Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Tweeting #AmAnth17 - First in a series

In Twitterspace, the lead-up to the American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting is generally quiet, but I'll start my analysis this year one week ahead of the game.  Here's a sociograph of tweets collected from 11/10/17 to 11/21/17 using the hashtags #AmAnth2017 and #AmAnth17 (the 'official' hashtag).  The top 30 Twitter accounts by in-degree centrality (which includes re-tweets) are labeled.

I also made a quick word-cloud of tweets using worditout.com.

Not, I think, unexpected--we would expect to see the prominence of both "Join" and "wine".   

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Tracking the Future at the American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C.

(the Wow! signal, visualized by Benjamin Crowell, from Wikimedia)

In a few days, many anthropologists will attend the American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C.  For several days, they will track back and forth to airless, windowless rooms that exist in a strange non-place and non-time: a conference space replete with kitschy designs, cheap gilding, stentorian carpeting that suggests transit lounges and casinos at any time from the 1970s to the 1990s.  But, given the growing horror just outside these conference-room bunkers—the growing crypto-fascism from the authoritarian government, almost-certain ecological apocalypse, economic and political collapse—it’s doubly important to look to the future as the anticipation of hope, of fear and, importantly, of radical difference and change. 

And this is what has happened.  This year, there are an unprecedented number of papers and panels exploring the contours of futures in the contexts of anthropological method and theory with the ultimate goal of working to change the present.  This is clearly anthropology’s anticipatory moment, and we see scholars from multiple subdisciplines (STS, environmental anthropology, urban anthropology, etc.) exploring what futures might be evoked in the space of anthropological intervention.  The methods and potentials of this are being shaped right now, and this year represents a watershed moment. 

In a way, I hope that this doesn’t coalesce into a canonical approach to futures.  The multidirectionality of these evocations is the best feature of this round of AAA papers: urban, multispecies, reproductive technologies, SF, dystopia, journalism, government policy.  Here the future is multiple, and my instinct would be to contribute to open futures through our anthropologies, rather than joining with, say, the dismal science to close off difference through model-driven prognostications. 

I have worked through the obstinate, online AAA schedule and commented on some of the more obvious, future-oriented panels.  That said, there are many, many papers that evoke future world-making that are not in this list, but even this partial schedule is impressive and even revolutionary (at least to anthropology).  Of course, if you know of something I’ve missed, please comment and I’ll correct my omission!  

And, by the way, shame on AAA for scheduling 2 science fiction panels at exactly the same time (2-3:45 pm on Saturday afternoon).  The only good thing is that you can attend one, and then retire to our gaming salon where you’ll find free copies of our book, “Gaming Anthropology” and, of course, drink tickets. 

(2-0150) Anthropocene Landscapes, Infrastructures and Futures
Wednesday, November 29
12:00 PM - 1:45 PM
Location: Marriott, Marriott Ballroom Salon 2 
My notes: Anthropocene brings together multiple temporal strands around contested landscapes through ecologies, technologies, geographies, etc.  These papers consider these multiple, future entanglements and the way they traffic between past and present. 

(2-0340) Future Cities: When, Where and How?
Wednesday, November 29
2:15 PM - 4:00 PM
Location: Marriott, Madison A 
My notes: Cities are informed by developmental futures envisioned by policy makers and technocrats, but these developmental narratives are also open to appropriation and resistance—to other futures less yoked to neoliberal growth. 

(3-0105) Futures Come to Matter: Future as Analytic in Ethnography
Thursday, November 30
8:00 AM - 9:45 AM
Location: Marriott, Virginia Suite C
My notes: Given that “the future” is a discursive and representational tool for organizing the present, how might anthropologists utilize this as an “analytic” in their ethnography? 

(3-0295) Future Matters: Anticipatory Knowledge and Scenario-modeling
Thursday, November 30
10:15 AM - 12:00 PM
My notes: In the style of Ulf Hannerz’s work in “Writing Future Worlds” (and he’s on the panel as well), these papers consider the “anticipatory futures” produced by various organizations in the form of “scenarios”. 

(3-1035) Fabricating Utopics: Hacking Imaginaries
Thursday, November 30
4:15 PM - 6:00 PM
Location: Marriott, Thurgood Marshall North
My notes: The panel looks to appropriations of the spirit and methods of “hacking” across a spectrum of activisms vis-à-vis the state and the community.  Hacking here refers to subverting neo-liberal ideologies to issues of social justice and parity.
 (3-1005) Future matters: Ethnography of Weather and Climate Knowledge and Forecasting
Thursday, November 30
4:15 PM - 6:00 PM
Location: Marriott, Harding
My notes: This panel considers anthropological approaches to “atmospheric futures” through ethnographic examinations of the various anticipatory models people and communities produce. 

(4-0180) Open and Closed Futures
Friday, December 1
8:00 AM - 9:45 AM
Location: Marriott, Roosevelt 2
My notes: These papers reflect on the “temporal turn” in anthropology and look to different examples of “dilating” or “constricting” through the politics of temporal practice. 

(4-0810) The Other Side of Hope
Friday, December 1
2:00 PM - 3:45 PM
Location: Marriott, McKinley
My notes: Extrapolating on Miyazaki’s vision of “hope” in a world of looming disaster, these papers consider the dystopian possibilities that lie on the “otherside” of more hopeful multispecies and techno-imaginaries of the future. 

(4-1225) Queering Futures: Futures as Forces, Futures as Products
Friday, December 1
4:15 PM - 6:00 PM
Location: Marriott, Roosevelt 4
My notes: Queering the future means undermining normative (and heteronormative) visions of a future that is always already an abyssal extension of the ideological-normative “now”. 

(5-0810) “Realists” of a Larger Reality: Anthropological intersections with Science Fiction
Saturday, December 2
2:00 PM - 3:45 PM
Location: Marriott, Virginia Suite C
My notes: This panel looks to intersections of anthropology and science fiction, and to the ways both have been informed by contemporary social movements.  The hope is that the confluence of all of these will open up alternatives to the fascist dystopia in which we live. 

(5-0900) Ethnography Otherwise: Imagining More-than-human Worldings through Science Fiction
Saturday, December 2
2:00 PM - 3:45 PM
Location: Omni, Congressional A
My notes: the Anthropocene demands new tropes for describing these complex imbrications of technology, nature, non-humans that transcend the facile binarisms (nature v. culture) that have characterized anthropological figurations.  These papers look to science fiction as a source for re-figuring these relationships in anthropological interventions. 

(6-0105) Technological Futures
Sunday, December 3
8:00 AM - 9:45 AM
Location: Marriott, Delaware Suite A
My notes: this panel considers the ways technological developments are bound up with images and practice of the future, ones that swing wildly between utopia and dystopia. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Partial Truths of Big Data

Last July I was using R to do some social network analysis of Instagram tags.  After lots of package downloads, App Developer’s applications, etc., I couldn’t get it to work, only to discover that Instagram had changed its policy the months before.  Like many social media platforms, Instagram had restricted access to data through its API (Application Programming Interface).  For some, this could be welcome news—after all, third party developers having untrammeled access weakens privacy and serves to expose more and more of our lives to commodification.

But this isn’t the whole story.  Just because I (a researcher at a mid-tier state university) was having trouble gaining access doesn’t mean that large corporations were having trouble, or the National Security Agency, or Instagram itself.  Rather, what we’ve seen with the rise of Big Data as a research object is the progressive commodification of social media.  The social network analysis that began as a recondite branch of anthropology, sociology and mathematics has become an indispensable tool in business development.  Social media data are money, and the tightening of restrictions represents another digital divide, this one between corporations and governments that can gain access to the “firehose” of complete data, while the rest of us work with a fraction of that under whatever restrictions are placed upon data access through APIs.  In this latest chapter of the digital divide, some people (and entities) get Big Data, and some of us get “partial” data.

This has prompted some scholars to question the involvement of academics in Big Data analysis in the first place: “How much of a difference does it make for academics to gain access to Big Data, after all, when the logics of commercial enclosure of social media data may [have] already begun to run deep?” (Chan 2015: 1080).  It certainly doesn’t look good for cultural anthropologists—our “n” in a research study rarely exceeds one hundred.  Compare that to the 2016 update of a 2011 study from Facebook that looks to social distance and weak ties among its 1.5 billion users, concluding the geodesic distance between anyone on the planet is about 3.57 “degrees of separation” (Bhagat et al 2016).  It would be hard for anthropology to compare their work to this.  And yet, as Tricia Wang (2013) has reminded ethnographers, we have little choice but to work with the Big Data science around us: “Otherwise our work will be all too easily shoved into another department, minimized as a small line item in a budget, and relegated to a small data corner” (Wang 2013).  One strategy here is to point out the obvious.  “Big Data” (however construed) does not interpret itself; it needs context, theory, narrative—in other words, the work of anthropology.  In their often cited 2012 paper, dana Boyd and Kate Crawford urge researchers to critically engage the emergent hegemony of Big Data by pointing to the limits of the data these social media platforms aggregate.  “Do numbers speak for themselves?  We believe the answer is ‘no’” (boyd and Crawford 2012: 666).

But this means more than stressing the importance of history and political economy to the quanta of data we emit.  We need to ask more subversive questions.  What kinds of numbers are generated in the space of social media?  What, for example, does Facebook know about me?  On the one hand, it undoubtedly knows a great deal.  Not only am I updating Facebook with personal information (photos from family trips, political opinions), but I’m also “liking” groups, causes, music, etc. on Facebook and, furthermore, Facebook harvests cookies from my non-Facebook internet perambulations in order to “better serve me” advertising targeted to my demographic and political leanings.

But none of this, I would suggest, is really “anthropological” data—instead, it’s consumer data, information about what I buy, and what I might be tempted to buy.   It’s tempting to leap from this to insights into culture, society and social action, but that’s not really what Facebook is collecting.   The numbers are numbers about consumers—users who click on links, who link to each other, who can be profiled in order to sell more.  When we do other things on Facebook: “like” a group or respond to efforts to organize for a cause, we do so through a consumption frame.  Not surprisingly, this has led to several critiques of slacktivism: it looks like consumption without a credit card number.  In any case, Facebook data is not, as Boellsstorff put it, “raw data.”  Instead—it’s already been thoroughly “cooked”, data as emanating from an individual consumer (Boellstorff 2013).

As far as Facebook is concerned, though, this is all that’s important.  Facebook thinks it knows the whole truth, and, from the perspective of an enormous, monopolistic corporation, it knows all it needs (or cares) to know about my identity, habits and social relations.  And yet, it does not.  The emergent, the collective, the alternative, the subaltern, becoming-animal, the multitude—Facebook will never start the revolution, because Facebook can only know our social lives through the reified perspective of commodification.  Of course, activists have utilized Facebook (and other social media) for their work, but they do this in spite of the platforms themselves, media frames that will gamely struggle to track shopping and supply advertising to even the most ardent revolutionary’s account.  Big Data, then, is always “partial” data.

In other words, Facebook (and other social media) disclose “partial truths.”  I deploy this term from Clifford’s often-cited (and often excoriated) introductory essay to “Writing Culture,” a collection of essays that is widely credited with issuing in anthropology’s “postmodern” age.  There, Clifford (1986: 10) focuses attention on the ways ethnographic accounts “construct” culture and, in particular, the ways these genre conventions both enable and delimit anthropological truth:
"'Cultures' do not hold still for their portraits.  Attempts to make them do so always involve simplification and exclusion, selection of a temporal focus, the construction of a particular self-other relationship, and the imposition of a power relationship."
In focusing on the constructedness of the ethnographic encounter, Clifford led a generation of anthropologists to experiment with the ethnographic form and to reflect on their dyadic, field encounters.  But by directing our attention to the dyadic encounter, he deflects our attention from other contexts, among them political economy, social activism, postcolonial struggle and the work of the different communities in which anthropologists site their work.  As many critics have since concluded, anthropology is only in the last (and reified) instance, the ethnographic representation of a dyadic encounter.

There is, nevertheless, truth in Clifford, but it is a truth that serves to conceal other truths.  As Taussig writes of magic in general, “The real skill of the practitioner lies not in skilled concealment but in the skilled revelation of skilled concealment” (Taussig 2003:273).  A momentary glimpse into one secret serves to conceal another; for anthropology, the truth of ethnography served to conceal the onslaught of neo-liberalism.  This is where we can re-define Clifford’s titular perspective: not just a “part,” and not just biased, but a truth that obscures other truths.

With Big Data, the magic is the same.  There are truths to Big Data, but the focus upon them obscures other insights that may lead us to critical alternatives.  The same theories and methods that graph connected action and aggregate millions of data points also serve to deflect the eye from local process, or from action that unfolds over a longer timeline, or non-episodic phenomena that continue without defining “events”.    

In his 2011 book, Rob Nixon introduced the concept of “slow violence,” “a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all” (2).  Ordinary violence—along with other temporally discrete phenomena—is particularly amenable to social media.  How many examples of police violence, for example, have been rendered visible through their felicitous recording on smartphones, the resulting videos uploaded to Facebook?  But slow violence proceeds without these—incremental tragedy impacting health, education and psychology.  Nixon concentrates his analysis on the slow violence of environmental degradation, and, particularly, on the ways that marginalized communities suffer through policies that enable corporations and governments to concentrate pollution in communities that cannot defend against it.  But slow violence can take many other forms, including processes of structural violence, de-industrialization, de-funding, under-development, infrastructure decay, pathologization.  None of these may spark social media storms, but these “slow” processes have the same, calamitous consequences in neighborhoods in both urban and rural areas.

This is where the data of anthropology and the “Big Data” available through social network analysis seem to diverge the most, but the onus is upon us to attempt to identify the lacunae and, when possible, use our methodological understandings to move in these interstices.  And it can mean using Big Data in ways contrary to the social media platforms that aggregated it in the first place—e.g., researching food deserts through Instagram (Beck 2016).  It is, however, not an easy task to take images that reflect the commodification of daily life and the drive towards the “quantified self” and appropriate them to advance social justice.  And it is here where the ethnography that seemed so beside the point suddenly becomes vital.


Beck, Julie (2016).  “The Instagrams of Food Deserts.”  The Atlantic [accessed on November 1, 2016 at www.theatlantic.com].

Chan, Anita (2015).  “Big data interfaces and the problem of inclusion.”  Media, Culture & Society: 1080-1086.

Bhagat, Smriti, Moira Burke, Carlos Diuk, Ismail Filiz and Sergey Edunov  (2016).  “Three and a half degrees of separation.”  Facebook Research [retrieved from research.fb.com on November 10, 2016].

Boellstorff, Tom (2013).  “Making big data, in theory.”  First Monday 18(10).  [Retrieved at firstmonday.org on January 6, 2017].

boyd, dana and Kate Crawford (2012).  “Critical Questions for Big Data.”  Information, Communication & Society 15(5): 662-679.

Clifford, James (1986).  “Partial Truths.” In Writing Culture, ed. By James Clifford and George Marcus.  Berkeley: University of California Press.

Nixon, Rob (2011).  Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Taussig, Michael (2003) “Viscerality, Faith, and Skepticism.”  In Magic and Modernity, ed. By Birgit Meyer and Peter Pels, pp. 272-306.  Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Wang, Tricia (2013).  “Big Data Needs Thick Data.”  Ethnography Matters [retrieved from ethnographymatters.net on September 3, 2013].