Humanity’s Infancy and Indigenous Digital Media

The study of humanity is in its infancy. Think about it. Most anthropologists can trace their lineage from their advisors back to the originators of the modern discipline in 3-4 generations. I got to Talcott Parsons in three skips. (If you know whom instructed Parsons please help me fill out my family tree). That is 100 or so years. Other important historical events were occurring a little over 100 years ago included the balkanization of indigenous peoples on reservations, like in the American West, for instance. Anthropology is so young. The void of knowledge about our species should be terrifying. This youthfulness is all the more obvious when one looks at a semi-ridiculous reduction of anthropological accounts of indigenous digital media.

Choose an indigenous group, preferably one with a relatively low density of complex technologies in their pre-colonial period. A desert tribe from North America or Australia or Africa or Central Asia works best. Introduce a new technology. Screw the Prime Directive. Around the technology are skeptics, early adopters, sustained innovators, and a break through moment. Tribe splits between fearful elders and ambivalent youth at an important meeting. Anthropologist dutifully records the notes. Compromise. Collaboration. Technology is modified to accommodate concerns. Indigenous people and technologies, both are modified, indigenous group uses new tool for empowerment. It is not what is made but how it is made. Privacy issues solved. Epiphany: tribal content can be adequately communicated and preserved via modifiable new media. A traditional mediated future is envisioned. Publication.

It is easy to be flippant about the story points of this classic tale of ICTs and indigeneity (particularly if you have done that applied research or written that article in one way or another for a few years like myself). But the fact that much more nuanced examples of that story continue as forms of legitimate research throughout the world means it is either as trendy as I tend to be or it is indeed one of the really important anthropological observations of our present. In this incarnation/writing I am going to side with the living.

Seen from the longue duree, this is THAT period of anthropological history. This is the middle of that 40 year period in which we can reasonably talk about one discreet unit, a digital technology, encountering another discreet entity, an indigenous community. An anthropologist is there to record the creative appropriation and postulate on its significance.

Follow me down this wormhole a few hundred years into the future, when anthropology, or its future incarnation, can no longer reasonably talk about an individual with self-identifying, linguistic, or material roots stemming directly from a pre-colonial origin. Cultural hybridity will continue at an ever-increasing rate, and, yes, cultural entities will evolve from hybrids of hybrids into new hybrids for the future anthropologist to name. Disparities in the global peripheries to access to off-the-shelf personal technologies will certainly exist but everyone will be thoroughly inculcated by “smart” mobile devices that will increasingly serve a suite of essential economic, social, and personal services. If you doubt this look into the quickly scaling FrontlineSMS or Samasource. In this future world where personal narratives turnover as quickly as designs for obsolescent hardware—a process compounded by the ubiquity of immersive mobile digital tools—anthropologists will no longer have this nicely polarized (and easy to spoof) story with these deeply historical characters using for the first time carbon fiber coated silicon for acts of empowerment and sovereignty. Nope, such technology will be such a part of most people’s lives that the novelty of indigenous digital media will have worn off. Media anthropology will continue. It just won’t be so charming.

Perhaps this thinking is a result of my transhumanist informants influencing me, but it feels to me that we are entering a period of fast history where the rate of intercultural hybridization and the proliferation of mobile and networked ICTs is hyperactivating cultural schism and re-formation. Looking back at the early 21st century from this near future it is possible to fondly consider the study of indigenous digital media with tenderness. We are living in this fascinating and innocent world where the story of new-media-meeting-old-culture is indeed an important story to tell.

Adam Fish

I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures

15 thoughts on “Humanity’s Infancy and Indigenous Digital Media

  1. Nice. Resonates particularly strongly with me because I have just written a paper on how advertising copywriters in Japan debated their role and their product as TV replaced print as Japan’s No. 1 advertising medium—in periods of rapid economic growth when advertising’s magic seemed real and periods of economic setbacks when FUD becomes the dominant mode. I found myself writing this paper at another historic turning point when the hot young studs of the 1980s are now old fogies like me, the Internet has surpassed newspapers as Japan’s No. 2 advertising medium and is nipping at the heels of TV, and ad industry billings, largely dependent on mass media buying, were down 11.9% in 2009. What we need now are a few hot young ethnographers to write the definitive ethnography Fear and Loathing in Cloud Kokoku Land, kokoku being Japanese for ad.

  2. Parson’s advisor at Heidelberg was Edgar Salin. He worked with others though, including Mannheim.

    Back to the old world for the rest of your lineage.

  3. Follow me down this wormhole a few hundred years into the future, when anthropology, or its future incarnation, can no longer reasonably talk about an individual with self-identifying, linguistic, or material roots stemming directly from a pre-colonial origin.

    If there are still humans a few hundred years from now the smart money says that a good many of them will still be self-identifying with pre-colonial groups.

  4. What’s missing from this narrative in my opinion is that indigeneity is/was partly defined by network exclusion traditionally and even in a more hybridized, technologically diffused world, network exclusion will sustain itself based on who has power within network societies. As such, local/indigenous concerns remain at the core of work and critical to the future of global media research, activism, and practice.

  5. @ramesh, presently there are 5 billion cell phones in a world of 6.7 billion people. (If there is a power elite excluding indigenous people from the devices they are not doing a very good job.) In my scenario, 100 or more years in the future, the inequality between the haves and have nots of these technologies is going to be even less. Increasingly all those phone are going to be as smart as first world devices (blah, blah Moore’s law; you listened to the Castells interview on Hearsay Culture). Add global wifi infrastructure and it is going to be unlikely that identity will be moored to precolonial notions of place and history. That is my controversial thesis. Future focus on precolonially identifying populations will in my opinion only seek to reproduce the honeymoon period of technological contact. Which is now! So let’s go give some cameras to tribal people and see if they ‘see’ differently. How about on the border of China and Kyrgyzstan?

    @Samuel, thanks, Manneheim and the study of knowledge, cool.

    @mccreery It is exactly those historical moments of technological appropriation that we can only understand in retrospect. I would love to read that report.

  6. MTB, my Scythian, Longobardian and Saxon ancestors beg to differ. More seriously I think you’re right, but those identifications will be even more highly mythologized than the yahoo Jersey Guidos who still think of themselves as Italian.

  7. Add global wifi infrastructure and it is going to be unlikely that identity will be moored to precolonial notions of place and history.

    Is that really what you mean to say? Or do you mean to say “notions of the precolonial”?

  8. Adam, do you think mere access to a cell phone engenders power for the user and the loss of exclusion? Access is not even close to power as we are writing about in our paper. At least my section. Your assumptions of the end to inequality seem pretty surprising from someone who argues for political economy in new media networks. Of course it won’t be as simple as a precolonial boundary but networked societies reify power disjunctures not eradicate them. To say that the findings of Sassen would just magically disappear because of a transhuman pipe dream is pretty anti-empirical and anti-predictive. The question was always about looking at new models by which local political and civil discourses can be amplified via new media – not a passive consumerist model that your blog post advocates.

  9. One last thought (since I have to be at this conference paying attn for the next few days) – The IDRC is funding projects here related to empowering network exclusion through new media. Here’s a paragraph from my latest paper. Perhaps you agree?:

    “. . those materially able to exploit
    networks and their associated resources continue to be urban elites and emerging middle classes, based on their relative ability to access networks of customers, capital, labor and physical resources, via multiple distributed ‘weak ties’ (Granovetter, 1973). Interestingly,
    despite the mythologization of the loss of local place in an era of digital networks, those with greater wealth and opportunity have further concentrated in cities precisely because of Castells’ point that resources within networks are best accessed from points of centrality, and are located within cities because of better infrastructure, information access, collocation of different labor and economic sectors, and more. Alongside these elite, ‘network-wealthy’ populations, has emerged a new class of workers who, though better paid, have been subject to the peculiarities and performativities of networked time and geography (Aneesh, 2006; Shome, 2006), and occupy generally subordinate positions in transnational, horizonatally distributed companies who are managed by elites in the West (Sassen, 1998; Ansell, 2000; Castells, 1996). Indeed, today’s power divides today cannot be merely traced to inequities between nation states as units but instead around the uneven movement of high skill ‘digital argonauts’ (Saxenian, 2006) and their associated resources between cities worldwide, enabling the development of historically poorer nations to realize great economic benefits in specific, urban elite
    spaces.”

  10. I’ve been blogging about the question of new media and cultural change for some time now, alas my progress has been slow. My working assumption is that global cultural diversity has been decreasing in the world’s rural hinterlands for centuries, yet it has been *increasing* in its urban areas through the ongoing diversification of occupational, recreational, ‘ethnic’ and other subcultural practices. New media, I suggest, have contributed to both processes, i.e. to the acculturation of rural folk into urban ways (esp. through radio, TV, film, school textbooks…) and to the ongoing differentiation of urban lifestyles and practices, especially since the explosion of internet and mobile technologies. So our species embarked centuries ago on a massive cultural trade-off: we have been losing one kind of cultural diversity (rural, subsistence-based) but gaining another kind (urban, market-based).

    For example, take the Borneo state of Sarawak where I’ve carried out ethnographic and historical research. Throughout the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, its urban areas have expanded dramatically and become ever more diverse in their media and cultural practices. At the same time, Sarawak’s rural hinterlands have lost much of their linguistic and cultural distinctiveness as the subsistence economies of past centuries have given way to ever more monetised and bureaucratised economies. For instance, the Iban spoken by young people today is far more Malay-influenced than that of their grandparents. Their religious views are shaped by Christianity far more than by the ideas and practices of their ‘pagan’ ancestors. Their worldview is an urban Malaysian worldview, not a rural Sarawak one. Analogous processes are unfolding throughout the world.

  11. This sense of a long duree and a phase in the appropriation of media is interesting. I think John is correct to outline urbanisation as operating in a set of shifts in practices in both rural and urban areas characterised by both migration and increased media penetration.

    I think the confusions about power and access come from treating networks as things, which effectively treats them like buildings, possibly with doors in the form of technology. This is a “transperency” and “open access” type discourse, and it is insufficient.

    However, scale, centrality and and access are all predicated and constituted on networks as practices (pace Latour), that is webs of connection in terms of what people do and how they pass things and tasks to one another. I think that political economies emerge from this, in relation to the ways in which groups articulate their common practices and membership (Communities of practice) and this is a neat way of carrying out what is often called a “class analysis” but in a grounded and ethnographically coherent, and thus getting at a political economy.

    So this moment may be remembered as the last phase of when ethnography could be carried out as if communities did not constitute their emic (which I see the C of P stuff as referencing – emic in practice) in relation to their etic (their positioning in relays of practice).

    This moment of looking at the articulation of indiginiety and media will indeed look as Latour describes the division of material and cultural, like piling up naked people on one side and all their clothes and equipment on another and going “look, structure and agency”!

    This, local the notion of the “Global” and the “Local” and the “traditional” and the “modern” will look dated when such a condition forms a ground for what people do, as it often does already. Will Anthropology finally shift gears at that point, and concern itself with public space and modernity, possibly from the position of particularity, but hopefully no longer in an exclusive way?

    One can only hope…

  12. Ramesh, is your paper published? I would like to read it, as in my own research on entrepreneurial media producers, I’m finding that the personal socioeconomic background of these producers, whether successful or not, is definitely skewed towards those who had a significant amount of financial and social capital to draw on for technology access when getting started. This access to technology continues to be important in their ability to create (or even imagine, it appears) multiple types of products (the infamous “multiple streams of revenue”) to offer to customers through various routes, most of which involve web-based promotion and sales.

  13. There is something quite dangerous in the articulation of fast-history and hyper-hybridity here. From the comments, there is also a suggestion that access to technology is an equalizer for this massive sum population of Indigenous Peoples. There is too quick a leap here to see technology as such an immense catalyst. If anything, many peoples (still under the yoke of colonialism) persist in underscoring and emphasizing their ways of life as opposed to becoming something new and different. The argument presented (in the way it is here) is exactly the story of modernity that Canadian courts like to use to deny Indigenous People’s land claims and assertions of sovereignty. It sounds exciting, but it fits too nicely with the Kants theories of universal history and Stewards theory of multilinear evolution to properly reflect on how any people (Indigenous or not) incorporate new ideas into who they are as a people persisting.

  14. Needless to say, I agree with Joshua.
    Also to add that the link at “transhumanist informants” goes to a video titled “Turning into Gods”
    Does no one here remember that futurism is a form of fascism? Futurist fantasies always age badly and there’s no reason that would change this time.
    Academic vanguardism is really “original intent” pointing forward instead of into the past.

    “The study of humanity is in its infancy.” From the pre-Socratics to today; and yes it still is. We’re only human and that’s not going to change. We’ll always make the same stupid mistakes.

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