Public Numbers, Public Land: Learning to Count Trees in British Columbia

August 19th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

2001 was a long year for British Columbia’s (BC’s) Ministry of Forests. In April, provincial elections replaced the incumbent New Democratic Party (NDP) with Gordon Campbell and the BC Liberals, a right-leaning party sharing little but name with the Liberal Party covering the rest of Canada. By the end of the year, the province’s “dirt ministries” were in flux. An assortment of public institutions covering provincial forests, lands, mines, geology, parks, and fisheries, the dirt ministries and their matters rarely reach the headlines of the Vancouver Sun or the Victoria Times Colonist. Even before entitlement spending began to dominate provincial budgets in the 1990s, BC’s public mines inspectors and forestry researchers commanded a relatively meager share of the provincial budget. Members of the Ministry of Forests maintained a particularly low profile, despite being managers of a land base covering half a million square kilometers (think all of Ukraine, or Madagascar), an economic sector generating an eleven figure annual revenue for the province, and a job source for close to half the residents of BC’s sprawling rural north. Foresters periodically appeared in the news only to offer up seemingly self-explanatory numbers – this many cubic meters of lumber harvested last year, that many hectares of forest lost to fire. After 2001, however, deciding which forests get counted, who (or what) counts them, and how, got a lot messier.

Enter Dendroctonus ponderosae – the mountain pine beetle.

Beetle-killed pine, in red. (Photo by Tom Ozden-Schilling)

Beetle-killed pine, in red. (Photo by author)

« Read the rest of this entry »

Aaron’s Call

August 11th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

On the morning of January 11th, 2013, the Internet entrepreneur and political activist Aaron Swartz was found dead in his apartment in Brooklyn, New York. Soon after the news reached the Internet, manifestos and hackathons were organized to celebrate Aaron’s political and technical work. In a matter of weeks, parallel events were organized across the United States, finding solidarity with Internet technologists and activists abroad. This collective effervescence elaborated on a narrative to evaluate the present, help to frame the past and project the future in relation to Aaron’s accomplishments and indictment for computer crime.

One year after Aaron’s passing, Brian Knappenberger‘s documentary “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” was screened at the Sundance Festival and publicly released this past June. As far as the narrative goes, the spectator is offered a reconstruction of Aaron’s life with key elements for debate regarding legal overreach in his case. Knappenberger’s work was very careful in attending to the details. Despite the familiarity of most of us with the succession of events, there is much to be gained from the documentary if its depiction of Aaron’s trajectory is to be interpreted vis-à-vis broader, transnational battles on the grounds of intellectual property enforcement and expansion.
« Read the rest of this entry »

Political Economy and the Internet of Things

August 5th, 2014, by § 2 Comments

According to Cisco, the number of things – smart phones, cars, delivery vehicles, smoke detectors, outflow sensors, electricity meters – connected to the internet surpassed the number of people connected to the internet in 2008. Projections for the coming decade vary, but corporate researchers at firms like Cisco, Intel, IBM and Siemens are betting big on the exponential growth of networked sensors and microcomputing devices. These companies are working in loose concert to shepherd this emergent swarm of networked things into a truly infrastructural data-collecting system. They see in the so-called “Internet of Things” the consummation of promise held forth to the corporate world by big data analytics; comprehensive, actionable, real-time data about production and consumption, allowing for ever more agile and sophisticated extraction of value from human activity. « Read the rest of this entry »

Red Lights, Dark Nights, and Heavenly Bodies – Field Notes from a Star Party

July 29th, 2014, by § 6 Comments

For a fleeting moment, I am blind. Standing frozen in the dark, I am afraid to take even a single step while waiting for my pupillary light reflex to kick in. Happy voices murmur in the deep darkness that envelops me. As I begin to dimly make out my surroundings, I look up to a black sky with a billion celestial objects bisected by the Milky Way and circumscribed by the mountain peaks that surround me. Another moonless, mid-summer night and I’ve returned to the field to continue a multi-year ethnographic study of North American avocational astronomers at their annual “star party.”

For those unfamiliar, star parties are ritualized stargazing events sponsored and hosted by recreational astronomy clubs that bring participants together in remote locations to observe the night sky. Part science, part party, star parties serve as a way of connecting with others around a telescope. Beyond simply forms of serious leisure, star parties also serve as venues for informal learning and opportunities for community-building.

M33 Hubble 2003

M33, the Triangulum galaxy. The view from terrestrial telescopes are far less impressive than this Hubble image, yet the thrill of seeing it at a star party is rather inexplicable. (Photo courtesy NASA)


« Read the rest of this entry »

Ethics of User Experience Research: What Anthropology Can Tell Us about Facebook’s Controversial Study

July 21st, 2014, by § 3 Comments

Where is the line between industry user research and academic human subjects research? And what rights do—or should—users have over how their (our) data is used? As user research becomes an established part of technology design, questions of research ethics become even more pressing. These issues came to the fore in the wake of Facebook’s recent controversy over a study of “emotional contagion” (Kramer et al. 2014) conducted by in-house researchers, namely Adam Kramer (no relation), with input from scholars at Cornell and UCSF, to test whether users’ moods can spread through what they see on their News Feeds.

The study has generated vociferous debate among user researchers, academics, and designers (for a good overview, start with The Atlantic’s coverage) over whether the study was ethical (such as this article at The Guardian), expressing serious misgivings about its potential harm. The British Psychological Society (BPS) officially labeled the study “socially irresponsible,” and even the scholarly journal in which it was published, PNAS, has issued an (admittedly murky) “statement of concern.” Still others point out that the methodology, determining mood based on snippets of text, was deeply flawed. These critiques have sparked a wave of pro-user-research apologists, claiming that on the contrary, suppressing such research would be unethical, and that the study could plausibly have passed more stringent IRB regulations, which already make it too difficult for academics to conduct the kind of research undertaken in corporate settings.

But much of this debate sidesteps a key issue social scientists have been contending with since at least Stanley Milgram’s studies of how far test subjects would go in delivering painful shocks to actors if an authority figure told them to—and that is, how to conduct research ethically. « Read the rest of this entry »

Governing with Big Data: The Indian Unique Identification Project and Information Determinism

July 15th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

The relationship between surveillance, big data and state power has been vociferously debated in both academic and popular press over the past several months (Boellerstoff 2013 and Crawford et al. 2014 among others). But what of instances where states leverage big data without an explicit surveillance focus? What kinds of questions should we be asking when big data appears in a project that doesn’t focus on, say, “security” (which we associate directly with surveillance) but on “welfare” or “development”? In this post, I explore this theme in the context of the ongoing Indian Unique Identification (UID) project (also known as “Aadhaar” or Foundation). The state-backed UID project wants to issue biometric-based identity numbers to all Indian residents, arguing that an ability to uniquely identity individuals is critical to the efficient administration of public welfare schemes. The biometric dataset that the UID is putting together towards its goal is already the largest of its kind in the world.

Speaking of Big Data

EnrolmentAgent

Enrollment agent at an enrollment center in a central Indian state
(Photo credit: Aditya Johri)

« Read the rest of this entry »

Diary of a Space Zucchini: Ventriloquizing the Future in Outer Space

July 7th, 2014, by § 1 Comment

This post is written by Debbora Battaglia, a professor of anthropology at Mount Holyoke.  Currently, Dr. Battaglia is working on a book project to be titled Seriously at Home in ‘0-Gravity’.

Space Zucchini Credit: Don Pettit/NASA

Space Zucchini
Photo Credit: Don Pettit/NASA


Not long ago, New Hampshire Public Radio broadcast Diary of a Space Zucchini – an adaptation of astronaut and chemical engineer Don Pettit’s blog from aboard the International Space Station, in 2012. The piece is a gem of expressive cross-species anthropomorphism. So tenderly did producer Sean Hurley enact the voice of the little aeroponic sprout that one listener was moved to “smiles and tears.” Indeed, the words of the self-conscious squash, floating above a sound mix of ethereal music, electronic beeps, humming computer atmospherics, and static-rich Ground Control “we have lift off” moments; the zucchininaut’s refined observations of living on orbit, in a baggie; its near-death experience and its sadness as fellow crew-member Sunflower browns and, after a struggle, returns to the Great Compost; its last philosophical reflections and anxieties as it describes how Gardener prepares to return to Earth, and turns out its light, can only be described as inspired public radio – courtesy of NASA’s “Word of Mouth” initiative. « Read the rest of this entry »

Life in the Laboratories of Breaking Bad

June 30th, 2014, by § 2 Comments

A Chemical Drama
I freely admit to an obsession with Breaking Bad that hasn’t quite come to an end, despite nearly a year having passed since the final episode aired. I am not the only one, apparently, as a new book written from a media studies perspective, Breaking Bad: Critical Essays on the Contexts, Politics, Style and Reception of the Television Series has just come out. While this is no doubt a productive frame to examine Breaking Bad, I am going to argue that Breaking Bad also illustrates key problematics in laboratory studies. If The Wire can become a staple within urban studies, why not Breaking Bad within STS? In what follows, I will sketch a few possible directions, which assume at least a passing familiarity with the plot and characters. WARNING: spoilers ahead! « Read the rest of this entry »

Facing the Selfie

June 24th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

Last weekend I had the pleasure of participating in the symposium entitled Face It: Photography, Ethics, and Identity in the Age of the Selfie, which was held at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI). The program featured an eclectic mix of voices representing artists and scholars interested in exploring how photographic images blur or highlight the distinctions between authenticity and enactment of identity on social media sites. Of particular interest was exploring the political and ethical obligations and ramifications of a seemingly unabated proliferation of images. « Read the rest of this entry »

On the Porous Boundaries of Computer Science

June 18th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

The term “big data” [1] brings up the specter of a new positivism,  as another one in the series of many ideological tropes that have sought to supplant the qualitative and descriptive sciences with numbers and statistics.[2]

But what do scientists think of big data? Last year, in a widely circulated blog post titled “The Big Data Brain Drain: Why Science is in Trouble,” physicist Jake VanderPlas made the argument that the real reason big data is dangerous is because it moves scientists from the academy to corporations. « Read the rest of this entry »