Interent Anthropology, Thoughts

The Problem Isn’t Just Facebook: It’s You Too.

Lately, news of the Facebook emotional contagion study and Facebook Messenger’s permissions, have flooded feeds and inboxes. The former was a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in June 2014. The paper described an experiment where the algorithm controlling some users’ news feeds were altered to show more “happy” or “sad” posts. Then, the subsequent posts made by those users were tracked to determine if the emotional tone of their news feed affected the emotional tone of their produced content. The latter news story comes primarily from click-bait articles claiming that Facebook has “crossed the line” with its “new” messenger mobile application by requiring extraordinary permissions to users’ phones. While the list of permissions required for Facebook’s mobile messenger app is accurate, their descriptions are not. However, these articles have led to my news feed being inundated with declarations of boycotts and exclamations about the tyranny of Facebook.

A parody image of the game Peasant's Quest from Homestar Runner.

Face off Against the Facebook Dragon (and lose because Facebook always wins) in End User’s Quest! Made by Social Scientists and the Media

I want to present a radically different perspective on Facebook. This isn’t to say that my friends and anthropologically minded colleagues have not raised important points about ethics, power, and control when it comes to the Internet. However, I feel that many discussions about Facebook (and other large web presences e.g. Google, OKcupid or Twitter) have largely become routine and tired in public social science. Each new feature, experiment, interface element, or app is discussed within tropes from tragic fairy tales. Facebook is portrayed as a big greedy dragon taking advantage of the peasants, stealing their data, and toying with their lives. The users are treated as peasants running about on fire, helpless as they wait for a hero who will never come.

Yes, the ethics of data collection and usage are important discussions. But, the framing of that discussion must step away from painting Facebook as evil and tyrannical and the user as helpless. This kind of narrative does little to aid problem solving. Rather, it exacerbates the problems by alienating the Internet’s creatives (whether they be the web designers of small businesses or the developers at Facebook) and creating paradoxical relationships between end users and developers that hinder fruitful discussions. Continue reading

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Course Work, The Great PhD Hunt

PhD Year One

I recently finished my first year of my PhD program in anthropology at Binghamton University. Now, I am course complete and working on bibliographies for my qualifying exams. This post is a look back over this year.


Classes

This year I have taken six courses, three each semester.

y1i-1

Between August 26 and May 14, I went to 109 class sessions for a total of 276 hours in class.

Continue reading

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#TtW14, Thoughts

Tweeting Sweden: Complicating Anthropology through the Analysis of the World’s Most Democratic Twitter Account

Here is my presentation from this Spring’s Theorizing the Web Conference.

Stream from #TtW14

Did you find this presentation interesting? You should watch the rest of the panel. Great stuff! You can watch the rest of the conference online too!

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#TtW14, Thoughts

Theorizing the Web! It’s here!

Theorizing the Web BannerI am very excited about the Theorizing the Web conference! I am in Brooklyn all geared up to give my talk and then listen to some fascinating work from other web people. If you couldn’t make it to Brooklyn or are just hearing about this conference right now, then you are in luck! The entire conference will be streamed online and the videos will be available after the conference if you miss it the first time around.

If you are interested in my presentation, I will be presenting in the 12:30 p.m. panel tomorrow with some other really great folks.

I hope to see you there. If not, join us on the twitter-verse under the hashtag #TtW14.

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Course Work, Materiality & Agency

Reading About Ontology & Animism in Archaeology

SwansThis is a response paper I wrote recently for my Materiality and Agency course.

Response Paper

The practical applications of the theory presented in this week’s assigned readings are thoughtful and generally well reasoned and the critique of interpretive archaeological approaches is sound. Viveiros de Castro’s (1998) demonstration of how Amazonian people experience corporeality and subject perspectives of others, Alberti and Marshall’s (2009) exploration of La Candelaria pottery as being more than metaphors, Overton and Hamilakis’s (2013) description of the sensual experience of killing and sharing environments with swans, McNiven’s (2013) portrayal of the relationships between hunter, prey—both living and dead—and ancestors in Torres Strait, and Weismantel’s (2013) portrayal of the experience of witnessing Chavin in situ are all creative, fresh perspectives that are necessary to challenge the assumptions of dated archaeological epistemologies. However, the usage of ontology and epistemology by these authors is problematic and seem to stem from fundamental misinterpretations of the meaning of ontology and epistemology that are rooted in legitimate critiques of earlier archaeological literatures. Continue reading

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#AAA2014, Shared

CfP for #AAA2014 — Producing Design: Ethnographies of Inequality and Difference in Digital Technologies

Call for papers for AAA 2014 in Washington, D.C.

Producing Design: Ethnographies of Inequality and Difference in Digital Technologies

Organizers: Jordan Kraemer (UC Irvine/UC Berkeley) and Angela VandenBroek (Binghamton University, SUNY)

Please contact us if you’re interested in participating and send proposed abstracts of 250 words to Jordan (jordan@jordankraemer.com) on or by April 7.

Technology companies have long been attentive to interface and interaction design, and are increasingly focused on “user experience,” that is, how humans interact with computing devices, products, and other humans. Although ethnographic and other qualitative research methods are now commonplace in corporate and design settings, fewer anthropological studies examine technology design (broadly conceived) in constructing inequality and cultural difference. With the current 2010s tech boom, startups and established companies alike are generating a profusion of new applications, hardware, architectures, and systems. Many of these will be implemented in diverse settings around the globe, albeit in uneven ways. This panel brings together anthropological studies of this unevenness, to address cultural inequalities in user interface and technology design. Recent commentators in the media, for example, have pointed out that tech innovators in places like Silicon Valley design platforms and services mainly for urban elites, like themselves often young, white, male, and technically savvy. Scholarly critics, moreover, seek to trouble utopian visions of technology diffusion by calling attention to the complexity of relations between tech companies, developers and designers, users, states, institutions, and material infrastructures (e.g., Morozov 2011; also Star 1999)—even as these actors often overlap.

Anthropologists and scholars in related fields have studied design and designers for some time, and have contributed to the development of design practices (e.g., Drazin 2012; Suchman 2011). Others focus on emerging forms of digital labor (Ross et al. 2010), especially in relation to value. In this panel, we investigate different ways emerging technologies and their design depend on culturally and geographically specific norms that inform interaction design, to contribute to an ongoing anthropology of design in digital contexts. How does design, especially user interface design, shape experiences of sociality, mobility, personhood, affect, value, or labor? How do designers and users (often the same people) contend with affordances and accommodations of interfaces conceived for elite or dominant subjects? From digital media to Internet-enabled household objects and “wearables,” technologies designed in particular places (whether California, London, Stockholm, Berlin, Shanghai, or Brazil) circulate transnationally and become integrated into daily practices in diverse locales. We follow Lucy Suchman’s call to locate technologies and their design in particular places, while attending to new forms of placemaking they entail.

Topics of particular interest include the anthropology of computing and user interfaces, interaction design, communications infrastructure, online “content creation” and social media, digital forms of labor, surveillance and privacy, crowdsourcing and microwork, big data and algorithms, and issues of space, place, and scale.

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The downside of having a full-time PhD course load is never having the time to write about the things you want. This project, Twitch Plays Pokemon, is anthropologically fascinating. I wish I had more time to write about it. But, as I do not, I will just let PBS Idea Channel tell you about it for me. If you have the time to write about this really interesting project, please post a link in the comments. I would love to read it. (And someone please discuss how “democracy mode” is still pretty much anarchy!)

Course Work, Materiality & Agency

A Web Developer’s Reaction to Reading Latour

We Have Never Been Modern by Bruno Latour

We Have Never Been Modern by Bruno Latour

Reassembling the Social by Bruno Latour

Reassembling the Social by Bruno Latour

I read Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern and Reassembling the Social last week for class. Here is what it got me thinking about.


Computer programming, although commonly thought of as involving mathematics, logic, and science, is in practice a creative process for making digital reproductions of non-digital entities and the practices that involve them. Over time, programming paradigms have shifted dramatically in the way that objects, actors and practices have been conceptualized and constructed in code. I was surprised to find striking similarities this week between Latour’s descriptions of the social sciences’ engagement with these concepts and the two most widespread programming paradigms, structured programming and object-oriented programming. Continue reading

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#TtW14, Thoughts

I am going to Theorizing the Web! #TtW14

This April you will find me at Theorizing the Web in Brooklyn (April 25-26). Drop me a line if you will be there; We can meet up or come see me present on the Curators of Sweden and Digital Anthropology.

Tweeting Sweden: Complicating Anthropology through the Analysis of the World’s Most Democratic Twitter Account

Tweeting Sweden

Abstract

After completing my masters in anthropology, I spent six years working as a web developer, weaving together ethnographic methods and insights into the design and development of websites. In the Fall of 2013, I returned to my academic roots and began coursework for a PhD in anthropology to explore, in greater depth, the relationship between humans and the Internet. However, my experiences in the field have often grated against two common theoretical trends in the anthropological literature.

First, I have found the academe to be infatuated with the user and dismissive of the Internet’s designers, developers and creatives, except when those creators fit neatly into categories of traditional anthropological interest, such as the open source and free software movement (Kelty 2008, Coleman 2013, Karanovic 2008, 2012, 2010). By extracting the user bit of the digital and failing to contextualize user experience amid the greater web of connections in and among digital technology, digital anthropologists have failed to heed the important lesson put forth by Eric Wolf (1982) in Europe and the People Without History: “…the world of humankind constitutes a manifold, a totality of interconnected processes, and inquiries that disassemble this totality into bits and then fail to reassemble it falsify reality” (3).

Second, the concepts of online and offline have taken on a privileged position within digital anthropology. I have found through work with diverse users this distinction to be of little importance to most users and technology professionals and that the actual experience of Internet involves many states of being and experience that have little connection to the simplistic binary of online and offline. The entanglement of the online-offline concepts — including virtual-actual, online-onground (Cool 2012), and other similar reimaged and renamed online-offline distinctions — within anthropology seem rooted in three problematic areas in the development of digital anthropology: establishing academic validity (Miller and Horst 2012:18), making disciplinary or specialist boundaries (Boellstorff 2012:35, 45), and the establishment of methodological best practices (Boellstorff 2012:34, Cool 2012:24).

The Curators of Sweden project began in 2011 when two official governmental agencies, the Swedish Institute and VisitSweden, gave a Swedish citizen full and seemingly unfettered control of the official Twitter account of the Swedish government. Every week since then, a new Swedish citizen has been given access to write as @Sweden, to curate Swedishness for the Internet. Through the example of the Curators of Sweden project, I will explore the dangers of ignoring the relationship between designers, developers, and creatives and their users by exploring the subtle dialog between creators, participants, and users across platforms, media, personal communication, and documentation that has shaped the project and its users’ experiences.  I will also problematicize the online and offline concepts as analytical tools by extending the analytic scope of this “online” project beyond its online-ness to more fruitful engagements with history, politics, business, and technology. I will contextualize the project into the history of Swedish Modernism and Swedish nation branding that shaped the creators’ choices in design, development, and platforms.

 

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Course Work, History of Anthropological Thought

The Culture Concept

The culture concept — which overtime has been contrasted, combined, and entangled with the related concepts of society, personality, identity, symbolism and practice — weaves together the history and core philosophical and methodological debates of anthropology as a discipline. Yet, today the concept that lies at the center of what anthropology is and does is fragmented and contested, as anthropologists have taken on the challenges put forth by postmodernity to cope with contradiction, borderlessness, constant flux, and the impacts of anthropological and historical biases, such as sexism, orientalism, and othering. This has left some anthropologists reaching back to science to find stability and others plunging into a realm of interpretation and description, while a new generation of anthropologists formed within this milieu must find space to make a discipline, whose central subject is disputed, both relevant and professional.

The 12th century Anglo-Norman word culture was derived from the Latin word cultura, meaning the cultivation of land (Beldo 2010:144, OED Online n.d.). As colleges and universities spread through Europe in the 16th century, culture came to mean the cultivation of people through education (OED Online n.d.). The culture concept came to mean a quality of the upper class that indicated refinement in taste, judgement and intellect through the 18th century leading up to the Industrial Revolution (Beldo 2010:145). European contact with other peoples through the rise of imperialism produced the need to discuss a collective customs of a people (OED Online n.d.). In the 19th century, French philosophers used the term civilisation to encompass the religion, economy, politics, morals and technology that distinguished the West from contemporary “primitive” cultures (Kuper 1999:30). After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the German word kultur was positioned in opposition to the French concept of civilisation (31).  While civilisation was conceptualized as transnational, German kultur was expressed as the nationalistic and individual achievement through the cultivation of intellectual, religious and artistic pursuits (31). In 1871, Edward Burnett Tylor used elements of both civilisation and kultur, to create the first formal anthropological definition of culture: “Culture or Civilization, taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (1). Tylor’s definition — one of the most widely cited definitions of culture in anthropology — became the seed for anthropological deliberation for the next century. Continue reading

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