Rethinking Scale in Social Media: An Ethnographic Perspective

July 23rd, 2013, by § Leave a Comment

Scale has been a recent buzzword in discussions of social and digital media, as our editor Patricia G. Lange traced out in her January retrospective post. From MOOCs to Big Data, emerging communication technologies are making possible (and visible) large-scale interactions that have been attracting attention from many quarters, including anthropology. I want to revisit this conversation by discussing further what scale means in the context of networked media, especially social and mobile technologies.

Is scale the new global?

On the cusp of the new millennium in the late 1990s, there was a lot of buzz over the global reach of the Internet, linked to broader interest in how new communication technologies were entwined with globalizing processes. The World Wide Web itself was envisioned as spanning the globe, while globalism infected the popular imagination. Nearly twenty years on, the Internet has yet to bring about global equality or democracy, though it is playing a central role in many protest movements and political upheavals.

Part of the challenge for anthropologists and others studying networked and digital communications lies in grappling with the changes new technologies make possible, even as we recognize that technology never solely determines events in one direction. Social media, in the sense of networked communication platforms that articulate social ties and depend on user-created content, have certainly fostered new forms of mass protest and organization (as Victoria Barassi recently chronicled). But at the same time, technologies often become popular because they operate according to—and reproduce—existing cultural norms.

In my work, I look specifically at how social and mobile technologies are transforming everyday experiences of space and place. Though scale can refer to the size or scope of digital communications, it can also mean the geographic or spatial level of social relations, connections, and interactions. The global stands out as one such scale, as does the local or the national. Many cultural geographers have argued, however, that geographic scales are socially produced means of organizing social space, such as national borders, international trade agreements, or urban infrastructure (see for example Brenner 1998, 2001; Marston 2000; Massey 1993; and many others). The way scales are organized, moreover, reflects the circulation of capital and its unequal distribution of power.

Digital media, such as the Internet, are sometimes described as allowing place-less interactions and connections, with the Internet creating its own spaces (e.g. chat rooms or virtual worlds). Rethinking geographic scales as culturally constructed calls attention to how both the “local” and the “global” entail different kinds of place-making practices (but which often happen in the same physical places, as Doreen Massey has pointed out). As the debate shifts away from questions of local versus global (or the ungainly neologism “glocal”), perhaps the concept of scale, and scalemaking, is more helpful in understanding space and place online.

Ethnography of scale making

Binaries such as local/global can of course be useful, but can also distract from other distinctions, such as other kinds of place and place-making. In my work in Berlin, for example, I found that small groups of friends used social media to connect and interact with friends and contacts at multiple geographic levels. This included local friendships that took place in central districts of Berlin, regional ties to friends and family, especially to rural regions in eastern Germany, national reading publics consuming the same news media online, and transnational or translocal communities of music fans. Translocal connections in this sense took place across multiple locales, comprising a music scene that existed simultaneously in different places without necessarily being transnational.

Thinking about scale draws attention to how these levels themselves—local, regional, national, transnational—are constructed and reordered through everyday practice. Users, for example, moved through multiple publics and audiences online, often by employing language practices such as code switching. Among the circles of friends I studied, users often posted in English to address an audience envisioned as global or cosmopolitan. Using English also located events in Berlin in transnational cultural circuits, while German was often reserved for discussing topics German-speakers viewed as relevant to other co-nationalists, such as national German news stories. Switching between English and standard German made it possible to move between co-nationalists and transnational audiences in the same online spaces. Social media like Facebook further facilitated bringing together relationships at multiple scales, including local friendships, regional German ties, and transnational networks, generating new scales in the process. The globalness of online communications may therefore owe not to global or transnational connections but to a multiplicity of place-making activities.

Along with geographic binaries like local/global, social and mobile media are further complicating distinctions between online and offline. Numerous anthropologists have challenged the utility of this division, arguing that Internet media are already socially embedded, that is, the product of existing social relations, and can constitute real social spaces (e.g. Miller and Slater 2000:6). Tom Boellstorff (2008) has contended that virtual worlds like Second Life are no more or less culturally constructed than offline “real” worlds. From this perspective, “face-to-face” or “real life” communication is as mediated as computer-mediated interactions (through, for example, language, gesture, sartorial style, and other forms of embodied habitus).

Whose social media?

Social and mobile media, however, are more ubiquitous and integrated into daily practice than many earlier Internet platforms. Though many experience the Internet as a separate space of communication, those I studied described digital communications as “continuous” rather than discrete, such as chatting over instant messenger on and off throughout the day. Scholars of social media are finding it more helpful to analyze diverse communication practices on Facebook, Twitter, or mobile phones, for example, in terms of “connection strategies” users employ in different contexts (Ellison et al. 2011; Subrahmanyam 2008). Users I studied, for example, simultaneously interacted with close friends on Facebook while connecting to friends-of-friends with shared music interests or to new acquaintances met at events in Berlin. Most users also reserved some technologies for a smaller circle of friends and family, especially instant and text messaging, Skype, and email (as well as voice calls). The question then becomes not whether people are interacting online or offline, but how they are using different platforms and with whom. How do social and mobile media shape ways of making sense of space and place as interactions and relationships take place across multiple technologies?

This approach echoes work being done on the materiality of digital media, in which scholars like Katherine Hayles (2004) advocate a “media-specific analysis” to recognize the materiality of digital and analog encodings alike. Hayles argues that both digital and print texts, for example, exist in materially specific instantiations, but that their materiality differs in ways that affect how they are produced and experienced. In my forthcoming article (Kraemer n.d.) on Facebook friendship in Germany, I take up these questions to investigate how implicitly American interactional norms structure social relations among friend networks at multiple scales in Berlin and Europe. Although German and other European users successfully negotiated gaps between their and Facebook’s construction of friendship, further work needs to address how the “social” of social media represents a culturally (and geographically) specific understanding of social life.

References

Boellstorff, T. 2008. Coming of Age in Second Life: An anthropologist explores the virtually human. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Brenner, N. 1998. Between fixity and motion: accumulation, territorial organization and the historical geography of spatial scales. Environment and Planning D, 16: 459–481. http://www.envplan.com/abstract.cgi?id=d160459

Brenner, N. 2001. The limits to scale? Methodological reflections on scalar structuration. Progress in Human Geography, 25(4): 591–614. http://phg.sagepub.com/content/25/4/591

Ellison, N. B., Steinfield, C. and Lampe, C. 2011. Connection strategies: Social capital implications of Facebook-enabled communication practices. New Media and Society, 13(6): 873–892. http://nms.sagepub.com/content/13/6/873

Hayles, N. K. 2004. Print Is Flat, Code Is Deep: The importance of media-specific analysis. Poetics Today, 25(1), 67–90. http://poeticstoday.dukejournals.org/content/25/1/67.abstract

Kraemer, J. (n.d.). Friend or Freund: Social media and transnational connections in Berlin, Special Issue on Transnational HCI. Human-Computer Interaction. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/07370024.2013.823821

Marston, S. A. 2000. The social construction of scale. Progress in Human Geography, 24(2): 219–242. http://phg.sagepub.com/content/24/2/219

Massey, D. 1993. “Power geometry and a progressive sense of place.”. In Mapping the futures: Local cultures, global change Edited by: Bird, J., Curtis, B., Putnam, T., Robertson, G. and Tickner, L. 59–69. Routledge.

Miller, D., & Slater, D. 2000. The Internet: an ethnographic approach. Oxford, New York: Berg Publishers.

Subrahmanyam, K., Reich, S. M., Waechter, N. and Espinoza, G. 2008. Online and offline social networks: Use of social networking sites by emerging adults. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 29(6): 420–433. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0193397308000713

 

 

Looking Ahead to 2013: A Question of Scale

January 10th, 2013, by § 2 Comments

The CASTAC community joined together in 2012 to launch this blog and begin dialogue on contemporary issues and research approaches. Even though the blog is just getting off the ground, certain powerful themes are already emerging across different projects and areas of study. Key themes for the coming year include dealing with large data sets, connecting individual choices to larger economic forces, and translating the meaning of actions from different realms of experience.

Perhaps the most visible trend on our minds right now involves dealing with scale. How can anthropologists, ethnographers, and other STS scholars address large data sets and approaches in research and pedagogy, while also retaining an appropriate relationship to the theories and methods that have made our disciplines strong? As we look ahead to 2013, it would seem that a big question for the CASTAC community involves finding creative and ethical ways to deal with phenomena that range from the overwhelmingly large to the microscopic, in order to provide insight and serve our constituents in research and teaching.

Discussing large-scale forays into education and research

In the past two weeks in her posts on MOOCs in the Machine, Jordan Kraemer, our dedicated Web Producer, has been reflecting on how higher education is grappling with MOOCs, or “massive open online classes,” which open up opportunities to those who have been shut out of traditional elite institutions. At the same time, serious questions emerged about the ramifications of trade-offs between saving money and providing high-quality education. Kraemer points out that much of the debate ties into larger arguments about why it is that people have been shut out of education and how concentration of wealth and the neoliberalization of the university are challenging the old equation of supporting open-ended research that ultimately strengthens and supports teaching. She proposes new forms of graduate education in which recent graduates are supported by their universities with teaching jobs, to complete teaching experience, transfer teaching loads from full-time faculty, and support graduate students as they transition into full-time positions.

Part of the issue with MOOCs has to do with questions of scale, and how or whether individual lectures and course preparation can be generalized to large-scale audiences in ways that provide solid instruction without compromising quality. Higher-education depends upon staying current with research, and so far, we do not have enough evidence to support the idea that MOOCs will work or will address all of the concerns emerging from the neoliberalization of the academy. Those of us interested in online interaction and pedagogy will be watching this space closely in the coming year.

Questions of scale also came into play with Daniel Miller’s discussion of doing Eight Comparative Ethnographies. Miller argues that doing several ethnographies at the same time will enable comparative questions that are not possible when investigating one site alone. He provides an example from social network sites. He asks, to what extent are particular behaviors the product of a type of site, a single site, or the intersection of cultures in which a site is embedded? Is the behavior so because it is happening on Facebook or because the participants are Brazilian? A comparative study enables a level of analysis that is more inclusive than that derived from a single study. Expanding scale without compromising the traditions and benefits of ethnographic work remains a challenge for these and other large-scale projects in the future, which have the potential to provide crucial insights.

Making small-scale choices visible

As one set of researchers bring up issues with regard to enormously large-scale education and research, other STS participants on The CASTAC Blog are dealing with the opposite issue, which involves grappling with how the dynamics of extremely personal and individualistic acts—such as the donation of sex cells—interact with large-scale economic and cultural forces. In her post on The Medical Market for Eggs and Sperm, Rene Almeling, the winner of the 2012 Forsythe Prize, provides an inside look into how human beings’ donations of sex cells are connected to much larger economic forces that play out differently for women and men. Women are urged to regard egg donation as a feminine act of a gift; men are encouraged to see donation as a job. Almeling ties our understanding of what might be an individual act into economic forces, as well as gendered, cultural expectations about families and reproduction. Gendered framings of donation not only impact the individuals who provide genetic material, but also strongly influence the structure of the market for sex cells.

Promoting responsibility

Another key issue on our minds has to do with dealing with personal responsibility and showing how individual choices impact much larger social and economic forces in finance, computing, and going green.

In his post, On Building Social Robustness, David Hakken raises the question of how individuals contributed to large-scale economic and social crises, such as the recent disasters in the world of finance. His project is informed by work that is trying to deal with the first “5,000 years” in the history of debt. He proposes developing a notion of social robustness, parallel to the idea of the technical notion of robustness in computer science.

His work provides an intriguing use of ideas from people whom we study, and applying them as an inspiration for making social change. When Hakken asks about the extent to which computing professionals are ethically responsible for the financial crisis, he is proposing a way of asking how a large-scale disaster can be traced to more individual, micro-units of action. By investigating these connections, his project informs a conversation that is increasingly picking up steam in the area of the anthropology of value.

Hakken’s reflections are especially haunting as he warns of the difficulties of building a career in anthropology and STS. As he is moving towards retirement, his perspective is especially valued in our community. As an antidote to more provincial institutional perspectives, he urges a more consolidated and community approach that involves supporting each other in doing the important work that the CASTAC community has the potential to achieve.

Questions of scale and responsibility are once again intertwined in David J. Hess’s post on Opening Political Opportunities for a Green Transition. Hess points out that a non-partisan political issue has become partisan despite the fact that the planet has now surpassed a carbon dioxide level that it has not had for at least 800,000 years! But because change is imperceptibly slow to the human eye, politics is allowed to complicate change. Hess has worked to investigate what he calls the “problem behind the problem,” which involves the lack of political will to address environmental sustainability and social fairness, which considerably worsens the environmental problem itself. He provides real solutions through an ambitious three-part series of books that propose “alternative pathways” or social movements centered on reform in part through the efforts of the private sector.

Notably, personal experiences in anthropology inform Hess’s work. Although he is in a sociology department and in an energy and environment institute, he points out that an anthropological sensibility continues to inform his thinking. While the discourse on these issues has traditionally revolved around a two party system, Hess’s more anthropological approach makes visible other ideologies such as localism and developmentalism that may pave a more direct path to “good green jobs” and a more sensitive and responsible green policy. Again interacting with questions of scale, Hess’s notions of responsibility are grounded in understanding the “broad contours” of the “tectonic shifts” of ideology and policy that are underway in working toward a green transition in the United States and around the world. Without real action, however, his prognoses remains pessimistic.

Translating phenomena across different realms of experience

A theme that also emerged from our nascent blog’s initial posts had to do with understanding the ramifications of processing one realm of experiencing by using metaphors and concepts from another. In her post on the Anthropological Investigations of MIME-NET, Lucy Suchman explores the darker side of entertainment and its relationship to military applications. She investigates how information and communication technologies have “intensified rather than dissipated” what theorists have described as the “fog of war.”

The problem is partly one of translation. How is it possible to maintain what military strategists call “situational awareness,” which has to do with maintaining a constant and accurate mental image of relevant tactical information. Suchman is studying activities such as The Flatworld Project, which bring together practitioners from the Hollywood film industry, gaming, and other models of immersive computing to understand these dynamics. Such a project also involves analyzing how such approaches “extend human capacities for action at a distance,” and present ethical challenges to researchers as they grapple with military realms and connecting seemingly disparate but interrelated areas such as war and healthcare.

Lisa Messeri’s post, Anthropology and Outer Space, offers an absolutely fascinating look into human conceptualization of place. She asks, why should earthlings be concerned about what is happening on Mars? Her work focuses on how “scientists transform planets from objects into places.” Significant milestones in space exploration such as the passing of Venus between the Earth and the Sun (not scheduled to do so again until 2117) and the landing of the Mars rover, Curiosity, provide rich areas to mine for understanding cultural notions of place and human exploration. Curiosity has its own Twitter account (!) and tweets freely about its experience of “springtime” in its southern hemisphere. Messeri argues that this kind of language “bridges” our worlds in that Curiosity somehow seems to experience something that is familiar to humans—springtime. Scientists are now studying things that are so far away that telescopes cannot take an image of them. Somehow, these “invisible” objects become familiar and complex. Planets begin to seem like places because of the way in which language “makes the strange familiar,” and bridges the experience between events on an exoplanet and life on Earth.

Astronomers become place makers, and observing these processes shows how spaces become “social” even as Messeri argues, “humans will never visit such planetary places.” Messeri shows how such conceptualizations can lead to the spread of erroneous scientific rumors that get reported on national news organizations. Her work shows not only how knowledge production is compromised by the use of such metaphors but also provides an intriguing look at how humans process invisible objects through the cultural production of imagined place.

Tune in next week!

Given that questions of scale were on our minds in 2012, it is especially fitting that we launch 2013 with a discussion about Big Data, and the challenges and opportunities that emerge when entities collect and combine huge data sets that are far too large to handle through ordinary coding schemes or desktop databases. Social scientists, technologists, and other researchers must grapple with numerous issues including legibility, data integrity, ethics, and usability. I am particularly pleased that David Hakken agreed to be interviewed by The CASTAC Blog to discuss his views. Next week, he provides fascinating insights into what the future holds for dealing with Big Data!

Before signing off, I would like to thank everyone for their participation in The CASTAC Blog, especially those who wrote posts, left comments, read articles, and tweeted our posts to the world. I very much appreciated everyone’s participation. The richness of the posts makes it too difficult to adequately cover all the content of the past year in one commentary, but rest assured that everyone’s post is contributing to the conversation and is valued by the CASTAC community.

In an effort to include more voices and keep a continuing flow of content, The CASTAC Blog is now seeking a core group of “frequent” contributors to keep pace with new developments in this space in 2013. Notice that I use the term “frequent” sparingly—even a few posts throughout the year makes you a frequent contributor. Please consider sharing your thoughts and views with the CASTAC community. If you would like to join in, please email me at: plange@cca.edu.

I look forward to an interesting and productive year ahead!

Patricia G. Lange
Editor-in-Chief
The CASTAC Blog

In Search of Convergence, In Search of Consensus: Design media in a university architecture studio

June 23rd, 2015, by § Leave a Comment

An architecture student amidst various forms of design media in the studio.

Image: An architecture student amidst various forms of design media in the studio.

That’s not meant to be a comprehensive design drawing. That’s meant to say, ‘Scape is comprised of people, plants, hardscape materials,’ and that’s the language. So, we should squint at it, see the language, accept the language, the density, how it’s allocated over the site, and—boom—move on. But we get struck with confusion that says, ‘What’s that green thing? How does that fit into the scape?’ So we end up having a conversation about what it is we’ve done, or how we’ve done it, or communicated it, rather than the substance of the idea. We have to note that—we can’t build consensus on stuff we can’t communicate—because everyone’s trying to figure out what we’ve done.

With these comments, the architecture professor tried to reclaim control over his students’ design review, which had been sidetracked by the jury’s questioning. The jury, composed of other faculty in the architecture and landscape architecture departments, was confused about a secondary element of a project to redesign the façade and site of an American university school of architecture building. I was there as an ethnographer of architecture pedagogy and design process for a comparative multi-institutional research project involving four Canadian and American schools of architecture. The discussion revolved around a series of digital drawings, and a student’s narration of those drawings, displayed on a large flat screen placed in front of the audience. The time spent trying to parse and probe the “meaning” of the drawings, mediated by both the visual and linguistic dimensions of the presentation, was diluting what the students and their professor had hoped would be the principal thrust of the presentation, and drawing attention to an area of the design that was less well-developed. As Luke, the professor, pointed out, the conversation was not only distracting from the “the substance of the idea” (i.e., the design); it was threatening to undermine consensus—in a sense, the approval of the audience—which would allow the project to move forward.

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Notes from Art of the Archive: Rethinking Archival Practices in a Digital Era

June 16th, 2015, by § Leave a Comment

This post describes a workshop on archival practices in the digital era that took place on May 21, 2015, at the University of California, Davis. The essay is co-authored by Alessandro Delfanti, Allison Fish, and Alexandra Lippman. Delfanti, Fish, and Lippman are postdocs with UC Davis’ Innovating Communication in Scholarship (ICIS) project.

On May 21, 2015, the Innovating Communication in Scholarship project at the University of California, Davis held a one-day workshop on Art of the Archive. Papers given by the fifteen invited speakers explored the changing nature of the archive given the emergence of new information and communication technologies. These presentations largely focused on how these new digital archives are not merely technical creations, but are also constructed through social processes, have social impacts, and are not seamlessly implemented in everyday life. Instead, these digital storehouses are vibrant spaces for curating, organizing and publishing cultural heritage and expressive culture in new ways. In taking up this discussion three primary topics emerged and are described below: questions about access, circulation, and research design.

Image: Specimen Tray of Hans Sloane (1660-1753). Source: The Natural History Museum, London.

Image: Specimen Tray of Hans Sloane (1660-1753). Source: The Natural History Museum, London.

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The Environment’s Environment: Are There Limits to the Anthropocene?

June 2nd, 2015, by § 1 Comment

Today the Anthropocene is everywhere. You may have encountered both scientific and non-scientific articles that begin with this geological greeting: “Welcome to the Anthropocene!” From a geological science perspective, planet Earth—and everything on it—is constantly moving along a timeline, from one distinctive era to another. In 2000, geologists Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer proposed a new name for the current geological epoch: Anthropocene.[1] They argue that this term (which combines the Greek “human” + “new”) should replace ‘Holocene’ (“whole” + “new”) because it best describes an emerging geological condition. Human impact, they explain, is now a wholescale driver of Earthly environmental change.

For its many early adopters, the Anthropocene is a welcome scientific and political concept that expands understandings of human-Earth connections. Yet, while the Anthropocene concept is definitely planetary, I would suggest that it is not wholly Earth-bound. What does a closer examination of the term’s conceptual origins reveal about on-the-ground politics of spatial perception in the Anthropocene? Is there a paradox  between the Anthropocene as an earthly timescale and geological entanglement with the planet’s own environment?

NASA_Atmos flux_480x271

Image: Aurora lights result when energetic particles from the magnetosphere move into the ionosphere; ionospheric flux can interfere with electronic systems on Earth’s surface as well as in air and orbital spaces. Source: NASA, February 2012.

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SOS! Save Our Sea! California’s Salton Sea demands action, but what kind?

May 26th, 2015, by § Leave a Comment

dead fish on the shoreline

Image: Layers of dead fish and desiccated barnacles at the shores of the Salton Sea, a man-made salt lake maintained by agricultural runoff. Photo by author.

This March, California’s State Water Resources Control Board called for a public workshop to re-evaluate the state of the Salton Sea, a complex and notoriously disastrous salt lake in the southeastern California desert. Nearly 200 people responded to the call, crowding in to a hearing room in downtown Sacramento to give testimony on mitigation and restoration projects, consider drought impacts, argue for the Sea’s environmental and economic value, and discuss the enormous water transfer agreements that threaten to damage it even more. Attempts to define the problem and its stakes have gone on for decades, but it is still far from clear whose fault is it that the Sea is still shrinking, still dying, or still dangerous, or, for that matter, if anyone can (or should) keep trying to fix it. As a semi-permanent disaster landscape, the Salton Sea is best defined not by the fall-out from a singular event nor by the slow accumulation of risk, but by a decades-long dynamic tension between mitigation of danger and restoration of health. “SOS! Save Our Sea!”, a popular slogan of local activists, is both a call to account for an irreversibly toxic present, and a reminder that the Sea was and still is a vibrant place worth saving. « Read the rest of this entry »

The Hastings Mill as Ecological Machine: Vancouver’s Origin Story

May 19th, 2015, by § Leave a Comment

In Vancouver’s settler origin story, the city begins with a saw mill located in “primeval nature.” Living in the city as a student, I became interested in theories of the relation between economy and ecology, first studying forestry and working in the logging industry, then moving to graduate work in literature and science studies. The origin story of Vancouver stands out as a case study. The city combines an aesthetic regime (in architecture, tourism branding, and so on) focused on proximity to nature with an origin story that goes back to a single sawmill.

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Image: Panorama of the Hastings Mill. Source: City of Vancouver Archive (Public Domain).

For centuries, mills have been technologies at the threshold of ecologic and economic systems, transforming resources into commodities with exchange value. But much research into mills and other sites of industrial processing considers them only as production machines—not as mediators, in Bruno Latour’s sense, that affect how we conceive the nature/economy difference in the first place. In Capital I, Marx writes that “technology reveals the active relation of man to nature.”[1] Is he right? Do what we call humanity and what we call nature exist prior to technologies such as mills, which we define based on their ability to transform nonhuman things into human things? Is communication about nature and society—currently in flux in debates over the Anthropocene and climate change—determined by such technological infrastructure, or does communication move machines into place? These are some of the questions that my case study grounds in Vancouver’s colonial origin story. « Read the rest of this entry »

Nothing Special: Standards, Infrastructure, and Maintenance in the Great Age of American Innovation

April 28th, 2015, by § 1 Comment

Despite Bruno Latour’s provocation that “nothing special” happens in laboratories,[1] scholars of science and technology continue to be fascinated by them. And for good reason: laboratories, after all, are crucibles for inventions and innovations. In an age like ours where innovation-speak reigns, could there be any more urgent task than to understand the sources of inspiration and discovery?[2]

Yet our affinity for innovation has a corresponding dark side that manifests in indifference toward existing technological systems. As a scholar and as a citizen, it is this indifference that concerns me most: rather than fixating so much on innovation and discovery, I wish we would spend more time thinking through the dynamics of standardization, infrastructure, and maintenance. The neglect of infrastructure, for example, is especially evident in public policy, as the comedian John Oliver showed in a recent rant. Oliver boiled the issue down to its tragicomic essence: we need public funds to maintain old technologies such as bridges and dams, but our elected officials prefer to break out their oversized scissors and celebrate something new.

oliverNavylab

Images: John Oliver on Last Week Tonight, via YouTube.com (left); Ribbon cutting at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, March 2012 (right)(photo credit: Jamie Hartman, public domain).

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Decolonizing Design Anthropology with Tinn

April 21st, 2015, by § 1 Comment

In fall 2014, I began building Tinn, a health data tracking application for people living with tinnitus. I approached building Tinn as an opportunity to explore what a socially conscious, feminist, and anti-colonial process for developing mobile applications might look like. The idea of pairing design, building, and anthropology is hardly all that innovative; “design anthropology,” a subfield of cultural anthropology focused on empirical studies of use cultures, has been around since the 1980’s (at least). What sets Tinn apart, however, is my commitment to working with communities of color in Portland, OR, that have been alienated by and from the technology and application development industry because of intersecting and juxtaposed systems of gender, racial, and access inequality. Perhaps one of the central epistemic problematics for the project, then, can be posed as a question: Can we decolonize design anthropology, and to what success ordegree? What might this entail?

Image: Screenshot of the title deck for Tinn (by author).

Decolonization is slippery. My “academic anthropology” is a historical ethnography of the ways media scientists after World War II shaped (and continue to shape) the gendered contours of global media flows in the British Empire, with a particular focus on sound, listening, and citizen-subject formation in Gibraltar. My work on Tinn gave me the opportunity to transform my critique of the violence done by media scientists into the starting point for a more ethical approach to user experience research with marginalized Native American, Latin@, migrant, and African American Oregonians living with tinnitus in Portland. Yet what I thought of as decolonizing and what my collaborators thought of as decolonizing was at odds in some instances. For one, while decolonizing anthropology attempts to re-balance the scales of recognition and redistribution in the research process, it is much more difficult to reconcile the colonial histories of designer and designed for. Yet, for my collaborators, this division didn’t actually matter. As Nephi, one of my politically astute collaborators, put it, “the ethics are too heady when we need material help. Someone has to do that work. It’s you today.” While Tinn began with my commitment to making the project open source (as resistance to the privatization and commoditization of collaborationit’s not that simple), Nephi protested. “My labor is there, too. You’d give it away for free? There’s a long history of white men giving away the work of my people for free.” I said it wasn’t simple.

While there were times where my collaborators and I didn’t agree on what constituted decolonization, we did agree on one thing: data poses a particularly tricky sociohistorical landscape for thinking about recognition, redistribution, and reconciliation. The rest of this post is dedicated to the complications of tracking data about tinnitus, and tracking data about vulnerable and/or marginalized users with tinnitus. « Read the rest of this entry »

The Entrepreneurial Future

March 17th, 2015, by § Leave a Comment

Georges Doriot, who founded the first publicly traded venture capital firm in 1946, arguably announced a new regime of speculative capital when he said: “I want money to do things that have never been done before” (Ante 2008). In the years immediately after World War II, the establishment of venture capital firms was crucial to the ascent of a new kind of commercial enterprise, one that has profoundly influenced the development of digital technologies on a very broad scale. It was with the creation of the first venture capital firms that a financial network to support technology startup companies began to form. The fact that the earliest Silicon Valley startups were funded by venture capital investments is an indicator of the degree to which the developmental trajectory of personal computing has been intertwined with that of finance capital. Fairchild Semiconductor, for example, was the first startup funded by venture capital (in 1957), and it launched numerous “spin-off” companies that were collectively responsible for the innovations that enabled what became the microelectronics industry. Since then, of course, venture capital has grown into a powerful industry that directs vast financial resources into technology startup companies. But venture capital investment doesn’t only fuel the tech startup economy — it actively shapes it.

General Doriot and Ken Olson. Image courtesy of Computer History Museum.

General Doriot and Ken Olson. Image courtesy of Computer History Museum.

Research on Silicon Valley’s high tech industry suggests that venture capitalists’ importance to processes of innovation has more to do with their role in selecting promising companies than with simply providing financing itself (Ferrary & Granovetter 2009). Beyond choosing the criteria for valuation by which the potential commercial success of startups is measured, they determine which innovations will even have a chance to enter the market. The result is that Silicon Valley innovation is guided directly by finance capital’s future-oriented logic of speculation. Companies with few tangible assets pursue funding without which they will have little chance to successfully launch their products and, as business news coverage attests, some companies are valued at billions of dollars without demonstrating that they have the means to become profitable. What matters is keeping the possibility of a market open. One could think, for example, of Snapchat, a popular photo and video sharing app that has expanded through significant venture capital investments. Last year, the company was valued at $10 billion, despite the fact that it generates almost no revenue, mostly on the basis of its potential to reach users and create an audience.

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