Worlding Anthropologies of Technosciences?

October 28th, 2014, by § Leave a 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.

In order to help increase diversity of perspectives, Sharon Traweek and I organized a 4S panel on the relationships between STS and anthropology with a focus on the past, present, and future of the exchange among national traditions. The idea came out of our conversations about the intersections between science studies and the US anthropology of the late 1980’s with the work of CASTAC pioneers such as Diana Forsythe, Gary Downey, Joseph Dumit, David Hakken, David Hess, and Sharon Traweek, among several others who helped to establish the technosciences as legitimate domains of anthropological inquiry. It was not an easy battle, as Chris Furlow’s post on the history of CASTAC reminded us, but the results are undeniably all around us today. Panels on anthropology of science and technology can always be found at professional meetings. Publications on science and technology have space in various journals and the attention of university publishers these days.

For our panel this year we had the opening remarks of Gary Downey who, after reading our proposal aloud, emphasized the importance of advancing a cultural critique of science and technology through a situated, grounded stance. Quoting Marcus and Fischer’s “Anthropology as Cultural Critique” (1986) he emphasized that anthropology of science and technology could not dispense with the reflection upon the place, the situation, and the positioning of the anthropologist. Downey described his own positioning as an anthropologist and critical participant in engineering. Two decades ago Downey challenged the project of “anthropology as cultural critique” to speak widely to audiences outside anthropology and to practice anthropology as cultural critique, as suggested by the title of his early AAA paper, “Outside the Hotel”.

Yet “Anthropology as Cultural Critique” represented, he pointed out, one of the earliest reflexive calls in US anthropology for us to rethink canonical fieldwork orientations and our approach to the craft of ethnography with its representational politics. Downey and many others who invented new spaces to advance critical agendas in the context of science and technology did so by adding to the identity of the anthropologist other identities and responsibilities, such as that of former mechanical engineer, laboratory physicist, theologian, and experimenter of alternative forms of sociality, etc. These overlapping and intersecting identities opened up a whole field of possibilities for renewed modes of inquiry which, after “Anthropology as Cultural Critique”, consisted, as Downey suggested, in the juxtaposition of knowledge, forms of expertise, positionalities, and commitments. This is where we operate as STS scholars: at intersecting research areas, bridging “fault lines” (as Traweek’s felicitous expression puts it), and doing anthropology with and not without anthropologists.

The order of presentations for our panel was defined in a way to elicit contrasts and parallels between different modes of inquiry, grounded in different national anthropological traditions. The first session had Marko Monteiro (UNICAMP), Renzo Taddei (UNIFESP), Luis Felipe R. Murillo (UCLA), and Aalok Khandekar (Maastricht University) as presenters and Michael M. J. Fischer (MIT) as commentator. Marko Monteiro, an anthropologist working for an interdisciplinary program in science and technology policy in Brazil addressed questions of scientific modeling and State policy regarding the issue of deforestation in the Amazon. His paper presented the challenges of conducting multi-sited ethnography alongside multinational science collaborations, and described how scientific modeling for the Amazalert project was designed to accommodate natural and sociocultural differences with the goal of informing public policy. In the context of his ethnographic work, Monteiro soon found himself in a double position as a panelist expert and as an anthropologist interested in how different groups of scientists and policy makers negotiate the incorporation of “social life” through a “politics of associations.”

Similarly to Monteiro’s positioning, Khandekar benefited in his ethnographic work for being an active participant and serving as the organizer of expert panels involving STS scholars and scientists to design nanotechnology-based development programs in India. Drawing from Fischer’s notion of “third space”, Khandekar addressed how India could be framed productively as such for being a fertile ground for conceptual work where cross-disciplinary efforts have articulated humanities and technosciences under the rubric of innovation. Serving as a knowledge broker for an international collaboration involving India, Kenya, South Africa, and the Netherlands on nanotechnology, Khandekar had first-hand experience in promoting “third spaces” as postcolonial places for cross-disciplinary exchange through story telling.

Shifting the conversation to the context of computing and political action, Luis Felipe R. Murillo’s paper described a controversy surrounding the proposal of a “feminist programming language” and discussed the ways in which it provides access to the contemporary technopolitical dynamics of computing. The feminist programming language parody served as an entry point to analyze how language ideologies render symbolic boundaries visible, highlighting fundamental aspects of socialization in the context of computing in order to reproduce concepts and notions of the possible, logical, and desirable technical solutions. In respect to socioeconomic and political divisions, he suggested that feminist approaches in their intersectionality became highly controversial for addressing publicly systemic inequalities that are transversal to the context of computing and characterize a South that is imbricated in the North of “big computing” (an apparatus that encompasses computer science, information technology industries, infrastructures, and cultures with their reinvented peripheries within the global North and South).

Renzo Taddei recasted the debate regarding belief in magic drawing from a long lasting thread of anthropological research on logical reasoning and cultural specificity. Taddei opened up his take on our conversation with the assertion that to conduct ethnography on witchcraft assuming that it does not exist is fundamentally ethnocentric. This observation was meant to take us the core of his concerns regarding climate sciences vis-à-vis traditional Brazilian forms of forecasting from Sertão, a semi-arid and extremely impoverished area of the Northeast of Brazil. He then proceeded to discuss magical manipulation of the atmosphere from native and Afro-Brazilian perspectives in Brazil.

For the second day of our panel, we had papers by Kim Fortun (RPI), Mike Fortun (RPI), Sharon Traweek (UCLA) and the commentary of Claudia Fonseca (UFRGS) whose long-term contributions to study of adoption, popular culture, science and human rights in Brazil has been highly influential. In her paper, Kim Fortun addressed the double bind of expertise, the in-between of competence and hubris, structural risk and unpredictability of the very infrastructures experts are called upon to take responsibility. Fortun’s call was for a mode of interaction and engagement among science and humanities scholars oriented toward friendship and hospitality as well as commitment for our technoscientific futures under the aegis of late industrialism. “Ethnographic insight”, according to Fortun, “can loop back into the world” through the means of creative pedagogies which are attentive to the fact that science practitioners and STS scholars mobilize different analytic lenses while speaking through and negotiating with distinct discursive registers in the context of international collaborations. Our assumptions of what is conceptually shared should not anticipate what is to be seen or forged in the context of our international exchange, since what is foregrounded in discourse always implicates one form or another of erasure. The image Fortun suggested for us to think with is not that of a network, but that of a kaleidoscope in which the complexity of disasters can be seen across multiple dimensions and scales in their imbrication at every turn.

In his presentation, Michael Fortun questioned the so-called “ontological turn” to recast the “hauntological” dimensions of our research practices vis-à-vis those of our colleagues in the biosciences, that is, to account for the imponderables of scientific and anthropological languages and practices through the lens of a poststructural understanding of the historical functioning of language. In his study of asthma, Fortun attends to multiple perspectives and experiences with asthma across national, socioeconomic, scientific and technical scales. In the context of his project “The Asthma Files”, he suggests, alongside Kim Fortun, hospitality and friendship as frames for engaging instead of disciplining the contingency of ethnographic encounters and ethnographic projects. For future collaborations, two directions are suggested: 1) investigating and experimenting with modes of care and 2) designing collaborative digital platforms for experimental ethnography. The former is related to the scientists care for their instruments, methods, theories, intellectual reproduction, infrastructures, and problems in their particular research fields, while the latter poses the question of care among ourselves and the construction of digital platforms to facilitate and foster collaboration in anthropology.

This panel was closed with Sharon Traweek’s paper on multi-scalar complexity of contemporary scientific collaborations, based on her current research on data practices and gender imbalance in astronomy. Drawing from concepts of meshwork and excess proposed by researchers with distinct intellectual projects such as Jennifer McWeeny, Arturo Escobar, Susan Paulson, and Tim Ingold, Traweek discussed billion-dollar science projects which involve multiple research communities clustered around a few recent research devices and facilities, such as the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile and the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in France. In the space of ongoing transformations of big science toward partially-global science, women and ethnic minorities are building meshworks as overlapping networks in their attempts to build careers in astronomy. Traweek proposed a revision of the notion of “enrollment” to account for the ways in which mega projects in science are sustained for decades of planning, development, construction, and operation at excessive scales which require more than support and consensus. Mega projects in the technosciences are, in Traweek’s terms, “over-determined collages that get built and used” by international teams with “glocal” structures of governance and funding.

In his concluding remarks Michael M. J. Fischer addressed the relationship between anthropology and STS through three organizing axes: time, topic, and audiences. As a question of time, a quarter century has passed for the shared history of STS and anthropology and probing questions have been asked and explored in the technosciences in respect to its apparatuses, codes, languages, life cycle of machines, educational curricula, personal and technical trajectories, which is well represented in one of the foundational texts of our field, Traweek’s “Beamtimes and Lifetimes” (1988). Traweek has helped establish a distinctive anthropological style “working alongside scientists and engineers through juxtaposition not against them.” In respect to the relationships between anthropology and STS, Fischer raised the question of pedagogies as, at once, a prominent form of engagement in the technosciences as well as an anthropological mode of engagement with the technosciences. The common thread connecting all the panel contributions was the potential for new pedagogies to emerge with the contribution of world anthropologies of sciences and technologies. That is, in the space of socialization of scientists, engineers, and the public, space of the convention, as well as invention, and knowledge-making, all the presenters addressed the question of how to advance an anthropology of science and technology with forms of participation, as Fischer suggests, as productive critique. 

Along similar lines, Claudia Fonseca offered closing remarks about her own trajectory and the persistence of national anthropological traditions informing our cross-dialogs and border crossings. Known in Brazil as an “anthropologist with an accent”, an anthropologist born in the US, trained in France, and based in Brazil for the most part of her academic life, she cannot help but emphasize the style and forms of engagement that are specific to Brazilian anthropology which has a tradition of conducting ethnography at home. The panel served, in sum, for the participants to find a common thread connecting a rather disparate set of papers and for advancing a form of dialogue across national traditions and modes of engagement which is attentive to local political histories and (national) anthropological trajectories. As suggested by Michael Fortun, we are just collectively conjuring – with much more empiria than magic – a new beginning in the experimental tradition for world anthropologies of sciences and technologies.

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

October 20th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment


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 »

Technology and Religion: An Interview with Michael Sacasas of The Frailest Thing (Part 1)

October 7th, 2014, by § Leave a 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.)

Thank you for agreeing to an interview for CASTAC. I read your blog on a regular basis, largely because you write cogently on the relationship between religion and technology. Both are traditional anthropological topics currently undergoing a renaissance within the discipline, yet they are not commonly set in explicit conversation. In contrast, you write within a tradition of thought in which technology and religion are commonly set in explicit conversation.

For example, in a February 2014 post, Traditions of Technological Criticism, you suggestively compare the place of theology as an organizing and animating principle in the medieval university to the place of technology in the modern university. Can you elaborate?

Thank you for the invitation to contribute to the conversation at CASTAC. I’m an outsider to the discipline of anthropology, but I’m glad to hear that there is renewed interest in both religion and technology. As you note, my work, such as it is, has been influenced by scholars who have enriched our understanding of technology by exploring its religious dimensions.

In the post you mention, I’d begun by considering the semantic challenges that arise from the word technology. As Leo Marx noted in an article titled, “Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept,” the term technology initially designated the study of human making; in time it came to designate the things that were made by humans. Marx worried that the word, which became a catch-all for all manner of human-made objects and systems, reified what it sought to name and consequently made possible, perhaps even encouraged, the attribution of agency to “technology” as if it were a force independent of human design, action, etc.

Marx raised a valid point; at the same time, as Langdon Winner has argued, the same vagueness and indeterminacy that led Marx to take issue with technology tells us something about the pervasiveness and opacity of our present technological milieu. It also suggests that we are becoming more aware of the consequences of what we make.

It’s in this context that I suggested we imagine that technology still named a field of study and, if that were the case, that it could serve the same unifying function that theology served in the medieval universities. It was a way of suggesting that technology was a thread that could be traced through most, if not all, disciplines. I imagined this in both the sense that (a) many disciplines now depend on technology for their advance, particularly in the sciences of course, and (b) that each discipline can contribute to our understanding of technology and its place in human affairs. The economist, the social scientist, the anthropologist, the psychologist, the engineer, the philosopher, and so on—each of these can tell us something important about the role of technology in society.

Additionally, as I wrote in that post, we might also think of technology as St. Paul thought of God, as the reality in which “we move and breathe and have our being.” Technology, in other words, is the material base of human culture; it is both a product of culture and that through which culture is produced.

Increasingly, I find that the study of technology is best understood as the study of human beings. The needs technology addresses are human needs. The aspirations, desires, and values expressed by and through technology are human aspirations, desires, and values. Our economic, political, and legal quandaries regarding technology are ultimately about justice for human beings. Etc.

Put all of this together, then, and we might say that all disciplines can speak to the topic of technology and in doing so they ultimately help us understand the contemporary shape of human culture.

I wonder if you can comment on some of the divergences and points of confluence between David Noble’s Religion of Technology, particularly his notion of the “prelapsarian impulse”, and David Nye’s American Technological Sublime. The first work dealing with the perfection of the individual and the latter with the perfection of the American republic.

These two works pair well together. Each considers the religious aspects of the technological project but from different vantage points. I frame their complementary perspectives this way. Noble’s approach is historical, and Nye’s sociological.

For his part, Noble insists that the relationship between religion and technology is not merely metaphorical. It is not simply that we might usefully characterize the relationship people have to their devices, for example, as something akin to worship or idolatry. Rather, it is a matter of historical fact. From roughly the tenth century onward, the advance of technology in the West has been spurred by a quest for transcendence whose point of departure was the Christian theological tradition. (I think it useful to characterize the religion of technology as a Christian heresy.) Noble demonstrated how from the high middle ages through the Renaissance, the early modern period, the Enlightenment, and on into the twentieth century, technological innovation was spurred by the impulse to transcend our natural limitations and perfect our human nature. While the explicitly Christian aspects tended, for the most part, to fall by the wayside over the ensuing centuries, the motives and aspirations driving the development of atomic weaponry, space travel, artificial intelligence, and genetic engineering still reflect this quest for transcendence and perfection. The Transhumanist movement is an excellent example of the religion of technology as Noble understood it.

As you suggest, the motive forces Noble documents tend to focus on the perfection of the individual (although there is also a concurrent hope that technical advance will usher in a new society). In the formative stages of the religion of technology, technology came to be understood as a means toward the recovery of a lost Edenic, or prelapsarian, state of moral, intellectual, and physical perfection. Individuals made in God’s image, but compromised by sin and the resultant curse, could, through technical ingenuity, reverse the effects of the curse and regain their original perfection.

Nye, however, is more interested in a social phenomenon than he is in individual experience. His focus is also narrower, chronologically and geographically: he takes under consideration roughly 200 years of American history. But his conceptual tool kit is a bit broader. While Nye’s argument is grounded in historical research, he frames his investigation philosophically and sociologically. Leaning on Burke and Kant, he theorizes American encounters with new technologies of impressive scale and dynamism as encounters with the sublime (these include, for example, railroads, suspension bridges, skyscrapers, electrified skylines, the Hoover Dam, and the Saturn V rockets). And, in a Durkheimian twist, he shows us how these sublime encounters were channeled within a tradition of public ritual and ceremony that functioned as a civil religion. Furthermore, Nye argued that, in its role as a civil religion, the experience of the technological sublime became a unifying force in American culture.

Nye’s closing chapter discusses what he calls the consumer sublime, a degradation of the American technological sublime into fabricated commercial simulation exemplified by Disney and Las Vegas. In other words, the experience of the technological sublime has been on the decline. But one need only think of the gatherings surrounding the farewell tours of the retired space shuttles and the crowds that gathered for their final launches to see that bursts of the technological sublime as civil religion still occasionally present themselves. The fanfare surrounding the landing of the Mars rover, Curiosity, also exhibited some of the same qualities. On the whole, though, it seems to me that we will see less and less of the technological sublime in its role as a civil religion.

We could say, then, that the difference between Noble and Nye is this. Noble focuses on ideas or beliefs that motivate action, and Nye focuses on practices that channel and shape powerful quasi-spiritual experiences. Or, to put it another way, Nye describes the ritual shape of the religion of technology in its American manifestation.

One last point of complementary difference between both works: Noble helps us understand the forces that have driven technological innovation, and Nye helps us understand how technology has been integrated into American culture after it has been developed and deployed.

Together, they have amply demonstrated that the techno-scientific project in the West has not been the coolly rational and wholly secular affair that it is often assumed to be.

2014 Diana Forsythe Prize Winner: S. Lochlann Jain for Malignant: How Cancer Becomes Us

September 29th, 2014, by § 1 Comment

The Committee on the Anthropology of Science, Technology, and Computing (CASTAC) of the General Anthropology Division (GAD) and the Society for the Anthropology of Work (SAW) announce that S. Lochlann Jain (Stanford University) is the winner of the 2014 Diana Forsythe Prize for her book Malignant: How Cancer Becomes Us (University of California Press, 2013) and that Adriana Petryna (University of Pennsylvania) has been awarded an Honorable Mention for her book When Experiments Travel: Clinical Trials and the Global Search for Human Subjects (Princeton University Press, 2009). The Prize Committee chose these books from among a remarkable set of nominated volumes.

Fashioned as a melancholic and justice-seeking expedition to and through “the kingdom of the ill” and permeated by a raw and highly evocative imagery of the ways “cancer becomes us,” Malignant is a masterpiece. It epitomizes the spirit of Diana Forsythe’s lasting feminist contributions to science and technology studies. Critical and self-reflexive at every turn, Lochlann Jain illuminates the messy, unstable, cultural-historical-biological reality of cancer. With an authorial voice at once intimate and authoritative, she breaks open expert knowledges of all kind and delivers the disturbing news that cancer is part of the American way of life, hard-wired into the operating systems of the U.S. polity and economy. Lochlann Jain also reveals the many ways in which the suffering of cancer patients, particularly women, is sanitized through a set of survivor scripts that cause their own kind of suffering. In our “laboratory of toxic waste” in which accountability is diffuse and hard to pin down, the cancer which wreaks havoc on individual bodies and lives is folded into logics of individual survivorship, statistics, medical knowledge (or its lack), pharmaceutical reason, gendered normativity, and genetic predispositions and becomes impossible to read politically. Malignant speaks expertly to the legacy of Diana Forsythe who was, like Lochlann Jain, concerned with politics behind expert systems of knowledge production and consumption. With its realism, sophisticated analysis, alter politics, joy de vivre and human force, Malignant is anthropology at its best. It will certainly continue to reach and transform multiple audiences and, in the process, open up new fields of inquiry and action.

Adriana Petryna’s When Experiments Travel is recognized and honored for pioneering the anthropological inquiry of the global clinical trials enterprise, for its rich ethnographic contributions to our understanding of health capitalism, and for its original theoretical work on “experimentality” and “ethical variability.” The book provides a rich and compelling account of the organizational cultures and labor regimes of industry-sponsored clinical research, probing scientific, ethical, and regulatory practices and thus exemplifying Diana Forsythe’s lasting contributions to anthropological research on work, science, and technology. Moving between corporate and scientific offices in the United States and research and public health sites in Poland and Brazil, When Experiments Travel documents the complex ways that commercial medical science, with all its benefits and risks, is being integrated into local health systems and emerging drug markets. The ethics of researchers, markets, and patient-subjects are a living evolving practice in which we are all implicated. Bluntly and deftly, the book exposes the contemporary problems of the instrumental use of humans for research and teases out the logic of and gaps in regulatory structures that legitimate experimentality internationally. When Experiments Travel provides academics and the wider public with a vital compass that can help us monitor and interrogate the changing scientific infrastructures of our lives.

The 2014 Diana Forsythe Prize and Honorable Mention will be awarded at the annual American Anthropological Association meetings in Washington DC, during the General Anthropology Division Awards Ceremony and Distinguished Lecture on Friday, December 5, 2015, at 1 pm in the Palladian Ballroom of the Omni Shoreham Hotel.

The Diana Forsythe Prize was created in 1998 to celebrate the best book or series of published articles in the spirit of Diana Forsythe’s feminist anthropological research on work, science, and technology, including biomedicine. The Prize is supported by Bern Shen. João Biehl, Stefan Helmreich, and Nina E. Brown composed this year’s Forsythe Prize Committee.

For more about The Diana Forsythe Prize:

“Let it Flow Down the Long Grey Line:” The West Point Class Ring Memorial Melt

September 15th, 2014, by § 3 Comments

In a light-industrial district of Warwick, Rhode Island stands a long low concrete building. It is much like the surrounding buildings, with shipping bays, offices with windows, numerous vents, and a large chimney, but with a more spruced-up presentation than its neighbors and a sign in front discreetly announcing its business: Pease & Curren Refiners. Pease & Curren has served jewelry makers, pawn shops and dental laboratories since 1916. It receives jewelry, plate and scrap from these clients and refines them to extract gold, silver, platinum and palladium.

On February 24, 2014, Pease & Curren provided its refining service in a rather different context, hosting the 14th Annual West Point Class Ring Memorial Melt. Each year since 2000, West Point graduates and the families of deceased graduates have donated the gold rings to be melted down and joined with a gold sample from which future class rings are forged; so far 322 rings have been donated. The industrial process of turning solid gold into liquid and back again is a central part of the ceremony. « Read the rest of this entry »

Note from the Field: Charting Territories without Maps

September 9th, 2014, by § 2 Comments

The Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos) does not have postal codes, street addresses, or mail delivery. Streets rarely have codified names. Since I started doing fieldwork in Laos in 2012, I have been fascinated by the ingenious maps that people make to navigate a country without codes. Every day, people make-do by making their own maps. Map making technologies (like GPS, digital mapping software, graph paper) are also important tools for my informants in the bomb clearance sector, where I do much of my fieldwork. Here, as well, people learn to make do by making their own maps. The present writing, however, is the first time that I have consciously tried to chart the source of my fascination.

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John Hartigan on Multispecies Ethnography

August 26th, 2014, by § 1 Comment

Many scholars in anthropology and science studies have sought new ways to engage social life beyond commonsense nature-culture divides, which obscure how humans and non-human life forms like animals, plants, and microbes live with and impact one another.  One approach to these cross-species relations is multispecies ethnography, which, to quote a recent article by S. Eben Kirksey and Stefan Helmreich, explores “the host of organisms whose lives and death are linked to human social worlds.” The “multispecies turn” has given rise to fruitful collaborations between anthropologists and scholars in biology and the natural sciences, producing new knowledge about the world and its possibilities. Research on naturecultures and biocultures has demonstrated that what we take to be human nature is actually an interspecies relationship (Tsing 2010), born of countless interactions across different forms of life. At the same time, it offers crucial perspective on the ways in which human action impacts the world with (often devastating) consequences for the biosphere, compelling us to consider what forms of harm and care we live with and propagate on a daily basis.

I recently asked anthropologist John Hartigan how he makes use of such approaches (and, more broadly, of the concepts that inform multispecies thinking) in his own work at the intersection of anthropology and science studies. As Director of the Americo Paredes Center for Cultural Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, John has long used cultural analysis to engage questions of race in contemporary American culture. He is now working increasingly in Latin America and Europe, where he employs cultural analysis and science studies perspectives to explore cultures of plant cultivation, including corn in Mexico and botanical gardens in Spain. One of his current projects is a weblog entitled Aesop’s Anthropology, where he thinks through a variety of multispecies topics, interweaving ethnographic description with classical and emergent social theory.  John was recently featured alongside other ethnographers and artists in a webcast by the Multispecies Salon entitled “How to Interview a Plant,” which can be viewed here.
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Public Numbers, Public Land: Learning to Count Trees in British Columbia

August 19th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

2001 was a long year for British Columbia’s (BC’s) Ministry of Forests. In April, provincial elections replaced the incumbent New Democratic Party (NDP) with Gordon Campbell and the BC Liberals, a right-leaning party sharing little but name with the Liberal Party covering the rest of Canada. By the end of the year, the province’s “dirt ministries” were in flux. An assortment of public institutions covering provincial forests, lands, mines, geology, parks, and fisheries, the dirt ministries and their matters rarely reach the headlines of the Vancouver Sun or the Victoria Times Colonist. Even before entitlement spending began to dominate provincial budgets in the 1990s, BC’s public mines inspectors and forestry researchers commanded a relatively meager share of the provincial budget. Members of the Ministry of Forests maintained a particularly low profile, despite being managers of a land base covering half a million square kilometers (think all of Ukraine, or Madagascar), an economic sector generating an eleven figure annual revenue for the province, and a job source for close to half the residents of BC’s sprawling rural north. Foresters periodically appeared in the news only to offer up seemingly self-explanatory numbers – this many cubic meters of lumber harvested last year, that many hectares of forest lost to fire. After 2001, however, deciding which forests get counted, who (or what) counts them, and how, got a lot messier.

Enter Dendroctonus ponderosae – the mountain pine beetle.

Beetle-killed pine, in red. (Photo by Tom Ozden-Schilling)

Beetle-killed pine, in red. (Photo by author)

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Red Lights, Dark Nights, and Heavenly Bodies – Field Notes from a Star Party

July 29th, 2014, by § 6 Comments

For a fleeting moment, I am blind. Standing frozen in the dark, I am afraid to take even a single step while waiting for my pupillary light reflex to kick in. Happy voices murmur in the deep darkness that envelops me. As I begin to dimly make out my surroundings, I look up to a black sky with a billion celestial objects bisected by the Milky Way and circumscribed by the mountain peaks that surround me. Another moonless, mid-summer night and I’ve returned to the field to continue a multi-year ethnographic study of North American avocational astronomers at their annual “star party.”

For those unfamiliar, star parties are ritualized stargazing events sponsored and hosted by recreational astronomy clubs that bring participants together in remote locations to observe the night sky. Part science, part party, star parties serve as a way of connecting with others around a telescope. Beyond simply forms of serious leisure, star parties also serve as venues for informal learning and opportunities for community-building.

M33 Hubble 2003

M33, the Triangulum galaxy. The view from terrestrial telescopes are far less impressive than this Hubble image, yet the thrill of seeing it at a star party is rather inexplicable. (Photo courtesy NASA)

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Governing with Big Data: The Indian Unique Identification Project and Information Determinism

July 15th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

The relationship between surveillance, big data and state power has been vociferously debated in both academic and popular press over the past several months (Boellerstoff 2013 and Crawford et al. 2014 among others). But what of instances where states leverage big data without an explicit surveillance focus? What kinds of questions should we be asking when big data appears in a project that doesn’t focus on, say, “security” (which we associate directly with surveillance) but on “welfare” or “development”? In this post, I explore this theme in the context of the ongoing Indian Unique Identification (UID) project (also known as “Aadhaar” or Foundation). The state-backed UID project wants to issue biometric-based identity numbers to all Indian residents, arguing that an ability to uniquely identity individuals is critical to the efficient administration of public welfare schemes. The biometric dataset that the UID is putting together towards its goal is already the largest of its kind in the world.

Speaking of Big Data


Enrollment agent at an enrollment center in a central Indian state
(Photo credit: Aditya Johri)

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