Steadying the Plays: Rhetoric and Risk in the Shale Boom

August 25th, 2015, by § Leave a Comment

“Please God, give us another oil boom. We promise not to piss it away this time.”

– Popular bumper sticker in oil producing regions after the 1980s oil markets crashed

In the 1970s, there was much to be celebrated for those involved in the US oil and gas industry. The OPEC oil embargo coupled with events like the Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War led to a shortage of oil on the world market and precipitated a boom for US producers. This boom, however, was short lived. By 1981, world production had stabilized and oil prices had plummeted, bankrupting a significant number of producers and inspiring the use of “Please God” bumper sticker in places like Texas, Oklahoma, and Alberta.

A tall white drill tower stands on and orange rig, with mountains and a partly cloudy blue sky in the background.

Image: Drilling the Bakken formation in the Williston Basin. By Joshua Doubek (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s, the bumper sticker didn’t seem to help, and the oil and gas industry limped along. Against financial engineering and IT novelties that sent the stock-prices of energy firms like Enron soaring (Zellner 2001)—and, in California’s deregulated energy market, allowed Enron to keep itself afloat at the expense of “Grandma Millie” (C-SPAN interview with B. McLean; Oppel 2002; Roberts 2004)—the capital-intensive technologies of the oil and gas industry seemed dull and unable to capture the general public’s imagination. By 2010, however, this story had almost entirely changed. Where financial and IT services had once seemed to be at the forefront of innovation, two stock-market crashes coupled with the technological advances in oil and gas production that enabled the “Shale Boom” seemed to suggest the reverse. They seemed to suggest that creative accounting and financial engineering may make a company appear healthy— even forward thinking—but they cannot replace tangible contributions to technology and production. « Read the rest of this entry »

2014 in Review: Re-locating the Human

January 20th, 2015, by § Leave a Comment

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 the rest of this entry »

Dominic Boyer on the Anthropology of Infrastructure (Part II)

March 7th, 2014, by § 1 Comment

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 »

Dominic Boyer on the Anthropology of Infrastructure

March 3rd, 2014, by § 4 Comments

Lately, anthropologists have been doing a lot of thinking about infrastructure. Although there have been anthropologists working on the large technical systems subtending modern sociality since at least the early 1970s, infrastructure today appears to be coming of age not only as a robust area of ethnographic engagement, but as a sturdy analytic in its own right, part of widespread resurgence of materialist thought across the humanities. As Brian Larkin puts it in his recent piece for the Annual Review of Anthropology, contemporary work in the anthropology of infrastructure attempts to understand how underlying material structures function to “generate the ambient environment of everyday life.” In so doing, the conceptual ambit of the term has been expanded beyond sewers, roads, and telecommunication systems to include everything from modes of sociality to economic instruments.

Recently, I spoke at some length with Dominic Boyer about the emergence and expansion of anthropological interest in infrastructure. Dominic has devoted considerable organizational and intellectual attention to thinking through the human aspects of energy infrastructures, both in his role as the director of Rice University’s Center for Energy and Environmental Research in the Human Sciences and in his own fieldwork, with Cymene Howe, on energopower and the renewables transition in Mexico.  The first half of this conversation appears below, with the second to follow later this week.

Ian: Your current work with Cymene Howe, on the development of wind energy in Oaxaca, focuses quite explicitly on infrastructure in the most literal sense. I’m curious, however, whether there were precursors of this focus in your earlier work?

Dominic: Our project does focus on infrastructure in the sense that, early on, we realized that the electric grid and the utility that manages it in Mexico were going to be central actors in telling the story of the politics of renewable energy transition. But, really, infrastructure as analytic wasn’t really present to us as we were conceptualizing the research design. What’s interesting about the conversation around infrastructure to me is that it’s been a storm hovering on the horizon for a long while, and now the downpour has come and we’re all awash in infrastructure talk. « Read the rest of this entry »

A Message From the Co-chair: Greetings and Introduction

February 11th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

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 »

EPIC 2013 Preview

August 12th, 2013, by § Leave a Comment

The Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference is being held 15-18 September in London. EPIC is an important international conference for sharing insight on current and future practices of ethnography in industry.

Next month’s conference promises to be very exciting and productive. The program boasts a wide variety of topics, including a number of papers that will quite likely be of interest to CASTAC and STS practitioners and scholars. Many of the themes in the program, such as big data, MOOCs, and energy have been hot topics for The CASTAC Blog in recent months.

Several papers at EPIC will be discussing “Big Data,” which is a topic that is heating up and is germane for anthropological theory and practice. Big Data, which has been discussed in a prior post by David Hakken, has been designated as a new asset class akin to oil and has consequently sparked a kind of “gold rush.” Papers on this subject are tackling this seemingly unchecked, and at times unreflective, stampede over exactly what kind of “data” is being collected. Researchers will explore whether whatever-it-is that is being collected can be called “data,” given the term’s disparate connotations. (Does anyone want to have a go at what to call these large-scale information streams?)

The discussion will quite likely be quite interesting because it promises to dive into the epistemological, methodological, and practical boundaries over what this term constitutes. It will discuss what role ethnography will play, not just in terms of data collection, but investigating what data really means in everyday contexts. Abby Margolis’s paper, in particular, reminds us that the “fundamental role of innovation” starts with “the person,” which of course is a particular strength of ethnography. Her paper plans to address common misconceptions about personal data, and will offer principles to “bring a human-centered, small data perspective to life.”

The struggle over energy, which was recently discussed in a fascinating post by Phillip Vannini, surfaces again in several ways at the EPIC conference. Researchers presenting on Private Energy Users and Smart Grid Design will explore the new relationship between energy providers and users. Despite the intention to create a more bidirectional relationship between companies and customers, familiar unidirectional patterns are continually repeated. Researchers will be proposing a model that reframes the relationship between energy companies and private end users. These themes suggest that people can derive a sense of personal power through shaping the design and delivery of their energy. According to researchers, providing energy is not about a delivering a resource, but rather aims to solve particular problems, including meeting human needs for “comfort, light, food, cleaning, and entertainment.” Using an anthropological lens, it is contended, will provide a deeper understanding of the interrelationship between supply and use of energy products and services.

EPIC participants will be discussing research on student perceptions of MOOCs, a theme which echoes concerns of many CASTAC readers and academics. A CASTAC series exploring MOOCs from a student’s perspective found that they may not be serving the college-age constituents that were originally (and fearfully) envisioned by MOOC promoters and concerned scholars. It will be interesting to hear the results of an ethnography of MOOCs that seriously challenges their effectiveness and pedagogical sustainability.

In addition to traditional panels, thought-provoking PechaKucha style provocations, salons, and town halls, the conference is also holding a TechnoTheory DeathMatch! The organizers tell us to “think Bruno Latour meets Fight Club.” Revamping dynamics of theory and practice, this novel approach will be a round-robin type of tournament in which participants represent leading theorists and duke it out to arrive at winning insights.

In addition to the examples noted above, EPIC will be discussing many other interesting topics, including complexity, mobile technologies, clinical trials, healthcare, and emerging markets in information and communication technologies in rural China and India. More details about the conference program can be found on the EPIC Conference Program website.

Off the Grid in the Modern World

June 18th, 2013, by § 1 Comment

Power is an interesting word. For most social scientists “power” stands for authority, control, sovereignty, economic capital, military-industrial hegemony, social stratification, and similar ideas. But power—especially in everyday usage—is synonymous with something seemingly more immediate, proximate, and concrete. Thus we may commonly talk of “engine power” that allows us to drive faster, of “physical power” that enables us to jump higher, or of “domestic power” that permits us to live comfortable, connected, and convenient lives. What is truly interesting about this is that the dictionary definition of power—the ability or capacity to act—refers to all of the above, an idea that only a handful of scholars have capitalized upon.

birds in flight

It’s an irremediably cloudy, intermittently soggy day on Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula. But not even an unexpectedly miserable stretch of bad late spring weather can cast a wet blanket over the elation in the air. It’s the last interview—with informants number 173 and 174—of a two-year long fieldwork project that has taken me and photographer/videographer Jonathan Taggart across all of Canada’s ten provinces and three territories to document the day-to-day lifestyles of people living off-grid. Few events can jostle an ethnographer’s body more intensely than the end of fieldwork. The feeling is so powerful that melancholia, or anxious thoughts about writing this whole thing up, haven’t even started to settle in yet.

Off-grid is an abused expression. I’ve heard people say they’re off the grid if they switch off their cell phone for the weekend, or if they go on holiday somewhere quiet and remote. But people can’t quite be off-grid. The official definition passed on by engineers refers to a house or an entire community, not a person, in state of disconnection from the electricity and natural gas infrastructure servicing a region. It’s the definition Jonathan and I have gone by to understand how comfort, convenience, cleanliness, sustainability, connectivity, and sense of place can be re-assembled when the powerful life lines entangling homes into the modern world are severed.

We’ve come to think of off-grid homes as unique power constellations. We view a power constellation as a historically and geographically specific pattern of power generation, distribution, and application. A constellation is an assemblage of practices, experiences, and narratives that make sense together.

Power and energy resources are moved around, thus they are subjects and objects of practice. Power is experienced through sensations, feelings, emotions, moods, and affects. And power is talked about, mapped, politicized, debated, thus it is the matter of multiple representations. We understand all practices, experiences, and representations of, and about, power as inevitably entangled in more-than-human relations and therefore knotted in meshworks of organic and inorganic materials and objects, technologies, infrastructures, food-, land- and waterscapes, regional and international boundaries, and multiple other forces.

These meshworks are the sites where everyday power is lived and differentially enabled—sites that may be locally unique or globally hegemonic, temporary and idiosyncratic or historically recurring. There are arguably many more components of power constellations but we have been working with ten: motive, friction, route, sensibility, interconnectivity, availability, cost, externality, pace, and efficiency.

Take the idea of motive, for example. People need power for different reasons. To some degree we are compelled to use power by sheer survival needs, but in most instances our use is informed by degrees of choice. The concept of motive force captures these dynamics of compulsion and choice and the degree of their imperativeness. Off-gridders for example need power to light up their home, keep warm, refrigerate their food, extract water, and operate a few appliances. This is unsurprising—as they, like others, take pleasure in domestic comfort, cleanliness, and convenience. But the real question here is why do they, as opposed to much of the rest of the Western world, seek to do it on their own, off the grid? In other words, how are the motive forces of off-grid households different from those who live connected to the grid?

Many off-gridders elect to live off-grid for the sense of independence it begets. Take Murray and Naan, for instance. Their independence is relative, of course, but the heightened sense of self-reliance and self-sufficiency they enjoy allows them to hold a sense of sovereign power over their home. Their quest for sovereign power does not come without its downsides. Off-grid living requires toil and onerous involvement, so the force of the motives for living off-grid must be intense enough for them to embrace such onuses, or at least make them feel bearable. Living off-grid also demands mindfulness, knowledge, skills, and responsibilities that many of us living on-grid are much happier to delegate to experts, planners, and distant infrastructures.

The concept of motive force, in sum, prompts us to ask not only why people need and want power, as well as what they need it and want it for, but also what people are willing to do to obtain power; what type of power assemblages people prefer and why; what kinds of power applications people are willing to sacrifice if necessary; what reasons, values, and ideologies inform people’s choices for power; and what lifestyle philosophies inform the choices behind different groups’ motives to do with or without certain kinds of power and certain power applications—only to name a few possible questions.

The tortuous “Irish Route” winds its way slowly to St. John’s along the spectacular coastal views over the Atlantic, weaving through sleepy communities gazing forlornly at the former bounties of the sea. We pull over at an old lighthouse to record a final file of b-roll for our upcoming documentary. The wind is blowing with great force. Free clean energy which off-gridders have learned to enjoy, so much more than the rest of us. I wonder if their lessons will be powerful to teach us all something.

Phillip Vannini is an ethnographer and Canada Research Chair working in the School of Communication & Culture at Royal Roads University in Victoria, BC. His off-grid ethnography blog can be found at:

Jonathan Taggart is a Boreal Collective photographer and Ph.D. student in Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia. His website is:


Opening Political Opportunities for a Green Transition

November 20th, 2012, by § 1 Comment

During the first year of the Obama administration, there was considerable optimism that the United States might finally catch up with other industrialized countries by developing a national renewable portfolio standard and carbon regulation. However, the hope was dashed by the compromises of the Kerry-Lieberman bill in the Senate and its eventual defeat. Likewise, the rise of the Tea Party movement and influence of fossil-fuel money in the Republican Party has made green-energy policy an increasingly partisan issue. It is hard to believe that in 2008 both McCain and Obama agreed that climate change was real and needed policy attention. By 2012, the pervasive influence of fossil-fuel money and the Republican Party’s anti-green strategy had led even the president who promised five million green jobs to adopt a strategic silence on the issue.

In the Arctic in 2012, the planet passed a significant milestone: the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide passed 400 ppm, a level that the planet has not had for at least 800,000 years. The summer ice melt also reached new levels. Unfortunately, climate change is occurring slowly enough in temperate climates that it is easy for political leaders to ignore the severity of the threat. Human societies face an adaptation problem that they have never experienced before, and it will be exacerbated by the 2-3 billion people who will be added to the planet during the next forty years. As ethnographic field research has shown, the effects are often magnified in marginalized populations located in coastal areas, in urban slums, and in polar regions.

My recent work has been oriented toward what I think of as the “problem behind the problem,” that is, the lack of political will to address the twin problems of environmental sustainability and social fairness that are becoming worse every year.  I have written a three-volume series that looks at the role of “alternative pathways” (loosely social movements plus other kinds of reform efforts, including in the private sector) as historical agents that could open political opportunities for sustainability politics. In Alternative Pathways in Science and Technology, I reviewed a wide range of industry-oriented reform movements and showed both their potential and limitations; Localist Movements in a Global Economy focused on the small business sector and community enterprises as another source of countervailing power to the anti-green segment of global capital; and Good Green Jobs in a Global Economy explored the much more mainstream politics of labor-environmental-green business coalitions in federal and state energy policy. Although the work is written for a scholarly audience, I have also been involved in the local living economy and state government policy fields by writing policy reports, engaging in public speaking, and also cofounding an independent business association with a living economy mission.

More recently, I have been working on a project that tracks the record of Republicans on environmental policy issues with the assistance of a very promising graduate student, Jonathan Coley. In both Good Green Jobs and a paper in Energy Policy, we track the reversals that have occurred since the election of President Obama and the rise of the Tea Party movement. Although green-energy politics and policies have subsided from the national stage, in states where Democrats are in power there has been ongoing action. Furthermore, we also found that there are some areas of bipartisanship, especially if proposed legislation does not involve a reform that can be understood as a regulatory burden.

Although my work is highly interdisciplinary, and my institutional home is a sociology department and an energy and environment institute, I find that an anthropological sensibility continues to inform my thinking.  For example, I am particularly interested in the role of political ideologies as cultural systems in policy fields, and I am interested in ideology as way in to the study of change in political culture. In addition to the mainstream polarity of American politics between a neoliberal right and social liberal left, I have been building a case that there is a growing influence of other ideologies, notably localism and developmentalism. For example, in Good Green Jobs, I argue that the United States of the twenty-first century is showing signs of a return to its developmentalist politics of the nineteenth century (in the sense of support for industry and trade defensiveness), largely due to the general shifts in the world economy and the aggressively developmentalist policies of emerging industrial powers.

By understanding neoliberalism in the political field as one ideology among others, I am especially interested in the capacity for other ideologies to become embedded in both discourse and policy outcomes, often as compromise formations. The focus is less on the micropolitics of everyday practices than on the broad contours of the political field and its potential to undergo tectonic shifts similar to the transition in dominance from social liberalism to neoliberalism that occurred in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s. The approach allows me to ask the empirical question of “after neoliberalism—then what?” in a way that is not clouded by utopian hopes.

Although there is a green transition in place in both the United States and many other countries, I remain pessimistic that the world’s largest countries will be able to act quickly enough to avert the multiple environmental crises of climate change, desertification, persistent toxics in the biosphere, and exhaustion of land and water resources. The future of the anthropocene looks grim indeed.

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