Hardwired Hayek: Lessons for economic anthropology from electricity markets

July 28th, 2015, by § Leave a Comment

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Image: The electricity grid in the wild. Photo by author.

For most of its history in the US, electricity has been a monopoly commodity: in a delimited territory, only one company was legally allowed to produce and deliver electricity to consumers. This state of affairs started to be challenged in the 1970s, when, in accordance with the neoliberal wave, a number of infrastructural services (e.g., airlines, telecommunications) were deregulated, meaning, they were made competitive by law. Electricity followed in the 1990s. First, the Energy Policy Act of 1992 allowed states to break monopolistic utilities into separate production and delivery companies. This act also allowed states to take technological measures to ensure that new companies could plug into the electric grid to sell or buy electricity. And then the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) introduced the concept of electricity markets—computational processes through which prices are set for all buyers and sellers, and which are operated by non-profit operators of the transmission grid.

I can’t stress enough the computational nature of these new markets: they exist because the grid is wired up with many kinds of sensors and computational devices that are calculating continuously and zigzagging “information.” Making these markets requires not just economists, but also engineers, programmers, traders, and database specialists—all concerned with making sure that the nature and order of information flows are just right. « Read the rest of this entry »

Pluto: Unexplored, Exploring, Explored

July 21st, 2015, by § 2 Comments

“Yay! Pluto will always be part of our hearts,” a 17-year old exclaims to her companion.

“Pluto just needs a good PR rep,” a dad jokes to his son after reading the formal definition of planet and figuring out why Pluto isn’t one.

“Pluto’s a dog.” “I know it’s a dog. It’s also a dwarf planet,” two friends banter back and forth.

These were a few quotes I overheard while eavesdropping at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum a few weeks ago. Pluto, though demoted from a planet to a dwarf planet in 2006 for failing to “clear the neighborhood of its orbit,” remains part of the “Exploring the Planets” exhibit. A scale model of New Horizons—the probe that made its closest approach to the icy underdog on July 14, 2015—hangs above a kiosk that in bright yellow letters reads “Exploring Pluto.” A screen shows the latest images and encourages users to visit the New Horizon’s website with even more information. One teenager passes by and explains to his mom, with confusion, that New Horizons has reached Pluto (though at the time it was still a few weeks away). The mom sighs, “poor Pluto.”

Model of New Horizons spacecraft at Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Photo by author.

Image: Model of New Horizons spacecraft at Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Photo by author.

Today, a week after New Horizon’s closest approach, can we say we have now explored Pluto? What does it mean to explore a body so distant, incomprehensibly beyond and incapable of human being? And, importantly, who’s the “we” lauding humanity’s new found Plutonian knowledge and what does that mean for politics of contemporary exploration?

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The Life and Times of Minerals

July 14th, 2015, by § 1 Comment

Reprinted by permission, Vandall King

Image: Flowers of the Mineral Kingdom cover. Reprinted by permission of Vandall King.

On the “Flowers of the Mineral Kingdom” Facebook group and on Pinterest, collectors and enthusiasts post photos of minerals that resemble flowers or are flower-like in their delicacy and beauty. Specific mineral species that look like flowers are also called by names like “desert rose” or “azurite blossom.” Two well-received books by the collector and amateur historian Van King, entitled Nature’s Garden of Crystals and Flowers of the Mineral Kingdom, are illustrative examples of this interest. A lily blooms in a single year and calcite crystals over millions of years, but comparing them—or indeed, calling one by the name of the other—is not uncommon among these mineral collectors. « Read the rest of this entry »

High-Tech Hand Work: When humans replace computers, what does it mean for jobs and for technological change?

July 7th, 2015, by § 4 Comments

Are computers coming for our jobs? A new wave of worry about “the end of work” and “the jobless future” has arisen of late among professors and pundits alike. Innovations in artificial intelligence and the rise of Internet and mobile communications appear to portend a “second machine age” in which an ever-expanding set of human skills will be supplanted by robots and computer programs. The manufacturing jobs that have driven the growth of China’s economy will soon be swallowed up by smart machines. With “big data” and “machine learning” at their disposal, software engineers will create algorithms that make more accurate and less biased judgments than well-trained humans. If automation has threatened manufacturing jobs since the dawn of the factory system, the 21st century will bring a fundamentally new danger: that even the middle-class “knowledge workers” who have managed to survive the past 40 years of structural economic shifts will soon be rendered obsolete.

If contemporary technological advancements seem poised to have far-reaching consequences for workers and societies, then how are these changes playing out inside of a “new economy” software start-up that is at the forefront of replacing at least one kind of human job: that of the broker? « Read the rest of this entry »

In Search of Convergence, In Search of Consensus: Design media in a university architecture studio

June 23rd, 2015, by § Leave a Comment

An architecture student amidst various forms of design media in the studio.

Image: An architecture student amidst various forms of design media in the studio.

That’s not meant to be a comprehensive design drawing. That’s meant to say, ‘Scape is comprised of people, plants, hardscape materials,’ and that’s the language. So, we should squint at it, see the language, accept the language, the density, how it’s allocated over the site, and—boom—move on. But we get struck with confusion that says, ‘What’s that green thing? How does that fit into the scape?’ So we end up having a conversation about what it is we’ve done, or how we’ve done it, or communicated it, rather than the substance of the idea. We have to note that—we can’t build consensus on stuff we can’t communicate—because everyone’s trying to figure out what we’ve done.

With these comments, the architecture professor tried to reclaim control over his students’ design review, which had been sidetracked by the jury’s questioning. The jury, composed of other faculty in the architecture and landscape architecture departments, was confused about a secondary element of a project to redesign the façade and site of an American university school of architecture building. I was there as an ethnographer of architecture pedagogy and design process for a comparative multi-institutional research project involving four Canadian and American schools of architecture. The discussion revolved around a series of digital drawings, and a student’s narration of those drawings, displayed on a large flat screen placed in front of the audience. The time spent trying to parse and probe the “meaning” of the drawings, mediated by both the visual and linguistic dimensions of the presentation, was diluting what the students and their professor had hoped would be the principal thrust of the presentation, and drawing attention to an area of the design that was less well-developed. As Luke, the professor, pointed out, the conversation was not only distracting from the “the substance of the idea” (i.e., the design); it was threatening to undermine consensus—in a sense, the approval of the audience—which would allow the project to move forward.

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Entertaining Science: A report from a colloquy at the intersection of science and entertainment

June 9th, 2015, by § 4 Comments

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Image courtesy the University of Manchester’s Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine.

As you read this post, members of a community of like-minded scholars are unwinding after a weekend symposium at the UK’s University of Manchester. The symposium Stories About Science—Exploring Science Communication and Entertainment Media explored the intersections of science with entertainment from various disciplinary perspectives and as experienced by a diverse range of publics. Organized through the University of Manchester’s Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (CHSTM), the SAS symposium was the brainchild of the Playing God Project of CHSTM ‘s Science and Entertainment Laboratory research group.

So what, you may ask, does any of this have to do with CASTAC? Well, as an anthropologist invested in exploring ethnographically the cultural qualities of humanity’s intersections with science, I was interested in efforts by the symposium’s presenters, not unlike CASTAC’s own, to understand significant cultural aspects of science in contemporary society. Perhaps more intriguingly, I saw it as a potential opportunity to further our goal of fostering discussions between anthropologists and other STS scholars. To that end, I contacted several SAS symposiasts to get a sense of what they presented at SAS. Colloquy topics ran from explorations of gender for fictional television scientists to the ways legitimate scientists are presented in the media to the power of comics in science communication. « Read the rest of this entry »

The Environment’s Environment: Are There Limits to the Anthropocene?

June 2nd, 2015, by § 1 Comment

Today the Anthropocene is everywhere. You may have encountered both scientific and non-scientific articles that begin with this geological greeting: “Welcome to the Anthropocene!” From a geological science perspective, planet Earth—and everything on it—is constantly moving along a timeline, from one distinctive era to another. In 2000, geologists Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer proposed a new name for the current geological epoch: Anthropocene.[1] They argue that this term (which combines the Greek “human” + “new”) should replace ‘Holocene’ (“whole” + “new”) because it best describes an emerging geological condition. Human impact, they explain, is now a wholescale driver of Earthly environmental change.

For its many early adopters, the Anthropocene is a welcome scientific and political concept that expands understandings of human-Earth connections. Yet, while the Anthropocene concept is definitely planetary, I would suggest that it is not wholly Earth-bound. What does a closer examination of the term’s conceptual origins reveal about on-the-ground politics of spatial perception in the Anthropocene? Is there a paradox  between the Anthropocene as an earthly timescale and geological entanglement with the planet’s own environment?

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Image: Aurora lights result when energetic particles from the magnetosphere move into the ionosphere; ionospheric flux can interfere with electronic systems on Earth’s surface as well as in air and orbital spaces. Source: NASA, February 2012.

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SOS! Save Our Sea! California’s Salton Sea demands action, but what kind?

May 26th, 2015, by § Leave a Comment

dead fish on the shoreline

Image: Layers of dead fish and desiccated barnacles at the shores of the Salton Sea, a man-made salt lake maintained by agricultural runoff. Photo by author.

This March, California’s State Water Resources Control Board called for a public workshop to re-evaluate the state of the Salton Sea, a complex and notoriously disastrous salt lake in the southeastern California desert. Nearly 200 people responded to the call, crowding in to a hearing room in downtown Sacramento to give testimony on mitigation and restoration projects, consider drought impacts, argue for the Sea’s environmental and economic value, and discuss the enormous water transfer agreements that threaten to damage it even more. Attempts to define the problem and its stakes have gone on for decades, but it is still far from clear whose fault is it that the Sea is still shrinking, still dying, or still dangerous, or, for that matter, if anyone can (or should) keep trying to fix it. As a semi-permanent disaster landscape, the Salton Sea is best defined not by the fall-out from a singular event nor by the slow accumulation of risk, but by a decades-long dynamic tension between mitigation of danger and restoration of health. “SOS! Save Our Sea!”, a popular slogan of local activists, is both a call to account for an irreversibly toxic present, and a reminder that the Sea was and still is a vibrant place worth saving. « Read the rest of this entry »

The Hastings Mill as Ecological Machine: Vancouver’s Origin Story

May 19th, 2015, by § Leave a Comment

In Vancouver’s settler origin story, the city begins with a saw mill located in “primeval nature.” Living in the city as a student, I became interested in theories of the relation between economy and ecology, first studying forestry and working in the logging industry, then moving to graduate work in literature and science studies. The origin story of Vancouver stands out as a case study. The city combines an aesthetic regime (in architecture, tourism branding, and so on) focused on proximity to nature with an origin story that goes back to a single sawmill.

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Image: Panorama of the Hastings Mill. Source: City of Vancouver Archive (Public Domain).

For centuries, mills have been technologies at the threshold of ecologic and economic systems, transforming resources into commodities with exchange value. But much research into mills and other sites of industrial processing considers them only as production machines—not as mediators, in Bruno Latour’s sense, that affect how we conceive the nature/economy difference in the first place. In Capital I, Marx writes that “technology reveals the active relation of man to nature.”[1] Is he right? Do what we call humanity and what we call nature exist prior to technologies such as mills, which we define based on their ability to transform nonhuman things into human things? Is communication about nature and society—currently in flux in debates over the Anthropocene and climate change—determined by such technological infrastructure, or does communication move machines into place? These are some of the questions that my case study grounds in Vancouver’s colonial origin story. « Read the rest of this entry »

Making Island Laboratories: What Invasive Species in Mexico Tell Us about Island Ecosystems

May 12th, 2015, by § Leave a Comment

On Isla Pérez, a lionfish floated in a tank of seawater, swimming in lazy circles. Isla Pérez is a small, hot, dry island in the Gulf of Mexico, part of the appealingly named archipelago Arrecife Alacranes, or Scorpion Reef. The island has no permanent human population, although there are temporary residents—members of the Mexican Navy and ecologists from a variety of non-governmental organizations.

Arrecife Alacranes

Image: Arrecife Alacranes. Photo by author.

I had arrived on the island on a Mexican Navy boat earlier that morning, traveling with a group of scientists from Grupo de Ecología y Conservación de Islas, a Mexican NGO devoted to island conservation with particular expertise in invasive species eradication and the restoration of native ecologies. The NGO had come to the archipelago in order to study the flora and fauna in advance of a planned eradication project. I am an anthropologist, and I had joined the expedition in order to conduct participant observation research.[1] The lionfish in the tank—like the iconic palm tree many of us associate with tropical islands—was an invasive species. The presence of the fish was a reminder that while islands are imagined to be isolated and separate, they are densely connected to broader human and ecological worlds. « Read the rest of this entry »

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Post about initial observations, ongoing work, or research results. Email plange@cca.edu.