Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Remembrance of SETI’s Past

(I participated in a workshop organized by two anthropologists studying SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence): Claire Webb and Michael Oman-Reagan.  The topic called for us to think broadly about the future in relation to SETI.  My own contribution revolves around the SETI/METI divide and the question of time.)

As Pioneer crafts hurtle off into interstellar space with their plaques celebrating Eurocentric, heteronormative humanity atop a school-child’s depiction of the solar system, people have inevitably thought of better things they could have sent to the stars.  These have been the subject of numerous discussions and Kickstarter campaigns.  But all of these concerns and alternative plans reflect on one of the chief obstacles to communication with ETI—coevalness.  SETI doesn’t take place in coeval timespace; even signals to (or from) nearby systems (e.g., Proxima Centauri) take a few light years to reach there.  Their past is our present; our past is their present.  Whether we are listening for “their” signal, communicating “ours” or some combination, we do so through a time machine that denies the coevalness of the encounter.  SF writers have utilized a variety of devices to surmount these temporal obstacles, e.g., Le Guin’s ansible (first appearing in her 1966 Rocannon’s World), but the problem of communication (rather than just signal detection) remains.  More recently, SF fiction and film have gravitated back to the question of coevalness, notably in the 2016 film Arrival (based on Ted Chiang’s 1998 “Story of Your Life”) and the 2014 film Interstellar.  And even though these mark a departure from the ansible-like plot devices, they ultimately revolve around questions of coevalness. In Arrival, Louise Banks learns an alien language that is premised on strikingly different temporalities—past, present and future circle back on one another in a non-linear way.  And with her language acquisition, Banks becomes aware of the future (remembered as her past), in such a way that allows her to intervene in the present.  With Interstellar, it’s the protagonist, Cooper, who falls into a tesseract which allows him to manipulate the past in order to allow his daughter to develop the technologies that will liberate humanity from a dying Earth.  Strictly speaking, the alien is ancillary to both of these films.  In Arrival, we see aliens through a translucent screen and, in Interstellar, Cooper’s daughter misrecognizes the dust patterns as a ghostly, alien-like communication.  Really, it’s the humans that matter.  In Arrival, the plot hinges on very human problems of war, aggression and cooperation—with the aliens remaining enigmatic and part of the film’s mise en scène rather than active agents.  In Interstellar, of course, the dust patterns and the watch-face manipulations come from Cooper himself.  However: the importance of these films is not their novel approach to communication with ETI; it is, simply, the importance of communicating with ourselves across temporalities.  In other words, finding a coeval timespace to communicate with the alien is a symptom of our own problems communicating between human futures and human pasts and, in the process, coming to terms with a present in which both the past is interpolated into the future, and the future in the past. 

With Pioneer and Voyager, our future contact is premised on our past assumptions about science, philosophy, aesthetics and political economy.  They are—strictly speaking—communications with our past that lie in our future, with an “us” that is already alien(ated) to us.  Is this inevitable?  Or is it (pace Arrival) an artifact of Western temporalities that position past, present and future along a line like the solar system in the Pioneer plaques?  How can we think about that in a way that doesn’t reproduce “the future” as superannuated past?

Why would this matter?  Here, the Other we encounter is our past--the assumptions we make about ourselves and the assumptions we make about extraterrestrial intelligence.  Even if we concede that others whose signals we might detect labor under the same time machine conditions that we do, there is no certainty that the face the same problem of coevalness.  Ours is a product of Western ethnocentrism, modernity and, perhaps, the duration of the human.  But even Earthly species experience markedly different temporalities than the scientists who search signals from other places and other times.  It seems likely that the problem of coeval timescapes doesn’t look the same elsewhere.  


Sunday, April 22, 2018

Tracking the conversation from Displacements

The joint SCA/SVA "Displacements" conference has come to an end (although the archived presentations will remain up until the end of the month).  By all accounts, this virtual conference has been a success, but I wanted to probe the extent to which the conference brought together people across diverse locations.  Although we have some sense of this from the "Nodes" (local groups of face-to-face meetings and events surrounding the conference), Twitter may be a more important index, since that social media emerged as the most generative form of communication over the past few days.

Using NodeXL, I downloaded tweets with the #displace18 hashtag, and grouped them by timezone.  Here is the sociograph I generated:

And here's a key to the groups (which may help with some of the smaller ones in the lower, right-hand corner). 

Pacific Time (US & Canada) 0, 12, 96 Disk     Pacific Time (US & Canada)  
Eastern Time (US & Canada) 0, 136, 227 Disk     Eastern Time (US & Canada)  
London 0, 100, 50 Disk     London  
Central Time (US & Canada) 0, 176, 22 Disk     Central Time (US & Canada)  
Atlantic Time (Canada) 191, 0, 0 Disk     Atlantic Time (Canada)  
Quito 230, 120, 0 Disk     Quito  
Arizona 255, 191, 0 Disk     Arizona  
Amsterdam 150, 200, 0 Disk     Amsterdam  
Sydney 200, 0, 120 Disk     Sydney  
New Delhi 77, 0, 96 Disk     New Delhi  
Hawaii 91, 0, 191 Disk     Hawaii  
Greenland 0, 98, 130 Disk     Greenland  
Paris 0, 12, 96 Solid Square     Paris  
Istanbul 0, 136, 227 Solid Square     Istanbul  
Jakarta 0, 100, 50 Solid Square     Jakarta  
Wellington 0, 176, 22 Solid Square     Wellington  
Edinburgh 191, 0, 0 Solid Square     Edinburgh  
Chennai 230, 120, 0 Solid Square     Chennai  
Mexico City 255, 191, 0 Solid Square     Mexico City  
Berlin 150, 200, 0 Solid Square     Berlin  
Seoul 200, 0, 120 Solid Square     Seoul  
Tokyo 77, 0, 96 Solid Square     Tokyo  
Bogota 91, 0, 191 Solid Square     Bogota  
Casablanca 0, 98, 130 Solid Square     Casablanca  
Mountain Time (US & Canada) 0, 12, 96 Solid Diamond     Mountain Time (US & Canada)  
Alaska 0, 136, 227 Solid Diamond     Alaska  
Helsinki 0, 100, 50 Solid Diamond     Helsinki  
Brisbane 0, 176, 22 Solid Diamond     Brisbane  
Melbourne 191, 0, 0 Solid Diamond     Melbourne  
Ljubljana 230, 120, 0 Solid Diamond     Ljubljana  
Vienna 255, 191, 0 Solid Diamond     Vienna  
Athens 150, 200, 0 Solid Diamond     Athens  
Lima 200, 0, 120 Solid Diamond     Lima  
Taipei 77, 0, 96 Solid Diamond     Taipei  
Dublin 91, 0, 191 Solid Diamond     Dublin  
Singapore 0, 98, 130 Solid Diamond     Singapore  
Beijing 0, 12, 96 Solid Triangle     Beijing  
Stockholm 0, 136, 227 Solid Triangle     Stockholm  
Tijuana 0, 100, 50 Solid Triangle     Tijuana  
International Date Line West 0, 176, 22 Solid Triangle     International Date Line West  
Brussels 191, 0, 0 Solid Triangle     Brussels  
Muscat 230, 120, 0 Solid Triangle     Muscat  
Tehran 255, 191, 0 Solid Triangle     Tehran  
America/Los_Angeles 150, 200, 0 Solid Triangle     America/Los_Angeles  
Europe/Brussels 200, 0, 120 Solid Triangle     Europe/Brussels  
America/Montreal 77, 0, 96 Solid Triangle     America/Montreal  
Nairobi 91, 0, 191 Solid Triangle     Nairobi  
Buenos Aires 0, 98, 130 Solid Triangle     Buenos Aires  
Santiago 0, 12, 96 Sphere     Santiago  
Perth 0, 136, 227 Sphere     Perth  
Hong Kong 0, 100, 50 Sphere     Hong Kong  
Brasilia 0, 176, 22 Sphere     Brasilia  
Mumbai 191, 0, 0 Sphere     Mumbai  
Pretoria 230, 120, 0 Sphere     Pretoria  
Bangkok 255, 191, 0 Sphere     Bangkok  
Midway Island 150, 200, 0 Sphere     Midway Island  
America/Belem 200, 0, 120 Sphere     America/Belem  
Bern 77, 0, 96 Sphere     Bern  
UTC 91, 0, 191 Sphere     UTC  
America/New_York 0, 98, 130 Sphere     America/New_York  
Abu Dhabi 0, 12, 96 Circle     Abu Dhabi  
Europe/Amsterdam 0, 136, 227 Circle     Europe/Amsterdam  
Irkutsk 0, 100, 50 Circle     Irkutsk  
Asia/Singapore 0, 176, 22 Circle     Asia/Singapore  
La Paz 191, 0, 0 Circle     La Paz  
Madrid 230, 120, 0 Circle     Madrid  
Prague 255, 191, 0 Circle     Prague  
Europe/Rome 150, 200, 0 Circle     Europe/Rome  

What we can see here is some significant traffic between different zones, particularly (but not exclusively) between North America and Europe.  Traffic is generally in the form of re-tweets. I was pleased to see the lively Quito node!

I'm still processing my thoughts about the conference, but I am steadfast in my belief that this represents a real alternative to the disciplinary mega-conference.  

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

CFP AAA 2018: Visualising the Visible and the Invisible: ethnography and technologies of the unseen

Apophenia—the recognition of patterns within randomness—is, as Hito Steyerl (2016) has argued, a condition of the rapid multiplication of chaotic plumes of data swirling around us, data riven with errors, misunderstandings and half-guesses somewhere between the seen and unseen.  On the other hand, as Lepselter (2016) argues, it is just this sort of “misrecognition” that proliferates in an age when truths are submerged.  Here, apophenia is a survival skill in a paranoid age.  But with the emergence of new digital audio visual technologies and their networked connection through social media, the opportunities for opening up a dialogue between the visible and the non-visible, as well as between vision, sound and the other senses have grown. We can today bring cameras to places that were out of access before (think of drone, wearables, life-logging cams) as well as  tools and techniques allowing us to visualise data that is not visible in nature (such as bodily and affective reactions gathered from heart rate and sweat sensors, brainwave meters, GPS trackers). Through these technologies, our images connect to both the sensible and the insensible through their entanglements with diverse platforms, not only in the present but in unseen futures where those images might proliferate along undisclosed vectors. Finally, the new deployment of these technologies of seeing underscores the salience of a withdrawn unseen amidst the complex objects that make up the ethnographic landscape.  For example, panoramic cameras beget both new techniques of revelation and concealment (Pels 2003), while life blogging introducing the unseen interstices of hyper-mediated lives. Here, our technologies themselves participate in the apophenic, opening shadowy connections to the world to each other.  This panel aims to enter this terrain (visible, invisible and imagine) in dialogue across disciplines, unified only by the insistence of inquiry at the junctures of seen and unseen. 

We've still got room for presenters at this - Please contact me or Paolo Favero ( by April 1 if interested! 

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Signs of Latency

One of the ideas I've been playing with over the last few years is the idea of latency in the networked age.  As we relate, communicate and move through increasingly connected action along digitally augmented lives, clouds of latent social relations, latent geographies and, overall, latent belonging develop around us.  Many of these latent clouds form around technologies of surveillance, but even these suggest potential relatedness--a latency from below.

We've already written about some of these in Networked Anthropology (with my co-author, Matt Durington).  For example, here's a graph of tags linked to "Busan":

That is, tagging one's photo "Busan" links that photo to related tags, some ("water," "ocean," "Haeundae") are strongly connected, while other ("Buddhist," "temple") are much more weakly associated.  Nevertheless, images tagged with "Buddhism" form a latency around images, places and the people posting about them, one that could coalesce into new meanings and relationships.  

This is the same for people.  Here is a graph of a Facebook page, "부산맛집여기," that depicts a few  posts about food in Busan, followed by a complex skein of commentary and "likes" from other Facebook users.

Relatively few of the page users are actually communicating with each other.  Instead, they comment on the central posts.  This accounts for the vague, star-shape of the graph.  Still, if we zoom in

on the graph, we see not only weak connections (largely through 'likes' generated by comments), but also latent relations, missed opportunities for communication that--through the structure and permanence of Facebook--could be exploited at a later date. 

In the United States (and other countries), Twitter contracted with Foursquare to provide gelocations for tweets. So, tweeting from my home, I can choose from a number of locations within a few miles of my domicile:

Even if I don't choose one of these alternative pins, these form a cloud of related locations, a weakly defined zone of geolocation.

Finally, place itself is rendered latent.  Here's a photo I took of Sejong-no in Seoul in 2015:


And here's an "imagequilt" of pictures generated by uploading this picture to Google for an image search:

This suggests a locative latency--a belongingness--that extends from the digital life of a photograph. 

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

National Science Fiction Day --- 1/2/2018

On this day devoted (by some) to a genre fiction, my thoughts have turned to dystopia and utopia--these are not, however, co-extensive with SF, but see Fredric Jameson's Archaeologies of the Future for a utopia-centric understanding of the field.  When I look around at events in the U.S., it is hard not to center on the imminence of dystopia: state terror, totalitarianism, white supremacy.  But, I am reminded of Ernst Bloch: even in the midst of dystopian actualization, there are utopian potentialities, and the challenge for my scholarship and teaching in the new year is to mine the present for these tendrils of utopia, and to utilize those for an everyday practice of SF that looks to the present as the source of a more just, more equitable society that allows people to pursue their lives without structural inequalities and environmental injustice.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

#AmAnth17 Wrap-Up: Anthropology Matters?

On Monday, I downloaded #AmAnth17 tweets.  This proved in many ways elusive and piecemeal.  First, the conference hashtags continue to shift.  Last year, the AAA finally discovered that the #AAA hashtag had other meanings and other audiences, among them AIDS activism in Japan and a pop music awards program in Korea (both of which prompted lively Twitter conversations this year).  Their efforts to promote alternative hashtags resulted in confusion, with people tweeting at #AmAnth17 (the ‘official’ hashtag), along with #AmAnth2017 (which would have been logically consistent with previous years) and, for the hell of it, #AAA2017. So the graph below includes tweets with any one of the three, with the top 50 Twitter users (by in-degree centrality) labeled. 

Here are the general metrics on this network.  

Graph Metric

Graph Type


Unique Edges
Edges With Duplicates
Total Edges


Reciprocated Vertex Pair Ratio
Reciprocated Edge Ratio

Connected Components
Single-Vertex Connected Components
Maximum Vertices in a Connected Component
Maximum Edges in a Connected Component

Maximum Geodesic Distance (Diameter)
Average Geodesic Distance

Graph Density

It’s not an enormous graph, nor particular connected.  In many ways, it's similar to other graphs I’ve run in 2015 and 2016 (see.  For example, we see the same, prominent Twitter users.  Here are the top 50 accounts by in-degree centrality:


This is a great bunch of anthropologists and institutions, but, compared to previous years, Twitter traffic has diminished and, with it, topics have proliferated along lines of subdiscipline and sub-specialty.  That is, anthropologists (at least in their Twitter traffic) have retreated to the specifics of their panels and papers.  Here’s a word-cloud of the most frequently occurring 500 words from the 2017 AAA:

Now here’s another wordcloud from the 2015 meeting.  

The prominence of activist causes in 2015 (#BlackLivesMatter, BDS) stimulated tweets across subdisciplines in a way that is conspicuously absent from this year’s conference with some notable (and welcome) exceptions (thanks, @yarimarbonilla, @aba_aaa and others!).

Of course, these causes are still with us, along with a dumpster fire of authoritarian politics, fascism, rampant misogyny, ascendant white supremacy and environmental apocalypse.  But, in all of this, where does anthropology matter?  And if we can’t represent our united opposition to, say, fascist policies in the U.S., then what hope do we have of demonstrating the relevance of anthropology to anyone outside of this conference? 

In her critical summary of this year's meeting, Emma Louise Backe notes in Geek Anthropologist:  
the exclamatory nature of Anthropology Matters feels ineffectual. Are we trying to signal to the broader intellectual community and American public that anthropology does indeed matter? Or are we instead convincing ourselves that our choice of discipline was legitimate, necessary?
Well--those are the questions.  What will we--as anthropologists--do in the face of the palpable evil around us?