Tag: ethnography

The “Doing” of Collaborative Ethnography

There is no simple way to tell the story of the recent history of Sainte-Thérèse Island, known as IST (Île-Sainte-Thérèse) by members of the Montreal Waterways research collective, a group based out of the Concordia University Ethnography Lab. Once you start, there is little certainty as to where the story may lead, as its tellings often open different and overlapping pathways for understanding the landscape. Therefore when it came down to the question of how to tell the story of an island—one with a diversity of characters, histories, and happenings—Montreal Waterways made the decision to create a multi-authored compilation of ethnographic texts in the form of a book, entitled An Island is More Than a Park and available online—as part of its research outcomes. The title of the book came from a direct quote made by one of the island’s residents during an interview conducted at a rather difficult time. In the months prior, the community of IST had been preparing to legally defend themselves against a government which had labelled them as squatters, and which was committed to expropriating the seasonal inhabitants to make way for an eco-park. In the time Montreal Waterways spent engaging with the island’s residents and its landscape, it became evident that an island is more than a park: an island is actually a composite of a great number of things that hold meanings that sometimes conflict or contradict each other, especially when so many actors are invested in a version of the island’s story. There was understandably some apprehension on behalf of IST residents, who were suspicious as to why a group of anthropology students were interested in learning about the park, their expropriation, and a project involving collaborative ethnographic research. (read more...)

Cultures of Trust in Computing and Beyond

What does it mean to trust? In this post I explore how there are specific ways of producing trust in computer science education. I draw on ethnographic fieldwork conducted for my PhD in an undergraduate computer science program in Singapore, where I examined the “making” of computer scientists—how students are shaped as socio-technical persons through computer science education. During my fieldwork, I conducted participant observation in eight undergraduate computer science courses across all years (first to fourth) with a focus on required core courses for the computer science program, which is what I draw primarily on for this post. I also conducted interviews with students, professors, and administrators; policy and curriculum analysis; and participant observation in the department, university, and tech community more generally. I also myself studied computer science as an undergraduate student, which led to my interest in this topic. (read more...)

The Brilliant Future of AI

On a hot August afternoon in 2018, I attended a public lecture on AI and the future of work, broadly defined. Back then, I was a student in Brazil conducting my fieldwork for my master’s thesis in anthropology, and interested in understanding artificial intelligence (AI) representations in Brazilian media. As such, I conducted ethnographic fieldwork at events and talks in Computer Science and other departments at my university (Universidade Federal de Goiás, UFG) and carried out archival research of media stories about AI written in Portuguese. In this post, I retell a field story to reflect on what I noticed has changed when it comes to discussions around AI and the future of work in popular media since then.  (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...)

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...)

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...)

Junk Anthropology: A Manifesto for Trashing and Untrashing

It is currently held, not without certain uneasiness, that 90% of human DNA is ‘junk.’ The renowned Cambridge molecular biologist, Sydney Brenner, makes a helpful distinction between ‘junk’ and ‘garbage.’ Garbage is something used up and worthless which you throw away; junk is something you store for some unspecified future use. (Rabinow, 1992, 7-8) In the bioscience lab near Tokyo where I did my ethnographic study, the researchers taught me how to do PCR experiments. This was before Covid when almost everyone came to know what PCR was, or at least, what kind of instrumental information it could be good for. The lab was working with mouse models, although I never got to see them in their cages. But the researcher I was shadowing showed me how to put the mouse tail clippings she collected into small tubes. She hated cutting tails, by the way, and preferred to take ear punches when she could. She told me that she didn’t like the way the mice wiggled under her hand, as if they just knew. But at this point anyway, the mice are alive in the animal room and she is only putting small, but vital, pieces of them into a tube to dissolve them down (mice becoming means), to get to the foundation of what she really wants. (read more...)

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...)