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...)

The Rise of Citizen Science, Part II: Building Capacity

Earlier this month, I posted about how a principled approach to citizen science could help shape the field. In this second part, I look at one novel online project that's helping citizen scientists connect both with each other and with scientific researchers and research teams that want (or need) their help. Thanks to a Pathways grant from the National Science Foundation, a web-based resource called SciStarter 2.0 is a global public science engagement tool in-the-making. While SciStarter 2.0 is now simply a website, it may someday be much more. I asked Darlene Cavalier, Professor of Practice at Arizona State University, and founder of the original SciStarter program, to tell me a bit about it. According to Cavalier, the NSF funding and recent move of SciStarter to ASU enabled the team to pivot from an initial emphasis on the web-based system as a project finder (helping people find science projects) toward providing more (more...)

The Earthquake Early Warning System that the West Coast (Almost) Already Has

1. West Coast earthquakes People on the West Coast of the U.S. see movies about seismic disaster in their major cities. They read articles about forecasting and safety strategies. They retrofit their buildings, buy insurance, and worry. When I tell them about my research on earthquake early warning systems in Mexico, they ask me, “Why don’t we have something like that here?” Networks of sensors arrayed across territory are set up around the world to register earth motion and send warnings to users speedily enough to warn them seconds or even minutes before the quake hits. Mexico’s was the first to make alerts available to the public almost a quarter of a century ago, and today there are similar systems around the world. The fact is that we are going to have something similar on the West Coast, too, though it depends on how you define “we.” Tremendous strides have been made in the last (more...)

The Anti-Politics of Women in Tech

Almost daily are news articles about women in tech. Among these on the day I wrote this post, for example, were an article in Marie Claire, the women’s magazine, called “How Much Have Things Really Changed for Women in Technology?” and another in India’s business newspaper Mint titled “Two kinds of pay gap in the IT industry: NetApp’s Mark Bregman.” Both articles touch on several issues about women in tech, and STEM fields more generally; the cornerstone in each, however, is simply the number of women in the tech world—or the lack thereof, compared with men. This is a problem that has been explored since at least the mid-1970s in computer science (e.g., Montanelli Jr. and Mamrak 1976), longer for some other STEM fields. More recently this issue was highlighted last year, particularly in the media and public attention, when large tech companies like Google, Apple, Twitter, and Facebook released “diversity (more...)

The Rise of Citizen Science, Part I: A Principled Approach

This is the first in a two-part series about the rise of citizen science, from CASTAC Contributing Editor Todd Hanson. When it comes to science, Albert Einstein was an amateur. Well, at least he was during the time he made his most groundbreaking contributions to physics. From 1902 to 1908, Einstein’s day job was that of an assistant patent examiner at the Swiss Federal Office for Intellectual Property. It was during these six years as an avocational scientist that he developed his theories that transformed physics. Working as what we would today call a "citizen scientist," the four papers he published would become a foundation of modern physics. While Einstein’s case may be unique, a lesson from his life is that ignoring the contributions of those scientists and scholars unaffiliated with university or research institutions is done at society’s risk. The bifurcation of scientists into professional and amateur is a relatively recent (more...)