ASA2016: Footprints and futures: the time of anthropology

Digital environmentalisms
Location Science Site/Chemistry CG218
Date and Start Time 04 July, 2016 at 14:00
Sessions 2


  • Antonia Walford (University College London) email
  • Hannah Knox (University College London) email

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Short Abstract

This panel will explore digital technologies as key aspects in the formation of a contemporary environmental imaginary, and as a potential site for transforming anthropological approaches to human-environmental relations.

Long Abstract

Environment and energy crises have brought anthropological questions about how humans relate to nature into conversation with concerns to explore the material bases of contemporary political and economic life. Anthropologists working on this interface have shown that such global processes are the outcome of multi-scalar interactions between dynamic material arrangements, human and non-human relationalities, and industries, societies and economies. However, importantly, these global environmental processes are increasingly materialised, manipulated, and mediated by complex informational infrastructures. Sensors and databases order and evidence environments in complex and unstable ways; digital techniques are crucial to the commoditisation of natural resources; models shape environmental presents, futures and pasts; environmental data visualisations and products are called upon by diverse stakeholders, from climate sceptics to indigenous activists to anthropologists themselves. This panel will explore what happens to anthropological approaches to energy and the environment when we pay attention to the role of digital technologies in the process of human-environmental becoming.

- What role do digital techniques play in how people imagine and engage environmental processes?

- How does an attention to digital environmentalism provide a way into a more nuanced description of the interplay between ontology and epistemology, materials and symbols, or humans and natures?

- Can the study of digital practices in other social settings help us understand the processes we confront in digital environmentalism?

- Finally, how does an attention to digital technologies disrupt and re-situate claims as to the role that anthropology should play in the study of environmental and energetic crises?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


From kilo to mega to giga to tera to peta to exa to zetta to yotta: scientific data, sociality, and value

Author: Antonia Walford (University College London)  email

Short Abstract

The environmental sciences have over the last decades experienced a “data deluge”, prompting concerns around the curation, storage and sharing of increasingly enormous data sets. This paper will explore the value of scientific data, and the social and relational efficacy that it has as a result.

Long Abstract

Although it has not attracted as much attention as the Big Data of social media and business, the natural sciences have also over the last decades experienced a "data deluge", prompting concerns around the curation, storage and sharing of increasingly enormous data sets. Large scale scientific projects regularly produce peta or exa bytes of data, and data scientists such as James Gray, who worked closely with the natural sciences over his lifetime, have proposed that we understand contemporary data-driven science as functioning under a "fourth paradigm", to indicate this shift into data. One of the reasons that this shift has attracted less attention from the critical social sciences is that scientific data is often presumed to be inherently alienable, and without much direct economic value. This has meant that the value of scientific data is very rarely explored. Drawing on fieldwork with a large-scale scientific project in the Brazilian Amazon and on literature about "the fourth paradigm" in science, this paper will explore the value that scientific data both creates and accrues, the different sorts of knowledge economies and regimes of value that it co-constructs, and the social and relational efficacy that it has as a result.

Musical touring and academic conferencing: creative alternatives made possible by digital technologies

Author: Mark Pedelty (University of Minnesota)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines cases of environmentalist musicianship to determine if artists’ innovative efforts to alter unsustainable touring traditions might offer useful insights for traveling academics’ as we seek to replace unsustainable travel and conferencing practice with emerging digital technologies.

Long Abstract

Travel and transportation have become two of the most problematic "material bases of contemporary political and economic life." Travel decisions create difficult trade-offs for everyone, including academics and musicians. This paper examines several cases of environmentalist musicianship to see what ideas touring artists have to offer traveling academics.

Face-to-face academic conference is becoming increasingly less sustainable. Yet, digital alternatives, no matter how promising, have yet to mature to the point where they can replace physical travel and co-present conferencing. In terms of participant observation, what do our traveling practices tell us about the larger systems we research and critique? What conundrums and hidden disciplines are revealed when we ask the existential question: "To travel or not to travel"? What forms of "environmental becoming" are we modeling in the Academy? The Media Anthropology Network E-seminar series will be offered as an alternative form of conferencing that, for many of us, not only supplements live conferencing but in some cases might even replace unsustainable travel.

The presentation will then turn to alternative practices from the musical world, focusing on Graham Smith-White's bicycle-based concerts and digital recording studio. Musicians have been dealing with contradictions between message (e.g., sustainability) and material exigency (e.g., live touring) for some time. Therefore, emerging alternatives from the music world demonstrate the potential for digital technologies to render unsustainable travel increasingly unnecessary, providing new ideas for academics facing similar ecological dilemmas.

Human agency between digital and environmental concerns

Author: Roxana Morosanu (Loughborough University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper looks at potential ways for reconsidering and reconceptualising human agency that emerge at the intersection of environmental considerations and digital practices.

Long Abstract

The role of human action in digital anthropology research differs considerably from the ways in which social scientists of sustainability account for human agency in their work. While in the former body of literature human decisions over, for example, what types, or combinations, of technologies to use in specific situations or acts of communication are central to epistemological inquiries, scholarship in the social sciences of sustainability field displays a troubled relationship with the concept of human agency. This is partly due to a recent de-centring of the human subject in order to emphasize the flat ontologies of networks, affect, and practices.

This paper looks at potential ways for reconsidering and reconceptualising human agency that emerge at the intersection of environmental considerations and digital practices. I will focus, specifically, on actions of spontaneity that emerge in relation to the affordances of digital technologies for simultaneity and ubiquity. I will then discuss the ways in which actions of spontaneity articulate specific orientations towards one's environment, as well as wider considerations of human-environmental relations.

The paper will discuss findings that emerged from my research as part of a wider interdisciplinary project that looked at domestic energy consumption and digital practices of UK families with the aim of proposing digital interventions for reducing energy demand.

Framing uncertain futures: promises, probabilities and the prediction of weather and climate

Authors: Sophie Haines (University of Oxford)  email
David Zeitlyn (University of Oxford)  email

Short Abstract

This paper considers conceptual and practical interactions of digital weather/climate modelling with cultural worldviews, science-policy processes, and the shaping of social and environmental futures.

Long Abstract

Anthropologists have encountered and documented an extensive variety of divination, prophesy and forecasting (now digital forecasting and modelling) practices, which offer possibilities for anticipating, making sense of, and perhaps influencing social and environmental futures. Like promises, predictions can draw a shared vision of the future in the present, even if the ultimate outcome remains uncertain. Unlike predictions based on entrails or the position of stars, probabilistic scientific predictions/projections of weather and climate involve quantification of the uncertainty in the forecast. Yet we are never able to repeat the observations in a strict experimental sense. We wonder how the use of the terminology of quantification and probability influences the social status of these forecasts. Within the realm of scientific weather prediction, it is possible to identify significant types of variation, which contribute to different framings of uncertain futures: 1) different categorisations of uncertainty that decision-makers often wish to reduce and that forecasters face; 2) different models employed as tools to try to identify and address these uncertainties; 3) different types of forecast that may be prepared and communicated for different purposes, e.g. warnings of hazards and socio-economic impacts. In what different ways might forecasts precipitate intended or unintended effects on lives, livelihoods and environments? Drawing on conversations across anthropology and STS, and on ethnographic fieldwork on divination, weather forecast production and use of digital technologies (e.g. ABMs) for resource management, our paper explores the social and technical perturbations that can shift how uncertain social and environmental futures are framed and realised.

The demise of the local and the emergence of the universal in national sustainable planning solutions to climate and environmental challenges.

Author: Mark Graham (Stockholm University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper looks at the Swedish Symbiocity solution to sustainable urban planning. It charts the genesis of the concept and the consequences of a mobile digital solution in terms if the loss of ‘local’ knowledge and experience in ‘universal’ solutions to ‘universal’ environmental problems.

Long Abstract

Urban planning that intends to tackle environmental challenges has morphed into mobile concepts and ideas in digital form that are communicated via the Internet as packages available for purchase by interested parties. This paper looks at one such package, the Swedish Symbiocity solution to sustainable urban planning. It charts the genesis of the concept and examines how its original status as planning in situ became a concept that can be marketed globally. The paper situates this and similar planning solutions within a world increasingly framed as 'the Anthropocene' and asks what are the consequences of such packages, including the possible loss of 'local' knowledge and experience in favour of solutions that appeal to a universal humanity facing universal problems. It interrogates the profit motive and national aspirations beyond such concepts, which are portrayed as beyond national economic interests, but also asks what alternatives exist in a world that, despite the appeals to the universal, is still heavily marked by national interests and agendas in the face of climate change and its challenges.

A detour on the way to sustainable mobility: DriveGreen approach

Author: Dan Podjed (Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts (ZRC SAZU))  email

Short Abstract

The DriveGreen project started with an idea to develop a smartphone app for reducing CO2 emissions produced by transport. A detour to sustainable mobility was made via a health and lifestyle app that tracks the use of public and personal transport and introduces walking, running, and cycling achievements.

Long Abstract

The DriveGreen project, carried out as a collaboration between anthropologists and engineers, started with an idea to develop a smartphone solution for reducing greenhouse emissions produced by passenger traffic. The smartphone application is being designed on the basis of an interdisciplinary study conducted in five urban centres: Ljubljana, Belgrade, Budapest, Istanbul, and Newcastle. The main premise of the development procedures - and the reason why anthropologists are engaged in the project - is that there can be no 'one-size-fits-all' solution for promoting sustainable mobility in various places and social settings, which is why the research team had to identify the most appropriate localised approaches and determine commonalities of the target cities.

The multi-sited study shows that environmental awareness has the least influence on mobility habits. Lowering fuel expenses carries more weight, yet is not persuasive enough to help reach the 'tipping point' for sustainable mobility. The DriveGreen team therefore decided to make a detour to promote sustainability via a health and lifestyle app that tracks the use of public transport and passenger cars and introduces walking, running, and cycling achievements. The app also encourages competition and cooperation by engaging users in individual and collective 'actions.' It is a holistic approach to mobility habits, which are not presented only as a 'carbon footprint' but also as personal and public achievements in physical recreation and in using city transport.

This paper highlights the main findings of the DriveGreen project and presents its development approach, which can be used to prepare other solutions for promoting a low-carbon lifestyle.

Digital materiality, fabrication and representation of emergent cities

Author: Alejandro Veliz Reyes (Plymouth University)  email

Short Abstract

This submission explores the relationship between complex urban phenomena (described here as “emergent cities”) and its representational/modelling techniques in the context of architecture and city planning design studios.

Long Abstract

The representation, modelling and communication of design knowledge is central to imagining, planning and developing future built environment scenarios, and form the core of project-based learning in architectural and city planning education.

Challenging more classic expansion-based models of urban growth, however, cities have suffered complex processes of extreme densification, rapid local and global migration patterns, or in-city regeneration/desertification processes. This collection of patterns is what we call "emergent cities", and they arguably reshape our understanding of relevant contents of the canonical architectural curricula such as "the vernacular", "place and place-making", and "regionalism". This paper addresses how this updated knowledge requires updated modes of representation, modelling and communication for the training of future architects and city planners, how students engage with such digital toolboxes, and their impact on the design of future (although fictional) scenarios.

In that sense, a series of recently developed architectural modelling techniques offer a variety of associated methods to process, visualise or represent emergent cities - such as digital fabrication and modelling, augmented reality visualisations, and parametric modelling. To a more elaborated extent, complex models based on urban and big data involve information modelling techniques, and real-time geographic information models. As a result, a discussion around notions (and cases) of the (digital) materiality and model-making in design studios, urban analysis and representation, and imaginary future/fictional scenarios is the core of this submission.

This work is based on the development of a MA Architecture course in Plymouth University focused on emergent cities and digital design processes.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.