Tag: algorithms

People Are Not Fixed Media

Listen to an audio recording of this post as read by Ritwik Banerji Sensory ethnography continually emphasizes that the sensorium is just as much a (product of) sociocultural practice as it is a biophysiological property of the human species (Pink 2015). Recognition of this point has prompted several shifts in ethnographic work. On the one hand, it has pushed ethnographers to include in their writing a greater discussion of how subjects engage with the world through their senses as well as how the putatively biological phenomenon of sensory perception is so highly variable across and within sociocultural milieux. On the other, it has inspired ethnographers to pursue media practices beyond text, particularly through ethnographic film or sound recording (Feld 1991). Regardless of form, this work has greatly increased the possibility for the reader, listener, or viewer to experience with their senses the social environment that subjects inhabit and where the ethnographer conducted fieldwork. (read more...)

Human as the Ultimate Authority in Control

(Editor’s Note: This blog post is part of the Thematic Series Data Swarms Revisited) With the growing size of historical data available to researchers and industrial practitioners, developing algorithms for automating numerous aspects of everyday human life has become ever more dependent on data-driven techniques. Previous approaches relying on formal methods and global optimization no longer meet the increasing scalability requirements of modern applications. One of the most successful global optimization algorithms, such as Particle Swarm Optimization (PSO), continues to be employed in practice but more often as a part of more complex approaches, only being able to provide partial solutions to complex modern optimization problems. PSO was first introduced by Kennedy and Eberhart (1995) who were inspired by the most mesmerizing phenomenon in nature—bird flocking. As in any collective behavior, birds converge to an equilibrium formation that maximizes their benefits as individuals and as a society overall. V-Formation as (read more...)

Anti-Queer Violence, Bearing Witness, and Thinking with Algorithms on Social Media

In early June 2019, news began to break concerning the death of a Salvadoran transgender woman, Johana Medina León, of pneumonia, four days after being released from nearly six weeks in ICE custody. Before long, my Facebook feed was filled with stories detailing the persecution Johana faced in El Salvador because of her gender identity; her dangerous journey to the United States to seek asylum; and her final moments as she struggled to save her own life, as it became clear no one else would. She might have saved her own life, if she’d been given the resources. In El Salvador, Johana was a nurse. Johana’s death is tragic for many reasons, not the least of which is that had it not been for social media, it likely would have gone unnoticed. (read more...)

Clinical Data in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: Ethnographic Engagements

By: Peter Taber, Nicholas Rattray, Lauren Penney, Megan McCullough and Samantha Gottlieb This post emerged from a 2018 Society for Applied Anthropology panel on anthropological engagements with health data in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Serving over 9 million enrollees with a current federal budget of USD68 billion, the VA is an important testing site for digital healthcare infrastructure, as it has been for several decades. The panel brought our VA research and quality improvement (QI) efforts targeting the electronic health record (EHR) and other digital infrastructure into dialog with existing work on the social lives of data and algorithms, as well as the broader concerns of medical anthropology and STS in an era of the “datafication of health” (Ruckenstein and Schüll 2017). Extracts from our conversation, presented below, are taken from a follow-up video call exploring these issues. (read more...)

Dumbwaiters and Smartphones: The Responsibility of Intelligence

“I don’t have to drink alone,” she paused for comedic effect, “now that I have Alexa.” Thus was the punchline of a story told by a widowed octogenarian at a recent wedding. Alexa is a mass-produced personality that can play music, suggest items for purchase, monitor consumption and health habits, or, like any good friend, just listen. While all these tasks could be performed in silence with various algorithmic appliances, Alexa and her cousins from Google and Apple are imbued with a perceived autonomy directly stemming from their capacity for vocalization. Speech, it seems, beckons the liberation of abiotic materials from their machinic programming. (read more...)

Out-of-Body Workspaces: Andy Serkis and Motion Capture Technologies

Over the last two decades, the entertainment industry has experienced a turn to what Lucy Suchman termed virtualization technologies in film and videogame production (Suchman 2016). In addition, production studies scholars have described authorship as linked to control and ownership, sharpening distinctions between “creative” and “technical” work, a divide with significant economic repercussions (Caldwell 2008).  These ideas are useful in understanding film studio workspaces, where visual effects (VFX) workers and actors collaborate in creating believable virtual characters, using three-dimensional (3D) modeling software and motion-capture (mo-cap) systems to capture the attributes and movements of human bodies and transfer them to digital models.  Once captured, digital performances become data, to be manipulated and merged seamlessly with those of live actors and environments in the final film. The introduction of virtualization technologies and computer graphics tools have surfaced tensions over creative control, authorship, and labor. British actor Andy Serkis has been a high-profile apologist for the human actor’s central role in bringing virtual characters to life for film.  Serkis, who Rolling Stone called “the king of post-human acting,” is known for using motion capture (mo-cap) to breathe life into digitally-created, non-human characters. His notable performances include the creature Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003), the ape Cesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), as well as  Supreme Leader Snoke in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), and work on several characters in the 2018 Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, which he also directed. While Serkis’ performances have made him highly visible to audiences, digital labor historians have begun documenting the often-invisible film workers creating 3D models and VFX (Curtin and Sanson, 2017). The tensions between mo-cap performers and VFX workers reveal the contours of an emerging hybrid workspace that combines actors’ physical bodies and movements with VFX workers’ manipulations of digital geometry and data. (read more...)

Critiquing Big Data in China and Beyond

“I do think that the Internet truly makes us feel the world can become a smaller place,” an interlocutor, whom I will call Bo, told me in his parents’ home in Shijiazhuang, a city in China’s Hebei Province. It was late 2014, and he was studying to become a filmmaker in Beijing. During our conversation, he told me about discovering Google Earth when he was younger, recalling how, suddenly, he could “see any place in the world” from the comfort of his home. He could zoom in to explore a mountain village in Iceland, a house, and even a village dog, feeling that, without Google Earth, he would never have been able to visit such faraway places. The experience might have been virtual (xuni), he mused, but it had also been real (zhenshi). His account expressed a kind of enthusiasm for the digital that I often encountered during my ethnographic fieldwork on digital opportunity in China. However, his story was made especially compelling by the oppressive smog plaguing the city outside. While neighboring buildings disappeared in a toxic fog, he expressed his excitement about “seeing” a digitally mediated “Google Earth.” (read more...)

Rule of Law by Machine? Not so Fast!

Editor’s Note: This is the sixth post in our Law in Computation series. Back in the mid-1990s when I was a graduate student, I “interned” at a parole office as part of my methods training in field research. In my first week, another intern—an undergraduate administration of justice student from a local college—trained me in how to complete pre-release reports for those men and women coming out of prison and entering onto parole supervision. The pre-release report was largely centered on a numeric evaluation of the future parolee’s risks and needs. The instrument used by the parole office was relatively crude, but it exemplified a trend in criminal justice that pits numbers-based tools, designed to predict and categorize system-involved subjects, against more intuitive judgments of legal actors in the system. (read more...)