Other Interesting Technologies: STS Faculty Reflect

STS Faculty, Technology

This final entry in the series on interesting moments in science and technology features reflections from Paul Showler, Gerrit Scheepers, and Christy Tidwell on a wide range of topics: emotion detection technology, a method to provide easier access to clean water, and a scheme to farm hippos in the US. (For more thoughts on interesting science and technology from STS faculty, see previous posts on technologies of communication and technologies of destruction.)

Paul Showler – How’s Your Poker Face?

Your face says a lot about you. But how much does your countenance convey about the contours of your inner life? This was a question that captivated Guillaume-Benjamin Duchenne de Boulogne (1806-75), the French physician known for his early contributions to electrophysiology and neurology. Duchenne used localized electrical currents to map human facial muscles, the movements of which he correlated with emotional expressions. In doing so, he claimed to have discovered a universal language, whereby each emotion corresponds to a distinctive set of muscular contractions in the face.

While Duchenne’s theories have been largely discredited, there are contemporary research programs that share his central ambitions. Consider emotional detection through facial feature recognition, a field that uses artificial intelligence to identify a person’s feelings based on images or video sequences of their face. Emotion detection technology may someday ruin family card night, but it also raises serious privacy concerns. Would you want to receive a notification on your phone asking why you look so bored in class, or why you’ve been feigning a smile in the workplace? These are unsettling scenarios because they challenge the idea that our inner states are privileged sites of self-knowledge. Typically, we take ourselves to be the best judges of our own thoughts and feelings. But who’s to say that that an algorithm couldn’t do better? Duchenne’s work suggests that our anxieties about these technologies are not simply a function of their novelty. The idea that the face is an infallible window into the soul has been around for a long time.   

For a fascinating study of Duchenne de Boulogne’s work, see Anatomy of the Passions by François Delaporte.

Series of images of a young white woman making faces to express various emotions.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Gerrit Scheepers – Hippo Water Rollers

Having access to reliable, clean water is not the only challenge in many parts of the world; transporting it safely can be a difficulty too. “More water means a better quality of life,” the Hippo roller website says. In 1991, two South African engineers – Pettie Petzer and Johan Jonker – produced a barrel-shaped container called “Aqua Roller,” later to be named “Hippo Roller” in 1993. Petzer and Jonker’s innovative output was recognized in 1992 with the “Design for Development Award” by the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) Design Institute. Essentially the Hippo Roller is a drum that can be rolled on the ground, making it easier for those without access to taps to haul larger amounts of water faster. This means that thousands of children – especially in third world countries – have more time to spend on their education and improving their eligibility for employment rather than hauling around water to sustain their lives. It is estimated around 65,000 Hippo Rollers have been sold in over 50 countries.

For more information on this invention visit the organization’s website or watch this informational video.

Christy Tidwell – Herds of Hippopotami

Imagine Louisiana’s swamps and bayous full of hippos. Imagine hippo steak on the menu. In the early 20th century, the US was facing a meat shortage and, before industrial farming as we know it existed, one proposal to solve this problem was to transport hippos from Africa to the southern US. These hippos would eat invasive plants, and then we would eat them. This idea was presented before Congressional committees, with one official estimating that free-range hippos across southern states would provide a million tons of meat per year. Enthusiastic newspaper and magazine articles were written about “lake cow bacon,” describing the hippopotamus as both “homely as a steam-roller” and “the embodiment of salvation.” Ultimately, the idea fizzled, and we don’t have free-ranging hippos in the US.

But the idea of moving large, dangerous animals around the world just so that Americans could keep eating meat is more than just a weird fluke of history. The idea and its popularity point to a deeply held belief in the human ability (or perhaps right) to rearrange the natural world to suit our preferences – no one consulted the hippos in all of this – as well as reflect US perceptions of meat as necessary. These ideas continue to shape 21st century attitudes toward animals and meat – even without the promise of “herds of hippopotami.”

Learn more about this real history in Jon Mooallem’s “American Hippopotamus” or read a fun alternate history of an America where this really happened in Sarah Gailey’s American Hippo.

Black and white image of hippo family in the foreground with horseback-riding rancher in the background
Image by Mark Summers.

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