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?


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.


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

Amazon explorers uncover signs of a real El Dorado

real el dorado

It is the legend that drew legions of explorers and adventurers to their deaths: an ancient empire of citadels and treasure hidden deep in the Amazon jungle.

Spanish conquistadores ventured into the rainforest seeking fortune, followed over the centuries by others convinced they would find a lost civilisation to rival the Aztecs and Incas.

Some seekers called it El Dorado, others the City of Z. But the jungle swallowed them and nothing was found, prompting the rest of the world to call it a myth. The Amazon was too inhospitable, said 20th century scholars, to permit large human settlements.

Now, however, the doomed dreamers have been proved right: there was a great civilisation. New satellite imagery and fly-overs have revealed more than 200 huge geometric earthworks carved in the upper Amazon basin near Brazil’s border with Bolivia.

Guardian: Amazon explorers uncover signs of a real El Dorado

(via Egg Basket in a Centrifuge)

What Happened to the Hominids Who Were Smarter Than Us? They never existed

Discover is running a piece on the “forgotten race” of hominids the Boskops, the remains of which were discovered in South Africa in 1913:

The scientific community of South Africa was small, and before long the skull came to the attention of S. H. Haughton, one of the country’s few formally trained paleontologists. He reported his findings at a 1915 meeting of the Royal Society of South Africa. “The cranial capacity must have been very large,” he said, and “calculation by the method of Broca gives a minimum figure of 1,832 cc [cubic centimeters].” The Boskop skull, it would seem, housed a brain perhaps 25 percent or more larger than our own. […]

Boskop’s greater brains and extended internal representations may have made it easier for them to accurately predict and interpret the world, to match their internal representations with real external events.

Perhaps, though, it also made the Boskops excessively internal and self-reflective. With their perhaps astonishing insights, they may have become a species of dreamers with an internal mental life literally beyond anything we can imagine.

The authors of the piece, Gary Lynch and Richard Granger (who co-authored the book Big Brain: The Origins and Future of Human Intelligence), wonder why the Boskop discovery has been almost entirely forgotten. University of Wisconsin paleoanthropologist has an answer for them:

This is obscure knowledge, but for a good reason — it’s obsolete and has been for fifty years! […]

What happened is that a small set of large crania were taken from a much larger sample of varied crania, and given the name, “Boskopoid.” This selection was initially done almost without any regard for archaeological or cultural associations — any old, large skull was a “Boskop”. Later, when a more systematic inventory of archaeological associations was entered into evidence, it became clear that the “Boskop race” was entirely a figment of anthropologists’ imaginations. Instead, the MSA-to-LSA population of South Africa had a varied array of features, within the last 20,000 years trending toward those present in historic southern African peoples.


To be sure, there has been a reduction in the average brain size in South Africa during the last 10,000 years, and there have been parallel reductions in Europe and China — pretty much everywhere we have decent samples of skeletons, it looks like brains have been shrinking. This is something I’ve done quite a bit of research on, and will continue to do so, because it’s interesting. But it is hardly a sign that ancient humans had mysterious mental powers — it is probably a matter of energetic efficiency (brains are expensive), developmental time (brains take a long time to mature) and diet (brains require high protein and fat consumption, less and less available to Holocene populations).

(Discover piece thanks to Paul, Hawks piece via Wikipedia)

Researchers discover that stress isn’t a modern invention

Using modern forensic technology and a decidedly modern understanding of biochemistry, researchers from The University of Western Ontario have taken a look at stress levels in pre-Colombian Peru; their findings are summarized in an upcoming edition of the Journal of Archaeological Science. They found that stress has plagued humanity for at least 1500 years. The researchers were able to get the dead to give up not only their final secrets, but an understanding of their life for a few years before they shuffled off this mortal coil.

When humans get stressed, our bodies release a chemical known as cortisol, which appears in our blood, our urine, and even our hair. Of those three, hair is only one stands the test of over 1000 years of time, and provides a short history of the last years that its owner had. By examining hair strands from 10 individuals at five different dig sites in Peru, the researchers were able to determine how stressed people were, using the levels of cortisol in segments of their hair.

Ars Technica: The prehistory of stress

(Thanks Paul)

Blood Brothers: Jack Donovan and Nathan F. Miller interviewed

Jack Donovan: My co-author Nathan Miller and I wrote a book about blood-brotherhood because Mr. Miller originally suggested it to me as an alternative to the ideal of “marriage” which carries too much heterosexual cultural baggage to create an innately masculine bond between two men.

But the book really isn’t about same sex-marriage. It’s about rites between men who were predominantly straight. It’s about male bonding and things that men—specifically men—have done to ritualize their friendships and alliances. Very few books have ever handled this topic, and ours is the only one to pull together so much information from so many diverse sources. In our research, we found blood-brotherhood bonds of various kinds in the recorded practices, literature, folklore and mythology of cultures from all over the world, throughout history. […]

Nathan F. Miller: It’s very interesting, because similar rituals have been performed by men of Africa, aboriginal Australia, and South America — populations that had been separated from each other for tens of thousands of years! Anthropological study of the blood-brother phenomenon shows certain logics that could apply to men anywhere. One reason is the rituals were meant to create a physical connection in a way that imitated natural biological relationships, but allowing the men to control the bond. Another logic was involved in the idea that the blood of a person was their very life or soul, so for two or more men to mingle their lives together was to create the most sacred bond possible. Yet another idea that often went into blood-bond ceremonies was that blood was such a magical substance that “conditional curses” could be placed on the blood, and the potential oath-breakers. Interestingly, instances of blood brother rituals could show all three logics simultaneously; the men involved would be considered to have become actual brothers, yet also something even more sacred than brothers, and have curse-backed promises tied into the agreement as well.

Greylodge: John Wisniewski Interviews Jack Donovan and Nathan F. Miller

Get Into Trance: Felicitas Goodman

Among the current onslaught of info on the web about scientific studies on meditation, I found this interesting post by Greg Downey about the late anthropologist Felicitas Goodman and her studies on altered states:

“Some readers may have thought I was doing my little anthropologist’s quibble with the research on gene expression in meditation in Relax your genes, when I wrote, ?I’d be surprised if variations in these techniques (such as those that use chanting or movement, for example) had no effect at all on the resulting neural, cellular, and perhaps even genetic processes.’ Some of you might have thought to yourselves, ?Sure, Greg, you always say stuff like that – you’re paid to say stuff like that as an anthropologist.’ But one of the things I was thinking about was the work of the late anthropologist, Felicitas Goodman, which I hadn’t really discussed at all on Neuroanthorpology.

I stumbled across the webpages for the Felicitas Goodman Institut (the page is in German), and the English discussion of her work, Ritual Body Postures and Ecstatic Trance, by Nana Nauwald, and the webpage for The Cuyamungue Institute, which Goodman founded, this morning. A bit of searching turned up an interview with Prof. Goodman at Conversations for Exploration.

Goodman’s own biography is pretty fascinating; she didn’t do her PhD in anthropology until she was in her 50s, already a veteran German professor at Ohio State where she emigrated after leaving Germany with an American husband (Glenn). She went on to teach anthropology at Denison University (Ohio), and is best known for her contributions to the study of ecstatic states, including trance and glossalalia (speaking in tongues). She wrote a number of works, including Where the Spirits Ride the Wind: Trance Journeys and Other Ecstatic Experiences and Speaking in Tongues: A Cross-Cultural Study of Glossolalia (now out in a new edition, according to Amazon). After falling in love with the area around Santa Fe, Goodman helped to found The Cuyamungue Institute in New Mexico, which, according to the institute’s website, ?continues her research into altered states of consciousness and holds workshops about the postures which she admits are but one door to alternate reality.'”

(via Neuroanthropology)

The Extinct Human Species That Was Smarter Than Us

The superintelligent Boskops had small, childlike faces and huge melon heads.
by Jane Bosveld

Big Brain: The Origins and Future of Human Intelligence by Gary Lynch and Richard Granger (Palgrave Macmillan, $26.95)

“Sometimes I think my head is so big because it is so full of dreams,” says John Merrick in the play The Elephant Man. He might have been speaking for the Boskops, an almost forgotten group of early humans who lived in southern Africa between 30,000 and 10,000 years ago. Judging from fossil remains, scientists say the Boskops were similar to modern humans but had small, childlike faces and huge melon heads that held brains about 30 percent larger than our own.

That’s what fascinates psychiatrist Gary Lynch and cognitive scientist Richard Granger. “Just as we’re smarter than apes, they were probably smarter than us,” they speculate. More insightful and self-reflective than modern humans, with fantastic memories and a penchant for dreaming, the Boskops may have had “an internal mental life literally beyond anything we can imagine.” Lynch and Granger base their characterization on our current understanding of how the human brain works, describing in detail its physiology and structure and comparing it with the brains of other primates. They also explore what the Boskops’ big brains tell us about evolution (why didn’t they survive?) and about the future of human intelligence (can we engineer bigger brains?). These are questions, one suspects, that even the smallest-brained Boskop would have approved of.

via Discover

Science Journal: Caveman crooners may have aided early human life

Post Gazette:

Music gives biologists fits. Its ubiquity in human cultures, and strong evidence that the brain comes preloaded with musical circuits, suggest that music is as much a product of human evolution as, say, thumbs. But that raises the question of what music is for. Back in 1871, Darwin speculated that human music, like bird songs, attracts mates. Or, as he put it, prelinguistic human ancestors tried “to charm each other with musical notes and rhythm.”

Full Story: Post Gazette: Caveman crooners may have aided early human life

(via Vortex Egg)

A site dedicated to information about feral children

Feral children, also known as wolf children, are children who’ve grown up with minimal human contact, or even none at all. They may have been brought up by animals (often wolves) or somehow survived on their own. In some cases, children are confined and denied normal social interaction with other people.


(via Thumbmonkey)

The Future of Sex

Interesting column at Better Humans by James J. Hughes. A biological approach to thinking about love and sex:

Not just lust, but the amorphous ball of feeling called “love” itself is a biochemical phenomenon, amenable to manipulation. In Anatomy of Love, anthropologist Helen Fisher summarizes research arguing that love is composed of three biochemical process. The first process, driven by testosterone, is lust. The second process, infatuation, is controlled by dopamine, norepinephrine and phenylethylamine — amphetamine-like chemicals that produce feelings of euphoria. The lust and infatuation chemicals peak after a year, and for the lucky few relationships that survive their decline a new biochemical response emerges based on oxytocin, vasopression and endorphins, which produce feelings of intimacy, trust and affection.

Better Humans: The Future of Sex

(via Three River Tech Review)

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