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

Worlding Anthropologies of Technosciences?

October 28th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

The past 4S meeting in Buenos Aires made visible the expansion of STS to various regions of the globe. Those of us who happened to be at the 4S meeting at University of Tokyo four years ago will remember the excitement of having the opportunity to work side-by-side with STS scholars from East and Southeast Asia. The same opportunity for worlding STS was opened again this past summer in Buenos Aires.

In order to help increase diversity of perspectives, Sharon Traweek and I organized a 4S panel on the relationships between STS and anthropology with a focus on the past, present, and future of the exchange among national traditions. The idea came out of our conversations about the intersections between science studies and the US anthropology of the late 1980’s with the work of CASTAC pioneers such as Diana Forsythe, Gary Downey, Joseph Dumit, David Hakken, David Hess, and Sharon Traweek, among several others who helped to establish the technosciences as legitimate domains of anthropological inquiry. It was not an easy battle, as Chris Furlow’s post on the history of CASTAC reminded us, but the results are undeniably all around us today. Panels on anthropology of science and technology can always be found at professional meetings. Publications on science and technology have space in various journals and the attention of university publishers these days.

For our panel this year we had the opening remarks of Gary Downey who, after reading our proposal aloud, emphasized the importance of advancing a cultural critique of science and technology through a situated, grounded stance. Quoting Marcus and Fischer’s “Anthropology as Cultural Critique” (1986) he emphasized that anthropology of science and technology could not dispense with the reflection upon the place, the situation, and the positioning of the anthropologist. Downey described his own positioning as an anthropologist and critical participant in engineering. Two decades ago Downey challenged the project of “anthropology as cultural critique” to speak widely to audiences outside anthropology and to practice anthropology as cultural critique, as suggested by the title of his early AAA paper, “Outside the Hotel”.

Yet “Anthropology as Cultural Critique” represented, he pointed out, one of the earliest reflexive calls in US anthropology for us to rethink canonical fieldwork orientations and our approach to the craft of ethnography with its representational politics. Downey and many others who invented new spaces to advance critical agendas in the context of science and technology did so by adding to the identity of the anthropologist other identities and responsibilities, such as that of former mechanical engineer, laboratory physicist, theologian, and experimenter of alternative forms of sociality, etc. These overlapping and intersecting identities opened up a whole field of possibilities for renewed modes of inquiry which, after “Anthropology as Cultural Critique”, consisted, as Downey suggested, in the juxtaposition of knowledge, forms of expertise, positionalities, and commitments. This is where we operate as STS scholars: at intersecting research areas, bridging “fault lines” (as Traweek’s felicitous expression puts it), and doing anthropology with and not without anthropologists.

The order of presentations for our panel was defined in a way to elicit contrasts and parallels between different modes of inquiry, grounded in different national anthropological traditions. The first session had Marko Monteiro (UNICAMP), Renzo Taddei (UNIFESP), Luis Felipe R. Murillo (UCLA), and Aalok Khandekar (Maastricht University) as presenters and Michael M. J. Fischer (MIT) as commentator. Marko Monteiro, an anthropologist working for an interdisciplinary program in science and technology policy in Brazil addressed questions of scientific modeling and State policy regarding the issue of deforestation in the Amazon. His paper presented the challenges of conducting multi-sited ethnography alongside multinational science collaborations, and described how scientific modeling for the Amazalert project was designed to accommodate natural and sociocultural differences with the goal of informing public policy. In the context of his ethnographic work, Monteiro soon found himself in a double position as a panelist expert and as an anthropologist interested in how different groups of scientists and policy makers negotiate the incorporation of “social life” through a “politics of associations.”

Similarly to Monteiro’s positioning, Khandekar benefited in his ethnographic work for being an active participant and serving as the organizer of expert panels involving STS scholars and scientists to design nanotechnology-based development programs in India. Drawing from Fischer’s notion of “third space”, Khandekar addressed how India could be framed productively as such for being a fertile ground for conceptual work where cross-disciplinary efforts have articulated humanities and technosciences under the rubric of innovation. Serving as a knowledge broker for an international collaboration involving India, Kenya, South Africa, and the Netherlands on nanotechnology, Khandekar had first-hand experience in promoting “third spaces” as postcolonial places for cross-disciplinary exchange through story telling.

Shifting the conversation to the context of computing and political action, Luis Felipe R. Murillo’s paper described a controversy surrounding the proposal of a “feminist programming language” and discussed the ways in which it provides access to the contemporary technopolitical dynamics of computing. The feminist programming language parody served as an entry point to analyze how language ideologies render symbolic boundaries visible, highlighting fundamental aspects of socialization in the context of computing in order to reproduce concepts and notions of the possible, logical, and desirable technical solutions. In respect to socioeconomic and political divisions, he suggested that feminist approaches in their intersectionality became highly controversial for addressing publicly systemic inequalities that are transversal to the context of computing and characterize a South that is imbricated in the North of “big computing” (an apparatus that encompasses computer science, information technology industries, infrastructures, and cultures with their reinvented peripheries within the global North and South).

Renzo Taddei recasted the debate regarding belief in magic drawing from a long lasting thread of anthropological research on logical reasoning and cultural specificity. Taddei opened up his take on our conversation with the assertion that to conduct ethnography on witchcraft assuming that it does not exist is fundamentally ethnocentric. This observation was meant to take us the core of his concerns regarding climate sciences vis-à-vis traditional Brazilian forms of forecasting from Sertão, a semi-arid and extremely impoverished area of the Northeast of Brazil. He then proceeded to discuss magical manipulation of the atmosphere from native and Afro-Brazilian perspectives in Brazil.

For the second day of our panel, we had papers by Kim Fortun (RPI), Mike Fortun (RPI), Sharon Traweek (UCLA) and the commentary of Claudia Fonseca (UFRGS) whose long-term contributions to study of adoption, popular culture, science and human rights in Brazil has been highly influential. In her paper, Kim Fortun addressed the double bind of expertise, the in-between of competence and hubris, structural risk and unpredictability of the very infrastructures experts are called upon to take responsibility. Fortun’s call was for a mode of interaction and engagement among science and humanities scholars oriented toward friendship and hospitality as well as commitment for our technoscientific futures under the aegis of late industrialism. “Ethnographic insight”, according to Fortun, “can loop back into the world” through the means of creative pedagogies which are attentive to the fact that science practitioners and STS scholars mobilize different analytic lenses while speaking through and negotiating with distinct discursive registers in the context of international collaborations. Our assumptions of what is conceptually shared should not anticipate what is to be seen or forged in the context of our international exchange, since what is foregrounded in discourse always implicates one form or another of erasure. The image Fortun suggested for us to think with is not that of a network, but that of a kaleidoscope in which the complexity of disasters can be seen across multiple dimensions and scales in their imbrication at every turn.

In his presentation, Michael Fortun questioned the so-called “ontological turn” to recast the “hauntological” dimensions of our research practices vis-à-vis those of our colleagues in the biosciences, that is, to account for the imponderables of scientific and anthropological languages and practices through the lens of a poststructural understanding of the historical functioning of language. In his study of asthma, Fortun attends to multiple perspectives and experiences with asthma across national, socioeconomic, scientific and technical scales. In the context of his project “The Asthma Files”, he suggests, alongside Kim Fortun, hospitality and friendship as frames for engaging instead of disciplining the contingency of ethnographic encounters and ethnographic projects. For future collaborations, two directions are suggested: 1) investigating and experimenting with modes of care and 2) designing collaborative digital platforms for experimental ethnography. The former is related to the scientists care for their instruments, methods, theories, intellectual reproduction, infrastructures, and problems in their particular research fields, while the latter poses the question of care among ourselves and the construction of digital platforms to facilitate and foster collaboration in anthropology.

This panel was closed with Sharon Traweek’s paper on multi-scalar complexity of contemporary scientific collaborations, based on her current research on data practices and gender imbalance in astronomy. Drawing from concepts of meshwork and excess proposed by researchers with distinct intellectual projects such as Jennifer McWeeny, Arturo Escobar, Susan Paulson, and Tim Ingold, Traweek discussed billion-dollar science projects which involve multiple research communities clustered around a few recent research devices and facilities, such as the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile and the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in France. In the space of ongoing transformations of big science toward partially-global science, women and ethnic minorities are building meshworks as overlapping networks in their attempts to build careers in astronomy. Traweek proposed a revision of the notion of “enrollment” to account for the ways in which mega projects in science are sustained for decades of planning, development, construction, and operation at excessive scales which require more than support and consensus. Mega projects in the technosciences are, in Traweek’s terms, “over-determined collages that get built and used” by international teams with “glocal” structures of governance and funding.

In his concluding remarks Michael M. J. Fischer addressed the relationship between anthropology and STS through three organizing axes: time, topic, and audiences. As a question of time, a quarter century has passed for the shared history of STS and anthropology and probing questions have been asked and explored in the technosciences in respect to its apparatuses, codes, languages, life cycle of machines, educational curricula, personal and technical trajectories, which is well represented in one of the foundational texts of our field, Traweek’s “Beamtimes and Lifetimes” (1988). Traweek has helped establish a distinctive anthropological style “working alongside scientists and engineers through juxtaposition not against them.” In respect to the relationships between anthropology and STS, Fischer raised the question of pedagogies as, at once, a prominent form of engagement in the technosciences as well as an anthropological mode of engagement with the technosciences. The common thread connecting all the panel contributions was the potential for new pedagogies to emerge with the contribution of world anthropologies of sciences and technologies. That is, in the space of socialization of scientists, engineers, and the public, space of the convention, as well as invention, and knowledge-making, all the presenters addressed the question of how to advance an anthropology of science and technology with forms of participation, as Fischer suggests, as productive critique. 

Along similar lines, Claudia Fonseca offered closing remarks about her own trajectory and the persistence of national anthropological traditions informing our cross-dialogs and border crossings. Known in Brazil as an “anthropologist with an accent”, an anthropologist born in the US, trained in France, and based in Brazil for the most part of her academic life, she cannot help but emphasize the style and forms of engagement that are specific to Brazilian anthropology which has a tradition of conducting ethnography at home. The panel served, in sum, for the participants to find a common thread connecting a rather disparate set of papers and for advancing a form of dialogue across national traditions and modes of engagement which is attentive to local political histories and (national) anthropological trajectories. As suggested by Michael Fortun, we are just collectively conjuring – with much more empiria than magic – a new beginning in the experimental tradition for world anthropologies of sciences and technologies.

The 2014 Ebola Outbreak: How Many Deaths Will it Take?

October 20th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

Ebola

The Ebola Virus
Photo: CDC Global

When I began writing this brief statement in mid-September, 2,630 deaths had been attributed to probable, suspected, or confirmed cases of Ebola. The World Health Organization projected as many as 20,000 cases in the West African region before the outbreak could be brought under control. The epidemic had received little news coverage and felt, to many in the U.S., as yet another disaster taking place in countries reputed for their many dangers. By mid-October, 4,033 Ebola deaths had been reported by the World Health Organization and projections on number of cases had risen to 10,000 per week in West Africa. Concerns are heightening that the epidemic may be a greater threat than originally perceived. The number of news reports providing coverage on the epidemic has increased exponentially, reaching over 30 million by the beginning of October. This dramatic increase appears to be spurred by the death of Thomas Eric Ducan, the first reported death occurring outside the epidemic hotspot of West Africa, which made headline news around the world and sparked fears that the epidemic could spread out-of-control around the globe. « Read the rest of this entry »

Technology and Religion: An Interview with Michael Sacasas of The Frailest Thing (Part 1)

October 7th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

(Michael Sacasas is a PhD candidate in the “Texts and Technology” program at The University of Central Florida. He blogs about technology at The Frailest Thing.)

Thank you for agreeing to an interview for CASTAC. I read your blog on a regular basis, largely because you write cogently on the relationship between religion and technology. Both are traditional anthropological topics currently undergoing a renaissance within the discipline, yet they are not commonly set in explicit conversation. In contrast, you write within a tradition of thought in which technology and religion are commonly set in explicit conversation.

For example, in a February 2014 post, Traditions of Technological Criticism, you suggestively compare the place of theology as an organizing and animating principle in the medieval university to the place of technology in the modern university. Can you elaborate?

Thank you for the invitation to contribute to the conversation at CASTAC. I’m an outsider to the discipline of anthropology, but I’m glad to hear that there is renewed interest in both religion and technology. As you note, my work, such as it is, has been influenced by scholars who have enriched our understanding of technology by exploring its religious dimensions.

In the post you mention, I’d begun by considering the semantic challenges that arise from the word technology. As Leo Marx noted in an article titled, “Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept,” the term technology initially designated the study of human making; in time it came to designate the things that were made by humans. Marx worried that the word, which became a catch-all for all manner of human-made objects and systems, reified what it sought to name and consequently made possible, perhaps even encouraged, the attribution of agency to “technology” as if it were a force independent of human design, action, etc.

Marx raised a valid point; at the same time, as Langdon Winner has argued, the same vagueness and indeterminacy that led Marx to take issue with technology tells us something about the pervasiveness and opacity of our present technological milieu. It also suggests that we are becoming more aware of the consequences of what we make.

It’s in this context that I suggested we imagine that technology still named a field of study and, if that were the case, that it could serve the same unifying function that theology served in the medieval universities. It was a way of suggesting that technology was a thread that could be traced through most, if not all, disciplines. I imagined this in both the sense that (a) many disciplines now depend on technology for their advance, particularly in the sciences of course, and (b) that each discipline can contribute to our understanding of technology and its place in human affairs. The economist, the social scientist, the anthropologist, the psychologist, the engineer, the philosopher, and so on—each of these can tell us something important about the role of technology in society.

Additionally, as I wrote in that post, we might also think of technology as St. Paul thought of God, as the reality in which “we move and breathe and have our being.” Technology, in other words, is the material base of human culture; it is both a product of culture and that through which culture is produced.

Increasingly, I find that the study of technology is best understood as the study of human beings. The needs technology addresses are human needs. The aspirations, desires, and values expressed by and through technology are human aspirations, desires, and values. Our economic, political, and legal quandaries regarding technology are ultimately about justice for human beings. Etc.

Put all of this together, then, and we might say that all disciplines can speak to the topic of technology and in doing so they ultimately help us understand the contemporary shape of human culture.

I wonder if you can comment on some of the divergences and points of confluence between David Noble’s Religion of Technology, particularly his notion of the “prelapsarian impulse”, and David Nye’s American Technological Sublime. The first work dealing with the perfection of the individual and the latter with the perfection of the American republic.

These two works pair well together. Each considers the religious aspects of the technological project but from different vantage points. I frame their complementary perspectives this way. Noble’s approach is historical, and Nye’s sociological.

For his part, Noble insists that the relationship between religion and technology is not merely metaphorical. It is not simply that we might usefully characterize the relationship people have to their devices, for example, as something akin to worship or idolatry. Rather, it is a matter of historical fact. From roughly the tenth century onward, the advance of technology in the West has been spurred by a quest for transcendence whose point of departure was the Christian theological tradition. (I think it useful to characterize the religion of technology as a Christian heresy.) Noble demonstrated how from the high middle ages through the Renaissance, the early modern period, the Enlightenment, and on into the twentieth century, technological innovation was spurred by the impulse to transcend our natural limitations and perfect our human nature. While the explicitly Christian aspects tended, for the most part, to fall by the wayside over the ensuing centuries, the motives and aspirations driving the development of atomic weaponry, space travel, artificial intelligence, and genetic engineering still reflect this quest for transcendence and perfection. The Transhumanist movement is an excellent example of the religion of technology as Noble understood it.

As you suggest, the motive forces Noble documents tend to focus on the perfection of the individual (although there is also a concurrent hope that technical advance will usher in a new society). In the formative stages of the religion of technology, technology came to be understood as a means toward the recovery of a lost Edenic, or prelapsarian, state of moral, intellectual, and physical perfection. Individuals made in God’s image, but compromised by sin and the resultant curse, could, through technical ingenuity, reverse the effects of the curse and regain their original perfection.

Nye, however, is more interested in a social phenomenon than he is in individual experience. His focus is also narrower, chronologically and geographically: he takes under consideration roughly 200 years of American history. But his conceptual tool kit is a bit broader. While Nye’s argument is grounded in historical research, he frames his investigation philosophically and sociologically. Leaning on Burke and Kant, he theorizes American encounters with new technologies of impressive scale and dynamism as encounters with the sublime (these include, for example, railroads, suspension bridges, skyscrapers, electrified skylines, the Hoover Dam, and the Saturn V rockets). And, in a Durkheimian twist, he shows us how these sublime encounters were channeled within a tradition of public ritual and ceremony that functioned as a civil religion. Furthermore, Nye argued that, in its role as a civil religion, the experience of the technological sublime became a unifying force in American culture.

Nye’s closing chapter discusses what he calls the consumer sublime, a degradation of the American technological sublime into fabricated commercial simulation exemplified by Disney and Las Vegas. In other words, the experience of the technological sublime has been on the decline. But one need only think of the gatherings surrounding the farewell tours of the retired space shuttles and the crowds that gathered for their final launches to see that bursts of the technological sublime as civil religion still occasionally present themselves. The fanfare surrounding the landing of the Mars rover, Curiosity, also exhibited some of the same qualities. On the whole, though, it seems to me that we will see less and less of the technological sublime in its role as a civil religion.

We could say, then, that the difference between Noble and Nye is this. Noble focuses on ideas or beliefs that motivate action, and Nye focuses on practices that channel and shape powerful quasi-spiritual experiences. Or, to put it another way, Nye describes the ritual shape of the religion of technology in its American manifestation.

One last point of complementary difference between both works: Noble helps us understand the forces that have driven technological innovation, and Nye helps us understand how technology has been integrated into American culture after it has been developed and deployed.

Together, they have amply demonstrated that the techno-scientific project in the West has not been the coolly rational and wholly secular affair that it is often assumed to be.

Note from the Field: Charting Territories without Maps

September 9th, 2014, by § 2 Comments

The Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos) does not have postal codes, street addresses, or mail delivery. Streets rarely have codified names. Since I started doing fieldwork in Laos in 2012, I have been fascinated by the ingenious maps that people make to navigate a country without codes. Every day, people make-do by making their own maps. Map making technologies (like GPS, digital mapping software, graph paper) are also important tools for my informants in the bomb clearance sector, where I do much of my fieldwork. Here, as well, people learn to make do by making their own maps. The present writing, however, is the first time that I have consciously tried to chart the source of my fascination.

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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)

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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 »

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)

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