Both Counterpunch and Inside Higher Ed ran stories recently on the end of Human Terrain System or HTS. What was HTS? A program run by the army and employing social scientists, including some anthropologists, to help them learn more about the people (i.e. ‘human terrain’) in Afghanistan and Iraq. Booted up in 2005, the controversial program attracted massive criticism from anthropologists, including a report from the AAA and a formal statement arguing that it was fundamentally unethical. Now, a decade after the idea for embedded social scientists in American’s invasions was first floated, the program has officially folded.
There were many problems with HTS. Not only was it unethical, the quality of work it produced was, iirc, pretty lousy. Moreover, it actively supported American military action which was not only morally wrong, but a tremendous strategic error with an enormous price tag in dollars and lives. According to Counterpunch, HTS’s slice of the pie was US$725 million dollars. It’s hard to see HTS as anything except an object lesson in ethical and scientific failure. It didn’t even engage interesting ethical questions about collaboration with the military, applied anthropology, and ethics. It was just fail. Anthropologists everywhere can be glad it has now been relegated to ethics section of anthropology syllabi.
Perhaps one good thing that has come out of HTS is that the AAA managed to show strong ethical leadership throughout this period. This is in stark contrast to the American Psychological Association, which colluded with the CIA to produce ethical standards that made facilitating torture acceptable to its members. To be honest, I’m not really sure this indicates the strong moral fiber of the AAA so much as its lack of relevance to American actions abroad, at least until a network of concerned anthropologists pushed it to act (or, perhaps, to act in and through it).
At the end of the day, anthropology took a stance against HTS, and history has born this stance out. Goodbye and good riddance to HTS.
[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Ali Kenner, and is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here. Read Ali’s previous post here.]
The woman at the table next to me, an older woman with shoulder-length white hair and green-framed glasses, has lost it. “I don’t know where it went. It’s gone. I’m going to start over.” Squinting, she lets out an exasperated sigh and moves her face closer to the screen. The man across from her, who looks about my age, reaches into his plaid shorts for a smartphone – an opportunity to do something. The woman in the green glasses is the director of an organization; the man in plaid shorts is her tech support. They are working to fix a problem with the organization’s website, which seems to be spamming site users. The communication between director and tech support is terrible. I silently hope to myself that this is a relatively new relationship, and not something that’s been going on for very long. Digital projects are complicated enough. The last thing you’ll need is miscommunication.
I observe a version of this scene with some frequency when I work from coffee shops. (And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find myself in this scene from time to time.) Everyone wants web presence. Not everyone knows what that means, or what it takes to get it. More and more people (who may be directors, assistant administrators, project managers, or business owners) are interfacing with developers, designers, and content management systems. Knowledge gaps and misunderstandings are common between those who want and those who provide web services. There is even a growing field of professionals who facilitate such projects, thus reducing the frustration of getting or building a website. Some days, I wonder if I am part of this growing field. (The answer is, ‘yes, I unexpectedly am.’)
Over the last two years, since we began redesigning CA’s website, I have learned a lot about developers, designers, and the conditions they work in. There is MUCH more to learn. I’m far from expert. I’ve also heard, again and again, that CA’s website is not just a website. It’s a digital archive, a repository of supplemental material, indexes, teaching tools, and, increasingly, essays. The site has over 600 pages. Not only do I manage this beast, I’m also managing its redesign. Continue reading
[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Nathan Fisk, and is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here.]
Over the past year, I’ve had to carefully consider the meaning of “selling out”.
Of my blogger colleagues, I’m probably the farthest removed from academia – or, at least I’m moving in that general direction. This certainly does not mean I’m abandoning research, quite the opposite in fact. It does, however, mean that I’ve all but given up on the idea of staying in academia and searching out a tenure-track position. For the time being, anyway. Instead, I’m looking to transition into the corporate world, but ideally in a way which would allow me to still do interesting ethnographic research. But, before I get ahead of myself, let me explain a little bit about my background and current position.
In 2011, I wrapped up my doctoral degree in STS – the first to graduate from my program under the soft four-year deadline slowly hardening under increasing institutional pressures. For years, I had labored, perhaps delusionally, under the hopes that if I was working on a “hot” and highly visible topic a job would simply materialize by the time I reached the end of the doctoral plank. For me, that topic was youth Internet safety. I developed my dissertation research with jobs beyond academia in mind, and deliberately built into the project opportunities to meet with school administrators across New York, in the hopes of expanding my contact network for eventual consulting work. I envisioned possibilites in state government, doing technology policy work. I thought I could even keep writing, given the two freelance books already under my belt.
The imagined job never really materialized. Between the economic downturn and my failure to anticipate what I’ve come to describe and recognize in others as post-dissertation slump, things simply stalled out. My dissertation research panned out in a way that made consulting difficult – schools want someone to come in and talk to kids about cyberbullying, not so much someone to tell them that the idea of cyberbullying is fundamentally problematic. State positions dried up during budget cutbacks, and I never really figured out how to get into a position that would allow me to write policy briefings. In terms of more writing, merely considering the idea of returning to Internet safety issues after almost a decade of research on the topic made me nauseous.
Looks like HTS is hiring again. Here’s some info from the Network of Concerned Anthros:
Just some quick pointers to various military-related materials around the Web.
First, Roberto Gonzalez sent me this link to a BBC Radio 4 show on the embedding of anthropologists in military units in Iraq and Afghanistan. The show features Gonzalez, Michael Gilsenan, Hugh Gusterson, Montgomery McFate, Marcus Griffin, and others. Listen quickly, as it appears to only be posted until the end of April.
Next up, Laura Nader speaks about her recent book (with Ugo Mattei) Plunder: When the Rule of Law is Illegal. Any opportunity to hear Nader bring her tremendous mind to bear on the issues that define our lives is not to be missed!
Finally, from the Wired Danger Room comes this odd report about the military’s efforts to reproduce anthropological analysis using computer modeling. Now, I’ve been pretty dismissive of the military’s ability to grapple with the implications of anthropology – there is, I firmly believe (and find borne out over and over in the historical record) a fundamental disconnect between the logic of military action and the logic of anthropological practice. But even I’m a little shocked (and a little amused…) by the justification given for looking into the use of computerized behavioral modeling:
More intriguing about this proposal, however, is the reasoning for why virtual anthros may be better than the real thing: “Today in DoD, this analysis is conducted by anthropological experts, known to carry their own bias, which often leads to faulty recommendations and inaccurate behavioral forecasting.”
Let me know how that works out for ya, guys.