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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I look forward to an interesting and productive year ahead!
Patricia G. Lange
The CASTAC Blog
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.
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.
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.
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« Read the rest of this entry »
This post is written by Debbora Battaglia, a professor of anthropology at Mount Holyoke. Currently, Dr. Battaglia is working on a book project to be titled Seriously at Home in ‘0-Gravity’.
Not long ago, New Hampshire Public Radio broadcast Diary of a Space Zucchini – an adaptation of astronaut and chemical engineer Don Pettit’s blog from aboard the International Space Station, in 2012. The piece is a gem of expressive cross-species anthropomorphism. So tenderly did producer Sean Hurley enact the voice of the little aeroponic sprout that one listener was moved to “smiles and tears.” Indeed, the words of the self-conscious squash, floating above a sound mix of ethereal music, electronic beeps, humming computer atmospherics, and static-rich Ground Control “we have lift off” moments; the zucchininaut’s refined observations of living on orbit, in a baggie; its near-death experience and its sadness as fellow crew-member Sunflower browns and, after a struggle, returns to the Great Compost; its last philosophical reflections and anxieties as it describes how Gardener prepares to return to Earth, and turns out its light, can only be described as inspired public radio – courtesy of NASA’s “Word of Mouth” initiative. « Read the rest of this entry »