Category: Research

Counting on Zero: Imaginaries of Energy and Waste in the New Green Economy

When the Indian government promoted the large scale introduction of solar energy for powering traditional charkhas (wooden wheels used to spin khadi or homemade cloth) in early 2016, the fabric was rebranded “zero carbon” and sold as “green khadi.” Few journalists covering the new development seemed to notice that khadi in its original form was already zero carbon: woven on wooden spinning wheels without electricity or additional machinery, the production process of khadi is inherently environmentally friendly. The rebranding of khadi as “zero carbon” in the face of its waning popularity marks a decisive cultural shift away from traditional frameworks in which the cloth has historically been given importance. Khadi has historically represented the overthrow of colonialism, the virtues of labor, and the mantra of self-reliance popularized by Gandhi during the freedom struggle. In the early twenty-first century, however, khadi is being rebranded for an environmentally conscious global market. The invocation of (more...)

Is Data Singular or Plural?

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

How Not to Be a Bot: An Interview with Natasha Dow Schüll

Natasha Dow Schüll is a cultural anthropologist and associate professor in New York University’s Department of Media, Culture, and Communication. In her 2012 book Addiction by Design, she explores how electronic slot machines facilitate the compulsive behavior of gambling addicts through their digital interfaces. Informed by extensive ethnographic research among designers and users, the book details how the interrelationship between humans and digital media is engineered and experienced, and how it relates to the demands and logics of life in contemporary capitalist society. In current research, Schüll has shifted her focus to the design and use of digital self-tracking technologies. Her recent article, “Abiding Chance: Online Poker and the Software of Self-Discipline,” which provides the starting point for the following interview, bridges her first and second projects. Adam Webb-Orenstein: What brought you to focus on players of online poker and how is this work related to the concerns of your (more...)

Living with Water Part II: A Tour of New Orleans’ Resilience District

This post is the second in a two-part series on water management in New Orleans. Read part one here. By adapting our city to our natural environment and the risks of climate change, we can create opportunities for all New Orleanians to thrive. – From Resilient New Orleans (2015: 4) “The Gentilly Resilience District will be a model for how other neighborhoods in New Orleans, across the region, and across the country, can adapt to thrive in a changing environment,” Derek reads aloud. A fellow with the Rockefeller Foundations 100 Resilient Cities, he explains to me the vital role the Urban Water Plan plays in the Resilient New Orleans initiative. Derek was trained in Urban Planning, and describes himself as an “ethnography sympathizer.” He had offered to take me on a tour of the Gentilly Resilience District, a model city space for the application of Urban Water Plan designs and community (more...)

Living with Water in New Orleans

This post is the first in a two-part series on water management in New Orleans. In September 2013, just days after the eighth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans officials unveiled a new approach to water management in the city: the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan. After centuries engineering ways to exclude water from the city (through levees, flood walls, and drainage pumps), city officials now hoped to reintegrate water into the landscape. In building new ways of “living with water,” the authors of the plan hoped to create a more sustainable New Orleans—especially in the face of growing threats from climate change. But with many neighborhoods still rebounding from Hurricane Katrina, residents questioned what these restoration projects might mean for their communities. The story of water management in New Orleans is entangled with issues of race and class, infrastructure and development, and the politics of sustainability—issues that, as recent flooding in (more...)

Planticide: Killing Badly Behaved Plants

Walking through the woods near Colby College, Judy Stone gestures rapidly, pointing out plants. Norway maple, bittersweet, honeysuckle, a type of rose. All invasive. We stop for a moment to examine the rose, spending time appreciating its sharp thorns, its capable defenses. She tells me that she often takes groups on walks around Colby, and when this rose was in bloom, people stopped to admire it, look at its flowers, smell it, and talk about how beautiful it is. She didn’t have the heart to tell them that it was an invasive plant. They, like most people, couldn’t see the problems the plant was causing in the forest. They couldn’t see how ugly the invasives made this forest, because they didn’t have any experience with what she termed “nice” forests. The problem is not the arrival of plants from somewhere else violating the purity of a native forest. The classificatory (more...)

Digital Mess as Method

Editor's note: This is the second entry in the Second Project Series. This series explores an often undiscussed moment in professionalization: the shift from the research you began as a graduate student to the new work undertaken as an early- or mid-career scholar. This series is especially interested in personal journeys and institutional features that enabled or constrained this transition. If you are interested in contributing, please contact Lisa. There is a scene in season two of Mr. Robot where a smart house goes bad. Lights flicker, the stereo plays loudly, then cuts off, the alarm systems blares incessantly, and the temperature of the house drops. The wealthy inhabitant flees her domicile in dread. To her management company’s suggestion on how to fix the problem, she screams, “unplug what? Everything is inside the walls!” This scene condenses anxieties about the dark manipulable side of lifestyle technologies into one long jump (more...)

Local Power: The Politics of Renewables in California

“This is something you won’t find written down,” says George, watching intently for my reaction. “But it’s been agreed upon at the highest level of government—the highest level—that the California desert is designated as a sacrifice zone. We are worth sacrificing.” He holds my gaze, making sure I take down what he says word for word. George speaks with confidence and ease, a natural choice for the face of his neighborhood conservation group. “I’ve done the calculations. More renewable energy is available from rooftop solar in San Diego and Los Angeles Counties than will be derived from the large-scale generating facilities on two million acres of desert habitat called for in the Desert Renewable Energy Plan. It doesn’t make sense! But they don’t care, because they’ve decided that we’re a sacrifice zone.” (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 (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 (more...)