Distraction Free Reading

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.

Multiple forms of performance

Blogs provide a space for people to discuss and revisit different dimensions of influential theoretical constructs. Many scholars have ideas about what constitutes “performance,” and how that term applies in their own work. During the past year, it was interesting to see how that widely-applied word in anthropology, sociology, and STS connoted dramatically or subtly different meanings across various STS projects.

Last year, The CASTAC Blog saw several provocations and explorations of different dimensions of performance. In my own blog post on Performances of Technical Affiliation, I discussed how the performative is crucial for many technologists to function, in part by transmitting (intentionally and unintentionally) clues about their technical affiliations and beliefs. In some cases, however, I argue that such performances get in the way of knowledge exploration. I discussed how knowledge production becomes imbricated into performance. The idea was to open a space to expose those aspects of technical identity performance that challenge free and more democratic exploration of technologies.

In her popular post about American Fans of Japanese Popular Culture, Rebecca Carlson examined performances of “Japaneseness” in online spaces. She studied fans of Japanese popular media who learn to speak Japanese, study Japan’s history and culture, adopt the speech of anime characters, and even live and work in Japan. She explored the performative dimensions of Japaneseness online and concluded that online, “the dividing line between what is Japanese and what isn’t can become muddied.” Her post reiterates how transnational performativity challenges our understanding of the basic concept of ethnicity.

Tackling the issue of performance from a very different perspective, Chris Furlow’s post on Moving Beyond Doping Scandals moved beyond the specifics of newsy scandals and explored “the structures that both support and condemn a culture of doping.” He opened by pointing out certain scientific benchmarks for performance in terms of what the body can produce in the way of power produced by the body. But his main focus was to explore the metaphor of performance, and how the meaning of “enhanced performance” which carries positive connotations in many fields, is viewed quite negatively in sports such as cycling. He looks forward to exploring the metaphor of performance, and how the concept “is being contested and is useful for related debates about the nature/culture and human/machine boundaries.”

In her post On Being a “Natural” Human, Jamie Sherman offers a different take on performance in her discussion of “all natural” versus “drug” bodybuilders. Sherman’s work focuses on how men and women compete for the “ideal” body in seemingly similar yet different ways, targeting more muscle, less fat, and symmetrical proportions. In these milieus, personal analytics become crucial, as one must know one’s own body. Performance means exceeding one’s own limits and refusing artificial “glass ceilings” or other limiting boundaries. These explorations inevitably lead to questions about what constitutes a “human” and whether interventions constitute fakery or an extension of human capacity.

Better living through analytics?

Accumulating forms of personal “knowledge” discussed in several posts on performance was not limited to elite athletes and body builders. This past year saw much activity in uses of formal analytics in everyday life. The jury appears to be out on whether such intensive monitoring of daily activity will ultimately be helpful for everyone, but certainly several contributors to The CASTAC Blog discussed its benefits. Expect to see much more discussion about using analytical approaches both in research and methodology in the coming year.

In terms of methods, analytics have been proposed as useful for understanding the human condition. In his post on Ethnographic Analytics, Ken Riopelle states that using an emotional indicator that he calls the Positivity Index can reveal insights that may overcome the limitations of an ethnographer’s five senses when collecting data. His group’s NSF-funded, mixed-method study used software tools such as linguistic word counts to investigate how or whether engineering teams flourish when engaging in innovative projects. The analytics helped the research team not only glean material for future interviews and observations, but also yielded “a deeper understanding of the context surrounding” their interviewees’ work. More information is available in a recently released book: Advancing Ethnography in Corporate Environments: Challenges and Emerging Opportunities. Interested parties may also try out the method on the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count website.

Personal analytics was also discussed in Dawn Nafus’s interesting post, The Quantified Self (QS) Movement is Not a Kleenex. QS participants numerically track their bodies using metrics such as heart rates that index qualitative aspects of activities such as sleep and exercise. Contrary to the popular assumption that QS participants merely fetishize or proselytize technologies, Nafus found that their practices are resisting “big data and big science dictums that make claims about the healthy body from on high.” Instead of passively going along with health guidelines in a one-size-fits-all paradigm, QS participants strive to deduce what practices are most beneficial to them as individuals. Even though pundits brand the QS movement as a generic “Kleenex” kind of brand, ethnographic investigation reveals that people embracing this paradigm are attempting to re-assert control over their own bodies in a form of resistance to Foucauldian, big-data-driven forms of biopolitical control.

In a delightful and richly informative post on getting Fit for Halloween, Elizabeth Churchill field tested the best apps for running away from Zombies! I confess I had an outdated view of zombies as slow and stumbling brain eaters, but she quickly explained that today’s zombies are often rage zombies who are fast and far more aggressive than their shuffling predecessors. What one learns from ethnography!

Churchill analyzed new devices and apps that take advantage of mobile lifestyles and ever-shrinking sensors to help people track their efforts to exercise, eat better, and get fit. Some of these devices even include post-apocalyptic story lines in which the runner must save citizens from aggressive zombie attacks. The ultimate goal is to use personal analytics in conjunction with punishment and reward behavior modifications to maintain more healthy lifestyle choices.

Practices such as “gamification” and “persuasive technology,” however, are not necessarily effective. Churchill argues that such approaches “have a reductive engineering bias that translates potentially complex behaviors into turn-key models that are easily implementable,” but are not necessarily sustainable in the long term. What are really needed are frameworks that offer a sense of fun that lead to more long-term motivational solutions. Sometimes that means running away from zombies!

Infrastructure

Next year, look for indications that individuals are pushing back against top-down entities and questioning their role in larger infrastructures that shape everyday activities and needs. Several posts last year explored how individuals are questioning the design, implementation, and connotations of infrastructures that are often taken for granted in daily life.

In his thought-provoking post on What’s Up in the Cloud(s), Casey O’Donnell explores how underlying practices of what is now being called cloud computing are being enforced in ways that are “shifting our relationship with computers and software companies.” He explains that cloud “infrastructures” such as Amazon Web Services are comprised of connected computers and networks. In contrast, cloud-based services, such as Creative Cloud or Gmail are delivered via this infrastructure. Knowing that one is trading access to personal data for free services does not meant that one has any practical alternatives these days. Despite the propaganda that such services address users’ needs, O’Donnell reiterates the fact that such structures are designed to meet corporate needs in ways that encourage handing over one’s data, often for unknown and possibly personally deleterious uses.

Concerns over infrastructural parameters also emerged in a post I wrote called Killing Comments. Popular Science announced that it was removing comments from its website, citing potentially negative influences of comments on the reception of scientific findings. They suggest that people take their commentary to social media. Of course, most social media sites are not exactly havens for protecting participatory rights. Google also announced new comment procedures on YouTube that are meant to identify and highlight “relevant” comments, where “relevant” is defined by Weberian bureaucratic entities that implement such curation policies for an entity’s financial gain. These so-called participatory infrastructures are leading to a Brave New World of Web 1.0 (if you’ll excuse that term), and thus is a trend to watch closely and actively push back against in the coming year.

In his absolutely spell-binding post about being Off the Grid in the Modern World, Phillip Vannini explores what it really means to reject a deeply-imbedded infrastructure that provides power and energy resources. Vannini quickly distinguishes between casual claims of going off the grid by turning off one’s cell phone for the week-end to more deep commitments in which a household or entire community chooses to exist in a “state of disconnection from the electricity and natural gas infrastructure servicing a region.”

Many “off-gridders” seek independence and achieve a sense of self-reliance and self-sufficiency that literally provides a sense of individual power in their own homes. Living off grid is hard work, and demands many skills and responsibilities to make the challenges seem bearable. Off-gridders’ do not just protest top-down infrastructures; they enact lifestyle philosophies that show that infrastructural acceptance is not always the only option. Linking his comments to O’Donnell’s, one wonders how it might be possible to go off-grid in other ways, such as coming down from the cloud(s)?

Trash talk

In the coming year, I suspect we will be exposed to a lot of garbage—and rightly so. Generation of waste seems out of control, and for too long the infrastructure of waste disposal has remained hidden in the scholarly shadows. Material culture researchers might argue that fantasies of zero-emissions are not often plausible, and societies need to deal collectively with waste that is being produced at exponential rates.

Robin Nagle’s post on The Many Mysteries of MSW shows how the mundane task of garbage disposal is absolutely vital to the functioning of a city. Garbage disposal is fundamental not just to capitalism, but to basic public health. Yet it remains stigmatized and underappreciated in classist ways. Despite the common assumption that garbage disposal is a safer occupation than police work or fire fighting, Nagle points out that according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “A sanitation worker is many times more likely than a police officer or a firefighter to be injured or killed on the job.” Loss of limb or life can come from operating machinery, passing traffic, or projectiles of dangerous objects shooting from the hopper blade in the back of a garbage truck. Nagel’s fascinating research shows how a mundane activity that is often stigmatized is not so by sanitation workers, and increasingly, is becoming appreciated as an important area of technological focus by anthropologists who understand the subject as a “scholarly treasure.”

Treasure in the form of junk also finds new life among steampunk artisans and inventors. According to Matt Hale’s post, Steampunk: Reimagining Trash and Technology, steampunks scour junk stores and yard sales for gadgetry that finds new life in the form of costumes, jewelry, accessories, and clever new gadgets. Inspired by the steam-powered mechanical science fiction of Jules Verne and the contemporary do-it-yourself (DIY) ethos, steampunks argue that humans no longer have a meaningful relationship with technology. Devices are cheap, sterile, and disposable, thus promoting transient and superficial relationships between humans and technological devices.

Humans hardly know how things work. In response, steampunks engage in processes of “upcycling” which refers to, “converting discarded material resources into new forms with the intention that the consequent products be of a higher and more sustainable quality than they had been in their previous iteration(s).” Steampunks transform junk into useful art that turns waste into a means of production. In reading Hale’s post, it would seem that the steampunk movement is another way of reacting to technological infrastructures that promote a one-size-fits all mode, one that addresses the needs of the entity of production rather than the individual user. In this sense, steampunks are also attempting to personalize mass-produced instantiations of technical ideologies.

Looking forward to 2014

These topics are but a small fraction of the content that has graced the pages of The CASTAC Blog last year. They hint at many interesting trends to follow and we look forward to hearing about the issues and topics that interest you in the coming year.

As many of you know, The CASTAC Blog is expanding. Due to the overwhelming support and intellectual interest in the blog, we were delighted to announce a new team that includes several new Associate Editors and a new Associate Web Producer who will be bringing new and expanded content to the blog this year. For more details, please check out last week’s post welcoming our new team. Feel free to contact the appropriate Associate Editor if there is content you would like to see in their area of expertise, or if you would like to contribute a post about your own work.

We look forward to hearing what you have to say in the coming months!

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