What Educates in DIYbio?

May 27th, 2014, by § 2 Comments

The Pedagogical Paradox

Two human inventions can be regarded as the most difficult, — namely, the art of government and that of education; and yet we are still contending among ourselves as to their fundamental nature.

- Immanuel Kant

Kant here is referring to the pedagogical paradox presented by education. This paradox of moral authority most often occurs in the context of schooling: How does education, in the sense of external regulation), lead to the internally regulated autonomy of thought and action? Stated more generally, the pedagogical paradox is assuming the existence of something for which education is the precondition. For example, can someone declare oneself to be a biologist and launch an independent course of inquiry without recognized credentials? The pedagogical paradox is also a question of legitimate knowledge; in this case, who may speak the truth of biology? « Read the rest of this entry »

Translating South Asian Classical Medicine for Global Markets

May 20th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

Science, patent law, and language

Many traditional forms of knowledge, such as South Asian classical systems of medicine like Ayurveda, are increasingly targeted as prime sources of market value that can be effectively captured and managed through the assertion of intellectual property (IP) rights. This expanding reach of IP has sparked heated debates marked by a deep concern that the very foundations of creativity, culture, and even humanity are increasingly subject to privatization. The case of turmeric, a plant-based powder commonly used throughout South Asia both as a spice in everyday cooking and in Ayurvedic remedies, provides a key illustration of the transformative forces at work when intangible cultural heritage enters into and circulates through the global marketplace for complementary medicine (expected to reach $115 billion per year by 2015). Legal challenges to patenting turmeric’s healing properties elucidate processes of privatization at the intersection of IP rights, medicine, and intercultural knowledge production. « Read the rest of this entry »

“But Where are the People?”: Field Notes from an Interdisciplinary Environmental Research Team

May 13th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

Elephants

Elephants in the room? Sculptures on Galleta Meadows Estate, in Borrego Springs. Photo taken by the author.

Almost one year ago, I found myself deposited in the middle of one small battleground in the desert Southwest’s increasingly technical (and increasingly ominous) water wars: the small town of Borrego Springs, California. The problem here is deceptively simple. Borrego suffers from an impending water crisis, with some studies suggesting that the town will run out of viable groundwater within a generation. Despite spending 30 years and over $5 million on scientific and policy solutions, Borrego residents continue to face rapidly increasing water use, escalating environmental effects, and continued controversy over how to understand and respond to the disaster as it unfolds. As one community member explains, “The problem isn’t that someday we’ll turn on the tap, and the water won’t work. The problem is that, long before that, our town will cease to exist. Our way of life will be gone.”

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Cosmos: A Spacetime Conversation

May 6th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, premiered on Fox on March 9, 2014 and will run until June 1, 2014. Hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space, it is a ‘reboot’ of Carl Sagan’s series similarly titled Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. Ann Druyan and Steven Soter serve as lead writers for both series (Sagan also co-wrote the original, though Tyson is not involved in the writing process for this series) and there are clear aesthetic connections between the two series.* Today’s Cosmos, though, is airing on Fox, not PBS, and American science in 2014 operates in a different landscape with a different set of concerns than Sagan’s series of 1980.** There has been an active social media engagement with Cosmos (#cosmos) and many historians of science, STS scholars, and journalists have been blogging and live tweeting their reactions to how the science is portrayed. I recently had a conversation with two historians of science who have been engaged with the Cosmos conversation, Ben Gross (@bhgross144, a research fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation) and Audra Wolfe (@ColdWarScience, an independent scholar), to discuss how Cosmos can offer insight into the current state of science and society.

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Rhetorical Studies of Science and Technology

April 29th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

The following discussion was co-authored with Elizabeth Pitts, a PhD student in Communication, Rhetoric and Digital Media program and NSF IGERT Fellow in Genetic Engineering & Society at North Carolina State University.

An ethos of expertise—that is, an ethos grounded not in moral values or goodwill, or even in practical judgment, but rather in a narrow technical knowledge—addresses its audience only in terms of what it knows or does not know. The diminution of arete and eunoia in an ethos of expertise has a specifically rhetorical effect, because these qualities are relational in a way that expertise is not; similarly, the transformation of phronesis to episteme diminishes the practical, or relational, dimensions of knowledge. Without arete and eunoia, there is no basis for agreement on values or for belief in the good intentions of a rhetorical agent; the rhetorical relationship becomes impersonal. … The impersonality of an ethos of expertise runs the risk of being persuasive to no one.

– Carolyn R. Miller, pp. 201–202

To discuss the limitations of persuasive appeals that rely solely on technical expertise, Miller draws on terms from ancient rhetoric. If experts fail to demonstrate that they are people of virtue (arete) and goodwill (eunioa), she argues, then others have little reasons to trust that they possess not only knowledge (episteme), but also practical wisdom (phronesis) that is fundamental to democratic deliberation. Rhetorical theory is an ancient tradition that thrives today in Communication and English departments in the United States. Across these two traditions, one that has been primarily concerned with rhetorical speech and the other with rhetorical compositions, there is a subfield often referred to as the Rhetoric of Science and Technology and Medicine. Rhetorical studies offer a rich body of literature and, we believe, several profitable sites of intersection with anthropological studies of science and technology. In this short discussion we look to the emerging spheres of do-it-yourself science to articulate some possible conversations between rhetorical and anthropological inquiry.

We take our warrant from Carrithers (2005), who argues for the importance of rhetorical scholarship to Anthropology, saying that the “mark of distinctly human sociality is not the possession of one culture or another as such but the capacity to change and create new cultures” (pp. 580). Rhetoric is concerned with how these strategies of change and creation occur through processes of persuasion and argument. What Miller’s quote above reminds us is that these processes are not only messy, but situated in specific discursive choices. Rhetoric, which considers how we make such choices, and what choices are available to us in a particular context, then seems a profitable realm for Anthropology to engage.

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Approaching the Infrastructure of Digital Media Startups

April 24th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

In the 1997 essay “Protected Mode,” the late media theorist Friedrich Kittler, with nostalgia for “the good old times” when using computers meant interacting with them in a way that made it impossible to ignore the reality of their basic hardware, expressed his disapproval of the user-friendliness of commercial software. In contrast to the true underlying operations of digital machines themselves, he asserted, commercial software hides from view the reality of computers’ operations determined at the level of material technological frameworks. “The higher and more effortless the programming languages,” he wrote, “the more insurmountable the gap between those languages and a hardware that still continues to do all of the work” (157). The problem with software, for Kittler, is that it seems to put the user in control when, in fact, what it really does is reduce the user’s agency by obscuring the user interface’s basis in hardware. Put in different terms, it performs an illusory reversal of the relationship between infrastructural and superstructural elements. One can only imagine that Kittler would be dismayed by the current state of digital media technology’s development in general and by the trend among technology startup companies toward increased reliance on cloud computing in the form of “infrastructure as a service.” At the same, I think this gestures toward a certain problem in the anthropological study of digital technologies.

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Greetings from Paris: A View from Ethnografilm 2014

April 21st, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

Recently I had the pleasure of attending an exciting new film festival called Ethnografilm, a showcase of ethnographic and academic films that visually depict social worlds. Helmed by the festival’s Executive Director Wesley Shrum (Professor of Sociology, Louisiana State University), the event took place April 17-20 at Ciné XIII Théâtre, a unique venue in the Montmartre district of Paris.

The variety of films was indeed impressive, and ranged from old-school anthropological investigations of “disappearing worlds” to animations that stimulated the eye and illustrated interactive tensions in visual forms. Despite fears about the disappearing anthropologist filmmaker, it was interesting to see that Jean Rouch’s classic film Tourou et Bitti (1971), which was screened on Saturday night, played to a packed house! Given that co-sponsors included the International Social Science Council and The Society for Social Studies of Science, it is perhaps not surprising that the festival included many technology-related films. Themes included both opportunities and tensions in areas such as online interaction, ethics, “primitive” technologies, and high-tech bodily enhancements. Below I profile a few of the films I was able to screen. Ethnografilm Poster ImageJ

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Coding Places: An Interview with Yuri Takhteyev

April 15th, 2014, by § 1 Comment

In “Coding Places: Software Practice in a South American City” Yuri Takhteyev depicts a group of developers from Rio de Janeiro working on software projects with global aspirations. His ethnography, conducted in the span of three years, provides rich detail and insight into the practice of creating a programming language, Lua, and struggling to form local and global communities. In his narrative, Takhteyev sets off with a task that is particularly akin to anthropological studies of globalization: to specify socioeconomic and political forces shaping localities and creating instances of production and circulation of transnational scope. We asked him a few questions related to the book and his research on the topics of globalization, computing expertise, and politics of information technology. Enjoy!

Published by MIT Press, 2012.

Published by MIT Press, 2012.

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What Does it Mean to do Anthropology in the Anthropocene?

April 8th, 2014, by § 2 Comments

I’m Beth. I study people who study earthquakes and people who work to minimize the damage that earthquakes cause.

That’s my short introduction; the line I use with nearly everyone to describe my research. I do fieldwork in the offices, conference rooms, labs, and workshops of earthquake-prone Mexico, where cutting-edge research and technical problem solving is happening (not to mention pitched battles over what “cutting edge research and problem solving” could mean in the first place). « Read the rest of this entry »

What Drives Research in Self-driving Cars? (Part 2: Surprisingly not Machine Learning)

April 3rd, 2014, by § 1 Comment

In the first part of this article, I wrote about how two major events shaped research in self-driving cars: the DARPA Grand Challenges and Google’s Self-driving Car (hereafter: SDC) project. In this post, I will talk about my surprise at the unfulfilled yet pervasive promises of machine learning in SDC research.

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