Distraction Free Reading

From Technocracy to the Anthropocene: 2016 in Review

Black and white still from Metropolis, showing a large mechanical demon head with stairs for a tongue, and workers on the stairs.

Metropolis, 1927. Still courtesy of Karl-Ludwig Poggemann.

#ALSIceBucketChallenge. Deflategate. Twins in Space. Animal Sex Work. The joy of working on Platypus since its inception arises from the many lively, timely, engaged posts that our team of contributing editors and authors bring to the blog each week. Sometimes funny, sometimes serious, often critical and reflective, the blog offers a look into up-and-coming research in anthropology, STS, and related fields on science, tech, computing, informatics, and more. As editor, I’ve delighted in posts that frequently turn commonsense assumptions upside down. For the past two years, I’ve summarized the major themes and highlights in a yearly review post, and have the pleasure of doing so for 2016.

Two noteworthy themes threaded through many of last year’s posts: 1) reflections on technocracy, and 2) living in the anthropocene. By technocracy, I mean emerging regimes of data, algorithms, and quantitative living. Melissa Cefkin (Human-Machine Interactions and the Coming Age of Autonomy) opened the year by asking what’s at stake in notions of “autonomy” underlying autonomous vehicles, that is, self-driving cars. As autonomy comes to characterize the future of driving, Cefkin’s showed how anthropological insight can ground designers’ assumptions in culturally specific understandings of selfhood and sociality. Investigating implicit norms in technology similarly informed Yuliya Grinberg’s reports (Data Visualizations: The Vitruvian Man, Open Data, and Body Real-Estate and Is Data Singular or Plural?) on how data are (is?) imagined, described, and represented. In the first, for example, she examines how technology companies represent bodies as real estate to be mapped—and quantified through personal data—echoing capital’s long history of finding new sites for expansion. Incoming Editor Ian Lowrie (Data: Raw, Cooked, Shared) picked up this thread to reflect on metaphors of data as “raw” vs “cooked,” after Levi-Strauss’ classic anthropological analysis of how “culture” remakes “nature.” Lowrie proposes new paradigms for sharing data—whether the quantitative data of data scientists he studies, or anthropologists’ own ethnographic repositories.

Jasmine McNealy explored both changing standards of privacy (The Hulk, Doxxing, and Changing Standards of Privacy) and the danger of algorithms and big data reproducing inequality (Data for Discrimination), such as through racial and other forms of discrimination. Her posts further underscore two key issues related to last year’s election: 1) how wealthy entrepreneurs like Peter Thiel, who bankrolled the Hulk’s case against Gawker, can shut down negative media coverage through exorbitant court battles; and 2) how big data can enable microtargeted political advertising to sway elections. Political questions informed Shreeharsh Kelkar’s post on Silicon Valley’s support for universal basic income (Silicon Valley and Income Inequality) and Rachel Fleming’s (Gender and Tech in India: From Numbers to Gender Equality) analysis of technology and gender in the US and India. Fleming reframes the technology industry’s “woman problem” as a comprehensive issue of gender norms rather than simply a quantitative pipeline problem. Amelia Hassoun (Hippocratic Hacking) turned a lens to the legitimacy of hacking medical devices, as patients struggle to bypass proprietary systems and strictures on personal data, for the sake of their health. Themes of data, design, and power surfaced in Adam Webb-Orenstein’s interview with Natasha Dow-Schüll (How Not to Be a Bot), which explored selfhood and ethics in technology design, such as digital gambling and self-tracking, as well as in Abou Farman’s account (Cryonics in the Cradle of Technocivilization) of the mainstreaming of cryonics, that is, freezing bodies for future reanimation, among Silicon Valley futurists (Peter Thiel makes another appearance). In a lighter vein, Evan Conaway (Pokémon GO and the visibility of digital infrastructure) provided insight into the summer’s Pokémon Go craze, a game which combines virtual and actual reality, to ask how tech infrastructure—in this case, servers—comes to have a life and identity of its own.

A second strain of posts coalesced around the politics of living in the anthropocene, and the politics of soil, waste, water, and energy. Kristina Lyons’ lyrical inquiry The Poetics of Soil Health melded feminist science studies to evocative imagery, peering into human-soil relations. She writes, for example: “We not only observe the size and integrity of sand, silt, and clay particles through the prism of a petrographic microscope, but we are also ushered into permeable voids, and the transformations of life, death, energy, and matter that flow through and are hauntingly absorbed by a porous body.” Simone Popperl (Sinkholes without Borders: Geology, Hydrology, and Conflict Around the Dead Sea) examined the challenges of studying Dead Sea sinkholes in the occupied West Bank, where geopolitical conflict shapes technoscientific knowledge. Emily Brooks interviewed Peter Little on the death and life of e-waste in Ghana (Does e-Waste Die? Peter Little on Lifecycles and Makerspaces in an “Electronics Graveyard”), pursuing questions of geography, politics, and contested perspectives that shape technoscientific practice. Emily Wanderer’s field report (Planticide: Killing Badly Behaved Plants) on invasive plants reframes a Maine forest as an ecosystem of well- versus poorly-behaved plants. In her account, biologist Judy Stone approaches these plants-out-of-place by cultivating an “affective ecology between people and plants.” Other posts similarly assessed the environment as social actor, entwined with livelihoods and politics in complex ways, from the desert as a source of renewable energy (i.e., Emily Brooks, Local Power: The Politics of Renewables in California), to a critique of “zerologisms,” the paradoxical logic of zero waste, zero carbon, and zero environmental impact (Nandita Badami, Counting on Zero: Imaginaries of Energy and Waste in the New Green Economy). For Badami, the rhetoric of “zero” simultaneously signals nothingness and infinity, yet fails to address the limits of consumption. Paradoxes of sustainable development also transform the landscape in New Orleans, as Sean Mallin and Shreya Subramani (Living with Water Part II: A Tour of New Orleans’ Resilience District; Living with Water Part II: A Tour of New Orleans’ Resilience District) showed in a two-part series on reclaimed swampland.

Alongside these themes of technoscientific and environmental ways of knowing and living, the blog featured posts analyzing electoral politics and popular movements. Nicholas D’Avella (Another Architecture is Possible: Politics, Value, and Architecture in Argentina) reflected on work in an Buenos Aires architectural studio, arguing that pedagogy becomes a site for alternate imaginings of the world. In his fieldsite, architecture can be designed not just according to the logic of capitalist markets, but “for everyone.” Maria Vidart-Delgado (Populist Outsiders in the U.S Presidential Election) tackled accusations of populism in Trump and Sanders’ primary campaigns. She points out that although populism characterizes electoral politics broadly, here, the charge worked rhetorically to recast both candidates as political outsiders. Finally, Adam Webb-Orenstein (What Vic Berger’s Videos Say About American Electoral Politics) injected levity into an otherwise dark electoral season by analyzing Vic Berger IV’s humorous YouTube and Vine videos. By capturing awkward moments from politicians’ actual performances, and in contrast to tired forms of satire, Berger’s videos call attention to affective and gestural components of campaigning rather than the verbalized messages (though it’s worth noting that Saturday Night Live, the opposite style of political humor, is now having a revival).

A few pieces warrant mention that stood outside these themes. Jeannette Vaught’s take on human-animal relations and the labor of sex work (Animal Sex Work) was among the best read and most provocative, investigating the frequently euphemistic world of human-assisted horse breeding. Separately, Lisa Messeri guided the launch of our first series, The Second Project, which explores how scholars formulate new research, often without formal structural or institutional support (Lisa Messeri, The Security to Feel Insecure; Sareeta Amrute, Digital Mess as Method; Ali Kenner, Teaching Research through Collaboration). The first of our regular series, we look forward to (and welcome) more posts on the topic. On a final note, we were profoundly saddened by the loss of CASTAC co-founder David Hakken, and were grateful for former Editor Patricia Lange’s words (Remembering David Hakken). Hakken influenced the work of many anthropologists of technology, and continued shaping the field of social informatics at Indiana University, especially qualitative approaches to big data. He perpetually advocated for CASTAC to retain “computing” in our name, part of the greater legacy he leaves us.

It’s been an exciting, if anxiety-ridden, time to foster anthropological debate on the meaning of living in an unprecedented age of technological change and engagement between human and non-human. I’m grateful for the opportunity, and excited to join the ranks of the blog’s continually expanding readership.

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