Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Q: What is digital anthropology? A: Hype?

Odd that four weeks in we should still be asking this question, but as “pioneering guinea pigs” (the department’s words not mine) it stands to reason that we should be helping to define the field. If it is indeed an emergent field. Either way we have to decide about the area we plan to research soon so it’s important to work out the scope of legitimate enquiry...

This much we have decided. For ‘the digital’ to be a suitable subject for anthropological enquiry it must be amenable to ethnographic fieldwork and theorising (a continuity with anthropology’s past). Digital anthropology can’t privilege any people because all users constitute what e.g. the internet is and means by virtue of involvement with it everywhere (to an extent a break with much of anthropology’s past, where examinations of groups in fixed locations were common). Finally its output must be insights about what it is to be human, another continuity. 

Whilst I have some ideas already about research I’d like to do, it’s clear that its subject must be culturally significant. What makes ICT's (Information and Communication Technologies) anthropologically interesting according to Tenhunen in a 2008 edition of the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute is: "their ability to influence sociality’s place based conditions of existence and forms." To that end he examines "how the appropriation of phones draws from culture and, conversely, contributes to changes in culture and society."

A tool I've enlisted to help fix an appropriate subject, (in other words mapping what's scheduled for mainstream adoption and when), is Gartner's 'Hype Cycle' graph (below), which has been tracking new technology on its trajectory of unrealistic expectations to mass adoption. That's not to say adoption by mainstream 'Western' culture is the key criterion - after all Tenhunen was looking at mobile phones in Indian villages where even a limited penetration was having a large effect. It's also not to say that peripheral phenomena aren't worth studying - for example there's been a lot of research into the practice of goldfarming which has generated an interesting real-world culture of its own, study of which throws light onto other human practices, even though goldfarming is ostensibly about virtual environments.

Ideas on a postcard! Or blog comment of course.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Access to broadband & Finland

The digital divide is on our agenda soon, so discussion in our group today about the Finnish government which has just introduced laws guaranteeing broadband access to every person living in Finland (5.5 million people, give or take).

Well, it's only an aspiration but the UK's Digital Inclusion Champion, Martha Lane Fox spoke about “a race online for 2012” at the Digital Engagement conference on Monday (she aims to halve the number of people who don’t have online access by 2012). See http://www.digitalengagementevent.com/.

But what's the point in everyone having the right or encouragement to have broadband if UK provision is as bad as Cisco said it is earlier in the month... "UK broadband networks have been ranked 31st out of 66 countries in terms of quality, according to a new survey by networking equipment firm Cisco. Nations such as Bulgaria and Latvia are ranked higher than Britain, while Japan and South Korea lead the way with regard to overall service."

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Social media: not all sell, sell sell

Intrigued to read a contribution to New Media Age magazine by Mark Cridge (a digital marketing industry figure) which challenged the conventional preoccupation of his industry (namely coaxing people to consume more), by focusing on one of the impacts of a broader adoption of social technologies, i.e. that "it makes the entire process of production and consumption much more transparent." See http://www.nma.co.uk/opinion/sustaining-our-way-of-life-will-only-get-harder/3004712.article

This implication, he argues, will make it more straightforward for us to introduce more sustainable practices. If we can indulge in sustainable ways of living then much of what gets forecast about our increasingly technology-enabled interconnected and interactive world might come to pass (as opposed to our current trajectory, where we may consume our way into oblivion).

UCL's very own Professor Danny Miller has been leading a project which harnesses social media amongst other things to try and create this sense of transparency where and when it matters most, namely in education. He designed an interactive project which helps schoolchildren understand the origins of the goods they consume. They will be tracking how the component parts of ginger beer come together into the finished product, speaking to farmers on webcams, visiting facilities and crucially taking delivery of a personalised bottle of the finished product. The last point is crucial because children appear to learn best when they have a stake in the subject matter.

Social media, with which most of them are familiar, can play a role in helping the next generation become the responsible consumers we're going to need if sustainable visions of our future are to be realised.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

In the digital lab today, bouncing ideas around about the differences and similarities in the approach taken by journalists and ethnographers to their subject matter.

Found this quote from Reuters blogger Felix Salmon:

"the biggest gap between professional journalists and bloggers hasn't even begun to start narrowing. It's this: professional journalists tend to think of their article as the end of a process of reporting, while bloggers tend to think of their entries as the beginning of a process of commenting."

It doesn't shed much light on anthropology per se but points to behaviours an anthropologist investigating digital culture needs to keep abreast of (if only to appreciate the nature of different data sources).

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Getting under the skin of cultures

Week 1

Wow, I'll be lucky if I can manage a post a week, let alone turn this into a living an breathing blog given the quantity of commitments I and others are making on the course.

There are three 'core' elements every week. The first is a 3hr session on key topics/theory, the second a 2hr Lab session for hands on experience of certain digital technologies and the third a seminar given on the parent theme of material and visual culture, to which digital anthropology is positioned as belonging.

Those in the department doing PhD research which falls into the category of 'digital' are first and foremost social anthropologists so many of us are also keen to build a solid foundation in this, one of the disciplines which gave rise to material (and visual) culture itself. To that end we're going to all sorts of additional lectures, including those for anthropologists training in the hitherto real (commonly opposed to virtual, but I'll get to whether this is a meaningful distinction in a subsequent post) world anthropological research method of ethnography.

Today we did an interesting practical exercise which divided the group into two cultures, gave them each a routine to perform and then had the other half of the group try to observe and participate in order to understand what was going on (relayed as a one page 'ethnography'). Lots of valid points emerged about interpreting the (often initially incomprehensible) behaviours of others. The main lesson was that in depth ethnography allows you to already know the answers to the questions you end up posing because of your exposure to and engagement with the culture under study. Next session, ethics...