The Machine is Us/ing Us

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Here is a video by anthropologist Michael Wesch which explains “Web 2.0 in under 5 minutes”.  It illustrates how text has evolved from paper text –> digital text –> html (in which form and context are intertwined) –> xml (in which form and content are separate, meaning that users can upload content without knowing code, etc.) and –> the role of users in tagging and categorizing all the data we are producing. I thought the video was interesting in terms of Participation and the Web because it defines participation not in a political or social sense, but in the more mundane sense of content creation and organization.  It also highlights the presence of machines in digital participation. Dr. Wesch is the keynote speaker at this year’s Open Video Conference in NYC, Oct. 1-2, 2010.

Media Anthropology?

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Amelia and I are engaging in media anthropology, we claim. And/or digital anthropology. But terms are just terms.

Given the prominent role of (mass, electronic, lately digital) media and (in Benedict Anderson‘s terms) of imagined communities — partly or entirely produced by media, and in cultures all around the world for past decades — it’s surprising how little research has explicitly been labelled as media anthropology. An exception would be the study of virtual realities that has been ongoing for quite some time, and produced such delightful projects as Boellstorf’s (partly autoethnographic) work  Coming of Age in Second Life.

Having conducted plenty of qualitative, ethnographic audience research, I still struggle with the exact borderline between sociology and anthropology. Both fields use the same method. Perhaps in the field of communication and media studies, a discipline without it’s own grand theory or methodology, but an eclectic mix of humanities and social sciences-oriented approaches, the distinction between how A or S approach media as they topic is particularly vague.

Some talk about aim and angle (sociology being more geared towards relationship with the society, and with the focus often on social justice issues, anthropology traditionally studying other cultures). Pardon my ignorance, I’m thinking aloud, but haven’t two of my heroes conducted anthropological work , the UK sociologist Morley on everyday life and television, the Finnish scholar Kytömäki on television viewing and families (latter, in fact, for the Dept. of Social Psychology).

I recently read a wonderful Finnish-language book on media anthropology (or, as the term is sometimes stated, anthropology of the media), first of its kind, by Sumiala. Her clever take was to frame the idea of the field around rituals (how media mediates as well as creates them, and thus creates communities). She discussed rituals related to production, media texts themselves, and reception. While this focus on rituals works, I intuitively find it slightly limiting, as well as the three categories, especially as my interest is in participation (and that nowadays tests  the boundaries of production, text and reception…)

Dunno. In our project, we actually aim at some point to connect political economy and macro-level considerations of socio-cultural and economic conditions to our descriptive micro-level ethnography. The reason why I’d like to call it anthropology is that I’d like the research to be about communal,  individual, cultural, social. I’d like to see culture as the umbrella, under which all other aspects such as social and economic structures are constructed.

There has been so much theorisation about digital media as a platform for new public spheres and so on. Most of the related empirical research is about global social movements. (More about this e.g, in a recent working paper by Erickson & myself).

Instead, I’d like out micro-level examination be as inductive., ‘grounded’, as possible. About the everyday of everyday people. And i should say that I’m quite an ‘other’ regarding the context of India, somewhat other in the USA, and slowly becoming an other regarding Finland 😉

IMHO: Whatever labels,  one thing is for sure. These times are made for communication research. (I’m not the only one to claim this, the World Bank bloggers agree 🙂  There’s no longer a need to see the field as an odd one out. The eclectic, inclusive nature of the field can now easily be utilised in multidisciplinary, multi-method research efforts — the kinds that can truly uncover aspects of our increasingly media-saturated cultures.

PS: My fave blog on media anthropology:

Digital Living Time


Minna’s post Fast Food Publishing about the pressure that the new media ecology is putting on the publishing industry as a whole to speed up production has gotten me thinking about the nature of time in a digital world more generally. Have the internet and other digital devices increased the speed at which we are expected to do things? (Probably, yes.) Such as: responding to a personal or business ‘letter’, or to a party invitation or telephone call, and publishing or releasing books / films / music. Or more expansively, today how is time organized in daily life and family life? What aspects are governed by “digital time” vs. by other parameters like the rhythm of night and day and of the seasons?

Bill McKibben’s book The Age of Missing Information (1992) is relevant to this question. McKibben writes evocatively about the kind of information that we now have access to in the “information age” – which at the moment he was writing was epitomized by TV, and now is only intensified by the internet – vs. the information that we do not have access to in this way of living.  That is, McKibben argues, although we know much more about world history, computers, cars and so on than our ancestors there are some things we know much less about. Almost any person 100 to 200 years ago, for example, would have known the ins and outs of the land where they lived perfectly: when growing seasons would begin and end, where to graze sheep or cattle, how long the nights vs. days would be.  Now much of the Western world spends a far greater percentage of their time in front of screens (TV, internet, mobile device) than outdoors.

While McKibben deals more with information than with time in his book he does discuss to time-related shifts – ones that would be worth further exploration.