Archive for » October, 2012 «

Radiolab’s “truth” is no justice for Hmong activist

Kao Kalian Yang in Hyphen Magazine explains the racist pattern of interaction and representation in a recent Radiolab story on “the science” and “the truth” behind Yellow Rain. An activist and interviewee of the Radiolab show wrote the piece. Yellow Rain was a material Ronald Reagan and Hmong refugees have called a poison weapon. Some people we call scientists in American universities have claimed Yellow Rain was just bee droppings.

As the reporter tries to drill Yang and her uncle on what they saw and what they know, he tries to claim that they could not know what they claim to know — not in the terms that a bunch of lab scientists testing 20 year old samples could.

Hmong man who was an official reporter to Thai government on Hmong violence: “It feels to him that this is a semantic debate. It feels like there’s a jack of justice. The word of a man who survived this thing is pitted against a man from Harvard who read these accounts.”

Radiolab guy: “It seems like your uncle didn’t SEE the pollen fall. Your uncle didn’t SEE the plane. All of this is hearsay.”

Yang cites justice as a value that competes against various definitions of what can count as truth. It’s not just that we need plural truths, but we need truths we can use in pursuit of justice too. The means of pursuing truth must also themselves be just. Judith Butler writes about the politics of truth in her piece Doing Justice to Someone: Sex Reassignment and Allegories of Transsexuality (2001). She tells the story of the havoc wreaked on the life of an American kid whose non-binary gender became a battleground for a culture seeking scientific understanding of sexual “nature vs nurture.” The life of the person made a subject of scrutiny didn’t get factored into the debates about the politics of sexual knowledge. The “yellow rain” story is riven with questions of how we make our truths, as well as who gets to speak “truth.”

Must read for any ethnographers, journalists, and everyone who thinks they care about what counts as evidence.

Spacejump isn’t about tech progress. It is about male enhancement.

Cross-posted to Underthinking.

I know I’ve posted recently do DiffEng, but Spacejump is too timely so I couldn’t resist.

If you haven’t heard, Felix Baumgartner jumped out of a space balloon from 120,000 feet in the sky down to earth under the watchful audience of 8 million YouTube viewers.

DA Banks asks in The Society Pages

Why is a man jumping from the edge of space when we still rely on 18th century energy sources and can’t build a train network as advanced as the one we had a hundred years ago?

He then suggests that, following David Graeber, it might be

that existing bureaucratic systems under corporate capitalism are not up to the job of creating immortality drugs or colonies on Mars because huge disparities in wealth and power make it too cheap and easy to clean our homes and build our iPhones with cheap labor instead of robots. 

In the Tweet economy, I have made my response just a bit provocative but allow me to explain. Shortly after spacejump, Paolo Coelho tweeted this, which someone else commemorated on a meme-able image (below): “Never accept your limitations — because there are NO limitations. Viva Felix!” Spacejump, to me, seems to captivate people because it is an extreme form of personal technology. It creates the individual who can overcome all through technological and psychological breakthroughs. It is about remaking and bolstering the individual, the main thing we pay attention to in these days of entrepreneurial individualism, positive psychology, self-improvement, Ayn Randian ethics, or choose-your-individualism. The infrastructures DA Banks talks about are investments in the shared underpinnings of social collectivity — railways, standards, colonies (let’s not repeat colonialism though, thx). Social collectivities — the welfare state, the big society, the other America, unions — are things that don’t arouse passions, votes, and dollars that spas, coaches, and entrepreneurship do.

This is why I say spacejump is in part about male enhancement. It takes the (still) de facto (assumed to be) strongest, fastest, best kind of human and then enhances him to achieve what was beyond our wildest dreams.

FemTechNet: Massive online collaborative courses

There’s been a lot of attention paid lately to the massively online courses famously taught by Stanford. The model is generally center out, allowing people all over the world to access what is considered leading edge teaching from “centers” of research.  A recent online artificial intelligence course taught by Google AI researcher Peter Norvig attracted 150,000 students from around the world to listen to lectures, work on problem sets, and get familiar with Stanford’s flavor of artificial intelligence pedagogy. The New York Times even published an op-ed from Stanford professor Daphne Koller promising “technology as a passport to personalized education.”

Advocates of these models don’t acknowledge (or maybe even recognize) how the kind of knowledge and skill relevant in particular cultural situations vary. For example, I’ve met engineers in India who often complain that becoming a world class researcher requires working on problems set by agendas centered in the United States where their work might generate more useful and innovative results working from their own contexts. What would computer programming look like, for example, if computers didn’t rely on constant power or environmentally costly batteries to power and store a constant state? Why should supporting rural village innovation be an “India” business problem while the problems of corporations are “global” management knowledge? It’s not like rural people only live in India. Gender studies has dealt with this as well, grappling with how theories of gender developed around American or European experiences do not account for the experiences  of people embedded in very different kinds of institutions, social relations, and discourses. It isn’t surprising that it is Computer Science, a highly formalized discipline most immediately contextualized in mass-produced computing machinery, that is the most immediate proponent of the massive online learning model.

Connecting learners across the globe has the potential to de-universalize pedagogies in ways that the Stanford efforts have not explored. FemTechNet, a project spearheaded by Anne Balsamo (New School of Public Engagement) and Alex Juhasz (Pitzer College), is trying to develop a different kind of massive online learning experience, drawing strength and knowledge from the reach of the student population rather than simply disseminating out.

FemTechNet is going to run a course with 15 nodes, or instructor-led classrooms, in many continents, dialoguing on feminist approaches to science and technology. Rather than teaching from center out, the idea is to create a transnational networked classroom where students and instructors in very different locations can speak about and analyze themes together, learning from one another. The project is also developing an open-submission archive of short videos that can be used for educational purposes.

The network of people involved in this project are working to build alternative archives, infrastructures, and social practices to experiment with the possibilities of a less “colonial” education. I use “colonial” here because “democratic,” what I first wrote, seemed to specify too much about the multiple, temporarily aligned political ideals of people involved in the project. I simply wish to note how the project seeks to decentralize learning and make lateral learning possible. Often, “global” projects (e.g. development, humanitarianism) end up ordered as EuroAmerica-based professionals with passports and salaries that will move them around while they depend on the work of “locals” in places like Africa or South Asia who can’t get the visa or job to leave the country to actually get the work done. (This is Peter Redfield’s point. (2012)) When EuroAmericans call what they do global while those else where have “local” problems, that is a pretty colonial knowledge structure. FemTechNet is trying to build the infrastructures and establish the practices that can sustain an alternative.