Tag: Design

As If I Were Blind…

What is an experience and how can it be conveyed and communicated to others? “A focus on “The Experience” signals a technology has been designed with a consideration for the user’s experiences. It is supposed to indicate  a technology’s role and contribution to everyday life, and the likelihood of its success once implemented. Given its popularity in design contexts, the term “experience” seems unusually rare in anthropology, with a few notable exceptions (e.g., Bruner, 1986; Turner, 1986; Hastrup, 1995, for example). This is so despite the fact that we, as anthropologists, can definitely be said to “experience” a way of living other than the one we are used to when we carry out fieldwork. This experience begins with our first encounter with another culture and its people, and continues into the writing stage, with our concerted attempts to communicate the complicated cultural aspects of the places and peoples we study (read more...)

Personal Computing and Personhood in Design and Disability

When I try to explain augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices to those unfamiliar, I usually start with physicist Stephen Hawking, who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Hawking speaks using a high-tech computerized AAC device with synthetic speech output (Mialet, 2012). The electronic voice communicates to others the text that Hawking selects from a cursor moving across the computer screen mounted to his wheelchair using his cheek movement as input. These sorts of ‘tools for talking’ are also used by those with other disabilities and medical conditions that potentially impair oral speech such as autism, cerebral palsy, or a stroke. AAC devices are mobile by definition, as they ought to move with a person as they move through the world (Reno, 2012). They are becoming more “mobile” in another sense too. Individuals increasingly have the option of using AAC devices that take the material form of ordinary smartphones, tablet computers, and mobile apps that simulate software on specialized computers dedicated to AAC (Alper, 2015). (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...)

How Not to Be a Bot: An Interview with Natasha Dow Schüll

Natasha Dow Schüll is a cultural anthropologist and associate professor in New York University’s Department of Media, Culture, and Communication. In her 2012 book Addiction by Design, she explores how electronic slot machines facilitate the compulsive behavior of gambling addicts through their digital interfaces. Informed by extensive ethnographic research among designers and users, the book details how the interrelationship between humans and digital media is engineered and experienced, and how it relates to the demands and logics of life in contemporary capitalist society. In current research, Schüll has shifted her focus to the design and use of digital self-tracking technologies. Her recent article, “Abiding Chance: Online Poker and the Software of Self-Discipline,” which provides the starting point for the following interview, bridges her first and second projects. Adam Webb-Orenstein: What brought you to focus on players of online poker and how is this work related to the concerns of your earlier research on slot machine addicts? Natasha Dow Schüll: My approach as an anthropologist is to explore how technology mediates cultural demands in human experience, and slot machine play and online poker play are two cases I’ve examined to get at that. I see both forms of play as responses to contemporary life but the ways in which they are mediated by technology, and the experiences they afford, differ. (read more...)

Another Architecture is Possible: Politics, Value, and Architecture in Argentina

Entering the architecture school at the University of Buenos Aires, students pass under a large banner bearing names and photographs of students and faculty disappeared by the military dictatorship of 1976-1983. Together with texts like Arquitectos Que No Fueron (Novillo 2008)—literally “architects that weren’t”—the banner provokes reflection about an unrealized future for architecture that was imagined and then pressed to within an inch of its life over forty years ago. It asks students to consider their inheritance of that moment: to rethink the present through a past substantially shaped by violence, and to hold open the possibility that another architecture is possible. The technical aspects of architectural design—the mainstay of architects’ day-to-day training—were taught in an environment suffused with political inheritance. I arrived at the architecture school to conduct fieldwork for an ethnographic study of a construction boom that followed Argentina’s 2001 economic and political crisis. My current book project, Concrete Dreams, is based on two years of fieldwork with architects, real estate investors, and neighborhood residents, and describes how buildings were incorporated into post-crisis practices of economic investment (see D’Avella 2014), and how other forms of value were made to endure in the face of buildings’ increasingly central place in Argentine economic life. (read more...)

2015 Year in Review: Deflating Footballs, Twins in Space, Women (not) in Tech, and More

Last year on the CASTAC Blog began with anthropological ruminations on what the “Deflategate” football scandal has to do with questions of expertise, and closed with discussions of citizen science, earthquake warning systems, the (anti-)politics of women in tech, and deeply personal engagement with experiencing crisis or catastrophe—in this case, terror attacks in Paris—over social media. One of the great perks of editing this blog lies in reading the array of topics, perspectives, and modes of analyses from our contributors. This year, I’m taken by the variety in tone, from the (somewhat) tongue-in-cheek (the aforementioned Deflategate post; the anthropology of rigged games), to the deeply affecting (again, Charlotte Cabasse-Mazel “Looking at the Pain of Others [on Social Media]”), from the boundary-pushing (Abou Farman’s call to envision radical alternative futures) to the experimental (a Twitter fieldwork experiment from Rice’s Ethnography Studio). Beyond timely, weekly engagement with climate change, artificial intelligence, changing media ecologies, infrastructure, design, energy, and more, the blog is becoming a repository cataloging—and pushing forward—the driving concerns of social scientific and humanistic inquiry in these areas. In this review post, I consider four central conceptual questions animating this year’s coverage on how science, technology, computing and more are shaping (and shaped by) diverse lives, worlds, and experiences. These include: the mutual production or constitution of conceptual categories; questions of knowledge production and expertise; concerns with the future and futurity; and key political dimensions of science, technology, and computing. Although these themes unfold differently across intellectual projects and modes of inquiry, they elucidate the value of critical, reflexive, and empirical approaches to scientific and technological worlds. (read more...)

Human-Machine Interactions and the Coming Age of Autonomy

“Together we embark.” “Together we adjust.” “Together we drive.” These tag lines describe the Intelligent Driving System (IDS) concept car used in Nissan’s recent demonstration of possible futures in electric and autonomous driving. Unveiled by Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn at the Tokyo Motor Show in 2015, the IDS concept car[1] suggests rich possibilities for future driving experiences. What I’m especially curious to explore as an anthropologist who has long been engaged in ethnographic and anthropological research in the context of technology development is how the seemingly dichotomous notions of “togetherness” and “autonomy” come together in advancing self-driving cars.  What visions of collectivity and sociality are at play amongst those involved in the development of self-driving cars, and how will the vehicles themselves embody these visions? My thoughts reflect my stance as a social analyst interested in socio-technical endeavors generally, and the social effects of automation specifically. It also reflects my vantage point as a collaborator in the process of autonomous vehicle (AV) development, as I will discuss. I’d like to consider two ways in which, to me, the notion of autonomy raises questions about notions of sociality. One way pertains to the vehicle itself, to visions for how the vehicle will function and look, and to the experiences it will enable. A second relates to the ways AVs are being brought into being. Here I am interested in how new social formations are emerging as people work together across previously distant and newly emerging industries, knowledge domains and practices. In what way do the activities involved in the development of autonomous vehicles suggest the rise of new global assemblages in which ideals of autonomy stand at the center of the reconfiguration of social relations? (read more...)

Seeing California’s water future(s) at Orange County’s Groundwater Replenishment System

Tucked away in suburban Fountain Valley, California, the Orange County Water District’s Groundwater Replenishment System (GWRS) smells vaguely of chlorine and looks like something imagined by a 1950s sci-fi writer. Sleek, shiny, and minimalist, the wastewater treatment plant feels like somewhere a robot would be very, very comfortable. It’s also a soothing place for another kind of visitor: the Southern California water manager. My fieldwork shows these managers to be a community of expertise that likes recycled water, a steady source of supply  they feel confident in their ability to treat, monitor, and deliver. “It’s here and it’s never going away, and yet most of the time we just dump it in the ocean. Reusing it just makes sense,” one 34-year veteran in the field told me with a hint of exasperation at having to state something so glaringly obvious. (read more...)