Category: Research

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...)

How Not to Be a Bot: An Interview with Natasha Dow Schüll

Natasha Dow Schüll is a cultural anthropologist and associate professor in New York University’s Department of Media, Culture, and Communication. In her 2012 book Addiction by Design, she explores how electronic slot machines facilitate the compulsive behavior of gambling addicts through their digital interfaces. Informed by extensive ethnographic research among designers and users, the book details how the interrelationship between humans and digital media is engineered and experienced, and how it relates to the demands and logics of life in contemporary capitalist society. In current research, Schüll has shifted her focus to the design and use of digital self-tracking technologies. Her recent article, “Abiding Chance: Online Poker and the Software of Self-Discipline,” which provides the starting point for the following interview, bridges her first and second projects. Adam Webb-Orenstein: What brought you to focus on players of online poker and how is this work related to the concerns of your (more...)

Living with Water Part II: A Tour of New Orleans’ Resilience District

This post is the second in a two-part series on water management in New Orleans. Read part one here. By adapting our city to our natural environment and the risks of climate change, we can create opportunities for all New Orleanians to thrive. – From Resilient New Orleans (2015: 4) “The Gentilly Resilience District will be a model for how other neighborhoods in New Orleans, across the region, and across the country, can adapt to thrive in a changing environment,” Derek reads aloud. A fellow with the Rockefeller Foundations 100 Resilient Cities, he explains to me the vital role the Urban Water Plan plays in the Resilient New Orleans initiative. Derek was trained in Urban Planning, and describes himself as an “ethnography sympathizer.” He had offered to take me on a tour of the Gentilly Resilience District, a model city space for the application of Urban Water Plan designs and community (more...)

Living with Water in New Orleans

This post is the first in a two-part series on water management in New Orleans. In September 2013, just days after the eighth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans officials unveiled a new approach to water management in the city: the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan. After centuries engineering ways to exclude water from the city (through levees, flood walls, and drainage pumps), city officials now hoped to reintegrate water into the landscape. In building new ways of “living with water,” the authors of the plan hoped to create a more sustainable New Orleans—especially in the face of growing threats from climate change. But with many neighborhoods still rebounding from Hurricane Katrina, residents questioned what these restoration projects might mean for their communities. The story of water management in New Orleans is entangled with issues of race and class, infrastructure and development, and the politics of sustainability—issues that, as recent flooding in (more...)

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...)