Things We Wish We Knew: Technological Mediation

Picture Credit: Wired Brain

With the advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and data analytics, technologies now permeate and engage with humans in a radically different manner. Technologies actively mediate how people relate to the world. Technological mediation rests on the centrality that objects help shape relations between human beings and the world. This approach of technology does not view material objects as opposed to human subjects, or as mere extensions of humans, instead, it sees them as mediators of human-world relations.

Why do we need to know technological mediation?

Technological mediation is a “post-phenomenological” approach in the philosophy of technology (Rosenberger & Verbeek 2015, p.vii). Post-phenomenology is partially opposed to the phenomenological tradition (Verbeek 2015, p.26). Although inspired by the phenomenological focus on the experiential, it distances itself from phenomenology’s romanticism toward technology, favouring empirical analyses of actual technologies. Technological mediation is a framework that first, rejects human-centred subjectivity to factor in displacing the human body by non-human others. Next, ontologies are mapped horizontally rather than vertically. Horizontal ontologies assumes humans as embedded in a natural-cultural-technological assemblage (Weiss, Propen & Reid 2014, p.xvii). This is similar to the conceptualisation of hyperobjects. Technological mediation offers four ways of human-technology relations:

  • Embodiment relation(I–Technology) > World
    • Refers to a magnification/reduction structure. For example, binoculars enable the user to see further. The repetitive usage of binoculars in a particular setting would gradually embody itself within the user. 
  • Hermeneutic relationI > (Technology–World)
    • Refers to a transforming encounter with the world via the direct experience and interpretation of the technology itself. For example, checking the weather from a smartphone requires the direct interpretation of the user that transforms numbers to weather forecast knowledge. 
  • Alterity relationI > Technology – (– World)
    • Refers to devices or interfaces that are designed specifically to mimic the shape of person-to-person interaction. For example, withdrawing cash at ATMs or conversing with Siri.
  • Background relation: Makes up the user’s environmental context and shares an indirect relationship. 
    • For example, central air conditioning that operates on its pre-set settings. (Rosenberger & Verbeek 2015, pp.14–18)

Still unclear?

Another example,

I feel at ease having Google Maps directing a guided path to my destination and allows me to monitor traffic conditions. Sometimes during peak hours, I just ignore its recommendations when I know the route through the back street is quicker.

I feel in control when Google Maps adapts to my driving even though I may have missed a turn. 

With Google Maps, my family has increased confidence in my driving as they entrust the app to get to our destination.

As shown, navigational app users engage in ongoing discursive practices with the app through negotiating and subverting information (Weiss, Propen & Reid 2014, p.23). At times, the navigational app supplements the user by providing traffic information and in turn, the user may choose to use the app supplementally when the information does not correlate to the user’s knowledge.

With this brief illustration, I hope to have convince you why technological mediation is important and to demonstrate what might the future of anthropology look like.


Reference:

Rosenberger, R & Verbeek, P-P (eds) 2015, Postphenomenological Investigations: Essays on Human-Technology Relations, Lexington Books, Lanham,MD.

Verbeek, P-P 2015, ‘Beyond interaction: a short introduction to mediation theory’, Interactions, vol. 22, no. 3, pp. 26–31.

Weiss, DM, Propen, AD & Reid, CE (eds) 2014, Design, Mediation, and the Posthuman, Lexington Books, New York, NY.

See Also:

Zane’s piece on Design Anthropology

Julia’s piece on Job Automation

Rita’s piece on Posthumanism

Lionel’s piece on Surveillance Capitalism

Duly Noted: Cash as Iconographic Representation of the State

Cash is ubiquitous in the exchange of material goods or services. Besides being concerned with the Australian dollar currency value in the global financial trade, banknotes and coins play a part in fostering a distinct national identity. Cash is transacted almost daily, generating an unobtrusive reminder of the iconography of the nation and in turn, subtly validates a particular history. 

Picture Credit: Stacks of USD$100

According to Michael Billig, the normality of transactions through cash seek to “construct and reproduce specific nations and nation-states as indispensable cornerstones of international geopolitical order known as banal nationalism” (1995, p.7). The national emblems and images printed on banknotes go mostly unnoticed in commercial transactions and most people do not stop to question the ideological functions and the specificity of historical narratives. Hence, banal nationalism is the experience of a whole complex of beliefs, assumptions, habits, representations and practices to be so natural as to be unassailable.

In 2015, Russia memorialised its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine by printing newly designed 100 rubles notes that has illustrations of the Crimean naval city of Sevastopol. These images are symbols that reflect Crimea as a “rightful” region of Russia and seeks to increase political confidence.

Picture Credit: 100 Rubles

However, recent scholarship scrutinising the relationalities between banknote symbolism and nationalism suggests otherwise. Jan Penrose argues that general banknote design processes are more ad hoc and haphazard than existing presumptions towards nation-building (2011, p.438). Although banknote design and production may variate culturally across generations, in many cases, particularly where the repertoire of national iconography is established and uncontested, the state appears to have no direct involvement with banknote production at all.

For example, take a look at the new Australian $20 note. It features a portrait of Mary Reibey, one of the first successful businesswomen in 19thcentury Australia, a colourful Kookaburra and the box-leaf wattle amongst many other colonial or native flora and fauna features.

Picture Credit: 2019 AUD$20

Now, take a look at the 1966 version which features Charles Kingsford Smith, an aviator who made the first trans-pacific flight from America to Australia. The salient difference only appears to be updated typography, improved security features to prevent counterfeiting and a “remarkable” white Australian figure. 

Picture Credit: 1966 AUD$20

Also, if nations view money as the key to reinforce nationalism, why do countries print their money outside of their borders? 

While printing national currencies is a crucial process in transforming an imagined community into a recognised nation, relationalities between national currencies and nationhood are only distinct during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Penrose 2011, p.432). This period saw currencies facilitate the centralisation of state administration, fusion of state and economy and formation of national identities. However, this meant that currencies serves to regulate people, actors, practices and outcomes that validates the existence of a state through the material reality of cash (Penrose 2011, p.438). Instead, it is the “non-state” actors that make contributions to constructing and intensifying the symbolism of the state. For example, I am obliged to use Australian dollars when transacting in Australia even if I am using a credit card, thereby recognising the governmental regulatory bodies that police and legitimises Australia as nation and state.

Was Billig wrong?

No. As practitioners of anthropology, the standard against which ethnography or any other empirical knowledges must be judged according to the temporalities of persons acting in that particular social setting (Carrithers et al. 1990, p.263). Representations of nationhood are fluid and flux from time to time as meanings shift from nationalism to globalism. Anthropologists must learn to discern such evidence as partial but reliable within recognisable limits. In so, duly note the significance of cash.


References:

Billig, M 1995, Banal Nationalism, SAGE Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA.

Carrithers, M, Barry, A, Brady, I, Geertz, C, Keesing, RM, Roth, PA, Rubinstein, RA & Whittaker, E 1990, ‘Is Anthropology Art or Science? [and Comments and Reply]’, Current Anthropology, vol. 31, no. 3, pp. 263–282.

Penrose, J 2011, ‘Designing the nation. Banknotes, banal nationalism and alternative conceptions of the state’, Political Geography, vol. 30, no. 8, pp. 429–440.

See Also:

Rita’s piece on Personhood

Maddie’s piece on Communitas

Lionel’s piece on Gambling

Lani’s piece on Collective Effervescence

Zane’s piece on Temporality

“OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR” Hyperobjects

Picture Credit: Side Mirror

“OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR” is a safety advisory placed on the passenger side mirror of motor vehicles mandated by the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards in the United States. Its purpose is to remind drivers on distance perception as convex mirrors give a useful field of view while making objects appear smaller. From an anthropological perspective, I feel a deep sense of irony as we go about our daily lives trying to ensure safety on the roads but fail to acknowledge that “objects”, or “hyperobjects” causing catastrophic environmental destruction are closer than they appear.

Hyperobjects are matter or ideological constructs that are:

  • Supertemporal, extending beyond the human imagination of space and time, refuting the idea of boundedness.
  • Viscous, sticking to any other object/subject and entraps them within its influence. 
  • Non-local, hyperobjects are felt or perceived indirectly
  • Phased, hyperobjects occupy a high-dimensional space that may be invisible to the human senses
  • Interobjective, hyperobjects form interrelationships between aesthetic properties of objects (Morton 2013, pp.1–7). 

Hyperobjects are real and yet are intrinsically difficult for humans to experience or understand fully. For example, climate change is an illustration of hyperobjects. Climate change envelops humans despite our attempts to detach ourselves from it. We experience climate change in the form of natural disasters such as droughts and monsoons. Climate change also appears to be periodically phased, allowing the Ozone layer to heal while other parts of the Earth continues to degrade. 

Why do we need to know hyperobjects?

Timothy Morton argues for a fluid conception between humans and objects: “no matter how hard we look, we won’t find a container in which all things fit” (2013, p.102). Rather than continuing to use the container analogy to organise social life, Morton asserts for a mesh analogy to decentre human exceptionalism and raise urgency towards the current ecological calamity that we, humans and objects alike, are responsible and are within the crisis. 

Picture Credit: Nuclear Powerplant

Humanity’s reaction to using ironic distancing to obscure environmental degradation is delaying attempts to create a sustainable future. Ironic distancing is the attempt to distance oneself from a problem or thing that one is already embedded within. Our current attitudes reflect ironic distancing and what Rob Nixon argues as “slow violence”. Slow violence is the product of neoliberalism’s deregulation of the economy, creating massive competition in resource extraction, indiscriminate dumping of waste, etc (Nixon 2011, p.11). Such activities enact “violence” toward the environment and impoverished communities that is noticeable in time to come.

Slow violence is spectacle-deficient. For example, the effects of losing biodiversity or exposure to nuclear radiation are invisible and latent for long periods (Nixon 2011, p.47). The Chernobyl disaster was censored by the Soviet government for eighteen days, hindering effective containment strategies to prevent radiation from spreading (Nixon 2011, p.51). As a result, there was pollution to water bodies, speculative radiation estimates and an increase in mental disorders and abortions from the fear of ionising radiation or radiophobia. Thus, hyperobjects blurs international, intergenerational and somatic temporalities. 

What does it mean for Anthropology?

While many “modern” anthropological concepts centres around the human, Morton argues for an Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) which I shall briefly summarise as moving away from human exceptionalism and assuming that objects have the agency for causality. In sum, “OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR” is a salient ontological reminder that our environment is afflicted with slow violence and humans need to start reconceptualising fundamental philosophical questions of existence and do away with using “distance” and “time” as defence mechanisms to shield us from the nearness and precarity of pollution and degradation. 


References:

Morton, T 2013, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN.

Nixon, R 2011, Slow Violence and The Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

See Also:

Zane’s piece on Design Anthropology

Anatol’s piece on Reflexivity

Rita’s piece on Precarity

Sarah’s piece on future worlds

Are We All Pawns in a Simulated Reality? Ethical conundrums in Surveillance Capitalism

HAVE YOU HEARD THIS BEFORE?

I aim to track 10,000 steps daily on Health. Okay Google, what is the weather like in Ballarat tomorrow? I post my #OOTD at 8:30 am so that I can maximise my exposure to my Instagram followers. iPhone’s geotagging is a breeze, saves me the time to tag places and faces. Hey, you know what we were talking earlier today? Facebook showed me an ad about it, amazing! Spotify’s recommendations are so spot-on! So thankful for cloud storage! The Internet of Things (IoT) enables me to control my smart fridge, smart door and smart toilet from my smartphone.

Picture Credit: The Matrix

Do you love the UX/UI features on your digital devices? Hold up. While Wi-Fi enabled keyless doors or the Nest Learning Thermostat amongst many IoTs may give owners the perception and satisfaction that life is functional and integrated, do these products have any serious drawbacks?

The short answer? Yes, it may come at the cost of your privacy. Internet-connected devices or apps could be monitoring you as of this moment. Corporations and other unwelcomed data miners will try to exploit you by placing products or advertisements according to your behavioural data to encourage consumerism. 

Welcome to the age of surveillance capitalism.

Surveillance capitalism is the commodification of ‘reality’ and its transformation into behavioural data for analysis and sales. The ‘Big Five’, Apple, Alphabet, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon monopolise the largely uncontested power of data generation. Surveillance technologies allow the formation of Virtual Identity (VI) (Henschke 2017, p.185). VI is an informational representation that is linked and personalised to you. Personalising information is made using Thin Information or metadata. Examples of metadata are but not limited to: logs of your IP address across the Internet, locations of individuals in certain GPS enabled apps or even the average length of your phone calls. Your metadata is aggregated across time to substantiate the probability of prediction of your behaviour (Henschke 2017, p.197). Hence, producing recommendations in Spotify or Youtube are, in fact, made up of your quantified metadata, making it hard for you to disagree with the product placed in front of you. It is only after the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal that Facebook called for more governmental regulation.

Yeah, but isn’t this a governmental regulatory issue? What is anthropology relevance here?

Just as tech companies try to learn more about consumers (us) unobtrusively, haven’t anthropologists been trying to do the same with the ‘other’ for the last century? We are repeating history and relearning the mistakes again. I want to stress the importance of procedural ethics here. In 1964, Napoleon Chagnon arrived in 1964 to conduct fieldwork with the Yanomami (Eakin 2013, p.1). Chagnon sets out to prove natural selection theories on violence, staging fights to show his findings and exchanging steel tools for blood samples. Such unrestrained methods produced no value to the anthropological canon and served to further notions of biological racism. 

Ethics is relational. It is difficult to thoroughly plan for contingencies and alternatives because fields, contexts and histories of relations are often emergent through social activities or conversations, with each fieldworker producing different meanings through various mediums and methods (Kohn 2017, p.77). With that said, procedural ethics is still beneficial in providing a framework for considering moral thinking and decision-making. It moves away from reductive binary evolutional thoughts to consider a plurality of ways that meanings can be constructed.

Hence, ethics is an essential reflexive tool to balance the interests of the researcher, institutions and most importantly, our informants. Although procedural ethics is notorious for stifling creativity in the pursuit of endless application forms for the sake of audit compliance, it needs to be considered as to not undermine universal values such as freedom, democracy and privacy.


References:

Eakin, E 2013, ‘How Napoleon Chagnon Became Our Most Controversial Anthropologist – The New York Times’, THe New York Times Magazine, accessed June 12, 2019, from <https://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/17/magazine/napoleon-chagnon-americas-most-controversial-anthropologist.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0&gt;

Henschke, A 2017, Ethics in an Age of Surveillance: Personal Information and Virtual Identities, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Kohn, T 2017, ‘On the Shifting Ethics and Contexts of Knowledge Production’, in L Josephides & AS Grønseth (eds), The Ethics of Knowledge Creation, Berghahn Books, New York, NY, pp. 76–97.

See Also:

Lionel’s piece on Technological Mediation

Anatol’s piece on Ethics of Applied Anthropology

Imogen’s piece on Beyond Academia


That’s How You Go Full Tilt: Superstition and Counterfactual Thinking in Gambling

Picture Credit: Roulette Board

There are three types of people when it comes to gambling. The first group relies on mathematical statistics to inform their risk appetite, the second relies on superstition or causal reasoning to justify luckiness and last group abstains from gambling entirely. Make a trip to Crown Melbourne and you may be able to differentiate these groups rather easily. Individuals attempting to hedge bets across the roulette board, a collective of tourists “ganging up” on the dealer slapping large bets on the blackjack table and by-standers observing in fascination and disbelief.

While there are no shortages of tips on the internet to “beat the house”, see how “tilt” can derail even the hardy analytical gambler in Molly’s Game (2017).

Tilt is commonly defined as a temporary cognitive impairment that erases a gambler’s risk calculation strategies in favour of aggressive gambling methods. Tilt is resultant from losing a large bet in a public and humiliating fashion.

From an anthropological perspective, I briefly illustrate how we can “rethink” tilt as a combination of superstition and counterfactual thinking. 

Superstition is a non-empiricist belief resultant from a supernatural or false conception of causation (Chen & Young 2018, p.1098). Many cultural and situational factors influence the tendency to engage in superstition such as stress, feelings of precarity, peer pressures, or even anthropomorphic beliefs (applying human-like traits to nonhuman objects or concepts). For example, getting pooped by birds is often thought to symbolise good luck in many cultures. Informed by this cultural conception, it increases one’s optimism in future outcomes, especially towards ‘get rich quick’ circumstances.

Counterfactual thinking is the process where an individual imagines an alternate event that seeks to console the experience of losing in reality. The individual manipulates his or her emotions and behaviour in downplaying the effects of losing and up-playing the potential to recoup the gambling deficit (Kim, Kwon & Hyun 2015, p.237). In Molly’s Game, Harlan was already on tilt for two nights, but he insisted to Molly that he needed to borrow $500K to gamble back to even. In this case, Harlan is using counterfactual thinking to justify the false conception of causation as well, asserting that he will stop gambling the moment he gets back to even and expressing a belief that luck is now in his favour and affecting his life outcome. To regain control, Harlan harbours superstition as a coping strategy to garner good luck by specifying his goal of making it back to even. In this way, there is a positive relationship between luck, superstition and counterfactual thinking.

Going tilt is often not only a psychological phenomenon but also influenced through a complex of social and cultural factors. I find Paul Bohannan’s “rethinking of culture” as a symbiosis of biological and socially constructed systems to be helpful in drawing an analogy to think about tilt (1973, p.371). Bohannan suggests viewing culture as double coded information, one coded in the brain and another coded through language (1973, p.374). In the same way, we are simultaneously affected by fear from biological instincts that alerts us from dangers and cultural factors such as shame that can allude us to feel low.   

In sum, anthropology can benefit from greater interdisciplinary collaborations involving the body and cultural normativity. This can create a more richly textured ethnography to understand the self. So, the next time you see a friend going tilt in life, use anthropology to “save” him, for better or for worse.


References:

Bohannan, P, Blacking, J, Bock, B, Colby, BN, DeRaedt, J, Epstein, DG, Fischer, JL, Gjessing, G, Hewes, GW, Hay, TH, Markarian, E, Panoff, M, Schneider, DM & Voight, WJ 1973, ‘Rethinking Culture: A Project for Current Anthropologists [and Comments and Reply]’, Current Anthropology, vol. 14, no. 4, pp. 357–372.

Chen, N & Young, MJ 2018, ‘The Relationship Between Belief in Stable Luck and a Propensity for Superstition: The Influence of Culturally Conferred Agency Beliefs’, Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, vol. 49, no. 7, pp. 1098–1113.

Kim, SR, Kwon, Y-S & Hyun, M-H 2015, ‘The Effects of Belief in Good Luck and Counterfactual Thinking on Gambling Behavior’, Journal of Behavioural Addictions, vol. 4, no. 4, pp. 236–243.

See Also:

Maddie’s piece on What’s the Point of it All?

Dyan’s piece on cultural relativism

Lani’s piece on Magic

Imogen’s piece on Clubbing

Tio Gong Tao: Using Witchcraft Narratives to Rationalise Masculine Identity in Singapore

Tio gong tao – A Hokkien term to describe someone who may be a victim of black magic or witchcraft (Mohsen 2016).

Picture Credit: Gong Tao Help Desk

Tio gong tao is a narrative used to justify male victimhood when men spend excessive amounts of money on a foreign stage performer. It is a growing phenomenon that involves men developing an “unexplainable” infatuation with female stage performers, dancers and models when patronising Siam Dius (or Thai Discos). Siam Dius are drinking joints spaced around a stage that holds live band performances, all-female choreographed dancers of Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Thai nationalities and relatively cheap alcohol. Patrons are encouraged to tiau huey (gift a garland) to a stage performer he fancies on stage. In return, the performer is obliged to reciprocate by interacting and sharing drinks with the patron for 20-30 minutes during the song and dance breaks. These garlands range from S$50-S$20,000.

Note: Only the person who has bought the most expensive garland will have the accompaniment of the performer. Performers commonly face unsolicited sexual advancements and reciprocation is on the discretion of performer and patron, as it is with any other sexual relationship. I do not condone any vitriol against these stage performers, while my post is to better highlight the relationalities between witchcraft and male victimhood better.

The video below is an emic view of the venue and the lives of the performers.

While the conduct of siam dius appear to be derogatory and disadvantageous to women on many levels, why do men still rely on tio gong tao narratives to justify male victimhood?

Tio gong tao, like witchcraft, is a spatial imaginary. Like an anthropological field, one can visualise the consistent reproduction of imaginative nuances and material practices through various political, economic and cultural channels. Over time, the imaginary is identifiable as either an accepted or deviant practice, which is integral to how people construct meaning (Comaroff & Comaroff 1999, p.285). The tio gong tao field extends or shrinks according to how relationships between men and their companion performer develop. For example, should the companionship transit into a long-term relationship, the man is typically identified as someone under very strong gong tao and is at risk of getting his freedom, wealth and material belongings manipulated.

“I don’t think it’s a bad idea to date these girls. I give them money and they can send the money home to their families. I help them and they are grateful to me and show their gratitude.” – Jonah.

According to Jonah, the nature and terms of exchange between performer and patron are distinctively different as compared to sexual transactions. For men who repetitively gift garlands to performers for companionship, observers often see such behaviour to be incredibly artificial and driven by the need for sex. However, observers do not perceive the underlying relations as what O’Connell Davidson suggests: “an affirmation of a particular racialised and sexualised masculine identity” (1995, p.44). An affirmation is how men view themselves as “white knights” (Garrick 2005, p.502). White knights perceive the on-stage performers as helpless victims of circumstance and the knights are ready to “liberate” these women through material means.

I find many parallels between tio gong tao and the anthropological study of witchcraft. Edward Evans-Pritchard argues that “primitive” belief systems are just as logical as “modern” secular versions but shaped through different cultural and social conditions (1937, p.37). Gong tao or witchcraft are systems of values which regulate human conduct and contain rich complexities and nuances. 

With these in mind, the discipline of anthropology may benefit from examining the link between tio gong tao and Evans-Pritchard’s ideas of witchcraft to better understand contemporary phenomena on masculine identity in Singapore. 


References:

Comaroff, J & Comaroff, JL 1999, ‘Occult Economies and the Violence of Abstraction: Notes from the South African Postcolony’, American Ethnologist, vol. 26, no. 2, pp. 279–303.

Davidson, O 1995, ‘British Sex Tourist in Thailand’, in M Maynard & J Purvis (eds), (Hetero)sexual Politics, Taylor & Francis, London, UK, pp. 42–64.

Evans-Pritchard, E 1937, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande, Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK.

Garrick, D 2005, ‘Excuses, Excuses: Rationalisations of Western Sex Tourists in Thailand’, Current Issues in Tourism, vol. 8, no. 6, pp. 497–509.

Mohsen, M 2016, ‘4 beliefs about witchcraft found in Asia’, Yahoo Lifestyle, accessed June 5, 2019, from <https://sg.style.yahoo.com/4-interesting-witchcraft-rituals-in-asia-232102742.html&gt;

See Also:

Imogen’s piece on Anthropology’s history

Abbie’s piece on Emic/Etic

Maddie’s piece on Liminality

Julia’s piece on the Field