Category: Research

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...)

Eben Kirksey, Winner of the 2016 Forsythe Prize, on caring for the future

Each year, Platypus invites the recipients of the annual Forsythe Prize to reflect on their award-winning work. This week's post is from 2016 winner Eben Kirksey, for his book Emergent Ecologies (Duke, 2016). Surprising hopes can proliferate against the backdrop of seemingly impossible odds, dashed dreams, and disappointing circumstances.[1] Looking to possible futures, rather than to absolute endings, Jacques Derrida celebrated forms of hope that contain “the attraction, invincible élan or affirmation of an unpredictable future-to-come.”[2] “Not only must one not renounce the emancipatory desire,” wrote Derrida, “it is necessary to insist on it more than ever.”[3] In the days after Donald Trump was elected President, as Republicans begin to lock in control of the legislative and judicial branches of the US government, it would be easy for people committed to social and ecological justice to resign the future to fate. Converting despair to hope involves playing with the uneasy (more...)

The Second Project: Teaching Research through Collaboration

Editor’s Note: This is the third entry in the Second Project Series. You can read the second post here. 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. Monday afternoons at least a dozen students and I gather to work on a collaborative ethnographic project. Some weeks we meet around a long, boardroom style table where we discuss article outlines, literature reviews, and “findings” crafted by our team members. Other weeks we organize around a handful of circular tables where small working groups tackle different pieces of the project—analyzing quantitative data using SPSS, creating GIS maps, coding qualitative survey questions, or co-writing a white paper, (more...)

Hippocratic Hacking

A few days ago Johnson and Johnson told patients that one of its insulin pumps can be hacked. This story is just the latest in a series of pieces calling into question the security of wearable medical devices like pacemakers and blood glucose monitors, which have in recent years been increasingly equipped with wireless capabilities. These Wi-Fi connections allow for the easy transmission of medical data from the patient’s body to their clinicians, but also leave the device vulnerable to unauthorized outside access. There’s an intimacy about medical devices that live in or on the body that gives rise to particularly salient fears of attacks from these imagined hackers. Wearers fret that hackers could flood diabetics with insulin, shut off pacemakers regulating the heartbeat, or steal highly personal medical data. But to whom does their medical data belong anyway? (more…)

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...)