Cyborg anthropologist Amber Case, the Technoccult interview

Amber Case

Photo by Kris Krug

Amber Case is a cyborg anthropologist and the co-founder and co-organizer of Cyborg Camp. You can find out more about her and her work in our dossier on her.

Klint Finley: Please tell us what you mean by “cyborg anthropology” and explain what it is that you do on a day-to-day basis.

Amber Case: Cyborg anthropology is the study of human and non-human interaction, especially tools and networks that are formed by networks of human and non human objects.

My work relates to tracing the history of tool use and how it has affected culture over time.

For instance, one can look at a hammer and notice that over the last 300 years the design and function of the hammer has not changed very much.

The shape and form and function are still similar but when one looks at the first computers, which were large machines running on vacuum tubes, and computers now — one sees that the computer’s overall look and function and shape and size has drastically changed.

So then one must look at the idea of the hammer or knife. An animal must evolve a better tooth, or sharp edge in which to capture and kill prey. If a tooth breaks, or is not sharp enough, or the animal is not fast enough, that animal dies and cannot reproduce.

But the human has externalized the evolution by making a tool outside of their mouths. The knife is an extension of the tooth that can be thrown. The speed and excellence of the knife depends on the worker or the person who has power enough to have a worker who can create that tool.

Once we externalized objects and processes, we externalized evolution.

But the computer is different. Tool use has been physical for most of human evolution. Now we see computers as an interface not to the physical self, but to the mental self.

The mental self is an internal space, which is unseen, and a lot of what we see on a computer is unseen unless we look at it through an interface or portal.

So what I do in cyborg anthropology is consider how people upload their bodies into hyperspace, and how humanness is produced through machines and machines through humanness.

I also consider online presence, cell phones and the technosocial self.

Amber Case

Photo by Andrew Hyde

What methodology do you employ? What is a day in the life of a cyborg anthropologist like?

My methodology is mainly qualitative analysis, ethnography and participant observation.

What I mean by that is that I use the anthropological method of ethnography to collect observations through participating in groups of people involved in tool use or digital networks and see how they work, play, communicate, and what their values are.

Part of my work is letting people know that they’ve always been part human and part machine. Donna Haraway talked about everyone being a low tech cyborg. That for some part of every day people are connected to a machine.

In my recent study of Facebook, I’ve combed through user stories and behavior and placed people into general groups of interaction. I’ve also studied how the interface – or the participation architecture of the site influences how people act as people begin to move online – and live out a great deal of their lives there, the shape of an interface really affects how people move so a lot of my day is spent combing through the internet looking at that sort of behavior and jotting it down into a digital field journal of sorts.

The other part is looking for new developments. Things that break the norms. Those are harbingers of new trends and systemic shifts.

maxtor file pile

What are some of your most interesting recent findings?

Some of my favorite things have been mistakes. For instance, when a middle aged woman thinks that she’s sending a private message to someone she’s been seeing, and in reality she posted on her wall for everyone to see.

Yahoo Answers are amazing. It’s where a lot of very young kids ask each other ridiculous questions – and young kids answer back.

Also, looking at people’s signatures. Not their handwritten ones, but their digital ones. How they compose sentences and where they use capitalization. How they respond to things, etc. It really tells a lot about who they are.

The other thing I like to discover is digital artifacts. There are some digital archeologists and historians who try to keep data alive and in circulation. When one considers it, and Stewart Brand has mentioned this quite a bit… data is very fragile.

When one considers the pyramids and symbols carved into stone, that data is still around today. It’s been thousands of years and we still have it vs. Twitter, where data is regularly dumped and not saved.

One of the problems is that machines don’t get heavier when we put data into them. Which seems strange, because information has weight in real life.

Jason Scott is a great data archivist. he runs textfiles.com. He saves BBS forums and stuff from the 80s that might have been erased over time.

It’s funny that you say that. Sometimes when I delete a lot off stuff from my laptop, I actually feel like my laptop is lighter. I know it isn’t, but it just seems like it is.

It’s interesting how you say that- it’s a sign that your senses are tied to a machine – that your machine has become an external brain of sorts.

The first time my computer crashed I felt I had lost half my brain.

Here is a conversation I had with @strangeways about weight.

@caseorganic: My old computer is being reformatted. I can feel the files being deleted. It’s a strange feeling, like re-writing memories.

@strangeways: I think it is completely possible. I’ve felt it many times before. There’s a transition from physical effects to mental ones.

@strangeways Physical storage came first, then mental storage. I bet mental phantom neuron syndrome will become more prevalent.

@caseorganic Sort of feels like amputation, doesn’t it? I wonder if one can experience phantom limb with a virtual body part.

There was a campaign for Maxtor about data. It becomes increasingly easy to put data into a system, but the data, once in the system, has an escape velocity like a black hole. The computer is beginning to liquefy objects around it, like a black hole. Especially the iPhone – taking physical objects like compasses, games, cameras, notebooks, date books and address books and digitizing them, centralizing them into one device.

What sorts of tools do you find most useful in your work?

I use Yahoo! Pipes, Netvibes, search.twitter.com, and TextEdit.

I use a lot of TextEdit. I copy and paste things in, label them, and then name the file with descriptive words. That way my computer becomes a search engine for my research.

But the best tool is SKITCH and Flickr. Skitch can take a screenshot and upload it automatically to my Flickr account. It’s my external brain. So I used Skitch and Flickr symbiotically to take a quick screenshot of whatever I’m working on.

A random sample from Amber Case's Flickr stream

A random example from Amber’s Flickr stream

I use Moodle for private notes to myself, and I have some Pbwiki accounts. But Flickr is really the best. It allows sources, timestamps, tagging, and searching. And it allows comments, so my digital journal becomes a living creation.

You don’t have a Phd or other post-graduate degree, is that correct?

I do not have a PhD.

And you work in the private sector as a consultant?

Yes.

Why did you decide to go into the private sector instead of continuing in academia? Do you think you will ever go back to academia?

I went to the private sector first because I just got out of college. I wrote a thesis on mobile phones and their technosocial sites of interaction. I got a degree in sociology and anthropology.

I was told to work two years in the “real world” before going back to academia, going straight to grad school would leave me at a disadvantage. First, I wouldn’t know what the real world needed, and secondly, I wouldn’t know anything else except for academia.

My favorite conference was MIT’s futures of entertainment, which I spoke at in November 2008. I liked the conference because it was a hybrid event. It brought together people from industry and academia. Industry can beneif a lot from academia, but not from 200 page reports. And academia can benefit a lot from industry, but not from silly marketing statements.

So I wanted both perspectives. Someone has to be able to translate between the two. Its useful, else a lot of miscommunication happens and redundancies occur.

What advice would you give to liberal arts majors looking to make a career outside of academia?

Network. Network a whole lot.

Don’t network in a silly way. Network honestly. Find people who inspire and invigorate you, who make you work on things harder than ever before.

Create an online presence that is ubiquitous and enjoyable to interface with. Let it be known who you want to be. Put that on your business card and on your social profiles.

Be uniform in your focus. Set goals for who you want to meet.

Become a resource for people. Connect them. Have a blog or set of resources that aggregates and disperses useful information in your area of interest.

Attend local conferences. Speak at events. Volunteer at conferences.

Speaking is the easiest way to meet everyone in the room. Volunteering is the easiest way to meet all of the registrants, especially ones you might be too afraid to talk to.

Don’t be afraid to find the smartest person in the room and ask them how they got there.

Fail daily. Fail a whole bunch. Challenge yourself and don’t worry if you have no supporters. Be the first one there.

… That sounds like a promotional book, lol.

cyborgcamp

And speaking of conferences – you were a founder and organizer of CyborgCamp, and the second one is coming up in a few months. Could you tell us about the impetus of that event?

The idea behind CyborgCamp was to have a forum for the discussion of the past, present, and future. The conference was also livestreamed so that it would be accessible to anyone in the world. It was seen in over 50 countries.

The conference was not really created by me, but by a community that sprang up suddenly on Twitter. Within 3 hours, CyborgCamp had a website, a wiki, a sponsor, and 9 volunteers.

It wasn’t a choice for me. I knew I had to make the conference, and I strove to make it an invigorating experience. I found some great speakers, like Ward Cunningham, inventor of the Wiki.

A typical conversation at CyborgCamp

Above: a typical conversation at CyborgCamp. Photo by Mark Coleman from the CyborgCamp photoset.

The unconference part allowed the attendees to discuss what was really on their minds. We discussed everything. From agriculture to technoculture, to insulin pumps, to connectivity and the digital device, to strategy and the future. It was a cocreated event, and it was amazing to be a part of it.

A number of people in Brasil watched the conference and there will be a
CyborgCamp Brasil in May 2010.

The next domestic one will be in Portland in October.

See Also

Hypersigils Reconsidered

11 Comments

  1. Fascinating! I know I’ve quit a blog in the past because I felt like I was becoming half robot. Maybe even more than half, because I have far more interactions online on a daily basis than my normal hermitic existence. But I guess this is natural?

  2. What an awesome interview! I love her ideas behind the technosocial self. I do want more detail on “externalizing evolution.” Hmm…
    Love the mention of digital archives. And her advice on networking was great too.

  3. Good interview. Lengthy so I put the text into spreeder.com. Guess that makes me a cyborg.

  4. I can understand the novelty in these topics but I have to wonder at some larger issues. I can understand the physical emergence of new phenomenon. Doesn’t it bother anyone that we’re raising human beings with a stunted real-world capacity? That many young humans involved in current perpetual culture do feel completely amputated by a power outage. Perhaps this Cyborg Anthropologist could use her knowledge to shift human perspective in order to better handle a real physical connection to an machine extension.

  5. Funny. “@caseorganic Sort of feels like amputation, doesn’t it? I wonder if one can experience phantom limb with a virtual body part.” Actually, the answer to that question is, yes. I stumbled across this article not too long ago.

    http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2010/01/bionics/fischman-text

  6. Fent, thanks very much for that article link. It was a fascinating and timely read.

  7. This is what our school are putting out!We are so fucked!

  8. You can’t be an anthropologist without a PhD. You can be many things, but it’s just plain disingenuous (no, not anti-establishment – disingenuous) to refer to yourself as an anthropologist.

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