Tag: outer space

System, Space and Ecobiopolitics: A Conversation with Valerie Olson About “Into the Extreme”

  [This week we present excerpts of an interview with Valerie Olson conducted by Lisa Messeri focused on Olson’s new book, Into the Extreme (U Minnesota P, 2018). Valerie Olson is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of California – Irvine whose work focuses on the anthropology of environmental systems, technologies and extremes.  Lisa Messeri is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Yale University focused on the role of place and place-making in scientific work and the author of Placing Outer Space (Duke UP, 2016). The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and conciseness.] Lisa: Into the Extreme is an ethnography of human space flight based on fieldwork at NASA Johnson Space Center most prominently, but then also other space sites throughout the United States. What I think is most significant about this book is that it activates “system” as an ethnographic object. Valerie Olson, the author (read more...)

Ghosts in the Machine: On losing control to the technoscape

“There have always been ghosts in the machine. Random segments of code that have grouped together to form un-expected protocols. Unanticipated, these free radicals engender questions of free will, creativity, and even the nature of what we may call the soul. Why is it, when some robots are left in darkness they will seek out the light? Why is it that when robots are grouped in an empty space they will stand together, rather than alone?” For now, sentient robotics do not exist. But don’t let that undermine the relevance of Dr. Alfred Lanning’s speech in the 2004 science fiction movie I, Robot, or diminish its potential significance for the anthropology of technology. As I begin a new field research project with Spaceport America, studying the future of human space exploration, I find myself re-considering human interactions with technology and technoscapes: not only in the sense of how we interact (read more...)

The Strange Journeys of Otherworldly Artifacts

The list of objects on offer is intriguing: flags that were carried, but never raised on a flagpole; stamps that traveled thousands of miles without being posted; a meal tightly sealed in a plastic pouch, returned uneaten from the journey. These artifacts, and many others like them, are listed for sale on Bonhams’ auction site—under the “Space History” category. Popular items include commemorative medallions, pins, flags, mission patches, and postal issues, authorized by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The auctioneers’ specialized language includes terms of location, movement and possession: objects are listed as “carried,” “flown,”  “signed,” and “rare.” Collectors prepare their bids based on the details of object histories—where they have traveled and with whom—as recounted in accompanying letters of authenticity or fixed in time and place by a photograph. Bonhams’ vivid descriptions and NASA’s authenticating control create a fascination and demand among collectors and the public for objects circulating on Earth that have been to space—and an invitation to support future journeys. (read more...)

The Heliopolitics of Data Center Security

From Cyberattack to Solar Attack The small-scale cyberattack, characteristic of the late-twentieth century, has long dominated discourses and practices of data center security. Lately, however, these fears are increasingly giving way to concerns over large-scale, existential risks posed by solar activity. Increasing numbers of data centers are going to extreme measures to protect their facilities from solar flares, solar energetic particles and Coronal Mass Ejections – collectively referred to as “space weather”. As data centers are put into circulation with what Georges Bataille famously called the sun’s “superabundance of energy” (1991:29), the act of protecting digital-industrial infrastructure takes on strangely mythical dimensions. In this post, I would like to briefly explore the business end of the mythical dispositif that arises from the surreal and distinctly Bataillean meeting of data centers and the sun. (read more...)

Weekly Round-up | March 3rd, 2017

This week’s round-up careens from a Walden video game to the far reaches of interstellar space, with pit-stops for an algorithm that can identify evangelicals and some philosophical neuroscientists along the way. As always, if you find anything interesting, bizarre, despicable, or useful around the web — send it our way! We’d love to include it in next week’s round-up. (read more...)

Weekly Round-up | February 10th, 2017

This week’s round-up is a bit more focused, with threads on Mars colonization, automation, and artificial intelligence. As always, we also ask you to write or find great stuff for us to share in next week’s round-up: you can send suggestions, advance-fee scams, or Venmo requests to editor@castac.org. (read more...)

Teaching the Anthropology of Outer Space

I think I’ve been most surprised by how effectively exploring anthropology in the context of [outer] space has educated me on anthropology in general. Having never taken a prior anthropology class, I think learning about it (and consequently, us) through a specific topic, such as space anthropology, has been a great way to learn. This is the kind of student endorsement that makes a professor’s heart sing. A few weeks ago, I asked students in my “Anthropology of Outer Space” class to provide me with some feedback on what “surprised” them most about this class. I did this to confirm a hunch that as much as the students were excited about outer space, they were becoming equally excited about anthropology. Sure enough, a third of the anthropology of outer space class said that what surprised them most was their interest in and the relevance of anthropology both for understanding human culture in general and science in specific. The class, I should note, is being taught at the University of Virginia, and cross-listed between the School of Engineering and the College of Arts and Sciences. With two exceptions, the students are majoring in STEM fields. For many of the engineering students, this is their first humanities/social science class in college; for most every other student, their first anthropology class. (read more...)

Failure and the Future

There’s nothing quite as satisfying for the modern as an historical prediction about the future, or about a large transformational project, that has—inevitably—failed. Whether as specific as predictions of particular technologies (where’s my flying car?), or as general as claims that market solutions will erase social inequalities (capitalism will eventually end poverty!), critical scholars have demonstrated that faith in a progressive future is fundamentally a political and ideological project of the modern era. But this satisfaction with modernity’s failures alerts us to the fact that we never-moderns still have faith in one kind of prediction, which is precisely the prediction of inevitability of failure of such transformational projects and their promised positive futures. Indeed, one could say that what we call the end of the modern or of history was inducted in this affective mode: an ironic stance toward now-faded modernist futures, their hubris and hopefulness simultaneously exposed as illusions of a progressive but failed modernity. This is nowhere more apparent than in critical approaches to the human conquest of space beyond Earth. The recent negative publicity about Mars One is a case in point. Announced in 2012, Mars One’s founder, Bas Lansdorp, proposed sending privately-funded, one-way human missions to the Red Planet with volunteer crews, enabling the establishment of a Mars colony by 2029. Lansdorp has argued that such a remarkable goal could be achieved using existing technologies and could be funded by media rights to what, he argued, would be the solar system’s most-watched reality television program. Mars One and its volunteer crew selection process garnered enormous interest in the press, on television, and online, but its previous media-darling status is now on rocky ground due to the revelations of a mission finalist. As such, it now appears as yet another fantasy of universalizing capitalist relations, dashed on the shores of technological impossibility and capital’s internal contradictions, leaving capitalism (and the human species) to face its consequences firmly on Earth and begin its atonement at the dawn of the Anthropocene, that is, the current, human-impacted geological epoch of Earth. (read more...)