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Digital Ethnography

Inter-Institutional Undergraduate Intensive, with M.E. Luka and Annette Markham

The acronym IRL, or “in real life,” purports to distinguish our “real,” unmediated, bodily existence from everything “unreal” that happens online. But the distinction isn’t quite so tidy; there’s hardly any aspect of our social and material worlds that remains untouched by digital technologies. How can we deploy the methods and sensibilities of ethnography, anthropology’s signature method, to better understand how the digital shapes our relationships, our institutions, our economies, our selves, etc? How might we deploy digital tools *in* that investigation? And how can we supplement anthropological methods with those from media studies, critical data studies, infrastructure studies, design, creative technology, and a variety of other fields? In this intensive intersession workshop, we’ll join with the Digital Ethnography Research Centre at RMIT in Melbourne, Australia, and the University of Toronto to engage in the globally networked exploration and application of digital ethnography. Students will be invited to complete course readings and screenings, small ethnographic exercises, and an individual or collaborative final project: a multimedia documentary of, or a field guide to, a digital environment or community or phenomenon. For the first two weeks in January, we’ll meet intensively for lecture, discussion, and collaborative exercises; students should expect to dedicate roughly five hours each day to either class meetings or asynchronous engagement, plus light homework. Students will then apply their learning through independently designed and executed digital fieldwork, which they’ll complete during the first half of the spring semester. The sensibilities and skills developed in this course will be highly relevant in a variety of fields, as most institutions and industries in the post-pandemic world will have to reimagine themselves to more integrally incorporate digital technologies.

Spring 2021 Class Website

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Mapping the Field

Graduate Elective
Maps reveal, delineate, verify, orient, navigate, anticipate, historicize, conceal, persuade, and, on occasion, even lie. From the earliest spatial representations in cave paintings and on clay tablets, to the predictive climate visualizations and crime maps and mobile cartographic apps of today and tomorrow, maps have offered far more than an objective representation of a stable reality. In this hybrid theory-practice studio we’ll examine maps as artifacts, as texts, as media; and mapping as a method useful in the social sciences, humanities, arts, and design. We’ll explore the past, present, and future – across myriad geographic and cultural contexts – of our techniques and technologies for mapping space and time. In the process, we’ll address various critical frameworks for analyzing the rhetorics, poetics, politics, and epistemologies of spatial and temporal maps. Throughout the semester we’ll also experiment with a variety of critical mapping tools and methods, from techniques of critical cartography to indigenous practices to sensory mapping to time-lining, using both analog and digital approaches. Students are encouraged to use the course, which will be supported by a skilled cartographer teaching assistant, to supplement their fieldwork, to develop their own thesis / dissertation projects, or to advance other personal research and creative pursuits. Course requirements include: individual map critiques; lab exercises; and individual research-based, critical-creative “atlases” composed of maps in a variety of formats.

Spring 2021 Class Website

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Student Resources

Identifying Your Interests and Establishing a Research Plan

Finding Sources

Reading Effectively

Resource-Management + Note-taking

Abstracts + Annotated Bibliographies 

The Literature Review / Mediagraphy

Forms of Scholarship: Writing

Forms of Scholarship: Multimodal

Engaging with Presentations + Asking Questions

Conference Tips

Letters of Recommendation

A Sort-of Manifesto for Graduate Students in a Praxis-Based MA Program Who Have Just Completed Their First Semesters and Are Embarking Into the Great Beyond (or, SMGSPBMAPWHJCTFSAEIGB, for short)

[Image: Andy Gilmore: W+K Amsterdam]

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Data Artifacts, Infrastructures + Landscapes

Graduate Seminar

Data fuel our economies and political systems, but they also shape our cultural and material worlds, inscribing themselves into our apps and architectures, our labor practices and logistical systems. We can observe how data logics, politics, and epistemologies are designed into — made manifest at — sites like factory farms and fulfilment centers, prisons and hospitals, archives and ports, borders and mines, smart cities and Whole Foods. In this course we’ll select a few test sites where we can explore how “datalogical designs” scale up and down, from software interfaces to master plans — and we’ll propose methodologies for reverse-engineering “black boxed” algorithmic logics through these material artifacts and architectures. Our work will be informed by a widely interdisciplinary body of literature, spanning from anthropology to geography to information and media studies. Depending upon the luck of course-planning, we might take a few field trips and/or conduct collaborative, short-term fieldwork at a single test site. Students will be able to develop mini-ethnographies of artifacts and landscapes of their choice. Instructor permission is required to register for this course.

Spring 2020 Website

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Anthropology of Networks

Undergraduate Studio, with Greta Byrum

While we imagine an Internet that blankets the earth, providing even its most remote and marginalized inhabitants with seamless connectivity, the reality is that a sizable portion of the world’s population lacks reliable access. Here in New York, as across most of the US — especially in rural and poorer urban areas — roughly 30% of households still lack access to broadband. New York City’s just-released Internet Master Plan calls for updated next-generation digital infrastructure, with a promise to afford universal, equitable access to this 21st-century utility: the network.

Building on existing anthropological, media studies, and urban studies research about infrastructures, networks, and digital technologies, this seminar-workshop will engage with NYC’s forthcoming plan to help us better understand the interplay between technical and social network infrastructures. The laying of wires and installation of antennae involve the embodiment of politics and values, just like the buildout of telephone wires, cable systems, and even highway and postal networks. We’ll examine the evolution of networks, and use NYC’s digital master plan as a practical case to understand the equity implications of network design, suggesting ways to build on the existing work of practitioners, activists, scholars, planners, and designers to create healthier sociotechnical ecosystems. We’ll also speak with researchers and activists who’ve practiced media and network ethnography; meet with city officials and local community leaders; embark on field trips around the city; design our own speculative networks; and work with NYC’s digital equity community to formulate a response to the Plan, including proposed community benefits and impact indicators.

Spring 2020 Website

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Anthropology + Design: Objects, Sites and Systems

Graduate Seminar

Designers commonly use ethnographic methods, and social scientists often adopt design practices, economies, cultures, and artifacts as their subjects of study, focusing in particular on how design “translates values into tangible experiences,” as anthropologist Dori Tunstall puts it. The New School offers us a unique environment for studying the myriad ways in which these disciplines and practices can inform one another, and we’ll begin our semester by examining those relationships: anthropology of design, ethnography for design, ethnography as design, and so forth. We’ll then explore some conceptual case studies, taking up various anthropological concepts and concerns and observing how they’re designed — made material, experiential, affective; given form — through a range of design practices (e.g., from urban design and architecture to fashion and software design), and how anthropological concepts and methods inform those practices. Throughout the semester we’ll host guest lectures and take field trips (including some TBD!) to see these methods in action, and students will have the opportunity to conduct a final research project, which could take the form of a written research paper, an ethnographic report, or a research-based creative project. While this seminar serves as the core course for the new Anthropology and Design track, graduate students from across the university are encouraged to enroll.

Fall 2019 Website
Fall 2020 Website

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Tools: Anvils to Androids

Undergraduate seminar-studio

Silicon Valley loves its “tools.” Tech critic Moira Weigel notes the frequency with which tech chiefs use the term, and she proposes that its popularity is largely attributable to its politics — or the lack thereof; tool talk, she says, encodes “a rejection of politics in favor of tinkering.” But humans have been using tools, to various political ends, for thousands of years. In this hybrid undergraduate seminar/studio we examine a range of tools, the work they allow us to do, they ways they script particular modes of labor and enact particular power relationships, and what they make possible in the world. After building up a critical vocabulary (of tools, gizmos, and gadgets), we’ll tackle a number of case studies — from anvils, erasers, and sewing needles to algorithms and surveillance technologies. In our Monday sessions we’ll study the week’s case through critical and historical studies from anthropology, archaeology, media studies, science and technology studies, and related fields; and in our Wednesday sessions we’ll explore that tool’s creative applications, either by studying the work of artists and creative practitioners, or by engaging in hands-on labs. Each student will develop a research-based “critical manual” for a tool of their choice.

Fall 2019 Website

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Thinking Through Interfaces

Integrative PhD Seminar, The New School, co-taught with Zed Adams

Interfaces are everywhere and nowhere. They pervade our lives, mediating our interactions with one another, technology, and the world. But their very pervasiveness also makes them invisible. In this seminar, we expose the hidden lives of interfaces, illuminating not just what they are and how they work, but also how they shape our lives, for better and worse. We also discuss a number of pressing social and political issues, such as why we are quick to adopt some interfaces (e.g., smartphones and social media platforms), but reluctant to embrace others (e.g., new voting machines and Google Glass).

Spring 2019 Website

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Data Archive Infrastructure

Elective graduate seminar course, The New School

“There has been more information produced in the last 30 years than during the previous 5000.”

We’ve all heard some variation on this maxim. As we find ourselves wading through a billion websites; as publishers supply over two million books to the world’s libraries each year; as we continue to add new media – from apps to geo-tagged maps – to our everyday media repertoires, we continually search for new ways to navigate this ever more treacherous sea of information. Meanwhile, our analog audio-visual archives are deteriorating, and our ever-volatile digital media and data sets present their own preservation challenges. Throughout human history we have relied on various institutions and politico-intellectual architectures to organize, index, preserve, make sense of, and facilitate or control access to our stores of knowledge, our assemblages of media, our collections of information. This seminar looks at the past, present, and future of our archives, libraries, and data repositories, and considers what logics, politics, audiences, contents, aesthetics, physical forms, etc., define them. We will examine what roles these collections play in a variety of contexts: in democracy, in education, in science, in socio-cultural heritage, in everyday life, and in art. Throughout the semester we’ll examine myriad analog and digital artworks that make use of archival/library material, or take the archive, library, or data repository as their subject. Some classes will involve field trips and guest speakers. Students will have the option of completing a substantial traditional research project, or a research-based, theoretically-informed creative/production project for the class.

Fall 2018 Website
Fall 2017 Website

See also Archived Class: Bookshelves to Big Data

Categories
Classes

Maps as Media

Elective graduate studio course, The New School

Maps reveal, delineate, verify, orient, navigate, anticipate, historicize, conceal, persuade, and, on occasion, even lie. From the earliest maps in cave paintings and on clay tablets, to the predictive climate visualizations and crime maps and mobile cartographic apps of today and tomorrow, maps have offered far more than an objective representation of a stable reality. In this hybrid theory-practice studio we’ll examine the past, present, and future – across myriad geographic and cultural contexts – of our techniques and technologies for mapping space and time. In the process, we’ll address various critical frameworks for analyzing the rhetorics, poetics, politics, and epistemologies of spatial and temporal maps. Throughout the semester we’ll also experiment with a variety of critical mapping tools and methods, from techniques of critical cartography to sensory mapping to time-lining, using both analog and digital approaches. Course requirements include: individual map critiques; lab exercises; and individual research-based, critical-creative “atlases” composed of at least five maps in a variety of formats.

Fall 2018 Website
Fall 2017 Website
Fall 2016 Website

Fall 2015 Website

I was invited to talk about this class in Jer Thorp’s “Data Art” class at NYU’s ITP, and as part of the “Map as Metaphor” series at the Center for Book Arts; you can find my talk and slides here.