Platypod, The CASTAC Podcast

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Platypod is the official podcast of the Committee for the Anthropology of Science, Technology, and Computing. We talk about anthropology, STS, and all things tech. Tune in for conversations with researchers and experts on how technology is shaping our world.

Decorated image used as an invitation for CASPR 2023

Platypod, Episode Eight: CASPR 2023

Download the full transcript of this episode. The 2023 edition of CASPR: CASTAC in the Spring discussed digital ethnography and its multiple facets. The event was moderated by Dr. Baird Campbell, who, along with guest speakers Dr. Ilana Gershon, Dr. Nicole Taylor, and Dr. Patricia G. Lange, shared their experiences and valuable insights based on their many years of interactions with digital ethnography—much before the recent spike in interest in this method due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some critical insights from the event: On the online-offline divide, guest-speakers pointed out that this division will not matter in the future as interlocutors are increasingly interconnected. Speakers were skeptical about how much this topic still matters now, coming to the conclusion that this separation is largely artificial. The speakers mentioned how digital technologies, social media platforms, and other technological products would indirectly be part of future ethnographies, even if the researcher had (read more...)

Platypod, Episode Seven: An Anthropology of Data, AI, and Much More

Download the transcript of this interview. For this episode of Platypod, I talked to Dr. Tanja Ahlin about her research, work, and academic trajectory. She’s currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, and her work focuses on intersections of medical anthropology, social robots, and artificial intelligence. I told her of my perspective as a grad student, making plans and deciding what routes to take to be successful in my field. Dr. Ahlin was very generous in sharing her stories and experiences, which I’m sure are helpful to other grad students as well. Enjoy this episode, and contact us if you have questions, thoughts, or suggestions for other episodes.  (read more...)

Platypod, Episode Six: An Anthropology of Algorithmic Recommendation Systems

Download the transcript of this interview. On the morning of Friday, March 10, 2023 Nick Seaver and I met over Zoom to talk about his new book Computing Taste: Algorithms and Makers of Music Recommendation, which was published in 2022 by the University of Chicago Press. In that meeting, we recorded an episode for the Playpod podcast, which is available at the link above. (read more...)

Orange Platypus with black headphones

Platypod, Episode Five: CASPR – CASTAC in the Spring 2022

This episode presents a recording of CASPR 2022, or the CASTAC in the Spring 2022 mentoring event, which took place on May 10, 2022. CASPRT 2022 was organized to encourage dialogue on breaking down binaries that have separated academe and industry. Angela VandenBroek (TXTS), Melissa Cefkin (Waymo), and Dawn Nafus (Intel) discuss their work in leading socially-informed research in industry contexts. (read more...)

Orange Platypus with black headphones

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...)

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Platypod, Episode Three: Disability, Toxicity, and the Environment

In this episode, Platypod presents a conversation between Elizabeth Roberts (the University of Michigan) and Sophia Jaworski (the University of Toronto). They discuss the complexities of corporeal life in toxic environments. This episode was created with the participation of Elizabeth Roberts (the University of Michigan, speaker), Sophia Jaworski (the University of Toronto, speaker), Svetlana Borodina (Columbia University, host, producer), Gebby Keny (Rice University, host, sound editor), and Angela VandenBroek (Texas State University, CASTAC web producer). The transcript of their conversation is available below. We thank Sophia Jaworski for her work on editing the transcript for comprehension. (read more...)

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Platypod, Episode Two: Ableism in Anthropology and Higher Ed

In this episode, Platypod presents a conversation between Laura Heath-Stout (Brandeis University) and Rebecca-Eli Long (Purdue University). They discuss their research and experiences of ableism in academia, anthropology, and higher ed, in general. This episode was created with the participation of Laura Heath-Stout (Brandeis University, speaker), Rebecca-Eli Long (Purdue University, speaker), Kim Fernandes (University of Pennsylvania, host), Svetlana Borodina (Columbia University, host), Gebby Keny (Rice University, sound editor), and Angela VandenBroek (Texas State University, CASTAC web producer). The transcript of their conversation (edited for comprehension) is available below. (read more...)

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Platypod, Episode One: Technologies and Politics of Accessibility

In its opening episode, Platypod presents a conversation between Cassandra Hartblay (University of Toronto) and Zihao Lin (University of Chicago). They discuss their research on accessibility cultures, politics, and technologies. This episode was created with the participation of Cassandra Hartblay (the University of Toronto, speaker) and Zihao Lin (the University of Chicago, speaker), Kim Fernandes (University of Pennsylvania, host), Svetlana Borodina (Columbia University, host), Gebby Keny (Rice University, sound editor), and Angela VandenBroek (Texas State University, CASTAC web producer). The transcript of their conversation is accessible below. (read more...)


Platypus on Platypod

The bonus episodes below are the most recent readings from Platypus, The CASTAC Blog. Look for more readings in the Platypus archives or find them on your favorite podcast app.

A map of the Mekong Delta oriented to the left is on a round white table. There are piles of small white squares with different icons organized into rows below the map. Colored markers and pens are also on the table next to and below the map. A person's hands are visible at the bottom left corner, while the bodies of others are also seen standing around the table.

Anthropology, STS, and the Politics of Imagination in Navigating Socio-Environmental Change

“he climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination.” Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2015), p.9. “We are in an imagination battle.” Adrienne Maree Brown, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (2017), p.18. In late 2010, members of Dutch and Vietnamese planning delegations, sitting around conference room tables at a fancy hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, began work on what was to become the Mekong Delta Plan. The Dutch consultants depicted four quadrants divided by two axes, with climate change along one and economic growth along the other, which they deemed the two primary drivers of uncertainty facing the Mekong Delta region in the coming decades. The quadrants, they said, represented four “plausible future scenarios,” which could then be used to identify responsible investment and policy decisions in the present, regardless of whichever future were to unfold. This exercise, modeled on a similar set of quadrants used for climate adaptation planning by the Dutch in their own country, was central to the delta management approach being advanced by the Dutch participants. The “scenario planning methodology” is a strategic planning tool used to support policymaking under conditions of deep uncertainty, originally developed by former RAND Corporation strategist Herman Kahn and later refined by Royal Dutch Shell (Faubion 2019; Samimian-Darash 2021). In other words, it is an exercise in imagining possible futures, used to guide planning meant to enable adaptively navigating among unforeseen events. (read more...)

A white barn and a large white telescope sit in a grassy field with some trees around and tree-covered mountains in the background.

Lonely Planet Looking for Connection: Citizen Science SETI Research at NASA

NASA’s homepage is as glitzy as you would expect of the U.S. Government’s sexiest administration. Glossy pictures of nebulas, astronauts, and asteroids float across the top of the page and even the ozone hole over Antarctica manages to look like a snack. A quick swipe over to the Citizen Science Page, however, and now the images give enthusiastic, low-res, DIY vibes coupled with pun-filled project titles like “Aurorasaurous” and “Spiritacular.” Each one beckons: anyone with a cellphone or a laptop can do this project. A Jacob’s Ladder of binary stretching into the blurry heavens stops my scroll with its provoking title—Are we alone in the universe? Well golly, I don’t know. Go to Project Website. So I do. (read more...)

Image of a woman digging into a tub, the top of which is covered with ice. The woman uses a stick to dig. Her hair is covered and she wears a grey jacket and brown pants. She is standing on land covered in brown grass, and there are cattle in the background.

Water Scarcity, Hydropolitics, and the Importance of Materiality at the Foothills of the Rocky Mountains

How is growing water scarcity experienced by livestock producers? And to what extent does the materiality of water and the infrastructures on which users rely influence social relations and conflict management? Inspired by eighteen months of ethnographic fieldwork with livestock producers in Wyoming during which water both metaphorically and physically saturated my notebooks and conversations, I suggest that the form of water, either as a river or an aquifer in this case, helps to foster different experiences of waterways and also of social relations between water users. In comparing two different waterways, the Ogallala aquifer and the North Platte River, and the infrastructures on which water users depend, I argue that surface water and irrigation canals visibly highlight interdependent relations whereas groundwater pumping conceals connections. (read more...)

A crowd of people chant and have one or both arms raised. There are white and sky blue flags, some with the word Racing and Racing's logo, which is composed of sky blue and white vertical stripes.

Milei, Crowds, and Concrete Waves in Argentina

I am home, reading Stefan Helmreich’s new book, A Book of Waves (2023). The news on TV then catches my attention: I see images from the inauguration of Argentina’s new president, Javier Milei. The syntagmatic association is obvious: Milei is a new addition to the wave of authoritarian populist rulers now in office. I let out a long sigh, thinking about the future of my relatives and friends in Buenos Aires. Once again, I failed miserably in my ability to forecast election results. Previously, I missed the mark for the 2016 elections in the US and the 2018 elections in Brazil. For many years, my anthropological work has been with forecasts, albeit atmospheric ones (e.g., Taddei 2015, 2020). I often poke fun at my friends in meteorology, telling them that society is more complex than the atmosphere—perhaps to justify why we in the social sciences are so bad at forecasting collective human behavior. In any case, I have the feeling that, of all the uses of the wave metaphor, perhaps this one, associated with extreme rightwing nationalistic politics at the international stage, is the most elusive and misguiding. Is the waviness of the phenomenon derived from any measurable feature, like it is for natural phenomena such as physical ocean waves or El Niño? Or is the waviness just ascribed afterward simply as a familiar semantic container for a myriad of facts so that the public can hold it in their minds? In any case, physical oceanographers also read waves backward. They call it an inverse problem (Helmreich 2023, 258). (read more...)

Algorithmic Imaginations in Agriculture: Automation?

In 2022, I was conducting my doctoral dissertation research on data-driven, automated digital farming technologies (drones, autosteering, sensors, GIS, smartphones, Big Data) in Turkey. Amidst the global hype for digital agriculture, often referred to as “smart” farming or precision agriculture, new agritech companies and startups in and beyond Turkey have been emerging alongside agribusiness corporations. These companies invest in and prioritize data-driven and algorithmic technologies over human involvement in agriculture with the assumption of the former’s objectivity and precision (Bronson 2022). For instance, the market in Turkey provides farmers with access to drones for precise chemical spraying, including fertilizers and pesticides. These drones operate autonomously, enabling farmers to target specific sub-fields rather than resorting to mass spraying. Farmers can also access various smartphone applications that, for instance, claim to offer real-time data on soil conditions at the sub-field level collected through sensors and algorithmic recommendations ensuring precise irrigation. Additionally, the companies imagine generating valuable insights into the agricultural sector for agricultural corporations, financial and biotechnology firms, and public institutions through these data-driven technologies. While not all of these technologies are extensively used by farmers in Turkey, the companies continue developing, marketing, and showcasing them and many others to automate and gather data for a wide range of agricultural operations with the claim of improving food security and ecological and socioeconomic welfare. (read more...)

An image of Trikafta's packaging against a wooden background

High Costs, Entangled Politics: What All Comes Inside a Medication’s Packaging

On October 17th, 2023, two news articles about the Brazilian federal budget circulated on social media. One announced the freezing of R$116 million (US$23.3 million) from the budget of CAPES, the national agency responsible for fostering the training of scientists in Brazil. The other reported that a mere three drugs for rare diseases had accounted for an amount of R$575 million (US$115.6 million) in annual federal spending. These two budgets belong to different departments, and the spending in one does not have a direct connection to the cuts in the other. Furthermore, neither the cuts in science nor the expenses of high-cost drugs are a novelty, but rather issues that frequently appear in the news. However, the coincidence of these news stories circulating on the same day allows us to use them as anecdotes to consider the relationships between the state, science, technology, the pharmaceutical industry, economic dependency, and global circulation. (read more...)

A hand holds a white plate with pumpkin-shaped pasta mixed with pieces of cooked zucchini, sundried tomatoes, and salad leaves. In the background, there is an orange-coloured box of pasta with the words ‘veggi pasta – pumpkin zucca’ written on it.

Belly Versus Bin: How Digital Autoethnography Brought Me Back From the Brink of Disordered Eating

Content and Trigger Warning: This post contains commentary and reflections about disordered eating. In September 2019, I responded to an advertisement by a Dutch university for a PhD student interested in the policy and societal aspects of food waste valorisation. With a strong interest in sustainable food systems and an academic background in food supply chains and regulatory affairs, I seemed to fit the bill. I had not studied food waste before, but I felt a strong moral connection to the subject and the idea of investigating ways to better utilise food waste as a resource appealed to me. Following a successful interview, I was appointed to work on the project for a period of four years. In the months that followed, I dove head-first into literature on food waste. I learned that one third of all food produced on the planet ends up as waste while one in three people (read more...)

A complex machine of wires and red static reminiscent of an old table top radio or telephone switchboard

On Algorithmic Divination

Algorithms are tools of divination. Like cowry shells, scapular bones, or spiders trapped under a pot, algorithms are marshaled to detect and relay invisible patterns; to bring to light a truth which is out there, but which cannot ordinarily be seen. At the outset, we imagine divination is a means to answer questions, whether in diagnosis of past events or for the prediction and guidance of future outcomes, choices or actions (Ascher 2002, 5). Yet, divination has an equally potent capacity to absorb the burdens of responsibility, to refigure accountability and, in so doing, to liberate certain paths of social action. (read more...)

Image showing a vast expanse of scattered garbage and waste between tall concrete walls, with a few individuals sitting amidst the refuse.

Plastic Chronicles: Navigating Mumbai’s Material Mazes

In the sweltering early hours of summer 2022, waste pickers make their way towards Mumbai’s Deonar dumping ground. Devi, a young waste picker, holds up a thin plastic bag, saying, “These are everywhere, but they’re so flimsy!” Vikas, a more senior segregator, sifting through a pile nearby, replies with a grin, “Ah, but that PET bottle in your other hand? Now that’s valuable. You’ve got to know your plastics, Devi.” Their daily interactions with these materials have given them an innate understanding of their worth and properties. It is here, amidst a sea of discarded materials, that a relationship evolves—one between the waste pickers, the myriad forms of plastics, and the urban space that surrounds them. This bond is grounded in empirical observations that bring order to the chaotic array of plastics, tying together the intricate dance of humans and materials within the city’s polyphonic rhythms. (read more...)

A granite memorial stone standing in a cemetary. The memorial stone reads: "Before I formed you / In the womb / I knew you"

Funeral for an Embryo

On a freezing February morning, I pulled my rental car into the small parking lot behind a sprawling Minnesota church. I had flown halfway across the country to take part in a Catholic burial of lab-grown frozen embryos. The event was organized by a midwestern Christian organization, the Holy Trinity Guardians, a group that had been burying embryos in this cemetery for several years. Some of the embryos were sent from local fertility clinics; others were shipped from labs around the United States. As I walked through the snow-covered burial grounds looking for signs of other attendees, I spotted an elderly man standing solemnly by a large stone monument. He waved and introduced himself as Fred. He was also looking for directions to the embryo remains burial. Fred had taken a detour to this spot, which marked the buried remains of miscarried fetuses and stillborn infants. Together, we made our way along the icy wooded path toward the larger cemetery where people had begun to gather. As we walked, Fred recounted how, decades earlier, his wife had suffered a late-term miscarriage. This very church had buried the remains. Fred never forgot that baby, he told me, and he had come today to honor what he saw as other unborn lives who would never have the chance to grow up. (read more...)

a right-side biological arm and hand of a prosthetist holding a prosthetic arm that's attached to an amputee

How to Imagine the Unknown: Choosing an Arm Prosthesis

When amputation happens, it is an un-ignorable event. After the surgery, the person learns how to be an amputee, they learn to conceptualize their altered body. This work belongs to the inner world of the amputee, their bodily experience, and to the attitudes and environment around them. Many amputees will adopt a prosthesis. However, the journey of choosing, training on, and incorporating a prosthesis into one’s practice and identity requires the amputee to imagine future bodily experiences and knowledge. Much of this imagining happens in unfamiliar and mediated settings: in doctors’ offices that are also hi-tech device shops, or in meetings with other prosthesis users. (read more...)

A dome surveillance camera mounted on a white ceiling tile. A hallway is reflected in the camera’s plastic housing.

Staring Contest

It’s 3 in the morning. I’m sitting at the end of the hallway of the boomerang-shaped intensive care unit (ICU) where I work, looking into the darkness beyond the unit’s only window. When I’m on the unit, the world outside the hospital transforms into something entirely remote—intangible, imperceptible, inconsequential. I force myself to imagine the scent of the fresh air I will inhale when I leave. It’s hard to remember that the world is pulsing with life outside these walls. The hospital’s resistance to darkness and quiet permeates the boundaries of reality itself. The fluorescent lights transform me into something other than a person, washing out the details that make me Sophie. In here, I can lose myself. In here, I am lost. (read more...)

A selection of foraged plants and fungi are cleaned and laid out in bowls

The Wild Pantry

Finally, it’s time. As a team we have arrived in Cambodia—a geographer and an anthropologist embarking on a journey that we have joyfully planned for the last few months. The project we are working on is Plant Planet Plate, which brings together the work of the Green Shoots Foundation, which is led by me (a geographer), in rural development and agriculture with the research and skills in plant humanities of Dr. Ashley Thuthao Keng Dam, a medical anthropologist. Our fieldwork consists of conducting 50 interviews with people living in Oddar Meanchey Province, located in the North West of Cambodia, on wild foods and medicinal plants that they forage. We also intend to take voucher specimens of plants we come across to be submitted to the herbarium at Royal University of Phnom Penh. Once the data is collected, we will analyse and conduct further desk-based research to write essays on the different plants we think stand out in cultural significance and overall preference. A crucial component of the work is having these essays available online in English, Khmer, and French, so they are more accessible to both Khmer nationals and those abroad. This is essential for science communication and knowledge sharing, especially as it relates to biodiversity preservation initiatives, along with a greater understanding of food ingredients, where they come from, perhaps even how they got there and ensure sustainable diets for all. (read more...)

Image composed of several smaller images next to each other representing skin lesions. The skins are all white, with a pinkish hue. The lesions are darker red

“The Day I Discovered I Was Collaborating on a Eugenics Project”: On Imponderables in Collaborative Research

The title that opens this reflection is a statement by computer scientist Sandra Avila, who is also a co-author of the lines that will flow here. Her account took place during the recording of a podcast on science and feminism. In that situation, Avila recounted a non-trivial research experience. She may never have been able to talk about it with her colleagues in computer science, let alone with collaborators in dermatology who offered their “expertise advice.” It was in informal conversations with feminist researchers that Avila found a safe place to talk about a situation that had made her cry with anger because she felt cheated. (read more...)

Making Companion Species at a Robotics Lab

I spent many a warm summer day holed up inside a robotics laboratory, analyzing various datasets for my Human-Robot Interaction (HRI) research project. The room was often dark and the windows were small. My desk, located in the left corner furthest from the entrance, rarely received any sunlight. On several days, the lab would be empty. I’d be left with nothing but the company of browning tube lights, dangling cables and wires, and robots used in the lab’s Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) experiments. (read more...)