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The Automation and Privatization of Community Knowledge

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about community, who we are as a community, what keeps us connected and together, and how community knowledge is stored and distributed. As an anthropologist, my research focuses in part on automation and algorithmic impact on society, in particular, on our relationships and how we maintain them towards common cooperative goals. As such, when technology begins to change our relationship to our local locale (as it has been doing increasingly over time with each new capability), I pay attention to how this changes our physical and social structures, and our relationships to them and to each other.

Recently, Apple Computer, Inc. has branded the privatization of the idea of the commons, by renaming the retail Apple stores as “Town Squares“[1]. In Apple’s definition, these “Town Squares” are where people will gather, talk, share ideas, and watch movies, all within Apple’s carefully curated, minimalist designed, chrome and glass boxes. In this scenario, Apple’s “Town Square” is tidy, spartan, and most critically, privatized. This isn’t new behavior, however, what is new is the context within which Apple is able to do this, from both inside of shopping malls, and from retail locations on Main Streets. Applin (2016) observed that private companies are collecting and replicating community through their networks and communications records [2]. Madrigal (2017) observes that  “the company has made the perfect physical metaphor for the problem the internet poses to democracy” [3]. This article provides a discussion of what happens and what we forfeit in these hybrid gathering places between Internet usage and privately owned spaces; and how these hybrid spaces have become enabled in the first place.

Continue reading


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Explaining Ethnography in the Field: A Conversation between Pasang Yangjee Sherpa and Carole McGranahan

What is ethnography? In anthropology, ethnography is both something to know and a way of knowing. It is an orientation or epistemology, a type of writing, and also a methodology. As a method, ethnography is an embodied, empirical, and experiential field-based way of knowing centered around participant-observation. This is obvious to anthropologists as it has been our central method for the last century. However, what ethnography is, how it works, and the unique specificity of ethnographic data is not always clear to outsiders, whether they are other researchers, officials, or members of the communities with whom we are working. Why is this, and how do we explain ethnography and its value when we are in the field? In April, we started a conversation about this in person at a conference at Cornell University, emailed back and forth over the summer, and concluded the conversation this month at a conference at the University of Colorado. We cover topics including the context of research, questions of technology, IRBs, being a native anthropologist, the usefulness of ethnography and stories, and ethnographic research as a unique sort of data.

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Carole: What constitutes the field always differs by scholar. Who we are in dialogue with, where, and why depends on one’s research project. However, no matter where we are or who we are, explaining our research topic and method is critical. In your research, with whom are you discussing ethnography as method, and how do you explain it?

Pasang: In my research, I discuss ethnography as method with village residents, diaspora communities, government officials, NGO officials, scientists, youth leaders, students, policy makers, technocrats, and conservation practitioners. These categories often overlap. Continue reading


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Paying with Our Faces: Apple’s FaceID

In early September, Apple Computer, Inc. launched their new iPhone and with it, FaceID, software that uses facial-recognition as an authentication for unlocking the iPhone. The mass global deployment of facial-recognition in society is an issue worthy of public debate. Apple, as a private company,  has now chosen to deploy facial-recognition technology to millions of users, worldwide, without any public debate of ethics, ethics oversight, regulation, public input, or discourse. Facial-recognition technology can be flawed and peculiarly biased and the deployment of FaceID worldwide sets an alarming precedent for what private technology companies are at liberty to do within society.

One of the disturbing issues with the press coverage of FaceID during the week of Apple’s announcement, was the limited criticism of what it means for Apple to deploy FaceID, and those who will follow Apple and deploy their own versions. What does it mean to digitize our faces and use the facsimile of our main human identifier (aside from our voices) as a proxy for our human selves, and to pay Apple nearly $1000 U.S. to do so?

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Resources for Understanding Race After Charlottesville

In this time of fake news and alternative facts coming from the White House as well as some media, what can we as scholars contribute to challenge this?

In this time of amplified racist hate and violence, whether it is anti-Black, anti-Muslim, or directed at any group, what can we as scholars contribute to challenge this?

In this time of newly public white supremacy in the USA, what can we as scholars contribute to challenge this?

Today, Monday, September 18, 2017 is devoted to Understanding Race After Charlottesville. Four professional organizations—the American Anthropological Association, the American Historical Association, the American Sociological Association, and the Society for Applied Anthropology—are each encouraging and holding events leading up to and following after this day. Here at Anthrodendum, we are collecting resources from this event to share, as well as offering others relevant in this political moment. Since the 2016 presidential campaign, anthropologists have been busy trying to interpret where we are and how we got here—and collectively thinking about how to research, write, and teach in this moment. Continue reading


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Remembering the Mexican Revolution with Aunt Julia

Growing up in Austin, Texas, Diez y Seis — Mexican Independence Day — always seemed to hold an official, albeit minor, status in the state capitol. This was not a holiday that we observed in my family in any formal capacity. Much like Cinco de Mayo we might find ourselves at a Mexican restaurant that night just by happenstance. After all we ate Mexican all the time! As we waited for our enchiladas I would proclaim, “Today is Deiz y Seis,” as if realizing that the Longhorns were on TV. Unlike the Fourth of July, it never warranted parades of children on decorated bicycles and riding lawnmowers. More than likely it would be a human interest story at the end of the local nightly news.

While a student, and at the encouragement of my mother, I recruited my grandmother to help me collect ghost stories from her oldest sister, Julia, the most renowned storyteller and tamale maker in my family. In addition to learning a little bit about linguistics and a lot about transcribing interviews I also heard for the first time the tale of how her family came to Texas from Torreón, Coahuila. In honor of Diez y Seis and with all due respect to the still precarious status of immigrants and refugees in the United States I am retelling it to you today.

Special thanks are due to my mom Janis, Grandma Pauline, and Aunt Julia who guided me to that kitchen in south central Austin, January 1997, where I first heard this tale.  I had to exercise a little poetic license to weave that conversation into a single narrative but its really Julia’s story. Believe me, when its family holding you to account you’re going to do your best to tell the tale right!

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Peer Review Boycott: Say No to Political Censorship

By: Charlene Makley and Carole McGranahan

Would you peer review manuscripts for a journal or press that politically censors its content? If your answer is no, then please join us in making your statement public by signing this petition.

Why the need for what seems like such an obvious defense of academic freedom? Several weeks ago, the People’s Republic of China pressured Cambridge University Press to restrict access in China to articles and book reviews in two major journals: China Quarterly and Journal of Asian Studies (the flagship journal of the US-based Association of Asian Studies). The Press agreed to censor content in China Quarterly, but then changed this decision after international scholarly protest.

The content to be censored was scholarship the Chinese government considered sensitive or dangerous, including works by anthropologists of China, Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang. Content requested to be censored is extensive and dates back to 1952 as you can see on the censorship list for each journal (list of the 300 articles China Quarterly initially blocked, then reversed decision on, and list of content Journal of Asian Studies refused to block).

Not a scholar of this part of the world? Your support of this peer review boycott still matters. It matters for broad support of intellectual freedom and access to scholarship. Your expertise matters as a peer reviewer on manuscripts with topical and theoretical overlaps with your specialties. Continue reading

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Situating Knowledge

As an anthropologist working at the intersection of anthropology and development studies I sometimes undertake work for development organizations. The kind of work I do does not fall into the category of applied anthropology or  the work of cultural translation. Most often  I’m asked to provide, in written form,  a rapid analytical overview of an issue or situation in relation to a pressing policy objective. What counts as a situation  or an issue  is determined by the political context and policy framing which makes it relevant at a particular moment.

The private sector takes the lead

 

Such work can be challenging, personally and politically. Current development paradigms which fetishize market forces and the unfettered private sector as an engine for positive social transformation are laying the foundations that consolidate the entrenchment of  new kinds of inequalities on an  unprecedented scale.  At the same time, financial transfers from richer countries to poorer ones provide much needed subsidies for improved public provision of essential basic services. Understanding where policies have traction,  and for whom,  is a critical part of the contested politics of development practice, within and between development organizations. Continue reading


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What you can REALLY do with an anthropology degree

The Brooking Institute’s Hamilton Project (because after Hamilton everything has to be named after Hamilton) has a new website examining the relationship between career path and college major — in other words, it shows you what people who major in one field do for a living. The site and its accompanying interactive data visualizer and reports affirms what I have spent the last three years telling undergraduate majors in my role as undergraduate advisor, so I wanted to take a second here and discuss what you can actually do with your major. What the data actually say.

Here is the standard speech I give students: There is no strong connection between your college major and occupation (at least for anthropology and most other majors). The purpose of an undergraduate degree is to give you general skills which will enable you to be a citizen of your country and the world. These same generalized capacities you need for citizenship are what you need for the job market. There is no point learning how to mechanically follow orders, since that just means you can be replaced by a robot. What’s key is the ability to learn quickly is key, since companies don’t really believe in training any more. You will be paid best if you can build or maintain the lives of the privileged. You will be paid poorly if you work for the poor or disadvantaged. The answer to the question “what can I do with this major” is not a fake list of job choices. It is ask “what do you want?” If you are waiting for your college professors to hand you a high-paid job, that’s not going to happen. And this is not our fault: it isn’t the educational sector that keeps blowing up the economy so the rich can get richer. College is not about choosing a major off a menu so that you can chose a job off a menu. College is about figuring out what you want to do and then seeing how possible that is in the world we live in today.

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Artificial Intelligence: Making AI in our Images

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Sally Applin

Hello! I’m Sally Applin. I am a technology anthropologist who examines automation, algorithms and Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the context of preserving human agency. My dissertation focused on small independent fringe new technology makers in Silicon Valley, what they are making, and most critically, how the adoption of the outcomes of their efforts impact society and culture locally, and/or globally. I’m currently spending the summer in a corporate AI Research Group where I contribute to anthropological research on AI. I’m thrilled to blog for the renowned Savage Minds this month and hope many of you find value in my contributions.

There is so much going on in the world that it is challenging to choose a single topic to write about—floods, fires, hurricanes, politics—as anthropologists in 2017, we are spoiled for choice. However, as a warm up for the month ahead, I thought I’d start with a short piece on automation and agency to frame future pieces which will address these topics. The following is a letter I wrote yesterday morning to the House of Lords in the UK, who issued a call for participation on the governance and regulation of Artificial Intelligence, a topic with great importance to me. If done well, AI will benefit many, and if overlooked, or done in haste or without forethought, there could be catastrophic outcomes from poorly designed algorithms, and automation and limitations that permanently alter society as we know it.

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The Cyborg Anthropologist (Tools We Use)

For those who don’t know, I live, work, teach, and do research in a predominantly Chinese speaking environment. Although you are probably aware that learning Chinese is hard, you might not realize that even scholars who have studied the language for most of their adult lives still struggle with it. That’s because scholars who work in Chinese rarely talk about the subject openly. As David Moser explains:

inferiority complexes or fear of losing face causes many teachers and students to become unwitting cooperators in a kind of conspiracy of silence wherein everyone pretends that after four years of Chinese the diligent student should be whizzing through anything from Confucius to Lu Xun, pausing only occasionally to look up some pesky low-frequency character (in their Chinese-Chinese dictionary, of course). Others, of course, are more honest about the difficulties. The other day one of my fellow graduate students, someone who has been studying Chinese for ten years or more, said to me “My research is really hampered by the fact that I still just can’t read Chinese. It takes me hours to get through two or three pages, and I can’t skim to save my life.” This would be an astonishing admission for a tenth-year student of, say, French literature, yet it is a comment I hear all the time among my peers . . .

You might have read somewhere that it takes a vocabulary of several thousand Chinese characters to read a newspaper, but the truth is that it is actually much harder than that: Continue reading


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Robert Lowie just destroyed A.R. Radcliffe-Brown in one must-see letter

When it comes to Internet Drama, nothing beats the paper letter. Anthropology’s founders did not lead isolated lives. “American cultural anthropology” corresponded with “British social anthropology” and the “Année Sociologique” all the time. I’ve blogged before about Marcel Mauss talking trash about Malinowski with Radcliffe-Brown. But for pure in-your face, the winner has got to be Robert Lowie’s response to A.R. Radcliffe-Brown.

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The Path of Climate Change

In the 1980s the Pastoruri glacier was one of the greatest adventure tourism destinations in South America. Over 100,000 people visited the glacier annually to mountaineer, ski, and enjoy spending time on one of the most accessible glaciers over 17,000’. But since 1995, Pastoruri has lost more than 50% of its mass, transforming the icy giant into a slushy, overfull lake. To remedy the fact that currently only about 30,000 people visit the glacier each year, La Ruta del Cambio Climático (or the Path of Climate Change) was created in order to teach visitors about the effects of glacial melt. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t quite have the same draw. Continue reading


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Teaching in place: fostering relationality and reciprocity in the classroom in 2017

view of the Rideau River from Carleton University campus, Ottawa, Canada

 

It’s that time of year when professors like myself are editing, updating, or drafting syllabi for the coming fall semester here in Canada (and as I understand, the fall term is underway for many of my American peers!). As I head into my third year as an anthropology professor in Ottawa, Canada, I’ve been thinking hard about what it means to enact anthropology, pedagogy, and co-thinking in this particular place and time. I live, work, and teach in unceded and unsurrendered Algonquin territory. In fact, Ottawa, Canada’s national capital, sits in entirely unceded Indigenous land. What does that mean? Well, our House of Parliament sits on land for which no treaty was ever signed or negotiated. This creates complex and urgent realities between a) the Algonquin communities whose laws and histories are inextricably bound to this city in the heart of the Ottawa River watershed and b) the broader Canadian nation-state (and its myriad institutions). Continue reading


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Great anthropologists who fought fascism

Some of you who — unlike me — have not had family members murdered by nazis or had every synagogue in their home town firebombed in the same night may now be learning about antifa for the first time. But although it’s making waves in the media now, antifascist action has a century-long history which includes many anthropologists, who have fought fascism not by writing letters to the New York Times or retweeting an animated .gif but by putting their lives on the line.

As histories of antifascist action document, antifa is a fundamentally illiberal political movement which seeks to oppose fascism by any means necessary — including violence. For this reason, I can’t stress enough that I am opposed to antifa in the United States at the moment because I am opposed to violence, which is both against my values and tactically and strategically against our interests at this point in time given the mood of the country. But in different times and different places the threat of fascism was so dire that violent resistance was necessary. And in those moments, anthropologists acted bravely and with honor. Continue reading


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Anthropologists need to address the Google memo on its merits. Again.

When Google engineer James Damore wrote his now-infamous memo about how woman are naturally unsuited to work at Google, anthropologists everywhere groaned inwardly. Our discipline’s lot in life is tragic. After about a century of research, we have a pretty good understanding of how human beings work. And yet, our findings run counter to what the average American’s ideas about how society and culture function. As a result, we face the unenviable task of having to constantly explain, over and over again, generation in and generation out, our truths to a skeptical public. It sucks. It’s tempting to throw up your hands and walk away from discussion. But we have no choice: Our integrity as scholars and scientists demands that we wade in to every public debate about race, gender, and human nature in order to explain — once again — how people actually work.

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