within a specific topic area. Posts should generally be solicited from external authors, scholars, and practitioners, but should also include a few posts written by the Associate Editor as needed and/or appropriate. Associate Editors will also be responsible for facilitating co-ordination between authors and the Editor, light copy editing, and closely tracking correspondence via email or possibly occasionally Skype to discuss publishing schedules.

Associate Web Producer – Responsibilities for the year-long position include site maintenance, updates, and backups, managing user accounts, help with publishing posts and images, including layout and design, site promotion and optimization, and general technical and back-end support. Some familiarity with WordPress or other blogging platforms required; knowledge of HTML, CSS, web design, FTP, and general web administration preferred.

Interested parties for the Associate Position should submit a c.v. and your top 2 choices for the content you would like to cover. Please also provide a sense of the kinds of blog post ideas you might suggest for your area. Applicants interested in the Associate Web Producer position should submit a c.v. and brief description of past experience with website/blog production and maintenance. The new team will meet at the upcoming AAA conference in Chicago to discuss strategies for next year’s blogging schedule.

Topics include but are not limited to:

Computers & Hacking
Medical Imaging
Laboratory Culture
AI & Robotics
Space & Aeronautics
Social Media & Digital Anthropology
Communications Devices
Big Data
Online Education and MOOCs
Scientific Practice
Everyday technology

Becoming an Associate Editor or Associate Web Producer is a great way to:

Build external service on your c.v.
Keep abreast of new and exciting trends in your area of expertise
Showcase your work and research
Help support an interactive community of STS scholars

Please send a c.v., your top 2 choices of topic area and a few ideas for potential blog posts to:

Patricia G. Lange, Editor-in-Chief

Looking forward to a great year ahead!

Fit for Halloween

October 30th, 2013, by § 1 Comment

All Hallow’s Eve, better known as Halloween, is a perfect time to reflect on one’s survival skills.

While scholars contest the origins of Halloween–-Celtic? Pagan? Roman?–-one thing is for certain: it’s a good time to be quick on your feet. Just one of the common dangers on All Hallows, at least in my neighbourhood, is hungry, animated corpses with a taste for human flesh, more commonly known as zombies. To be clear, my neighbourhood has a lot of rage zombies. It is of paramount importance to be quick on your feet if you are being pursued by rage zombies. Faster and more aggressive than their predecessors, who shambled along hoping to bump into clueless, hapless and/or immobile tasty humans, rage zombies come after you with gusto.

Two stories about getting fitter
Before continuing, I want to share a couple of stories, based on journal entries, with you:

Story #1
It’s been a long time since I ran. I was forced to “take a rest” because of an injured foot. I was never a long distance runner, my longest run was 10 miles. I know this because I was goaded into the run by an unfathomably fit friend. We both considered it a grand achievement when I completed the set course. My usual distance was about 4 miles, a distance I tried to accomplish about 3 times a week. After the injury, however, taking a rest turned into an active avoidance of running–-save perhaps when I was tardy and about to miss a bus, train or plane. Afraid of re-injury, afraid of the stark disappointment of my lost fitness, I opted for the couch. After two years of this indolent behaviour, a series of events suggested the stars were aligned for a re-engagement with running. I decided to try some recently released cell phone apps that offer structured interval training delivered as voice instructions. Using GPS, these apps chart where, how far and at what pace you have run. Most have a good way of interleaving your personal music with carefully timed instructions that offer a well-designed, basic interval training to develop running fitness. Walk for 5 minutes. Run for 30 seconds. Walk for a minute. Run for 30 seconds. Heel lifts….over an 8-week period you can be thus trained to run a “5K”, that is 3.1 miles. I confess, these earnest well-meaning applications bore me to tears. I tend to give up around week 3.

Story #2
This second half of this year, 2013, has been a trying one. We’re post the oft-predicted zombie apocalypse and a few of us are surviving quite well. I’m training to be a runner for Abel Township, the location I was helicoptered into a short while back. Runners leave the safety of the closed town perimeter of Abel to find supplies like food and medicine that are on the outside. Dr Myers has been training me. She’s pushes me, yet is patient and, happily, seems impressed. That’s encouraging. I know I am progressing. I can feel that my pace is getting better. I am getting better at tackling those hills. I’ve also been checking my charts; they show clear progress. The maps are really interesting too–-it’s fun to see the terrain I have covered. I will soon be allowed out without supervision. Even in training though, I’ve managed to achieve a few things I am proud of. I am getting less afraid of the zoms–-managed to hold steady in front one that was, admittedly, chained up. Making its best attempt to get me though. Believe me, even if it’s really unnerving–-they did use to be human, like us, after all–-it’s good to confront your fear, to see where the real danger is, to study them and see what they react to. And, a few weeks ago, I managed to save another runner’s life. That has to be the highlight so far. I can’t tell you how good that feels. There are a lot of fascinating people here too. Sam’s great. He is the lead communications officer for the township. He coordinates the runners. He has good perspective, but clearly has had some sadness in his life. Jody is hilarious–-sounds like she could be from the midlands somewhere. Rajit’s odd. I read his novel but I wouldn’t recommend it. I haven’t quite worked out what the deal is with the New Canton–Abel rivalry. Seems to me like all of us who are left should join forces, not be at odds. Well, I am sure I will find out in due course. In any case, I’ll be off on another training mission tomorrow. Lots to learn.

Mobile, wireless, GPS, data, health, application, manage, motivate, chart…
Switching gears, I am sure it has not escaped your notice that we live in a world where fitness and health devices, applications and services are the topic du jour. Three technological innovations have spurred the technology world’s obsession with health-beneficial monitoring, the design of motivation-based physical training regimens, and a general desire to be interfering micromanagers of every moment of our lives:

1.    Computers have become mobile and wearable.
2.    Wireless networks are readily available enabling always-on, ubiquitous access for push and pull data gathering coupled with notifications between people and services.
3.    Sensors have become smaller, more sensitive, cheaper and more flexible and are thus are more easily embedded in everything, enabling all forms of heretofore unavailable and unimagined measures of human activity within and across spaces and times.

I could also add that data visualization has also improved, so happily or unhappily, we can graph all our activities any which way we want.

Just to name a few examples of devices and applications that are taking advantage of these developments, there’s the Fitbit, Nike Fuelband, Amiigo, Bodymedia, Omron, Misfit Shine, Jawbone Up, RunKeeper, and Strava. And more…. applications and monitoring services like Sportaneous (“your personal fitness concierge”), Endomondo (which, we are told, is fun social and motivating) and Fooducate (which is focused on input rather than output of energy and will help you eat better–-this application is “like having a dietician on speed dial”). As I am sure you can imagine, I am only scratching the surface here. There are hundreds if not thousands or perhaps even tens of thousands of options available. Group activities and friendly competition are important for a number of applications. Like Sportaneous, OptumizeMe is an app that allows people to participate in fitness-related contests with their friends. MeYou Health supports a rewards program for people who complete one health-related task per day. The interesting, but even more dubiously named, Fitocracy is a Facebook-like social network where people can track their exercise activities and challenge their friends to exercise contests and earn recognition for meeting fitness goals.

Most, if not all of these use some combination of the words above in their advertising–-being at the technological forefront is an attractive way to sell your wares. Cynicism aside, it is clear that people are putting a great deal of energy into designing devices and applications that will help us get fitter and healthier–-at least those of us who have the will and the means to be able to do so. And, for some people one or another of these applications really are resulting in beneficial life changes. For the record, two of my personal favorite efforts in this space are Charity Miles, where running, walking and biking result in donations for charities and SuperBetter Labs, a San Francisco-based company focused on designing games for various aspects of personal and social well-being. What interests me about SuperBetter Labs in particular is that the team has a lot of experience in creating social games for fun, using technologies and platforms in innovative ways, without being dazzled by, driven by or held hostage to the technologies themselves. Even more significantly, while many applications explicitly or tacitly harbour a particular vision of betterment–-thinner, lighter, faster, further-–SuperBetter Labs address a broader and perhaps more personally focused perspective on improvement and wellness experience, including the ups and downs of emotional and physical well-being that result form chronic and acute illness, injury and conditions like depression.

What are the design principles of behavior modification applications?
Many of these applications operate on the basis of personal activity monitoring to drive macro and micro behavior modification. Most utilize some kind of levels with reward & punishment mechanisms–-points and badges levels and so on. Some include social dimensions–-competition, social approval, obligation…. All are focused on creating and providing a scaffold for establishing and maintaining healthier everyday practices.

This approach to behavior modification has various names: “persuasive technology” and “gamification” (a term that is distinguished as much by its lack of phonetic elegance as its lack of agreed-upon meaning) are two most commonly used in my world. Long before either of these gained traction in the popular media and in the boardrooms of corporations and technology startups, behavior modification through mechanisms such as reward and punishment was the purview of psychologists and the focus of hot debate and much experimentation, usually involving participation of agents who were not able reflect on their experiences nor game the experiments with meta reasoning. I doubt, for example, that Pavlov’s dogs thought out of the box or beyond the bell, and I am sure had they been able to, they would not have signed up to be conditioned into salivating to the ring of the aforementioned bell. For most of us, though, as people being ‘gamified’ today, we are able to examine the reward structures and decide whether to take it or leave them. And herein lies the trouble with most gamification models–-they have a reductive engineering bias that translates potentially complex behaviors into turn-key models that are easily implementable. Behaviorist principles of operant and/or classical conditioning implemented in transparent ways with a layer of aesthetic appeal just don’t work on most people. If they do at all, it’s not for long.

When it comes to gamifying something like exercise, three things really matter, for me at least:

(1) Fun. Jane McGonigal, author of Reality is Broken and one of the people behind Superbetter Labs, has nicely called out that what makes a game a game is FUN, and that people like to have fun. If you say you are gamifying something, you had better make it fun.
(2) An engaging story. Ian Bogost from the Georgia Institute of Technology reminds us that the “rhetoric framework” matters; it is part of making something fun and not a chore.
(3) The redundancy of multiple rhetoric frameworks that can all be applied at any moment to the same ongoing activity. Knowing that different motivators work better in different circumstances, sometimes you need to have backup motivational schema when the primary one isn’t delivering. When it comes to exercise, meta-reasoning and self-reflection can break concentration, immersion and ‘flow’, but if you have a back up story, one that is equally plausible, it is possible to keep up the activity.

So what about the zombies?
It turns out that I need motivational structure in about four parallel worlds in order to gamify myself into a fitness routine. Hopefully when you read the two stories at the beginning of the post, it was clear which one was more fun for me, which rhetoric framework was more compelling. I am motivated by a good storyline, a cast of compelling characters and the possibility that I may save a few people from zombies. I am motivated by the idea that I may be getting fitter. I am motivated to investigate the technological possibilities and the rhetorical oddities of the emerging world of the ‘quantified self.’ And I like getting out of the house and into the world.

So, the only exercise application that has kept me engaged is an application called Zombies, Run!  An immersive running game designed for cell phones, there are two applications in the portfolio–a 5K training applications and a game of various missions. Although I have been doing the 5K training, the Wikipedia entry on the game does a nice job of giving the background to the game and setting the scene:

“Zombies, Run! is an immersive running game. Players act as the character Runner 5 through a series of missions, during which they run and listen to various audio narrations to uncover the story. While running, the player collects supplies such as ammunition, medicine and batteries which they can use to build and expand their base. The app can record the distance, time, pace, and calories burned on each mission through the use of the phone’s GPS or accelerometer. When using the GPS feature, the user can also opt to participate in a zombie chase which requires the player to run faster for a short period of time or be caught by zombies and losing their supplies, or even failing the mission.”

The development of the game was funded by a Kickstarter campaign which raised $72,627 from 3464 backers in October 2011. Developed with author Naomi Alderman, the game is published by Six to Start and was originally released worldwide for iOS on February 27, 2012. The game is also available for Android. Close to half a million people have signed up to play Zombies, Run! since its release.

As noted above, the game features contemporary “rage zombies” popularized by the movies 28 Days Later and The Infected. Unlike the shuffling, shambling, and clumsy zombies of George Romero‘s classic Night of the Living Dead, these zombies can move fast. Fast zombies feature in Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, Francis Lawrence’s 2007 remake of I Am Legend, Steve Miner’s 2008 remake of Day of the Dead, the 2008 movie Quarantine (2008) and finally, my favourite, the 2009 film directed by Ruben Fleischer, Zombieland. They have also been fixtures in numerous bestselling video games and graphic novels in recent years, perhaps most prominently in Left4Dead.

Why does Zombies, Run!  work for me? In large part because it lets me interleave a number of motivational palettes and trajectories. As noted, I simultaneously have a presence in multiple worlds:

•    my embodied corporeal life world as I run through the streets, most often around San Francisco’s hipster-laden Mission district
•    the world of the story, where my motivation is to train myself to be good enough to help save the last few of us left alive and protect us from zombies
•    the world of future me who will benefit from this exercise
•    the world of quantified self, where I am charting my progress continually – noting of course that I am quantifying all of my above selves when I review my charts online.

Each of these is a ‘rhetoric framework’. We know that storytelling is a socially embedded way of ordering our lives. I weave between stories and frameworks as I run. They all have a limited trickster facility, keeping me running for a little while but all have the potential to be not quite encompassing enough. I am not yet fit enough or relaxed enough to be in that elusive ‘flow’ state when all mind activity recedes and I am, Terminator-like, focused in the moment. I need a little more mental jiggery pokery. When my foot hurts I think about zombies. When the zombies feel not present and in fact ridiculous, I think about reviewing the maps of my runs and the wonderful places I have run (San Francisco, Monterey, Barcelona, London…). When those two don’t work, I contemplate how fit I am getting. And when all else fails, I contemplate my data, the amazing technological advances we are enjoying, and the seductive yet fundamentally erroneous idea of a “quantified self”, a topic which has been much discussed on The CASTAC Blog.

One thing is clear. There is a really important difference between engaging in an activity for your health, and playfully engaging yourself in some activity that just happens to be good for your health. The first feels like something that has to be done for deferred gratification (Being thinner? Not dying young? Hoping there will be a endorphin rush?). The second feels like enjoying the moment and getting an added benefit (Fitting into my jeans–Ye Gads, perhaps even looking good. Being on the planet longer so more fun can be had. Feeling strangely euphoric without artificial and/or illegal aids.) The other applications I have tried simply don’t give me enough options when it comes to rhetoric frameworks. They are not fun. They are neither gripping nor compelling.

I ran a little further today. (Blah).

I saved a life today. (Now THAT’S a BIG deal).

Funnily enough in recent days, as we approach Halloween, more zombies are showing up in my neighbourhood. Last Saturday, I saw three. The physical and fantastic are coming together. My imaginaries and realities are blurring. And surprise, when when I went running yesterday, I ran faster than all my other training sessions.

So, in closing, I have two reflections to leave you with:

(1) If you try a training app make sure you pick a story that suits your imagination, no matter how fanciful. If want to gamify your health, pick a good storyline that compels you. Getting fitter wasn’t enough for me, I needed an apocalypse and a purpose.

(2) Whatever you are doing on Halloween, be sure you are wearing shoes you can run in. Rage zombies are on the rise!

Dr. Elizabeth Churchill is a an applied social scientist working in the area of social media, interaction design and mobile/ubiquitous computing. She is currently Director of Human Computer Interaction at eBay Research Labs (ERL) in San Jose, California. For more on Elizabeth take a look at her web presence.

4S Meeting Preview!

October 9th, 2013, by § Leave a Comment

The forthcoming meeting of the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) is packed with exciting panels, papers, and activities that advance classic STS topics while exploring new themes that are emerging on the horizon. We hope to see many of you there, and we encourage in-person connections while we are all in the same place!

Of course, one can never adequately cover a whole conference in a single blog post, but it is safe to say that this year’s 4S is chock full of exciting papers—and for the first time, stand-alone films—that tackle a dazzling array of 4S topics. The conference offers numerous panels that update the discipline’s understanding of long-term issues of interest including: scientific communities in action, risk, environmental crises, sustainability, epistemologies, religion, and food.

Yet, new dimensions of these topics are also being explored. For example, although food has been of scholarly interest for quite some time, I was interested to see several papers that analyze new forms of food and eating. Papers will be discussing practices and products on the horizon such as laboratory cultured meat, nanofood, and food risk analysis. Themes include exploring how these foods impact health, the economy, the family, and culture. Heather Paxson, recent winner of CASTAC’s Diana Forsythe Prize will be the discussant for one such panel, held in Garden Salon One (8:30 to 10:00 am) on Thursday.

The conference also offers numerous panels on hot topics in STS including: emotion, sound, DIY science, the spatial turn in STS, interspecies investigations, curiosity, Big Data, and cloud computing. Big Data and cloud computing have certainly been on the minds of CASTAC readers, with several posts appearing on these topics over the past year. Be sure to check out the numerous panels on these topics at the conference. Let us know how they compare to the findings that have been reported here on The CASTAC Blog.

Panels will also be exploring the “spatial turn in STS” which explores a variety of fascinating topics, including the relationships between conceptions of place, mapping technologies, and spatial control. Several papers are investigating how people and non-human entities form networks that articulate and give rise to particular forms of environmental interventions. Lisa Messeri, who has contributed posts on her work on how scientific discourse turns space into place on other planets, will be chairing several of these panels.

In anthropology and other social sciences, scholars are increasingly interested to move beyond the human-centric focus of their disciplines. The 4S conference offers several papers that explore interspecies dynamics as important loci of STS analysis. For instance, Meredith Tromble’s paper, “A Longing in Our Hearts: Interspecies Communication in Contemporary Art” offers a particularly fascinating and artistic exploration of these themes. She explores the desire for interspecies communication and the ramifications of incomprehension. Expect to see more papers exploring interspeciality in STS conferences to come.

Staffan Bergwik and Helena Pettersson are chairing an intriguing panel on “The Cultural Construction of Curiosity in Science” which is being presented in the Hampton room (8:30 to 10:00 am) on Friday. Curiosity is surely a central point of departure shared by many researchers across disciplines. STS scholars of different stripes as well as the scientists and technologists whom they study all strive to satisfy a need to know. A colleague of mine once stated that “The most interesting people are curious people.” Yet, we also know that curiosity killed the cat.

It will be interesting to see how the papers on this panel handle historical and contemporary forms of curiosity, and how its emotional expression shapes scientific practice. The economic and institutional forms of science may actually be killing curiosity. One paper overtly asks whether scientists actually have time given project and budget cycles to really be curious. In her paper, “Do We Have Time to Be Curious? The Permutations of Science Values in the 21st Century,” Izabela Wagner asks whether or not scientific curiosity is still vital or possible in contemporary scientific research.

Folks who bring you The CASTAC Blog are also excited to be participating this year. Our own Jennifer Cool will be presenting her paper, “Speaking History to Technopower,” on a panel discussing Revolutionary Digital Rhetorics. The panel will be held in Windsor West (2:00 to 3:30 pm) on Saturday. Cool traces the social construction of personal publishing practices and advocates working to reinscribe histories of single inventors and inventions to include the collaborative aspects of the rise and current use of social media.

Jordan Kraemer will be tackling the infamous topic of cloud computing in her paper, “Locating Clouds and Crowds: Berlin’s Mobile Publics,” which is part of the panel: The Cloud and the Crowd, which will be presented in Pacific Salon Two (10:30 to 12:00 pm) on Friday. Drawing on fieldwork in Berlin, Kraemer analyzes the relationship between mobile devices, cultural mobilities, and public spaces, and explores the production of online publics through language practices.

Also, for the first time, 4S will be screening several stand-alone films. I am happy to announce that I will be screening my recently released ethnographic film, Hey Watch This! Sharing the Self Through Media. The film’s unique diachronic approach documents the rise (and some say fall) of YouTube as a social media site. Interviews and observations with YouTubers at meet-ups across the United States revealed their diverse perspective on topics such as reasons for making public media, digital migration, and video as digital memoria. The film will be screened in Golden Ballroom One (2:00 to 3:30 pm) on Saturday.

The 4S Meeting will be held at the San Diego Town and Country Resort and Convention Center, October 9-12. For more information, see the 4S meeting website. A copy of the program with abstracts is found here.

If you are attending these or other interesting panels and wish to write a blog post about them, please contact Patricia G. Lange, at

See you in San Diego!

Below is a list of CASTAC presenters sorted by date:

Jenny Carlson (University of Texas, Austin)
Dirt: Thinking with and about Soil
Scheduled Time: Thu Oct 10 2013, 8:30 to 10:00am
Building/Room: Town and Country / Pacific Salon Seven
Presenter: Beyond Blood and Soil: Dirt Ontology and Germany?s Clean Energy

Ron Eglash (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute)
Critical Making: Material Practices, Design, and STS II: Practices,
Methods, Tactics, and Strategies
Scheduled Time: Thu Oct 10 2013, 10:30 to 12:00pm
Building/Room: Town and Country / Pacific Salon Four
Presenter: Fractal Flows in Upstream Engagement: Symmetric Innovation
between Technoscience and Social Justice

Luis Felipe R. Murillo (UCLA)
From Hobby to Science Work III: The Culture & Politics of
Professionalized DIY Making
Scheduled Time: Thu Oct 10 2013, 2:00 to 3:30pm
Building/Room: Town and Country / Windsor West
Presenter: “Hacking and/as Bricolage”

Sharon Traweek (UCLA)
Experts-in-Training: Professional Socialization in Medicine & STEM: I
Scheduled Time: Thu Oct 10 2013, 2:00 to 3:30pm
Building/Room: Town and Country / Pacific Salon Two
Non-Presenter: Co-Producing Knowledge: Basic Research Data Practices and

Nicholas Seaver (University of California, Irvine)
‘Big Data’: Symbols, Practices, and Epistemic Uncertainties: I
Scheduled Time: Fri Oct 11 2013, 8:30 to 10:00am
Building/Room: Town and Country / Garden Salon One
Presenter : Big Data in Action: Inclusion and Negotiation in Algorithmic
Music Recommendation

Sharon Traweek (UCLA)
Technoscience Epistemologies: What?s Next?
Scheduled Time: Fri Oct 11 2013, 10:30 to 12:00pm
Building/Room: Town and Country / Eaton
Presenter: Revisiting Embodiment and Materiality in Ethnography of
Sciences and Technologies: II

Casey O’Donnell (Michigan State University)
Getting Played: Gameification and the Rise of Algorithmic Surveillance
In Session Submission: Surveillance and the Mediation of Big Data: II
Scheduled Time: Fri Oct 11 2013, 10:30 to 12:00pm
Building/Room: Town and Country / Pacific Salon Three

Jordan Kraemer (UC Irvine)
The Cloud and the Crowd
Scheduled Time: Fri Oct 11 2013, 10:30 to 12:00pm
Building/Room: Town and Country / Pacific Salon Two
Presenter: Locating Clouds and Crowds: Berlin?s Mobile Publics

Barbara Herr Harthorn (UC Santa Barbara)
The Politics of Risk & Perception: The Nanotechnology Case
Scheduled Time: Fri Oct 11 2013, 10:30 to 12:00pm
Building/Room: Town and Country / Pacific Salon Seven
Chair: Ecotypes, Risk Perception, and New Technologies: The Effect of
Environmental Context on Public Risk Perception
Presenter: The Politics of Risk in Deliberative Debates on Nanotechnologies
for Health & Enhancement

Christo Sims (UC San Diego)
Information and Communication Technologies, Aspiration and Identity
Schedule Time: Fri Oct 11 2013, 4:00 to 5:30pm
Building/Room: Town and Country, 2 – Pacific Salon Seven
Presenter: Technological Legitimacy in Processes of Collaboration and

Lilly Irani (UC San Diego)
Information and Communication Technologies, Aspiration and Identity
Schedule Time: Fri Oct 11 2013, 4:00 to 5:30pm
Building/Room: Town and Country, 2 – Pacific Salon Seven
Presenter: The Infrastructures of Design Aspiration

Sharon Traweek (UCLA)
Roundtable: Disaster-STS
Scheduled Time: Sat Oct 12 2013, 8:30 to 10:00am
Building/Room: Town and Country / Golden Ballroom Two

Gwen Ottinger (University of Washington-Bothell)
Not Just Participation, Influence: Rethinking the Power Relations between
Academic and Extramural Science
Scheduled Time: Sat Oct 12 2013, 10:30 to 12:00pm
Building/Room: Town and Country / Sheffield
Chair & Presenter: Categorically Social: Expert Authority and the
Re-interpretation of Citizen Participation in Science

Patricia G. Lange (California College of the Arts),
Film Screening: “Hey Watch This: Sharing the Self Through Media”
Scheduled Time: Sat Oct 12 2013, 2:00 to 3:30pm
Building/Room: Town and Country / Golden Ballroom One

Jennifer Cool (University of Southern California)
Revolutionary Digital Rhetorics
Scheduled Time: Sat Oct 12 2013, 2:00 to 3:30pm
Building/Room: Town and Country / Windsor West
Presenter: Speaking History to Technopower

Killing Comments: Back to the Future with Web 1.0

October 2nd, 2013, by § Leave a Comment

Two new strategies for dealing with online comments have set the interwebs a-buzzing. The first is the decision by Popular Science to shut off comments on articles on their website, arguing that they are bad for science. The second is Google’s announcement that it will significantly modify YouTube’s comment system by featuring more “relevant” comments up front, and providing new tools to moderate comments. While some people expect these decisions to usher in a new public sphere, others see them as harbingers of a return to the age of “Web 1.0” (if you’ll forgive that term), which still holds the connotation of highly-restricted forms of online participation.

According to Popular Science, although many insightful comments are posted, studies show that people experience more negativity toward certain announcements about science after seeing rude—even if substantively unrelated—attacks. In fact, “even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story.” According to the authors of one study, “uncivil” comments tend to polarize readers and distort their interpretation of a scientific story. The researchers found that, “Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they’d previously thought.”

Interestingly, one set of researchers quoted by Popular Science examined responses to a hypothetical article on nanotechnology. Yet this is already a highly loaded and controversial subject in the U.S. popular imagination. It would be interesting to examine the researchers’ findings on other scientific topics.

The site noted that there are other ways to “talk back” to Popular Science, including social media such as Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, email and other sites. In this way, commentary is redirected to other social media sites, rather than shut off completely. Yet, such a redirect does not ensure that the public will engage in civil interaction on matters of science. What happens when uncivil commentary on these sites potentially distorts readers’ perceptions of science? They will not be consolidated in one site for examination. What happens when social media sites change the parameters of discussion in ways that complicate participation? Is it possible that this decision, while motivated from a sincere concern about scientific knowledge circulation, may ultimately worsen the problem? Is it possible that bile is simply repositioned and ultimately controlled by social media entities that in turn, are discouraging free-form, online participation?

Take the case of YouTube. Google recently announced that “comments from people you care about will rise up where you can see them,” and the site will provide new moderation tools. Such tools include the ability to speak publicly or privately, or auto-approve comments from known fans. Instead of having comments listed in chronological order, Google will now sort them for your convenience, and put the more “relevant” ones closer to the top. Are you watching a video by Justin Timberlake? You will be more likely to see the comments he posts to his own videos right away. It does not appear that the other comments will disappear, but it is another step in an ongoing process to control what viewers see.

Obviously this announcement is brief and does not provide details for a proper evaluation. But certain aspects of it prompt concerns. For example, how is the Google Engine going to decide what is more relevant for me? According to the YouTube blog, comments moved up front will be those from the “video’s creator, popular personalities, engaged discussions about the video, and people in your Google+ Circles.” Maybe I don’t care what Justin Timberlake or a celebrity like Katy Perry said about a political video as much as I care about what a person criticizing the video has to say. Why is that information going to be buried? To bring the more “relevant” articles written by supposed friends in one’s Google+ circles feels like the move has more to do with promoting the floundering Google+ service than ensuring civility.

Of course these decisions already come on the heels of moves to eradicate any kind of pseudonymity for YouTube account holders. My account is AnthroVlog, and the service is constantly pestering me to choose a “better name,” meaning my real name. Yet why should kids who are learning to participate civically online always provide their real name to strangers? What about victims of stalkers who may wish to politically weigh in on certain questions brought up in videos? Why should they be pressured to use their real names? Should they be silenced just so that more advertising can be streamed through social media sites?

Some people still hold on to the myth that if everyone just used their real name, perfect cordiality online would ensue. Everyone knows the names of certain outspoken TV personalities. Are they always more civil? Even if this myth proves to be true in select cases, pressure to insist in every case on real names arguably precludes certain exchange of controversial opinions or views from vulnerable viewers that may nevertheless need to be circulated and discussed in a public sphere.

Although I deeply appreciate concerns about popular perceptions of science as shaped by comment systems, I am not convinced that flipping comments over to social media companies—which are increasingly finding ways to shape interaction platforms to promote their own services—is in the best interests of scientific knowledge circulation. Taken together these announcements may be ushering in a “brave new world” of retro-Web 1.0 that may ultimately complicate people’s ability to speak.

What do you think?

Comments welcome.

(Well, okay, spambots need not apply.)

1977 Called. They Want Their Headline Back.

September 25th, 2013, by § Leave a Comment

I have a fuzzy recollection of going to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum when I was a kid in the late 1980s. There was an exhibit about whether or not Mars hosted life.  On display was a clear plastic tube, filled halfway with dirt.  There was a shallow layer of water and the surface was bubbling. To my kid brain, this was dirt from Mars and the fact that the water was bubbling clearly indicated life – not some pump hidden behind the display. I wasn’t really into space or science fiction or aliens, but this stuck with me.  I was very willing to be deceived if it meant that life existed on Mars.

As it turns out, I was in good company. The other day, the opening lines of a New York Times article titled “Life On Mars?  Maybe Not” caught my eye:

In findings that are as scientifically significant as they are crushing to the popular imagination, NASA reported Thursday that its Mars rover, Curiosity, has deflated hopes that life could be thriving on Mars today.[1]

If you are thinking, “Didn’t we already know this,” you are right…some of the time. The search for life on Mars has been a parabolic endeavor, with each robotic mission setting out to do just that and ultimately coming up discouragingly short of its ultimate goal. Before each Mars mission, there is a build up of excitement before the data comes back negative and a new life finding strategy must be devised. These ups and downs are well recorded in the coverage of the search for life on Mars in the popular press, as I’ll show below. Since 2009, I have circulated amongst planetary scientists as an anthropologist. Though none of my informants claim that Marvin the Martian is going to pop up in front of a rover, there is a simmering hope that a rover, after scraping back the top layer of soil, might find a Martian microbe. I suspect the new findings from Curiosity will do little to dissuade many of these scientists from their pursuit to find life on Mars.

In 1976, the Viking lander (the first successful robot to land on Mars) began beaming data back to eager NASA scientists. As reported in the first year of the mission, the tests were conflicting. Half pointed to evidence of life, the other half suggested just the opposite. A NASA sponsored conference in 1977 prompted The New York Times to report “Mars Probe Showed No Sure Sign of Life.”[2] This same article outlined future missions, first rovers and then a sample return. Perhaps Viking failed because the landers were on poorly chosen, dead terrain. Mobile vehicles might be the key to life detection. This article announced a rover mission to be launched no earlier than 1986, perhaps followed by a sample return in 1990.

It wasn’t until 1997 that a rover successfully landed on Mars: NASA’s Mars Pathfinder and its roving companion Sojourner. Not designed as a life-finding mission, Pathfinder and Sojourner offered evidence that there was once water on Mars. And where there was water, there might have been life. This offered scientists trying to get over the disappointing Viking findings a way back into the question of life. In 2000, when NASA announced plans for what would be called Spirit and Opportunity, newspaper headlines described the missions as a search for life on Mars. Sure enough, the mid-2000s rewarded scientists with even more evidence from the rovers of a wetter and warmer Martian past.

Still, though, these missions lacked hard evidence of life, past or present. The London Times, reporting on the eve of the Phoenix mission – a NASA polar lander – stated that, “Many scientists and astronomers are happy to admit to believing that there is – or, at least, that there has been – life on Mars, even if the proof has yet to be found.”[3]  Phoenix failed to detect microbes and now, NASA’s latest life seeking rover, has reported a lack of methane, a gas produced by life as we know it. The New York Times article from last week, that I quote above, laments the scientific implications, but the article is also a funeral song for Mars and Martians as cultural icons.

Despite this new finding from Curiosity, there are many scientists still holding on to hope that Mars is or was once a living planet. What should we make of this willful neglect of the evidence coming from the past decades of robotic exploration?  An op-ed written by Carl Sagan for The New York Times in 1976 suggests that we are eager to find life on Mars because the landscape seems so much like our own.  Writing to keep the public from being discouraged by the lack of Martians, Sagan offers,

“The scene [from the Viking cameras] has a kind of haunting familiarity.  Some of the rocks are shaped rather peculiarly and the sky is pink, even at noon; even so, the landscape has a recognizably terrestrial aspect.  The possibility of life, even large forms of life, is by no means out of the question.”[4]

Giving up on believing in life on Mars is letting go of a kinship that has long drawn our interest to the Red Planet. When I saw the tube of dirt – Earth dirt – at the Air and Space museum, I was drawn into a relationship with Mars born out of similarity. What does it mean to take this resonance away and mark Mars as ultimately, fundamentally different? I imagine the answer to this question will yet again be deferred as scientists once more reframe the search for life and hatch ideas for the “killer app” of Mars missions that will allow the Maritan microbe, at long last, to reveal itself.


[1] Kenneth Chang, “Life on Mars?  Well, Maybe Not,” New York Times, September 19, 2013.

[2] John Noble Wilford, “Mars Probe Showed No Sure Sign of Life,” New York Times, September 18, 1977, 46.

[3] Mark Henderson, “Green Men No, But Maybe the Odd Microbe,” London Times, May 27, 2008, 7.

[4]Carl Sagan, “Going Beyond Viking 1:  Touring Mars on Wheels,” New York Times, August 11, 1976.

A Byte of the Apple: A Review of the Film “Jobs” (2013)

September 10th, 2013, by § Leave a Comment

Every few years, my husband makes the suggestion (threat?) to turn my original 1984 Macintosh into a techno-aquarium. Yes, one with real fish swimming in it. At one time it was the cool thing to do. My response is always to staunchly scream, “No way!” And my Macintosh travels with us every time we move. It seems to me that the recent film Jobs (2013) had the opportunity to explore why it is that many of us who lived in Silicon Valley at the time might feel, not just techno-nostalgia for a device, but also excitement to have participated in a significant technological sea change.

Sadly, the film never really provides insight about these emotions; instead it falls back on pathetic clichés. For instance, when the Jobs character (this is not a documentary) is speaking to a future designer of the iPod, the designer says that people view the world in black and white, but we “dream in color.” This is meant to illustrate a “philosophy” or feeling-tone for approaching the design of new and cool things. Aside from the potential cognitive fallacy of that statement, it is a tired and vacuous way to account for why people like me hang on to their original Macintosh computers.

Jobs goes the way of the “great men of history” route, depicting Apple co-founder Steve Jobs as a visionary with ultimately bad business acumen. From beginning to end he is the same character—a jerk with some good ideas who cannot work well with people. Usually, the message of such a film is that great visionaries need to push people beyond their sad little boundaries to accomplish something great. But the caricature of Jobs leaves audiences wondering what exactly he brought to the table. He is depicted as tech-oriented but not a technologist and as a person who ultimately threatens the success of his company due to lack of business savvy and myopic devotion to his interpretation of good design. This character does seem to have some good intuitions but is even better at exploiting friends or pilfering others’ ideas. At one point in the film, the Jobs character becomes apoplectically angry that Apple’s ideas are stolen by Microsoft, but the film ignores influences from other places like (then) Xerox PARC or SRI International and their contributions to Apple’s desktop computer interfaces, which were used in creating the Macintosh.

Although he is good at putting technologist friends to work, the film does not depict Jobs as particularly technical. The beginning of the film shows a loose montage of his interests in Eastern philosophies and calligraphy, images which become a kind of visual, techno-primordial soup that somehow gives rise to a great series of products and techno-philosophies. However, most people who are interested in “things Apple” knew of these influences, and so they learn nothing. Because they are presented in casual montage, people who are unaware of these influences, I believe, also learn very little or might not even understand the connections the film is making.

Criticizing the “great men of history” narrative as portrayed in this film is rather like shooting fish in a barrel for STS scholars, who are quite aware that good ideas take teams of people and historical forces to produce significant change. But it is nevertheless important to track how techno-histories and leaders are portrayed in public ways. Notably, the film itself provides clues that Jobs was tapping into a zeitgeist of events in computer history rather than single-handedly creating change. But the film does not answer the question of what his role really was. Visionary? Great marketer? Failed businessman? Guru? Or just a jerk.

It is said that characters’ first appearances in a film speak volumes about their core. The earliest images we see of Jobs are the back of his head as he strides in his particular way to an Apple Town Meeting where he will introduce the iPod. Forcing the audience to follow Jobs is perhaps a heavy-handed way of saying that one never quite walked with Jobs, but only behind him, at least from his point of view. Sometimes the audience follows him into a meeting where he unveils something truly interesting. At another time, we follow him into a Romanesque secret meeting in which he is ousted form his own company.

I have to say I didn’t really appreciate the way Steve Wozniak was simplistically portrayed as a technologist who couldn’t explain technology and was always eating. I found the scene where he is presenting to the Homebrew Computer Club at Stanford University to be particularly suspicious. Most likely in his element at such a technical gathering, I would imagine that such an elite group would reject the ooh/aah Jobsian presentation style that later develops for the general public. The Homebrew audience would quite likely be focused on what Wozniak was presenting from a technical point of view.

The Wozniak character is portrayed in the film as having a much higher emotional intelligence quotient than that of the character of Jobs, which is not difficult to achieve. Although the film opens with the Jobs character saying, “When you touch someone’s heart, it’s limitless,” this quote quickly becomes ironic and sad for the character personally. This character exploits, betrays, brow beats, wreaks revenge, and ultimately only “touches” people in mostly negative ways.

Still, the film awkwardly suggests that somehow by plugging into a zeitgeist, Jobs did touch people’s hearts through the design of cool and useful things—they were just people he didn’t know or care about. Going in, I had a suspicion that I would not like this film. I expected Apple enthusiasts to be portrayed as I have seen in other films—as mindless devotees who were mesmerized by their great guru and techno-spiritual advisor. In the opening scene where the iPod is introduced at Apple, I was not surprised to see employees depicted as looking up in rapt ways at this brand new and amazing technical object that will change their worldview. But perhaps it is wrong to judge the message of this scene or the film in this way. The fact is that many of us did feel a sense of excitement about the increased abilities and possibilities that these devices represented.

The film struggles, even on its own terms, because the character of Jobs is not appealing and never changes. People throughout the film keep observing that Jobs has “changed.” But this is never true. From the earliest scenes he cheats on his girlfriend, is rude and exploitative to people who help him, and staunchly maintains a misplaced arrogance. At the end of the film, the coda of his life’s work (*SPOILER ALERT?*) is to achieve the same level of successful Romanesque back-stabbing and corporate revenge that was done unto him. Somehow, even when he rights what he sees as egregious wrongs, the audience can never get behind this character.

I think, though, that the film does depict some interesting nuggets of truth that are worth exploring further. Having had friends work on start-ups, it does seem that there is a moment in which a new technology’s developers and the business team hired to nurture it begin to change focus. Talented technologists may find themselves shut out of the very companies they worked hard to create. It is too simplistic to say that these are binary positions; obviously cooperation is possible and necessary. But it can be a painful process to find the very executives you have hired to help you ultimately showing you the door.

Another nugget I found interesting was that the Jobs character arrogantly eschews higher education as a productive means to techno-enlightenment. In a sadly throw-away role, James Woods portrays a professor who urges Jobs to stay in school and take electronics courses, given the field’s emerging importance. The Jobs character initially rejects this suggestion, equating electronics with low-level technical repair. Such a vignette eloquently illustrates the concept of performing technical affiliation that I have previously discussed, in which people espouse ideas or values assumed to be associated with technical groups. Technologists often perform affiliation to the idea (whether or not they actually believe it, or believe it in varying degrees) that one cannot learn the rapidly changing field of technology through didactic, institutional means, but rather should learn on their own. What is of course ironic about the vignette is that the Jobs character is depicted as learning things through taking courses, such as taking a calligraphy class, or even hanging out in an institutional environment where he has accesses to other technologists and can exchange ideas.

Certainly at that time, a techno-cultural movement was brewing in Silicon Valley. Something interesting really did emerge and forged a path to new territory that many of us appreciated. It’s just a shame that Jobs didn’t really show us how we got there.

Perhaps the coolest thing about this film was, ultimately, the music.

EPIC 2013 Preview

August 12th, 2013, by § Leave a Comment

The Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference is being held 15-18 September in London. EPIC is an important international conference for sharing insight on current and future practices of ethnography in industry.

Next month’s conference promises to be very exciting and productive. The program boasts a wide variety of topics, including a number of papers that will quite likely be of interest to CASTAC and STS practitioners and scholars. Many of the themes in the program, such as big data, MOOCs, and energy have been hot topics for The CASTAC Blog in recent months.

Several papers at EPIC will be discussing “Big Data,” which is a topic that is heating up and is germane for anthropological theory and practice. Big Data, which has been discussed in a prior post by David Hakken, has been designated as a new asset class akin to oil and has consequently sparked a kind of “gold rush.” Papers on this subject are tackling this seemingly unchecked, and at times unreflective, stampede over exactly what kind of “data” is being collected. Researchers will explore whether whatever-it-is that is being collected can be called “data,” given the term’s disparate connotations. (Does anyone want to have a go at what to call these large-scale information streams?)

The discussion will quite likely be quite interesting because it promises to dive into the epistemological, methodological, and practical boundaries over what this term constitutes. It will discuss what role ethnography will play, not just in terms of data collection, but investigating what data really means in everyday contexts. Abby Margolis’s paper, in particular, reminds us that the “fundamental role of innovation” starts with “the person,” which of course is a particular strength of ethnography. Her paper plans to address common misconceptions about personal data, and will offer principles to “bring a human-centered, small data perspective to life.”

The struggle over energy, which was recently discussed in a fascinating post by Phillip Vannini, surfaces again in several ways at the EPIC conference. Researchers presenting on Private Energy Users and Smart Grid Design will explore the new relationship between energy providers and users. Despite the intention to create a more bidirectional relationship between companies and customers, familiar unidirectional patterns are continually repeated. Researchers will be proposing a model that reframes the relationship between energy companies and private end users. These themes suggest that people can derive a sense of personal power through shaping the design and delivery of their energy. According to researchers, providing energy is not about a delivering a resource, but rather aims to solve particular problems, including meeting human needs for “comfort, light, food, cleaning, and entertainment.” Using an anthropological lens, it is contended, will provide a deeper understanding of the interrelationship between supply and use of energy products and services.

EPIC participants will be discussing research on student perceptions of MOOCs, a theme which echoes concerns of many CASTAC readers and academics. A CASTAC series exploring MOOCs from a student’s perspective found that they may not be serving the college-age constituents that were originally (and fearfully) envisioned by MOOC promoters and concerned scholars. It will be interesting to hear the results of an ethnography of MOOCs that seriously challenges their effectiveness and pedagogical sustainability.

In addition to traditional panels, thought-provoking PechaKucha style provocations, salons, and town halls, the conference is also holding a TechnoTheory DeathMatch! The organizers tell us to “think Bruno Latour meets Fight Club.” Revamping dynamics of theory and practice, this novel approach will be a round-robin type of tournament in which participants represent leading theorists and duke it out to arrive at winning insights.

In addition to the examples noted above, EPIC will be discussing many other interesting topics, including complexity, mobile technologies, clinical trials, healthcare, and emerging markets in information and communication technologies in rural China and India. More details about the conference program can be found on the EPIC Conference Program website.

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