Tag: risk

What if both lines go down? Embedded vulnerability in the U.S. Southwest electrical grid

The climate of the Southwest can be extreme: summer heat that borders on suffocating, and a persistent aridity only alleviated by the violent monsoon storms of late summer. In light of these extremes, built environmental systems form the backbone of regional resilience for the Southwest. Water storage and delivery systems distribute water to otherwise dry areas, and a utility grid powers interior climate control and regional water pumping systems. Yet this resilience sits in precarious balance: if these systems are disrupted, damaged, or rendered inoperable, they lose their protective effect. In design and practice, they contribute to regional resilience, but in theory, they can also amplify vulnerability and the potential for disaster if they falter, given the reliance on these systems to cope with, and thrive in, a hostile environment. The fire season of 2011 highlights one such example. (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...)

Does e-Waste Die? Peter Little on Lifecycles and Makerspaces in an “Electronics Graveyard”

Peter Little is an anthropologist and assistant professor at Rhode Island College, and author of Toxic Town: IBM, Pollution, and Industrial Risks (NYU Press 2014). I asked him a few questions about his new project on electronic waste recycling in Ghana. His answers touch on the politics of electronics waste and pollution, surprising links between first and second projects, and the challenge of doing fieldwork in a place that everyone’s talking about. Our conversation below has been edited for length and clarity. Emily Brooks: What was the genesis of your second project? How did you move from Endicott [the field site for Toxic Town] to Ghana? Peter Little: The original project was on a high tech production site, a birthplace of electronics. That led me in to thinking more about the lifecycle of electronics, from production to discard. When we think of electronic waste, China pops up, of course, but more and more, I started to notice West Africa and Ghana. I came across a circus of journalists and other social scientists focusing in on this Agbogbloshie scrap yard in Ghana in Accra, which had been branded by one journalist as “a mass electronics graveyard.” The site was the focus of a major international Greenpeace report in the 2000s, around the time when electronic waste really started to be reported on, to become a much more targeted dimension of waste distribution. When I recognized it as a problem related to my original research, I thought, why not try to do something there? (read more...)

Looking at the pain of others (on social media)

Reflections on the November 2015 Paris attacks from afar I can’t recall the last time I heard “La Marseillaise” [1] as often as I have in the past few weeks. This is never a great moment for me. As for many fellow French citizens, the vindictive and blood calling lyrics of our national anthem have always triggered a feeling somewhere between discomfort and straightforward rejection.[2] Things were not different on that Sunday morning, November 15, 2015. Like many others—Francophiles or not, Francophone or not, or French or not—I was struggling to find words to explain what happened in Paris on the night of Friday the 13th to my five and seven year old kids. I was thinking our family could later join the crowd gathering in front of the San Francisco City Hall to grieve collectively, which was important as we felt so far from friends and relatives, and powerless. But first I wanted to make sure that my kids’ first encounter with the piece would not be traumatizing as the news of events.[3] Indeed, as people around the world in an act of support and friendship were singing this patriotic march, as they were giving life to lyrics from—what seems like—another time, French and American airstrikes on ISIS headquarters in Raqqa, Syria [4] had already started and the word “war” was on everybody’s lips, with incredulity and sideration but also determination.[5] Following the multiple Paris attacks in the lively and popular 10th and 11th Paris arrondissements on November 13, 2015, I want to reflect on the complexity of witnessing from a distance, and engaging with, catastrophic events, disasters or, in this case, terrorist attacks. Whether we choose to pay attention or not, looking at, and participating in, the social construction of these events, has become part of our (almost) everyday lives. For those of us with computers, smartphones and social media accounts, looking at the unfolding of catastrophic events on our screens has become a routine of our modern life. But the way in which we engage with a crisis, a disaster, or a catastrophic event in social media frames the understanding of it for some time. Building on Susan Sontag and Virginia Woolf’s asynchronous discussion, I also want to reflect on questions of attachment and othering that emerged from this first moment of public definition. Along the way, I will also discuss the concept of resilience from an STS perspective, which has been used by journalists and politicians in the public debate as a performative concept (“we will be resilient”), within hours of the attacks. (read more...)