Tag: ethnography

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...)

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...)

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...)

Monstrous Matter, Out of Place

The following is an autoethnographic comic about my experiences re-understanding a new diagnosis through revisiting Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger. (And yes, the final panel is from a conversation I did have with a grad student colleague and dear friend.) (read more...)