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? 


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, November 4, 2017. 

O’Neill, Kate (2019).  “Facebook’s ’10 Year Challenge’ Is Just a Harmless Meme—Right?”, 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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Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Speculative Anthropology Series in Cultural Anthropology

Please check out this provocative collection of papers at cultural anthropology.  Edited by Ryan Anderson, Emma Louise Backe, Taylor Nelms, Elizabeth Reddy and Jeremy Trombley (and including my own short commentary), the essays speak to the importance of SF to our imagining of alternatives.   

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Twitter Wrap-up for AmAnth2018: Hashtags and Hautalk

As I have done over the past few years (2017, 2016), I returned from AAA2018 and ran some Twitter analytics.  Here's the sociograph I came up with (click on the image to see it in its entirety):

The chart represents over 2300 users and over 6400 "edges," which include both mentions and re-tweets.  I've arranged them in groups by their hashtags.  Not surprisingly, "AmAnth2018" is the largest group.  But if you look to the upper right of the graph, you can see other, prominent hashtags, among them "#hautalk" and "#lgbt." 

If we rank the top Twitter users by "betweeness centrality" (a measure of the importance of a user in terms of their capacity to bridge parts of the graph), we can see many of the same usual suspects, but also some accounts that have become prominent over the last few weeks:


In particular, I want to highlight users like @thevelvetdays, @zoestodd, @lorenagibson, @anthro_sarah, @citeblackwomen, @savvyology, etc.  Why?  These are anthropologists who have been engaged in the debate over Hau (Journal of Ethnographic Theory) and the issues that the debate raised: racial inequality and gender inequality in the academy, institutional elitism, the appropriation of indigeneity, precarity and graduate students, sexual harassment, #metoo and gaslighting.

In actuality, this was a conference dominated by #hautalk and #refusehau.  For example, if we remove AmAnth2018, then a "worditout" wordcloud of the top 300 words in the hashtags looks like this:

Since many people included two or more hashtags in their tweet (#AmAnth2018 and something else), the prominence of #hautalk to this conference is obscured until you remove the AmAnth2018--a nice metaphor for what indeed happened.

The AAA wrongly assumed that the Hau controversy was somehow ancillary to its own practice--a scandal in a non-AAA journal with a European editor.  But the issues there cast a very deep shadow on practices within the AAA, including all of those US scholars imbricated in Hau who are, after all, institutionally supported by universities considered (by some) to lie at the core of anthropology in the United States.

If I take the original sociograph and filter the tweets for "hautalk," a different picture emerges:

Here, "hautalk" is combined with all of the critical hashtags in this conference: #refusehau, #citeblackwomen, "anthrosowhite, "destabilizingefforts, #decolonizeyourconference, #wakandau2018 and many others.

In other words, hautalk succeeded in overturning dominant meanings in a conference designed in many ways to marginalize those voices.  But will the AAA acknowledge that U.S. anthropology's "regular program" has been preempted? 

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Mapping the Future at the American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting

"The future" (however imagined) continues to be a concern for anthropologists, and this year is no different than 2017.  But while I was content to just list the different panels in 2017, this year I decided to construct a semantic map of the session abstracts.  First, I created a text document with each of the 28 session abstracts that explicitly concerned the future as an object of research (rather than something like "the future of graduate education").  Then, I loaded up the file into Cowo, which spit out 55 words by frequency of occurrence (minus all of the stop words like "the").  Then I loaded the file onto VOSviewer, and created a semantic map of co-occurrences between terms (nodes) in the same sentences.

Here's the visualization from VOSviewer:

And here it is again in Gephi:

We can identify several semantic clusters here, but I want to highlight a few: 1). urban resistance to the neoliberal (right); 2) environmental disaster and the future of the anthropocene (bottom); 3). the utopian imagination for critical alternatives (left); and 4). human migration and human futures in an age of increasing precarity (top). 

This semantic map is a a helpful shorthand for taking the pulse of the future in anthropology right now.  Hurtling toward disaster along multiple axes simultaneously (environmental, political, demographic), anthropologists (and their interlocutors) occupy multiples sites of emergence across precarious futures. 

Are there themes that bring together these different future orientations?  Here are the top terms as defined by betweenness centrality:


This AAA promises to consider futures that impinge onto anthropological presents--that is, ecological and urban catastrophe that emerges into coeval fieldsites.  Yes - there's still a concern here for utopian promise (there's a panel on Ursula K. Le Guin!), but much of the panels in this map consider the disastrous coincidence of precarious futures with precarious presents. 

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Storymapping Your Research

Over the course of a year of fieldwork in Seoul (2014-2015), I accumulated tons of photographs (and some short films) that I made all over the city: a corpus of material that, for the moment, just resides on a couple of computers and cloud drives, waiting to be deployed into publications and presentations.  With storymap, I could use these materials to trace the arc of my research through the city.  Ultimately, I tried to take what oftentimes felt like random discovery and imposed a linearity to my thinking.  Or, perhaps, the exercise helped me to connect the projects into some semblance of order.  Telling a story, after all, involves the imposition of a frame, and the one I've sketched here is about a particular strand of urban anthropology in a complex city.  

In the end, this looks to me like an interesting way to do a research prospectus for a job application or a tenure and promotion file.  It allows you to locate your research in space and narrate connections between otherwise disparate projects.  I could extend this to my research in Baltimore as well and create a storymap that could introduce work I've done over the last 20 years.