Assistant Professor of Anthropology
Héctor Beltrán is a sociocultural anthropologist who draws upon his background in computer science to understand how the technical aspects of computing intersect with issues of identity, race, ethnicity, class, and nation. He completed his PhD in Anthropology (2018) and MA in Folklore (2012) at UC Berkeley and holds a BS in Computer Science and Engineering from MIT (2007). Before coming to MIT, he was a UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at UC Irvine. Beltrán’s current book manuscript, Code Work: Hacking Across the US/México Techno-Borderlands, follows the lives of Mexican hackers as they navigate the political and economic unevenness of North America’s computer programming sector. The ethnographic research and writing for this project has been funded by the School for Advanced Research, The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, American Council of Learned Societies, Social Science Research Council, Ford Foundation, UC-Mexus, and UC Berkeley Institute for the Study of Societal Issues. Beltrán is currently also working on an anthropological history of the intertwining development of computer science and hacking in modern México. At MIT, he teaches classes on subjects such as: the cultural dimensions of computing; practices of hacking from the Global South; and Latinx and Latin American identities, politics, and social movements.
My current book manuscript, Code Work: Hacking Across the US/México Techno-Borderlands, merges ethnographic analysis with systems thinking/theory and computer programming concepts to examine how Mexican and Latinx hackers apply concepts from the code worlds to their lived experiences. I bring together more than eight years of firsthand research in both México and the US: participating in hackathons and frequenting hacker schools, attending tech entrepreneurship conferences, and following the moves of hacker-entrepreneurs as they pitch and pivot their startup projects across nationalized and classed boundaries. Across these techno-borderlands, I show how batches, loose coupling, iterative processing (looping), the “hack” and hacking, prototyping, and full-stack development are applied to daily social interactions in the workplace, the home, and on the dating scene as well as to the economy, culture, and geopolitics.
I am currently collaborating with colleagues in México on a wide-ranging historical study of Mexican cultures of computing. Combining archival research and oral historiography, we highlight the developers and users behind early computing platforms as well as their roles and contributions to the field of computer science. We focus on how agendas and cultural practices have changed over the last 60 years, as university programs strive to keep curricula up-to-date with latest computing infrastructures, while also inculcating an unofficial hacking ethos among students. By re-focusing on the voices and bodies behind these cultures of computing, we aim to connect the history of machines with constructions of identity, class, gender, and nation.
|2022||“Hacking, Computing Expertise, and Difference." Just Tech. Social Science Research Council. March 1, 2022.|
|2021||“Cybraceros: The Promise and Perils of Border Hacking.” Hack_Curio, September 7, 2021.|
|2021||“Cybraceros: La promesa y los peligros del border hacking.” Hack_Curio, September 7, 2021.|
|2020||“Code Work: Thinking with the System in México.” American Anthropologist 122(3): pp. 487-500.|
|2020||“The First Latina Hackathon: Re-coding Infrastructures from México." Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, and Technoscience 6(2).|
21A.131J / 21H.270J
Latinx in the Age of Empire
Analyzes the histories and presence of the Latinx population in the context of US territorial expansion, foreign intervention and economic policy toward Latin America. Combines both historical and anthropological approaches to analyze local conditions that lead people to migrate within the broader forces of international political economy. Pays attention to the historical context in the home countries, especially as impacted by US policy. Explores Latinx community dynamics, politics of migrant labor, relational formations of race and transnational forms of belonging. Historically and ethnographically seeks to understand structures of criminalization, activist practices of resistance and the development of deportation regimes.
Technology and Culture
Examines the intersections of technology, culture, and politics in a variety of social and historical settings ranging from 19th-century factories to 21st-century techno dance floors, from Victorian London to anything-goes Las Vegas. Discussions and readings organized around three questions: what cultural effects and risks follow from treating biology as technology; how computers have changed the way we think about ourselves and others; and how politics are built into our infrastructures. Explores the forces behind technological and cultural change; how technological and cutural artifacts are understood and used by different communities; and whether, in what ways, and for whom technology has produced a better world.
21A.504J / STS.086J / WGS.276J
Cultures of Computing
Examines computers anthropologically, as artifacts revealing the social orders and cultural practices that create them. Students read classic texts in computer science along with cultural analyses of computing history and contemporary configurations. Explores the history of automata, automation and capitalist manufacturing; cybernetics and WWII operations research; artificial intelligence and gendered subjectivity; robots, cyborgs, and artificial life; creation and commoditization of the personal computer; the growth of the Internet as a military, academic, and commercial project; hackers and gamers; technobodies and virtual sociality. Emphasis is placed on how ideas about gender and other social differences shape labor practices, models of cognition, hacking culture, and social media.
Hacking from the South
Using anthropological perspectives to propose critically reflexive modes of participation in existing socio-technical systems, students draw on ethnographic case studies to understand how practices and definitions of "hacking" are grounded in specific political and cultural contexts. With a focus on the Global South (Africa, Caribbean, Middle East, Asia and Southeast Asia, Oceania), examines the relationship between international development and technological empowerment by interrogating assumptions associated with particular locations and peoples, especially those constructed as peripheral to geographic centers of power.
Link to students' projects from Hacking from the South
|2018||University of California President's Postdoctoral Fellowship. U.C. Irvine, CA.|
|2017||Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship, American Council of Learned Societies. New York, NY.|
|2017||School for Advanced Research Mellon Residential Scholar Fellowship. Santa Fe, NM. (accepted residence; declined stipend)|
|2016||Institute for the Study of Societal Issues Graduate Fellows Program. U.C. Berkeley.|
|2015||Social Science Research Council Mellon International Dissertation Research Fellowship. New York, NY.|
|2015||The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research Dissertation Fieldwork Grant. New York, NY.|
|2015||University of California Institute for Mexico and the United States (U.C.-Mexus) Dissertation Research Grant.|
|2012||Ford Foundation Multi-year Predoctoral Fellowship. Washington, D.C.|
Interview with Data and Society Research Institute for #unsettle: Strategies for Decolonizing Tech Research post, December 9, 2019.