christinaagapakis   5

Oscillator | On Democratization
"In the early 1970’s, several Dutch universities created “science shops” (wetenschapswinkels) with the aim of democratizing science. The science shops connected public interest groups who had scientific questions with university students and researchers who could provide answers. Opening access to university research would help activist groups achieve their goals, and would also have an impact on the universities themselves. In an essay for the journal Science, Technology & Human Values, Joseph Wachelder writes about the more radical goals of the science shops early on:
The democratization of science in fact implied a general and even radical transformation of society. The aim was to reorient science toward the social needs of workers and disadvantaged groups and to fight the vested interest of the establishment and the so-called military-industrial complex. In those early days, the political Left pushed science shops as one means of transforming both science and society in radical ways. Unions, targeting issues such as occupational health, social security, and working conditions; environmentalists; patients’ groups; third-world activists; and, slightly later, women’s liberation groups considered themselves as partners in pursuit of a new and better society.
I read about the science shops for the first time over the holidays in Making Genes, Making Waves, Jon Beckwith’s autobiography about his research in molecular biology and his political activism. Given the current fad for “democratizing science” I was surprised that I’d never heard them mentioned before.


Indeed, today’s democratization looks a lot different from the democratization pushed by science shops and radical science movements of the 70s. Science for the People, an activist group of scientists and engineers founded in the early 1970s, organized against the misuse of science by military and corporate interests and advocated that science work for marginalized people rather than maintaining the status quo. A powerful symbol for the group was a fist raised in solidarity next to a hand holding a flask. Alice Bell notes in a recent article on activist science that, “The fist of solidarity stood in front of the chemist’s flask here, not simply used to hold science up high.”

[image]

Compare that with Science for the People, a Canadian radio program about science, which rebranded in 2013 from “Skeptically Speaking.” Their logo echoes the Science for the People cover image from 1970, but here the fist holds up a test tube—literally holding science up high. In a blog post about their rebrand, the producers discuss what “science for the people” means to them:
We’re about getting the word of something we love to people who might not hear about it anywhere else, in the hopes that maybe, just maybe, they’ll love it a little too. We’re about taking tough scientific concepts and teasing out what matters. We’re about taking the latest in scientific progress and relate it to people like our friends and our families, and our communities, and our society.


[image]

Telling people about your love for science is great, but as Bell notes (referring to the flask-toting fist on the cover of the Geek Manifesto), “Looking back at these earlier radicals, [it] seems to pale to a Che Guevara T-shirt in comparison.”

Other efforts seem similarly pale when you begin to examine their claims about democratization in light of what democratization meant to more political generations of scientists. Like the Science for the People radio program, many of these efforts are focused on the one-way transmission of science from the academy to the public, rather than a radical transformation of science itself to address public interests.

Open access publishing has made it easier to publish and read scientific articles, and is gradually (hopefully) chipping away at the tyranny of the impact factor in academic career advancement. These are worthy goals which I support whole-heartedly—I’ve published most of my papers in open access journals—but making papers open to download doesn’t necessarily make science democratic and open to everyone.

Likewise, recent efforts to get more people involved in scientific research have been branded “citizen science,” but unlike the science shops where the citizens dictated research directions, citizen science projects simply allow non-scientists to volunteer their time collecting or analyzing data for professional researchers. These projects can be great learning experiences, allowing non-scientists to get a better picture of the scientific process, as well as great research experiences, allowing scientists to explore topics that they couldn’t have done without the expanded team. But letting people do free work for you isn’t the same as doing work for people.

In synthetic biology, “democratization” has recently been used as a marketing ploy for companies that are selling DNA or DNA editing software. Cambrian Genomics and Genome Compiler both claim to “democratize creation,” an empty statement that helps drive press coverage and TED invitations in the crowded genetic engineering market. Both companies are selling slightly different, cheaper, or easier to use versions of things that have been sold to molecular biologists for decades, but claiming that their versions will suddenly make it possible for “anyone” to do genetic engineering. Making cheaper and more accessible laboratory tools is great, but it’s worth asking what else is necessary to truly make “creation” accessible (I’m not going to get into the differences between synthesizing DNA and “creating life” here, but suffice it to say that I don’t agree with that part of their phrasing either). There are many other tools, training, and above all a reason to do it that are all necessary in order to make a “creature.” It’s no surprise then that, according to SF Gate, Cambrian currently sells DNA primarily to biotech giants like Roche, GlaxoSmithKline, and Thermo Fisher. If you don’t work to really democratize science, you’re just making cheaper tools for the people who already had access to them. (Also hype, lots of hype.)

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The contemporary projects that seems most like the 70s Dutch science shops are today’s hackerspaces and community labs, where non-expert scientists can explore techno-scientific questions on their own time (and usually on their own dime). While there are a huge variety of projects and educational goals in these spaces, a particular kind of “hacker” has gone mainstream (and even received DARPA funding). Tinkering in a garage is now seen as the first step towards starting the next multibillion dollar Silicon Valley company. Hackerspaces can be the site of anti-establishment thinking, but they are also becoming part of the military-industrial complex.

None of these projects are necessarily bad. By and large, they all point towards a broader positive shift happening in the scientific community towards more transparency, accountability, diversity, and public involvement. But we shouldn’t let something as important as democratization become an empty label. We need to be critical of self-proclaimed democratizers—who is benefitting and who remains left out? Who is calling the shots and who is working for whom? Where does the money come from? How can we do science better?"
christinaagapakis  democratization  science  history  politics  1920s  netherlands  wetenschapswinkels  scienceshops  canada  scientificallyspeaking  transmission  citizenscience  scientificprocess  learning  education  accessibility  hackerspaces  communitylabs  labs  laboratories  darpa  tinkering  makerspaces 
january 2015 by robertogreco
Dirt
"This is a collaborative project by Christina Agapakis and Ellie Harmon, supported by the University of California Institute for Research in the Arts. While hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, Ellie collected samples of dirt throughout California and sent them to Christina's lab. They extracted DNA from the bacteria living in the dirt and sequenced the 16S ribosomal RNA to identify what species of bacteria were there. Click on a picture to see a summary of the bacterial species living in the sample."
california  dirt  oregon  washington  christinaagapakis  ellieharmon  bacteria  genetics 
april 2014 by robertogreco
In the Loop: Designing Conversations With Algorithms | superflux
"As algorithmic systems become more prevalent, I’ve begun to notice of a variety of emergent behaviors evolving to work around these constraints, to deal with the insufficiency of these black box systems. These behaviors point to a growing dissatisfaction with the predominant design principles, and imply a new posture towards our relationships with machines.

Adaptation

The first behavior is adaptation. These are situations where I bend to the system’s will. For example, adaptations to the shortcomings of voice UI systems — mispronouncing a friend’s name to get my phone to call them; overenunciating; or speaking in a different accent because of the cultural assumptions built into voice recognition. We see people contort their behavior to perform for the system so that it responds optimally. This is compliance, an acknowledgement that we understand how a system listens, even when it’s not doing what we expect. We know that it isn’t flexible or responsive enough, so we shape ourselves to it. If this is the way we move forward, do half of us end up with Google accents and the other half with Apple accents? How much of our culture ends up being an adaptation to systems we can’t communicate well with?

Negotiation

The second type of behavior we’re seeing is negotiation — strategies for engaging with a system to operate within it in more nuanced ways. One example of this is Ghostery, a browser extension that allows one to see what data is being tracked from one’s web browsing and limit it or shape it according to one’s desires. This represents a middle ground: a system that is intended to be opaque is being probed in order to see what it does and try and work with it better. In these negotiations, users force a system to be more visible and flexible so that they can better converse with it.

We also see this kind of probing of algorithms becoming a new and critical role in journalism, as newsrooms take it upon themselves to independently investigate systems through impulse response modeling and reverse engineering, whether it's looking at the words that search engines censor from their autocomplete suggestions, how online retailers dynamically target different prices to different users, or how political campaigns generate fundraising emails.

Antagonism

Third, rather than bending to the system or trying to better converse with it, some take an antagonistic stance: they break the system to assert their will. Adam Harvey’s CV Dazzle is one example of this approach, where people hack their hair and makeup in order to foil computer vision and opt out of participating in facial recognition systems. What’s interesting here is that, while the attitude here is antagonistic, it is also an extreme acknowledgement of a system’s power — understanding that one must alter one’s identity and appearance in order to simply exert free will in an interaction."



"Julian Oliver states this problem well, saying: “Our inability to describe and understand [technological infrastructure] reduces our critical reach, leaving us both disempowered and, quite often, vulnerable. Infrastructure must not be a ghost. Nor should we have only mythic imagination at our disposal in attempts to describe it. 'The Cloud' is a good example of a dangerous simplification at work, akin to a children's book.”

So, what I advocate is designing interactions that acknowledge the peer-like status these systems now have in our lives. Interactions where we don't shield ourselves from complexity but actively engage with it. And in order to engage with it, the conduits for those negotiations need to be accessible not only to experts and hackers but to the average user as well. We need to give our users more respect and provide them with more information so that they can start to have empowered dialogues with the pervasive systems around them.

This is obviously not a simple proposition, so we start with: what are the counterpart values? What’s the alternative to the black box, what’s the alternative to “it just works”? What design principles should we building into new interactions?

Transparency

The first is transparency. In order to be able to engage in a fruitful interaction with a system, I need to be able to understand something about its decision-making process. And I want to be clear that transparency doesn’t mean complete visibility, it doesn’t mean showing me every data packet sent or every decision tree.



Agency

The second principle here is agency, meaning that a system’s design should empower users to not only accomplish tasks, but should also convey a sense that they are in control of their participation with a system at any moment. And I want to be clear that agency is different from absolute and granular control.



Virtuosity

The last principle, virtuosity, is something that usually comes as a result of systems that support agency and transparency well. And when I say virtuosity, what I mean is the ability to use a technology expressively.

A technology allows for virtuosity when it contains affordances for all kinds of skilled techniques that can become deeply embedded into processes and cultures. It’s not just about being able to adapt something to one’s needs, but to “play” a system with skill and expressiveness."
superflux  anabjain  agency  algorithms  complexity  design  networks  wearables  christinaagapakis  paulgrahamraven  scottsmith  alexislloyd  2014  communication  adaptation  negotiation  antagonism  ghostery  julianoliver  transparency  virtuosity  visibility  systemsthinking  systems  expressiveness 
april 2014 by robertogreco
No, there aren’t “two cultures” | Oscillator, Scientific American Blog Network
"To say that science is objectively focused on external reality and not, to quote the best subtitle of all time “produced by people with bodies, situated in time, space, culture, and society, and struggling for credibility and authority,” is to ignore the external reality of how science and culture shape one another through the life and work of scientists. The problem with the “two cultures” concept then is neither that non-scientists don’t know enough about thermodynamics, nor that science can’t fully capture the ineffable power of art, but that separating science off from culture leads to bad science.

The belief that science and scientists are somehow above the influence of cultural forces has made it easier to pass off harmful stereotypes and cultural biases as scientific facts. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the “science” of human difference and the generations of scientists who studied the “natural” inferiority of women and basically any minority group ever. These “scientific” beliefs about human nature change over time not because of the progressive power of science to correct previous errors with new evidence, but because of the changes that happen in culture when disenfranchised people fight hard to be heard — in politics, in art, and in science.

The idea that “true science” is strictly rational, with a clear path leading from questions to answers, organized around the infallible scientific method, is especially damaging for young scientists. When experiments fail or produce inconsistent, confusing data, students get lost in what systems biologist Uri Alon calls “the cloud” — where imagination and intellectual curiosity are necessary to break free. This process only looks plainly rational through 20/20 hindsight, when, following the rubric of the two cultures, scientists painstakingly remove the evidence of their intuitions, leaving a picture of science that is impossible to reproduce.

This is why as a teacher and biologist, I work with artists and social scientists: not to better communicate science through creative packaging, but to understand how cultures, science, and technology intersect. Too often, scientists think of artistic, humanistic, and social scientific methods as ways to make the rational medicine of science go down easier. If science were truly concerned with open inquiry and experimentation, we might look harder for ways to disprove the two cultures hypothesis."

[References William Deresiewicz's book review: "No, Jane Austen Was Not a Game Theorist: Using science to explain art is a good way to butcher both" http://www.newrepublic.com/article/116170/jane-austen-game-theorist-michael-suk-young-chwe-joke ]
twocultures  thirdculture  christinaagapakis  science  humanities  2014  via:anne  culture  dualism  art  transdisciplinary  crossdisciplinary  interdisciplinary  multidisciplinary  williamderesiewicz  culturewars  michaelsuk-youngchwe  inquiry  experimentation  openinquiry  criticalthinking  scientism  stereotypes 
january 2014 by robertogreco
Synthetic Aesthetics
"How would you design nature?

Synthetic Biology is a new approach to engineering biology, generally defined as the application of engineering principles – such as standardization and modularity - to the complexity of biology. The aim is to 'make biology easier to engineer', through the design and construction of new biological parts, devices, and systems, and the re-design of existing biological systems for useful purposes, from biofuels to new medical applications. Biology is becoming a new material for engineering - a new technology for design and construction."

[Vimeo channel: https://vimeo.com/channels/synthaes ]
[Flickr group: http://www.flickr.com/groups/synthaes/ ]
syntheticaesthetics  industrialdesign  tangibles  futurism  futures  communication  modularity  environment  plants  nature  architecture  criticaldesign  self-replication  protocells  bioart  cyanobacteria  oscillation  structure  smell  symbiosis  sisseltolaas  christinaagapakis  marianaleguia  chrischafe  hideoiwasaki  oroncatts  saschapohflepp  sherefmansy  davidbenjamin  fernanfederici  willcarey  wendelllim  interdisciplinarity  interdisciplinary  research  aesthetics  bioengineering  syntheticbiology  collaboration  science  art  design  biology  daisyginsberg  alexandradaisyginsberg  from delicious
june 2012 by robertogreco

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