Category: Uncategorized

The Sargassum Question

Sitting in her office, I could smell the sharp scent of hydrogen sulfide coming from the beach. She turned to me, paused for a second and proceeded to say with a seriousness in her tone that I hadn’t anticipated: The ecosystem that I have been studying all my life is now disappearing in a matter of weeks. Sargasso was once confined to the limits of the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic Ocean. As an ecological system, the Sargasso Sea has no land boundaries and its biological containment relies entirely on a delicate balance of ocean currents. Unlike other ecosystems, it lends itself to an almost poetic reimagination of what an ecosystem is. On the West, the sea bounded by Gulf Stream; on the North, by the North Atlantic Current; on East by the Canary Current; and on the South by the North Equatorial Current. It was first described by Cristopher Columbus in 1492 during his journey to the Americas. Ever since, its origins and movements across the Atlantic Ocean have been a source of debate and wonder. It wasn’t until 1834 that the German botanist Meyen F. J. F. proposed the idea that sargassum was an ecosystem entirely independent of any land, a floating ecosystem. He was also the first person who suggested that sargassum reproduces itself in the middle of the ocean instead of coming from any given territory (Deacon, 1942). (read more...)

Negotiating Ethical Technology Use: Trust and Care in End-of-Life Conversations

  The headline on the local news station’s website was sensational: “Bereaved Family Upset Kaiser Used Robot to Tell Father He Would Die”. Evoking some sort of post-modern dystopia, the article explains that the family “was taken by surprise when a robot rolled into the room” to deliver the news that an elder family member’s illness had progressed past the physician’s ability to treat it. While the robot actually was a remote physician using teleconferencing software to communicate with the patient and his family, the monitor projecting an image of the physician’s head and shoulders sat atop a tall, narrow metal unit reminiscent of a body. The “robot doctor” story was picked up by national news outlets, like the New York Times, and medical ethicists weighed in on the ethics of communicating “sensitive” topics remotely. The news stories problematized the impersonal, almost routinized, care as it was perceived by the family. In one, a representative from the American Medical Association commented, “We should all remember the power of touch – simple human contact – can communicate caring better than words.” (read more...)

Choreographies of Magic and Mess: AusSTS in Melbourne and Darwin

As the presenter encouraged the academics in the room to consider what it means for nanotechnology to sell itself as ‘magic’, boots appeared outside the window behind him. The presenter was Dr. Declan Kuch from the University of NSW and the occasion was the AusSTS Graduate Workshop, which was held on the 12th floor of Deakin Downtown in Melbourne. The provocation Dr. Kuch presented: ‘who performs the magic and for whom?’, was illuminated by the real time, situated magical performance unfolding behind him, as four high-rise window washers descended, each swiping and cleaning in hypnotic choreography. They wore orange helmets and gloves to keep warm, blue buckets clipped to their belts and bandanas protecting their faces from the water, or perhaps from us, as we smiled and pointed and ogled at their daring feats. It was an STS moment: the physicality of the window washers; the labour/danger dynamic; talk of magic and nanotechnology—science and humanities colliding in a discomforting dance. (read more...)

Battery Life: Charging Culture at the End of Energy 

Vodka-tonic. Take my picture. Charge my phone. Vodka-tonic. Take my picture. Charge my phone.  This (or a similar sequence) is an irritatingly common refrain heard by many waitstaff at lower-tier upper-class Instagram-approved destination restaurants in New York City—presumably other variations proliferate throughout the world’s urban centers. While vodka and digital reproduction make fruitful grist for social critique, the focus of the following is on the request to infuse one’s portable appendage with fresh electricity. There are a number of intriguing aspects of this “charging culture,” from its role in the resource consumption chain (Parikka 2015), to infrastructural adaptations appearing in charging societies (Larkin 2013), to the implications of portable appliances on mobility studies (Schiller 2011), to the novel linguistic interactions engendered by electronic communications (Squires 2010). In concert with these developments, the following discusses the metabolism of charging culture—that is, the processes that are necessary for the maintenance of life. (read more...)

Uncovering Hidden HERstories of Women in the Digital Arts

The field of computer graphics has no single bigger event than the annual SIGGRAPH conference, a 5-day extravaganza that draws computer scientists, visual effects artists, hardware and software designers and thousands of practitioners in the arts and sciences from around the world.(1) The 2019 conference in Los Angeles, which wrapped up on Thursday, August 2, hosted a number of talks highlighting the stories of women working in computer graphics as part of the “ACM SIGGRAPH Diversity and Inclusion Summit.” One exciting panel, “HERstories: Women Leaders in the Digital World,” featured 12 women who are seminal figures in computer-entangled fine arts, many of whom began their work in the early 1980s. The panelists were all contributors to a recent book, edited by Donna J. Cox, Ellen Sandor, and Janine Fron, New Media Futures: The Rise of Women in the Digital Arts (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2018). The panel and the book are welcome additions to the slowly diversifying histories of computer graphics, computer art and SIGGRAPH. (read more...)

Blockchain Reactions: The peril and promise of techno-governance for stateless Rohingya

While Myanmar’s recent ethnic cleansing of its Rohingya minority, which saw 800,000 people driven into Bangladesh, has brought the community’s oppression to the world’s attention, it has also masked a longer term project of exclusion in which the state has been denying the Rohingya their ethnic name and forcing them from their homes since the 1970s. Not only are there now more Rohingya living outside Myanmar than within, but entire generations are being brought up in exile. Critically, many host communities institute ambiguous regimes of il/legality, defined by intertwining inclusions and prohibitions, which keep Rohingya in perpetual limbo, caught between integration and expulsion. (read more...)

Hearing the Unknown: Case Studies in Cuba and Taiwan

The saga of mysterious sounds afflicting US diplomats in Cuba—and more recently China–has appeared in the US news cycle intermittently over the last couple of years. Since 2017, news organizations have reported that officials working at the US Embassy in Havana were experiencing hearing loss, dizziness, and possibly brain injury as a result of exposure to high-pitched, grating sounds. The State Department described the phenomenon as a sonic attack, believing that officials were purposefully targeted by an “acoustic element.” Cuban officials have denied the allegations by citing the failure of US officials to identify the source of the sound. Other details surrounding the incident have added to the mystery, including the fact that not all individuals who exhibited symptoms reportedly heard the sound, and those who did may not have been hearing the same sound. (read more...)

Clinical Data in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: Ethnographic Engagements

By: Peter Taber, Nicholas Rattray, Lauren Penney, Megan McCullough and Samantha Gottlieb This post emerged from a 2018 Society for Applied Anthropology panel on anthropological engagements with health data in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Serving over 9 million enrollees with a current federal budget of USD68 billion, the VA is an important testing site for digital healthcare infrastructure, as it has been for several decades. The panel brought our VA research and quality improvement (QI) efforts targeting the electronic health record (EHR) and other digital infrastructure into dialog with existing work on the social lives of data and algorithms, as well as the broader concerns of medical anthropology and STS in an era of the “datafication of health” (Ruckenstein and Schüll 2017). Extracts from our conversation, presented below, are taken from a follow-up video call exploring these issues. (read more...)