1) Transclusions: Alternative visions of living digitally
This project examines different possibilities for understanding what our online-digital world might have become. We too often, implicitly or explicitly, accept the idea that our online worlds, tools, and platforms (such as the World Wide Web) are the best, most natural, or inevitable forms of these technologies. But exploring the histories of other platforms that “might have been,” I hope to open up thinking about alternative possibilities for doing and living digitally.
In practice, the project has two parts. One is an examination of the work of Ted Nelson, the inventor of hypertext and one of the most imaginative critics of the World Wide Web and other digital technologies.
The second part is more local. It aims to examine the history of networking in Southeast Asia, attempting to understand what alternatives and possibilities existed in this region before the dominance of the global Internet.
This project is sponsored by a Tier 1 grant from the Ministry of Education, Singapore.
2) The Development of the Microelectronics Industry in Singapore, 1968-1990.
The history of the rise and development of the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley is now well-documented. As the cost of labour rose in the United States, some of these California-based companies examined the possibility of moving some of their manufacturing operations offshore. At the same time, developing nations in East and Southeast Asia – especially the “four little dragons” or “four Asian tiger” economies of Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea – were eager to generate employment and bolster economic output by hosting multi-national companies within their borders. These nations competed to offer tax breaks, ready labour forces, land, and factory space to attract microelectronics manufacturers.
With much encouragement from the government, the American company National Semiconductor opened operations in Singapore in 1968. Fairchild Semiconductor, the first firm to design and manufacture integrated circuits, set up a manufacturing plant in Toa Payoh in 1969. They were followed by Texas Instruments and Hewlett-Packard operations in 1970. Seven thousand jobs were created in just three years. By the early 1980s, Singapore had become a major hub for microelectronics and semiconductor manufacturing with Digital Equipment Corporation, and Seagate also operating in the Republic.
This project aims to understand the role that these Singaporean and Southeast Asian operations played in the globalization of the microelectronics industry more broadly. Alongside operations in Latin America, these plants led the way in the globalization of microelectronics and ultimately transformed that industry. Now the vast majority of the world’s electronics – including microelectronics devices – are produced in the People’s Republic of China. This has significant implications for the global distribution of expertise, jobs, and the balance of global trade. This project aims to better describe and situate the role of Singapore and Southeast Asia in such knowledge transfers.
This project is sponsored by a Heritage Research Grant from Singapore’s National Heritage Board.
For more information see the dedicated website here.
3) Food / technology Singapore
As part of a collaboration with researchers at the Hong Kong Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences, I am examining food technologies in East Asia. The project examines the production of soy sauce, tea, and liquor, in particular. My work in this project has largely focused on the history of soy sauce in Singapore and in particular on the relationship between various forms of soy sauce production and the economic priorities of the Singapore state.
I am currently expanding this project to an examination of “novel foods” in Singapore, that is, those foods produced through novel scientific and technological methods including biotechnology and bioengineering.
This work is supported by a grant from the Hong Kong Research Grants Council under the title “Making Modernity in East Asia: Technologies of Everyday Life, 19th-21st centuries.”
4) Spaces of Biomedicine in East Asia
Laboratory studies has been a critical aspect of science & technology studies and anthropology of science since the publication of Latour and Woolgar’s Laboratory Life (1979). This project is a multi-sited ethnography of labs and other biomedical spaces in Southeast and East Asia, but attempts to push laboratory studies in some new (methodological) directions.
First, it draws on the field of performance studies as a resource for understanding scientific life and its various enactments. This project is based on a collaboration with performance studies scholar Eddie Paterson (University of Melbourne). Using concepts such as “dramaturgy” as well as paying attention to “theatrical” elements in science, such as costume and movement, we hope to add new dimensions to the understanding of lives in (and around) laboratories.
Second, and as part of this attention to the broader context in which science takes place, this project is especially interested in the urban settings within which laboratories exist. What is the relationship between labs and geographic spaces around them? How do they influence cities socially and culturally? How does this affect the science that goes on inside them? Here we hope to bring laboratory studies into dialogue with urban studies.
This work led to my book project on the Chinese laboratory BGI.
This project was sponsored by a Tier 1 grant from the Ministry of Education, Singapore.
5) Data infrastructures and artificial intelligence in Asia
Biology has been dealing with the problems of “big data” for several decades. Even before the Human Genome Project began, biologists struggled cope with rapidly accumulating protein and DNA sequence data. My project examines the recent history of data in biology, paying particular attention to the ‘infrastructures’ (hardware, software, databases, data structures) that make data-work possible. For instance, the work of assembling a human genome from hundreds of thousands of small sequenced fragments required not only massive computational power, but also software capable of dealing with large, messy, and heterogeneous data sets. What sorts of knowledge and practices are required to perform such work, and in what ways does they differ from non-computational work in biology?
In exploring such examples, I aim to highlight some of the novelties of big data and big data practices. This novelty has less to do with size and more to do with how data are manipulated and used within computer-based infrastructures. I will suggest that this novelty demands new methods for studying data that allows us to follow it inside machines, software, and databases – that is, we need to supplement material culture approaches with ‘data culture’ approaches.
Ultimately, such analysis will help us to understand the manifold consequences of ‘big data’ as it moves from science into a range of other social, economic, and political domains.
This project was featured here on the School of Humanities and Social Science website and here in NTU’s “Pushing Frontiers” magazine. I have written a series of blog posts for the Smart Data Collective about Big Data:
- Why Big Data Requires the Social Sciences
- Following the Data
- Data Infrastructures
- Gigascience: A Science Journal that Provides Full Data Sets
- The N-Gram and The Book: “Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens On Human Culture”
I have also co-authored a blog post for the journal Big Data & Society reporting on the workshop “Big Data in Asian Society” held at NTU in October 2016.
The major outcome of this project was a special issue of First Monday, co-edited with Payal Arora. My own contribution is here.
I am now also thinking about the development and consequences of artificial intelligence in Asia. There is now a huge proliferation of work on “AI ethics,” “responsible AI,” and “AI for social good” with less critical reflection on what these terms may mean in different political and social contexts. In particular, the histories and salience of AI, robots, computers, in different parts of Asia suggest that “ethics,” “responsibility,” and “goodness” may have significantly difference valances across the region.
I am currently editing a special issue under the title “AI in Asia: histories and narratives” to be published by the journal Science, Technology and Society.
This project is sponsored by a grant from the Data Science and Artificial Intelligence Research Center at NTU.
6) Futures Writing Research Unit
In 2020, I was involved with “futures” writing group at Soft/WALL/studs.
From the website: “Futures Writing Research Unit was a process-oriented writing group organised by soft/WALL/studs from September to December 2020, carving out time and space for shared and overlapping areas of interest around futurities.