Saturday, April 28, 2012

How Facebook Users Matter

I just reading finished the cover story of the May Atlantic Monthly, which asks the question "Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?" Facebook, here, is a stand-in for the hyper connectivity enabled by the gamut of communication technologies available today. And the answer given by the novelist/journalist Stephen Marche, unsurprisingly and as suggested by the illustration of a man gazing into his glowing cell phone even as he is embraced by a naked and clearly affection-seeking woman, is yes. Or at the very least, it's not making us any less lonely.

There's a lot to critique in the research that underlies Marche's basic claims, as the sociologist Eric Klinenberg makes clear at Slate.

What initially caught my attention in the piece (besides the realization that I'd be able to use The Social Network when I teach the history of technology) is that it hinges on a variation of a "users matter" argument. According to Marche, it's not inherent in Facebook, or other online social networking technology, to be isolating. It's just that many people use Facebook in ways that enhance feelings of loneliness rather than feelings of sociability. Instead of using Facebook to arrange meaningful, face-to-face interactions, we're more likely to click "like" to show our approval of a friend's most recent photo or status update and be done.

Marche interviews John Cacioppo, of the University of Chicago's Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, who compares Facebook to automobiles in his suggestion that it's not the technology that matters but how we use it: "It's like a car. You can drive it to pick up your friends. Or you can drive alone." Marche decides to run with the idea, using a variant of that idea to argue that:
"The history of our use of technology is a history of isolation desired and achieved. When the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company opened its A&P stores, giving Americans self-service access to groceries, customers stopped having relationship with their grocers. When the telephone arrived, people stopped knocking on their neighbors doors. Social media brings this process to a much wider set of relationships."
Of course, these aren't very good examples to choose, not least because user-centered histories of cars and telephones have shown the ways in which these did increase social connectivity (as Klinenberg also points out on Slate). In addition, Marche's argument seems to assume that there's an innate human tendency adopt technologies in socially counterproductive ways -- a sweeping generalization of human nature that undermines the very flexibility that the "users matter" idea first introduces to his narrative.

I'm curious to know what others think of the article, and, in a nod to Marche, I'll add that if we can make that happen over a beer, all the better. 

Friday, April 27, 2012

"The 'Nothing' of Reality"

A recent dust-up between physicist/author Lawrence Krauss and philosopher of science David Albert should be of interest to anyone who studies science and wonders about how such studies interact with and are perceived by scientists. The controversy started with Albert's NYT review of Krauss's new book, A Universe from Nothing.


The book is part cosmological primer and part anti-religious screed (featuring an afterword by Richard Dawkins!), building on a lecture Krauss gave in 2009 that's had over a million hits on Youtube. I haven't read it, but I have seen the lecture, and based on that I'm not surprised that Krauss is regarded as a lucid and engaging popular science writer.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

History of Science / STS in Singapore

Marina Bay Sands Integrated Resort by Moshe Safdie Architects in Singapore.

I recently took a trip to Singapore, which is a great place to visit.  (If for no other reason than that the food is amazing!)  One thing that really struck me is the extent to which history, philosophy, sociology, and anthropology of science are taking off there.

Singapore has two main research universities: the National University of Singapore and the Nanyang Technological University.  Both of them are actively building an HOS / STS / HPS presence.  In my view, this is very good news for the discipline.

Among the more high-profile changes taking place in Singapore's academic landscape is the recent partnership between the NUS and Yale to build a joint liberal arts college on the south-east Asian island.  You may have heard that Yale's faculty have recently registered their complaints against this venture.

The purpose of this post is primarily to post a link to my friend Hallam Stevens' thoughts on the matter, which are worth reading.

It does not hurt that it also gives me an excuse to share a photo I took of the Marina Bay Sands Integrated Resort.  It is a giant casino built by Moshe Safdie (of Habitat '67 fame) in Singapore.  Not gonna say I'm a huge fan in terms of its formal qualities, but it certainly makes a statement!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

JAS-BIO 2012

Hard to believe it has been a year since I reported on the Joint Atlantic Seminar for the History of Biology, (see here).  This year's meeting, held at Penn, was one of the most well-attended in recent memory and featured a dozen well-crafted and dynamically-presented papers from grad students as local as Philadelphia and as distant as Arizona.




The meeting was kicked off by a plenary from Penn anthropologist Adriana Petryna, who spoke about work-in-progress on the demise of the sick role and the right to recovery.  I am biased (I have worked with Petryna for a number of years), but I appreciated the choice of an anthropologist of bioscience, following on the plenary given by anthropologist Marcia Inhorn last year. Anthropologists' attention to the life sciences have been informed by historians of biology and the methodological insights being generated through conversations across fields is responsible for some truly important work (here, I'm thinking of Hannah Landecker's Culturing Life, Stefan Helmreich's Alien Ocean, and Hugh Raffles' In Amazonia, though there are many others). Creating a space for anthropology at our table is an opportunity to recognize that our work matters to communities other than our own, which is a good thing.

Read about some resonant themes from the meeting after the jump.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

STS and the Spectre of ELSI

A spectre is haunting STS, the spectre of ELSI.

Or perhaps not.

Lukas's last post and Hank's comment (including the Winfried Fluck article Hank linked to) evoked many thoughts in me. The kinds of "facts" brought up in Brooks's column makes me wonder whether we will one day see No-Child-Left-Behind-esque standardized testing in universities. I want to add another layer to this discussion of the changing academic environment by discussing how funding might be shaping STS research.



The Human Genome Project's program on Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications (ELSI) was founded in 1990. The HGP dedicated 3 to 5% of its budget to ELSI research. Since then other programs on emerging technologies have had similar ELSI-type institutions, including Paul Rabinow's controversial tenure at the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC). Such programs mean a pot of money for STS scholars.

I've become very interested in how this funding has come to shape research in STS (broadly construed to include HOST). STS scholars often apply (and, in a Fluck-like manner, compete for) grant money. In some ways, this might be structurally akin to the kind of "corporatization" of research that Philip Mirowski has described in _Science-Mart_, though, for sure, most ELSI-type money is public, not private. I think this trend has had a host of influences on STS research.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Marketplace of Ideas


David Brooks wrote a column in today's NY Times about the deplorable state of higher education in the United States.  "Colleges are supposed to produce learning," he says.  "But [a recent study] found that, on average, students experienced a pathetic seven percentile point gain in skills during their first two years in college and a marginal gain in the two years after that."  

The study that Brooks refers to is a new book called Academically Adrift by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa.  (You can also find a prĂ©cis of the book's argument in Issue 43 (2011) of Change Magazine entitled "The State of Undergraduate Learning.")  In addition to the figure that Brooks cited above, the two sociologists found that, on average, only 45% of American undergraduates experience a significant improvement in critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and writing skills over their first two years in college.   

Thursday, April 19, 2012

23andMe: Genetic Testing or Bioprospecting?

This week, the Harvard Program on Science, Technology, & Society held the latest installment in its Science and Democracy Lecture Series, featuring Anne Wojcicki, the co-founder and CEO of 23andMe, a direct-to-consumer genetic testing company.


The lecture, called "Deleterious Me," combined an account of 23andMe's practices, and the challenges they've faced, with a blend of optimism and fatalism about the future (and future ubiquity) of personalized medicine, affordable biotechnology, and patient- (or consumer-) driven innovation in the health care industry. 

Many in attendance, not least a few of the scholars on the panel tasked with responding to the address, found Wojcicki's boosterism unpalatable. In particular, a line of critique running through the commentary centered on the nature of the relationship between the two stated missions of 23andMe: one individualistic, one collectivist.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Environmental History & History of Science: The New Synthesis?

Alpine lake with wildflowers in Switzerland, a natural environment manicured by grazing ungulates.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure to attend the 3rd Northeast Environmental History Conference at Yale.  The theme this year was "Two Kingdoms: New Perspectives on Flora and Fauna in Environmental History."  And a few weeks prior, I was in Madison for the American Society for Environmental History Conference, where the theme was "From the Local to the Global."

What struck me at both occasions was the number of Historians of Science and Technology in attendance.  This was my first time at either event, and I was glad to meet many old friends I had not expected to see before next year's History of Science Society Meeting in San Diego.  But beyond this, I also heard a large number of presentations by people I've never met before, people who primarily self-identify as Environmental Historians, that could have just as well been presented at HSS or SHOT.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Lovecraft, Science, and Epistemic Subcultures

For my first post, I want to build on discussions about literature and science that Hank, Joanna, and Dan had earlier, here and here. H. P. Lovecraft (1890–1937) wrote a series of stories for magazines such as Weird Tales during the 1920s and early 1930s, before science fiction, horror, and fantasy split into distinct genres.  He set his stories in old, decaying East Coast towns, not unlike his home, Providence, RI, and nearby small hamlets that he knew well. He filled his tales with plot devices—like archaic, mysterious texts and secret societies—that remain stock-in-trade for genre writers today. His monsters are enormous and sublime; they leave his characters whimpering with shattered minds. Yet, for all of his silliness and shortcomings, like Dickens, Kafka, and Poe, Lovecraft created an ambiance and tone that is distinctively his own. 



People have long known and written about Lovecraft’s fascination with science.  Beginning in 1914, he began writing astronomical columns for a local Providence newspaper. His understanding of the universe as a vast expanse indifferent to human desires informs his tales in which characters cower before giant and ancient beasts, realizing in these moments their ultimate insignificance in the great scope of things. That is, contemporary science strongly shaped what Lovecraft’s critics refer to as his “cosmic horror.”

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Evidence of the Normalization of American Science

I have only watched a few episodes of The Big Bang Theory on CBS (and don't plan to watch more), but I suppose that a show like this is something that historians of science in the United States will eventually have to deal with. From what I can glean, the show's science content as such plays a relatively small role, but its sense of the scientist/geek/nerd as an important modern/American type sits at the center of the show's concept. Could such a thing have been conceivable before the post-WWII proliferation of engineering and science jobs? Sure, you have Arrowsmith (1925) and works that valorize the scientist in the early twentieth century, but we don't see art that considers engineers or scientists to be normal, if socially awkward, folks. I guess we should read Steven Shapin's The Scientific Life next to an episode and see what happens.
A Lab Bench on TV! (and it isn't being used to solve murders!) -- The Big Bang Theory (CBS)

I would not have thought about the show at all, had I not stumbled upon this call for papers for an edited volume on "The Big Bang Theory and Gender Politics," which specifically calls for investigations into the gendered (and often demeaning) depictions of women, even the women scientists. I'll post the CFP after the jump.

(Also, apparently, Stephen Hawking just guest-starred. I would consider that a step down from The Simpsons, which, come to think of it, is also about the normalization of the engineer!)

Friday, April 6, 2012

On the Very Idea of Ontologies

In giving up the dualism of scheme and world, we do not give up the world, but reestablish unmediated touch with the familiar objects whose antics make our sentences and opinions true or false. – Donald Davidson, "On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme"

I've been enjoying the discussion on our last couple posts (here and here), and wanted to break it out via a different vein of American philosophy and science: the history of the idea of the "conceptual scheme." It was suggested to me when Lukas quoted W.V.O. Quine's "On What There Is" to clarify what philosophers mean by "ontology." As Lukas (and Quine) suggest, ontology has long been a metaphysical problem about what there is and the categories that apply to it.

Willard Van Orman Quine, 1908-2000

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Feathered Dinosaurs

An artist's rendering of Yutyrannus huali, a feathered dinosaur recently discovered in China.

I wanted to alert everyone to an article that appears in the journal Nature today, which has been causing quite a stir.  (It was even written up in the NY Times!)  The article announces the discovery of a new feathered dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous in Liaoning Province, China.  Above is an artist's rendering that gives you a sense of how scientists imagine these creatures looked in the flesh.

There are a few things worth noting here.  First, this creature is a fairly close (but older) relative of T. rex.  Second, as the article points out, it is by far the largest feathered dinosaur that has been found so far.  (The next largest was only about 1/40th its size.)