Recently, I enrolled in two multi-day training workshops in the United Kingdom with the pretense of gathering ethnographic data about emergent cultures of practice surrounding new technologies. The first was an ethical hacking workshop in Manchester–where we learned how to “ethically” use malware to examine, test, and ultimately penetrate and control computer servers. The second was a class to acquire a certificate to be able to conduct commercial drone flights. These experiences revealed interesting insights into the process of professionalisation as well as contemporary ethnographic methodologies. I will briefly theorise the process of professionalisation, how this happens, why it is interesting, and why training-as-ethnography is an important place to participate in this process.
Tag Archives: media
Anthropology in an Age of ‘Dangerous Nonsense’ (Part 1)
In the waning moments of 2016, one man, armed with an AR-15 and “information” about a conspiracy related to Hilary Clinton, walked into a DC pizza parlor hell bent on finding truth. After a quick look around and a shot or two fired, what he got was arrested. This is surely an extreme example of the perils of “dangerous nonsense” that Neil Postman warned us about decades ago.
Back in 1985 Postman wrote a little book called “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” which I happened to use for a class on culture and film I was teaching last year. It turned out to be a prescient book to be reading during the 2016 campaign season (and then some). Postman’s book focuses on the erosion of public discourse in the US, and he faults TV as one of the primary corrosive forces. While there are admittedly some holes in his argument, especially from an anthropological perspective, the book is definitely worth a read.
In essence, Postman’s book is about the fate of liberal democracy. He begins the book with a simple suggestion: If we want to understand what has happened to our democratic institutions, we should look to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World rather than George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (the latter, of course, is selling like crazy in these post-election times). Postman writes,
Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
Danger and the Rio Olympics
[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Kristen Drybread.]
The 2016 Olympics in Rio are fast approaching. For the past two months, people I haven’t seen in years—and people I have never even met—have been emailing to ask if I can help them find an affordable and, above all, safe place to stay during the Games. Never mind that I haven’t been to Rio for four years. Never mind that “affordable” and “safe” are relative terms. The assumption is that, having spent several years conducting fieldwork in northeastern Brazilian prisons (most recently in 2014-2015), I’m a better guide to Rio than the Lonely Planet. Continue reading
Paranormalizing the Popular through the Tibetan Tulpa: Or what the next Dalai Lama, the X Files and Affect Theory (might) have in common
What’s the newest and weirdest sub-culture on the Internet, you ask? If you’re Vice Magazine, it’s apparently tulpamancers.
Tulpamancers are people who, through extended bouts of concentration and visualization, produce a special kind of imaginary friend that they call a tulpa. Tulpas are understood to be distinct sentient beings with their own personalities, inclinations and (relative) autonomy. Through various active and passive processes known as ‘forcing’ tulpamancers spend hours solidifying their impressions of their creations as something more than just an ordinary inner voice. (Active forcing means concentrating single-pointedly on the tulpa’s form and features, passive forcing is when the tulpamancer finds ways to bring tulpas into more regular routines, such as through ‘narrating’, where tulpamancers chat with or read stories to their creations). Tulpamancers meet tulpas in imagined environments called ‘wonderlands’, dream or mind-scapes that more fully contextualize interactions and provide a place for tulpas to ‘hang out’ when idle. They also work to perfect ‘imposition’ -seeing, hearing, or feeling tulpas in the ‘real world’ – and may practice tulpa-possession or even ‘switching’, where the tulpa takes over the host’s body and the host temporarily occupies the tulpa’s form in the wonderland.
Hactivists aren’t terrorists – but US prosecutors make little distinction
[written with Luca Follis, Lancaster University]
Activists who use technology to conduct political dissent – hacktivists – are increasingly threatened with investigation, prosecution and often disproportionately severe criminal sentences.
For example, in January 2015 self-proclaimed Anonymous spokesman Barrett Brown was sentenced to 63 months in prison for hacking-related activities including linking to leaked material online. Edward Snowden is currently exiled in Russia after leaking the global surveillance operations of the NSA and GCHQ.
Prosecutions of hacktivists intensified in 2013, when Andrew “weev” Auernheimer was sentenced to 41 months after exposing a vulnerability that affected 114,000 iPad users on AT&T’s service. Jeremy Hammond was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison after hacking and releasing documents about military subcontractor Stratfor. Aaron Swartz, who was facing a prison sentence of 25 years after hacking into JSTOR – a database of academic articles – committed suicide in January of that year. Chelsea Manning leaked secret military documents to Wikileaks and was sentenced to 35 years imprisonment in August.
Long arm of the law is getting longer
While these are US citizens subject to US laws and punishments, the Obama administration has recently indicated that it will also aggressively pursue hackers located overseas for alleged criminal activities. Continue reading
The Soul of Anime [book review]
What happens when dedicated people come together to work on a project they care about? Where do good ideas come from? How is it that some creations start off in niche markets and grow into global brands while others fade into obscurity? In his latest foray into Japanese popular culture, The Soul of Anime: Collaborative Creativity and Japan’s Media Success Story, Ian Condry offers ethnographically grounded theory for the study of creativity. The work can be read as a synthesis of the best practices in the field of pop culture studies from anthropology and cultural studies.
Condry describes the efforts of dedicated artists and producers working in a “crucible” atmosphere of “collaborative creativity.” Their collective social energy is the “soul” of their shared engagement with the project. Therefore this study offers something other than a follow-the-money investigation, anime as Japanese national culture, or an interpretation of the content of anime, reading the text. Rather Condry seeks to follow-the-activity and commitment of small groups of people (mostly men) as they exercise creativity. It is the dynamic social relations, the connections between people in a working group that shine through here. Anime is emergent from the social practice of creativity and the collective values of that group as they define the importance of their own actions within a context.
Beyond Surveillance Fridges and Socialized Power Drills: Social Media and the Financialization of Everyday Life
This past weekend, two prominent socio-technical critics have given us radically different versions of the future of capitalism in the age of social media. Evgeny Morozov, author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, argues in an op-ed for FT for a dystopia of toothbrush analytics, trash bin surveillance, and our personal lives being turned into marketing data and sold back to us as irresistible products and services. Meanwhile, Jeremy Rifkin in the New York Times sees similar trends leading to “The Rise of Anti-Capitalism.” These big-picture visions are important for steering us towards futures we’d rather live in. However, studying companies and consumers at the forefront of the transformative interaction of social media and financial services gives us a different picture entirely: one where old and new, privacy and sociality, onrushing corporatism and peer to peer pushback are producing a tangled, complicated, often contradictory mess – and along with it, the future we’ll probably see.
As kids growing up in Nancy Reagan’s “just say no” 80s we endured a lot of propaganda regarding drugs. One was the myth of the “gateway drug.” We were told that drugs like marijuana with few medically provable harms were highly dangerous because they were gateways to harder more evil drugs. Gateway drugs are like linkbait, hooks that bring unwitting subjects from a one innocuous practice to one more pernicious.
Morozov claims that social media is a gateway drug for the financial sector to hook us on a new range of products and services, while increasing its control over our lives. We hear that the dark insides of our mouths, fridges, rubbish bins, and cars will be scrutinized by networked and image-recognizing surveillance cameras. Videos will be algorithmically analyzed producing “data portfolios” which will be automatically used (for a fee) by third parties to adjudicate our credit worthiness, employability, and romantic fitness. As longtime admirers of Morozov’s guts and wit we’ve been pleased to see him begin (finally) to use the name and identify the problem head-on—neoliberal capitalism galvanized by ubiquitously networked humans. Continue reading
Obama was an adjunct
The press repeatedly refers to Obama as a ‘law professor’. I can see why: it plays into the public image of him as an educated (or over-educated, depending on your politics) and articulate (or inarticulate) thinker. But for those of us savvy to the world of academic hierarchy, this doesn’t quite ring true. Let’s face it: Obama was an adjunct.
According to the University of Chicago Law School Obama spent four years as a lecturer — “which signals adjunct status” according to the website — at the Law School. For eight years after that he was a ‘senior lecturer’. Chicago says that “senior lecturers…. are regarded as professors” but are “not full-time or tenure track”. If the university says he was considered a professor, then I suppose that journalists may technically be correct when they describe him that way. But I think if you ask the average academic what call someone who teaches part time and is not on the tenure track, their answer would not be “professor”.
Obama gets more cred then most adjuncts because professional schools have a different kind of faculty than academic schools, and because Chicago’s Senior Lecturers are all wealthy and powerful enough to not need the money that comes from teaching — indeed, the criteria that Chicago uses to award senior lectureships is that the recipients are eminent.
The tragedy of calling Obama a ‘professor’ while others are ‘adjuncts’ is that it is often the ‘adjuncts’ who are the heart and soul of academic departments — teaching the bread and butter courses that form the bedrock of a discipline’s curriculum. Obama, on the other hand, had the luxury of splitting his time between a political career, a private law practice, and a life as a published author. The people with the low-prestige titles are actually the ones with a deeper involvement with the day to day running of the institution. This is particularly the case at places which, unlike the University of Chicago, have larger undergraduate programs than they do graduate schools.
In calling Obama an adjunct, I’m not trying to insult him (that would just be a roundabout way of saying adjuncts status is shameful, which it is not) or suggest that he is duplicitous (since the law school itself has a press release on this topic). What I am saying is that in an era of casualization of the academic workforce, we need to make the public aware of the details of academic hierarchy, and the political economy that accompanies it. So the next time someone dismissively calls Obama an uptight ‘law professor’ let them know that he, like so many others, was off the tenure track and teaching part time. And remind them that for most people in that position, it is not an easy one to be in.
Footprints, Families, and Fallacies
[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger, Jane Eva Baxter]
Yesterday, the media widely reported the discovery of 850,000 (or so) year old footprints at the British seaside village of Happisburgh. This media coverage coincided with the publication of an article in the open access, peer reviewed journal PLoS ONE, and the announcement that the footprints will be featured as part of an upcoming exhibition called, “Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story” at the Natural History Museum in London. While the AP story can be found through your media outlet of choice, you also can read a bit about the find through the British Museum blog by curator Nicholas Ashton, who was involved with the project.
The Allure of Footprints
This discovery has generated a good deal of enthusiasm among the general public. As some small measure of this excitement, I can report six students in my World Prehistory course (of 40 students) emailed me with links to news coverage about the find in a single day. This is not typical, and such news sharing is not required or even necessarily encouraged as part of the course. Archaeologist Clive Gamble, quoted in the AP article, explains why this discovery has such a popular appeal. “This is the closest we’ve got to seeing the people,” he told the AP. “When I heard about it, it was like hearing the first line of [William Blake’s hymn] ‘Jerusalem’ — ‘And did those feet, in ancient time, walk upon England’s mountains green?’ Well, they walked upon its muddy estuary.” Continue reading
Data Havens of Iceland
Alix Johnson, a PhD student in cultural anthropology at UC Santa Cruz, will be going to Iceland to study the practices and discourses of data centers. She studies information infrastructures in capitalist economies and postcolonial politics, and researches these questions in Iceland where they take strange and fascinating forms.
Adam Fish: What makes Iceland important for information activism?
Since Iceland’s pretty spectacular financial crash, and the subsequent protests that kicked the government out of office, information technology and politics have cropped up in many projects of reform. In a lot of ways the crisis was framed as a problem of secrecy – too much secrecy had allowed for massive banking risks and backroomban deals, and this was a problem more public information could solve. The politics of information freedom, then, have been appealing and are taken up in a range of ways: for example, the so-called “crowdsourced constitution,” Iceland’s ongoing connections with WikiLeaks, and most recently the election of three Pirate Party MPs – the first Pirates elected to a national parliament.
But the part of this turn that interests me most – and the piece that my research aims to address – is the way that information is used to carve Iceland out a new niche. In recent years Iceland has been pitched as an “information haven”: an attractive place to store the data of the world. The idea is that data stored in Iceland is subject to Icelandic laws – so by passing “information friendly” legislation (favoring free speech, online privacy, and intermediary liability protection), and building data centers where information can live (an easy sell in Iceland thanks to the cool climate and inexpensive geothermal power), Iceland can change the rules of the game. In my research I ask how these efforts reconfigure the internet and re-imagine the nation, by following the “information haven” as it’s materially made.
AF: Cloud computing companies are the quintessential black box, difficult to access the people who work inside and once inside difficult to understand. How have you overcome these difficulties?
Honestly I’ve had to structure my approach to work around them. But I’ve mostly come to terms with these limitations, as I’m less interested in data centers’ inner workings, and more concerned with their impact on and role within the communities where they “live”. That is, while I do spend time with data center developers, I hope to spend more time interviewing locals – who more often see these new structures as big buildings that block ocean views, capital-intensive construction projects that redirect municipal funds, or concrete tributes to transnational connection. From this perspective, secrecy can make an interesting starting point. That said, I also read the trade publications, and look forward to my very few allotted trips inside!
AF: You are going for a year, what are you going to do? With which companies will you work? Continue reading
Are you there Internets? It’s me NAD*
*North American Dialogue; with apologies in advance for acronym abundance
Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Lindsay A. Bell
I recently became the Associate Editor of North American Dialogue (NAD). Part of the AAA Wiley-Blackwell basket of goodies, NAD is the peer reviewed journal of the Society for the Anthropology of North America (SANA). I was brought on to help with the journal’s “brand issues”; namely its recent conversion to a peer reviewed publication and its history as being, um, well CUNY-centric. I am pretty excited about working with SANA on NAD. As a relatively recent section of the AAA, SANA has done much in the way of establishing anthropologies of North America as politically and theoretically important. As the incoming Associate Editor, I am hoping to pick your savage minds about publishing, social media and related issues. In particular, for those of you whose work is North American (and we mean that as broadly as possible), what would you like to see from this publication? From the digital gurus in the crowd, I want to hear about how or if social media should be used to draw a broader public to scholarly work?
[The following is an “invited post” by Dr. Sarah Hillewaert. Sarah is an Assistant Professor of Linguistic Anthropology at the University of Toronto. Her works focuses on shifting notions of personhood and the changing linguistic and material practices of youth in (coastal) Kenya.]
On Saturday September 21st 2013, an upscale shopping center in Nairobi, Kenya became the target of a ruthless siege. A group of gunmen, their estimated number ranging between 6 and 15, entered the Westgate Mall and opened fire on bewildered shoppers, indiscriminately killing men, women and children. A few hours into the siege, Al-Shabaab – a Somali Islamist group with ties to Al-Qaeda – claimed the Westgate attack, not through an auspicious video delivered to a major television network, nor through an official statement of Al-Shabaab’s leader, Ahmed Godane, but via a Tweet on the organization’s Twitter account. The militants’ use of social media, and of Twitter in particular, would be featured centrally in the international media’s coverage of the attack. This preoccupation with Al-Shabaab’s use of new media technology, and the concern it was able to create, revealed much more about our apprehension toward the unexpected linkages and similarities social media create than it did about Al-Shabaab’s international reach. The media coverage of the Westgate siege illustrated how we laud the “power” of social media when it generates desirable similarities; unanticipated linkages, however, need to be explained away. A focus on “outliers” or “extremists,” or the identification of practices that answer to our social imaginary then restores the familiar distance between of “us” and “them.”
friendship (2): friendships precarious or false
friendship in tamen’s sense also might suggest why “culture” is often what my taiwanese friends call a “twilight object,” something constantly in diminishment: associations of friends tend to situate their objects this way. think of the friends of the environment near you. as for culture and its various subsets and stand-ins, these nearly always appear in conditions of endangerment, too; and so, we might begin to ask ourselves whether our interpretive work powerfully connects us to other associations (friends of shellfish, sowalo no ‘amis, or indigenous media to name some to which i belong) who were befriending these objects all along, generally aware of their precarious quality. that does not mean that the type of precarity that these friends see–and that might explain their motives for working with us–is the same as our stance on the befriended.
again, take the environment as an example.
since i’m going in this direction, what about friendship as a type of advocacy, a value that some ethnographers fiercely hold and others just as fiercely question? one of the best statements on friendship in this regard comes from the work of the contemporary ‘amis songwriter, suming rupi. recently, many would-be friends of suming’s hometown have come to stay, all professing their love for the landscape, particularly the view of the pacific ocean. on the whole these would-be friends are well meaning and participate in a type of consumer environmentalism known on taiwan as LOHAS, or lifestyles of health and sustainability. in response, suming has written a song which rejects this love
suming, “don’t say you love me” video 4:50 taiwan ©2012 wonder music
Regarding Japan Part 2: Affective Loops and Toxic Tastings
Eleven weeks have passed since the earthquake and tsunami hit northeastern Japan. Although bodies are still being found amidst the wreckage, the rest of the world has long since moved on. The media waves of shock, horror, heroism, heartbreak, and heart-warm continue to push and pull us through a relentless series of events: from Libya to Tuscaloosa, Kate and William to Bin Laden, Donald Trump to Strauss-Kahn.
The affective loop is dizzying as it moves us between distant places and local homes, political upheavals and natural disasters, raging storms and individual stories, the serious and the absurd. Unable to catch my breath between blows or steady myself according to some sense of scale, I feel like so much has happened since the tsunami struck. And yet, I don’t know what to make of any of it. Are we just bracing ourselves for the next thing?
In an April article entitled “The Half-life of Disaster” Brian Massumi discusses how this media cycle leads us into a perpetual state of foreboding that brings together natural, economic and political threat perception in a configuration that fuels what Naomi Klein termed “disaster capitalism”. The horror is never resolved or replaced; rather, it is archived, infinitely accessible over the Internet. Cast into the web of other events, the unendurable tragedy of a particular event dissipates, or as Massumi says, “it decays”. In today’s catastrophic mediashpere, observes Massumi, the half-life of disaster is at most two weeks. Continue reading
Regarding Japan: On the risks and responsibilities of engagement
The day after the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan’s northeast coast I received a well-intentioned facebook message from a friend I hadn’t spoken with in nearly a decade. She was checking to see if I and those I care about in Japan were all right. Although I responded graciously and positively, my own reluctance to participate in the twittering drama filled me with suspicion. By writing to me, was she trying to claim a little piece of the action, a connection to the disaster? Would she secretly prefer that I were directly affected so that she could share in the piquant pang of aftershock without having to suffer its enduring losses?
About a week later, as the scale of suffering in Japan became clearer, I became less concerned with everybody else’s questionable investments in the pain of others and more suspicious of my own hesitancy to engage emotionally.
Although I frowned and cried as solicited upon seeing the unavoidable photos of people staggering through muddy ruins, I wasn’t sure how to feel the rest of the time. Brian Massumi’s claim that
“power is no longer fundamentally normative, like it was in its disciplinary forms—it’s affective”
suggests that stories and images circulate and infiltrate strategically. Even though, as de Certeau reminds us, readers aren’t fools and we employ tactics with which to play and navigate the web of discourse, we’re still stuck inside of it—and it inside of us. Our critique of media, savvy avoidance of manipulation, and resistance to being told how to feel are themselves already the threads of discourses that have been woven into us.
Part of me wants to believe that some basic feeling for the suffering of others arises before all of this, that there’s a relational web prior and in excess to the discursive one—and that it’s woven more tightly.
But if the mass mediated means through which we gain access to others is always already shaping how we feel for those others, how can we feel without capitulating to the powers that traffic in affect? In the case of catastrophes, which seem to (fairly regularly) punctuate the passage of ordinary life with significance, how do we resist the meaning-making machines while still engaging meaningfully?