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Sometimes I Wish That It Would Rain Here

Monday, December 19, 2005


it occurred to me that actor-network theory is sort of like a modern-day, westernized, academic form of animism. I know that phraseology implies that no one in modern society believes in animism, which I'm pretty sure isn't the case, but just go with it. I mean, the basic premise is a symmetric treatment of human and non-humans with regard to agency, interessement, etc., and the basic premise of animism is that non-human objects, such as trees, rocks, etc., have just as much soul and will and humans.

I think the most striking similarity between animism and ANT is their quality of distributed homogeneity. in animism, everything is really part of the same thing; every physical object in the universe is composed of the same god-stuff, from which it draws its aiwa. in ANT, the object of study is the relationships between actants, which, Latour argues in his "Ethnography of a High-Tech Case," are homogeneous and distributed among the various actants in the network. the difference between the two being, of course, that in animism the homogeneous stuff is (in) the objects themselves, whereas in ANT the homogeneous stuff is the relationships between objects.

granted, despite their similarities, the results and implications of these two are very different. however, they are (in my view) plagued by some of the same problems. if I throw a rock at you, is it my fault that the rock's aiwa didn't divert it from its path? if the rock has just as much agency as a human, how come the rock can't act on its own? does the rock have a different sort of aiwa or agency than that of humans? if so, why do we insist on a homogeneous treatment?

Latour said that "the ridiculous poverty of ANT ... was a clear signal that none of these words could replace the rich vocabulary of the actor's practice." many have gone on to do work after ANT, but I'm not sure how much this helps. from a certain standpoint, animism and ANT are both very appealing, but they both make understanding many aspects of day-to-day experiences nearly intractable.

however, I am an expert in neither ANT nor animism, so feel free to provide more insight to (or arguments against) this claim.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

strong to the finish

I was thinking today about how awesome spinach is. high in fiber, low in calories, no fat, and pretty tasty. there's a bit of sodium, but nothing really too bad. it's great in salads, omelettes, sandwiches, pastas, and a myriad of other dishes.

however, I really don't understand why Popeye ate canned spinach to get strong. I mean, something like a protein bar or power smoothie would probably go a lot farther to actually making one stronger than a can of spinach. maybe they were just trying advocate healthy eating in a "kids, eat your greens" kind of way, but it's misleading. I mean, here, you see this already really buff dude slam a can of spinach and suddenly his already massive forearms almost double in girdth, right before your eyes! and if some kid tries spinach at home? nothing. tasty. nutritious. satisfying. but no huge bulking forearms. no wonder spinach has gotten such a bad rep.

and why spinach? why not lettuce? or celery? or collard greens? I mean, really, what's up with that?

Sunday, December 11, 2005

the pudding is elsewhere

I'm in the process of studying for my ph.d. qualifying exam, which they call the phase II exam here (don't ask). at any rate, it's really interesting, because I'm in the informatics department, which is part of a school of information and computer sciences, but a good majority of the items on our reading list are written by sociologists or people studying the use of technology. some of them, including selections from Ishii, Grudin, and Weiser, really deal with actually building stuff. but some of them, including stuff by Giddens, Garfinkel, and Geertz, have nothing to do with technology, at least not directly, but are more about sociology, anthropology, and psychology. very interesting indeed.

now, there are a couple things to take away from this. obviously, people and technology are not separable in a neat, clean way, such that one can design technology in a vacuum. rather, one must always consider the context into which technology will be deployed and what effects, both narrow and broad, it might have. I agree with this, but it's not what I want to argue about here.

rather, I want to argue (or maybe just ask) about how this focus has changed the field of the information and computer sciences. this may just be a matter of my perspective, but it used to be that, in computer science type fields, the emphasis was on building new technology, methods, tools, etc. you got published by improving the efficiency of some transmitted or by developing an algorithm that allowed a device to encrypt and decrypt twice as fast while using half the power. it seems that, with the devices people make now, the emphasis is not on development of new technology but on the design, usage, and deployment of existing technology. now, you get published not by doing anything really cutting edge tech-wise but by using existing tech in innovate ways. moreover, you really get published by being able to make some sort of social inference based on the ways people use your technology. computer scientists are becoming the new sociologists.

to back track a bit, I was discussing the content of our reading list with a fellow student, commenting on the abundance of sociological papers and the lack of technical ones. she sort of had a "yeah, of course" kind of reply, for which I wasn't really prepared. "well," she said, "the proof is in the pudding. you gotta be able to build stuff." (apologies for the misquote I'm certainly making) it just seems strange. if the proof is in the pudding, why are we focusing on how we talk about the pudding and what other people think about rather than how to make the pudding? maybe it's a matter of treating the deficiencies; any technologist can build stuff, but what seems to be important is the ability to think critically about the ramifications of one's designs.

the proof may be in the pudding, but the pudding is not what you do. it's what you say about what you do, how you write it up, how you talk it up. the proof is in the pudding, and the pudding is the academic game of publications, dissertations, tenure, etc. I'm trying really hard not to make a value judgment. rather, I'm saying, as stated above, that computer science (or informatics, or whatever you like to call your particular breed of it) is becoming the new sociology.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

chemical love

I recently came across an article (thanks Jason) linking levels of a certain neurotrophin, nerve growth factor (NFG), to being in romantic love. granted, I'm neither a neurophysiologist, nor a brain expert, nor a statistician, but their conclusions seem a little too strong. if you take a look at their scatter plot, it looks to me like just a bunch of random noise through which they have drawn a regression line. besides that, people have been shown to score highest on the PLS (passionate love scale) during the first 6 months of a new relationship. I mean, I guess that's the point of regression, to do mathematically what we can't see with just our naked eye in a plot of the data. but their results just seem to strong.

the authors do go into some of the problems with the study in the results section. they sort of touch on one of my main problems, but they don't go into it in any detail. basically, love of any sort, be it romantic, long term, whatever, is an incredibly complex and multifaceted experience. I find it hard to believe that a score on a psychological test such as PLS could be linked to the level of some neurotrophin. I mean, part of the premise of human behavior (as I understand it) is that the mind is an emergent process from the brain, because we can't see the direct correlation between low level functions and high level observable behaviors. maybe this is evidence against that viewpoint, but I still remain unconvinced. anyone out there want to persuade me?