It’s difficult to overstate our society’s fascination with Artificial Intelligence (AI). From the millions of people who tuned in every week for the new HBO show WestWorld to home assistants like Amazon’s Echo and Google Home, Americans fully embrace the notion of “smart machines.” As a peculiar apex of our ability to craft tools, smart machines are revolutionizing our lives at home, at work, and nearly every other facet of society.
We often envision true AI to resemble us – both in body and mind. The Turing Test has evolved in the collective imagination from a machine who can fool you over the phone to one who can fool you in front of your eyes. Indeed, modern conceptions of AI bring to mind Ex Machina’s Ava and WestWorld’s “Hosts,” which are so alike humans in both behavior and looks that they are truly indistinguishable from other humans. However, it seems a bit self-centered to me to assume that a being who equals us in intelligence should also look like us. Though, it is perhaps a fitting assessment for a being who gave itself the biological moniker of “wise man.” At any rate, it’s probably clear to computer scientists and exobiologists alike that “life” doesn’t necessarily need to resemble what we know it as. Likewise, “person” need not represent what we know it as.
Though we often take for granted that humans are persons, they are not exempt from questions surrounding personhood. Indeed, what it means to be a person is largely an unsettled argument, even though we often speak of “people” and “persons.” Just as it’s important to ask if other beings might ever be persons, it is also important to ask if humans are ever not persons. In this pursuit, it’s crucial to separate the concept of personhood from notions of respect, love, and importance. That is to say, while a person may necessitate respect, love, and importance, something need not be a person to also demand respect, love, or importance.
When the concept of personhood in humans comes into discussion, it inevitably is punted to the medical community, often in the context of abortion and end of life. When does the heart first beat? When can a fetus feel pain? When does the brain begin/stop producing electrical activity? There is no doubt that advancements in our understanding of human physiology have enlightened discourse on what it means to be both a human and a person. However, the question of personhood is all too often debated solely in light of Western medical contexts. This conflation of physiology and personhood is the same issue that was discussed in my previous post on primate personhood and will be revisited in my next post on artificial intelligence. To escape this quandary we need to consider factors outside of physiology that are important to the concept of personhood, such as the social.
On Wednesday morning, amid the turbulent mix of feelings that washed across the country and beyond its borders, an anxious existential question took hold of many of us: “what the f***k do we do?” Some seriously considered the need to flee for their lives. Others took to the streets. More than a few folks I know spent the day drunk or in bed. And, by the end of the day, safe spaces for decompression and community care emerged on many college campuses. Part of my own response, one shared by many other faculty, has been: TEACH.
Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Angelique Haugerud.
“America is a shining example of how to hold a free and fair election, right?” asks Bassem Youssef, a comedian and former heart surgeon who is often referred to as “the Egyptian Jon Stewart.” Astute answers to that question about the condition of U.S. democracy often come from foreigners such as satirists, as well as my East African research interlocutors.
Like Jon Stewart and Trevor Noah (The Daily Show), Stephen Colbert (The Colbert Report), and Jon Oliver (Last Week Tonight), Bassem Youssef uses irony and satire to hold a mirror up to society, and to unsettle conventional political and media narratives. State political pressure forced termination of the popular satirical news show Youssef created in Egypt during the Arab Spring. He then moved to the United States, became a fellow at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics in 2015, and in 2016 started a new show in the United States called “Democracy Handbook” on Fusion TV. As foreigners, Youssef, Jon Oliver (British), and Trevor Noah (South African) wittily play off stereotypes of their own home regions as they comment on events in the United States—such as Trevor Noah’s Daily Show segment comparing the 2016 Republican presidential nominee to African dictators.
Climate change is the nightmare that keeps me up at night. The consensus seems to be that the world will be significantly different within my children’s lifetimes. Many places will be uninhabitable. Many if not most of the world’s great cities, which are built on waterfronts, will be flooded and destroyed by unpredictable weather events and rising oceans. The global refugee crisis will become much, much larger. The food supply will become uncertain. The American landscape and economy will be different in ways I cannot imagine, while India, where I conduct my research, will be a place exponentially more difficult for the millions of people already struggling to get by. There is a degree of uncertainty in these statements, albeit a hopeful uncertainty. Many of the predicted changes are already happening, faster than scientists had thought.
For me, climate change is a crisis so big it is hard to think about at all. Can anthropology help us think through a problem that leaves us feeling overwhelmed? I would argue that yes, anthropological thinking can tackle these thorny problems, and in fact, it’s one of the few approaches that can. The recent AAA Global Climate Change Task Force Report makes this clear, by pointing out anthropology’s unique view on historical and current adaptation. Here, I also want to look back and find some inspiration in the public anthropology of Margaret Mead, who did not hesitate to comment on thorny problems of her day. Continue reading →
Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Rachel C. Fleming
In my first introductory anthropology class of the year, I spoke a bit about the figures I consider “founding” to cultural anthropology, and asked if anyone had heard of them. Franz Boas, I inquired? After a pause, one woman tentatively asked, “Isn’t he the father of anthropology or something?” Yes, ok, close enough. She allowed that she had learned about Boas in another anthropology class. Bronislaw Malinowski? One hand went up in the back. A bearded young man said, “I’ve heard of him, but that’s probably because my girlfriend is an anthropology major.” Yes, that would explain it. And then I asked, Margaret Mead? Silence. I was frankly taken aback. I realize her popular appeal peaked from the 1920s through the 1960s, ancient history to this generation of students. However, she is consistently remembered in our field as possibly the most famous anthropologist to date. She wrote popular columns in national magazines about sexuality, gender, and childhood in the US. Coming of Age in Samoa was a massive bestseller and is still in print. The controversy over her research in Samoa was headline news in anthropology for years. The recent bestselling novel Euphoria fictionalizes her life.
Whatever you may think about Margaret Mead, we cannot dispute that she was a major early figure in what we now call public anthropology. With the efforts of anthropologists such as David Graeber, Barbara King, Tanya Luhrmann, Jonathan Marks, Carole McGranahan, and Paul Stoller, to name just a few, we have a growing voice in the public sphere, spurred along by social media. Yet I cannot help but feel nostalgic for a time when Mead was so well known that she was widely derided in the academy as a “popularizer.” Given the value of anthropological insight for current issues—a point we all strive to make in our classes and elsewhere—I suggest that we could learn from such a popularizer now. In this blog series I will thus reconsider Mead’s work on sexuality, childhood, gender, feminist anthropology, and public change by imagining what she might make of today’s world and the questions and crises we face. Continue reading →
Anthropologists seeking to communicate their research to general audiences are likely to work with fact-checkers. Here’s some advice on how to handle the process if you’ve been interviewed by a reporter.
I write a lot of emails that make me seem much less educated than I am. Why? I often work as a professional fact-checker.
In this capacity, it’s my responsibility to confirm the accuracy of the words someone else has written. I’m not conducting original research; I’m making sure that another writer got their facts right.
This usually entails contacting the experts the author chose to interview and asking them a series of questions to determine whether or not the wealth of information they provided to the author was adequately distilled into a handful of words. I frequently do this by rewriting the author’s article into a series of “yes” or “no” questions.
Years ago, I was fact-checking for a glossy magazine and wrote an email to a well-respected biological anthropologist who had been quoted in the story I was working on. I asked: “Did marriage evolve so that we can find someone to fall in love with, in order to reproduce?” I’d read enough Gayle Rubin to answer this question from the point of view of a cultural anthropologist. I had to remind myself that, as a fact-checker, my job was not to challenge the statement the scholar had made. My responsibility was to confirm that these were words this media-savvy scholar would have spoken. She answered with a simple “yes.” Continue reading →
Detroit moves quickly; issues of scale and pace in a city of this size pose major challenge to contemporary archaeological practice. I’m not sure what a decolonizing archaeology should look like here, but it’s happening nonetheless. It is grassroots. It connects with communities. It shares the skills we have as social scientists with people, places, and collections. The goals are simple – to tell stories that matter, to empower memory, to increase participation, and, hopefully, to spur action against destructive forces of erasure and exclusion. We don’t have the luxury of time and protracted theoretical deliberation on our side; this work is done in a climate of rapid late capitalist development and privatization, where most of places we encounter are at the mercy of irreversible decay from ruination or demolition by developers. Continue reading →
By: Faye V. Harrison, Carole McGranahan, Matilda Ostow, Melissa Rosario, Paul Stoller, Gina Athena Ulysse and Maria Vesperi
The massacre in Orlando was just two days before we sat together around a seminar table in an idyllic New England college town. A massacre of forty-nine people out dancing, celebrating life in a gay nightclub called Pulse. They were mostly young, queer, and Latinx. Gone. Already stories had turned to focus on the killer’s motivations. Was this primarily homophobic homegrown terrorism or the machinations of the Islamic State? We were meeting at Wesleyan University in Connecticut to discuss the creation of the Public Anthropology Institute (PAI) and contemplate ways to use our scholarly knowledge of cultural difference for greater service globally. Given the disheartening public debate in this moment reminiscent of Dickens’ best and worst of times, we were convinced that this work is necessary in the face of such violence and hate.
For too long anthropologists have retreated into the minutia of arcane disciplinary debate even when our knowledge can make a difference. It can be intellectually stimulating and important to turn inward, but conversations among ourselves cannot be the only ones we have. We also need to create work with a larger impact and a longer reach. As scholars who have studied across the global south and thought deeply about geopolitics, poverty, social and economic inequality, racism, homophobia, sexism and climate change, we believe it is time to reconnect with the obligation to produce knowledge that makes the world a better place. As the stakes get higher, anthropological perspectives can make critical, unexpected connections and offer direction beyond the logic of dominant assumptions. Continue reading →
Anthro/Zine, a venue for undergraduate publication from the team behind Anthropology Now, has entered its second year of publication. The premise behind the project is to provide a space for college students to reflect on how anthropology, in all its myriad forms, has touched their lives. As editor I have been completely blown away by the quality and creativity of our submissions which have included not only essay, but also art, poetry, photography, fiction, and what I call “briefs” — very short pieces. There are now four issues, open access and CC-BY, available at the link above. Check out our latest issue below!
Anthro/Zine publishes April, September, and December coinciding with each new issue of Anthropology Now. If you are a student or recent college graduate and would like to make a submission of some sort that is relevant to anthropology then we would like very much to see what you have to offer. We are most interested in seeing work that is creative, personal, and short. Original research is welcome but we do not publish term papers. Do not submit to us what you have given your professor, your peers are your audience here. Reflect on what you have already accomplished and tell us about your experience of encountering anthropology.
A/Z is not a venue for graduate students, however it is appropriate for grads to submit their work directly to Anthropology Now, please see their guidelines here.
Students or faculty with questions can reach me at email@example.com, if you would like your work considered for the September issue than make your submission by August 1.
Click on the cover or the hyperlink below to download a pdf of our latest issue:
The title of this post is meant to provoke. Or so I hoped, when I first thought of it one night as I was cooking (a very thought-inspiring activity, I must say). I was replaying a conversation in my head that I had with a visual anthropologist from Macau, who was trained in Berlin. Our conversation traced the postcolonial critique of anthropology, as well as difficulties of translating anthropological works for the public. The reason he calls himself a ‘visual anthropologist,’ he said with a laugh, is because the term gives him legitimacy in academic circles (he also gets invited to screen his films at various festivals). I think that, perhaps, doing so gives him room to be more eclectic than what a category would allow.
I wondered: why, when, and how do we call ourselves anthropologists? Of course, there are academic conventions, and institutional structures. But there’s also a sense of belonging to a professional community, a global tribe, if one is pushing the cliché. In undergraduate and graduate programs, we’re initiated into the history of the discipline, into understanding seminal moments (Writing Culture is still fresh in my mind from a course from last year), as well as into the ‘field.’ We are privy to the workings of the discipline; we see how our peers, teachers and institutions (the AAA, for instance) have responded to political questions like institutional boycotts, or Black Lives Matter (not to mention scandals within anthropology – the Yanomamo being another ‘seminal’ moment in pedagogy).
Yet, we are asked, perhaps more so than any other discipline, what anthropology’s relevance to the world is? Very often, it is a question asked in classrooms – both, by students new to anthropology and by those who’ve been here for a while. I do note a crucial difference between asking, ‘How can we be relevant?’ and ‘Are we relevant?’ Both, of course, operate in a similar rhetorical level. But the latter can be particularly challenging.
Last week marked the launch of Sapiens, a brand new website bankrolled by the Wenner-Gren Foundation. The unveiling is especially welcome to those of us who think about public anthropology, since it will mean the end of Wenner-Gren’s seemingly endless social media campaign announcing that Sapiens will soon be launched. At last — after receiving five email which announce that Sapiens is not launched yet, and then invite me to click through a link to view a web page announcing that Sapiens is not launched yet — Sapiens has finally launched!
After scrupulously refusing to retweet non-news about the site, I was quit curious to see what final form Sapiens would take. So, is Sapiens worth the hype? Has a new day in public anthropology arrived? Can all other anthropology blogs now End? The short answer is that Sapiens is a major new voice in online anthropology, with a bucketload of skilled staff, quality features, and gorgeous web design. But if the Sapiens staff are hoping to transform how the public understands anthropology, they may be disappointed — this website is just one more voice in an already crowded online space. That said, with funding, legitimation, and editorial freedom from Wenner-Gren, Sapiens could make an impact in an already-crowded field.
The NGOs and Nonprofits Special Interest Group held its second biennial conference before the AAAs last week. It’s designed to give anthropologists and practitioners working in and with NGOs a chance to engage with each other in a more intimate, focused way before diving into the chaos of the AAAs. Entitled “NGOgraphies,” this year’s conference explored the dual meaning of the term, coined by Steven Sampson and Julie Hemment in 2001, which refers both to critical ethnography of NGOs in general and to analysis of the human geography of NGOs in particular. The conference attracted 112 attendees from 13 countries, and session organizers were encouraged to use alternate formats to engage participants, ranging from workshops to roundtables. Rather than a general report on the conference, this post is a reflection on some of the specific conversations and lines of thought the conference generated for me.
I might have been interested in participating, but will likely be traveling overseas for humanitarian work at the time. I have worked for international NGOs and aid agencies for 30 years, as I do now. However, I must say that the title of the session troubles me. As a long-time member and leader of such organizations, I have never known our community to “fetishize” local knowledge. I think the term is disrespectful to my colleagues and their work and insights. This seems like some sort of construct or perception of research-based academics.
Last May I introduced you to Anthropozine, a new undergraduate venue associated with the journal Anthropology Now. The concept behind the zine was to get college students interested in engaging in earnest reflexivity by articulating their personal experience of encountering anthropology. The first issue, themed around the topic of “Food,” was a roaring success thanks to the efforts of our talented writers.
I’m happy to announce that there is now a second issue of the zine to go around! Our parent, Anthropology Now, moved to Taylor & Francis which involved a slight delay in publication, but they have kept us on board. We’re excited to once again provide a place for shorter works by college students. The latest issue is themed around “the Body.” Help us help our students express themselves by sharing this over your social networks and email listservs!
Anthropology can turn up in the strangest places. While we often hold up Margaret Mead and… uh… well, mostly Margaret Mead… as examples of public anthropology, our discipline does a lot of important work in times and places few of us would suspect. For instance, take these two recent examples from the media featuring Chelsea Manning and Osama bin Laden:
Most people remember Chelsea Manning (then Bradley) as the person who leaked hundreds of thousands of classified military documents to WikiLeaks. After being imprisoned for the leak, Manning has become an activist and intellectual in her own right, as well as the center of an ongoing struggle to make sure her rights are respected in prison. And in her free time… she reads anthropology.
Anthropologists worry constantly that there isn’t enough public anthropology. But how much public anthropology is enough public anthropology? We are reaching all kinds of audiences in all kinds of ways — and with research totally different than the usual white-on-brown village ethnography that people (including us!) imagine that we do. So let’s give ourselves some credit where credit is due and pat ourselves on the back for showing up in unexpected — but important — places.