Lists, Indices and the Ownership of Biodiversity Conservation

Prior to the emergence of “biodiversity loss” as a ubiquitous way of talking about species extinctions in the 1990s, taxonomic biology was considered a dying field. The physical inspection of specimens to assign them to biological categories had long had a reputation as a hobby for “crusty old men and their dusty shelves”, as one botanist joked during my research in Ecuador. Biology’s cutting edge was genomics. But with an explosion of concern for a global extinction crisis, taxonomically-trained biologists and their cheap, low-tech methods occupied a central role in 1990s Latin American conservation efforts (e.g. Raven and Wilson 1991). In this post, I briefly consider how taxonomically-oriented field biology relates to other, typically quantitative ways of evaluating biodiversity. Taxonomy played an important role in establishing where conservation should focus its efforts. An increased emphasis on quantitatively linking biodiversity to other environmental problems has meant an increased role for other kinds of expertise (Gabrys 2016). It has also meant a return to the margins for taxonomic expertise. Examining the tools used to evaluate the biotic environment sheds light, both on the different kinds of questions that can be asked about it, and on the shifting place of different kinds of expertise in environmental governance. (read more...)

Personal Computing and Personhood in Design and Disability

When I try to explain augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices to those unfamiliar, I usually start with physicist Stephen Hawking, who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Hawking speaks using a high-tech computerized AAC device with synthetic speech output (Mialet, 2012). The electronic voice communicates to others the text that Hawking selects from a cursor moving across the computer screen mounted to his wheelchair using his cheek movement as input. These sorts of ‘tools for talking’ are also used by those with other disabilities and medical conditions that potentially impair oral speech such as autism, cerebral palsy, or a stroke. AAC devices are mobile by definition, as they ought to move with a person as they move through the world (Reno, 2012). They are becoming more “mobile” in another sense too. Individuals increasingly have the option of using AAC devices that take the material form of ordinary smartphones, tablet computers, and mobile apps that simulate software on specialized computers dedicated to AAC (Alper, 2015). (read more...)

The Heliopolitics of Data Center Security

From Cyberattack to Solar Attack The small-scale cyberattack, characteristic of the late-twentieth century, has long dominated discourses and practices of data center security. Lately, however, these fears are increasingly giving way to concerns over large-scale, existential risks posed by solar activity. Increasing numbers of data centers are going to extreme measures to protect their facilities from solar flares, solar energetic particles and Coronal Mass Ejections – collectively referred to as “space weather”. As data centers are put into circulation with what Georges Bataille famously called the sun’s “superabundance of energy” (1991:29), the act of protecting digital-industrial infrastructure takes on strangely mythical dimensions. In this post, I would like to briefly explore the business end of the mythical dispositif that arises from the surreal and distinctly Bataillean meeting of data centers and the sun. (read more...)

Weekly Round-up | June 2nd, 2017

This week’s round-up is a bit skewed towards essays and think pieces rather than the academic equivalent of cat pictures, which may or may not be a good thing, depending on how much you need to chuckle today. If you do find any more-diverting tidbits for our next round-up, please do pass them along to the editor. One of the values of anthropology is that it can do a good job of putting abstract, theoretical conversations about things like technicity in contact with profoundly concrete things like stone tools and human brains. Sapiens’ recent piece on brain evolution and tool use was fascinating, but perhaps tilted towards the concrete: we read it with an idle, speculative dream of a four-fields anthropology of science.   Nehal El-Hadi has a suitably haunting look at the spectral reproduction of Black death by contemporary communications technology at The New Inquiry (exemplifying a subtle and deeply ethical approach to using critical theory in (read more...)

Three Videos of Dead Media Theorists

One of the benefits of access to YouTube’s vast sea of content is that by finding and watching videos that relate to our scholarly interests, however indirectly, we are able to tell ourselves that there is something productive about time spent drifting around the internet. There are, for example, plenty of videos of old lectures by our favorite thinkers and authors floating around out there. However, as the three theorists featured in this post would well understand, the conventions of this sort of presentation do not make the most of the medium. It can be a lot more revealing to see concepts and arguments we usually encounter on the written page play out in formats that are more unusual and more dialogic. In this post, I’ve collected a few of my favorite examples of the sorts of casually meandering discourse I find particularly illuminating. (read more...)

Fake News and the Rotten George Soros

One of the fascinating things about FAKE NEWS and the attendant debate about bias, lying, facts and information is the incredible relevance of so-called “classic” anthropology in our current moment. For my money, Levi-Strauss has been particularly important for my ethnographic work with the highly combustible rhetoric and action of the American Right. For the past two years, I’ve been doing ethnographic fieldwork with Trump supporters, specifically white nationalists, but also everyday individuals with different investments in Trump as a symbol and idea concretized into a body. As anthropologists (and other assorted ethnographers) comment on the political milieu in the US, I have been shocked by the shallow, simplified assumptions about how the Right operates. “Ideology” is such an unsatisfying shorthand, which assumes so much. Here, I’d like to take off from Andria Timmer’s post over at Savage Minds about who  George Soros, the Right’s [current] favorite punching bag, actually is. Here, I want to argue that for Trump supporters of all different stripes, it doesn’t actually matter who Soros is or what he does. George Soros – and the same thing might be said about FACTS or NEWS more widely – is something that “grassroots” conservative activists think with, not about. Fake news, in other words, is about ritual and a political cosmology. (read more...)

Trolling and the Alt-Right in Japan (Part 1)

I was only a couple of months into my fieldwork when I met Masa. I had been focusing my attention on innovation and politics within the major Japanese TV networks, but he drew my attention to a different kind of media organization: The Free Press Association of Japan, now defunct. At the time, he identified with its founder, Takashi Uesugi, who had made a name for himself as one of the country’s most prominent crusaders for Japanese journalism reform. Masa liked anyone who flouted convention, and the mainstream media’s disparagement of Uesugi for not having attended a high-ranked university only served to endear him further to Masa, who himself had not attended college. It was from Masa that I first heard about chemtrails (kemutoreiru) – the notion that the white trails that aircraft leave in their wake represent a chemical form of meteorological or biological manipulation. He began forwarding me articles and links to documentaries exposing Japanese and American government cover-ups. Unemployed, he spent most of his days on the Japanese bulletin board, 2ch (ni chan). He was my first encounter with the Japanese internet alt-right (the netto uyoku), the beginning of an inadvertent deep-dive into one of the most vocal factions in the Japanese internet. (read more...)

Automation and Heteromation: The Future (and Present) of Labor

Editor’s note: This is a co-authored post by Bonnie Nardi and Hamid Ekbia. For the last several years, we have tried to understand how digital technology is changing labor. Of all the alleged causes of disruptions and changes in employment and work—immigrants, free trade, and technology—the last one has received the most extensive debate lately. We review the debate briefly and then discuss our research and how it bears on the questions the debate raises. (read more...)

Three Perspectives on “Fake News”

Editor’s Note: Today, Shreeharsh Kelkar brings us the inaugural post in a new series on Fake News and the Politics of Knowledge. The goal is to tackle the knowledge politics of both so-called “fake news” itself and the discourse that has cropped up around it, from a wide range of theoretical perspectives on media, science, technology, and communication. If you are interested in contributing, please write to with a brief proposal.  Donald Trump’s shocking upset of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 US Presidential Election brought into wide prominence issues that heretofore had been debated mostly in intellectual and business circles: the question of “filter bubbles,” of people who refuse to accept facts (scientific or otherwise), and what these mean for liberal democracies and the public sphere.  All these concerns have now have coalesced around an odd little signifier, “fake news” [1].     (read more...)

Academography and Disciplinary Ethnocentrism

Donald Campbell (1969) famously blamed the “ethnocentrism of disciplines” for academics’ tendencies to spawn “a redundant piling up of highly similar specialties leaving interdisciplinary gaps”. While Campbell never gives an extended definition of his term, disciplinary ethnocentrism would seem to entail, for instance, that one views everything through the prism of one’s field; that one avidly defends the boundaries of one’s field; that one becomes blind to closely related work outside one’s field; and that one comes to apprehend disciplinary identities as quasi-natural kinds, just as “ethnicities” are often misconstrued as essences. (read more...)