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.



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