Category: Research

How (Not) to Talk about AI

Most CASTAC readers familiar with science and technology studies (STS) have probably had conversations with friends—especially friends who are scientists or engineers—that go something like this:  Your friend says that artificial intelligence (AI) is on its way, whether we want it or not.  Programs (or robots, take your pick) will be able to do a lot of tasks that, until now, have always needed humans.  You argue that it’s not so simple; that what we’re seeing is as much a triumph of re-arranging the world as it is of technological innovation. From your point of view, a world of ubiquitous software is being created; which draws on contingent, flexible, just-in-time, human labor; with pervasive interfaces between humans and programs that make one available to the other immediately. Your comments almost always get misinterpreted as a statement that the programs themselves are not really intelligent.  Is that what you believe, your friend asks?  How do you explain all those amazing robot videos then?  “No, no,” you admit, “I am not saying there’s no technological innovation, but it’s complicated, you know.”  Sometimes, at this point, it’s best to end the conversation and move on to other matters. (read more...)

On the Harm in Valuing Fish as “Stock”

A 2016 Report by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations remarks: “About 31.4 percent of the commercial wild fish stocks were overfished in 2013” (emphasis added). What is this authority saying—and what does it mean to say—when it uses the phrase “a fish stock?” What does stock as a native category reveal about the contemporary commitments of the experts most trusted to husband sea creatures under threat? What can be accomplished by attending to this and other terms that saturate discourse in the circles of marine conservation, the ones that treat fish as resources plugged into and benefiting ecosystem services like cogs in a fantastical machine? While conducting ethnographic research about ocean governance I found that even environmentalists regularly peddle the language of stock, so taken for granted and commonplace is the animal in its commodified form. (read more...)

Teaching (Non)Technological Determinism: A Theory of Key Points

How can we account for the radical uncertainty of change when we think about the future, but its seeming inevitability when it comes to the past?  This is, arguably, the hardest part in doing the history and anthropology of technology.  It is also, not surprisingly, the hardest to teach our students.  In what follows, I suggest that the experience of watching (and playing) sports might be of help here. (read more...)

Learning to be Trans on YouTube

Editor’s note: This week, we have a first for the blog: a bilingual post! Esta publicación está disponsible en español aquí. “When I first started to come out as trans, I went straight to YouTube, and watched a bunch of videos trans kids, and then I started to find videos from people my own age.” Sitting in the living room of his parents’ house in suburban Santiago, Chile, days before his double mastectomy in June 2016, Noah told me a story I would hear repeatedly, with surprisingly little variation, over the course of my fieldwork. He continued, “Even then, the reality I saw was very different. The majority were from the US and England, but at least they helped me understand, ‘OK, so you can start to transition at the age of 19 or 20, like me.’” After an adolescence of not knowing quite where he fit, Noah had found a global community of people like himself with the click of his mouse. (read more...)

Data Friction

A few years ago, Paul Edwards and colleagues (2011) introduced a notion of “science friction”—the idea that scientific datasets do not magically fuse together into a readily accessible “open” stockpile, and instead must be communicated and reshaped in order for scientists to collaborate across them.  While it is all too easy to imagine endlessly wired interoperable devices, and bodies thoroughly mediated by fluid streams of measurement, the reality is not that simple. The Data Friction panel at the American Anthropological Association (AAA) meetings this past year attempted to take the idea of science friction further, and ask what else can we see when we turn our attention to frictionful encounters with data.  This panel considered what alternative forms of knowing become possible by paying attention occasions where data fails to be mobile, or to the ways data and bodies resist being bound by models, devices, and infrastructures. What we see when we pay attention to frictions are significant questions of ownership, the slipperiness social relations, and examples of how people inhabit more fundamental social, material and conceptual incommensurabilities that data often surfaces.  These social formations open up broader questions of the work that underlying notions of what constitutes “data” are doing. (read more...)

Cryonics in the Cradle of Technocivilization

Until recently, cryonics typically appeared in the media and in science publications as the butt of jokes or an occasion to delight in scandals, gore, zombies and decapitation. But a convergence of old alliances and new research formations in the cradle of technocivilization have legitimized broadly research into the indefinite extension of life. Today, it no longer surprises me to see prominent mainstream science publications put out serious pieces on cryonics as a credible scientific project. Cryonics, for those who haven’t heard of it, is the practice of freezing and storing human bodies upon legal death, with hopes of future re-animation. In its July 2 issue, The New Scientist carried a cover story called ‘The Resurrection Project,’ with three full features on various aspects of cryonics. In the fall, the MIT Technology Review had published a piece called ‘The Science Surrounding Cryonics,’ written in response to a piece published a month earlier called ‘The False Science of Cryonics’—which in turn was a response to a very popular front page New York Times story documenting the last days of a young woman who, having been diagnosed with terminal cancer, had opted to be cryopreserved upon death. As it has gone about the ever-industrious business of boundary maintenance, institutional science has worked diligently to dismiss cryonics-related work as taboo science. For example, the Society for Cryobiology, the professional association for scientists who work on low temperature preservation of all biological matter, explicitly denies membership to anyone engaged in “freezing deceased persons in anticipation of their reanimation.” (read more...)

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 audience for advertisements. (read 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 alchemy of the pharmakon, that is, turning obstacles into opportunities, transforming poison into a cure. As an emergent social movement in the United States works to trump hate with love, strategies and tactics might be borrowed from Latin American intellectuals who have turned blasted landscapes into flourishing ecosystems, who have worked to ground hopes in shared futures with endangered species. (read 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, which we hope to have ready by the end of the year. About a third of these students have worked on the project since September 2014, when we conducted a door-to door survey across three Philadelphia neighborhoods. Others have joined the team along the way, interested in learning social science research on an active project. Many more, who worked on the first leg or two of the project, have since graduated. Most have stayed in touch and a few continue to collaborate with our group in some way, as professionals in nonprofits or community-based organizations, and also as graduate students in PhD and Master’s programs elsewhere. Among our group there is a real sense of community built around engaged interdisciplinary research focused on environmental health; this sense has been cultivated pedagogically through research design. Across academic contexts, teaching and research are treated separately, and are often pitted against each other. Research, we are told, comes first and teaching, second. To me, the outcomes of such division are ethically problematic. I also believe this division misrepresents our intellectual lives and scholarship. My second project is as much about addressing this misrepresentation as it is environmental health, technoscience, and urban landscapes. There is no question in my mind that teaching research, and collaborating with students has made me a better scholar. (read 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? (read more...)