As an undergraduate, I was deeply impressed with Daniel Miller’s Material Culture and Mass Consumption — in fact, in one of my first published articles I used Miller’s concept of ‘forging’ (which implies both making and faking) to help understand the transformation of landowner identities around customary land registration. I’ve admired a lot of Miller’s other works as well, including Stuff, which is an accessible walk through his writings on material culture. On the other hand, I haven’t been that impressed by his work on the Internet and Digital Anthropology. I think I may be the only one who feels this way, however: UCL’s Center for Digital Anthropology (which offers an innovative MSc in Digital Anthropology) has grown from strength to strength. Of course it’s important not to reduce the center to just Miller, or to view it as the institutional expression of the personality cult surrounding him (which I know some detractors do). Miller has changed the field not only with his publications, but by creating a network of scholars with a shared outlook — a genuine movement in anthropology, not just a clique with a rigid doctrine. It’s incredibly impressive.
I particularly like Miller’s project because of its strong open access component. It’s great to have these pieces available. The biggest issue now is reception: In a world full of Too Much Stuff To Read, can the UCL open access volumes grab the attention of readers? Well, as we used to say on the Internet back in the nineties: I, for one, welcome our new global social media impact overlords. So this weekend why don’t you download a book or two, take a gander, and see if you think this latest piece of open access scholarship is worth spreading.
Tulpamancers are people who, through extended bouts of concentration and visualization, produce a special kind of imaginary friend that they call a tulpa. Tulpas are understood to be distinct sentient beings with their own personalities, inclinations and (relative) autonomy. Through various active and passive processes known as ‘forcing’ tulpamancers spend hours solidifying their impressions of their creations as something more than just an ordinary inner voice. (Active forcing means concentrating single-pointedly on the tulpa’s form and features, passive forcing is when the tulpamancer finds ways to bring tulpas into more regular routines, such as through ‘narrating’, where tulpamancers chat with or read stories to their creations). Tulpamancers meet tulpas in imagined environments called ‘wonderlands’, dream or mind-scapes that more fully contextualize interactions and provide a place for tulpas to ‘hang out’ when idle. They also work to perfect ‘imposition’ -seeing, hearing, or feeling tulpas in the ‘real world’ – and may practice tulpa-possession or even ‘switching’, where the tulpa takes over the host’s body and the host temporarily occupies the tulpa’s form in the wonderland.
In a recent contribution to this writers’ series, Michael Lambek offered some reflections on the virtues of “slow reading.” In an era of rapid-fire online communication, when images increasingly substitute for text, Lambek argues we would be well served to revel in the quiet interiority and reflective subjectivity made possible by long-form reading.
In this post I would like to think more carefully about this claim and to consider whether we might want to make a similar argument regarding the shifting pace of academic writing. If, as Lambek and others suggest, the temporality of reading has been altered by the digital age, can the same be said for research and writing? How have new digital tools, platforms, and shifts in technological access transformed the temporality of ethnographic writing, and is this something we necessarily wish to slow down? Continue reading →
Last week I reported from #AAA2014 on the emergence of digital anthropology as a growing theme in our discipline and one in need of some legitimacy relative to anthropology’s traditional domains. Readers posed questions interrogating the worth of digital anthropology. What is it good for? What does it add? How should we define it?
I’ve been mulling over this question of what digital anthropology can do that is different from digital sociology or digital communications studies and the answer I came up with is problematic because it points back to these questions of jobs and disciplinary legitimacy. The next frontier for digital anthropology should be participatory design with the added challenge of translating participatory design into conventionally valuable works of scholarship. Continue reading →
As I settled in to browse the conference program for the 2014 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association (just hours before I was scheduled to leave, natch), I was immediately struck by a common thread running through a slew of paper panels and workshops. This year anthropologists convincingly demonstrated that they have wholly embraced the Digital, it was everywhere from topics to methodological choices, technologies and communications.
Here’s a sample of what conference goers had in store:
ACTIV(IST) DIGITAL SCREENS: THE POLITICS OF DIGITAL IMAGING ACROSS CULTURAL BORDERS
DIGITAL ANTHROPOLOGY GROUP (DANG) BUSINESS MEETING
DIGITAL TECHNOLOGIES AND THE PRODUCTION OF ANTHROPOLOGICAL ETHICS
DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY, TRANSPARENCY, AND EVERYDAY FORMS OF POLITICAL ENGAGEMENT
CONFLICTED FANTASIES: ANTHROPOLOGY AND AFRICAN MEDIA CULTURES IN THE DIGITAL AGE
DIGITAL ANTHROPOLOGY AND CAREER MOBILITY: DO THESE GO HAND-IN-HAND?
SEEING ARGUMENTS: VISUAL ARGUMENTATION AND PRODUCTION IN THE DIGITAL AGE
DIGITAL DIASPORAS: AFRICAN MIGRANTS, MEDIATED COMMUNICATION, AND TRANSNATIONAL IDENTITIES
DIGITAL MEDIA AND THE PRODUCTION OF ANTHROPOLOGY: A DISCUSSION ON VISUAL ETHICS (PART 1: PRIVACY, ACCESS, CONTROL, EXPOSURE)
ANTHROPOLOGICAL KNOWLEDGE: ACCESS, CREATION AND DISSEMINATION IN THE DIGITAL AGE
DIGITAL MEDIA AND THE PRODUCTION OF ANTHROPOLOGY: A DISCUSSION ON VISUAL ETHICS (PART 2: ANONYMITY, VISIBILITY, PROTEST, PARTICIPATION, IDENTITY)
PRODUCING STORYTELLING IN THE DIGITAL AGE: NEW CHALLENGES
ON THINGS IMMATERIAL: DATA, USERS, AND PARTICIPATION IN DIGITAL TECHNOLOGIES
THE LIFECYCLE OF ETHNOGRAPHIC INFORMATION – CHALLENGES IN THE PRESERVATION AND ACCESSIBILITY OF QUALITATIVE DATA
NAPA Workshop: (FREE) Software for Writing and Managing Fieldnotes: FLEX DATA Notebook for PCs
RESEARCHING ANTHROPOLOGY AND ORIENTALISM IN THE ERA OF BIG DATA: ROUNDTABLE ON THE ARAB STUDIES Institute’s KNOWLEDGE PRODUCTION PROJECT
SMALL-SCALE, BIG DATA: A NETWORK SCIENCE APPROACH TO PRODUCING ANTHROPOLOGY IN SMALL-SCALE FOOD SYSTEMS
PRODUCING DATA, CRACKING DATA CULTURES
THE BIG DATA REVOLUTION AND THE FUTURE OF SOCIOCULTURAL WORLDS
MAKING ISLAM IN MULTIPLE MEDIA: INTERNET, THERAPY, ROMANCE, AND SCHOOLING IN THE FORMATION OF MUSLIM IDENTITIES
TEACHING ANTHROPOLOGY ONLINE: BEST TOOLS AND PRACTICES FOR E-LEARNING
Writing Ethnography: Experimenting on Paper, Experimenting Online
CASTAC BUSINESS MEETING (COMMITTEE ON THE ANTHROPOLOGY OF SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY AND COMPUTING)
SOCIETY FOR HUMANISTIC ANTHROPOLOGY WORKSHOP ON UTILIZING FACEBOOK FOR ETHNOGRAPHIC RESEARCH
SOCIETY FOR HUMANISTIC ANTHROPOLOGY WORKSHOP. BLOGGING BLISS: WRITING CULTURE IN THE BLOGOSPHERE
Add to this the #AAA2014 tweet-up, constant updates on social networks and blogs (not to mention the email and instant messaging we all take for granted) and it is clear — there is no part of our professional lives that is untouched by the online. Research, fieldwork, methods, teaching, scholarly communications. Digital anthropology is a major development in our discipline and rightly so, humanity, our bread and butter, is potentially redefining itself in relation to these technologies. We can’t not study this stuff! Continue reading →
This post is part of a series on the history of computing in sociocultural anthropology.
Last week, I surveyed mid-century formalist approaches to computing and culture, which took culture as ideational — a matter of mental states, structures, or content. Ethnoscience and cognitive anthropology epitomized this attitude toward culture, taking part in a cross-disciplinary “cognitive revolution.” As Paul Edwards has outlined, computers were central to the emergence of cognitive science, which was founded on an understanding of the mind-brain relation by analogy to software and hardware. George Miller, a pioneer of cognitive psychology, suggested that computers helped collapse the behaviorist paradigm. Where behaviorism limited psychologists’ theorizing to the mind’s strictly observable “outputs” — lever pulls and all that — the computer offered a model for thinking about “memory, syntactic rules, plans, schemata, and the like.” These notions could be instantiated in actual computers, providing a working model of what was going on in the mind. As Miller said: “We didn’t believe that computers were giant brains, but we could see the similarities.”
However, cognitive and otherwise ideational approaches to culture did not have a monopoly on computational models and methods.
The fundamental requirement of anthropology is that it begin with a personal relation and end with a personal experience, but […] in between there is room for plenty of computers.
– Claude Lévi-Strauss, epigraph to The Use of Computers in Anthropology1
Recent years have seen the growth of what we might call “alternate universe anthropology.” People with little or no training in anthropology are taking on big sociocultural questions, and they’re doing it with computers. We find PhDs in Electrical Engineering trying to algorithmically define musical genres, computer scientists modeling family ties in social networks, and autodidact software developers designing “content discovery” apps around their own theories of cultural influence and flow. If sociocultural anthropology didn’t already exist, people might reasonably assign the name to this stuff. Continue reading →
This post is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here.
Last month I was involved as a planning committee member for a neat little event, the annual Anthropology in London Conference. Each June the anthropology departments at SOAS, Goldsmiths, LSE, UCL, Brunel, and UEL (and occasionally the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) come together as a community for a full day of talks and panels by doctoral students, academic staff, and anthropologists at large (mostly but not exclusively based in London). Unsurprisingly, the planning committee had wanted the theme for the event to somehow reflect both the current atmosphere of the discipline but also of London, the confluence of the 2012 Summer Olympics, the European economic crisis, and the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts. The theme we settled on—Certainty? (with a question mark)—struck a resonant and suitably interrogative chord.
If the waxing and waning drive for “certainty” deeply frames the academic profession (e.g. the tenure-track as canonical objective) I suppose I’ve had to contend with only a typical overall level of it, but it rarely feels that way. When I slid from technical employment and a BS in physics and computer science into the social sciences, it kicked off a cognitive and professional butterfly effect I couldn’t return to order even if I wanted to. Though several of my graduate mentors were anthropologists, I came not out of an anthropology program but rather a program in science & technology studies. I suspect that many here would concur with my own (mercifully limited) experience as an STS-person the academic job market: the thaumatrope-like character of the field is usually received within more conventionally-disciplined departments as either powerfully “interdisciplinary” or suspiciously “everywhere and nowhere at once.”
Even my dissertation fieldwork—nine months in north India—largely took the form of participant-observation within a school, specifically an institution for the training of satellite image interpreters. Most SM readers will be familiar with the often dicey proposition of having to explain their fieldwork to funding organizations or governmental agencies charged with evaluation, auditing, or border control. It may well be that you can’t throw a rock in South Asia without hitting an anthropologist, but throw satellite images and “school as fieldsite” into the mix and you’re pretty much guaranteed to confuse people before you’ve really gotten anywhere. If I’d had to choose a one-word theme for that work, Uncertainty! (with an exclamation point) might have worked fairly well.