Monday, May 4, 2020

The Impoverishment of the COVID Future


From Wikimedia Commons















 
As I complete this essay, the quarantine imposed on Baltimore stretches into its second month, and I continue teaching online amid terror and despair.  Blog posts and newspaper articles forecast a new era of education in the age of social distancing, a new kind of virtual conference in the absence of travel, and new research without the face-to-face interactions that have heretofore been the bread-and-butter of ethnographic fieldwork.  All of these may be prognostications, but they are not, I would submit, really about the future.  Instead, each “future” describes a present--online education, virtual meetings, digital anthropology.  None of them are really “new” at all.  Just the opposite, they are part of a process of what Escobar (echoing Tony Fry) describes as “the systematic destruction of possible futures by the structured unsustainability of modernity” (Escobar 2018: 117).  Here, the COVID pandemic ushers in a future, but it is not a real future.  Instead, a “de-future,” a truncated present where face-to-face relationships disappear and only online connections remain.  As Deleuze wrote in his essay on Bergson's duration, “The possible passes into the real through limitation, the culling of other possibilities” (Deleuze 1991: 187).  Shorn of alternatives, the COVID future ushers forth an impoverished dystopia of distant relations, multiplied inequalities, Mad-Max guerilla capitalism.  Prognostication in the age of the pandemic has been about the way our future will be an attenuated present: less social interaction, less economic well-being, less life.  It it was a tv miniseries, I don’t think I would want to see this future.  

Of course, it’s worth asking why it would matter if I would watch such a dystopia.  Isn’t this the way it is?  Yes, and no.  Yes-the disruption and loss of life have an undeniable, terrifying reality.  But at the same time, no: we can look to alternatives that acknowledge pandemic realities but also sketch alternatives to capitalism, to the bourgeois rentier class, to precarious employment (Wolff 2020). We can sketch alternatives to a digital divide education where people with a fast broadband and the latest laptop get access, and everyone else survives on asynchronous, canned powerpoints (Aschoff 2020).  Finally, COVID underlines the failures of neoliberalism at almost every level.  And, in that failure, raises alternatives that are already implicit in the practices and institutions of people in many of the places where anthropologists have worked: all kinds of cooperatives, land trusts, community health centers.  As anthropologists, we need to elaborate those alternative futures, to engage in a “futuring” that will spell the end of a fait accompli modernity.   




References

Deleuze, Gilles (1991).  Bergsonism.  NY: Zone Books.

Escobar, Arturo (2018).  Designs for the Pluriverse.  Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Networked, Not Virtual: ethnography when you can't go there


(from our storymap)

In my capacity as a fellow in our faculty research center, I've been doing a lot of support work for the unexpected shift to learning-at-a-distance.  At my uni, very few of us have experience teaching online.  The faculty (generally) aren't especially enthusiastic, and there hasn't really been a lot of institutional support.  So, I wasn't surprised when most of the questions I was fielding took the form of: "I do X in my class.  How can I do X online?"  Not surprised because that's the ideological frame distance education has relied upon: an exact homology between offline- and online teaching, with the physical classroom replaced by the discussion board, the lectures by videos.  But actual online courses (not our band aid efforts to stitch together something in a few days) are structured very differently than their physical counterparts.  The best classes maximize their digital affordances and don’t try to simply "reproduce" face-to-face education.

Something similar has happened with ethnography.  I have read dozens of semi-panicked posts: if I can't go into the field, perhaps I can go into the digital field?  Well - there have been several, thoughtful posts from digital anthropologists on this sentiment, including a recent one in GeekAnthropologist.  Reading these, though, I can't help but notice that these would-be digital anthropologists don't really want to be digital at all.  And they're not really proposing digital anthropology.  If you're studying the lives of people in their (physical) communities, can you really do digital anthropology?  In other words, if people are undertaking online/offline lives (whether under quarantine or not), are those lives best understood through digital anthropology?  Or are you talking about what my colleague, Matthew Durington, and I have called "networkedanthropology"?

In networked anthropology, we acknowledge the skein of digital and physical connections in people's lives, and we try to recognize and enable the capacities of people to represent those lives through networked, media platforms that make sense to them.

In a quarantined world, what's missing from the social scene?  With regards to the production of ethnography, at least one element is missing: the anthropologist.  But only that.  Even without the anthropologist, social and cultural life continue.  And more than that--the documentation and theorization of social and cultural life continues as people record and comment on the things that happen in their lives and in their communities.  In this sense, networked anthropology is about capitulation--perhaps we really weren't that important anyway?  But we can certainly help people in their own efforts to represent and communicate their identities and communities, and this is, I think, what (at least some) of our colleagues should be doing.

Last summer, we worked on a project in a small neighborhood in Baltimore undergoing rapid gentrification that was leading to the displacement of a long-standing community of African American residents.  Collaborating with children at a community center, we helped them (co)produce maps, photographs, video and audio interviews that we put together for an app tour, an exhibit and a performance.  It was a great project to work on, and the article that we are submitting on this includes all of them as co-authors.  In light of our present pandemic, and in the interest of protecting communities from us, it occurs to me that we (me and Matt Durington) didn't really need to be there at all.  Sure - we needed to talk to people and see what they were up to.  In the end, though, the images and interviews are produced by people in the community.   My point: if we never actually stepped foot in that neighborhood, that would not make it digital anthropology.  We would just be doing networked anthropology - anthropology with people who were physically (not virtually) in their communities.  

I don't know when the infection rates and death toll of the pandemic will subside.  But it seems likely that we will not be able to undertake our in situ research for some time.  Even if we can go into the field, it may be in fits and starts, with pandemic flare-ups mandating our social distancing once again.  But just because we are not in situ doesn't mean that people in the communities where we work aren’t in situ!  By now, we are all used to that peculiar hypocrisy in anthropology that decries colonization and its authorizing gaze, but that still seems to insist on presence in order to undertake anthropology.  Perhaps enough of that? 

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

The Future of Social Media in Anthropology

From the conclusion to my contribution on "Social Media" in Wiley's "The International Encyclopedia of Anthropology:"

Anthropologists are still coming to terms with social media and its impact on every
level of our lives.  No matter what new SNS platforms develop, though, it is certain that
social media will continue to be a source of controversy in the field. The reasons for
controversy may vary, but they will all pivot on the essential liminality of social media.
By definition, it occupies spaces between worlds: between people, between online and
offline, between official and unofficial, between private and public, between resistance
and accommodation, between horizontality and verticality. For all of these reasons,
anthropologists are unlikely to be entirely comfortable with the social media they and
their interlocutors utilize, whatever new platforms may develop in the future. But that
discomfort can also be a source of strength, one that can help to highlight and perhaps
help to overturn persistent inequalities in the field, all the while revealing dimensions
of our work that may have been suppressed or sublimated in the past. 
 And I think I still agree with that-- social media continue to be leaky and messy: the dishes you haven't yet washed in your intellectual sink.  

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Review of Readymade Bodhisattva: The Kaya Anthology of South Korean Science Fiction,

My review of the tremendously exciting collection of translated South Korean science fiction: Readymade Bodhisattva.  It's the first of its kind in English, and serves as a tremendous introduction to SF that is really quite different than that of neighboring China or Japan. 

Futures at AAACASCA 2019

The American Anthropological Association/ Canadian Anthropological Society meeting in Vancouver is in November, but the browsable schedule is already out.  As in previous years, I have identified future-oriented or science fiction-oriented panels that I would love to attend (including two I'm on). This may not be a complete list, and I apologize for panels I've missed.  But even this, incomplete as it might be, is an impressive collection of a robust future-orientation in the work of anthropologists. 



Thursday, November 21

8:00 AM – 9:45 AM  –  Decolonial Belongings and Futures: Creating Spaces of Belonging thru Epistemic Disobedience - Vancouver CC EAST, Room 7
2:00 PM – 3:45 PM  –  Biofutures - Vancouver CC WEST, Room 122
2:00 PM – 3:45 PM  –  Haunting Toward the Future: Colonial Durabilities and Temporalities - Vancouver CC EAST, Room 13
2:00 PM – 3:45 PM  –  Untaming futures? Plural knowledges, unknown environments and technologies of anticipation (Part 1) - Vancouver CC WEST, Room 202
4:15 PM – 6:00 PM  –  In an Atmosphere of Change: Speculative Futures in Anthropological Perspective - Vancouver CC WEST, Room 118
4:15 PM – 6:00 PM  –  NARRATING THE FUTURE FOR A WARMING WORLD - Vancouver CC WEST, Room 205
4:15 PM – 6:00 PM  –  Untaming futures? Plural knowledges, unknown environments and technologies of anticipation (Part 2) - Vancouver CC WEST, Room 202

Friday, November 22

10:15 AM – 12:00 PM  –  Utopia and Changing the Future: Anthropology’s Role in Imagining Alternatives (Part 1) - Vancouver CC EAST, Room 11

2:00 PM – 3:45 PM  –  The Climate of Governance and the Governance of Climate: Negotiating the Futures of Natures & Cultures - Vancouver CC EAST, Room 15
2:00 PM – 3:45 PM  –  Utopia and Changing the Future: Anthropology’s Role in Imagining Alternatives (Part 2) - Vancouver CC EAST, Room 11
4:15 PM – 6:00 PM  –  Horizons of Possibility: Dynamic Future Selves in a Changing and Contested World - Vancouver CC WEST, Room 115

Saturday, November 23

8:00 AM – 9:45 AM  –  Algorithmic Futures: Computing as a Site and Object of Technopolitical Interventions - Vancouver CC WEST, Room 301
8:00 AM – 9:45 AM  –  Forging Futures in Contested Landscapes - Vancouver CC WEST, Room 215
10:15 AM – 12:00 PM  –  Forecasting Futures: Education as Speculative Practice - Vancouver CC WEST, Room 119
10:15 AM – 12:00 PM  –  So many futures, so little time: Anthropological approaches to catastrophe and the future - Vancouver CC EAST, Ballroom C
4:15 PM – 6:00 PM  –  Ethnographies of Palestinian Futures - Vancouver CC WEST, Room 204

Sunday, November 24

10:15 AM – 12:00 PM  –  Geological Anthropology: Waters, Ruins, Futures (Part 2) - Vancouver CC WEST, Room 101 & 102

The Meaning of the Future

Yet there is a great deal of polysemy implied in "the future," and our orientation to future temporalities likewise varies (Bryant and Knight 2019).  I did some text analysis of the abstracts for these panels in order to look at the evolving terrain of future work [click on the graph for the full size]:

 



The graph uses "Infranodus,"a web-based, text analysis application that uses word co-occurence to construct a network.  Nodes are key terms, and the edges (or lines) between them show words (actually lemmas) separated by 1 word or words separated by two words (Paranyushkin 2019).

Additionally, the algorithm tries to identify "clusters" of terms--represented by different colored nodes and edges here.  But this seems of limited efficacy here, where there is considerable overlap in the nomenclature of the future.  Better, perhaps, is to focus on a few key terms, and the terms to which they're linked.

"Environmental" [click on the map for a full image of the network]



"World"


"Climate"


"Alternative"


These keywords, together with the connections they forge, ultimately tell a more nuanced story about anthropology's emerging futures.  The lemma "world" might appear in texts as "worlding," "world-building" etc., and might point, on the one hand, to the changes inextricably impacting our world today.  On the other hand, "world" also includes links to the prospect of different worlds, however defined, whether in "space" or "imagined."  "Alternative" opens on to the imaginative element of anthropological futuring, and the ways this might gesture towards other possibilities less premised on capitalist exploitation.  This includes indigenous futures, and alternative narratives on the future from oppressed peoples.  On the other hand, "climate" brings us into the decidedly more pessimistic futures of the anthropocene, where "change," "health" and "environment" make up the dreadful calculus of environmental catastrophe.

All together, the pessimism and the optimism of the present moment, one where we teeter on the brink of future disaster, while alternatives appear to us (as anthropologists) in multiple forms, from policy changes, to space travel, to worlds re-shaped by alternatives to Eurocentric capitalist exploitation.  The future work evolving in anthropology engages all of these levels simultaneously: 1) the future as a significant horizon in the lives of our interlocutors; 2) the future as an ethnographic object in its own right; 3) the future as a site for anthropological interventions.

References

Bryant, Rebecca and Daniel Knight (2019).  The Anthropology of the Future.  NY: Cambridge University Press.

Paranyushkin, Dmitry (2019).  "Infranodus."  In Proceedings of WWW '19: The Web Conference (WWW '19), May 23, 2019, San Francissco, CA.  


Sunday, March 24, 2019

AAA Paper Abstract: The Weight of Absence: Anthropologies of Non-Connection


(A day's worth of geolocated instagram posts in Baltimore: August 24, 2018)

The digital world presupposes a binary logic of connection and disconnection, one that decomposes into haves and have-nots. Moreover, this binary logic follows on burgeoning urban inequalities in a neo-liberal age, and growing chasms in wealth and opportunity only seem to confirm the either/or logic of digital capitalism.  In cities, it echoes in the dreadful calculus of gentrification and abandonment, capital investment and disinvestment, inclusion and exclusion. But is dis-connection only an absence?  In this paper, I explore absences and disconnections in social media and in urban networks as latencies visible through an application of structural holes, triadic closure, structural equivalence and other social network tools to digital media in cities.  This work is inspired both by Ernst Bloch’s “Not-Yet” and his insights that even forms of social life thoroughly imbricated in capitalism nevertheless contain a “surplus” of potentiality that gestures towards critical, emancipatory futures.  In addition, the work is inspired by anthropological methods from Alfred Russel Wallace and others that take absence as data points in the empirical proof of presence.  I argue that even absence itself is imbricated by a “horror vacui” that sets up presence as a moral dialectic.  In this paper, these take the form of alternatives that connect equity, justice and utopian alternatives to disinvestment and abandonment visible through analyses of diverse digital platforms, including social media, app platforms and website connectivity.  Ultimately, this research builds on anthropologies that move beyond the narration of what is to the speculative design of what should be.



Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Work Out of Joint: Our Future Lives With Robots and Intelligent Agents

Wired magazine - mostly hagiographies of silicon valley entrepreneurs - capitalist porn - vague reassurances for the future from the uber-wealthy.  500 dollar headphones.  The Senior Associate Editor Jason Kehe was "weary with dystopian prediction of nefarious robots taking jobs from humans," so he challenged seven sf writers to "imagine a world in which the gig economy and automation have redefined the daily grind" (7).  

The results?  A collection of stories--"The Next25 Years: What'll We Do?"--from a stellar group of writers: Laurie Penny, Ken Liu, Charles Yu, Charlie Janes Anders, Nisi Shawl, Adam Rogers and Martha Wells.  And only one killer robot (from Martha Wells) which, to be fair, isn’t killing anyone.  But there's still much here that is dystopian.   But from the next 25 years?  Of course, these aren't futurist prognostications; like any good sf, they’re descriptions of our present--dystopian enough.  Or, as China Mieville has written, “We live in utopia, it just isn’t ours” (Mieville 2015). 

What I found fascinating about this collection was the ways the writers highlight our service to robot- and digital agents; the way, in other words, that we supplement their agency by discounting our own.  In Laurie Penny's "Real Girls," an unemployed writer becomes a simulation of an AI girlfriend:

"Niall explained that a lot of lonely people liked the idea of having a robot girlfriend who was always on call and had no feelings of her own, a remote algorithm that could shape itself to your particular needs--they'd seen it on TV.  But the technology wasn't there yet.
     Hence the front company.  All over the world, Niall said, broke millennials who needed cash fast were signing NDAs and signing on to pretend to be robots" (Penny 2019: 62).
Similarly, Charles Yu's "Placebo" has an actor playing a doctor in order to give a human face to end-of-life decisions being made by a software agent:

"The human in the room is not in charge.  The thing is.  As it should be.  Brad barely made it through a year of junior college.  The black cube in the corner, on the other hand, is a $10 million doctor in a box, running trillions of calculations per second, simulations within simulations within whatever" (Yu 2019: 67).

And a journalist in Charlie Jane Anders's "The Farm" re-edits his story until it can satisfy a convocation of super-charged, robotic trolls: "a virtual machine populated with copies of a few trillion different bots, scraped from the internet, living inside a fake social network" (Anders 2019: 70).  Anything remotely objectionable--anything that might pierce the veil of the phantasmagoria of media news--is summarily rejected.  Yet they still need the human writer, at least for the moment.

I agree with Jason Kehe: we’re missing something in concentrating on the ways robots could be taking (or are taking) jobs away from people.  After all—that cat’s already out of the bag: automation has long been a management tool for the subjugation of labor.  But robots (and intelligent agents) are much more than smarter, more autonomous versions of automated systems from the 1950s and 1960s.  Our interactions with robots are all about shifting agency back and forth from the human to the non-human.

As I described in my (paywalled) essay, "Working for the Robocracy":
“But while the Mechanical Turk certainly exploits the reserve army in its apportionment of low-paid, menial tasks, I would argue that it creates an additional reserve army—this one a robot army that exists at some point in the future.  That is, workers on MTurk (Amazon’s platform) are essentially placeholders for tasks that robots will do later when they’ve acquired the skills in pattern recognition, natural language processing and translation.  This is, in other words, the repetition of a process that began with industrialization: first, reduce the worker to repetitive, machine-like tasks, and then replace them with a machine.  Automated phone calls have a similar quality.  While few consumers prefer automated service calls to person-to-person, the intelligent agent processing the phone call is based on the real (but robotic) work of decades of human workers who have been reduced to an algorithm of scripts in order to sell more product.  That is, the work presupposes the robot, and the robot is therefore able to replace the worker because the worker has already been replaced: forced to become a reified simulacrum of themselves in order to maintain employment, not only in terms of technical operation, but also in intellect and affect.”

The moments when we grant robots agency, or when robots “give” us robotic agency: these are diluvial events happening right now that may tell us a lot about our human-robot futures.  The people in these stories aren't being precisely replaced by machines: they’re being reduced to algorithmic shadows of themselves in order to serve non-human agencies that are supposed to replace them altogether at some middle-point when humans become more robot-like and robots become more human -like.  After all, another way to pass the Turing Test is to lower the bar by making us less human than we are now.  When we are forced to simulate non-human agency in our lives--when we interact with phone trees, utilize ATMs, security systems.  When we learn to interact with the non-human agents in our lives, the first things to go are the skein of affect and discourse that characterize even rudimentary social interactions.  To talk to the machine, we will have to become the machine. 

There's one more story that could fit into this fascinating collection: Phillip K. Dick's Time Out of Joint (1959).  Following the Dick-ian oeuvre, Time Out of Joint is a novel of paranoia, of madness and, ultimately, one that interrogates reality.  Dick’s protagonist, Ragle Gumm, spends his time winning newspaper contests and drinking beer, but that reality gradually unravels to reveal another, where the newspaper contests are a psychological cover for the mathematics of predicting nuclear strikes in a war against lunar colonists battling for independence. 

There’s a lot in Time Out of Joint (and in many other Dick novels) about the ultimate reality of our lives, but the relevance of the novel to the future of work lies in the triviality of Gumm’s labor.  His job – as the sole person capable of predicting nuclear strikes – is suppressed under the triviality of the newspaper contest, “Where Will the Little Green Man Be Next.” He spends all day following pleasure that looks suspiciously like work. 

Indeed: through the magic of neoliberalism, much of our labor goes under the guise of pleasure.  Social media mine our quotidian lives in order to connect us to products, and services, and to mine our connections with others.  Like Dick’s Ragle Gumm, we spend hours each day laboring for a cause we know little about, nor one that we would necessarily agree with were we cognizant of the fate of our data.  This doubling has become axiomatic in late capitalism: our pleasure is simultaneously a labor, while efforts to coat labor in a veneer of pleasure fail to ameliorate its exploitative dimensions.  On some level, then, it’s work all the way down. 

If the Wired stories dwell on the service to the algorithm, and to the reduction of the human to the capacity to simulate robotic agents, then our contemporary “work out of joint” harnesses our pleasure in the service of capitalist algorithms.  Our suspicions—our paranoia—of this subtended labor do little to ameliorate the distinction.  One phantasmagoria erodes to reveal another. 

Facebook’s recent “10 year challenge”.  Was it, people wondered, innocent pleasure or an experiment to tool Facebook’s facial recognition algorithms (O’Neill 2019)?  Facebook dismissed these as paranoid fantasies, but, of course, Facebook runs on the subterfuge of pleasure-as-work.  If this is our present, what future, phantasmagoric palaces will be built in order to conceal our complicity in the exploitation of ourselves and others in the name of corporate profits that we will never share? 


References

Anders, Charlie Jane (2019).  “The Farm.”  Wired (January): 68-71.

Collins, Samuel Gerald (2018).  “Working for the Robocracy.”  Anthropology of Work Review 39(1).

Dick, Philip K (1984 [1959]).  Time Out of Joint.  NY: Bluejay. 

Mieville, China (2015).  “The Limits of Utopia.”  Salvage Zone 1.  Retrieved from http://salvage.zone, November 4, 2017. 

O’Neill, Kate (2019).  “Facebook’s ’10 Year Challenge’ Is Just a Harmless Meme—Right?”  Wired.com, retrieved 1/17/2019. 

Penny, Laurie (2019).  “Real Girls.”  Wired (January): 60-63.

Yu, Charles (2019).  “Placebo.”  Wired (January): 66-67.
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