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 →
Earlier this year I posted two informal student debt surveys here on Savage Minds as part of the Anthropologies issue on Student Debt. Both of these surveys focused on student debt in anthropology. Here at long last are some of the results. (Sorry for taking so long to get to this…I was writing a dissertation over the last nine or so months.)*
There was a lot of data to sift through. In this post I’ll discuss the first survey, which had 285 total responses. We’ll start with the highest level of education attained. Thirty-four percent have completed their MA. Thirty-three have completed their PhD, fourteen percent have completed an undergraduate degree, nine percent have completed “some grad school,” six percent have completed between one and three years of college, and another six percent chose “other.”
Fifty-six percent of respondents said they are not currently enrolled in college or grad school. Forty-six percent are enrolled. Two percent chose “other” when asked if they are currently enrolled.
In terms of current employment status, forty-five percent have a full-time job, twenty-two percent have a part-time job, nineteen percent are unemployed, and fourteen percent chose “other.”
The majority of responses came from socio-cultural anthropologists (59%), followed by archaeologists (18%), biological anthropologists (13%), and linguistic anthropologists (3%). Eight percent chose “other” when asked about their disciplinary niche within anthropology.
[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by Melissa Rosario who is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Anthropology at Bowdoin College. Melissa is a cultural anthropologist interested in the politics of autonomy for Caribbean peoples and marginalized U.S. groups, particularly Puerto Ricans. She is currently writing a book tentatively titled Revolutionary Time: A Treatise on the Cultural Logics of Resistance in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.]
These days, I have been thinking a lot about revolution. Names of places—Ayotzinapa, Ferguson, Staten Island—now immediately trigger an affective response in me as evidence of the unbroken chain of state repression against black and brown and indigenous bodies. I don’t want to rehash all the extremely apt analyses of all that has remained the same—women’s bodies remain marginal to our collective outrage; the prison industrial complex operates as the new Jim Crow; we are waking up to the violence of the status quo; there is an ironic distance between Obama’s position on Mexico as a uncivil state who must be held responsible for killing innocent youth while remaining silent on the murders of unarmed black youth—but rather to think about what has changed. To do that, we have to turn to the mass mobilizations themselves, the creative responses, the emotional outcry and think about how they move us towards another way of imagining our present predicament and our collective future. As a Diasporican and scholar of the Caribbean, I know that others have been spending their time trying to unthink concepts like revolution and sovereignty. While I agree that the way we understand these concepts need to be redefined, I want to push us in another direction, and ask, what might it mean to reclaim them through communal presence even amidst today’s radical uncertainty? Continue reading →
This is the second part of my interview with Karen Brodkin. Part I is here.
Ryan Anderson: All of this has me wondering how this is happening in US anthropology. As a discipline, we have this sort of pride that comes with our Boasian legacy of anti-racism. But your work seems to indicate that something is terribly amiss. Despite all of our rhetoric about anti-racism, it turns out we have some serious internal problems when it comes to race and diversity. In your view, how has this happened and why do we tell ourselves such a different story?
Karen Brodkin: In its institutional profile, anthropology is not much different from other white-majority institutions, and like them, we also think we’re doing better than especially non-white anthropologists think we are. I’ve used “white public space” to highlight the different views that white and racialized minority anthropologists have about anthropology’s racial climate. But knowing that only raises two more questions. What are the specific practices and narratives that have led anthropologists of color give the discipline’s racial climate low marks over some 40 years? And, what are the positive changes anthropologists have been making within their departments and scholarly networks? Both these efforts and conversations about them need a bigger public profile within the discipline. Continue reading →
(Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Bianca C. Williams. Bianca is Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado, and holds a PhD in anthropology from Duke University. She is the author of “Guard Your Heart and Your Purpose: Faithfully Writing Anthropology,” and of the forthcoming Duke University Press book Exporting Happiness in which she examines how African American women use international travel and the Internet as tools for pursuing leisure, creating intimate relationships and friendships, and critiquing American racism, sexism, and ageism.)
After weeks of traveling for conferences, and finally getting to my sister’s home for the holiday, I’ve been trying to relax. To peacefully give myself over to this season of thanks. Even now, after the decision not to indict Darren Wilson, there is plenty for which to be thankful. However, watching the coverage of the protestors on television and observing conversations on social media has been anything but peaceful. I spent a day and a half trying to find an effective way to communicate the pain, frustration, anger, sadness I was feeling to my friends, peers, and colleagues online, particularly those that seem to live in an alternate reality. They live in a reality where privilege, or at least blissful ignorance, keeps them from seeing how racist institutions and a “race-neutral” criminal justice system continues to oppress their friends, neighbors, and colleagues. Below, I include a modified excerpt of the message I wrote to my Facebook community, and then I offer how my thoughts might be relevant to my beloved discipline of anthropology: Continue reading →
The following is an interview with Karen Brodkin, Professor Emeritus in the UCLA anthropology Department.
Ryan Anderson: You co-wrote an article back in 2011 with Sandra Morgen and Janis Hutchinson about anthropology as “white public space” (AWPS). What’s your assessment of the state of anthropology three years later? If you could add an “update” to this article, what would it be?
Karen Brodkin: The short answer is that anthropology is still white public space, especially in the consistently different ways that white and racialized minority anthropologists see race and racism in anthropology departments and universities. This is my reading of results of the 2013 online survey of the AAA membership (more on that in a minute). What I’ll do here is summarize the findings of the article, and then survey findings that buttress, complicate or contradict them.
AWPS was based on a survey of about 100 anthropologists of color about how they experienced anthropology. We used “white public space,” to sum up attitudes and organizational patterns that told anthropologists of color that they and their ideas were not real anthropology.
The 2013 survey (referred to hereafter as TFRR) was developed by the Task force on Race and Racism appointed by AAA president Leith Mullings (full disclosure, Raymond Codrington and I were its co-chairs). More than 15% of the membership, 1500 people, mostly white, took it. Half were faculty. We reported findings to the AAA Exec Board June 2014. Continue reading →
This post is part of a series on the history of computing in sociocultural anthropology.
The introduction of portable personal computers significantly broadened the scope of computing in anthropology. Where centralized mainframe computing had lent itself to large calculative tasks and team research projects, PCs fit more readily into the classic model of the lone fieldworker working primarily with textual material. Through the 1980s, computers achieved a certain ordinariness in anthropological work — the use of a computer for data collection or analysis was not limited to a vanguard group seeking to redefine anthropology, but was rather becoming a typical fact of university life (and, increasingly, life outside the university as well). This ordinariness set the stage for the explosion of social scientific interest in computers that was to come with the introduction of the world wide web and its attendant mediated socialities.