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.
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: email@example.com.
I look forward to an interesting and productive year ahead!
Patricia G. Lange
The CASTAC Blog
I’m Beth. I study people who study earthquakes and people who work to minimize the damage that earthquakes cause.
That’s my short introduction; the line I use with nearly everyone to describe my research. I do fieldwork in the offices, conference rooms, labs, and workshops of earthquake-prone Mexico, where cutting-edge research and technical problem solving is happening (not to mention pitched battles over what “cutting edge research and problem solving” could mean in the first place). « Read the rest of this entry »
Ah, the Game Developers Conference (GDC)… I started my field research in 2004 at a relatively small but growing game studio: Vicarious Visions. Since that time I’ve been researching game development and game developers. That’s a long time to study such an amorphous, variable and shifting thing/community/world/culture. I’ve ranged from AAA developers to hobbyists to serious game development teams. I haven’t made it to every GDC in that time; travel has always been highly subject to the aleatory. But I have been watching, listening and taking notes from afar even when I haven’t been there myself. What follows is a meta-note, on my collection of meta-notes, which will make this pretty meta-meta.
This is the second half of my conversation with Dominic Boyer about the emergence of “infrastructure” as both ethnographic focus and analytic within anthropology. You can read the first part of the interview here!
Ian Lowrie: I’d like to circle back to the question of how infrastructure is related to politics and liberalism. There’s a recent article by Kim Fortun calling for a revitalized, engaged anthropology of not just infrastructure, but infrastructural expertise, in the context of precisely the degradation of the most visible aspects of our infrastructure. At the same time, I think we also see strong, robust development of other types of infrastructures. Things like technical arrangements, financial instruments, logistical services, the computational and digital. I wonder if part of what makes the urge to expand the concept of infrastructure to include things other than things like roads and sewers is a political urge.
Dominic Boyer: I think it is, and I think you’re right to point out that the story of infrastructure in the neoliberal heyday is not simply about abandonment. It’s a story of selective investment, and also of abandonment [laughs]. This is also the era in which informatic infrastructures, for example, develop. The Internet is one, but also the specialized information infrastructures that allowed finance to exert global realtime power that far exceeds the capacities of most governments to effectively regulate it. And that becomes a pivotal part of the story of the rebalancing of powers, I think, during the same time period. So the neoliberal era saw some remarkable infrastructural achievements in certain areas, whereas at the same time you might find your roads and your sewers decaying, which is interestingly often-times the focus of infrastructure studies. Most seem focused on what I would describe as basic biopolitical infrastructures and their fragmentation. A lot of research is, more or less latently, interrogating the aftermath of neoliberalism, specifically through the lens of biopolitical infrastructural decay. But you could tell a different story if you looked at different infrastructures. And maybe that’s a story that still needs to be told. « Read the rest of this entry »
In the media these days, Artificial Intelligence (henceforth AI) is making a comeback. Kevin Drum wrote a long piece for Mother Jones about what the rising power of intelligent programs might mean for the political economy of the United States: for jobs, capital-labor relations, and the welfare state. He worries that as computer programs become more intelligent day by day, they will be put to more and more uses by capital, thereby displacing white-collar labor. And while this may benefit both capital and labor in the long run, the transition could be long and difficult, especially for labor, and exacerbate the already-increasing inequality in the United States. (For more in the same vein, here’s Paul Krugman, Moshe Vardi, Noah Smith, and a non-bylined Economist piece.) « Read the rest of this entry »
At the 112th annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association last November, I was pleased to take the reins as co-chair of CASTAC alongside returning co-chair Jennifer Cool. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my predecessor Rachel Prentice for all of her hard work in building our organization up to its current strength and numbers. In what follows, I’ll introduce myself and share some thoughts about CASTAC and its future.
I come to CASTAC and, more broadly, to science and technology studies via the study of sustainable development in non-urban spaces. My current project explores the intersection between renewable energy projects and ordinary life in a northern German village on the path to zero-sum living. Germany’s current “energy turn,” its transition from nuclear power to alternative energy sources, is transforming rural communities into sites of lucrative speculation, where capital investment and environmental politics take form around the technoscientific promise of renewables. In the two decades since the transition was coded into federal law, the village where I work has been terraformed by the installation of wind turbines, solar arrays and now biofuel processing technology. Practices that were already commonplace in the village (such as the harnessing of wind for land reclamation, the use of sun for heat or the use of biomass for fertilization) have been mutated and scaled up into engines of ecocapital (as wind turbines, solar panels, and biogas processing plants) at the same time that villagers have been recast as energy citizens who take part in the transition by recycling, installing solar panels or investing in wind parks or biofuel ventures. « Read the rest of this entry »
Since my undergraduate days, I’ve both aspired to do feminist anthropology and been fascinated with people’s everyday engagement with mundane (and extraordinary) technologies. I can’t express how thrilled and honored I am to receive the 2013 Diana Forsythe Prize for The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America (University of California Press), my ethnography of American artisanal cheese, cheesemaking and cheesemakers. I do not present a summary of the book here (if interested, the Introduction is available on the UC Press website: http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520270183). Instead, I alight on some of the STS-related themes that run throughout my book (and especially Chapter 6): regulating food safety and promoting public health, artisanal collaboration with microbial agencies, and the mutual constitution of production and consumption.
Real Cheese or Real Hazard — or Both?
By U.S. law, cheese made from raw (unpasteurized) milk, whether imported or domestically produced, must be aged at least 60 days at a temperature no less than 1.7˚C before being sold. The 60-day rule intends to offer protection against pathogenic microbes that might thrive in the moist environment of a soft cheese. But while the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) views raw-milk cheese as a potential biohazard, riddled with threatening bugs, fans see it as the reverse: a traditional food processed for safety by the metabolic action of good microbes—bacteria, yeast, and mold—on proteins and carbohydrates in milk. The very quality that gives food safety officials pause about raw-milk cheese — that it is teeming with an uncharacterized diversity of microbial life — makes handcrafting it a rewarding challenge for artisan producers, and consuming it particularly desirable for gastronomic and health-conscious eaters, drawn to its purportedly “pro-biotic” aspect.
I have introduced the notion of microbiopolitics as a theoretical frame for understanding debates over the gustatory value and health and safety of cheese and other perishable foods.[i] Calling attention to how dissent over how to live with microorganisms reflects disagreement about how humans ought to live with one other, microbiopolitics offers a way to frame questions of ethics and governance. The U.S. American revival of artisanal cheesemaking and rising enthusiasm for raw milk and raw-milk cheese exemplifies microbiopolitical negotiations between a hyper-hygienic regulatory order bent on taming nature through forceful eradication of microbial contaminants — a Pasteurian social order (as currently forwarded by the FDA) — and what I have called a post-Pasteurian alternative committed working in selective partnership with ambient microbes.
As Bruno Latour relates in The Pasteurization of France, in recognizing microbes as fully enmeshed in human social relations, early Pasteurians legitimated the hygienist’s right to be everywhere; once microbes can be revealed in the lab (Pasteurians continue to believe) they may be eradicated — only then will “pure” social relations be able to flourish. In contrast, post-Pasteurians move beyond an antiseptic attitude to embrace mold and bacteria as potential friends and allies. The post-Pasteurian ethos of today’s artisanal food cultures—recognizing microbes to be ubiquitous, necessary, and even (sometimes) tasty—is productive of modern craft knowledge and expanded notions of nutrition, and it produces a new vocabulary for thinking about conjunctures of cultural practice and agrarian environments, along the lines of what the French call terroir.
I want to be very clear: some bacteria and viruses make some people sick, something no food-maker wants to risk. Successful post-Pasteurian food-makers are never cavalier about pathogenic risk. Dairy farmers who trade in raw milk and cheesemakers who work with it are exceptionally careful about hygiene—they are not anti-Pasteurian. To the contrary, they work hard to distinguish between “good” and “bad” microorganisms and to harness the former as allies in vanquishing the latter. Post-Pasteurianism takes after Pasteurianism in taking hygiene seriously; it differs in being more discriminating.
Focused on the aggregate of national population, Pasteurian microbiopolitics has been criticized for taking a one-size-fits all approach to food safety, predicating regulation on industrial-scale production (relying on pasteurization or irradiation to kill pathogens presumed to be present owing to insanitary agricultural practices) and population-wide consumption (young raw-milk cheese is forbidden to all because it carries particular threat to immunocompromised and pregnant consumers). Post-Pasteurians counter that fresh milk is not inherently “dirty” and in need of pasteurization; contamination is a matter of human agricultural practice, it is not in the “nature” of milk. Moreover, many assert that the heterogeneity of the public in “public health” should not be reduced to its lowest common denominator; people are individuals. In other words, the post-Pasteurian position lobbies for socio-legal latitude that would permit potentially risky foods to be made and consumed safely by some, if not others.
I worry, though, that as enthusiasm for the beneficial agencies of microorganisms grows, underinformed enthusiasts may overestimate the power of “nature’s” microbial goodness.[ii] I fret even more when such a position is characterized—as I am beginning to see—in terms of “post-Pasteurianism.” Last year I discovered for sale on the Web t-shirts, bumper stickers, even maternity shirts and baby bibs emblazoned with a smiling microbe and the slogan, “I’m a Post Pasteurian.”
Descriptive copy explains, “What is a ‘Post Pasteurian’? A really smart person who understands that pasteurization kills all (yes, ALL) the good in food.”[iii] This is not how I defined “post-Pasteurian” in my 2008 article or 2013 book. For the record, I refuse the claim. Pasteurization does not “kill” all the good in food. The position putatively espoused by the t-shirt would pit a beneficent “nature” supernaturally enlivened by microorganisms against a power-greedy “culture” championed by regulatory overreach. But the natural-cultural reality is that milk and fermented foods such as cheese, yogurt, miso, and beer are multispecies muddles that resist such simplistic parsing.
There’s nothing essential about a food’s goodness. Humility is required to navigate (not necessarily manage, let alone steward) post-Pasteurian microbial ecologies.
By “microbiopolitics,” then, I mean to describe and analyze regimes of social management, both governmental and grassroots, which admit to the vital agencies of microbes, for good and bad. Including beneficial microbes like starter bacterial cultures and cheese mold — in addition to the harmful E. coli, Lysteria monocytogenes, and Micobacterium tuberculosis — in accounts of food politics extends the scaling of agro-food studies into the body, into the gastrointestinal. “Microbes connect us through diseases,” writes Latour, “but they also connect us, through our intestinal flora, to the very things we eat.”[iv] At the beginning of the twenty-first century, as it comes to light that 90 percent of what we think of as the human organism turns out to comprise microorganisms, the truism, “We are what we eat,” has never seemed more literal. One aim of my work has been to show how artisan food-makers carefully sort out microbial friends from foes, work (not faith) that produces the conditions through which a post-Pasteurian dieticity might safely emerge—for some if not others.
[i] See Heather Paxson, “Post-Pasteurian Cultures: The Microbiopolitics of Raw-Milk Cheese in the United States,” Cultural Anthropology 23(1): 15-47, 2008. And also Heather Paxson, The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.
[ii] See also Gareth Enticott, “Risking the Rural: Nature, Morality and the Consumption of Unpasteurized Milk,” Journal of Rural Studies 19(4): 411-424, 2003.
[iv] Bruno Latour, The Pasteurization of France. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993, p. 37.