ASU professor receives NSF CAREER award

Exploring the innovative and ethical uses of technology in the borderlands secures early-career award for Lindsay Smith

April 27, 2020

People work to advance technology, often for the benefit of safety and security. But some may use that same technology to infringe on human rights, collect data on people without their consent, or take advantage of those in vulnerable situations.

So what happens when people take control of that technology and use it to better their communities?  Moreover, what is the role of the ethics and policies surrounding these emerging technologies?  Download Full Image

Lindsay Smith, an assistant professor from Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society, is working to find answers. She’s just received a prestigious honor to launch her research on technologies, human rights and security at the border. She has been awarded the Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation. The award supports the development of early-career faculty who are making significant impacts in their fields and leading advances in the mission of their department. She is the first faculty member at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society to receive the award.

“I feel incredibly honored to have been chosen,” Smith said.

Smith will be studying the technologies used on the U.S.-Mexico border and how people are using them to create their own systems of safety. By looking at technologies that have applications for both security and human rights, she is trying to understand how they were created and how the local populations have adapted these technologies for their own needs.

“We’re all incredibly proud of Lindsay’s scholarship, and the research and teaching agenda that the CAREER award will support. It will be a great benefit not only to students who get to work with her on the research but also to those who encounter her in the classroom,” said Dave Guston, Foundation Professor and the school's founding director.

Technology has a big presence at the border. Facial recognition, fingerprinting, iris scanning and drones have recorded data on people who are crossing. However, the same people exploited by these technologies are using them to their own ends. Isotope analysis identifies the remains of those that died during border crossings.

Community activists are flying drones with facial recognition software to find and rescue kidnap victims. Despite not being designed with that purpose, people are finding ways to use technologies to benefit them. Smith hopes her research can lead to a border system of ethics for technology.

“What kind of politics and ethics do we need to make sure that the most vulnerable people on the planet are not made additionally vulnerable by emerging technologies? How do we create a social system around the safe use of that technology, and integrate it into other systems of resilience and healing for communities?”

Smith is also researching how these same technologies could be used in years to come, stating that the U.S.-Mexico border is often a test site for future technologies to which we could all one day be subject.

“If we look at how our most vulnerable people on the planet are treated, we get a sense of how we may be living in 10 years,” Smith said.

“Lindsay’s award also shows the strength and wisdom of the approach ASU has taken to hiring faculty around so-called “Southwest borderlands” issues,” Guston said. “You can recruit new faculty members around properly chosen, focused interests, and they can do work recognized at the highest levels.”

As a medical anthropologist, Smith has spent her career researching how social and political interests, particularly human rights, can drive technology. She earned her PhD in anthropology from Harvard University, working with advisers Sheila Jasanoff and Arthur Kleinman, and then went on to work as a postdoc fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles with adviser Hannah Landecker. She has also earned several grants, including one researching the use of forensic DNA across the Mexican borderlands, working with Vivette Garcia Deister.  

“I’ve always been really interested in how we can use new and novel technologies for the interest of communities,” Smith said. “What happens when we decide to take science or technology and transform it toward our own goals?”

One of her first projects was in Argentina, working with Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a human rights organization using DNA technology to find children who were stolen and illegally adopted during the Argentine dictatorship. She has also worked in Peru and Guatemala, researching how communities are using technology in postconflict settings to find missing loved ones or identify bodies.

Smith believes taking these technologies and using them in ways that were not originally intended could have a positive impact on happiness and well-being.

“I think that when we take technology and use it to create communities or build the projects that we need, that has a protective effect on our mental health,” Smith said. “Let’s all become hackers of our technological lives and build the world we want, instead of helping build the world that other people envision.”

Ashley Richards

Communications Specialist , School for the Future of Innovation in Society


The show must go on: ASU's School of Film, Dance and Theatre holds first-ever virtual auditions

April 27, 2020

Professors, students and staff around the world are adapting to new learning environments for their classes, but what about educational experiences and activities beyond the classroom?

For theater students at Arizona State University, a crucial component to their curriculum is the work they put into productions produced by the School of Film, Dance and Theatre, both behind the scenes and on the stage.  From upper left to lower right: Stephanie Gentry-Fernandez, Maritza Cervantes, Yadira Correa, Gina Cornejo and Belinda Cervantes in Teatro Luna's production of "Machos." Photo by Johnny Knight. Download Full Image

In an effort to help slow the spread of COVID-19, spring theater productions have been postponed and cancelled, and the school is looking to the fall semester. Planning for fall shows, including the crucial step of casting, always begins early in the spring. So the school held its first-ever virtual auditions the last weekend in March.  

“The whole thing has been a beautiful learning experience and one I feel quite privileged to have been a part of,” said Alexandra Meda, director of the school’s fall production of “Machos,” an investigation of what is macho, or what is masculinity.  

“Machos,” which is slated to premiere at ASU in October, comes from an anti-suppression group that examines how gender is performed. 

In 2006, frustrated by the patriarchy and its impact on all genders, Teatro Luna, a Latina and women-of-color theater company where Meda serves as artistic director, set out to ask men this question directly: "What does it mean to be a man and what are you really thinking?"

The result was “Machos,” a performance drawn from interviews with 100 men nationwide and performed in drag by the all-female social justice theater company in 2007 and 2008 in Chicago and on a regional tour to colleges and universities. 

The initial auditions and callbacks for the fall performance at ASU were held via Zoom over the course of three days, and the feedback, although varied, was mostly positive. The school’s production manager, Carolyn Koch, said it was a “really smooth process.”  

“It was easy to move people in and out of the breakout rooms so that they have a private audition with the director,” she said. “For the callbacks, the director and choreographer met with all of the performers together. They each got to participate equally and share their interpretation of the prompts. Everyone seemed very relaxed and at ease.” 

Koch said one benefit to virtual auditions is that performers can audition from anywhere, which could allow more people the chance of being cast in a show for future auditions.  

“Even if we were not in the current situation, I think some of this could be helpful because it allows someone to participate without needing to be physically present,” Koch said. “So they don’t have to allow for travel time from their place of work, et cetera.”  

Hugo Crick-Furman, a third-year theater major, is not unfamiliar to auditioning via an online tool. However, this was their first live virtual audition.  

“A live but virtual audition process seems to be made of the worst of both worlds, really — the liveness and inability to do multiple takes that makes physical auditions so nerve-wracking, coupled with the limitations of having to express a physical artform through a digital medium.”   

However, Crick-Furman said, Meda made the process for the “Machos” auditions a positive experience.  

“The director managed to create a very calm space that was open to the possibility of risk-taking — ideal for any audition environment.”  

Meda credited the actors with helping to facilitate a constructive setting for the auditions and said she was proud of all the participants.

“My process is all about identifying a level of deep-knitted group dynamics, and the best way to do this is to put everyone in a room together and see how they interact, who supports whom, and who is able to model leadership and compassion while also showcasing their artistic soul,” she said. “Not an easy formula. Luckily the group of actors we invited back to callbacks came with such an incredibly generous spirit we were able to, within 90 minutes, really drive some real connections.”

Meda said the show is not fully cast yet and recognizes some students may not have had the chance to audition in the chaos of all the changes. She said they are adjusting the timeline to allow for any additional auditions that still might need to take place.   

Danielle Munoz

Media and Communications Coordinator, School of Film, Dance and Theatre