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Michael Agar @alcaldemike

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Tuneup Tax Day 2016

I had a strange and interesting week at the end of March. In San Francisco, which they used to call "Baghdad by the Bay," not a nickname you hear much anymore. When I was a young beatnik wannabe in the nearby town of Livermore, I headed for the city as soon as I got my driver’s license. A randomly selected offramp led to a random parking place in front of the bookstore called City Lights. It felt like more of a religious experience than St. Michaels ever had. So of course a couple of return visits to the book temple were in order.

But there was much more than that to the visit. On Tuesday I went to a robot factory. Maxim Makatchev and I had met on a project in Los Angeles a few years ago. At the time he was a graduate student in robotics at Carnegie Mellon University working on putting "culture" into a robot, an intriguing concept that somehow reminded me of being a graduate student in anthropology. I served as the nth wheel on his dissertation committee and we kept in touch after his move to San Francisco to work on a new family robot called Jibo. You can Google it and see a video if you want. Maxim invited me to give a lunchtime chat about culture to the people working on the robot’s language.

The interesting thing was, most all of the speech people were not native speakers of English. Since I once wrote a book about how language and culture were inseparable, I had an initial attack of acute irony. Would the robot gesture like the Italian boss? Speak in the Indian English accent of the Tamil engineer? Insist on putting the finest vodka on the shopping list thanks to an algorithm from Maxim? No, of course not. Jibo's language is pretty much aimed at being a helpful family member in the moment, as I understand it. It isn't supposed to help a graduate student in philosophy write a dissertation on Heidegger's concept of Dasein. Straightforward standard American English should do the job just fine, though it is fun to think about giving Jibo dialect differences. Should a Jibo sold in Texas say "y'all?"

Jibo is embodied in its own cute Hobbit like shell. My partner Ellen and I generally have a personal relationship with objects. With Jibo, it's easy because it is no problem to imagine that under its plastic skin beats a warm red-blooded heart. After an hour of conversation with a room full of engineers at their keyboards, though, we realized how many human hands it takes to get the computer code and the machinery just right. I kept thinking of that painting in the Sistine Chapel, where God’s and Adam's fingers touch to give Adam life. God had it easy. There is a book to be written here about the creation story of an artificially intelligent robot meant to live with humans.

My lunch chat was about teaching a robot how to sense that something was going wrong in its interaction with a human together with a repair strategy so it could learn to adapt to a particular family’s interaction style. Without the help of an engineer. I just made something up based on well-known ideas from the ethnographic study of conversations. Then we had fun talking about "culture," one of the most promiscuously used, ambiguous and important concepts in contemporary public discourse.

The main event for the week was the meeting of the Association of American Geographers. I've been working on water governance in New Mexico for a few years now. An email had floated across my screen about an all-day panel on water that was being organized for that meeting. Waterwork is about as transdisciplinary as it gets if it's any good and I figured I had a lot to learn from a geographic crowd, a crowd I'd never run with before. To my surprise they accepted my abstract and put me on the panel.

It was a long and interesting day, which beats a dark and stormy night. One thing that struck me was how, by comparison with the frequent cultural anthropology session, they were jargon free and oriented to the case details. It really was about Western water rather than ontology versus epistemology. The second surprise came from the interaction style – speaking of Jibo – among the participants in discussion. As an old person I have trouble judging age anymore. There are kids, younger people, getting there people, and old people. A lot of the participants and audience in the packed room were younger people who obviously knew each other. As a linguistic anthropologist, I wish I'd had a tape recorder. When a couple or few of them got into it, the pace accelerated dramatically. Rising intonations increased and verbal footnotes – clearly marked off and almost like sotto voce versions of Coltrane’s sheets of sound – were sprinkled across the commentary. It had an informal feel to it, like friends in a bar rather than academics at their national professional meeting, all in a style that was clearly a different generational register. I sometimes realized that I had just missed some important information because I drifted into paying attention to how it was packaged in language instead of what it was about.

Many stories to tell from the rest of the conference as well. I'll quit with this one. I spent a couple of hours wandering the book exhibit, a substantial one designed for a meeting of 10,000. I wondered when it was that geography had changed so dramatically. It used to be about maps, and sometimes it still is. It used to be low status in the academic pecking order. Now it's obviously an up-and-coming field given my impression of the age distribution as I wandered through the crowds.

The variety of topics on display was overwhelming, social sciences, natural sciences, humanities, software, technology, practical guides, commercial vendors, you name it. What in the world made all these different books and objects part of the same field? Finally, after entertaining numerous convoluted theories, the answer became obvious, an answer tied to the traditional definition of geography as a field. The books, whatever else they were about, were all about a place, or category of places. What had changed, I think, was a new geography guideline. Namely, anything – any method, any theory, any discipline – that could help describe or explain a place or category of places was now included in the field of geography. However abstract your altitude, whatever the source of your ideas, though, it all had to land in a place, and you had better know that place firsthand and in detail, because without that connection, it was all sophistry and illusion.

Well, if a geographer ever reads this, they'll probably wonder what I was smoking. But between Jibo and the geographers and a student art exhibit that Maxim took us to, it was an adventure in the land of the question, "what are these young people about?" The week made me think of an old French black and white new-wave film, the name of which I can't remember, where the protagonist said something about how taking action was a way of asking a question. The answer, for me after a week of action in The City, were some glimpses of positive historical currents that served as an antidote to my usual gloomy view of the planet. Plus, fond as I am of New Mexican green chilies, it was nice to eat some Ethiopian food again.

That’s it for now. Things got a little hectic between the holidays and today, so I’m behind on the writing schedule.

A review of Pahl-Wostl’s book, "Water governance in the face of global change,” came out in the recent issue of Water Alternatives


and I’m working on a couple of things, like a presentation for the geography meetings at the end of March, and a blog for EPIC on social services just came out,


and then there’s a manuscript on anthropology and computers that I did for Indiana, a trip I unfortunately had to cancel. Stay tuned.

Life is interesting.

Selected Works

Wonder why studies you read about your world usually don’t get who you are and how you really live? Frustrated that “the numbers” don’t solve the problem? Does it bother you that policies and programs, more often than not, don’t work like they’re supposed to? People, organizations, countries–they rely on information about real human social lives. Usually they don’t have it because they only test what they think they already know in narrow situations of their own design. The results have value, some of the time, but it’s not nearly enough. We need a human social science that begins and ends in the real worlds of the humans that it claims to be about. One has been around for a couple of hundred years. The Lively Science tells the story of its historical roots and the reasons for its neglect, blends in new intellectual tools, and argues that it’s time to get on with a science that changes research objects into human subjects and learns who they are and what they’re trying to do before conclusions are drawn.
Living in a world of linguistic and cultural differences
A personal story of decades of work in the substance abuse field, a story of how our ineffective drug policy came to be and stayed in place. Now available as an e-book at iBook on iTunes and on Barnes and Noble.
The story of the working world of independent truckers in a time of deregulation
Nonfiction, Introductory Text
An introduction to ethnography