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“. 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 . Madrigal (2017) observes that “the company has made the perfect physical metaphor for the problem the internet poses to democracy” . 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.
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?
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.
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 →
This Anthro Life – Savage Minds Crossover Series, part 3
by Adam Gamwell and Ryan Collins
This Anthro Life has teamed up with Savage Minds to bring you a special 5-part podcast and blog crossover series. While thinking together as two anthropological productions that exist for multiple kinds of audiences and publics, we became inspired to have a series of conversations about why anthropology matters today. We’re sitting down with some of the folks behind Savage Minds, SAPIENS, the American Anthropological Association and the Society for American Archaeology to bring you conversations on anthropological thinking and its relevance through an innovative blend of audio and text.
In our third episode of the TAL + SM crossover series, we explored SAPIENS’ approach to producing anthropological content for popular audiences. Ryan and Adam were joined by the digital editor of SAPIENS, Daniel Salas, to discuss the implications of using anthropology to engage the public through journalism. The episode focused on the questions How do you reconcile scientific and anthropological writing, and is this mixture a new genre? Is there a balance to be found between producing timeless “evergreen” stories versus current events focused content for audience engagement?
This Anthro Life – Savage Minds Crossover Series, part 2
by Adam Gamwell and Ryan Collins, with Leslie Walker
This Anthro Life has teamed up with Savage Minds to bring you a special 5-part podcast and blog crossover series. While thinking together as two anthropological productions that exist for multiple kinds of audiences and publics, we became inspired to have a series of conversations about why anthropology matters today. For this series we’re sitting down with some of the folks behind Savage Minds, SAPIENS, the American Anthropological Association and the Society for American Archaeology to bring you conversations on anthropological thinking and its relevance through an innovative blend of audio and text. That means each week for the month of June we’ll bring you two dialogues – one podcast and one blog post – with innovative anthropological thinkers and doers.
This Anthro Life – Savage Minds Crossover Series, part 1
by Adam Gamwell and Ryan Collins
This Anthro Life has teamed up with Savage Minds to bring you a special 5-part podcast and blog crossover series. While thinking together as two anthropological productions that exist for multiple kinds of audiences and publics, we became inspired to have a series of conversations about why anthropology matters today. In this series we’re sitting down with some of the folks behind Savage Minds, SAPIENS, the American Anthropological Association and the Society for American Archaeology to bring you conversations on anthropological thinking and its relevance through an innovative blend of audio and text.
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.
There’s a certain trope that has been going around for years, and it has hit a peak these days as many people express their collective shock and surprise at recent events here in the USA. The narrative uses a family metaphor to talk about the problems of race and racism—and specifically the difficulties of confronting racism.
This was a close election. What impact would every hard conversation you wish you had with close-minded friends & family members have made?
The narratives center upon the figure of the stereotypical family member, like the old racist uncle. This narrative goes something like this: White liberals think of themselves as progressive and they condemn racism, etc. They “get it,” you know, and want to do something about the issue, and are definitely not racist. But, there’s a problem. They have a lot of family members who don’t think this way, and it’s often uncomfortable to deal with them and talk about issues of race and racism. It’s those family members who are the bigoted, racist, 19th century leftovers, and, therefore, the real problem. The racist uncle personifies this conflict:
In Trump’s America, every day is now Thanksgiving at your racist uncle’s house.
One response to this trope is that white liberals need to just get over it and confront their collective racist uncles (read: the older generations who still hold onto strong prejudices and hatreds). This is perhaps not a bad starting point. But there’s something deeper to think about here. Another response critiques the whole scenario, arguing that the trope of the old racist uncle is just an excuse people use to avoid talking about and dealing with the broader causes and conditions of racism. That hypothetical family member is a rhetorical device that people use as a point of comparison to say “Hey, at least I’m not like that.” Continue reading →
Suddenly the night has grown colder. The god of love preparing to depart.*
The chill of the 2016 US elections is still in my bones. Glued to any and all forms of media, I watched what Van Jones and Judith Butler have called, “whitelash” unfold in graphs, charts, and all forms of measurable outcomes. I watched as the states of my country turned red one by one. This was not the first time I had seen this, but there was something unique about this time. This time, it was not just me and people who looked like me, who felt precarious, but rather I watched as the whitelash was aimed at and betrayed the white Left/Center Left. I watched and felt the hush over the newscasters in the newsroom as they realized the precarity of the first amendment, particularly of free speech and thus, their very existence.
Without intending to, I consumed/embodied that hush. I could not respond or say anything about the election. My inbox was flooded with messages of coping, my social media was a manifest of betrayal, blame, violence, fear, and ultimately action. I was still silent. For me, as a Muslim woman of South Asian descent who has been working for decades on issues of social justice, sometimes through decolonizing anthropology, sometimes through collective action outside the academy, these results were not surprising. I wish they were more surprising. I wish I was surprised by white supremacy in America. I wish my idealism in the human spirit could have learned to forget or misplace that constant in my life. What I found myself wishing instead was that this outrage on my social media feed had coincided with the mapping of police violence, particularly on black bodies. Or the ways in which indigenous people are being arrested and violated for peacefully protesting the Dakota pipeline. Or the rising issue of domestic violence, or really anything, except the reiterating fact that the (white) Left was taken by absolute surprise, and that they did not win. As a person of color in the United States, I have never won. Obama was probably the closest thing to winning I came to, and even he ended up with drone issues (among others).
[The following is an invited post by Keith Hart, Centennial Professor of Economic Anthropology in the Department of International Development at the London School of Economics and International Director of the Human Economy Program in the Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship at the University of Pretoria.]
It impressed me that in one version of the [myth of the] Bagre God and the spirits had organized life. Another version was about how the water-spirits, the fairies had helped mankind to invent culture. And in a third version man himself had gone out and invented how to build a house and the rest. All these were within the same myth, theological and humanistic versions together. It gave me a different idea about human beings, that the LoDagaa were always thinking “Was it god or was it mankind that invented this?”
It was very important to me that some of my friends could become university lecturers, having been brought up in a small, oral village and now learn everything from books. Certainly they lost a lot on the way, they lost the Bagre because Goody’s written version was the real one, done with old men whom they hadn’t known. I had to explain to them that my version was chance, I could have written down a hundred other versions if I had the time, the money and the energy. The written version was only one of many (J. Goody 1972, The Myth of the Bagre, Cambridge).1
So what follows is mostly based on oral memory. I have published four essays on Jack Goody’s writings and this one is something else.2
It seems a fair amount of academics, especially women, suffer from impostor syndrome, “a constant fear of being discovered to be a fraud and a charlatan.” Self-doubt is surely a universal human trait, but we vary in our ability to suppress, ignore, and/or manage such feelings. What is perhaps somewhat unique about impostor syndrome among academics is that “it’s the successful who tend to suffer from it: In order to feel like you’re faking it, you need to have already reached a certain level in your discipline.” As Kate Bahn puts it, it’s “a twisted version of the Socratic paradox—the more you know, the more you feel like you know nothing.” I once calculated that for every book I read I find myself discovering at least ten new books or articles I feel I need to read. That means that if I read a book a week there are about five hundred and twenty new books on my list by the end of the year, each of which feels urgent and essential for my own intellectual development. One’s awareness of the vast body of knowledge we don’t know is actually part of what makes us “experts” but the price we pay for this expertise is a kind of self-doubt. It is always possible that the next book will contain the golden nugget we are searching for.
Is an academic boycott effective? Ask Israeli leaders
I. ben Alek
I. ben Alek is a pseudonym for an anthropologist and long-time student of Israeli politics
“Israel has been blessed with a lot of talent that manufactures many excellent products. In order to export, you need good products, but you also need good relations. So why make peace? Because, if Israel’s image gets worse, it will begin to suffer boycotts.”
How can an academic boycott of Israeli institutions be effective? While debating the issue at the 2014 Annual Meetings of the American Anthropological Association, several colleagues insisted it could not be effective. This was a central criticism they had of the Statement of Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions. After all, critics said, a potential AAA boycott resolution would only be boycotting some hundred or less anthropologists that work or study at Israeli institutions of higher education. Further, they argued, many of these scholars are on the left side of the Israeli political spectrum, and are finding little room to maneuver at a time when Israeli leaders are fanning the militarization of public opinion. Isn’t it counterproductive to undermine their position, as well as that of other dissident scholars, living and working there? A statement against boycott of Israeli academic institutions signed by some four hundred anthropologists claims also that such a boycott would “collectively punish” academics for the decisions of their government, and further that “A boycott of anthropologists and academic institutions plays into the hands of those supporting the current political stalemate.” Continue reading →
In an effort to cut through a lot of hot air being blown on the internet I recently argued that race (and gender) is a “technology of power.” I would like to follow that up with an argument that belief is best understood as a set of social practices, not as an internally coherent ideological system. This is because a large number of seemingly well-intentioned people on my timeline are arguing something along the lines of “we shouldn’t let Islam of the hook for terrorism.” In my previous post I argued that we should endeavour to engage the best arguments that we disagree with, not those easiest to dismiss. This is one reason I haven’t engaged this particular argument before. At first blush it strikes me as little more than laughable “clash of civilizations” Islamophobia (not that Islamophobia is funny). However, some recent discussions have convinced me that there might be a more anthropological version of this argument which is worth a more serious discussion. This argument has two parts: (1) that we should take people’s ideas seriously, including those of violent extremists, and (2) that we should not erase difference by arguing that all forms of violent extremism are the same (i.e. by arguing that not all, or even most, violent extremists are Muslims). I think few anthropologists would take issue with either point, but in so doing we would still not end up in the same place as those making these arguments.
What are you writing right now? Are you writing right now? An article, a paper, a book, a dissertation. A poem, a report, a proposal, an exam. A blog post. Who are you talking to about your writing? Who is reading your writing?
One year ago, we launched the Writers’ Workshop series here on Savage Minds to provide a new space for reflecting on writing. We’ve now had two successful seasons with twenty-one anthropologists contributing: Continue reading →
Just for the fun of it—in the aftermath of President Obama’s announcement that relations between the U.S. and Cuba were thawing—I decided to revisit the conclusion to my now ten year-old dissertation in which I had done the academically forbidden: I gazed into my “crystal ball” to imagine the future. I laid out a couple of scenarios involving Fidel Castro’s dying in office or relinquishing the position while still alive. Then I outlined another scenario that resonates with today: Continue reading →