Category: Research

The Nerd is Dead, Long Live the Nerd!

Editor’s note: This is a co-authored post by Lina Eklund and Evan Conaway. On the internet, a war for identity is being fought in the previously hidden depths of nerd subcultures. In this post we offer a view from the trenches,  examining the rise of a new nerd as different opposing sides embrace the networked structure of online social life. We propose that shifting nerd identities offer new venues for thinking through how technology shapes and is shaped by culture. During the last half-decade, “alt-righters” (we are using the term loosely) and so-called “social justice warriors” (or SJWs) have exchanged blows on social media networks, forums, news-sites, etc. Seemingly everywhere on the internet the right to define oneself as a nerd is being contested at institutional, commercial, technical, and social levels. Originally the preoccupation of a select group of white men, being a nerd is now available to everyone, everywhere as subcultures expand into mainstream culture. (read more...)

Lists, Indices and the Ownership of Biodiversity Conservation

Prior to the emergence of “biodiversity loss” as a ubiquitous way of talking about species extinctions in the 1990s, taxonomic biology was considered a dying field. The physical inspection of specimens to assign them to biological categories had long had a reputation as a hobby for “crusty old men and their dusty shelves”, as one botanist joked during my research in Ecuador. Biology’s cutting edge was genomics. But with an explosion of concern for a global extinction crisis, taxonomically-trained biologists and their cheap, low-tech methods occupied a central role in 1990s Latin American conservation efforts (e.g. Raven and Wilson 1991). In this post, I briefly consider how taxonomically-oriented field biology relates to other, typically quantitative ways of evaluating biodiversity. Taxonomy played an important role in establishing where conservation should focus its efforts. An increased emphasis on quantitatively linking biodiversity to other environmental problems has meant an increased role for other kinds of expertise (Gabrys 2016). It has also meant a return to the margins for taxonomic expertise. Examining the tools used to evaluate the biotic environment sheds light, both on the different kinds of questions that can be asked about it, and on the shifting place of different kinds of expertise in environmental governance. (read more...)

The Heliopolitics of Data Center Security

From Cyberattack to Solar Attack The small-scale cyberattack, characteristic of the late-twentieth century, has long dominated discourses and practices of data center security. Lately, however, these fears are increasingly giving way to concerns over large-scale, existential risks posed by solar activity. Increasing numbers of data centers are going to extreme measures to protect their facilities from solar flares, solar energetic particles and Coronal Mass Ejections – collectively referred to as “space weather”. As data centers are put into circulation with what Georges Bataille famously called the sun’s “superabundance of energy” (1991:29), the act of protecting digital-industrial infrastructure takes on strangely mythical dimensions. In this post, I would like to briefly explore the business end of the mythical dispositif that arises from the surreal and distinctly Bataillean meeting of data centers and the sun. (read more...)

Trolling and the Alt-Right in Japan (Part 1)

I was only a couple of months into my fieldwork when I met Masa. I had been focusing my attention on innovation and politics within the major Japanese TV networks, but he drew my attention to a different kind of media organization: The Free Press Association of Japan, now defunct. At the time, he identified with its founder, Takashi Uesugi, who had made a name for himself as one of the country’s most prominent crusaders for Japanese journalism reform. Masa liked anyone who flouted convention, and the mainstream media’s disparagement of Uesugi for not having attended a high-ranked university only served to endear him further to Masa, who himself had not attended college. It was from Masa that I first heard about chemtrails (kemutoreiru) – the notion that the white trails that aircraft leave in their wake represent a chemical form of meteorological or biological manipulation. He began forwarding me articles and links to documentaries exposing Japanese and American government cover-ups. Unemployed, he spent most of his days on the Japanese bulletin board, 2ch (ni chan). He was my first encounter with the Japanese internet alt-right (the netto uyoku), the beginning of an inadvertent deep-dive into one of the most vocal factions in the Japanese internet. (read more...)

Automation and Heteromation: The Future (and Present) of Labor

Editor’s note: This is a co-authored post by Bonnie Nardi and Hamid Ekbia. For the last several years, we have tried to understand how digital technology is changing labor. Of all the alleged causes of disruptions and changes in employment and work—immigrants, free trade, and technology—the last one has received the most extensive debate lately. We review the debate briefly and then discuss our research and how it bears on the questions the debate raises. (read more...)

What if both lines go down? Embedded vulnerability in the U.S. Southwest electrical grid

The climate of the Southwest can be extreme: summer heat that borders on suffocating, and a persistent aridity only alleviated by the violent monsoon storms of late summer. In light of these extremes, built environmental systems form the backbone of regional resilience for the Southwest. Water storage and delivery systems distribute water to otherwise dry areas, and a utility grid powers interior climate control and regional water pumping systems. Yet this resilience sits in precarious balance: if these systems are disrupted, damaged, or rendered inoperable, they lose their protective effect. In design and practice, they contribute to regional resilience, but in theory, they can also amplify vulnerability and the potential for disaster if they falter, given the reliance on these systems to cope with, and thrive in, a hostile environment. The fire season of 2011 highlights one such example. (read more...)

Driving in the Postcolony: Jennifer Hart on Automobiles and Infrastructure in Ghana

Editor’s note: In Ghana on the Go, Jennifer Hart tells the history of how being a driver in Ghana became a contested vocation. Today on Platypus, she talks with Ilana Gershon about her work on infrastructure and profession. They talk through how driving emerged as a profession in the context of British colonial efforts to strategically introduce transportation technology, and about how this history has shaped the current precarious and often stigmatized nature of the job.  Ultimately, Hart argues that the history of Ghanaian roads and motor cars is also a history of how integral human labor and labor conditions are to the development of infrastructures generally. Ilana Gershon: What is striking and possibly unexpected about your book is that to tell the history of Ghanaian drivers is also to tell the history of infrastructure.  Indeed, you make a very compelling case for how studies of infrastructure need to become far more conscious of labor history once we accept that humans are integral parts of evolving infrastructure.   If you were going to explain the arc of your book as a history of human infrastructure, what are one or two of the changes in Ghanaian drivers’ lives over the course of the twentieth century that you would want readers to know about? Jennifer Hart: We often write and talk about the culture of automobility as globally homogenous – an implicit byproduct of the technology of the motor vehicle. It becomes a sort of narrative trope. Paul Edwards called roads the “invisible, unremarked basis of modernity.” But the history of Ghanaian drivers highlights that this technological and infrastructural story was profoundly shaped by the people who use that technology and infrastructure. In the Gold Coast, early vehicles were imported by European administrators and import companies and used as symbols of political domination and control. Cocoa farmers, who used their profits to invest in motor vehicles and employed them to transport cocoa between rural farms and coastal ports in the 1930s and 1940s, created the foundation for a new culture of motor transportation in the colonial Gold Coast. African entrepreneurs, who purchased and operated motor vehicles, controlled this new form of automobility, using the technology to transport goods and people throughout the colony.  That autonomy and control over technology positioned drivers as respectable members of modern society, providing a public service for private profit. The growth of cocoa farming enabled Africans to purchase and deploy motor transportation to expand the economic, social, and cultural possibilities for a wide array of Ghanaians in the colonial and early postcolonial period.   (read more...)

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...)