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The Poetics of Soil Health

Optical mineralogy is a gaze turned deeply earthward into seeming dark, still, and silent depths. Indeed, when I first peered into a petrographic microscope in the Soil Science Laboratory of Colombia’s National Geographic Institute Agustín Codazzi (IGAC), I was slightly disappointed to find myself staring at what appeared to be an unassuming slice of magnified dirt.[1] As soon as the polarizer filter was slipped into place, however, uniform darkness exploded into a kaleidoscope of fuchsias, yellows, violets, and blues. Odd shapes took form, mutated, and then disappeared as though enveloped back into a slowly churning color wheel. Hues shifted in intensity from shades of light to dark, more radiant and increasingly dull as the light diffracted mineral particles and the voids between them at different angles. The IGAC mineralogist who invited me to his workbench that morning registered my surprise, and reminded me that this was only the color spectrum (more...)

What Vic Berger’s Videos Say About American Electoral Politics

Anyone watching Saturday Night Live’s parodies of US electoral campaigns in recent years has likely noticed its particular humor no longer works so well. Its treatment of recent events in the presidential primary competitions, especially on the Republican side, is a lot less funny than the news coverage of the campaigns themselves. The behavior displayed by the candidates as they travel around the country courting voters and debating each other seems to have more entertainment value than the sketches mocking it. Vine and Youtube videos made over the past few months by the comedian and video editor Vic Berger IV, on the other hand, distill some of the absurdity of this election season by highlighting what is too marginal and granular to capture with scripted caricature. His videos of the candidates and their campaigns home in on moments of particularly awkward behavior. They illustrate something of Henri Bergson’s argument about (more...)

Unpredictable Technologies: The need for thick description in regulatory decision-making

I call myself a scholar of information, communication, and technology with a view toward influencing law and policy. To that end, my motto over that last few years has been "Social Science matters!" And by that, I really mean that qualitative research, or research aimed at understanding how people and organizations actually use technology, is important for creating good law. To this end, ethnographic study, the kind that produces thick descriptions of people and culture, should be MO of any body tasked with writing regulations. Recently I was asked to participate in training a group of telecommunications regulators who want to conduct a regulatory impact assessment (RIA). A RIA is a thorough investigation of the possible impacts of a proposed or revised regulation. In the most basic sense, the investigation is used to forecast whether the new rule will achieve what it’s supposed to, and what else could happen. Countries around (more...)

Pragmatism and the Magic Book for Nuclear Power

Today's post by Vincent Ialenti, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Cornell, is in partnership with the experimental publication Allegra Lab, and links reflections on the theme of #pragmatism to anthropological research on nuclear energy and environmentalism. Pragmatism, according to Merriam-Webster, refers to both "a practical approach to problems and affairs," and an American philosophical tradition, founded by C. S. Peirce and William James, that evaluates conceptions and thought through their practical consequences in guiding action. — Editor's note.   This is a picture of a brightly colored South Korean pro-nuclear children’s book adorned with friendly animals dancing around a light bulb in front of a nuclear power plant. The title translates to The Magic Book for Nuclear Power with WINK (Women In Nuclear-Korea). I first encountered this artifact in London at a 2013 World Nuclear Association symposium. There, it was a tool nuclear energy industry insiders used to counter what (more...)

Sinkholes without Borders: Geology, Hydrology, and Conflict Around the Dead Sea

In a heavily air-conditioned room in the suburbs of Tel Aviv, Israeli, I spent two days drinking instant coffee and taking notes at a “transboundary” water conference on the Jordan River Watershed. Israeli, American, and Western European scholars and development consultants had come together to seek solutions for a variety of environmental crises plaguing the Jordan River and the Dead Sea, sinkholes chief among them. A single Jordanian policymaker attended, opening the event with an introductory speech, but heading immediately for the door when he finished his presentation. In the hours that followed, workshop participants argued about the trustworthiness of Palestinian water consumers (none of whom were present), the merits of international river commissions, and game theory-based water conservation strategies. One common perspective prevailed: as an American hydrologist put it, “we water people think at the level of the watershed, not the nation.” But what happens when contested national borders (more...)

Silicon Valley as Ally or Foe? Reflections on the Politics of Income Inequality

The meteoric rise of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries—and the Occupy movement before that—have officially put income inequality on the political radar in the U.S., after years of slow wage growth and a near-catastrophic financial crash. In keeping with the times, Silicon Valley too has begun thinking about inequality. Resident philosopher Paul Graham, venture capitalist and founder of the famous YCombinator startup incubator, wrote an essay on inequality that caused a bit of a ruckus (in Silicon Valley and without). The short version: Graham is not happy with the current rhetorical war on inequality that politicians are waging. He thinks inequality is a natural product of a culture that values startups and innovation, and that a full-scale political fight against inequality is inadvisable. YCombinator recently put out a “Request for Research” to sponsor social science research on Basic Income guarantee schemes. Such a scheme—Silicon Valley’s go-to solution for the (more...)

2015 Year in Review: Deflating Footballs, Twins in Space, Women (not) in Tech, and More

Last year on the CASTAC Blog began with anthropological ruminations on what the “Deflategate” football scandal has to do with questions of expertise, and closed with discussions of citizen science, earthquake warning systems, the (anti-)politics of women in tech, and deeply personal engagement with experiencing crisis or catastrophe—in this case, terror attacks in Paris—over social media. One of the great perks of editing this blog lies in reading the array of topics, perspectives, and modes of analyses from our contributors. This year, I’m taken by the variety in tone, from the (somewhat) tongue-in-cheek (the aforementioned Deflategate post; the anthropology of rigged games), to the deeply affecting (again, Charlotte Cabasse-Mazel “Looking at the Pain of Others [on Social Media]”), from the boundary-pushing (Abou Farman’s call to envision radical alternative futures) to the experimental (a Twitter fieldwork experiment from Rice’s Ethnography Studio). Beyond timely, weekly engagement with climate change, artificial intelligence, changing (more...)

Human-Machine Interactions and the Coming Age of Autonomy

“Together we embark.” “Together we adjust.” “Together we drive.” These tag lines describe the Intelligent Driving System (IDS) concept car used in Nissan’s recent demonstration of possible futures in electric and autonomous driving. Unveiled by Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn at the Tokyo Motor Show in 2015, the IDS concept car[1] suggests rich possibilities for future driving experiences. What I’m especially curious to explore as an anthropologist who has long been engaged in ethnographic and anthropological research in the context of technology development is how the seemingly dichotomous notions of “togetherness” and “autonomy” come together in advancing self-driving cars.  What visions of collectivity and sociality are at play amongst those involved in the development of self-driving cars, and how will the vehicles themselves embody these visions? My thoughts reflect my stance as a social analyst interested in socio-technical endeavors generally, and the social effects of automation specifically. It also reflects my (more...)

Hello from the CASTAC Co-Chairs!

Last year was a busy one for CASTAC. In addition to the incredible work that our web and Platypus blog team have put into integrating and expanding our existing web presence, we’ve also doubled down on our organizational programming, working to facilitate new collaborations between junior scholars, established faculty, and specialists working in various industries of science and technology. In that follows, we’d like to relate some developments from the past year before shifting focus to the months and years ahead. We’re pleased to report an increase in submissions for the Diana Forsythe Prize, which CASTAC facilitates in conjunction with the Society for the Anthropology of Work and with the support of the General Anthropology Division and Bern Shen. Through their respective books on hacker communities and the normalization of once-extraordinary medical treatment, this year’s award winner Biella Coleman and honorable mention Sharon Kaufman continue Diana Forsythe’s pioneering work at (more...)

Editor’s Welcome 2016

This is an exciting time for CASTAC and the CASTAC Blog. CASTAC hosted a number of well-attended events at November's Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Denver, including our business meeting, while our website sports a great redesign from returning Web Producer Angela VandenBroek. To ring in the new year here at the CASTAC Blog, I'm continuing our yearly tradition of introducing the new team. When Patricia Lange, Jenny Cool, and I launched the Blog in 2012, we envisioned a collaborative space for discussing emerging work on science, technology, and computing from anthropological and ethnographic perspectives. To quote our About page, our goal was to “to build a thriving discourse among a community of scholars concerned about the implications of techno-science, technologized products, and worldviews for human beings and other forms of life.” We began with a team of two, Patricia and me (plus many generous authors) publishing (more...)