Digital Anthropology: An EASA Workshop

Heather Horst (University of California, Irvine) and Daniel Miller (UCL)
On August 25th, we held the very first “Digital Anthropology” workshop in Maynooth, Ireland. When we sent out the Call for Proposals last spring, we were uncertain as to the extent of interest and the potential response to the call. We were pleased to receive a large pool (more than expected!) of submissions; a sign that we believe represents a strong indication of the increasing interest in this domain. Indeed, we saw this point was reinforced by the vast number of media and technology-focused papers interspersed throughout the EASA conference – never before have we attended an anthropology conference with so many media papers to choose from, or have to miss to attend our own workshop(s)! For our own panel, we decided to select papers loosely focused around the intentionally amorphous term “Digital Anthropology” in order to include as wide a range as possible in order to illustrate the eclectic nature of incipient work in this field. We, in turn, organized the day so that the morning session would focus on topics that would foreground the issues that arose from a more self-conscious sense of becoming a digital world, while the afternoon was directed more towards the wider field of anthropology and more classic ethnographic terrain (see original abstracts below).
We began the day with a paper by Andrew Bowsher who focused upon the production and circulation of ‘authentic music’ based upon research in the alternative music capital of Austin, Texas USA. Bowsher’s paper represented a classic instance of `resistance’ with respect to the increasing connoisseurship for vinyl records and the micro-negotiation and compromises associated with digital forms such as re-packaging CD’s in beautifully designed and crafted settings that looked also like original vinyl. The paper thereby stood for the way many other non-digital forms find a new sense of authenticity through their contrast with the digital.
By contrast, Gabriella Coleman focused her presentation on Anonymous and some of the most extreme activists of the digital scene and their stream of attacks on Scientology. As she illustrative through videos of Tom Cruise and others, hackers view Scientology as their nemesis in that Scientology also uses the idiom of new digital technology but asserts the `correct’ use of this technology while hackers advocate incorrect or at least unconstrained usage.
The final presentation was from Lane DeNicola who utilized Bruce Sterling’s notion of the spime to examine the new devices for location awareness. As with so many studies of digital media, his presentation revealed problematic issues of control and surveillance alongside vast new potentials and capacities.
In the concluding discussion, we collectively discussed the value of exploring extreme forms of practice and participation, with Miller suggesting that hackers and other sorts of groups represent extremes that people may choose to occupy because it is a perspective from which to make sense of the digital age, or worlds. Coleman, by contrast, argued that there are a vast number of users for sites such as 4chan that might otherwise be seen as peripheral.
The afternoon session(s) shifted the focus from the perspectives that, in many ways, emerge out of the material culture tradition of understanding relations between people and objects to broader perspectives on the role of digital media in imagining and realizing futures. The session began with a presentation from Peter Pels who is beginning a project with Bart Barendregt on the way various ideas of the future are being reconfigured by the digital Building upon the influence of James Ferguson and the history of science fiction. Barendregt then gave a more detailed account of his own work on the appropriation of digital media by Indonesian Islam such as halal mobile phones, and the importance of this in asserting Indonesian creativity and local production rather than merely the periphery to the West.
Switching to a different vision of futures – national development – Paula Uimonen employed Victor Turner’s notion of the liminal and Ulf Hannerz’s conceptualization of creolization to analyze micro-decisions around changes in web addresses in Tanzania as the country worked to incorporate arts websites and activities into its national agenda.
Julie Archimbault revealed how the circulation of mobile phones in low income Mozambique was based primarily upon petty theft from tourists as well as friends and intimates. In contrast to the centrality of individual possession we see in other contexts, Archimbault found a lack of commitment to individual phones and customization given the continued threat of theft among youth in Mozambique.
Sirpa Tenhunen kicked off the final session by returning to the topic of politics and activism. Noting that for all the journalism and hype about the use of mobiles in politics, there was little sustained work to date. Taking on concepts such as Howard Rheingold’s “smart mobs” and other related work as her point of departure, Tenhunen’s patient ethnography gave a clear sense of how mobiles had facilitated opposition to the ruling Marxist regime of West Bengal as well as providing evidence against such opposition.
This was followed by Lee Komito who reported on the findings of his comparative study of Polish and Filipino migrants in Dublin. Tracing the ways migrants connected with each other in Dublin and with those back home (and elsewhere), Komito stressed the role of kinship and friends from the homeland as well as the hostland. He further suggested that despite his misgivings about the concept during the web 1.0 era, the emergence of social networking and other social media may researchers cause to return to concepts like “community” to understand the experience of migrants and their participation in local and global communities.
We then turned to Adopho Estalella who demonstrated how bloggers in Spain were constantly concerned to show the political and wider significance of blogging itself, be it through blogging conventions or micro-politics, such as making a difference by addressing problems of queuing in places like Ikea.
Finally, and returning to the broader properties of the digital highlighted in the first session, Sabra Thorner provided a detailed description and demonstration of cutting edge software in use by Australian Aboriginal societies. Designed to facilitate culturally relevant interactions, the archival software included such culturally-sensitive functionality, including the ability to obscure the recently deceased whose image should not be viewed. Thorner argued that this new software program was leading to a genuine popularity in spending time on various forms of digital archiving of family materials amongst such groups.
As a collective, the papers demonstrated the diversity of what could be termed ‘digital anthropology’ by starting with the way anthropology can help understand unprecedented activities and debates that pertain to the specifics of digital cultural and then moving to the very opposite end of the spectrum in order to understand the ways in which digital technologies have become handmaidens to the facilitation of classic anthropological issues of cultural specificity and sensitivity. Taken together with the Media Anthropology workshop papers, a number of shared and overlapping themes emerged in both panels that could have been addressed in either session. For example, papers across the two sessions focused upon the increase in user-generated content creation in terms of cultural and family heritage sites (e.g. Smiljana Antonijevic, Burt Barendregt/Peter Pels, Phillip Budka, Sabra Thorner and Paula Uiomonen) and the struggles to balance issues such as representation and social change.
The use of new media for politics and activism also became a key issue, ranging from the tech-savvy hackers of Coleman’s study to Estaella’s Ikea-focused bloggers, Tenhunen’s community politics in north India and Tilo Gratz’s radio stars. Issues around digital labor and the boundaries between professional and amateur communities also became a key focus of many of the papers and highlighted the changing relationship between production, consumption, participation and distribution (e.g. Elisenda Ardevol, Andrew Bowsher, Alexander Knorr and Lane DeNicola). And, of course, there were a range of papers (e.g. Julie Archimbault, Heather Horst, Lee Komito, Elke Mader, John Postill and Francisco Osario, Pille Runnel) that focused on the broader media ecologies in which people now live and operate within over the course of their daily lives.
Yet, and given the range of papers shared across the two sessions, there continue to be questions that remain. For example, for the theme of cultural heritage we saw papers that stressed the importance of culturally specific designs, practices and modes of interactions, yet also revealed a tension towards conservatism and essentialism in the designs and systems even when not intended. What do we know about where and when these tensions emerge? Does the design of a system, even a flexible, open-ended system, automatically produce such tensions? Where politics and activism are concerned, when and where are politics (with a small p) most effective and do these politics replicate, reshape or, at the very least, destabilize broader power distinctions (and for whom)? Related to the above, what do we know about these broader practices of production, consumption, participation and distribution, and what does it mean for global corporations and users, governments and others to take seriously the user experience? Finally, how are people navigating the increasingly diverse media ecologies? What is the relationship between cost, convenience, location and capabilities of media, and to what extent are these changing for different groups as we saw in Komito’s paper on migrants? For the purposes of the Media Anthropology mailing list, there remain a range of questions that, I suspect, are on many of our minds these days. What does this mean to carry out research in the realm of ‘digital or media anthropology’? How do we understand and capture the new realities of everyday life? What new possibilities might exist for studying and understanding the implications and development of the digital? In what ways might these new tools and publics the types of ethnographies and other forms of publications we produce and disseminate? What might this mean for the processes of knowledge creation and production more generally?
To view the abstracts for the conference see the EASA Workshop website.

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