Category Archives: Research


New Algorithms in Culture Research at UC Berkeley

My Center has just received received both an Institute of International Studies (IIS) grant and a Social Science Matrix Award to support a new research program in Algorithms in Culture. A foundational concept in computer science, algorithms – loosely defined as a set of rules to direct the behavior of machines or humans – have shaped infrastructures, practices, and daily lives around the world.  The CSTMS interdisciplinary working group supported by both grants will be led by core faculty members Massimo Mazzotti (History), David Bates (Rhetoric), Caitlin Rosenthal (History), and Jenna Burrell (Information School), David Bamman (Information School), Marion Fourcade (Sociology), Gretchen Gano (CSTMS Associate Director of Research), and Morgan G. Ames (CSTMS Postdoctoral scholar). CSTMS will host an Algorithms in Culture Conference on December 1-2nd, 2016. We will be working on two journal special issues as well.



Amherst College supports student engagement in Cop21

This year I have developed a sincere appreciation for the ambition of young scholars interested in making an impact. Before I left Amherst College this past spring, I had the opportunity to encourage a group of Amherst College Environmental Studies majors led by rising senior Anna Burglund to gain observer status to attend the Cop21 UN Climate talks in Paris that happened in December.

In addition to figuring out how to get students into the meetings, we came up with a plan to set up a Special Topics course at Amherst this past fall called “COP21 and Climate Politics”. Amherst students recorded their experiences at Cop21 in this blog hosted by the Office of Environmental Sustainability.

Amherst students joined students from Pomona and MacAlester Colleges who had participated in the June 2015 World Wide Views on Climate and Energy global citizen dialog which resulted in a citizens report to the UN delegates. I am conducting follow up research this year to interview the policy actors who have received information about the citizen dialog to learn their views about the possibility of interjecting citizen views into transnational climate governance.

Here is the original proposal student Anna Burglund sent to President Martin in the spring of 2015:

A coalition of students, faculty, and staff requests support from the President’s office for a project that cements the issue of climate change and the ongoing struggle for solutions into the lives of the Amherst College community. The project uses the upcoming 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) convention in Paris in December 2015 as a catalyst to inspire linkages between curricular learning and co-curricular opportunities aligned with the goals of the College’s newly approved Strategic Plan.  It also seeks to establish partnerships with community members and other colleges around environment and climate change, and to develop a replicable model for international engagement by Amherst students and faculty. This ambitious project will combine academic research, social activism, inter-campus collaboration, and community engagement to create a meaningful experience for all involved—and lay the groundwork for future efforts to include out-of-classroom learning in Environmental Studies and other disciplines.

Over the past year, Amherst College established the Office of Environmental Sustainability, pledged to pursue sustainable investing, and began work on a Climate Action plan, thereby acknowledging the seriousness of climate change and the role the college needs to take in combatting it. Aligning with the College’s strategic goals to “Prepare students for increasing global interdependence and to combine analysis with action in the world,” we students will develop a replicable model for co-curricular engagement in climate and sustainability governance as a pilot for the Environmental Studies department and involve Amherst College students in international policy debate. Specifically this project:

  • creates a foundation of understanding of what climate change is and what it means for our college community and the international community through a Fall 2015 special topics course;
  • mobilizes a participatory opportunity for members of the coalition to attend, observe, and participate in the COP21 proceedings in France from November 30, 2015 to December 11, 2015 under official observer status sponsored by Pomona College; and
  • produces a student-led information-sharing forum that will disseminate our understanding of climate change and the policy-making process with members of the Amherst community, local high school students, and elected officials in spring 2016.

Broader Implications

This project will act as a model for future projects that seek to link coursework to activities beyond the Amherst campus. It will set a precedent for a new type of international student engagement that is active and hands-on rather than removed. In order to enable Amherst’s continued involvement in United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) proceedings, we will register the college as an accredited institution able to send representatives to upcoming conferences. This project lays the foundation for future partnerships between Amherst and other colleges, the local community, alumni, and international actors to be utilized in new and innovative ways. We believe that this project will have long-lasting effects in establishing Amherst College as a place where integrative learning and a global outlook take center stage.


Climate change is the defining issue for this generation of Amherst students. No other social, political, or economic challenge has the capacity to be so devastating to so many people. As a liberal arts institution dedicated to preparing students for productive engagement in the world, Amherst College has a responsibility to help equip its students to face the enormous difficulty of restructuring a global system built on the unrestricted burning of fossil fuels. If we are to stay under the 2 degree Celsius increase in average temperature and prevent catastrophic damage to the climate, time is running short to take effective action both as individuals and as a society. The millennial generation faces immediate and daunting challenges that require an informed and motivated response.

In recognition of the urgency of this issue, climate negotiations are taking center stage in global governance. In December, the UNFCCC will be hosting the COP21 convention in Paris. This meeting brings together delegates from 196 countries to establish for the first time, a binding international agreement to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. The COP21 has the potential to profoundly shape global efforts to mitigate climate change in the short and long terms.

Though the official deliberations at COP21 are in the hands of the delegates, there are opportunities for citizens, NGOs, IGOs, and research institutions to participate in conference activities. Accredited groups can obtain observer status which allows their members to observe the official meetings of the delegates and smaller sub-committee meetings. Additionally, there is a civil society forum where advocacy groups get together to spread their messages to attendees and try to influence the official results. Though Amherst cannot be registered as an accredited institution by this December, Dr. Richard Worthington, Professor of Politics and Chair of the Program in Public Policy Analysis at Pomona College in Claremont, California has invited Amherst College to become a part of their delegation and obtain observer status.

The Amherst Mission

Amherst’s Strategic Plan, approved this spring established a foundational goal for the college of “Preparing students for increasing global interdependence by cultivating international programs and perspectives.” The opportunity for students both to observe and participate in international conferences with the scope and importance of COP21 is rare.

Additionally, the Strategic Plan expresses such goals as “providing [graduates] a global outlook and global capabilities” and “strengthening all students’ abilities to combine analysis with action in the world–in experiential and project-based courses, internships, community engagement programs, and entrepreneurship and leadership opportunities, whether on campus or off, in the Connecticut River Valley or in other countries.” This project takes learning beyond the classroom to connect students with the local community as well as the international one.

The establishment of the Office of Environmental Sustainability (OES) as well as the statement by the Board of Trustees this past February exemplifies how the college is committed to becoming a leader in creating a sustainable future.  The proposed project will take these ambitions to the next level and link Amherst to international institutions and make it a model for other colleges seeking to engage in the process. The development of a Climate Action Plan by the OES can be complemented by the chance to engage in the making of a sustainable world beyond Amherst’s borders. We will work with OES director, Laura Draucker, and the Chair of the Environmental Studies Department, Ethan Temeles, to connect the activities that are taking place on the international stage to efforts on campus. Linking the college to international institutions will make it a leader and a model for others in this process.

With these goals in mind and at this crucial moment of planning for the future, a coalition of students, staff, and faculty have created a project that engages our Amherst College community with the global community of actors who are working to understand and address climate change. Given the significance of the upcoming COP21 meeting, we feel the time is right for the Amherst College community to engage with these issues and take an active role in the global conversation about climate change.


Summer 2015

Over the summer, students and staff are participating in COP21-related events leading up to the proceedings that are designed to enhance the level of student civic participation in the global climate policy-making process. We are working with an organization called World Wide Views and a coalition of other colleges, including Pomona and Macalester, to coordinate and study the processes of citizen dialogue. Students are engaging in research around the ways ordinary people across the world talk about and conceptualize climate change issues. The information gathered this summer will inform the scholarly inquiry in the Special Topics course in the fall as well as contribute to senior thesis work.

Fall 2015

In the fall, we plan to scale up efforts on campus and off to bring the issues of climate change and global governance into the public eye. With the incoming first-year class having read Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, and with growing student interest in the Environmental Studies major, we believe that the campus will be more excited than ever to engage with climate change topics and take part in the solution-making process.

Our efforts in the fall will be guided by a Special Topics course taught by Environmental Studies faculty designed to prepare students to take part in the global dialogue around climate change. Students will create a research project to take place over the course of the semester that integrates scholarly thought on international policy-making with on-the-ground study of the conference proceedings in Paris. The course will help students conceptualize the biggest issue of our time and translate curricular activities into liberal arts research and civic engagement.

In order to bring these topics to the forefront of the Amherst community, part of the project will include bringing speakers to campus who are connected to the international proceedings. Important figures in the negotiations such as Todd Stern, the Special Envoy for Climate Change at the State Department, or Jonathan Pershing, the Deputy Director of the Office of Energy Policy in the Department of Energy, are being considered as potential speakers. We also seek to better engage with alumni who are participating in environmental work and can share their stories with the student body and inspire them to get involved. Bringing speakers to Amherst who are at the frontlines of the climate change struggle will embolden students to engage with the issue and integrate it meaningfully into their lives.

Because a multi-stakeholder approach is the only way to tackle climate change successfully, this project seeks to collaborate with a diverse group of campus and national student organizations. Holding informational events with student groups such as the Green Amherst Project, Model UN, the International Students Association, and others will connect as many Amherst students as possible to the initiative. The OES will support our coalition in bringing broad, international concepts to the work that can be done to make Amherst more sustainable.  The connection between Pomona, Macalester, and Amherst will be expanded upon so that the groups from each college can work together to make sense of the deliberations. We will establish a plan to meet (most likely via teleconference or Google Hangout), learn, discuss, and research with the students from these colleges as well as other institutions engaging with the international conference. Creating a national network of students interested in COP21 and climate change will facilitate collaborative learning and information sharing.

The research and activities completed in the months leading up to December will prepare a small coalition of 5 students and 1faculty member to attend COP21. This is a unique opportunity for students to take part in an event as momentous as these climate talks promise to be. Utilizing the observer status, the Amherst contingent would attend high-level meetings, participate in the civic sector opportunities, and conduct research on the process. Students will learn to perform event ethnography and connect with organizations and individuals around the world who have taken a stake in the climate negotiations. Participating in and reporting on the COP21 will be a powerful demonstration of Amherst’s commitment to fostering international awareness and engagement among its students. Throughout the project and in Paris we will represent Amherst College on an international stage, thereby showing how seriously the college takes its responsibility to prepare students to “lead principled lives of consequence.”

Spring 2016

After completing a significant amount of research at the COP21 meeting, students in the contingent will be prepared to disseminate what they have learned to the Amherst community. Students will participate in the Amherst Explorations celebration of student research presenting on the role Amherst has taken and can take in global climate negotiations. Additionally, we will establish a connection with Amherst Regional High School—through its Environmental Science instructors or an after-school environmental club—to share with younger students what has happened on the international stage and how they too can engage with the issues that face their generation. Finally, setting up meetings with town of Amherst and state elected officials will allow us to share how we might translate international plans into local action. The goal of this project is not to end our work with the conference in December, instead we view the meeting as merely a stepping stone to a more lasting set of partnerships and plans.

Cop21 Research at the United National General Assembly

2015-09-25 10.23.15 2015-09-26 15.16.04

This week I spent following representatives from Missions Publiques and the Danish Board of Technology Foundation as they met with United Nations delegates, NGO representatives and others to report the results of the recent World Wide Views on Climate and Energy citizen report in advance of the Cop21 meeting in Paris. There was a side event at the UN where the official briefing took place, but all the real action happened at the nearby Le Pain Quotidien!


My research on the impact of dissemination of this information to try and influence the climate agreement to take the views of global publics into account is supported by a sub award by the KR Foundation to The Danish Board of Technology and the Loka Institute to evaluate the impacts of this latest global citizen dialog on policy networks.


Futures special issue on inaugural emerge conference

Several articles, including one I wrote called “Starting with Universe: Buckminster Fuller’s Design Science Now,” are now available in a Futures Special Section on Mediating Futures; Guest Edited by Cynthia Selin.

The special section collects different research perspectives on the inaugural Emerge: Artists + Scientists Reinvent the Future. This was an unparalleled campus–wide event uniting artists, engineers, bio scientists, social scientists, story–tellers and designers to build, draw, write and rethink the future of the human species and the environments that we share.

Selin introduces the special section this way:

Emerge: Artists and Scientists Redesign the Future, hosted by Arizona State University in 2012, united artists, engineers, bioscientists, social scientists, storytellers and designers to build, draw, write and play with the future. Over three days, and in nine different workshops, participants created games, products, monuments, images and stories in an effort to reveal the texture and feel of emergent futures. The Emerge workshops drew from a burgeoning field of future-oriented methods that infuse art, design and information technology into the development and delivery of scenarios and design fictions – a constellation of practices I call “mediated scenarios”. This introduction and the articles in this special issue, work to make sense of these emerging practices, and of Emerge itself, in order to develop appreciation of this rising genre. In doing so, the papers in this issue ask critical questions about the nature of these novel forms of foresight practice and investigate the trade-offs and potencies involved in the workings of mediated scenarios.

Global leaders from industry and creative practice joined ASU faculty and talented students for hands-on workshops as well as the Digital Culture Festival which included exhibits, interactive shows and live presentations. ASU and Emerge featured a line-up of world class keynote speakers for the conference-closing Keynotes Session including noted writers, designers and futurists such as Stewart Brand (The Whole Earth Discipline), Bruce Sterling (The Difference Engine, Beyond the Beyond), Sherry Turkle (Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other), Bruce Mau (Incomplete Manifesto for Growth, Massive Change Network), Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, Remade) and ASU President Michael Crow.

Here was our public presentation on the Starting with Universe workshop themes delivered by my long-time collaborator, David McConville, Board Chair of the Buckminster Fuller Institute.


How Crowds Make Technology: Revisiting Lewis Mumford’s Megamachine

LMScience and technology studies (STS) scholars claim that we live with the technological systems today that we, through a series of individual and collective choices, have wrought. However, save for recent public kerfuffles over GMO foods and BSE in Europe, most of us don’t take part in political activities that address the accretion of technologies in our lives, much less technology’s internal logic that has us all updating software, waiting for traffic lights, and going about our business as drone planes take aim in Afghanistan. In this light, the assertion that collective intentionality governs technology is troubling. This paper explores a foundational metaphor of how crowds in society make technology: Lewis Mumford’s concept of the megamachine, or dynamic, regimented human capacities driving sociotechnological achievement. I ask whether constructivist approaches in STS square with Mumford’s metaphor. I examine the megamachine’s component parts in relation to two pivotal works that characterize the impact of collective capacities on society and in turn, socio-technical arrangements: Bruno Latour’s Pasteurization of France and Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power. I provide a structured commentary on sociotechnical models (collective capacities and actants) and processes for transformation (innovation and abduction) in Mumford, Latour, and Canetti, accounting for power dynamics, the material, and the drive for endless and accelerated progress that connects these two. The resulting model of a “soft” megamachine suggests an alternative approach to the design and practice of technology assessment and a lens through which to view contemporary network society.

The Megamachine: Lewis Mumford’s Vision of Technological Society and Implications for (participatory) Technology Assessment


I will talk about my research to develop a theoretical framework that 1) Defines the sociotechnical in terms of crowd aggregates that contain both human beings, technologies and other material objects 2) I claim that sociotechnical crowds have qualities and talents that amount to more than the sum of individual choices. 3) I am going to talk briefly about the implication of these insights about sociotechnical crowds for technology assessment that includes public participation. This is work in progress and I look forward to evolving it by taking this discussion into account.


My recent research has explored a prominent metaphor created by American humanist and philosopher of technology, Lewis Mumford, called the megamachine.  Mumford’s thirty books on literature, culture, architecture, urban planning, and technology amount to a grand narrative that digests the industrial revolution almost in its entirety. Mumford’s vision of a technological society developed over the course of many books from a “soft determinism,” where technologies and the material define social changes in human history, to a more interwoven and interdependent concept of the megamachine, “a system made up of interchangeable parts, inanimate and animate, human, mechanical, and institutional, centrally organized and controlled”(Thomas Parke Hughes and Hughes 1990a, 10).

My look at Mumford’s work refocuses attention on the path of this evolution to show that the material retains a persistent and iterative influence on the sociotechnical and can be detected in the behavior of aggregates, or what I will call collective capacities or “the crowd.”


The pyramid is an artifact of the “first megamachine”. What makes it the ultimate example for Mumford is that it was constructed without sophisticated technologies by a labor force that erected a gigantic structure with extreme precision driven by a king with divine attributes (Mumford 1966b). This collective human labor force is one example of the megamachine at work, where collective capacities drive innovation. By collective capacities I mean to consider all the forces that can be exerted by groups in concert with their environments and the material conditions in them.

While a particular capacity might be held or carried out by an individual, following Mumford’s lead I assert that the capacity of the collective, or what I am referring to as “the crowd,” has a unique impact on environments that add up to more than an accretion of individual efforts. This view of the nature of collectives and their actions turns away from the description of individual agency, or rational actors, and instead focuses on qualities and patterns that emerge from the behavior of groups, societies, systems, and ecologies.


The megamachine metaphor accounts for the interaction of people, ideas and institutions or what authors of the book Social Construction of Technological Systems refer to as a ‘seamless web’ (Thomas Parke Hughes 1993, 140). This metaphor is the progenitor of the now well-established concept of ‘the sociotechnical,’ a term that has become central to analysis in science and technology studies.

I want to suggest that STS could take a fresh look at the sociotechnical by focusing on collective capacities for innovation, what I am calling crowds, and the influence of technologies and the material on these entities.

I assert that a new understanding of crowds can provide a framework for the analysis of and design for technology assessment practices to place the focus on emergent capabilities.

I align key concerns in two pivotal works that help amplify and give shape to the aspects of the megamachine and destabilize established ideas about how components in a sociotechnical system behave in the aggregate: Bruno Latour’s Pasteurization of France (1988) and Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power (1962).

As I create a model of collective capacities in the sociotechnical according to the parameters of Mumford’s megamachine, I reinterpret two established ideas about the behavior of crowds and about the undue influence of technological systems on human behavior, also known as technological determinism.

The first idea is the dominant notion in social theory that crowds are monolithic and a harbinger of violence that needs to be suppressed. The second is an all but notion of technological determinism, a theory that presumes that a society’s technology drives the formation of its social structure and cultural values.


With the help of Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power, I establish crowds as a distinct unit of social analysis and demonstrate that crowds have a multiplicity of motivations and emotions. Canetti writes a natural history of crowds that immediately veers away from the dominant treatment of crowds by Le Bon and others who theorize crowds as monolithic, as the irrational precursor to violent mobs, revolution and destruction. For Len Bon crowds in their irrationality necessitate authority and control. “Indeed, behind the fear and hate of crowds as politically destabilizing phenomena, there lies a much deeper concern, namely the fact that the crowd is a type of social entity that inherently threatens the physical and psychic boundaries of the individual. Not only is the crowd a dangerous political subject, it is also an outrageous epistemological object” (Brighenti 2010). It is precisely this treatment of the crowd as an epistemic entity that brings Canetti’s thinking in line with Mumford’s project to call out and critique a particular type of crowd that gets wrought through the megamachine.

I argue, with Mumford, that the crowd behaviors, or collective capacities, that give us the terms for scientific and technological innovation under the highly mechanized megamachine marginalize other ways that crowds, as a metaphor for an innovating sociotechnical society, can behave and innovate.


Latour’s philosophy, still unfolding at the time of writing Pasteurization of France is a radical reinterpretation of the metaphysics held by prominent philosophers of modernity. While Latour’s method has many facets, the most important aspect for aiding the interpretation of Mumford’s megamachine is the systematic discussion of why “there are more of us than we thought”: in this case unseen microbes as important actors in shaping society. This assertion opens the door to a different sort of accounting of the influence of collectives and material technologies on the shape of society. I apply this by thinking specifically about the influence of non-human aggregates like large cities, nuclear power plants, for example. Latour would disagree with me that non-human aggregates have a special potentiality, but I want to argue that large-scale technological systems or ecologies shore up influence that perpetuates sociotechnical arrangements that constitute the megamachine. Technology does not drive history, but technologies have persistent presence that matters and is continually recategorized.


I aim to show how collective capacities that take seriously the influence of things can be responsible for a condition that Mumford called the megamachine. I synthesize Mumford’s tactics with those of Canetti and Latour to propose a new focus in STS on crowds as a meaningful unit of social measure and on crowd behaviors as a function of interaction with the material as significant beyond the simple equation of crowd power is equal to the sum of individual wills standing together.

I am going to close by suggesting tactics for investigating alternate forms of those sociotechnical capacities in the context of technology assessment. And I will point out what I think are some theoretical challenges and opportunities that will take the field of social construction forward.


This theoretical framework leads me to ask “How can a focus on the characteristics and components of collective human capacities in sociotechnical systems impact the design and performance of technology assessment as a governance mechanism for innovation?” By technology assessment (TA) I mean formal practices that engage experts and sometimes lay people in the evaluation of issues associated with complex scientific and technical issues. The majority of contemporary TA is designed with framework privileging individual agency, rational discourse, and evaluated by its immediate policy relevance. I propose a new model of technology assessment that includes broader public participation and recognizes the interrelationship between the material, experience and affect in mediating the innovation process and mitigating the influence of expert assessment as an input to TA processes.


Briefly, in a recent project I organized with the Center for Nanotechnology in Society was an exploratory TA called Futurescape City Tours. Funded by the National Science Foundation under the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), Futurescape City Tours are interactive, community engagement projects where participants explore how emerging technologies could change their city and their lives in the near future.


Local residents, stakeholders, scientists and engineers tour their neighborhoods and talk about how new technologies like nanotechnology may change buildings, transportation, food, healthcare, energy use and more. In the tours participants set the agenda and capture and interpret their experiences through photography to bring in affect, experience and their tacit knowledge.

pTA techniques that incorporate material and experiential elements enact Mumford’s idea of innovation as a function of human parts rather than of technologies. pTA processes attentive to tacit knowledge and affect can flag underlying public values that often go unarticulated. pTA of this kind fosters an iterative process wherein public values evolve in direct relation to probing the material and experiential.


To conclude I was a bit provocative with my abstract to suggest that SCOT scholarship does not fully account for the persistence of a particular science/technology relationship Mumford critiqued by defining the megamachine. I believe that a focus on crowds as I have defined them can further thinking about the concepts of social groups and of interpretive flexibility in the context of SCOT. Overall this work can contribute to theory about the science/technology relationship. This is developing work and I welcome your thoughts and questions.