#AAA2014 Presentation on Ontology and the Wolfram Language

Title Slide from my AAA 2014 presentation: "It Knows the World" What the Wolfram Language Can Teach Anthropologists about the Problematic Nature of Ontological Approaches.

I am excited to be attending the American Anthropological Association Meeting again this year! I will also be presenting a paper with a great panel of digital anthropologists, including my co-organizer Jordan Kraemer. As usual, I will post the prezi and audio of my presentation here on H2BAA for anyone who is unable to make it to our panel or the meeting. If you are headed to DC, give me holler on Twitter!


It Knows the World: What the Wolfram Language Can Teach Anthropologists about the Problematic Nature of Ontological Approaches

As anthropologists have become deeply entangled in debates of ontology, Wolfram Research developed a new multi-paradigm programming language that knows the world. Wolfram Language is knowledge-based, meaning that “unlike other programming languages, the philosophy of the Wolfram Language is to build as much knowledge—about algorithms and about the world—into the language as possible” (Wolfram 2014). The language, with its built-in knowledge, can recognize handwriting, visualize celebrity gossip, make pop art, determine the author of a text, and identify prose from poetry (Wolfram 2014). Each of these feats is accomplishable without requiring the programmer to engage with data or algorithms directly and requiring only a handful of commands. The language is being heralded as the answer to dealing with big data, accomplishing artificial intelligence, and overcoming alienation in programming. However, despite the immense potential of the language, it also introduces new inequalities into programming and the Internet. Wolfram Research takes for granted the situatedness of the language’s understanding of the world and seems to conflate its epistemology—what it knows and how—with ontology—the infinitely complex entanglement of being and becoming. If taken up, as is predicted, the Wolfram Language will have the potential to bury alternative epistemologies and build immense swaths of the digital world in its own image. By engaging the Wolfram Language’s implications, I will demonstrate how the abuse of ontological thinking, particularly the pluralization of the ontology and the conflation of ontology and epistemology, has serious implications for thinking and making in the world and in anthropological theorizing.


Accidentally by Design: Producing Difference and Inequality through Technological Designs

Saturday, December 6, 2014: 2:30 PM-4:15 PM

Washington Room 2 (Marriott Wardman Park)

Organizers: Jordan H. Kraemer (@jordanisme) and Angela Kristin VandenBroek (@akvbroek)


Discussant: Keith M. Murphy (@kmtamurphy)

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. Yet their designs often presume elite, majoritarian users, and, intentionally or not, contribute to generating forms of inequality. Ethnographic and other qualitative research methods are now commonplace in many corporate and design settings, but 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 broadly. 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, and institutions (e.g., Morozov 2011)—actors who 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 culturally- and geographically-specific norms that inform the interaction design of emerging technologies, 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 social media and mobile apps to material infrastructure, technologies designed in particular places (whether California, London, Stockholm, Berlin, Shanghai, or Brazil) move out of design studios to circulate in the world — and are contested and negotiated in the process. Following Lucy Suchman (2011), we locate technological designs in the cultural projects surrounding their production and in their unstable entailments in placemaking, governance, and subjectivity.

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