Category: Research

Automation and Heteromation: The Future (and Present) of Labor

Editor's note: This is a co-authored post by Bonnie Nardi and Hamid Ekbia. For the last several years, we have tried to understand how digital technology is changing labor. Of all the alleged causes of disruptions and changes in employment and work—immigrants, free trade, and technology—the last one has received the most extensive debate lately. We review the debate briefly and then discuss our research and how it bears on the questions the debate raises. (more…)

What if both lines go down? Embedded vulnerability in the U.S. Southwest electrical grid

The climate of the Southwest can be extreme: summer heat that borders on suffocating, and a persistent aridity only alleviated by the violent monsoon storms of late summer. In light of these extremes, built environmental systems form the backbone of regional resilience for the Southwest. Water storage and delivery systems distribute water to otherwise dry areas, and a utility grid powers interior climate control and regional water pumping systems. Yet this resilience sits in precarious balance: if these systems are disrupted, damaged, or rendered inoperable, they lose their protective effect. In design and practice, they contribute to regional resilience, but in theory, they can also amplify vulnerability and the potential for disaster if they falter, given the reliance on these systems to cope with, and thrive in, a hostile environment. The fire season of 2011 highlights one such example. (more…)

Driving in the Postcolony: Jennifer Hart on Automobiles and Infrastructure in Ghana

Editor's note: In Ghana on the Go, Jennifer Hart tells the history of how being a driver in Ghana became a contested vocation. Today on Platypus, she talks with Ilana Gershon about her work on infrastructure and profession. They talk through how driving emerged as a profession in the context of British colonial efforts to strategically introduce transportation technology, and about how this history has shaped the current precarious and often stigmatized nature of the job.  Ultimately, Hart argues that the history of Ghanaian roads and motor cars is also a history of how integral human labor and labor conditions are to the development of infrastructures generally. Ilana Gershon: What is striking and possibly unexpected about your book is that to tell the history of Ghanaian drivers is also to tell the history of infrastructure.  Indeed, you make a very compelling case for how studies of infrastructure need to become far more conscious of labor history (more...)

How (Not) to Talk about AI

Most CASTAC readers familiar with science and technology studies (STS) have probably had conversations with friends—especially friends who are scientists or engineers—that go something like this:  Your friend says that artificial intelligence (AI) is on its way, whether we want it or not.  Programs (or robots, take your pick) will be able to do a lot of tasks that, until now, have always needed humans.  You argue that it's not so simple; that what we're seeing is as much a triumph of re-arranging the world as it is of technological innovation. From your point of view, a world of ubiquitous software is being created; which draws on contingent, flexible, just-in-time, human labor; with pervasive interfaces between humans and programs that make one available to the other immediately. Your comments almost always get misinterpreted as a statement that the programs themselves are not really intelligent.  Is that what you believe, your (more...)

On the Harm in Valuing Fish as “Stock”

A 2016 Report by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations remarks: “About 31.4 percent of the commercial wild fish stocks were overfished in 2013” (emphasis added). What is this authority saying—and what does it mean to say—when it uses the phrase "a fish stock?" What does stock as a native category reveal about the contemporary commitments of the experts most trusted to husband sea creatures under threat? What can be accomplished by attending to this and other terms that saturate discourse in the circles of marine conservation, the ones that treat fish as resources plugged into and benefiting ecosystem services like cogs in a fantastical machine? While conducting ethnographic research about ocean governance I found that even environmentalists regularly peddle the language of stock, so taken for granted and commonplace is the animal in its commodified form. (more…)

Teaching (Non)Technological Determinism: A Theory of Key Points

How can we account for the radical uncertainty of change when we think about the future, but its seeming inevitability when it comes to the past?  This is, arguably, the hardest part in doing the history and anthropology of technology.  It is also, not surprisingly, the hardest to teach our students.  In what follows, I suggest that the experience of watching (and playing) sports might be of help here. (more…)

Learning to be Trans on YouTube

Editor's note: This week, we have a first for the blog: a bilingual post! Esta publicación está disponsible en español aquí. “When I first started to come out as trans, I went straight to YouTube, and watched a bunch of videos trans kids, and then I started to find videos from people my own age.” Sitting in the living room of his parents’ house in suburban Santiago, Chile, days before his double mastectomy in June 2016, Noah told me a story I would hear repeatedly, with surprisingly little variation, over the course of my fieldwork. He continued, “Even then, the reality I saw was very different. The majority were from the US and England, but at least they helped me understand, ‘OK, so you can start to transition at the age of 19 or 20, like me.’” After an adolescence of not knowing quite where he fit, Noah had found (more...)

Data Friction

A few years ago, Paul Edwards and colleagues (2011) introduced a notion of “science friction”—the idea that scientific datasets do not magically fuse together into a readily accessible “open” stockpile, and instead must be communicated and reshaped in order for scientists to collaborate across them.  While it is all too easy to imagine endlessly wired interoperable devices, and bodies thoroughly mediated by fluid streams of measurement, the reality is not that simple. The Data Friction panel at the American Anthropological Association (AAA) meetings this past year attempted to take the idea of science friction further, and ask what else can we see when we turn our attention to frictionful encounters with data.  This panel considered what alternative forms of knowing become possible by paying attention occasions where data fails to be mobile, or to the ways data and bodies resist being bound by models, devices, and infrastructures. What we see (more...)

Cryonics in the Cradle of Technocivilization

Until recently, cryonics typically appeared in the media and in science publications as the butt of jokes or an occasion to delight in scandals, gore, zombies and decapitation. But a convergence of old alliances and new research formations in the cradle of technocivilization have legitimized broadly research into the indefinite extension of life. Today, it no longer surprises me to see prominent mainstream science publications put out serious pieces on cryonics as a credible scientific project. Cryonics, for those who haven’t heard of it, is the practice of freezing and storing human bodies upon legal death, with hopes of future re-animation. In its July 2 issue, The New Scientist carried a cover story called ‘The Resurrection Project,’ with three full features on various aspects of cryonics. In the fall, the MIT Technology Review had published a piece called ‘The Science Surrounding Cryonics,’ written in response to a piece published a (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 (more...)