Category: Research

Invisible Labor of Health and the Spell of Productivity

When I talked with Jia, who works for an e-commerce company in Shanghai, China, she was trying to finish a “Perfect Month Challenge” on her Apple Watch. That meant closing the rings on her watch every day for a month—achieving goals for standing up once an hour across all 12 hours, burning over 400kcal calories, and exercising 20 minutes. She was fully invested in this project, until Shanghai hit a lockdown due to the COVID-19 outbreak in early 2022, and she suddenly lost the streak. “The ‘firework’ after closing the rings is so nice, and the ‘Perfect Month’ sounds attractive to me,” she said, “I was drawn into exercising, and made a lot of progress, and setting myself a new goal every now and then. But this is also a source of anxiety and stress, and once I couldn’t keep up, I would just let go.” (read more...)

Grafting with Care: Encountering Human-Plant Relations Through Experiments with Roses

When seen through the experiences and histories of experimentation and care, plants such as roses can bring new insights into the affective and material entanglements of more-than-human relations. My ethnographic encounter with Mr. Changa, a prominent figure in the world of horticulture and plant nurseries in Pakistan, gives us a glimpse on “seeing and being-with” (Haraway 1998) non-human others, such as roses, to foreground the making of social worlds through affect. These encounters show that even though colonial inscriptions on social understandings of nature were marked in influences over tastes and attitudes (Mintz 1985), an attention to nuanced affects, articulations, and values can disrupt the process of creating “authentic” relations with plants and singular legacies of expertise. Writing against the dominance of an object-oriented ontology in mainstream science and technology narratives, this post follows scholarship that emphasizes an “anthropology beyond the human” (Kohn 2013) to center the connections between plants and humans as not only metaphorical but literal (De La Cadena 2010). (read more...)

If I Could Talk to the Algorithm

In the film Doctor Dolittle (1967), the title character yearns to “Talk to the Animals,” as the song goes, to understand their mysterious and often vexing ways. It is interesting to observe a similar impulse to understand and communicate with algorithms, given their current forms of implementation. Recent research shows that intense frustration often emerges from algorithmically driven processes that create hurtful identity characterizations. Our current technological landscape is thus frequently embroiled in “algorithmic dramas” (Zietz 2016), in which algorithms are seen and felt as powerful and influential, but inscrutable. Algorithms, or rather the complex processes that deploy them, are entities that we surely cannot “talk to,” although we might wish to admonish those who create or implement them in everyday life. A key dynamic of the “algorithmic drama” involves yearning to understand just how algorithms work given their impact on people. Yet, accessing the inner workings of algorithms is difficult for numerous reasons (Dourish 2016), including how to talk to, or even about, them. (read more...)

Uncovering Ethnography in Creative Practice Research with Machines

This blog post comes out of a discussion with Ritwik Banerji about the ‘hidden’ role of ethnography in the work involved in creating new experimental systems for music improvisation. Ritwik put it to me that “it seems that a lot of work … involves a kind of ‘implied ethnography’ – that is, it’s clear that the author/designer has lots of personal experience with the domain they’re designing for, and yet the technical documentation of such systems makes scant mention of it.” This was a welcome invitation to reflect on my past practice since I had once been a student of social anthropology and am now, as an associate professor 25 years on, re-engaging with ethnography as a methodology. Have I been implicitly using ethnography all along, and could/should this component have been more explicit in the presentation of my work in an academic context? I will begin with some scene setting. (read more...)

Beauty Filters: New Tech, Old Problems

Retaining a youthful appearance is a laborious and painful exercise, often rife with invisible labor. Digital beauty tech has made it much easier. Rather than altering our own faces through cosmetic procedures, we now have a conduit — an online persona — that can easily be touched up with the help of beauty editing apps or filters. This has done little to challenge ageist prejudices but has offered an avenue out of old age in the form of customization. In offering up this tech, the beauty industry can be seen to perform a bait-and-switch, displacing the weight of beauty standards from physical appearance onto our consumer choices. (read more...)

You Are What You Grow: Crops, Cultivation, and Caste in India

Fieldwork can produce odd obsessions. As an anthropologist studying agrarian risk economies, mine was onions. In the central Indian region of Malwa where I conducted research, onions seemed to be everywhere. As I observed (and occasionally, but poorly, assisted with) farm work, I became fascinated by the bulb: its seasonal shades of pink shifting from winter magenta to a spring blush; the way its bright green stalks stood perfectly upright in the field; the speculative frenzy of the auction during peak season; its pungent flavor in raw, pickled, or fried form; and not least, the unexpected wealth it produced for a few and the dashed hopes and devastation it wreaked on most others. (read more...)

Toxicity, Violence, and the Legacies of Mercury and Gold Mining in Colombia

Toxic substances are often portrayed as stubborn molecules that resist being restricted to the places where we would like to contain them in order to free ourselves from the environmental and health damage they cause us . Mercury —a heavy metal used for different products and industrial processes— illustrates how the effects of these substances are mediated not only by their “stubbornness” or physical-chemical persistence but also by histories of power, violence, and domination. (read more...)

Platypod, Episode Four: Connections and Disconnections on Social Media

In this episode, Platypod presents a conversation between Baird Campbell (Rice University) and Ilana Gershon (Indiana University Bloomington). They discuss the politics of connection and disconnection via social media in Chile and the US. (read more...)