Teaching the Anthropology of Outer Space

I think I’ve been most surprised by how effectively exploring anthropology in the context of [outer] space has educated me on anthropology in general. Having never taken a prior anthropology class, I think learning about it (and consequently, us) through a specific topic, such as space anthropology, has been a great way to learn. This is the kind of student endorsement that makes a professor’s heart sing. A few weeks ago, I asked students in my “Anthropology of Outer Space” class to provide me with some feedback on what “surprised” them most about this class. I did this to confirm a hunch that as much as the students were excited about outer space, they were becoming equally excited about anthropology. Sure enough, a third of the anthropology of outer space class said that what surprised them most was their interest in and the relevance of anthropology both for understanding human (More...)

Destination: You

On a recent trip to California I took the train down to San Jose to visit the Tech Museum of Innovation where a new exhibit focused on wearable technology and data—Body Metrics—had just been unveiled. I study the proliferation of digital self-tracking, a phenomenon made increasingly widespread by the popularity of sensor technology and wearable devices (think Apple Watch, Fitbit wristbands, or OMsignal shirts) that generate data about one’s self. In my research I pay particular attention to the way these new technologies of knowledge are shifting the way we think about and view our bodies so I was keen to see the way the museum expressed the relationship between data and bodies. My visit would become haunted, however, by another display of the body—the Body Worlds exhibit—that I had seen months earlier in New York City. Considered alongside one another, the two exhibits say a lot about the way (More...)

Announcing the 2015 CASTAC Junior-Senior Mentor Program at AAA!

Now Recruiting for CASTAC Junior-Senior Mentor Program at the 2015 Annual Meeting of the AAA CASTAC, the Committee on the Anthropology of Science, Technology, and Computing, seeks to support the professional development of scholars in the anthropology of science and technology. To this end, we are pleased to announce our second Junior-Senior Mentor Program for the 2015 AAA Annual Meeting in Denver. We invite faculty and researchers at all levels and career trajectories to participate in our mentorship program. CASTAC will match mentors and mentees according to overlapping research interests and facilitate their initial contact. Participants will then arrange a time to meet during the conference.  Meetings may last about an hour, potentially touching upon a range of topics such as funding, professionalization, job preparation, and new directions in STS and anthropology. As CASTAC members can attest from participating in this and similar programs at other conferences, mentorship is an (More...)

Social Science, Socialist Scientists, and the Future of Utopias

As space colonization becomes a more serious project and an influential utopian imaginary, I am reminded of British scientist and communist JD Bernal’s 1929 warning about “human dimorphism”: Bernal wondered about a future in which “mechanizers” would live an enhanced, technoscientifically-evolved form of life, separated from the “humanizers,” the masses whose physical needs would be equally gratified thanks to scientific advancements—but who would prefer to exist in an atavistic human way, enjoying mundanities such as friendliness, poetry, dancing, drinking, singing, and art. His figure for that version of the good life seems to have been filched from whatever exposure he had to colonial anthropology—he calls it the “idyllic, Melanesian existence.” The mechanizers, on the other hand, would transform themselves biologically and psychologically, moving down a different evolutionary path towards a different destiny—a vision dear to present-day transhumanists, who from early on were among the strongest advocates of space colonization, and (More...)

Trusting Experts: Can we reconcile STS and Social Psychology?

Numerous battles are being fought today within and across America’s political landscape, from global warming to the regulation of new technologies (e.g., GMOs, fracking). Science plays a big role in these debates, and as a result, social psychologists, political scientists, economists, and other social scientists have become interested in the question of why people (or rather, certain people) don’t accept scientific findings. These social scientists have converged on a concept called motivated reasoning: that because our reasoning powers are directed towards particular ends, we tend to pick facts that best fit our needs and motivations. Motivated reasoning, in this explanation, is a universal concept, perhaps a product of evolution; all human beings do it, including experts. It also raises the profoundly disturbing possibility of a scientific end to our Enlightenment hopes that experts—let alone publics—can be rational, that they can neatly separate facts from values and facilitate a harmonious society. Influential science journalists (More...)

Twin Astronauts: The Perfect Research Subjects

In March 2015, astronaut Scott Kelly embarked on a one-year stay aboard the International Space Station, while his identical twin brother Mark Kelly, a retired astronaut, remained on planet Earth. This remarkable event—accompanied by a frenzy of media attention—created a degree of separation between twins that scientists could previously only imagine. For science journalists and their readers, the Kelly twin astronauts were like a dream come true, a perfect marriage between popular fascination with twins and Americans’ boundless enthusiasm for space travel. Attention-grabbing headlines like “Meet the twins unlocking the secrets of space”, “Nature vs. Nurture vs. NASA”, and “NASA twins to embark on year-long space experiment” began to appear in the news. Friends and colleagues were quick to forward these stories to me, knowing of my personal (I’m an identical twin) and professional (I’m an anthropologist who studies twin researchers) interest in twins. Scientific research on twins has a (More...)

Understanding Users through Data: UX, Ratings, and Audiences

“It needs to be usable by distracted individuals in a hurry. It needs to be extremely legible and intuitive,” began the client emphatically as he leaned forward, one of several people  gathered at a conference table on the 16th floor of an office tower in Houston, Texas. He rested back in his chair and waited, drumming his hands on the table. The project lead and two of the designers nodded, as one called a vast library of application mockups up onto the demo screen. As she scrolled through these, the other explained the rationale behind its user-interface elements: “we tested this prototype with [x user base]. We have seen that they need to take [y action] immediately, and if they are hindered in this, the company itself cannot track projects or time spent by employees. [Staff] are too busy on the job to engage in lengthy bookkeeping procedures.” This project, (More...)

Note from the Editor: Summer vacation

The CASTAC Blog is on (late) summer vacation this week. See you next week! Jordan Kraemer Editor-in-chief

Steadying the Plays: Rhetoric and Risk in the Shale Boom

“Please God, give us another oil boom. We promise not to piss it away this time.” – Popular bumper sticker in oil producing regions after the 1980s oil markets crashed In the 1970s, there was much to be celebrated for those involved in the US oil and gas industry. The OPEC oil embargo coupled with events like the Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War led to a shortage of oil on the world market and precipitated a boom for US producers. This boom, however, was short lived. By 1981, world production had stabilized and oil prices had plummeted, bankrupting a significant number of producers and inspiring the use of “Please God” bumper sticker in places like Texas, Oklahoma, and Alberta. Throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s, the bumper sticker didn’t seem to help, and the oil and gas industry limped along. Against financial engineering and IT novelties that sent (More...)

Seeing California’s water future(s) at Orange County’s Groundwater Replenishment System

Tucked away in suburban Fountain Valley, California, the Orange County Water District’s Groundwater Replenishment System (GWRS) smells vaguely of chlorine and looks like something imagined by a 1950s sci-fi writer. Sleek, shiny, and minimalist, the wastewater treatment plant feels like somewhere a robot would be very, very comfortable. It’s also a soothing place for another kind of visitor: the Southern California water manager. My fieldwork shows these managers to be a community of expertise that likes recycled water, a steady source of supply  they feel confident in their ability to treat, monitor, and deliver. “It’s here and it’s never going away, and yet most of the time we just dump it in the ocean. Reusing it just makes sense,” one 34-year veteran in the field told me with a hint of exasperation at having to state something so glaringly obvious. (more…)