Tag: algorithms

Transpositioning, a Hypertext-ethnography

This is a work of hypertext-ethnography. It is based on my research of a small genetics laboratory in Tokyo, Japan where I am studying the impact of the transnational circulation of scientific materials and practices (including programming) on the production of knowledge. In this piece, I draw primarily from my participant observation field notes along with interviews. I also incorporate other, maybe more atypical, materials such as research papers (mine and others), websites and email. The timeframe for this work is primarily the spring of 2020 and the setting is largely Zoom. Although I began my research in 2019 physically visiting the lab every week, in April 2020, it—and most of the institute where the lab is located—sent researchers home for seven weeks. That included me. Luckily, the lab quickly resumed its regular weekly meetings online (between the Principal Investigator (PI) and individual post-docs for example, as well as other (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...)

People Are Not Fixed Media

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...)