Category: Uncategorized

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...)

Deep Thunder: The Rise of Big Meteorology

Today has been predicted 26 billion times. The same could be said for tomorrow and the foreseeable days to follow. This prodigious divination is the work of just one entity—IBM’s The Weather Company. These 26 billion daily forecasts of IBM likely represent only a small fraction of the models and projections to which any particular day is subjected (the financial and military sectors are equally ambitious prognosticators). Backed by IBM’s computational juggernaut, The Weather Company is burning through terabytes at a brow-furrowing velocity in its effort to fit the world into a forecast. (Listen Now...)

The FDA, Patient Empowerment, and the Type 1 Diabetes Communities in the Era of Digital Health

The day-long September 2018 workshop, “Medical Devices-Patient Engagement in Real World Evidence: Lessons Learned and Best Practices,” sponsored by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and University of Maryland (UM), met on the Baltimore campus, the city where I spent my graduate school years. In contrast to Baltimore’s palpable desperation, UMB’s health campus gleamed with newness, its brick walkways and tastefully planted vegetation viewable through floor-to-ceiling windows. In the well-appointed auditorium, Dr. Jeffrey Shuren, director of the Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH, pronounced ‘cedar’), closed his introduction to the conference with the pronouncement that as the FDA moved toward real world evidence (RWE), “patient engagement” and the data patients may collect are invaluable for RWE. (read more...)

The Surveillance Cyborg

Editor’s Note: This post is part of our ongoing series, “Queering Surveillance,” and was co-written with Alexander Wolff. Surveillance is an embodied experience, both being watched and watching. The sheer number of concert-goers recording Cher’s “Here We Go Again” concert this past year with their phones had them trade singing and dancing for an act of documentation. Whether the recordings are to remember the experience later, share the experience with others, or to simply document one’s presence in that space and at that time, recording the concert on one’s phone becomes an experience in its own right. They are present in the space, but their attention is about both what is happening in the here and now and the recording that filters the experience in the future. Their phones and recordings are central to their embodied experience, fused into one like a cyborg traveling across space and time in the moment. Add to this that countless concert-goers are recording the same concert from their individuated perspective, and thus the concert becomes infinite and virtual—of course, the way Cher was always meant it to be. (read more...)

The Nature of the Copy

From the dead center of an all-white eye, a lone sapling rose two feet tall. Cyclical ridges and valleys, etched in bioplastic by an unseen watchmaker, encircled the solitary lifeform and separated it from the mottled, decaying plant matter that had been strewn about nearby with intention, detritus by design. Lying adjacent on the table-in-sylvan-drag, a digital tablet and paper pamphlets displayed the word Nucleário.[1] Nucleário and the five other prototypes exhibited at the 2018 Biomimicry Launchpad Showcase in Berkeley, California, were, according to the event’s online marketing, projects from a “new species of entrepreneur” who practices “biomimicry,” the “conscious emulation of life’s genius,” a refrain I would hear repeatedly during my fieldwork on contemporary chimeras of biology and design. “Genius,” a cultural category once reserved for the presence of spiritual inspiration, here refers to the technical creativity of a re-animated nature that designers attempt to imitate in new devices like Nucleário.[2] Under the solar-paneled roof of the David Brower Center, whose eponym served as the first executive director of the Sierra Club, teams from Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Taiwan, and the United States had gathered to compete under the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge, which, this year, prompted designers to devise solutions for the mitigation and reversal of climate change. The prize: a cash award of $100,000 given by the Biomimicry Institute, a Montana-based nonprofit organization dedicated to “building a new generation of sustainability innovators” through educational initiatives.[3] (read more...)

Dumbwaiters and Smartphones: The Responsibility of Intelligence

“I don’t have to drink alone,” she paused for comedic effect, “now that I have Alexa.” Thus was the punchline of a story told by a widowed octogenarian at a recent wedding. Alexa is a mass-produced personality that can play music, suggest items for purchase, monitor consumption and health habits, or, like any good friend, just listen. While all these tasks could be performed in silence with various algorithmic appliances, Alexa and her cousins from Google and Apple are imbued with a perceived autonomy directly stemming from their capacity for vocalization. Speech, it seems, beckons the liberation of abiotic materials from their machinic programming. (read more...)

Out-of-Body Workspaces: Andy Serkis and Motion Capture Technologies

Over the last two decades, the entertainment industry has experienced a turn to what Lucy Suchman termed virtualization technologies in film and videogame production (Suchman 2016). In addition, production studies scholars have described authorship as linked to control and ownership, sharpening distinctions between “creative” and “technical” work, a divide with significant economic repercussions (Caldwell 2008).  These ideas are useful in understanding film studio workspaces, where visual effects (VFX) workers and actors collaborate in creating believable virtual characters, using three-dimensional (3D) modeling software and motion-capture (mo-cap) systems to capture the attributes and movements of human bodies and transfer them to digital models.  Once captured, digital performances become data, to be manipulated and merged seamlessly with those of live actors and environments in the final film. The introduction of virtualization technologies and computer graphics tools have surfaced tensions over creative control, authorship, and labor. British actor Andy Serkis has been a high-profile apologist for the human actor’s central role in bringing virtual characters to life for film.  Serkis, who Rolling Stone called “the king of post-human acting,” is known for using motion capture (mo-cap) to breathe life into digitally-created, non-human characters. His notable performances include the creature Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003), the ape Cesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), as well as  Supreme Leader Snoke in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), and work on several characters in the 2018 Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, which he also directed. While Serkis’ performances have made him highly visible to audiences, digital labor historians have begun documenting the often-invisible film workers creating 3D models and VFX (Curtin and Sanson, 2017). The tensions between mo-cap performers and VFX workers reveal the contours of an emerging hybrid workspace that combines actors’ physical bodies and movements with VFX workers’ manipulations of digital geometry and data. (read more...)