It Knows the World: What the Wolfram Language Can Teach Anthropologists about the Problematic Nature of Ontological Approaches (#AAA2014)

Here is the prezi (with audio) of my presentation from the American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting for 2014.

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.

“Why I signed” (the petition AGAINST academic boycott of Israeli institutions)

I have signed the petition against the academic boycott of Israeli institutions by the American Anthropological Association. After signing, I felt as if I had taken my stand and have since mostly stayed away from the contentious spaces of debate that are populated largely by pro-boycott anthropologists at this year’s meeting. I had hoped that scholars who had signed the anti-boycott petition and were more advanced in their careers and more entangled with research in this area would bring to the table a better explanation than I could. I also felt that if the boycott came to pass, that I would not fight it as it is better than no action at all and likely would not have devastating effects (either positive or negative).

I chose to write this post, however, after observing the Twitter feed under the hashtag #AAA2014, reading the Inside Higher Ed article, and listening to the buzz around the conference hotel. I do not feel that my anti-boycott stance has been represented in the discourses of the AAA. So, I sat down this morning at my laptop before heading out to put into print why I signed the “Anthropologists Against the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions” petition. (more…)

#AAA2014 Fashion Post

Wear All the Scarves


Back by popular demand: #AAA2014 Fashion! I remember the terrifying experience of packing for my first AAA Meeting. So, to help out those first-time AAA-ers, here is what I am wearing this year. (more…)

#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! (more…)

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. (more…)

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.


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


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


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!

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.

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. (more…)

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 ( 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.