Benson, Etienne S
Now showing 1 - 10 of 16
PublicationMinimal Animal: Surveillance, Simulation, and Stochasticity in Wildlife Biology(2014-01-01) Benson, Etienne SThis article discusses the problematics and potentialities proposed by the "minimal animal" an animal that is nothing but a stochastic pattern across a blank page. The minimal animal was not an invention of the 1960s, but the tracking systems and digital computers that first became available during that period both broadened its reach and changed its character in significant ways. PublicationThe Urban Upwelling(2015-11-01) Benson, Etienne SIn late September 2015 a video began circulating on social media under the hashtag #pizzarat. As of early October, it had garnered more than seven million views on YouTube—sufficient evidence of cultural relevance to make not only meme-happy sites such as BuzzFeed and Gawker take note, but also mainstream media such as the New York Times, CNN, and NPR. The 14-second video, shot by comedian Matt Little, showed a rat dragging a slice of pizza down the steps of a Manhattan subway station. Responses to the video varied. Some interpreted it as evidence of poor sanitation, while others admired the little rodent's pluck and perseverance, seeing him or her as "a symbol of the ultimate New Yorker."1 PublicationMovement Ecology and the Minimal Animal(2016-01-01) Benson, Etienne SAmong ecologists, movement is on the move. Over the past decade or so, a growing number of researchers have begun to focus their attention on how and why individual animals move across landscapes through time. Research programs come and go, and there is no way of knowing how long this new filed of movement ecology will retain its promise or what new forms it might take. Nonetheless the emergence of this approach to studying animals and landscapes can tell us something about the way scientific practices and conceptions of the animal are changing in an era of Big Data and of growing concerns about the impact of humanity on global ecological processes.1 PublicationAutonomous Biological Sensor Platforms(2011-01-01) Benson, Etienne SLate in 2010, the Journal of Geophysical Research printed a report under the title "Narwhals Document Continued Warming of Southern Baffin Bay."1 The research described by the report was heavily promoted by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which had partially funded it, and the story was picked up by a number of newspapers and blogs, one of which praised the narwhals as "excellent field techs."2 Who were these narwhals? How had they gotten into the business of not merely responding to or communicating among themselves about Arctic climate change but actually documenting it? PublicationThe Virtual Field(2016-11-15) Benson, Etienne SSensing is an integral part of collecting data in the field. As apparatuses become more refined, they increase the capacity and precision of data that can be collected in even the most forbidding of zones. Historian of science Etienne Benson describes how the increasingly complex infrastructure of sensing is altering the experience of fieldwork, the persona of the scientist, and the nature of the knowledge that is produced. PublicationIntroduction: Knowing the Wild(2010-01-01) Benson, Etienne SThe argument that wildlife conservation and the science that supports it are contentious and politicized is, of course, not new. American wildlife managers and biologists have been complaining about "biopolitics"—understood as political interference into decisions properly left to experts—since at least as far back as the 1930s, when they first established the journals, conferences, professional associations, degree programs, and financial supporters that allowed them to lay claim to the status of an autonomous, self-accrediting profession. Conservation activists have regularly protested the manipulation of policy by (other) special interests. New administrations in Washington have brought sudden reversals in supposedly science-based government policies; populations designated as "threatened" or "endangered" under the Endangered Species Act have been delisted under one administration only to be relisted under the next, with little if any change in the scientific evidence. This sort of political conflict is well worth attending to, but as this book argues, disputes over the interpretation and application of scientific findings are not the only or, in many cases, the most important way in which wildlife biology becomes imbued with social values. As the history of wildlife radiotelemetry over the past half century shows, an engaged public, consisting often of small but highly vocal activists, some of them also scientists, has shaped the techniques that scientists can use and thus the kinds of findings that may be politicized in the first place. PublicationGenerating Infrastructural Invisibility: Insulation, Interconnection, and Avian Excrement in the Southern California Power Grid(2015-05-01) Benson, Etienne SThe fact that industrial infrastructures are embedded in complex environments animated by unexpected agencies is often invisible to their users—at least those who live in rich, industrialized societies with reliable systems for distributing water, power, and other goods and services. This article investigates how that invisibility is generated through a case study of electric power transmission in California in the early twentieth century. In the 1910s, the Pacific Light and Power Company constructed a 150,000-volt transmission line that delivered power from the Big Creek hydroelectric complex in the Sierra Nevada to customers in Los Angeles, more than 240 miles (386 kilometers) away. When the Southern California Edison Company upgraded this line to 220,000 volts in the early 1920s, the rate of disruptive "flashovers" on the line jumped dramatically. After months of investigation, the cause was determined to be excrement from birds perching on the transmission towers. To render this and other sources of interruption invisible to users, two techniques were used: insulation and interconnection. These kinds of humble techniques of separation and resilience are ubiquitous in modern infrastructure. By creating and maintaining divisions, they make it possible for new kinds of agency to emerge. Infrastructures become animate: responsive to their environments in ways that allow them to persist in the face of continual change. PublicationReview of Jennifer Gabrys, Program Earth: Environmental Sensing Technology and the making of a Computational Planet(2017-03-01) Benson, Etienne SThe focus of Jennifer Gabrys's Program Earth: Environmental Sensing Technology and the Making of a Computational Planet is "the becoming environmental of computation" (p. 4) understood as the growth of "a distributed and embedded range of monitoring technologies that inform how environments are sensed and managed (p. 3). Although based on wide-ranging research carried out over the past decade, it is not a detailed empirical study; instead, it deploys a number of well-chosen examples in pursuit of more abstract ends. PublicationNew Media and New Publics: An Example with Polar Bears(2013-09-12) Benson, Etienne SEtienne Benson is a historian of science, technology, and environment in the Department of History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania. In this guest post he describes his interactive web-based map plotting publicly available government data about who has applied for polar bear trophy import permits, and its implications. PublicationA Centrifuge of Calculation: Managing Data and Enthusiasm in Early Twentieth-Century Bird Banding(2017-01-01) Benson, Etienne SBeginning in 1920, bird banding in the United States was coordinated by an office within the U.S. Biological Survey that recruited volunteers, issued permits, distributed bands and reporting forms, and collected and organized the data that resulted. In the 1920s and 1930s, data from thousands of volunteers banding millions of birds helped ornithologists map migratory flyaways and census bird populations on a continental scale. This essay argues that the success of the bird-banding program depended on a fragile balance between the centripetal effects of national coordination and the centrifugal effects of volunteer enthusiasm. For various reasons, efforts to maintain this balance were largely abandoned by the Bird-Banding Office from the late 1930s onward. Nevertheless, the first two decades of the national bird-banding effort provide an example of how a "citizen-science" project that generates "Big Data" can produce significant scientific results without subordinating the enthusiasms of volunteers to the data-collecting needs of professional scientists.