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Modeling TechnoEcologies

My dissertation research begins in earnest this semester, and I’m hoping to get most of the groundwork done before the new year. My research will explore the implications of a process-relational ecological praxis, in which human and non-human systems are viewed as entangled, enacted, and always becoming. Specifically, I will do this through an ethnographic engagement with computational environmental modeling as a practice for understanding, interacting, and managing environmental crises.

Computational modeling has become an “obligatory point of passage” for our understanding of and interactions with complex environmental systems. Every major environmental issue – climate change, sea level rise, nutrient pollution, deforestation, and so on – is understood and acted on through the mediation of computational models. Because these systems are so complex, so uncertain, and so threatened by human activities, we need models to understand them and to predict the effects of our actions – both harmful and restorative – on them.

Models are representations, we are told – simplified and scaled-down figures of a really existing world. They stand in for the systems they are meant to represent, and allow us to watch virtual humans interact with virtual natural systems, thereby providing a model for our actions as well as a model of the system itself. But from an enacted ecology perspective, the models and the practices and processes that constitute them must also be considered within the system they seek to model. Not that these processes should be included in the model itself, but that the way we produce and use models must be considered constitutive of the system it seeks to represent. There are many ways to go about producing and using computational models, and many different kinds of models to choose from. The question from this perspective is, how do these different kinds of models and modeling practices contribute differently to the production of different kinds of ecologies?

That’s the question I hope to explore in my research, but, carrying the logic of the ecological approach I’ve outlined further, I believe it is essential for me to view my own research practice as situated within this broader process-relational ecology. Not only am I concerned with the ways that computational modeling methods alter and affect the relationships between humans and non-humans, but I am also interested in the way that my own methods do so. As a result, I will approach my research as a situated praxis – enacting an ecological approach by navigating and negotiating the relationships that constitute the system within which I will be working – the Chesapeake Bay.

I’ll post updates here as the research progresses. Hopefully my readers will find it interesting and worthwhile. It’s definitely going to be a lot of thought and a lot of work, but if everything goes well, I should have a very good dissertation out of it.

For the Love of Science

I am afraid this is going to be a provocative piece, though it isn’t meant to be so. It’s provocative because science is a topic that touches a lot of nerves, and for which a lot of people have very strong opinions. In fact, it’s the strength of these opinions that disturbs me, and not so much the opinions themselves – for example the emphatic affirmation of “I Fucking Love Science!” and the enthusiastic denunciations on social media of those who are considered “anti-science.” Don’t get me wrong, I am not disturbed by these things because I want to identify with anti-vaxxers, climate deniers, intelligent designers, or even the anti-GMO crowd (though I have some sympathies with the latter, as some of you know). The reason these practices bother me is because they highlight the fact that science is embedded and entangled within the strutctures of patriarchal (is it surprising that most of those denounced as anti-science are women?), racist Capitalism.

I love science, and I too am disturbed by the claims and games of anti-science. I believe that scientific practices are an effective method for building relationships with others – particularly non-human others. What I want is to free these practices from the web of Capitalism, and I believe that simplistic, holier-than-thou denunciations of anti-science prevent that. Drawing such sharp lines without allowing for critical examination, grey areas, or room for negotiation only gives support to those anti-science claims as a kind of rogue intellectualism. You end up with two sides: one who will buy (figuratively and literally) anything that comes wrapped in anti-establishment packaging, and the other who will buy anything that comes with the Science™ branding. Whichever side you’re fighting for, the Capitalist system is the winner.

I want science to be the tool of revolutionary thought and action that many believe it has the potential for becoming. To me, that means that science will have to give up the authority built upon the patriarchal, racist, and Capitalist hierarchies in which it developed. Denunciations come from this authority, and only serve to alienate and isolate. In place of authority, I would like for science to have trust. Trust comes from being part of people’s everyday lives, making a positive difference to them, and working with them to pursue mutual goals. I am encouraged, in this respect, by the many participatory science projects that I see, and by organizations like The Public Laboratory that try to make scientific practices available and accessible to everyone. Unfortunately, with the spirit of denunciation and the fear that many scientists (justifiably) have of being attacked, there has also been a retreat from engagement and working with others. With that in mind, I ask simply that we think about our relationship to science, and consider exactly what it is we support and what it is we denounce when we engage in this pro-/anti-science dichotomy. For the love of science, it’s the least we can do!

Transformed by Area X


I just finished the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer. I can’t write a full review now because my mind is still reeling from the experience, but I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s been a long time since I’ve read anything so powerful, evoking, and strangely beautiful. Vandermeer’s style – unlike so much I’ve read in the recent past – genuinely immerses the reader in the experience of the uncanny Area X. I feel as though I have been transformed in the same way that the characters and the landscape in the novels are transformed. I find myself lingering in Area X, and looking for signs of it leaking into the world around me.

The Victims of Ferguson

It has been almost a month since Michael Brown was shot and killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. His still and bloodied body lay in the street for four hours as a silent reminder to residents and the nation that this is what it means to be black in the US. The violent police response to the protests and the media coverage of those events further highlight the disparities between indignant white people and outraged people of color. Taken together, and in conjunction with the recent murder of Eric Garner, the murder of Trayvon Martin, and a long history of police and vigilante violence against black bodies, these events are simply the flash in the pan that suggests a much more subtle, and long-standing systemic violence against people of color and otherwise marginalized groups. In that sense, all people of color in the US are victims* of Ferguson.

I want to make a claim, though, and I realize it is a controversial one, but I think it is important to make nonetheless. Bear with me as I tread lightly and try to explain what I mean.

My claim is this: Darren Wilson is also a victim of Ferguson. Now let me be clear, I say this not to justify his actions or to ask for sympathy towards him, and I, of course, am not suggesting that he has been falsely or wrongly accused of the crime that he has committed. I say it to, hopefully, make us all reflect on what Ferguson means for us all – people of all colors, socio-economic statuses, levels of privilege, genders, etc.

It is easy for people from my ideological perspective to see Darren Wilson simply as a villain who deserves to be punished for his crime. I certainly believe he does deserve punishment, however, I also see a person with a family and a life, trying to get by. That doesn’t justify his actions. It doesn’t mean we have to sympathize with him after what he did. It certainly doesn’t mean he should get off or get a light sentence. Michael Brown also had a family, also had a life, and was trying to get by – he doesn’t have that chance anymore, thanks to the actions of Darren Wilson. Michael Brown should not have been killed that day. He should not have been left in the street for hours. The protests and the police violence should not have happened. In a just world, none of it would have happened. Michael Brown would still be alive and off to his first semester at college, and Darren Wilson – who knows where he would be, but probably not sitting around in an undisclosed location waiting to find out if he was going to jail.

What brought us to this? Choices, certainly. Darren Wilson could have chosen not to kill Michael Brown on that day, and that is why he deserves whatever punishment is coming for him. But there is more to it. There are factors underlying those choices that – in those fateful moments – were beyond the control of either of the two men. To the extent that Ferguson is indicative of an underlying systemic inequality and violence – a social system in which black lives don’t matter – Darren Wilson is also a victim of Ferguson, and it is as such that he chose to kill Michael Brown that day.

Once again, I say this not to ask for sympathy for the man, and I certainly don’t want to trivialize the pain and suffering that has been inflicted on these black men and their families, nor the everyday challenges that are faced by people of color throughout the US. I say it to encourage us all to reflect on the way that Ferguson and the injustice and inequality that made it possible affect us. As long as we live in a system in which certain people are marginalized, kept down, and made killable, we are all victims. Even if we might benefit from such a system – and many of us do – we are still victims because our lives are impoverished by it. In that sense, we are all victims of Ferguson, and it is for this reason that – no matter our skin color, beliefs, gender, socio-economic status, position, or whatever – we all should join the struggle for justice, peace, and sustainability.



* I think it is important to note too, that people of color are more than just victims. They are, in fact, strong, proud, and good people who face this violent system with courage. Just because they are victims in the sense of being victimized doesn’t mean that they are victims in the sense of being passively abused.

UARC: Interchangeable Indians

We have a new post on the Upward Anthropology Research Community blog from my friend Kerry Hawk Lessard. The post is on the (mis)use of Native American imagery to rewrite the history of Native struggles and colonization. Understanding the way that the dominant culture, and the media system that caters to it appropriates and distorts Native imagery and representations of other subaltern groups to perpetuate its own dominant position is an essential aspect of the Upward Anthropology project. It helps us to conceptualize and strategize counter-images and representations like those of Gregg Deal – the artist referred to in the post. Also check out Kerry and Gregg’s blog Kill the Man, Save the Indian.

Any expression of Indianness that falls outside of the accepted stereotype is immediately subject to invalidation and critique. It is also the case that non-Natives reserve for themselves the right to adjudicate what and who is sufficiently Native and who is not. America feels that we must accept their words simply because they say them, never mind our realities.”

Native people must, as a very basic human right, be accorded the freedom to assert their identity, to articulate their own priorities, and to do so with their own voices.”

On the Turning Away

Just one world that we all must share
It’s not enough just to stand and stare
Is it only a dream that there’ll be
No more turning away?”

Composing Method

Anthropology is – from its very inception – a discipline of engagement – building rapport, participant-observing, attempting to see the world from another’s perspective. Done with a desire to understand others and, perhaps, to better understand ourselves, these practices are unique in the social science world, and allow for a much deeper knowledge of the lives around us. But, if my influence is anything to the discipline, I would like it to be this: that ethnographic methods, broadly defined, are more than just ways of understanding, they are techniques for building relationships with and between others.

As I’ve mentioned before, I believe that understanding is just one among many kinds of relationships that can be built. I would argue, further, that it is always a secondary relationship – we cannot understand until we have already established some other kind of relationship. Ethnographic methods provide a guide – honed over many years of practice, though still imperfect – to begin building those relationships. When we begin to see ethnography in this way, the project of anthropology and the value of ethnography changes. No longer will we begin with the question “How can I better understand these others?” (which jumps the gun and risks developing an unbalanced, domineering kind of relationship, though the resulting knowledge may be very solid and useful) and instead we will begin with the question “How can I build the most effective and most mutually beneficial relationship with them?” 

This question is at the heart of the discipline of struggle forever. Struggle is the continual and continuous engagement with others – both human and non-human – with the intention of building better relationships and ultimately a better world. As a result, I see ethnographic methods as key to the struggle. In the next couple of posts, I plan to explore methodology – my first and true love as an anthropologist – and the potential for ethnographic methods, in particular, to contribute to the struggle to build a better world. I will begin with an analysis of scientific methods in general, and explain conceptually how I have come to understand methods as practices of relationship building. Then I will provide a specific example from my own research – working with the Shoshone and the Bureau of Land Management to protect cultural landscapes – to show how this methodology can be applied. Finally, I will explore some of the further possibilities that I see emerging from this methodology, and how I hope to apply it in future work and struggle.

Ursula Le Guin: Subjectifying the World

“Perhaps what I’m trying to do is to subjectify the world, because look at where objectifying it has gotten us.”

Ursula K. Le Guin, Keynote 5/8/14 from AURA on Vimeo.

From Anthropocene: Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet

The Legacy of Colonialism: Watching the World Burn

I went with some friends last night to see an outdoor showing of The Dark Knight in DC. By now I’ve seen the movie dozens of times, and find it ultimately way too drawn out and violent for my interest. I am also familiar with the critiques – particularly of the third film of the series, which I haven’t seen – that suggest that, despite its platitudes to “heroes we need, heroes we deserve” and the like, the underlying message is essentially status quo. Regardless, it was a good excuse to sit outside and see some friends. However, I noticed something in the film last night that I had never noticed before, and that I hadn’t seen mentioned elsewhere – the subtle legacy of colonialism.

What I noticed was a fairly minor plot point – a story told by Alfred to Bruce to reflect on the character of The Joker and the limits of Batman. The story goes like this:

A long time ago (during the colonial period or maybe just after? The exact time isn’t specified) Alfred was serving as an advisor to the administration in Burma. The administration was attempting to buy the loyalty of “tribal” leaders with loads of precious stones. However, they quickly learned that the stones were being stolen by a bandit as they made their way out of the city. After six months of investigation, they couldn’t figure out who the bandit was, his motivations, or his location. One day, Alfred was out in a village inquiring about the bandit when he saw a little boy with a ruby “the size of a tangerine.” It was then that he realized that the bandit was simply throwing the gems away. He wasn’t out for any rational purpose, he simply wanted “to watch the world burn” as Alfred so famously puts it.

Later, Bruce asks Alfred if they ever caught the Bandit. Alfred says “Yes,” and Bruce asks what it took to catch him. Alfred replies, “We burned the forest down.”

Think about this for a second, and ask who it was in this story who wanted to “watch the world burn.” The bandit was stealing jewels from a colonial administration that were being used to buy off the loyalty of native leaders – potentially he killed some of these colonial cronies in the process, but Alfred doesn’t mention that. After he stole the gems, he simply threw them away, leaving them for villagers and children to find. His intention might not have been benevolent, but in comparison to the response his actions were trivial, and potentially beneficial to the Burmese natives – hold back the colonial administration, and redistribute wealth at the same time. It was Alfred and his cohort who burned the forest, not the bandit. Perhaps that’s what the Bandit wanted all along – is that what Alfred is trying to suggest? Given the history of colonialism, and the evidence offered in the story itself, I don’t think it follows that this bandit was a mad man like The Joker. Instead, this story should make us reflect on the madness of colonialism and other oppressive systems – that they would go to such extremes to protect their power and hold on to a few precious stones – and think about who it really is who not only wants to “watch the world burn” but to actually burn the world to the ground.


I’ve admittedly been putting off learning about the new movement known as Accelerationism, and I have not read enough or engaged with the idea enough to really know at all what I am talking about. So in part this is a request – tell me what I should be reading, where I should be looking, what interests you about the movement, and what you see are its limitations.

What I find compelling – so far – is simply that Accelerationism seems to push for tactics and practical strategies for building a better future rather than theorizing abstractly the hegemony of Capitalism and the recognition that it will take concerted effort (struggle, one might say) to bring about the end of Capitalist exploitation (as opposed to simply waiting for Capitalism’s “inherent contradictions” to bring about its own collapse). However the approach seems ripe for critique from feminist and post-colonial perspectives, as well as for its seemingly simplistic conception of human-technology-environment interactions. In fact, the whole thing seems overly simplistic to me – the struggle I refer to will take time, and have no certain outcomes. Struggle to me means engaging with differences, moving through them (though, perhaps, never beyond) to build a better world together. Accelerationism – in my superficial understanding – seems to prefer to ignore differences in favor of its vanguardist drive to techno-social engineering. Again, that’s my superficial, and poorly informed take on the issue.

Reading about it also brings to mind the recent film Snowpiercer.