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.


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.

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

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.

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

Kraemer, J. (n.d.). Friend or Freund: Social media and transnational connections in Berlin, Special Issue on Transnational HCI. Human-Computer Interaction.

Marston, S. A. 2000. The social construction of scale. Progress in Human Geography, 24(2): 219–242.

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.



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:

I look forward to an interesting and productive year ahead!

Patricia G. Lange

Social Science, Socialist Scientists, and the Future of Utopias

September 29th, 2015, by § Leave a Comment

As space colonization becomes a more serious project and an influential utopian imaginary, I am reminded of British scientist and communist JD Bernal’s 1929 warning about “human dimorphism”: Bernal wondered about a future in which “mechanizers” would live an enhanced, technoscientifically-evolved form of life, separated from the “humanizers,” the masses whose physical needs would be equally gratified thanks to scientific advancements—but who would prefer to exist in an atavistic human way, enjoying mundanities such as friendliness, poetry, dancing, drinking, singing, and art. His figure for that version of the good life seems to have been filched from whatever exposure he had to colonial anthropology—he calls it the “idyllic, Melanesian existence.” The mechanizers, on the other hand, would transform themselves biologically and psychologically, moving down a different evolutionary path towards a different destiny—a vision dear to present-day transhumanists, who from early on were among the strongest advocates of space colonization, and have been involved in various aspects of it, through NASA and DARPA as well as a number of smaller, more esoteric organizations. The word transhumanist was, in fact, coined by Bernal’s more famous acquaintance, Julian Huxley—Julian was Aldous’ socialist brother, who had his own visions of a quasi-eugenicist utopia.

Image: The assembly of the 'Stanford Torus' space colony. By Don Davis for NASA.

Image: The assembly of the ‘Stanford Torus’ space colony design. By Don Davis for NASA.

There are alternative and instructive histories, as well as an important present, buried in these entanglements with utopia, science, and the left. It seems worthwhile to reconsider some of the visions and insights embedded in that history and, possibly, to find a lens that might point a way out of the directionless quagmire we find ourselves in as we try to think beyond the black box of market capitalism. I wonder whether, in our over-determined rejection of utopianism, we have not also thrown out something valuable, or maybe simply useful. In putting forward a “recombinant tale of social and scientific consciousness” (a phrase I steal from Debbora Battaglia), I am especially interested in utopianism and forms of teleology [rationalization based on end-goals], because telos seems to matter, somehow, and I am interested in finding out not so much why it matters, but how it matters in thinking politically and morally. « Read the rest of this entry »

Twin Astronauts: The Perfect Research Subjects

September 15th, 2015, by § Leave a Comment

Expedition 45/46 Commander, Astronaut Scott Kelly along with his brother, former Astronaut Mark Kelly speak to news media outlets about Scott Kelly's 1-year mission aboard the International Space Station. Photo Date: January 19, 2015. Location: Building 2. Photographer: Robert Markowitz

Image: Scott and Mark Kelly. Source: NASA.

In March 2015, astronaut Scott Kelly embarked on a one-year stay aboard the International Space Station, while his identical twin brother Mark Kelly, a retired astronaut, remained on planet Earth. This remarkable event—accompanied by a frenzy of media attention—created a degree of separation between twins that scientists could previously only imagine. For science journalists and their readers, the Kelly twin astronauts were like a dream come true, a perfect marriage between popular fascination with twins and Americans’ boundless enthusiasm for space travel. Attention-grabbing headlines like “Meet the twins unlocking the secrets of space”, “Nature vs. Nurture vs. NASA”, and “NASA twins to embark on year-long space experiment” began to appear in the news. Friends and colleagues were quick to forward these stories to me, knowing of my personal (I’m an identical twin) and professional (I’m an anthropologist who studies twin researchers) interest in twins. Scientific research on twins has a long history, so as I read about the plans for experimentation on the Kelly twins, there was much that was familiar to me. In a way, the twin-in-space and twin-on-earth scenario is a logical conclusion of long-standing scientific fantasies about twins and their power to reveal the hidden workings of nature and nurture. Interestingly, however, by the time it became possible to realize this older vision of twin research, the life sciences had entered the molecular era, with new methodologies and technologies threatening to replace the classical twin study. So, we might ask—how did we end up with this improbable study of twin astronauts?

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Understanding Users through Data: UX, Ratings, and Audiences

September 9th, 2015, by § Leave a Comment

Understanding how audiences move through information (c) Luca Mascaro via Creative Commons

Image: Understanding how audiences move through information. Photo by Luca Mascaro, some rights reserved (Creative Commons license).

“It needs to be usable by distracted individuals in a hurry. It needs to be extremely legible and intuitive,” began the client emphatically as he leaned forward, one of several people  gathered at a conference table on the 16th floor of an office tower in Houston, Texas. He rested back in his chair and waited, drumming his hands on the table. The project lead and two of the designers nodded, as one called a vast library of application mockups up onto the demo screen. As she scrolled through these, the other explained the rationale behind its user-interface elements: “we tested this prototype with [x user base]. We have seen that they need to take [y action] immediately, and if they are hindered in this, the company itself cannot track projects or time spent by employees. [Staff] are too busy on the job to engage in lengthy bookkeeping procedures.”

This project, a massive one spanning more than a year’s research and development, is one among many for which I am currently acting as a participant observer at [Intellisoft Inc.] In foregrounding research, this company is not unique, but they are among an ever-growing number of organizations appropriating anthropological methods to understand how audiences interface with technological artifacts. Occasionally, these methods employ terminology that diverges between the academic and applied social sciences; it took me a moment to realize, for example, that “contextual inquiry” is field research, that is, ethnography.

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Making Rain and Letting Shine: Geoengineering’s Biopolitics

August 11th, 2015, by § Leave a Comment

Geoengineering [1] is a diverse set of environmental technologies proposed to intervene strategically in Earth processes in order to combat climate change. Take for example, a plan to reduce solar radiation via aerosol clouds emitted from airplanes, or one that attempts to remediate ocean acidification by means of algae blooms created by dumping iron from ships. But like the anthropocene, geoengineering is an ambiguous term. Social scientists seem to criticize both the anthropocene and geoengineering as much as they praise them. However many “Good Anthropocenes” emerge in climate discourses, there are just as many millennarist visions [2]. Just as geoengineering is argued to be an expression of capitalist eco-colonialism [3], others welcome its opening towards new relations with/in earth-systems [4].

Examples of geoengineering. Source: Kiel Earth Institute / Geomar. Wikimedia Commons

Image: Examples of geoengineering. Source: Kiel Earth Institute / Geomar. Wikimedia Commons.

But since geoengineering eludes the confines of a single attitude, historical precedent, or political motive, it may not be analytically prudent to treat as a totality. Thus anthropological inquiry, never content with reductionist critique or blind advocacy, could be especially adept at understanding this thing called geoengineering. This might be possible, in an admittedly indulgent yet I believe necessary fashion, by defining and differentiating its characteristics using a particular rubric: a Foucault-indebted biopolitics. Biopolitical analysis, always concerned with the specificities of a given apparatus, could allow an anthropologist to drive a stake between two geoengineering proposals’ different political histories perhaps, or conversely, to uncover common economic practices hidden in otherwise unrelated proposals, for example. « Read the rest of this entry »

Pluto: Unexplored, Exploring, Explored

July 21st, 2015, by § 2 Comments

“Yay! Pluto will always be part of our hearts,” a 17-year old exclaims to her companion.

“Pluto just needs a good PR rep,” a dad jokes to his son after reading the formal definition of planet and figuring out why Pluto isn’t one.

“Pluto’s a dog.” “I know it’s a dog. It’s also a dwarf planet,” two friends banter back and forth.

These were a few quotes I overheard while eavesdropping at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum a few weeks ago. Pluto, though demoted from a planet to a dwarf planet in 2006 for failing to “clear the neighborhood of its orbit,” remains part of the “Exploring the Planets” exhibit. A scale model of New Horizons—the probe that made its closest approach to the icy underdog on July 14, 2015—hangs above a kiosk that in bright yellow letters reads “Exploring Pluto.” A screen shows the latest images and encourages users to visit the New Horizon’s website with even more information. One teenager passes by and explains to his mom, with confusion, that New Horizons has reached Pluto (though at the time it was still a few weeks away). The mom sighs, “poor Pluto.”

Model of New Horizons spacecraft at Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Photo by author.

Image: Model of New Horizons spacecraft at Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Photo by author.

Today, a week after New Horizon’s closest approach, can we say we have now explored Pluto? What does it mean to explore a body so distant, incomprehensibly beyond and incapable of human being? And, importantly, who’s the “we” lauding humanity’s new found Plutonian knowledge and what does that mean for politics of contemporary exploration?

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The Life and Times of Minerals

July 14th, 2015, by § 1 Comment

Reprinted by permission, Vandall King

Image: Flowers of the Mineral Kingdom cover. Reprinted by permission of Vandall King.

On the “Flowers of the Mineral Kingdom” Facebook group and on Pinterest, collectors and enthusiasts post photos of minerals that resemble flowers or are flower-like in their delicacy and beauty. Specific mineral species that look like flowers are also called by names like “desert rose” or “azurite blossom.” Two well-received books by the collector and amateur historian Van King, entitled Nature’s Garden of Crystals and Flowers of the Mineral Kingdom, are illustrative examples of this interest. A lily blooms in a single year and calcite crystals over millions of years, but comparing them—or indeed, calling one by the name of the other—is not uncommon among these mineral collectors. « Read the rest of this entry »

High-Tech Hand Work: When humans replace computers, what does it mean for jobs and for technological change?

July 7th, 2015, by § 4 Comments

Are computers coming for our jobs? A new wave of worry about “the end of work” and “the jobless future” has arisen of late among professors and pundits alike. Innovations in artificial intelligence and the rise of Internet and mobile communications appear to portend a “second machine age” in which an ever-expanding set of human skills will be supplanted by robots and computer programs. The manufacturing jobs that have driven the growth of China’s economy will soon be swallowed up by smart machines. With “big data” and “machine learning” at their disposal, software engineers will create algorithms that make more accurate and less biased judgments than well-trained humans. If automation has threatened manufacturing jobs since the dawn of the factory system, the 21st century will bring a fundamentally new danger: that even the middle-class “knowledge workers” who have managed to survive the past 40 years of structural economic shifts will soon be rendered obsolete.

If contemporary technological advancements seem poised to have far-reaching consequences for workers and societies, then how are these changes playing out inside of a “new economy” software start-up that is at the forefront of replacing at least one kind of human job: that of the broker? « Read the rest of this entry »

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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