As we approached the millennium, with the dotcom boom roaring away, I wanted to write a book that would sum up 30 years of teaching and point forward at the same time. My first attempt was a textbook, Anthropology and the modern economy. But I found it depressing: it contained nothing of what I had learned as a journalist, consultant, publisher, administrator and gambler. So I withdrew the manuscript from the publisher. I couldn’t locate myself in my own book! Then I asked myself what it is about us that future generations will be interested in and remember. The answer was, obviously enough, the digital revolution. I imagined that we are like the primitive digging-stick operators whose scratching inaugurated the agricultural revolution. They hadn’t a clue that it would all end up as Chinese civilization. Nor do we know where this thing is going. But our stumbling steps into this new world will have significant consequences for those who come later. I asked what I might have to say about it and I hit on the topic of an old lecture about money that had a minor success. So I wrote The memory bank, a book about the implications of the digital revolution for forms of money and exchange.
This was the trigger for the next stage of my engagement with the internet, a personal website, http://www.thememorybank.co.uk. It was intended at first as a vehicle for promoting my book, but it evolved over the next decade into becoming my blog. It isn’t really a blog, even now, since most of the posts are fulllength essays and my various attempts to make it more interactive never took off. It is a shop window for my writings. It feels great to bung whatever I have just written out there in a couple of minutes. And now it has quite a lot of video footage, mainly of my lectures. Without a series of devoted helpers I would be nowhere in this revolution. But I have to say that I have come on quite a long way in the last 15 years and so has the internet. I now do a lot more for myself than I once could, and the software grows more user-friendly all the time.
And so to the last few years, to the social networking revolution and Web 2.0: Google, Myspace, Facebook, Digg, Flickr, Twitter, Ning, Stumbleupon, Flock, Wave and all the rest. This is the heart of the revolution I want to join. I love Twitter for the chance to project myself as an editor of sorts, sending the best economic journalism from Europe to American gold bugs and currency freaks. I meet an interesting class of anthropologists there. And I hone my subediting skills on the 140-space limit. Social bookmarking really excites me. Classification of knowledge was hitherto done by experts and every piece of information had its unique place in a folder somewhere. Now tagging makes it possible for anyone to leave a mark on something they like or consider useful and you can find their guidance with increasingly sophisticated software. The people are generating the categories, and even a search engine like Google is becoming obsolete because its millions of hits are impersonal, less attuned to the user’s own profile.
Insertion into all this has sharpened my appreciation of the sociology involved. Twitter divides people into followers and followed. For those of us brought up on fascism and Stalinism, all the talk of leaders and followers that animates Web 2.0 is something of a turn-off. But I recall that when the Romans invented ‘society’ to describe their aspirations for collective order, the word they used had as its root sekw-, meaning to follow. If anyone was attacked, the others agreed to support them in battle. The hierarchy was temporary. Well so too on Twitter. The idea of society as a state with fixed boundaries came a lot later. The new social networks are personal and unequal; they often have a commercial feel that puts off many intellectuals. But there is something exciting going on that it would pay us to understand and use. For some time now I have studied alternative approaches to money, especially the community currency system known as LETS, and they have not yet found the right combination of social and technical principles to help them take off. I am convinced that Twitter would be an ideal platform for complementary currencies; but I will be too busy writing about it to be the organizer.
I have left the anthropology of all this implicit so far. But this year, just as a result of joining this phase of the revolution, an unanticipated chain of events led to the launch of the Open Anthropology Cooperative (www. openanthcoop.ning.com). A handful of friends began discussing on Twitter the possibilities for an anthropology network. The talk moved to the forum of my website for discussion at greater length. Someone suggested trying the social networking site Ning and I jumped in. An administrative team drawn from the launching group has supervised its explosive growth in the first few months. We already have over 2000 members from all over the world and an amazing diversity of backgrounds. They include university teaching staff, postgraduate students, undergraduates and outsiders to the profession (genuine amateurs!).
Half our 500 visitors a day come from the USA, Britain and Canada (in a ratio of 4:2:1), but the next batch make interesting reading, in order: Portugal, Germany, France, Brazil, Georgia, Italy, Greece, Australia, Switzerland, India, Netherlands, Sweden, Turkey, Norway, Mexico, Spain, New Zealand. We have well over a hundred discussion groups (some of them in Spanish, Portuguese, German, Italian, Russian and Norwegian), blogs, a forum, a wiki repository, the OAC Press, a seminar series and personal pages in all their multimedia variety. Anyone can start anything on the OAC and many of them do! Our members vigorously defend their independence from bureaucratic interference, but we have managed to get some minimal rules generally accepted.
We already know, as Bob Simpson showed in the last issue of AT, that fieldwork will never be the same again as a result of the digital revolution. But what can anthropologists, with our supposed expertise in social relations, do more generally to help shape the future of the institutions we depend on in this context? Our students, readers and the people we study will expect to be engaged through these new means of communication. We must move from monologue to dialogue, from guild disciplines to the kind of lifetime self-education that the internet affords. The universities now lag behind students in terms of media literacy. The ‘edupunk’ movement, armed with user-friendly digital technologies, rejects the forced imposition of outdated software systems that universities have spent millions on. The latter now also face a threat to their monopolies when teachers extend their classrooms to nonuniversity students. Anthropology has always been something of an anti-discipline, sitting uneasily with academic bureaucracy. We have a lot to gain, professionally and as human beings, from opening up to this revolution. What have I learned from all this? The two great memory banks are language and money. Exchange of meanings through language and of goods through money are now converging in a single network of communications, the internet. We must use this digital revolution to advance the human conversation about a better world and participate in making a world society fit for all humanity. Anthropology is indispensable to such a project, but what will it take to join it? Michael Wesch offers some reassurance:
Understanding human relationships within this new mediascape will require us to embrace our anthropological mainstay, participant observation. […] Now we need to participate in the new media in order to understand the forms of sociality emerging in this quickly changing mediated world.3
But is it as straightforward as that, a whole new territory to investigate with the tried methods of fieldwork-based ethnography? By situating my personal story of engagement with the new media in a context of world revolution, I want to suggest that, while this is indeed a wonderful opportunity to join the people and reflect on the experience, anthropological understanding of what we are living through requires much more than an updated version of ethnography. The Victorians knew they were living through a revolution and so they adopted world history as their principal method. The nation-states of the 20th century encouraged a more fragmented and static perspective on the human condition. If we recognize once more that we are living in revolutionary times, we will at least have to mend the rupture between world history and ethnography that gave birth to the modern discipline. We might even turn to autobiography as a method too.
Or we could sing along with Dai Cooper, a Canadian graduate student, who recorded herself on webcam and put ‘The anthropology song: A little bit of anthropologist’ on YouTube where it soon became a viral video. ‘Maybe nobody has better explained what anthropology is all about’, enthuses Lorenz Khazaleh, in his anthropology news blog, antropologi.info. Dai says, ‘I wanted to be able to express all the reasons why I love and am inspired by anthropology.’4 Welcome to Web 2.0 and pay attention, because the world is already there!
Keith Hart is International Director, Human Economy Programme, University of Pretoria and Centennial Professor of Economic Anthropology, London School of Economics. He has taught at a number of universities, for the longest time at Cambridge. He contributed the idea of an informal economy to Development Studies and has written extensively on money.
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-coope