Josh Berson

I write about how human beings get on in the world — how we form relationships with other living things, how our bodies are shaped by where we live and what we do.

I give special attention to the question of scale — how the intimate (eating, sleeping, moving, sensing) relates to the global (social acceleration, climate change), how the deep past relates to the imminent future.

In my empirical life I design new methods of observing social behavior in the wild.

Meat

Humanity is eating more meat. Over the next thirty years, demand for meat is projected to grow at twice the rate of demand for plant-based foods. This means a huge commitment of resources. Meat-eating has become an enormous stress on the biosphere — and, to a growing number of people, a cause of immense injustice. And yet, conventional wisdom holds that meat made us what we are — that much of what makes us human, from big brains and slow life history to planning, social coordination, fine motor control, and our unique form of bipedal locomotion, arose in response to an innate craving for meat. So in a world of rising incomes, growing demand for meat is inevitable.

In my forthcoming book Meat, I argue that we have the relationship between biology and capitalism backward. Meat considers the full sweep of meat’s history, from the first appearances of proto-human hominins nearly three million years ago to the global trade in livestock products today. I argue that not only did meat not make us human, contemporary growth in demand for meat is driven as much by economic uncertainty as by affluence.

Before we conclude that the human future is carnivorous, we need a public conversation about meat-eating that gets beyond Paleolithic diets and animal protection to address the deeply entwined economic and political lives of humans and animals past, present, and future. Meat offers a starting point for this conversation.

Deep social phenomics

Most of what is distinctively human in human behavior is social in nature, that is, it unfolds in the coordinate action of two or more individuals (think of language and music). But social scientists of all stripes have long struggled with the question of how to measure social behavior “in the wild.”

In some circles, talk of rigorous measurement provokes alarm. For those who prioritize experience over outward signs of behavior, any effort to reduce the dimensionality of experience in analysis can seem like an act of violence, in particular toward those whose experience has been characterized as deviant.

But, in fact, rigorous measurement represents a critical tool of advocacy on behalf of the marginalized.

Take psychosis. Over the past ten years, as efforts to identify the neurophysiological, epigenetic, and genetic determinants of psychosis have crystallized, it has become clear that these measures are of limited value in the absence of detailed behavioral, phenomenological, and environmental data — what has come to be known as a deep phenotype.

Generally, efforts to elicit deep phenotypes rely on established techniques of anamnesis and physical diagnosis — semi-structured interviews, batteries, neurological exams, collation of education and hospitalization records, and sometimes collection of endocrine factors. These exclude some of the most significant dimensions of behavior, phenomenology, and environment, to wit, those that unfold in how the individual experiences the world on a day-to-day basis in the wild — circadian rhythms of social contact, ambient light and sound exposure, and transient peaks and troughs in mood, motor vigilance, other-directedness, social anxiety, and trust and mistrust.

So the question is: How might we observe these things? What we need is a new genre of behavioral–phenomenological–environmental measure, using high-resolution remote sensing to elicit study participants’ subjective states of being and perisomatic environment in real time. This I call deep social phenomics.

Deep social phenomics combines validated methods of experience sampling with state-of-the-art techniques of signals processing, including the use of convolutional neural networks for the automated extraction of socially salient high-level environmental features from panoramic image data collected by the participants as they go about their daily lives. It leverages recent advances in cloud-based service architecture and digital optics that have made it possible to involve participants directly and actively in the production of data — and sometimes in the design of research questions — while keeping the protocol noninvasive and even fun.

The question of how to evoke a deep social phenotype in the field while staying critically engaged with the difficulties of representing behavior in a way that is concise, expressive, and politically reflexive all at the same time has been an abiding theme of my research since 2013. This question stands at the heart of my 2015 book, Computable Bodies, not to say my concurrent work at the Wellcome-funded research initiative Hubbub. New projects are in the works — more to come.

Ditch kit

Ditch Kit is a meditation on the process of sloughing off material things, of reducing the stock of one’s worldly possessions to something that fits in a knapsack. It is about becoming intimately familiar with the practical significance of volumes and stowage spaces: what fits in twenty liters, in thirty, what fits under an aisle seat as opposed to a window. It is about becoming obsessed with paring down one’s wardrobe, cutting away redundancies and indulgences, formulating a uniform. It is about the odd blend of precarity and privilege that comes with living this way and with how renouncing consumer excess becomes a form of consumer excess in itself as the effort to identify the one object that will take the place of ten takes over one’s life. It is about the substitution of corporeal technologies — of exercise, of thermoregulation — for material ones. Above all it is about stillness, about the longing for a place to unpack and hear silence, or at least something other than the spectrally unstructured hum of transit spaces.

Over the past ten years, two things have dominated my encounters with the built world. One has been transitory living and my increasingly vexed relationship with objects. The other has been tinnitus and my increasingly vexed relationship with sound. I hear monaurally, in just one ear, so I can neither localize sounds in space nor extract speech and other auditory objects from noisy backgrounds. As tinnitus and related pathologies of hearing have become standing features of my acoustic experience, I have started to see how deeply monaurality has shaped me as a body and as a person. A couple years ago I began making sound recordings with the aim of making sense of how sound participates in our sensorimotor, affective, and political lives, above all our encounters with pain. Lately I have come to see that movement is equally implicated in pain, that the punctuated stasis of transitory life, the periods of bodily confinement and waiting, stand in an antagonistic relationship with stillness in both its acoustic and motoric senses.

Ditch Kit represents a successor to Meat. It draws together a number of strands in my thinking over the past five years. One of these concerns the deep history of technology and the degree to which different kinds of technologies are archaeologically legible and thus salient for our sense of where we come from, where we are going, and the mode and tempo of cultural evolution. A second concerns the human enmeshment in the world of living things and the nature of our relationships to other large-bodied animals, to trees and other plant life, and to the microbiota that form the greater part, by information content, of the holobionts that we are. A third concerns social acceleration and its concomitants: climate change, economic volatility, and growing interest in bodily techniques for fostering mindfulness and resilience that often serve to paper over rather than address the injustices of social acceleration. Above all, Ditch Kit aspires to cast light on the violence of the ascetic impulse, the ways in which renouncing objects and even a fixed living situation in the interest of achieving stillness entails complicity in the accelerationist churn that makes stillness, silence, and material security increasingly inaccessible to most people in the world.

Selected writing

Books

Berson J (2018) Meat: From Human Origins to the Crisis of Capitalism. Contract under negotiation.

Berson J (2015) Computable Bodies: Instrumented Life and the Human Somatic Niche. London: Bloomsbury.

Winner, 2016 PROSE Award in Language and Linguistics

Essays and research reports

Berson J (2018) Artificial intelligence. International Encyclopedia of Linguistic Anthropology, ed J Stanlaw et al. New York: Wiley.

Berson J (2017) The topology of endangered languages. Signs and Society 5: 96–123.

Berson J (2016) Sound and pain. Technosphere (Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin), Dossier “Trauma.”

Berson J (2016) Cartographies of Rest: the spectral envelope of vigilance. The Restless Compendium, ed F Callard et al, 91–98. London: Palgrave.

Ellamil M, Berson J, Wong J, Buckley L, Margulies D (2016) One in the dance: musical correlates of group synchrony in a real-world club environment. PLOS ONE 11: e0164783.

Ellamil M, Berson J, Margulies D (2016) Influences on and measures of unintentional group synchrony. Frontiers in Psychology 7: 1744.

Berson J (2014) Forced desynchrony. Textures of the Anthropocene: Grain Vapor Ray, ed K Klingan et al, 108–118. Cambride, Mass: MIT Press.

Berson J (2014) The quinoa hack. New Left Review 85: 117–132.

Berson J (2014) Color primitive. Cabinet 52: 41–49.

Berson J (2014) The dialectal tribe and the doctrine of continuity. Comparative Studies in Society and History 56: 381–418.

Bio

From 2013 to 2017 I was visiting researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences.

From 2014 to 2016 I led the Remote Sensing of Mood strand of the Wellcome-funded research initiative Hubbub.

From 2013 to 2014 I was scientist/artist-in-residence at LUST and LUSTlab (now RNDR) in The Hague.

Prior to that I was a Carson Fellow at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for the Human Sciences, Vienna, and a lecturer in the Health and Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania.