Joshua Berson

Postdoctoral research fellow
September 1, 2010 to September 30, 2012

Josh Berson is an anthropologist of interfaces and material flows: between body and world, animal and human, machine and living thing, subject and institution. He holds a PhD in the history and anthropology of science, technology, and medicine, with concurrent supervision in linguistic anthropology (University of Pennsylvania, 2009). He has taught computer science at Harvard (1996–8) and the anthropology of global health and international development at Penn (2004–9).

From 2010 to 2012, Josh was a postdoctoral research fellow at the Max Planck Institute, where he was attached to the Dept II umbrella project The Sciences of the Archive and the working group Endangerment and Its Consequences. At the MPI, Josh was principally occupied with his book project The social topology of endangered languages (ms. in preparation). Many books describe the causes of language shift. STEL is the first to examine the science of language documentation and its unforeseen political consequences for communities facing violent disruption to intergenerational language transmission. Focusing on Australia—widely regarded as a worst-case scenario of language attrition under colonization—the book links twentieth-century developments in linguistics to entrenched assumptions in law about how language, social identity, and claims to material resources fit together. Ultimately, I argue, language is an eminently material substance. Its moment-to-moment realizations bind us to the world of sheep and cattle, iron and diamonds, mobile phones and air conditioning in such varied ways as to elude our increasingly sophisticated efforts to transcribe it. 

In 2012–13 Josh is a fellow at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, Munich. At the Carson Center  Josh is extending his work on colonization in Australia by examining the relationships among livestock production, nutrition transitions, and the science of the behavioral ecology of foragers. How do we know what we think we know about “the original affluent society,” and what can the entangled histories of paleoanthropology and livestock colonization tell us about the ongoing global shift toward a meat-based diet? His Rachel Carson Center lecture for spring 2013, “Original affluence in the age of ubiquitous carnivory,” represents the first sketch toward a book-length work with the working title Carnivory: the first 1.8 million years, which in turn represents the centerpiece of an ongoing program of research on the emergence of the contemporary global food system (see Figure).

In Munich Josh will also be laying the groundwork for a new long-term research project on Emerging configurations of social presence. The term “Anthropocene” was coined to point to the novel scale and intensity of human intervention in the structure and composition of the earth’s atmosphere, oceans, and terrestrial biosphere. To these we should add the novel quality of human intervention in the earth qua information structure. Pervasive computing is a new phenomenon even by the standards of anthropogenic climate change and urbanization, but in the coming generations it will become as much a part of the human environmental signature as these more familiar markers of the Anthropocene. We are rapidly approaching a point where we take for granted the possibility and necessity of attaching arbitrary information storage and transmission capabilities to practically every part of the anthropogenic material environment, above all our own bodies. One effect this has is to enable us to project our social presence at a distance from our physical presence with a degree of temporal and phenomenal resolution unlike that afforded by previous technical media such as writing or recorded sound. Another effect this has is to bring us into daily contact with a proliferating array of partly autonomous simulations of sentient social behavior. With Emerging configurations of social presence, Josh seeks to place these developments in historical context and apply insights from the philosophy of embodied cognition to the novel configurations of matter, information, and social presence brought into being by pervasive computing and related phenomena.


Max Planck Institute for the History of Science 
Boltzmannstraße 22 
14195 Berlin