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.