Tag: anthropocene

Transhumanism, Tragic Humanism, and The View From Nowhere

A number of scholars of post-humanity (such as Hayles and Wolfe) have argued that transhumanism is an unduly optimistic extension of humanism. I can’t agree – not only is it not optimistic, it is not a humanism. Transhumanism is filled with the anxiety of extinction. It also is enthused enough about non-human flourishing that it marks a departure from humanism (besides: is anything more optimistic than humanism in its enlightenment mode?). Transhumanism’s posthumanist stance is the continuation of enlightenment technoscience in so far as it centralizes human technology, even if it projects the technoscientific breakdown of humanity. However, insofar as its ideas and projected technologies propose an almost panpsychic collapse of mind and matter, it pushes us beyond reductive materialist, secular and humanist arrangements, and points to some interesting new openings. (read more...)

From Technocracy to the Anthropocene: 2016 in Review

#ALSIceBucketChallenge. Deflategate. Twins in Space. Animal Sex Work. The joy of working on Platypus since its inception arises from the many lively, timely, engaged posts that our team of contributing editors and authors bring to the blog each week. Sometimes funny, sometimes serious, often critical and reflective, the blog offers a look into up-and-coming research in anthropology, STS, and related fields on science, tech, computing, informatics, and more. As editor, I’ve delighted in posts that frequently turn commonsense assumptions upside down. For the past two years, I’ve summarized the major themes and highlights in a yearly review post, and have the pleasure of doing so for 2016. Two noteworthy themes threaded through many of last year’s posts: 1) reflections on technocracy, and 2) living in the anthropocene. By technocracy, I mean emerging regimes of data, algorithms, and quantitative living. Melissa Cefkin (Human-Machine Interactions and the Coming Age of Autonomy) opened (read more...)

Planticide: Killing Badly Behaved Plants

Walking through the woods near Colby College, Judy Stone gestures rapidly, pointing out plants. Norway maple, bittersweet, honeysuckle, a type of rose. All invasive. We stop for a moment to examine the rose, spending time appreciating its sharp thorns, its capable defenses. She tells me that she often takes groups on walks around Colby, and when this rose was in bloom, people stopped to admire it, look at its flowers, smell it, and talk about how beautiful it is. She didn’t have the heart to tell them that it was an invasive plant. They, like most people, couldn’t see the problems the plant was causing in the forest. They couldn’t see how ugly the invasives made this forest, because they didn’t have any experience with what she termed “nice” forests. The problem is not the arrival of plants from somewhere else violating the purity of a native forest. The classificatory principle at work sorts plants not by origin, but rather, by behavior. The relevant distinction is between plants that behave well in an ecosystem, that is, those that leave space for a diversity of life forms, and plants that behave badly, dominating the landscape. (read more...)

Animal Sex Work

Crouched beneath a stallion’s hot undercarriage, bearing the weight of a two-foot long sterile tube on my shoulder as the horse thrusts into it, I vocally encouraged him to ejaculate along with a team of human handlers dedicated to the business of equine sperm. “Come on, boy,” we all chirp, “don’t stop now!” This particular kind of human-assisted animal sex is repeated all spring and summer long at equine breeding facilities across the globe. The proliferation of Artificial Insemination (AI) techniques and technologies over the past two decades has revolutionized the equine breeding shed, making it possible to produce offspring from two horses with no physical, or even geographical, proximity. As recently as fifteen years ago, performance horse breeders imported actual horses from Europe, Russia, or South America to improve the American strains of particular breeds. Now it is possible to breed American mares to international stallions without either party leaving home. New industries and technologies have been created to collect, package, freeze, and transport equine semen; state, federal, and international laws govern the movement of semen across political borders; and a whole branch of equine veterinary medicine concerned with reproduction—theriogenology—has swelled to accommodate the growing need for professionals to supervise encounters like the one I described above. (read more...)

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

Today the Anthropocene is everywhere. You may have encountered both scientific and non-scientific articles that begin with this geological greeting: “Welcome to the Anthropocene!” From a geological science perspective, planet Earth—and everything on it—is constantly moving along a timeline, from one distinctive era to another. In 2000, geologists Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer proposed a new name for the current geological epoch: Anthropocene.[1] They argue that this term (which combines the Greek “human” + “new”) should replace ‘Holocene’ (“whole” + “new”) because it best describes an emerging geological condition. Human impact, they explain, is now a wholescale driver of Earthly environmental change. For its many early adopters, the Anthropocene is a welcome scientific and political concept that expands understandings of human-Earth connections. Yet, while the Anthropocene concept is definitely planetary, I would suggest that it is not wholly Earth-bound. What does a closer examination of the term’s conceptual origins reveal about on-the-ground politics of spatial perception in the Anthropocene? Is there a paradox  between the Anthropocene as an earthly timescale and geological entanglement with the planet’s own environment? (read more...)

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

In Vancouver’s settler origin story, the city begins with a saw mill located in “primeval nature.” Living in the city as a student, I became interested in theories of the relation between economy and ecology, first studying forestry and working in the logging industry, then moving to graduate work in literature and science studies. The origin story of Vancouver stands out as a case study. The city combines an aesthetic regime (in architecture, tourism branding, and so on) focused on proximity to nature with an origin story that goes back to a single sawmill. For centuries, mills have been technologies at the threshold of ecologic and economic systems, transforming resources into commodities with exchange value. But much research into mills and other sites of industrial processing considers them only as production machines—not as mediators, in Bruno Latour’s sense, that affect how we conceive the nature/economy difference in the first place. In Capital I, Marx writes that “technology reveals the active relation of man to nature.”[1] Is he right? Do what we call humanity and what we call nature exist prior to technologies such as mills, which we define based on their ability to transform nonhuman things into human things? Is communication about nature and society—currently in flux in debates over the Anthropocene and climate change—determined by such technological infrastructure, or does communication move machines into place? These are some of the questions that my case study grounds in Vancouver’s colonial origin story. (read more...)

2014 in Review: Re-locating the Human

In retrospect, 2014 may appear a pivotal year for technological change. It was the year that “wearable” technologies began shifting from geek gadget to mass-market consumer good (including the announcement of the Apple Watch and the rising popularity of fitness trackers), that smartphone and tablet usage outstripped that of desktop PCs for accessing the Internet, along with concurrent interest in home automation and increasingly viable models for pervasive computing (such as Google’s purchase of smart thermostat Nest), and that computer algorithms, machine learning, and recommendation engines came increasingly to the fore of public awareness and debate (from Apple buying streaming service Beats to the effects of Facebook’s algorithms). Many of these shifts have been playing out world-wide, or at least, in diverse contexts, such as Chinese online retailer Alibaba going public and Xiaomi smartphone maker speedily surpassing most rivals. It also proved to be an exciting year on The CASTAC Blog, where our team of Associate Editors and contributors brought our attention to this rapidly shifting technological landscape, and to pressing questions and debates driving anthropological inquiry into science and technology. In today’s post, I continue my predecessor Patricia Lange’s tradition of reviewing themes and highlights on the blog from the past year. Some of these are topical, and included energy, the environment, and infrastructure, crowdsourcing and the “sharing” economy, wearables, algorithms and the “Internet of Things,” science communication, science’s publics, and citizen science, while others were more conceptual or even experimental—reflections on longterm ethnographic engagement with technology, broader issues of scientific (and ethnographic) authority, technological infrastructures as social infrastructures and tacit knowledges (such as Jenny Cool’s co-chair report), and broadly, how to make anthropological research into science and technology relevant within and beyond academic circles. (read more...)

AAA 2014 STS Recap

This year’s American Anthropological Association Meeting saw a number of active CASTAC and STS-inspired panels, many of which featured scholars from our own community. We discussed engaging with the Anthropocene, which is becoming a hot new topic, perhaps replacing the ontological focus from last year. Panelists explored whether this term is the “gift” that Latour proposes. The meeting also saw fascinating explorations of issues in design and elitism, as well as theoretical and methodological issues that we must all consider when moving our research trajectory from “studying up” to “studying with.” (read more...)