Michael Wesch, an assistant professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University, well-known for his inspiring YouTube lectures and documentary shorts, has received over a hundred applications for his graduate course in ‘digital ethnography’ from around the world.
The only problem: no such course exists. Wesch teaches undergraduates and has organized a ‘digital ethnography working group’ for them; and that’s it, so far. But millions have seen his creations on YouTube and people want more of it. The world is changing all around us and anthropology must try to keep up, not just because we study this world as anthropologists, but because our students live in it and they are rapidly leaving their teachers behind.
The new communications technologies are blurring the boundaries of our disciplines, transforming the content of education, spawning new genres and sites of research, demanding fresh intellectual strategies. And contemporary academic institutions act as a brake on our ability to engage with all this. Anthropology as a discipline has not yet grasped the potential of this new world. When we contemplate anthropology’s future – and indeed whether it is to have one – we need to think again about its scope, reach and impact, about the audiences we wish to address and how. This last is the main point of the story I tell here about my own encounters with the digital revolution as an anthropologist.
We are living through the first stages of a world revolution as profound, in my view, as the invention of agriculture. It is a machine revolution, of course: the convergence of telephones, television and computers in a digital system whose most visible symbol is the internet. It is a social revolution, the formation of a world society with means of communication adequate at last to expressing universal ideas. It is a financial revolution, the detachment of the virtual money circuit from production, linked to the West’s loss of control over the world economy. It is an existential revolution, transforming what it means to be human and how each of us relates to the rest of humanity. It is therefore also a revolution in anthropology that will make everything we have done so far seem like the prehistory of our discipline.
Oswald Spengler observes in The decline of the West that the world historical moment you are born into does not need you; it will carry on with or without you. But still he offers a challenge to his readers: ‘Do you have the courage to embrace it?’ So too with this revolution: you can engage with it or you can hide from it. And every person’s trajectory is particular to them, even if some common outlines can be glimpsed as the revolution unfolds. Obviously, I hope that my experience will have wider resonance for our discipline; but that is for others to say. In any case I have published many programmatic tracts and lectures on my website and elsewhere, including in Anthropology Today.2
My education was designed by James and John Stuart Mill to train recruits for the Indian civil service: Latin, Greek and algebra, with memo-writing and oral fluency thrown in. Unfortunately for me, the Indians took leave of the empire just as I was starting out. I never warmed to the typewriter. All that whiting out of mistakes was too messy for me. I depended on fierce Scottish matrons to type up my handwritten manuscripts. We both knew where the power was in this relationship and they made the most of it. So, when I was introduced to word processing in the early 1980s, I seized my chance for liberation. More than that, I realised that I could become an artisan, designing my own layouts as well as the content.
Email was made in heaven for me, an oral/ written hybrid, between a letter and a phone call. I still love the fluency of the medium, more than internet chat in real time. Then I discovered desktop publishing and produced beautiful pamphlets, adding the roles of editor and publisher to my new craft identity. Next I started a mailing list, the amateur anthropological association (motto: ‘amateurs do it for love’), that flourished for a couple of years and lingered on after that. Today children grow up with mobile text messaging and Nintendo DS at hand, while the rest of us struggle to keep up with the latest innovations from Google.
Even then I realized that I had some of these initiatives the wrong way round. Desktop publishing was alright, but the problem was distribution. How to improve on the system of putting something on a bookshop shelf in the hope that whoever found it there had the cash to pay for it? I flirted with introducing the 18th-century subscriber model amplified by an online database of interested readers, but I was already too far down the route of standard print publishing. The mailing list was dominated by a small group of friends at Cambridge: professionals and students tended to write as academic anthropologists do, so that the outsiders I wanted to attract were repelled by what they took to be a jargon-ridden clique. But Prickly Pear Pamphlets and the ‘small-triple-a’ each expressed what I wanted from the medium in their own way. The point was to embrace the new technologies and to discover at first hand the opportunities they offered.
At about this time, in the mid-90s, the worldwide web was making the internet more visual, personal and interactive. For two years I headed a Cambridge committee to explore the uses of audio-visual aids and information technology for teaching and research in the humanities and social sciences. People said there was no point in Cambridge University entering this brave new world: we were too old-fashioned and the new young universities had much more experience with online techniques. But I argued that over the centuries we had accumulated lots of beautiful stuff that could become a rich internet resource. In any case the digital revolution is not a linear development. Everyone enters it with their own bundle of specific advantages and drawbacks at a particular moment in time. The technology evolves, so that early users may be too adapted to older techniques, while latecomers can make more creative use of software that requires less specialist knowledge than before. The society made by the machine revolution is a river and you can never step into the same river twice.
I asked myself what I could possibly give the young geeks who helped me keep a toehold in this revolution. I decided that it was ‘history’: I have been around since the Second World War and I have a vision of history that they don’t. I am a teacher whose aim is not to clone myself, but rather to persuade my students to let me hitch a ride on their lives, since they are going places I could never reach by myself. I also became more self-conscious about my role as a network entrepreneur. What could I offer individuals if my enterprises had no money or prestige? They had to be given a job that they couldn’t do elsewhere. Maybe they fancied trying out graphic design: I got an amateur product, but it was free, and they acquired the experience. I had to accept that, if they no longer gained much from what they did or had more pressing things to do, they would leave. So I also worked on the value added by the collective constituted by the network. I found these methods at first through my internet-related activities, but I soon adapted them to my academic practice (teaching, running a centre etc), and the two spheres cross- fertilized each other in many ways.
Keith Hart Professor of Anthropology Emeritus, Goldsmiths College; Honorary Professor of Anthropology, University of Pretoria. firstname.lastname@example.org
http://www.cnn.com/2009/TECH/10/22/digital. anthropology/index.html. Search YouTube for ‘Michael Wesch’ and click on: ‘An anthropological introduction to YouTube’, which has so far received over 1 million views;
‘A portal to media literacy’ (only 100,000 views, but the strongest intellectually); ‘A vision of students today’ (3.5 million views); ‘The machine is us/ing us’ (10 million views).
‘Toward a new human universal’, http:// thememorybank.co.uk/2009/04/05/toward-a-new-humanuniversal/; ‘The human economy’, http://www.theasa.org/ publications/asaonline/articles/asaonline_0101.htm.
Wesch, Michael 2007. What is Web 2.0? What does it mean for anthropology? Lessons from an accidental viral video. Anthropology News, May, pp 30-31.
The song http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LHv6rw6wxJY; the interview http://www.antropologi.info/blog/ anthropology/2009/the-anthropology-song-interview-withdai-cooper