Tag: infrastructure

Hardwired Hayek: Lessons for economic anthropology from electricity markets

For most of its history in the US, electricity has been a monopoly commodity: in a delimited territory, only one company was legally allowed to produce and deliver electricity to consumers. This state of affairs started to be challenged in the 1970s, when, in accordance with the neoliberal wave, a number of infrastructural services (e.g., airlines, telecommunications) were deregulated, meaning, they were made competitive by law. Electricity followed in the 1990s. First, the Energy Policy Act of 1992 allowed states to break monopolistic utilities into separate production and delivery companies. This act also allowed states to take technological measures to ensure that new companies could plug into the electric grid to sell or buy electricity. And then the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) introduced the concept of electricity markets—computational processes through which prices are set for all buyers and sellers, and which are operated by non-profit operators of the transmission grid. I can’t stress enough the computational nature of these new markets: they exist because the grid is wired up with many kinds of sensors and computational devices that are calculating continuously and zigzagging “information.” Making these markets requires not just economists, but also engineers, programmers, traders, and database specialists—all concerned with making sure that the nature and order of information flows are just right. (read more...)

Nothing Special: Standards, Infrastructure, and Maintenance in the Great Age of American Innovation

Despite Bruno Latour’s provocation that “nothing special” happens in laboratories,[1] scholars of science and technology continue to be fascinated by them. And for good reason: laboratories, after all, are crucibles for inventions and innovations. In an age like ours where innovation-speak reigns, could there be any more urgent task than to understand the sources of inspiration and discovery?[2] Yet our affinity for innovation has a corresponding dark side that manifests in indifference toward existing technological systems. As a scholar and as a citizen, it is this indifference that concerns me most: rather than fixating so much on innovation and discovery, I wish we would spend more time thinking through the dynamics of standardization, infrastructure, and maintenance. The neglect of infrastructure, for example, is especially evident in public policy, as the comedian John Oliver showed in a recent rant. Oliver boiled the issue down to its tragicomic essence: we need public funds to maintain old technologies such as bridges and dams, but our elected officials prefer to break out their oversized scissors and celebrate something new. Images: John Oliver on Last Week Tonight, via YouTube.com (left); Ribbon cutting at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, March 2012 (right)(photo credit: Jamie Hartman, public domain). (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...)

The Pulse of the City

In October 2014, New York University’s Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP) unveiled the Urban Observatory, as part of an urban informatics initiative for monitoring, recording, and modeling the actions and nonactions of New York City. Inspired by research methods in observational astronomy, the scientists at CUSP placed an 8 megapixel camera on top of a building in Downtown Brooklyn, which shoots one panoramic, long-distance image of Lower and Midtown Manhattan every 10 seconds. Using the Urban Observatory and a network of similar sensors, the scientists at CUSP are attempting to capture what they call “the pulse of the city,” formulating massive data sets that provide information regarding various domains of everyday life, ranging from energy efficiency to the detection of toxic releases. As urban informatics professionals, they imagine that the collected data will serve as “raw material” for policy making — once they have access to this raw material, the CUSP scientists will be able to model their predictions, and hope to ultimately (somehow) manufacture the steps required to reduce electricity consumption in office buildings, or to generate emergency responses to hazardous substances. (read more...)

Knowledge Transfer, Transparency, IT: An Infrastructure Report from Co-Chairland

“Does CASTAC still serve a purpose?” “Should it continue?” This was the discussion at the first CASTAC meeting I attended at the 2006 AAAs in San Jose. It was like coming upon a cadre of fascinating people who share your intellectual proclivities only to hear tell of how this had been a most excellent and renown party—a veritable Cambrian explosion of Anthro-STS—but that was back before you got here, and there was beer. (read more...)

Approaching the Infrastructure of Digital Media Startups

In the 1997 essay “Protected Mode,” the late media theorist Friedrich Kittler, with nostalgia for “the good old times” when using computers meant interacting with them in a way that made it impossible to ignore the reality of their basic hardware, expressed his disapproval of the user-friendliness of commercial software. In contrast to the true underlying operations of digital machines themselves, he asserted, commercial software hides from view the reality of computers’ operations determined at the level of material technological frameworks. “The higher and more effortless the programming languages,” he wrote, “the more insurmountable the gap between those languages and a hardware that still continues to do all of the work” (157). The problem with software, for Kittler, is that it seems to put the user in control when, in fact, what it really does is reduce the user’s agency by obscuring the user interface’s basis in hardware. Put in different terms, it performs an illusory reversal of the relationship between infrastructural and superstructural elements. One can only imagine that Kittler would be dismayed by the current state of digital media technology’s development in general and by the trend among technology startup companies toward increased reliance on cloud computing in the form of “infrastructure as a service.” At the same, I think this gestures toward a certain problem in the anthropological study of digital technologies. (read more...)

Dominic Boyer on the Anthropology of Infrastructure (Part II)

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 more...)

Dominic Boyer on the Anthropology of Infrastructure

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 more...)

Looking Ahead to 2014: Living Analytically

I am proud to say that The CASTAC Blog has become a truly impressive archive of scholarly and practical information for research, applied practice, and teaching. Last year the Blog saw a rich set of posts on research, pedagogy, and practice that may yield inspiration for student papers, future trends in scholarly articles, and cross-pollination of ideas for new research projects. Indeed, I encourage my anthropology of technology students to peruse the site for inspiration about current topics of interest in the STS community. Of course, it is impossible to cover the contents of an entire year of material in a single report, but I would like to continue the yearly tradition of calling out a few themes that emerged across several posts. These themes include: nuanced ideas about performance; debates about intensive engagement with personal analytics; discussions about taken-for-granted, everyday infrastructures; and re-imaginings of the future of past waste. Interestingly, these themes are not isolated but have their own intersecting echoes and intellectual provocations. (read more...)