Category: Research

Planticide: Killing Badly Behaved Plants

Walking through the woods near Colby College, Judy Stone gestures rapidly, pointing out plants. Norway maple, bittersweet, honeysuckle, a type of rose. All invasive. We stop for a moment to examine the rose, spending time appreciating its sharp thorns, its capable defenses. She tells me that she often takes groups on walks around Colby, and when this rose was in bloom, people stopped to admire it, look at its flowers, smell it, and talk about how beautiful it is. She didn’t have the heart to tell them that it was an invasive plant. They, like most people, couldn’t see the problems the plant was causing in the forest. They couldn’t see how ugly the invasives made this forest, because they didn’t have any experience with what she termed “nice” forests. The problem is not the arrival of plants from somewhere else violating the purity of a native forest. The classificatory (more...)

Digital Mess as Method

Editor's note: This is the second entry in the Second Project Series. 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. There is a scene in season two of Mr. Robot where a smart house goes bad. Lights flicker, the stereo plays loudly, then cuts off, the alarm systems blares incessantly, and the temperature of the house drops. The wealthy inhabitant flees her domicile in dread. To her management company’s suggestion on how to fix the problem, she screams, “unplug what? Everything is inside the walls!” This scene condenses anxieties about the dark manipulable side of lifestyle technologies into one long jump (more...)

Local Power: The Politics of Renewables in California

“This is something you won’t find written down,” says George, watching intently for my reaction. “But it’s been agreed upon at the highest level of government—the highest level—that the California desert is designated as a sacrifice zone. We are worth sacrificing.” He holds my gaze, making sure I take down what he says word for word. George speaks with confidence and ease, a natural choice for the face of his neighborhood conservation group. “I’ve done the calculations. More renewable energy is available from rooftop solar in San Diego and Los Angeles Counties than will be derived from the large-scale generating facilities on two million acres of desert habitat called for in the Desert Renewable Energy Plan. It doesn’t make sense! But they don’t care, because they’ve decided that we’re a sacrifice zone.” (more…)

Pokémon GO and the visibility of digital infrastructure

This blog post is about the popular augmented reality game, Pokémon GO. If you are unfamiliar and/or want a brief overview of it and its cultural history, this is a useful resource. As a virtual world anthropologist and a Pokémon nerd, I have become immersed in Pokémon GO. As the game continues to gain traction and I wander around meeting strangers and friends who are also playing the game, I have taken note of numerous issues of anthropological concern, like new forms of social interaction and the re-mapping and flattening of cityscapes. Colleagues and I have even speculated about whether Pokémon GO is a virtual world—by which I mean a computer-simulated, persistent, and shared environment online—and, if it is such a world, how it represents one that is visible even to non-players. Participating in and observing the Pokémon GO phenomenon, I’ve found that players have been confronted by another recurring (more...)

The Problem of Expecting Privacy on Social Media

In May of this year, Danish researchers released a data set containing the profile information of 70,000 OkCupid users. OkCupid is a free online dating site to which, as you would expect, users post information in hopes of making a connection. The researchers collected this data by scraping the site, or using code that captures the information available. The data set included usernames, locations, and the answers to the personal questions related to user dating, sexuality, and sexual preferences. In other words, the researchers published personal information that the dating site users would expect to remain, at least theoretically, among the other members of the dating site, and could also be used to discover the users’ real names. But should OkCupid users, and the denizens of social media in general, expect what they post online to not be made “public”? In my last blog post, I briefly pondered the normalization (more...)

Gender and Tech in India: From Numbers to Gender Equality

In the US, technology companies and the press alike regularly frame the debate about gender and technology in terms of a supply problem, arguing that there are too few women in STEM fields. In a previous CASTAC blog post, Samantha Breslin suggested that focusing on the number of women in tech hides the political aspects of the technology sector that oppress marginalized groups more generally.[1] In India, much higher numbers of women enter STEM fields from an early age as compared to the US. For example, in 2008 in the US, women earned only 18% of computer and information science undergraduate degrees, while in 2011 in India women made up 42% of undergraduate students in computer science and engineering. In both technological companies in Silicon Valley and in India women make up roughly 30% of the overall workforce (NASSCOM 2015b; Vara 2015), but in India women now make up over half (more...)

Animal Sex Work

Crouched beneath a stallion’s hot undercarriage, bearing the weight of a two-foot long sterile tube on my shoulder as the horse thrusts into it, I vocally encouraged him to ejaculate along with a team of human handlers dedicated to the business of equine sperm. “Come on, boy,” we all chirp, “don’t stop now!” This particular kind of human-assisted animal sex is repeated all spring and summer long at equine breeding facilities across the globe. The proliferation of Artificial Insemination (AI) techniques and technologies over the past two decades has revolutionized the equine breeding shed, making it possible to produce offspring from two horses with no physical, or even geographical, proximity. As recently as fifteen years ago, performance horse breeders imported actual horses from Europe, Russia, or South America to improve the American strains of particular breeds. Now it is possible to breed American mares to international stallions without either party (more...)

Data Visualizations: The Vitruvian Man, Open Data, and Body Real-Estate

How does data look? The answer to this question is often seen as a matter of Data Visualization, a new field increasingly tasked with the role of imaging and imagining data. As a sign of the times, Strata + Hadoop World, the central conference of data professionals, just hosted its first Data Visualization conference in California. With growing urgency the central issue in this field mirror those that had afflicted design before it: where to draw the line between art and science, fact and fiction, form and function. Seeing data, however, is not simply about the skillful manipulation of statistics into visual form. The way data is represented is necessarily tied up with the way and by whom it is presented. Therefore, to ask how data appears is to think about the broader politics of representation, that is the socio-cultural framework that guides how we are invited to view data, how we expect data to (more...)

The Second Project Project: The Security to Feel Insecure

Editor's note: Platypus is launching a series called "The Second Project Project" that asks scholars to reflect on the process of developing new research projects at the intersection of anthropology, science, technology, and computing. Anthropologists, and most qualitative social scientists and humanities scholars, typically produce book-length research projects rather than series of articles, so the "second project" refers to the next major, book-length research project following the dissertation and  first book. During the week of March 21, I attended the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) international annual conference on developments in virtual reality. Though I had been reading up on virtual reality for the past few months, this was my first dip of the toe into an ethnographic field I hoped to explore in depth. I knew exactly zero people at this 500-person conference. The language on the conference posters in the hallway was mystifying. The thought of (more...)

Does e-Waste Die? Peter Little on Lifecycles and Makerspaces in an “Electronics Graveyard”

Peter Little is an anthropologist and assistant professor at Rhode Island College, and author of Toxic Town: IBM, Pollution, and Industrial Risks (NYU Press 2014). I asked him a few questions about his new project on electronic waste recycling in Ghana. His answers touch on the politics of electronics waste and pollution, surprising links between first and second projects, and the challenge of doing fieldwork in a place that everyone’s talking about. Our conversation below has been edited for length and clarity. Emily Brooks: What was the genesis of your second project? How did you move from Endicott [the field site for Toxic Town] to Ghana? Peter Little: The original project was on a high tech production site, a birthplace of electronics. That led me in to thinking more about the lifecycle of electronics, from production to discard. When we think of electronic waste, China pops up, of course, but more and (more...)