Tag Archives: experiments

New Tools: Sophie and Apture

Just a random couple of notes on two tools that I’ve looked at recently.

1) Mary Murrell points out that the Institute for the Future of the Book has released Sophie 1.0 and has announced a competition for a workshop at the institute for multimedia literacy at USC. Sophie is a multi-media authoring tool– a bit like Macromedia Director, for those who can remember that far back into the last millenium, but much much better. It’s open source, it has a very nice interface that allows for rapid construction of multi-page documents which can incorporate sound, video and images. It has a timeline for creating time-based presentations and it handles most of the main formats without trouble. It does take a bit of energy to learn, but it could be used to create really rich presentations or documents. It’s kind of the perfect in-between-film-and-text tool. The only shortcoming is that it produces its own file format which requires the sophie reader (also free, and available on mac-windows-linux) to read a book produced in sophie. This means that docs can’t be easily displayed on the web, but requires the viewer to download and install a piece of software. Better for presentations than stand-alone docs, I guess. However, it looks like one could export the time -based stuff to a movie format, and the text-based stuff to a pdf, so it’s not that bad.

2) On the extremely cool, but maddening side is Apture. Apture is an amazingly clever add-on to a web-site that allows beautifully clever links that pop-up and move the window around and allow you to quickly add photos and video to any site. It’s hard to explain (go play with the the demo). The down side is that this is 1) so NOT free and open source software, and as far as I can tell a direct route into allowing apture to basically display whatever it wants on your site, in order to get this functionality (it uses a remote application server that essentially serves content on top of your site, so it’s a bit like an annotation service); and 2) it ruins the “view source” aspect of the web by overlaying content that cannot be easily investigated, as one can with normal content displayed in a browser. Apture is hardly the main culprit here, but they are part of a trend towards the obfuscation of web technologies, towards a re-closing of the source so that it becomes harder and harder for individuals to teach themselves such new tools. Indeed, Apture is not intended to be learned and re-used by anyone except at the interface level, unlike the wealth of tools (HTML, PHP, perl, python, ruby) that we have come to expect as part of our information environment. This makes me sad and mad. I wish they could see the light 🙂

Research Funding 2.0?

Recently Kevin Kelly wrote a thought provoking post about how artists might function in the internet age.

A creator, such as an artist, musician, photographer, craftsperson, performer, animator, designer, videomaker, or author – in other words, anyone producing works of art – needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living.

The problem I had with his post is the word “only.” Having relied heavily on internet fundraising to produce a documentary film I know how much work goes into getting just a few hundred donations. A recent Savage Minds poll, which involved nothing more than clicking a button, was only able to garner 400 clicks from our own true fans. Kevin Kelly later posted a letter from musician Robert Rich, making a similar point, saying that

In reality the life of a “microcelebrity” resembles more the fate of Sisyphus, whose boulder rolls back down the mountain every time he reaches the summit.

If it is that difficult for a musician or a filmmaker to secure the patronage of 1,000 true fans on the internet, what is the anthropologist to do? Is it possible to even talk about bypassing traditional research institutions and appealing directly to the internet to support our projects? I think so.

We may not be able to live off of it, but it seems to me that small scale research projects which have a strong element of public interest should be able to secure funding in this way. Just look at the success of DonorsChoose, a charity which funds projects proposed by elementary school teachers. Only projects which are able to reach their fundraising goals get funded. Otherwise you can reassign your money to another project.

Anastasia Hudgins, a lecturer and former classmate at Temple University’s department of anthropology is trying to do something similar for her summer research project. She and two undergraduate students are trying to raise $4,000 in the next two weeks to fund a research trip to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. She wants to followup on earlier research with Cambodian sex workers, to see how they have been impacted by recent laws outlawing prostitution. Like DonorsChoose, you only pay if enough people agree to fund the project before the May 15th deadline.

My personal experience tells me that this is a lot of money to raise in a short amount of time, but I’m curious to see if this works – and if it doesn’t I get to keep my $20. I can envision a DonorsChoose like site dedicated to anthropological research, where people can request small grants to replace a broken camera, buy a plane ticket, hire a translator, etc. After all, if we don’t want to depend on the military to fund our research, we need to find something better!

An Anthropology Geneology Project?

On the subject of the diverse forms of Marriage and Reproduction, consider mathematicians. About 8 or 9 years ago the Mathematics Department of North Dakota State University started the “Mathematics Genealogy Project”– a database of every mathematician, living and dead and a list of their advisors and advisees. Mathematicians, and many other scientists, are famously obsessed with this kind of accounting of filiation. There’s even a mathematical concept, coined by the Kevin Bacon of Mathematics, Paul Erdös. The Erdös Number measures the co-authorship relation of two authors.

The Mathematics genealogy project has gotten a fair amount of attention, and it got me thinking that, Anthropology being the discipline most obsessed with genealogy as such, shouldn’t we have something similar, an Anthropology Genealogy project? Except better, and wackier with all those fantastic forms of kinship we know to exist? Not just students and advisors, but co-authors, membership in groups, crazy collaborations, informants who become anthropologists and anthropologists who become informants, concepts and diagrams and long-standing arguments about specific locales and research programs. Indeed, if we could figure out how to tie it in to major research traditions, conflicts and disagreements etc.—even if schematic and simplistic—then it might be a really good way to present the diversity of the discipline. Perhaps a Google Maps mashup of fieldsites, a la Susanne Calpestri’s for Berkeley? Or a recommendation engine…”People who studied this people, might also enjoy studying this people…” etc.

What does your genealogy of anthropology look like? Mine starts with Gary Gygax at the top

Help me choose the central term of my book

I’m working on the manuscript for my book about Papua New Guinea (publishers reading this: it rocks and, as you can see, I’ve got ‘platform’. This could be the start of a beautiful relationship.) but would welcome some help with the terminology. The basic theoretical goal of the book is to combine in one framework two projects typically considered separate: 1) an analysis and decomposition of taken-for granted actors like companies, states, etc. and 2) a history of how indigenous identities solidify when exposed to said taken-for granted actors (‘ethnogenesis’). So I am starting from the top and working down in the one case and starting from the bottom and working up, as it were. There will be some sort of synthesis of Latour, Silverstein/Hanks, and the Book of Psalms involving the trope of ‘Leviathans’.

However, I am having trouble trying to choose a single term to designate ‘taken-for granted actors’. So far I have the following list:
Collective subjectivities (Sahlins)
Big actors (Callon and Latour)
Macroactors (lots of people)
Social totalities (Rumsey)
Collective actors (lots of people)
Leviathans (evocative, but imprecise)
Corporate actors (body metaphor + corporation as in ‘business’)
Ok that’s all I can think of for now.

At some point I am going to have to choose one and stick with it. I am dealing with hoary problems here. Anyone like one term over the other, or have any advice on which I should choose?

Annee Sociologique: The Movie

If we were to do a three hour long high-concept historical costume drama of the Annee Sociologique (“the power… the passion… a generation — destroyed by the war”) who would you cast for each of the rolls? Please try keep all the actors as beautiful as possible.

My vote is Heath Ledger as Robert Hertz, but that’s really as far as I’ve got.

Possible slots include:
Special extra walk-on rolls for Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre could also be arranged…

Vital Supports for Living [with addendum]


Over at the ARC, our own CKelty comments on a recent editorial in Nature pertaining to the problem of defining life in an age of synthetic biology. Kelty points to divisions between vitalist and mechanistic epistemologies, between religious and scientific worldviews, and he also references JD Faubion’s work on contemporary vitalisms. Faubion responds by drawing both supernaturalist and scientistic dispositions within the field of ‘the cultural’ and writes: “cultures may have been blown to pieces, mixed, merged, decontextualized and recontextualized, shuffled like a deck of cards of the whole history of styles of suits, or perhaps may have never existed in the pluralizable form, but The Cultural is Still Out There and It still inhabits even the most otherwise sterile of corridors. To fieldwork!” Yes. Definitely. But where?

‘Vital supports for living’ is one of Marilyn Strathern’s memorable phrases and pertains to the importance Melanesians place on relationships. The phrase encapsulates Strathern’s sense that the complex holistic and relational constructs of Melanesian cultures offer a critical foil to the reifications and objectifications of Euro-American ways of constructing the world, including those that go under the label ‘science.’ Might her interpretations of Melanesia be understood as ‘vitalistic’ ruminations on inchoate philosophies of ‘life’?

New Guineans work to ‘engineer’ fertility in plants, pigs, and persons. These are people very much concerned with the politics of life. After all, they grow (almost all) their own food! Melanesian cultures like the one I study in the upper Asaro are all about the vital spark that animates living, but that vital spark is never of or in or even for itself. ‘The Industrial Gene‘ would be unthinkable in Melanesia (as represented by Strathern), and not just because ‘molecular biology’ is a Western invention (but note the excellent work at PNG’s Instutitue of Medical Research). The vitality of Melanesian cultures is located always already in other people. Social life consists in showing and recreating that condition and is thus always emergent. Quoting Nature, Kelty writes:

“cells do not live alone, but in colonies and, in general, in ecosystems. Life is not a solitary pursuit, nor can evolution happen without the opportunity for competition.” Life is social. Whoa. What a neat idea, I wonder where one might find people who have thought about this? Hmmm… maybe amongst (neo)-vitalists?

But do anthropologists need Deleuze to think about this? There are much more pedestrian places one could look–like, say, gardens. Melanesians long ago cornered the market on rhizomatic philosophy. Consider the personification of yams and sweet potatoes. Continue reading →

Educate your IRB (a boilerplate experiment)

Educate your IRB (a boilerplate experiment)

1. Virtual versus real ethics: creating alternatives to cynicism and disengagement

Very few anthropologists confuse IRB reviews with the “real” ethical work involved in a field project. Anthropologists of all theoretical stripes understand that participant observation-based fieldwork involves the long-term cultivation of social relationships as both the medium and the substantive content of the work. What is more, we know that this cultivation of social relationships must proceed in important respects on ones informants’ terms—not on the researcher’s terms (as is the case in interview-based and experimental social science). Because participant observers aren’t in control of the research process, the ethical challenges that they face in their projects cannot be known in advance and preplanned except in the most general—therefore ultimately vague and inaccurate—ways.

Because participant observation is a necessarily non-methodical method in the preceding paragraph’s sense, IRBs’ mandated insistence on prospective reviews of research designs set anthropologists up to fudge, circumlocute, and fake their descriptions of project “design”, “subject selection”, “informed consent”, and the rest.

That is, so long as structures of ethical accountability are only imaginable in the form of managerial auditing (using unitary compliance criteria external to the historically elaborated disciplinary standards of good practice), practitioners will be forced to simulate consilience with the regulatory ideal so as to appear compliant, cooperative, and transparent—therefore ethical—to their local IRBs.
Continue reading →

Experimenting with the Bare Life: Biopolitics and Anthropology

Like many of the readers of Savage Minds I have been eagerly following the blogs at the “Anthropology of the Contemporary”:http://anthropos-lab.net/ laboratory. In these blogs Paul Rabinow, Nikolas Rose and others have been exploring ‘biopower’, or the unique form that modern disciplinary power takes on in today’s world, when the very biological aspect of life can be subject to what management and inspection. The result is what Agamben has called bios or “the bare life” of the subject stripped down to its biological essentials.

Some people consider this sort of theorizing to lack any sort of ‘applied’ dimension. And yet it is very important to note that Foucault himself wrote “I would like my books to be a kind of tool-box which others can rummage through to find a tool which they can use however they wish in their own area… I don’t write for an audience, I write for users, not readers.” For many young professors such as myself who are starting out writing their first book, there is much in this notion of the biopolitics of the bare life that can be useful.

The most important notion, for me, is the idea of the reproduction of the subject under the conditions of the bare life. Foucault insists in Discipline and Punish that power constitutes a subtle but thorough-going disciplining of the body. Similarly, the carceral self is regulated at all times by a system of discipline that describes in minute details its daily activities. The inmates of panoptical institutions, forever, had their daily schedule regimented down to every last quarter of an hour.

The importance of producing docile bodies cannot be missed by junior professors, who must put in fourteen and eighteen hour days. Control of the body is central at all times or else one may fall asleep or, dosed on enormous amounts of caffeine, find the body unable to concentrate on reading anthropology.

It is clearly this sort of scrupulous regimentation that academics could learn to profit from. Scrutinizing my own schedule, for instance, has revealed that I spend up to four hours a day ‘eating’ despite the fact that the act of nourishing the body itself takes mere minutes of my day. Preparing food also wastes time that could be spent reading or correcting papers and as Mauss pointedo ut long ago, eating in the presence of others (I think here of my wife ) involves talking with them — an act which builds social solidarity but wastes precious minutes. And of course because it is considered rude to speak with one’s mouth is full, one can only eat when The Other speaks.

Purchasing food and eating in private is also suboptimal. Walking office to the university cafeteria can take upwards of twenty minutes and of course during these moments one risks encountering other bodies that will attempt to engage you in discourse. Even the fastest prepared and easiest to handle food — the Taco Bell burrito supremes that Foucault so enjoyed during his time at Berkeley — are relatively expensive and filled with non-essential ingredients which fatten the body rather than discipline it.

For this reason I’d like to announce here on the blog my new experiment in anthropological optimization through biopolitical mastery of the self — I am going to give up food for the entire month of April in order to live the bare life for anthropology.

After careful consultation with Paul Rabinow and a dietician, it quickly became apparent to me that rigging up some sort of nutrient drip into my body to eliminate food altogether was untenable — not only would the machinery take time to manage, but the risk of infection was high, which would result in illness and lost study time. After some looking around I havedecided to start myself on a diet of “blue green algae pills”:http://www.klamathbluegreen.com/ supplemented by an occasional “protein shake”:http://www.naturesplus.com/products/productDetail.asp?criteria=search&searchVar=4573&productnumber=4573&category=25 to supply protein and vitamins. Since my goal is to remain totally immobile (to facilitate reading) hopefully I will need little nourishment. Also, after discussing this plan with my mother, he pointed out that I would get colon cancer if I had no fiber, I will also be taking some “psyllium husk pills”:http://www.greatestherbsonearth.com/nsp/psyllium_seed.htm.

I am eager to share the outcome of my experiment with the readers of this blog — as we all know the job market is extremely competitive. The archaic order of professordom is passing away and those of us who can find some way to be — as Rabinow put it — “modern” will have a definite advantage over those people who waste hours eating every day. As Foucault put, behind every meal “we must hear the distant roar of battle.”

And the anthropologists went two by two…

I’ve been relatively silent on SM recently partially because I’ve been hard at work on another project that involves far more intimate knowledge of WordPress than any mortal and fully employed academic should ever have, namely The ARC: The Anthropology of the Contemporary Research Collaboratory. Some may recall previous mentions (1,2) on SM. ARC was started about two years ago by Paul Rabinow, Stephen Collier and Andrew Lakoff as an experiment on collaborative “concept work” in anthropology. This latest transformation represents not only significant progress in the work of the people involved, but a transformation of the infrastructure of collaboration and discussion, which will hopefully allow for a much wider array of people to participate.

Among the things that have been occurring in ARC are an ongoing discussion on “concept work” and the ideas of conceptual labor and a “laboratory” in the human science. George Marcus, James Faubion, and Rebecca Lemov have all contributed to this discussion as it has unfolded. In addition, the projects within the orbit of ARC have settled into a few different areas: a project on “Vital Systems Secuirty” looking at the genealogy of contemporary approaches to critical infrastructure protection, homeland security, syndromic surveillance and other such developments; a project comparing developments in synthetic biology and nanotechnology, primarily around ethics and ontology; and an ongoing discussion on biopower, biopolitics and their continued transformations in anthropology and elsewhere; and an experimental lab/seminar at UC Berkeley focused on concept work and graduate pedagogy. Continue reading →

PLoS One, Stanley Milgram and the CAVE

This is rich. The online open access jounal Public Library of Science (PLoS) has just launched PLoS One–an experiment in post-publication peer review. Rather than extensive peer review prior to publishing research, articles submitted to PLoS One will be reviewed by one editorial board member for primarily “technical rather than subjective” concerns (I think they mean technical rather than substantive… or maybe they don’t). Then the published articles are opened up for peer review by readers–through annotations, discussion and ratings systems. I think this is the future for scholarly peer review, especially in fields where competition is stiff and time to publication is important (i.e. less so for anthropology than for computer science, but still)–and so long as these articles are primarily annotated, discussed, and rated by people who actually have some knowledge of the given field or topic, it could become a system that moves people towards a kind of research publication spectrum (multiple, frequent reports on a research project) and away from the kind of secretive, report-it-all-in-one (or get rejected) Important Journal. The idea of “open access” is here not just about making research available, but also about staking out research territory in a public way, testing research questions in a public forum, and hopefully, raising the bar on the kind of research that is reviewed by the Important Journals.

What I love even more about this is that the first article I looked at is a fascinating replication of Stanley Milgram’s famous Obedience experiments from the 1960s, in which research subjects thought they were participating in an experiment about learning, but actually it was about obedience to authority. The replication takes place not with real people, but with virtual humans generated in an immersive environment and seeks to study emotional and physiological response to the administration of painful shocks to a character that the subjects know to be “virtual”–though they interact with it through vision and speach (and through text in the control). Apparently, people get a bit shaken up by torturing virtual humans. Not a surprise really, but a very clever experiment.