Crowdsourcing the Expert

February 17th, 2015, by § 2 Comments

Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“Crowd” and “cloud” computing are exciting new technologies on the horizon, both for computer science types and also for us STS-types (science and technology studies, that is) who are interested in how different actors put them to (different) uses. Out of these, crowd computing is particularly interesting — as a technique that both improves artificial intelligence (AI) and operates to re-organize work and the workplace. In addition, as Lilly Irani shows, it also performs cultural work, producing the figure of the heroic problem-solving innovator. To this, I want to add a another point: might “human computation and crowdsourcing” (as its practitioners call it) be changing our widely-held ideas about experts and expertise?

Here’s why. I’m puzzled by how crowdsourcing research both valorizes expertise while at the same time sets about replacing the expert with a combination of programs and (non-expert) humans. I’m even more puzzled by how crowd computing experts rarely specify the nature of their own expertise; if crowdsourcing is about replacing experts, then what exactly are these “human computation” experts themselves experts on? Any thoughts, readers? How might we think about the figure of the expert in crowd computing research, given the recent surge of public interest in new forms of — and indeed fears about — this thing called artificial intelligence?

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Country in the Cloud

February 10th, 2015, by § Leave a Comment

We are accustomed to think of the “cloud” as a place-less, formless mass of data floating “out there.” It has even been argued that new computer technologies and the movement of companies’ data “to the cloud” might so transform our inherited notions of time, space, and power that it could mean the end of history, geography, and power.[1] The case of “e-Estonia,” however, challenges this notion: Estonia is a country which, unlike people and companies going “to the cloud,” hopes to actually move itself “into the cloud,” with profound implications for how we understand both the cloud metaphor and geopolitics in the digital age.

Clouds above the boardwalk in Tuhu, Estonia. Copyright  Rene Jakobson, some rights reserved. https://www.flickr.com/photos/renej/3947241936

Clouds above a swamp boardwalk in Tuhu, Estonia. Copyright Rene Jakobson, some rights reserved. https://www.flickr.com/photos/renej/3947241936

e-Estonia

Estonia is a small former Soviet Republic in northern Europe, with a territory of only 45 thousand square kilometers and population of just 1.3 million. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it has made a number of moves towards building a digital state, or, as it is often referred to, an “e-Estonia.” As a Research Fellow with the Centre for Science and Technology Studies of the European University at St. Petersburg, I have been studying how with e-Estonia the “the cloud” actually becomes a new type of space, the contours of which affect other concrete spaces and feed into a new type of nation-building project.

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Developer’s Dilemma and Making as Privilege

February 3rd, 2015, by § Leave a Comment

A book I wrote, Developer’s Dilemma [Press, Amazon Physical Book, Amazon Kindle, iBooks], was recently published by MIT Press. It is an ethnography that explores the secretive everyday worlds of game developers working in the global videogame industry. There is an excerpt of the book over at Culture Digitally if you’re interested in checking out some of the words prior to making a commitment to the rest of the text.

Developer's Dilemma Cover

Developer’s Dilemma Cover

But I didn’t really want to start this year off just plugging my book. I mean, I did plug it. Just then. You should check it out. But that isn’t the point of this post. I recently Skyped into Tom Boellstorff‘s graduate seminar to discuss the book. One of the questions they asked me had to do with “game talk” and if I thought game talk had to do more with boundary policing than it had to do with actually having real utility and functionality. Game talk, in essence, is the use of game names as a shorthand means by which to reference the rather complex mechanics and ideas that set certain games apart. It was a wonderful question, because in the book I write:

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Technology and Religion: An Interview with Michael Sacasas of The Frailest Thing (Part 2)

December 23rd, 2014, by § 1 Comment

(Michael Sacasas is a PhD candidate in the “Texts and Technology” program at The University of Central Florida. He blogs about technology at The Frailest Thing. This post follows on our conversation from earlier in the year which touched on some of the foundational work on the relationship between western religion and technology.)

I am glad you brought up Nye’s pessimism over the consumer sublime and his consternation over the potential drying of the technological well. Nye wrote of the consumer sublime, as embodied by Las Vegas, as a “rush of simulations” and as marking a change from a technological sublime emphasizing production, particularly in the sense of new knowledge, to one concerned solely with consumption. How do you see the relation between simulation and technological production? Do you think Nye’s pessimism is warranted?

Timely question. There’s been more than a little angst of late about technological stagnation, much of it recently associated with PayPal founder Peter Thiel. For the past few years, Thiel has been warning about trends which, in his estimation, suggest that technological innovation may have stalled out over the last thirty or so years. We were promised flying cars, he is fond of saying, and we got 140 characters instead (a passing shot at Twitter, of course).
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AAA 2014 STS Recap

December 17th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

This year’s American Anthropological Association Meeting saw a number of active CASTAC and STS-inspired panels, many of which featured scholars from our own community. We discussed engaging with the Anthropocene, which is becoming a hot new topic, perhaps replacing the ontological focus from last year. Panelists explored whether this term is the “gift” that Latour proposes. The meeting also saw fascinating explorations of issues in design and elitism, as well as theoretical and methodological issues that we must all consider when moving our research trajectory from “studying up” to “studying with.”

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Misanthropology?

December 9th, 2014, by § 1 Comment

This anthropocene thing has really taken hold. We’re caught in the grips of extinction, visualizing our own end (or at least visualizing the data of our own end), urgently calling upon each other to act, convincing ourselves that we have the power – scientifically, technologically and maybe politically – to do something about it. We can organize marches, resurrect species, bank seeds, manipulate clouds, make videos of collapsing ice caps, drive hybrids, fly to space stations. Of course, our worry over the planet’s health is narcissistic, in the end. It’s not the planet’s survival we are worried about. It’s our own, human future.

These anthropocentric worries over human continuity make for a strange tension in the theoretical moment: they are appearing just as a range of disanthropic moves have attempted to decenter and displace the human as subject, agent, or figure: Actor-Network Theory, Post-Humanism, multi- and interspecies analytics, Object Oriented and other “ontological” turns, speculative realism and new materialism, to name a few. Despite this turn away from the human, however, the final disappearance of the species seems to mark a limit for most disanthropic theorists; few welcome the possibility of human extinction. Disanthropy yes, misanthropy no. « Read the rest of this entry »

The Pulse of the City

November 11th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

In October 2014, New York University’s Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP) unveiled the Urban Observatory, as part of an urban informatics initiative for monitoring, recording, and modeling the actions and nonactions of New York City. Inspired by research methods in observational astronomy, the scientists at CUSP placed an 8 megapixel camera on top of a building in Downtown Brooklyn, which shoots one panoramic, long-distance image of Lower and Midtown Manhattan every 10 seconds. Using the Urban Observatory and a network of similar sensors, the scientists at CUSP are attempting to capture what they call “the pulse of the city,” formulating massive data sets that provide information regarding various domains of everyday life, ranging from energy efficiency to the detection of toxic releases. As urban informatics professionals, they imagine that the collected data will serve as “raw material” for policy making — once they have access to this raw material, the CUSP scientists will be able to model their predictions, and hope to ultimately (somehow) manufacture the steps required to reduce electricity consumption in office buildings, or to generate emergency responses to hazardous substances.
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Notes from the Field: Water from the Ground, Water from Space

November 3rd, 2014, by § 1 Comment

“Are you here?” asks a “satellite view” map in downtown Borrego Springs

“Are you here?” asks a “satellite view” map in downtown Borrego Springs. Photo by author.

As of late October, nearly 60% of California faces conditions of “exceptional drought,” a category that the National Drought Mitigation Center refers to as indicating “exceptional and widespread crop/pasture losses,” with “shortages of water in reservoirs, steams and wells creating water emergencies”. Mandatory conservation measures are in effect across the state, and Governor Brown recently signed a Sustainable Groundwater Management Act that will tighten regulation of California’s notoriously under-managed groundwater supply.

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Worlding Anthropologies of Technosciences?

October 28th, 2014, by § 1 Comment

The past 4S meeting in Buenos Aires made visible the expansion of STS to various regions of the globe. Those of us who happened to be at the 4S meeting at University of Tokyo four years ago will remember the excitement of having the opportunity to work side-by-side with STS scholars from East and Southeast Asia. The same opportunity for worlding STS was opened again this past summer in Buenos Aires.

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The 2014 Ebola Outbreak: How Many Deaths Will it Take?

October 20th, 2014, by § 1 Comment

Ebola

The Ebola Virus
Photo: CDC Global

When I began writing this brief statement in mid-September, 2,630 deaths had been attributed to probable, suspected, or confirmed cases of Ebola. The World Health Organization projected as many as 20,000 cases in the West African region before the outbreak could be brought under control. The epidemic had received little news coverage and felt, to many in the U.S., as yet another disaster taking place in countries reputed for their many dangers. By mid-October, 4,033 Ebola deaths had been reported by the World Health Organization and projections on number of cases had risen to 10,000 per week in West Africa. Concerns are heightening that the epidemic may be a greater threat than originally perceived. The number of news reports providing coverage on the epidemic has increased exponentially, reaching over 30 million by the beginning of October. This dramatic increase appears to be spurred by the death of Thomas Eric Ducan, the first reported death occurring outside the epidemic hotspot of West Africa, which made headline news around the world and sparked fears that the epidemic could spread out-of-control around the globe. « Read the rest of this entry »

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