The Digital and the Human: A Prospectus for Digital Anthropology 
Daniel Miller and Heather Horst
This introduction[ii] will propose six basic principles as the foundation for a new sub-discipline – Digital Anthropology. While the principles will be used to integrate the chapters that follow, its larger purpose is to spread the widest possible canvas upon which to begin the creative work of new research and thinking. The intention is not simply to study and reflect on new developments but to use these to further our understanding of what we are and have always been. The digital should and can be a highly effective means for reflecting upon what it means to be human, the ultimate task of Anthropology as a discipline.
While we cannot claim to be comprehensive, we will try to cover a good deal of ground because we feel that to launch a book of this kind means taking responsibility for asking and answering some significant questions. For example we need to be clear as to what we mean by words such as digital, culture and anthropology and what we believe represents practices that are new and unprecedented and what remains the same or merely slightly changed. We need to find a way to ensure that the vast generalisations required in such tasks do not obscure differences, distinctions and relativism which we view as remaining amongst the most important contributions of an anthropological perspective to understanding human life and culture. We have responded partly through imposing a common structure to this volume. Each of the contributors was asked to provide a general survey of work in their field, followed by two more detailed, usually ethnographic case studies, concluded by a discussion of potential new developments.
In this introduction we have taken the findings of these individual contributions and used them as the foundation for building six principles that we believe constitute the key questions and concerns of digital anthropology as a sub discipline. The first principle is that the digital itself intensifies the dialectical nature of culture. The term digital will be defined as all that which can be ultimately reduced to binary code, but which produces a further proliferation of particularity and difference. The dialectic refers to the relationship between this growth in universality and particularity and the intrinsic connections between their positive and negative effects. Our second principle suggests that humanity is not one iota more mediated by the rise of the digital. Rather, we suggest that that digital anthropology will progress to the degree that the digital enables us to understand and exposes the framed nature of analogue or pre-digital life as culture and fails when we fall victim to a broader and romanticized discourse that presupposes a greater authenticity or reality to the pre digital. The commitment to holism, the foundation of anthropological perspectives on humanity, represents a third principle. Where some disciplines prioritize collectives, minds, individuals and other fragments of life, the anthropologist focus upon life as lived and all the mess of relevant factors that comes with that. Anthropological approaches to ethnography focus upon the world constituted within the frame of a particular ethnographic project but also the still wider world that both impacts upon and transcends that frame. The fourth principle re-asserts the importance of cultural relativism and the global nature of our encounter with the digital, negating assumptions that the digital is necessarily homogenising and also giving voice and visibility to those who are peripheralised by modernist and similar perspectives. The fifth principle is concerned with the essential ambiguity of digital culture with regard to its increasing openness and closure, which emerge in matters ranging from politics and privacy to the authenticity of ambivalence.
Our final principle acknowledges the materiality of digital worlds, which are neither more nor less material than the worlds that preceded them. Material culture approaches have shown how materiality is also the mechanism behind our final observation, which is also our primary justification for an anthropological approach. This concerns humanity’s remarkable capacity to re-impose normativity just as quickly as digital technologies create conditions for change. We shall argue that it is this drive to the normative that that makes attempts to understand the impact of the digital in the absence of anthropology unviable. As many of the chapters in this volume will demonstrate, the digital, as all material culture, is more than a substrate; it is becoming a constitutive part of what makes us human. The primary point of this introduction and the emergence of Digital Anthropology as a subfield more generally is in resolute opposition to all approaches that imply that becoming digital has either rendered us less human, less authentic or more mediated. Not only are we just as human within the digital world, the digital also provides many new opportunities for anthropology to help us understand what it means to be human.
1) DEFINING THE DIGITAL THROUGH THE DIALECTIC.
Some time ago Daniel Miller and Haidy Geismar were discussing the launch of the new MA programme in Digital Anthropology at University College London. Reflecting upon similar initiatives in Museum Studies at New York University, Geismar mentioned that one of the challenges of creating such programs revolved around the fact that everyone had different ideas of what the digital implied. Some scholars looked to three- dimensional visualizations of museum objects. For others, the digital referred to virtual displays, the development of websites and virtual exhibitions. Some colleagues looked to innovations in research methodology, while others focused on the main topic of her chapter, the digitalization of collections and archives. Still others focused upon new media and digital communication, such as smart phones. Alongside novelty, the word digital has come to be associated with a much wider and older meta-discourse of modernism, from science fiction though to various versions of techno-liberalism. At the end of the day, however, the word seems to have become a discursive catch all for novelty.
For the purposes of this book we feel it may therefore be helpful to start with a clear and unambiguous definition of the digital. Rather than a general distinction between the digital and the analogue we define the digital as everything that has been developed by, or can be reduced to, the binary, that is bits consisting of 0s and 1s. The development of binary code radically simplified information and communication creating new possibilities of convergence between what were previously disparate technologies or content. We will use this basic definition, but we are aware that the term digital has been associated with many other developments. For example systems theory and the cybernetics of Norbert Wiener (Turner 2006: 20-28, Wiener 1948) developed from observations of self-regulatory feedback mechanisms in living organisms that have nothing to do with binary code, but can be applied to engineering. We also acknowledge that the use of term digital in colloquial discourse is clearly wider than our specific usage; we suggest that having such an unambiguous definition has heuristic benefits that will become evident below.
One advantage of defining the digital as binary is that this definition also helps us identify a possible historical precedent. If the digital is defined as our ability to reduce so much of the world to the commonality of a binary, a sort of base line 2, then we can also reflect upon humanity’s ability to previously reduce much of the world to base line 10, the decimal foundation for systems of modern money. There is a prior and established anthropological debate about the consequences of money for humanity that may help us to conceptualise the consequences of the digital. Just like the digital, money represented a new phase in human abstraction where, for the first time, practically anything could be reduced to the same common element. This reduction of quality to quantity was in turn the foundation for an explosion of differentiated things, especially the huge expansion of commoditisation linked to industrialisation. In both cases, the more we reduce to the same the more we can thereby create difference. This is what makes money the best precedent for understanding digital culture and leads to our first principle of the dialectic.
Dialectical thinking, as developed by Hegel, theorised this relationship between the simultaneous growth of the universal and of the particular, as dependent upon each other rather than in opposition to each other. This is the case both with money and with the digital. For social science much of the concern was with the way money meant that everything that we hold dear can now be reduced to the quantitative. This reduction to base line 10 seemed at least as much a threat as a promise to our general humanity. Generalised from Marx and Simmel’s original arguments with regard to capitalism by the Frankfurt school and others, money threatens humanity both as universalised abstraction and as differentiated particularity. As an abstraction, money gives rise to various forms of capital and their inherent tendency to aggrandizement. As particularity money threatens our humanity through the sheer scale and diversity of commoditized culture. We take such arguments to be sufficiently well established as to not require further elucidation here.
Keith Hart[iii] (2000, 2005, 2007) was the first to suggest that money might be a useful precedent to the digital because money provides the basis for a specifically anthropological response to the challenges, which the digital in turn poses to our humanity. Money was always virtual to the degree that it extended the possibilities of abstraction. Exchange became more distant from face-to-face transaction, and focused on equivalence, calculation and the quantitative as opposed to human and social consequence. Hart recognised that digital technologies align with these virtual properties; indeed, they make money itself still more abstract, more deterritorialised, cheaper, more efficient and closer to the nature of information or communication.
Hart previously argued that if money was itself responsible for such effects then perhaps humanity’s best response was to tackle this problem at its source. He saw a potential for human liberation in various schemes that re-unites money with social relations, such as Local Exchange Trading Schemes (LETS) (2000: 280-287). For Hart, the digital not only exacerbates the problems of money, but also can form part of the solution since new money-like schemes based on the internet may allow us to create more democratised and personalised systems of exchange outside of mainstream capitalism. PayPal and eBay hint at these emancipatory possibilities in digital money and trade. Certainly, as Zelizer (1998, 2008) has shown, there are many ways we do domesticate and re-socialise money itself. For example many people use the money they earn from side jobs for personal treats, ignoring the apparent homogeneity of money as money.
By contrast Simmel’s (1978) masterpiece, The Philosophy of Money, includes the first detailed analysis of what was happening at the other end of this dialectical equation. Money was also behind the commodification that led to a vast quantitative increase in material culture. This also created a potential source of alienation as we are deluged by the vast mass of differentiated stuff that surpasses our capacity to appropriate it as culture. Similarly, in our new clichés of the digital we are told that humanity is being swamped by the scale of information and the sheer number of different things we are expected to attend to. Much of the debate about the digital and the human is premised on the threat that the former poses for the latter. We are told that our humanity is beset both by the digital as virtual abstraction and its opposite form as the sheer quantity of heterogenised things that are thereby produced. In effect, the digital is producing too much culture, which because we cannot manage and engage with it, renders us thereby superficial or shallow or alienated.
If Hart argued that our response should be to tackle money at the source, an alternative is presented in Material Culture and Mass Consumption (Miller 1987). Miller suggested that people struggle against this feeling of alienation and superficiality not by re-socialising money, in the ways described by Zelizer, but through their consumption of commodities in their specificity. The everyday act of shopping in which we designate most goods as not `us’ before finding one we will buy is (in a small way) an attempt to reassert our cultural specificity. We use goods as possessions to try and turn the alienable back into the inalienable. Often this fails but there are many ways in which everyday domestic consumption utilises commodities to facilitate meaningful relationships between persons (Miller 2008a)
If we agree to regard money as the precedent for the digital, Hart and Miller then provide two distinct positions on the consequences of the digital for our sense of our own humanity. Do we address the problems posed by the digital at the point of its production as abstract code, or in our relationship to the mass of new cultural forms that have been created using digital technologies? What does seem clear is that the digital is indeed a further twist to the dialectical screw. At the level of abstraction there are grounds for thinking we have reached rock bottom; there can be nothing more basic and abstract than binary bits, the difference between 0 and 1. At the other end of the scale it is already clear that the digital far outstrips mere commoditisation in its ability to proliferate difference. Digital processes can reproduce and communicate exact copies prodigiously and cheaply. They can both extend commoditisation, but equally in fields such as communication and music we have seen a remarkable trend towards de-commoditisation, as people find ways to get things for free. Whether commodified (or not) what is clear is that digital technologies are proliferating a vastly increased field of cultural forms, and we have the feeling that what we have seen so far may be just the beginning.
To date, most of the literature on the revolutionary impact and potential of the digital has tended to follow Hart in focusing upon the abstract end of the equation, and is represented in this volume by Karanovic’s discussion of free software and sharing. For example, Kelty (2008) uses both historical and ethnographic methods to retrace the work of those who founded and created the free software movement that lies behind many developments in digital culture (see also Karanovic 2008), including instruments such as Linux, Unix and distributed free software such as Napster and Firefox. There are many reasons why these developments have been celebrated. As Karanovic notes, they derive from long standing political debates which include ideals of free access and ideals of distributed invention both of which seemed to betoken an escape from the endless increase in commoditisation, and in certain area such as music have led on to a quite effective de-commodification. Software that was shared and not sold seemed to realise the new efficiencies and relative costlessness of digital creation and communication. It also expressed a freedom from control and governance, which seemed to realise various forms of anarchist or more specifically the idealised links between new technology and liberalism that are discussed by Barendregt and Malaby and is a trend continued by the hacker groups discussed by Karanovic leading also to the more anarchist aims of organisations such as Anonymous studied by Coleman (2009).
What is clear in Karanovic and others’ contributions is that, just as Simmel saw that money was not just a new medium, but also one that allowed humanity to advance in conceptualisation and philosophy towards a new imagination of itself, so open source does not simply change coding. The very ideal and experience of free software and open source leads to analogous ideals of what Kelty (2008) calls recursive publics, a committed and involved population that could create fields ranging from free publishing to the collective creation of Wikipedia modelled on the ideal of open-source. At a time when the left leaning student idealism that had lasted since the 1960’s seemed exhausted, digital activism became a plausible substitute. This trend has been a major component of digital anthropology to date including the impact of mainstream politics discussed by Postill. The enthusiasm is reflected in Hart’s own contribution to anthropology that included the establishment of the Open Anthropology Cooperative, a social networking forum for the purpose of democratising anthropological discussion. Many students also first encounter the idea of a digital anthropology through the equally enthusiastic `An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube’ by Michael Wesch, a professor at the University of Kansas, which again celebrates this sense of equality of participation and creation (Wesch, Library of Congress June 2008).
There are however some cracks in this wall of idealism. Kelty (2009) also documents the disputes amongst activists over what could become seen as heretical or alternative ideals (see also Juris 2008). Two people’s development of code could soon become technically incompatible reaching a fork where people have to take sides. The ideal was of a new arena in which anyone can participate, Companies such as Apple and Microsoft retain their dominance over open source alternative partly because such ideals flourish more in the initial creative process than in more tedious areas of the management and repair infrastructure, which all platforms require, whether open or closed. But the reality is that only extremely technically knowledgeable `geeks’ have the ability and time to create such open-source developments. Though this would be less true for businesses and in addition patent controversies and hardware tie-ins can stack the deck against free software.
Curiously Nafus, Leach and Krieger’s (2006) study of free/libre/open source development found that only 1.5% of the geeks involved in open source activities were female, making it one of the most extreme examples of gender discrepancy in this day and age. Even in much less technical areas, a report suggests only 13% of those who contribute to Wikipedia are female (Glott, Schmidt and Ghosh 2010). Women seemed less likely to embrace what was perceived as a rather anti-social commitment of time to technology required of radical activism and activists (though see Coleman 2009). This is precisely the problematic area addressed by Karanovic in her analysis of GeekGirlfriend, a specific campaign that clearly acknowledges, although not necessarily resolves, this issues of gender discrepancy. Such interventions rest in part on what Karanovic and Coleman have revealed to be quite an extensive sociality that contrasts with stereotypes of geeks.
As Karanovic discusses, there remain regional distinctions in these developments partly because they articulate with different local political traditions. For example French Free Software activists are mostly oriented toward French and EU interlocutors. One problem in these discussions is that the very term liberal is seen in the US as a position in opposition to conservative forces, while in Europe the word liberal is used to describe the extreme individualism of US right-wing politics and capitalism. In Brazil, the government support of open source software and free culture more broadly was tied to a culture of resistance to hegemonic global culture and resistance to the global order and traditional patterns of production and ownership with the aim of providing social, cultural, and financial inclusion for all Brazilian citizens (Horst 2011). Following Hegel, European political traditions tend to see individual freedom as a contradiction in terms; ultimately freedom can only derive from law and governance. Anarchism suits wide-eyed students with little responsibility, but social-democratic egalitarianism requires systems of regulation and bureaucracy, high taxation and redistribution to actually work as human welfare.
The dialectical contradictions involved are especially clear in the impact of the digital upon money itself. There are many welcome technological advances that range from the sheer availability and efficiency of ATMs, new finance (Zaloom 2006), the way migrants can remit money via Western Union to the emergence of calling cards (Vertovec 2004), airtime minutes, micropayments and related services in the “payments space” (Maurer forthcoming). Inspired by the success of M-Pesa in Kenya, the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and other model projects, throughout the developing world the promise of mobile banking (m-banking) has led to a number of initiatives focused on banking the so-called “unbanked” (Donner 2008; Donner and Tellez 2008; Morawczynski 2007). This latter area is subject of a major anthropological programme led by Bill Maurer and his Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion. Preliminary work on the emergence of mobile money in post-earthquake Haiti by Espelencia Baptiste, Heather Horst and Erin Taylor reveals modifications of the original visioning of mobile money; in addition to the peer-to-peer (P2P) transactions imagined by the services’ designers, early adopters of the service are using me-to-me (M2M) transactions to store money on their mobile accounts for safety and security. The cost associated with sending and saving money on ones’ own account is perceived as worth the risk of loss of the sum total of the amount saved (Horst, Baptiste and Taylor 2010; Taylor, Baptiste and Horst 2011).
This situation is not quite so positive when we turn to the world of virtual money. In his research, Dibbell (2006) used the classic ethnographic method of participant observation and set himself the task of making some real money via investing and playing with virtual money. He noted that, at the time, in games such as World of Warcraft, `merely getting yourself off to a respectable start might entail buying a level 60 Alliance warrior account from a departing player ($1,999 on eBay)’ (2006: 12) and that, taken as a whole, in 2005 these games were `generating a quantity of real wealth on the order of $20 billion each year’ (2006: 13). His ethnography revealed that the virtual world of digital money was subject to pretty much every kind of scam and entrepreneurial trick that one finds in offline business….and then some. Furthermore, Dibbell (2007) also provides one of the first discussions of Gold Farming, where it was claimed players in wealthy countries farmed out the repetitive boring key strokes required to obtain virtual advances in these games, to low income workers in places such as China, though the idea may have become something of a discursive trope (Nardi 2010). More clearly documented by the anthropologist Xiang’s (2007) is Body Shopping where digital labour for mundane tasks such as debugging is imported from low-income countries to Australia or the US but at lower wages.
The example of money shows that we can find both clear positives in new accessibility and banking for the poor, but also negatives such as body shopping or new possibilities of financial chicanery found in high finance (Lewis 1989) which contributed to the dot.com debacle (Cassidy 2002), and the more recent banking crisis. This suggests that the new political economy of the digital world is really not that different from the older political economy. The digital extends all the possibilities previously unleashed by money equally the positive and the negative. All this follows from Hart’s argument that we need to find emancipation through taming money or expanding open source that is at the point of abstraction. The alternative argument made by Miller looked to the other end of the dialectical equation, at the mass of highly differentiated goods that were being created by these technologies.
Following that logic, we want to suggest an alternative front line for the anthropology of the digital age. The exact opposite of the technophiles of California might be the main informants for a recent study of mothering whose typical participant was a middle aged, female Filipina domestic worker in London, who tended to regard new technologies as either male, foreign, oppressive, or all three (Madianou and Miller In Press). Madianou and Miller’s informants may be deeply suspicious of, and quite possibly detest, much of this new digital technology and only purchased their first computer or started to learn to type within the last two years. Yet Filipina domestics could be the real vanguard troops in marching towards the digital future who effectively accomplish that which these other studies are in some ways searching for. They may not impact on the creation of digital technologies but they are in the forefront of developing their social uses and consequences. They use the latest communicative technologies not for reasons of vision, or ideology, or ability, but for reasons of necessity. They live in London and Cambridge, but in most cases their children still live in the Philippines. In an earlier study, Parrenas (2005) participants only saw their children for 23.9 weeks out of the last 11 years. Such cases exemplify the wider point noted by Panagakos and Horst (2006) regarding the centrality of new communication media for transnational migrants. The degree to which these mothers could effectively remain mothers depended almost entirely upon the degree to which they could use these new media to remain in some sort of contact with their children. In short, it was hard to think of any population for whom the prospects granted by digital technologies would matter more. It was in observing the usage by domestics that Madianou and Miller formulated their concept of polymedia, extending earlier ideas on media and communicative ecologies to consider the interactivity between different media and their importance to the emotional repertoire that these mothers required in dealing with their children.
But transnational mothering through polymedia was not the first time the Philippines appeared at the vanguard of digital media and technology. As has been chronicled by Pertierra, Ugarte, Pingol, Hernandez and Dacanay (2002), the Philippines is globally recognised as the `capital’ of phone texting. From its early introduction through today, more texts are sent per person in the Philippines than anywhere else in the world. Texting soon became central to the formation and maintenance of relationships, and was also claimed (with some exaggeration) to have played a key role in overthrowing governments. The point of this illustration is that texting is a prime case of a technology intended only as a minor add on, whose impact was created through the collectivity of consumers. It was poverty and need that drove these innovations in usage not merely the affordances of the technology.
In the case of the disabled activists discussed by Ginsburg necessity is paired with explicit ideology. They are well aware that digital technologies have the potential to transform their relationship to the very notion of being human. A vision driven by long years in which they knew they were equally human, but other people didn’t. This is not to presume such realisations, when accomplished, are always entirely positive. In general, the mothers studied by Madianou and Miller claimed the new media had allowed them to act and feel more like real mothers again. When Madianou and Miller spoke to the children of these same domestics in the Philippines, some of them felt their relationships had deteriorated as a result of this constant contact that amounted to surveillance. As Tacchi notes in her contribution, the use of digital media and technology for giving voice involves far more than merely transplanting digital technologies and assuming they provide positive affordances. The subsequent consequences are created in the context of each place, not given in the technology.
The point is not to choose between Hart’s emphases upon the point of abstraction or Miller’s on the point of differentiation. The principle of the dialectic is that it is an intrinsic condition of digital technologies to expand both, and the impact is also intrinsically contradictory, producing both positive and negative effects. This was already evident in the anthropological study of money and commodities. A critical contribution of digital technologies is the way they exacerbate but also reveal those contradictions. Anthropologists need to be involved right across this spectrum from Karanovic’s analysis of those involved in the creation of digital technology to Ginsburg’s work on those who place emphasis upon their consequences.
2) CULTURE AND THE PRINCIPLE OF FALSE AUTHENTICITY
Having made clear what exactly we mean by the term digital, we also need to address what is implied by the term culture. For this we assert as our second principle something that may seem to contradict much of what has been written about digital technologies: people are not one iota more mediated by the rise of digital technologies. The problem is clearly illustrated by a recent book by Sherry Turkle (2011) which is infused with a nostalgic lament for certain kinds of sociality or humanity deemed lost as a result of new digital technologies ranging from robots to Facebook. The implication of her book is that prior forms of sociality were somehow more natural or authentic by virtue of being less mediated. For example, Turkle bemoans people coming back from work and going on Facebook instead of watching TV. In fact when it was first introduced TV was subject to similar claims as to its lack of authenticity and the end of true sociality (Spiegel 1992); yet TV is in no way more natural and, depending on the context, could be argued to be a good deal less sociable than Facebook. Turkle reflects a more general tendency towards nostalgia widespread in journalism and a range of work focusing on the ‘effects’ of media, that views new technology as a loss of authentic sociality. This often exploits anthropological writing on small-scale societies, which are taken to be a vision of authentic humanity in its more natural and less mediated state.
This is entirely antithetical to what anthropological theory actually stands for. In the discipline of anthropology all people are equally cultural, that is the products of objectification. Australian aboriginal tribes may not have much material culture, but instead they use their own landscape to create extraordinary and complex cosmologies that then become the order of society and the structures guiding social engagement (e.g. Munn 1973, Myers 1986). In anthropology there is no such thing as pure human immediacy; interacting face-to-face is just as culturally inflected as digitally mediated communication but, as Goffman (1959, 1975) pointed out again and again, we fail to see the framed nature of face-to-face interaction because these frames work so effectively. The impact of a digital technologies, such as webcams, are sometimes unsettling largely because they makes us aware and newly self-conscious about those taken for granted frames around direct face to face encounters.
Potentially one of the major contributions of a digital anthropology would be the degree to which it finally explodes the illusions we retain of a non-mediated non-cultural, pre-digital world. A good example would be Van Dijck (2007) who uses new digital memorialisation such as photography to show that memory was always a cultural rather than individual construction. Photography as a normative material mediation (Drazin and Frohlich 2007), reveals how memory is not an individual psychological mechanism, but consists largely of that which it is appropriate for us to recall. The foundation of anthropology, in its separation from psychology, came with our insistence that the subjective is culturally constructed. To return to a previous example, Miller and Madianou’s research on Filipina mothers depended on much more than understanding the new communication technologies; at least as much effort was expended upon trying to understand the Filipina concept of motherhood because being a mother is just as much a form of mediation as being on the internet. Using a more general theory of kinship (Miller 2008b), Miller and Madianou argue that the concept of a mother should be understood in terms of a triangle: our normative concept of what mothers in general are supposed to be like, our experience of the particular person who is our mother, and the discrepancy between these two. Filipina mothers were working simultaneously with regional, national and transnational models of how mothers are supposed to act. By the end of the book (Madianou and Miller In Press) the emphasis is not on new media mediating mother-child relationships; rather, it is far more about how the struggle over the concept of being a proper mother mediates how we choose and use polymedia. Tacchi’s contribution further illustrates this point . Those involved in development around new media and communication technologies have come to realise that what is required is not so much the local appropriation of a technology but the importance of listening to the differences in culture which determine what a particular technology becomes. Similarly, Ginsburg demonstrates the issue of what we mean by the word human is what determines the impact of these technologies for the disabled. Unless they can shift the meaning of humanity, technology alone will not make the rest of us more humane.
To spell out this second principle, then, digital anthropology will be insightful to the degree it reveals the mediated and framed nature of the non-digital world. Digital anthropology fails to the degree it makes the non-digital world appear in retrospect as unmediated and unframed. We are not more mediated simply because we are not more cultural than we were before. One of the reasons digital studies have often taken quite the opposite course, has been the continued use of the term virtual, with its implied contrast with the 'real.' As Boellstorff makes clear, online worlds are simply another arena, alongside offline worlds, for expressive practice, and there is no reason to privilege one against the other. Every time we use the word “real” analytically, as opposed to colloquially, we undermine the project of digital anthropology, fetishizing pre-digital culture as a site of retained authenticity.
This point has been nuanced recently by some important writing on the theory of mediation (EIsenlohr 2011 and Engelke 2010). As consistent with Bourdieu’s (1977) concept of habitus, we may imagine a person born in medieval Europe would see their Christianity objectified in countless media and their intertextuality. But in those days the media would have been buildings, writings, and clothing accessories, preaching and so forth. Meyer (2011) notes that the critical debate over the role of media in Christianity took place during the reformation. Catholics fostered a culture of materiality in which images proliferated, but retained a sense of mediation such that these stood for the greater mystery of Christ. Protestants, by contrast, tried to abolish both the mediation of objects and of wider cultural processes and instead fostered an ideal based on the immediacy of a subjective experience of the divine. In some respects the current negative response to digital technologies stems from this Protestant desire to create an ideal of unmediated authenticity and subjectivity. In short, anthropologists may not believe in the unmediated, but Protestant theology clearly does.
As Eisenlohr (2011) notes, the modern anthropology of media starts with works such as Anderson (1983) who showed how many key terms such as nationalism and ethnicity, developed in large measure through changes in the media by which culture circulates. There are excellent works on the ways, for example, cassette tapes impact upon religion as a form of public circulation prior to digital forms (Manuel 1993, Hirschkind 2006). But in all these cases it is not that media simply mediates a fixed element called religion. Religion itself is a highly committed form of mediation that remains very concerned with controlling the use and consequences of specific media.
This is evident when we think about the relationship between Protestantism and digital media. At first we see a paradox. It seems very strange that we have several centuries during which Protestants try and eliminate all objects that stand in the way of an unmediated relationship to the divine while Catholics embrace a proliferation of images. Yet when it comes to modern digital media the position is almost reversed. It is not Catholics, but evangelical Protestants, that seem to embrace with alacrity every kind of new media from television to Facebook. They are amongst the most enthusiastic adopters of such new technologies. This only makes sense once we recognise that for evangelical Christians the media does not mediate. Otherwise they would surely oppose it. Rather Protestants have instead seen media, unlike images, as a conduit to a more direct, unmediated relationship to the divine (Hancock and Gordon 2005). As Meyer (2008) demonstrates, evangelical Christianity embraces every type of new digital media but to create experiences that are ever more full blooded in their sensuality and emotionality. The Apostolics that Miller studied in Trinidad only asked one question of the internet. Why did God invent the Internet at this moment in time? The answer was that God intended them to become THE Global Church and the internet was the media for abolishing mere localised religion such as an ordinary church service and instead become globally connected (Miller and Slater 2000:187-192). More recently the same church has been using Facebook and other new media forms to express the very latest in God’s vision for what they should be (Miller 2011:88-98). This is also why, as Meyer (2011: 33) notes, the less digitally minded religions, as in some versions of Catholicism, try to protect a sense of mystery they see as not fully captured by new media.
In summary, an anthropological perspective on mediation is largely concerned to understand why some media are perceived as mediating and others are not. Rather than seeing pre-digital worlds less mediated, we need to study how the rise of digital technologies has created the illusion that they were. For example, when the internet first developed Steven Jones (1998) and others writing about its social impact saw the internet as a mode for the reconstruction of community. Yet much of these writings seemed to assume an illusionary notion of `community’ as a natural collectivity that existed in the pre-digital age (Parks 2011: 105-9, for a sceptical view see Postill 2008, Woolgar 2002). They became so concerned with the issue of whether the internet was bringing us back to community that they radically simplified the concept of community itself as something entirely positive (compare Miller 2011: 16-27). In this volume we follow Ginsburg and Tacchi in asserting that any and every social fraction or marginal community has an equal right to be seen as the exemplification of digital culture, but this is because, for anthropology, a New York accountant or Korean games player is no more and no less authentic that a contemporary tribal priest in East Africa. We are all the result of culture as mediation, whether through the rules of kinship and religion or the rules of netiquette and game play. The problem is with the concept of authenticity (Lindholm 2007).
Curiously the much earlier writings of Turkle (1984) were amongst the most potent in refuting these presumptions of prior authenticity. The context was the emergence of the idea of the virtual and the avatar in role-playing games. As she pointed out, issues of role-play and presentation were just as much the basis of pre-digital life, something very evident from even a cursory reading of Goffman (1959, 1975). Social science had demonstrated how the real world was virtual long before we came to realise how the virtual world is real. One of the most insightful anthropological discussions of this notion of authenticity is Humphrey’s (2009) study of Russian chat rooms. The avatar does not merely reproduce the offline person; it is on the internet that these Russian players feel able, perhaps for the first time, to more fully express their `soul’ and passion. Online they can bring out the person they feel they `really’ are, which was previously constrained in mere offline worlds. For these players, just as for the disabled discussed by Ginsburg, it is only on the internet that a person can finally become real.
Such discussion depends on our acknowledgment that the term `real’ has to be regarded as colloquial and not epistemological. Bringing together these ideas of mediation (and religion), Goffman, (the early work of) Turkle, Humphrey and the contributions here of Boellstorff and Ginsburg, it should be clear that we are not more mediated. We are equally human in each of the different and diverse arenas of framed behaviour within which we live. Each may however bring out different aspects of our humanity, and thereby finesse our appreciation of what being human is. Digital anthropology and its core concerns thereby enhance conventional anthropology.
3) TRANSCENDING METHOD THROUGH THE PRINCIPLE OF HOLISM
The next two principles are largely a reiteration of two of the basic conditions of anthropological apprehensions of the world, but both require a certain caution before being embraced. There are several entirely different grounds for retaining a holistic approach within anthropology, one of which has been largely debunked within anthropology itself. Many of the theoretical arguments for holism[iv] came either from the organic analogies of functionalism or a culture concept that emphasised internal homogeneity and external exclusivity. Both have been subject to trenchant criticism and today there are no grounds for anthropology to assert an ideological commitment to holism.
While theoretically suspect, there are however other reasons to retain a commitment to holism which are closely connected to anthropological methodology especially (but not only) ethnography. We will divide these into three categories: the holism that pertains to the individual, that which pertains to the ethnographic and that which pertains to the global. The first is simply the observation that no one lives an entirely digital life, and that no digital media or technology exists outside of networks that include analogue and other media technologies. While heuristically anthropologists will focus upon particular aspects of life, a chapter on museums, another on social networking, another on politics, we recognise that the person working at the museum builds social networks and gets involved in politics, and that the specifics of any of these three may depend on understanding the other two. What Horst conveys in her chapter is precisely this feeling of easy integration of digital technologies within the lives of her participants as mere part and parcel of life as practice.
The concept of polymedia developed by Madianou and Miller (in press) exemplifies internal connectivity in relation to personal communications. We cannot easily treat each new media independently since they form part of a wider media ecology in which the meaning and usage of any one depends on its relationship to others (also Horst 2009); using email may be a choice against texting and using a social network site; posting comments may be a choice between private messaging and a voice call. Today, when the issues of cost and access have in many places of the world fallen into the background, people are held responsible for which media they choose. In Gershon’s (2010) ethnography of American college students being dumped by your boyfriend with an inappropriate media adds much insult to the injury of being dumped. In Madianou and Miller’s (in press) work, polymedia are exploited to increase the range of emotional fields of power and communication between parents and their left behind children.
But this internal holism for the individual and media ecology is complemented by a wider holism that cuts across different domains. For Broadbent the choice of media is only understood by reference to other contexts. Instead of one ethnography of the workplace and another of home, we see how usage depends on the relationship between work and home, and between very close relationships set against weaker relational ties. This second level of holism is implicit in the method of ethnography. In reading Coleman’s (2010) review of the anthropology of online worlds (which provides a much more extensive bibliography than that provided here), it is apparent that there is almost no topic of conventional anthropology that would not today have a digital inflection. Her references range from news broadcasting, mail-order brides, medical services, aspects of identity, finance, linguistics, politics and pretty much every other aspect of life. In essence, the issue of holism relates not just to the way an individual brings together all the dispersed aspects of their life as an individual, but also how anthropology transcends the myriad foci of research to recognise the co-presence of all these topics within our larger understanding of society. Another point illustrated clearly in Coleman’s survey is that there are now more sites to be considered because digital technologies have created their own worlds. Her most extended example is the ethnography of spamming, a topic that exists only by virtue of the digital, as would be the case of the online worlds represented here by Boellstorff, or our enhanced perception of relative space in offline worlds described by DeNicola.
The holistic sense of ethnography is brought out clearly by the combination of Boellstorff and Ginsburg’s reflections on the ethnography of Second Life. Granting Second Life its own integrity matters for people who feel disabled and disadvantaged in other worlds but here find a site where, for example, they can live a full religious life carrying out rituals they would be unable to perform otherwise. Boellstorff points out that the holistic ideal of ethnography is increasingly honoured in the breach. This is well illustrated by Drazin who reveals how in design, as in many other commercial contexts, the very terms anthropological and ethnographic are commonly used these days as tokenistic emblems of such holism often reduced to a few interviews. He argues that we can only understand design practice within the much wider context of more traditional extended ethnography found in anthropology and increasingly in other disciplines.
But if proper ethnography were the sole criteria for holism, it would itself become something of a liability. This is why we require a third holistic commitment. There are not just the connections that matter because they are all part of an individual’s life, or because they are all encountered within an ethnography. Things may also connect up on a much larger canvass, such as the political economy. Every time we make a debit card payment, we exploit a vast network that exist aside from any particular individual or social group, whose connections would not be apparent within any version of ethnography. These connections are closer to the kinds of networks of things discussed by Castells and Latour or to older traditions such as Wallerstein’s (1980) world systems theory. Anthropology and ethnography are more than method. A commitment to ethnography that fails to engage with the wider study of political economy and global institutions would see the wider holistic intention betrayed by mere method. This problem is exacerbated by digital technologies that have created a radical re-wiring the infrastructure of our world. As a result we see even less and understand less of these vast networks than previously. For this bigger picture we are committed to travel those wires and wireless connections and make them explicit in our studies. Anthropology has to develop its own relationship with what has been called Big Data (boyd and Crawford In Press), vast amounts of information that are increasingly networked with each other. If we ignore these new forms of knowledge and inquiry, we succumb to yet another version of the digital divide.
Although Broadbent and her associates conducted long term and intensive studies of media use in Switzerland, she does not limit her evidence to this. There is also a considerable body of statistical and other meta-data and a good deal of more systematic recording and mapping that formed part of her project. She thereby juxtaposes data from specifically anthropological methods with data from other disciplines in order to reach her conclusion. In this introduction we are arguing for the necessity of an anthropological approach to the digital, but not through exclusivity or purity that presumes it has nothing to learn from media studies, commercial studies, geography, sociology and the natural sciences. In addition, we do not have a separate discussion of ethnography and anthropological method here since this is well covered by Boellstorff’s contribution. We affirm his conclusion that holism should never mean a collapse of the various terrains of humanity, which are often also our specific domains of enquiry, into each other. Online worlds have their own integrity and their own intertextuality taking their genres from each other as was evident in Boellstorff’s own monograph on Second Life, which includes (2008: 60-65) a spirited defence of the autonomous nature of online worlds as the subject of ethnography. Both we and Boellstorff think that this integrity is compatible with our preference for including the offline context of internet usage, where possible, depending upon the actual research question (Miller and Slater 2000). For example, it is instructive that when Horst (2010) in an investigation of teenagers in California, pulls back the lens for a moment to include the bedrooms in which these teenagers are located while on their computers, one suddenly has a better sense of the ambience they are trying to create as a relationship between online and offline worlds (see also Horst 2009). In his contribution Boellstorff argues that theories of indexicality derived from Pierce can help relate evidence from different domains at a higher level. Digital worlds create new separated out domains, but also as Broadbent shows they can also effectively collapse established differences as between work and non-work, despite all the efforts of commerce to resist this.
There is a final aspect of holism anthropologists cannot lose sight of. While anthropologists may repudiate holism as ideology, we still have to deal with the way others embrace holism as an ideal. Postill’s discussion of the digital citizen reveals how while democracy is officially secured by an occasional vote, mobile digital governance is imagined as creating conditions for a much more integrated and constant relationship between governance and an active participatory or community citizenship that deals embracing much wider aspects of people’s lives. Though often this is based on assuming that previously it was only the lack of appropriate technology that prevented the realisation of such political ideals, ignoring the possibility that people may not actually want to be bothered with this degree of political involvement. Political holism thereby approximates what Postill calls a normative ideal. He shows that the actual impact of the digital is an expansion of involvement but still, for most people, largely contained within familiar points of participation such as elections, or communication amongst established activists.
4) VOICE AND THE PRINCIPLE OF RELATIVISM
Cultural relativism has always been another vertebrae within the spine of anthropology; indeed, holism and cultural relativism are closely connected. It is worth reiterating with respect to digital anthropology that much debate and representation of the digital is derived from the imagination of science fiction and modernism that predicts a tightly homogenised global world that has lost its prior expression of cultural difference (Ginsburg 2008). As with holism, there is a version of relativism anthropologists have repudiated, (at least since the Second World War) associated with a plural concept of cultures that implied pure internal homogeneity and pure external heterogeneity. These perspectives took cultural differences as essentially historical and a priori based on the independent evolution of societies. By contrast, more contemporary anthropology recognises that within our political economy one region remains linked to low income agriculture and conservatism precisely because that suits the interests of a wealthier and dominant region. That is to say, differences are often constructed rather than merely given by history.
For this reason Miller (1995) argued that we should complement the concept of a priori difference with one of a posteriori difference. In their ethnography of Internet use, Miller and Slater (2000) refused to accept that the internet in Trinidad was simply a version or a clone of `The Internet’; the Internet is always a local invention by its users. Miller makes a similar argument here with respect to Facebook in Trinidad where the potential for gossip and scandal (and generally being nosy) is taken as showing the intrinsic `Trinidadianess’ of Facebook (Miller 2011). Within this volume, Barendregt provides the most explicit analysis of relativism. He shows that even quite mundane uses of digital communication such as chatting, flirting or complaining about the government become genres quite specific to Indonesia rather than cloned from elsewhere. While in Trinidad the emphasis is more on retained cultural difference, in Indonesia this is overlain by a very deliberate attempt to create a new normativity the use of digital technologies based on explicit criteria such as their acceptability to Islamic strictures. This may be a response to concerns that if digital technologies are `western’ then they are likely to be the Trojan horse that brings in unacceptable cultural practices such as pornography. This produces a highly conscious filtering and transformation to re-make these technologies into process that actually promote rather than detract from Islamic values.
Similarly In Geismar’s contribution we find the conscious attempt to retain cultural difference. The problem for museums is that homogenisation can be imposed most effectively at a level we generally fail to appreciate or apprehend because it occurs within basic infrastructure; the catalogue systems that are used to label and order museum acquisitions. If aboriginal societies are going to find indigenously appropriate forms (Thorner 2010), then it may be through control over things such as the structure of archives, modes of viewing and similar logistical fundamentals that need to properly reflect concepts such as the Vanuatu notion of Kastom, which is quite distinct from Western historiography.
The cliché of anthropology is that we assert relativism in order to develop comparative studies. In reality, comparison is more usually an aspiration than a practice. Yet comparison is essential if we want to understand what can be explained by regional and parochial factors and what stands as higher-level generalisation. For example, Postill directly compared middle class political engagement in Australia and Malaysia. Horst and Miller’s (2006) study of mobile phones and poverty in Jamaica showed that generalisations about the use of phones for entrepreneurship and finding jobs in other regions may not work for Jamaica where they found a rather different pattern to economic impact. Karanovic shows that national differences may remain important even in projects of global conception such as Free Software. Her work also demonstrates that such practices can have powerful transnational effects, sometimes indirectly such as conforming to the dominance of the English language, a relatively neglected aspect of digital anthropology more generally.
In practice, the legacy of anthropological relativism continues through the commitment to regions and spaces otherwise neglected as well as the concern for the peoples and values of those regions. For Barendregt the exploitation of raw materials, the dumping of e-waste, exploitative employment practices, such as body-shopping, racist stereotypes within role-playing games and new forms of digital inequality are all aspects of our diverse digital worlds. More specifically many anthropologists have become increasingly concerned with how to give voice to small scale or marginalised groups that tend to be ignored in academic generalisation centred on the metropolitan West. With a few exceptions (see Ito, Okabe and Matsuda 2005, Pertierra, et al 2005), most of the early work on digital media and technology privileged economically advantaged areas of North America and Europe. Ignoring a global demography where most people actually live in rural India and China rather than in Los Angeles and Paris, the theoretical insights and developments emerging from this empirical base then reflect North American and northern European imaginations about the world and, if perpetuated, becomes a form of cultural dominance. As digital anthropology becomes more established, we hope to see studies and ethnographies that are more aligned with the actual demographics and realities of our world.
As Tacchi notes, it is fine to pontificate about giving voice but often dominant groups failed to engage with the very concept of voice and as a result failed to appreciate that voice was as much about people being prepared to listen and change as a result of what they heard as about giving people the technologies to speak. It is only through others listening that voice acquires value, and this requires a radical shift from vertical to horizontal relationships, as exemplified by the case studies she has herself been involved in over many years. The meaning of the word voice is even more literally a point of engagement for Ginsburg. In some cases digital technologies are what enables physical actions to be turned into audible voice. For some who are autistic, the conventional frame of voice in face-to-face interaction is itself debilitating in its distractions. Here digital technologies can be used to find a more constrained medium, within which an individual feels others can hear them and they can finally come to have a sense of their own voice.
Tacchi provides several further examples that echo Amartya Sen’s insistence that a cornerstone to welfare is a people’s right to determine for themselves what their own welfare should be. This may demand advocacy and pushing into the groups such as female migrants who as noted above matter because of their dependence upon technologies (Miller and Madianou in press, Panagokos and Horst 2006, Wallis 2008). One version of these discussions has pivoted around the concept of indigeneity (Ginsburg 2008, Landzelius 2006, for an important precedent see Turner 1992). Where indigenous signified merely unchanging tradition, then the digital would have to be regarded as destructive and inauthentic. But today we recognise that actually to be termed indigenous is a modern construction and is constantly subject to change. We are then able to recognise the creative usage by all groups however marginal or deprived. At the other end of the scale are anthropologists such as DeNicola recognising that it may today be science in China or South Asia that represent the cutting edge in, for example, the interpretation of digital satellite imagery or the design and development of software (e.g. DeNicola 2006, 2009).
This leads to the question also of the voice of the (digital) anthropologist. Drazin shows how ethnographers involved in design are also used to give voice to the wider public, such as Irish bus passengers, and increasingly that public finds ways of being more directly involved. The problem, however, is that this is quite often used more as a form of social legitimacy than to actually re-direct design. As part of the digital anthropology MA programme at UCL we have had a series of talks by design practitioners. Many report how they are recruited to undertake qualitative and comparative research, but then they see the results of their studies reduced by more powerful forces trained in economics, psychology and business studies, to five token personality types or three consumer scenarios from which all the initial cultural difference has been eliminated. Ultimately many design anthropologists report that have been used merely to legitimate what the corporation has decided to do on quite other grounds. Others have used these spaces for other ends.
5) AMBIVALENCE AND THE PRINCIPLE OF OPENESS AND CLOSURE
The contradictions of openness and closure that arise in digital domains were clearly exposed in Dibbell’s (1998) seminal paper, A Rape in Cyberspace. The paper explores one of the earliest virtual worlds where users could create avatars, then often imagined as gentler, better people than the figures they represented off line. Into this idyll steps Bungle, whose superior technical skills allows him to take over these avatars who then engaged in unspeakable sexual practices both with themselves and others. Immediately the participants, whose avatars have been violated, switch from seeing cyberspace as a kind of post Woodstock land of the liberated, into desperately searching around for some version of the Cyberpolice to confront this abhorrent violation of their online selves.
A theorisation of this dilemma also appeared as `The Dynamics of Normative Freedom’, one of four generalisations about the internet in Trinidad (Miller and Slater 2000). The internet constantly promises new forms of openness, which are almost immediately followed by calls for new constraints and controls, expressing our more general ambivalence towards the experience of freedom. Perhaps the most sustained debate has been with regard to the fears of parents over their children’s exposure to such unrestricted worlds, reflected in the title of boyd’s (2006) Facebook's Privacy Trainwreck, and the work of Livingstone (e.g. 2008) on children’s use of the internet (see also Horst 2009, this volume). As DeNicola notes, the location broadcasting functions of Foursquare, Latitude and Facebook Places have been spectacularly highlighted by sites such as PleaseRobMe.com and ICanStalkU.com.’
The digital came into its own at the tail end of a fashion in academia for the term postmodern which celebrated resistance to authority of all kinds, but especially the authority of discourse. Geismar concisely reveals the problems raised by such idealism. Just opening up the museum space tended to lead to confusion amongst those not well-informed and dominant colonisation by the cognoscenti. Museums envisage democratic republics of participants, crowd-curation and radical archives. This may work in small expert communities, but otherwise, as in most anarchistic practices, those with power and knowledge can quickly come to dominate. Utopian visions were rarely effective in getting people to actually engage with collections. Furthermore, concerns for the indigenous usually require complex restrictions that are in direct opposition to ideals of pure public access. An equally vast and irreconcilable debate has followed the evident tendency of digital technologies to create conditions for de-commodification, which may give us free music downloads, but start to erode the viability of careers based on creative work. Barendregt discusses the way digital technologies can exacerbate inequalities of global power leading to exploitation. It is precisely the openness of the digital that creates fear amongst the Indonesians that this will leave them vulnerable to further colonisation by the very `open’ West. On the other hand Barendregt also shows how digital cultures are used to create visions of new Islamic and Indonesian futures with their own versions of techno-utopias.
The contradictory nature of digital openness is especially clear within Postill’s chapter on politics, where there is as much evidence for the way Twitter, Facebook, Wikileaks and Al-Jazeera helped facilitate the Arab Spring as there is for the way oppressive regimes in Iran and Syria use digital technologies for the identification of activists and their subsequent suppression (Morozov 2011). By contrast Postill’s own ethnographic work in Malaysia is one of the clearest demonstrations of the value of an anthropological approach, not just as long-term ethnography, but also its more holistic conceptualisation. Instead of just trying to label the political impact as good or bad, Postill gives a nuanced and plausible account of the contradictory effects of digital technology on politics. Instead of idealised communities we find cross cutting affiliations of groups using the internet to think through new possibilities.
This ambivalence between openness and closure becomes even more significant when we appreciate its centrality to the initial processes of design and conception in creating digital technologies, especially those related to gaming. For Malaby the essence of gaming is that unlike bureaucratic control, which seeks to diminish or extinguish contingency, gaming creates a structure that then encourages contingency in its usage. He sees this realised through his ethnography of the workers at Linden Labs who developed Second Life (Malaby 2009). They retained much of the influence of 1960’s idealism found in books such as the Whole Earth Catalogue (Brand 1969, Coleman, 2004, Turner 2006) and similar movements that view technology as the tool of liberation. They remain deeply interested in the unexpected and unintended appropriations by users of their designs. By setting limits upon what they would construct they hoped to engage in a kind of co-construction with users who themselves then became as much producers as consumers of the game. Many of the `early adopters’ are themselves technically savvy and more inclined to do the kind of wild adventurous and proficient things the people at Linden Labs would approve of. However, as the game becomes more popular consumption becomes rather less creative until `for most of them this seems to involve buying clothes and other items that thousands of others have bought as well’ (Malaby 2009: 114). The end point is very evident in Boellstorff’s (2008) ethnography of Second Life, which constantly experienced the re-introduction of such mundane everyday life issues as worrying about property prices and the impact on this of one’s neighbours.
Not all designers retain these aspirations. Gambling can also be carefully designed to create a precise balance between contingency and attention – we might win, but we need to keep on playing. Malaby quotes the rather exquisite study by Schull (2005) of the digitisation of slot machines, where `digitization enables engineers to mathematically adjust games’ pay-out tables or reward schedules to select for specific player profiles within a diverse market’ (ibid 70). Video poker can be tuned into a kind of personalised reward machinery that maximises the amount of time a payer is likely to remain on the machine. Again this is not necessity. Though Malaby’s own example of the Greek state-sponsored gambling game Pro-Po returns us to some sort of collusion with Greek people’s own sense of the place of contingency in their lives.
There is an analogous and extensive literature that arises around the concept of the prosumer (Beer and Burrows 2010) where traditional distinctions between producers and consumers break down as the creative potentials of consumers are drawn directly into design. For example digital facilities that encourage us to make our own websites and blogs or populate e-bay or transform MySpace. When students first encounter the idea of digital anthropology through Wesch’s (2008) infectious enthusiasm for YouTube, the appeal is to the consumer as the force that also largely created this same phenomenon (see also Lange 2007). This suggests a more complex digital world not just where producers deliberately delegate creative work to consumers, but also one where designers have little choice but to follow trends created in consumption. This ideal of a prosumption that includes consumers is becoming something of a trend in contemporary capitalism (Ritzer and Jurgenson 2010). Consumers appropriate commercial ideas and are quickly incorporated in their turn (Thrift 2005) and so on. Related to prosumption is the rapid growth of an online feedback culture such as Trip Advisor for researching holidays, or Rotten Tomatoes for reviewing films and a thousand similar popular sources of assessment and criticism that flourished as soon as digital technologies allowed them to. These have so far received far less academic attention than for, example, blogging, though they may have more far reaching consequences.
The tensions and cross appropriations between new openness and closure re-affirms our first principle that the digital is dialectical, that it retains those contradictions analysed by Simmel with regard to the impact of money (1978). But as stated in our second principle, this has always been the case. We are not more mediated or contradictory than we used to be. Mediation and contradiction are the defining conditions of what we call culture. The main impact of the digital has often been to make these contradictions more explicit, or expose contextual issues of power, as in political control for Postill, parent-child relationships for Horst and both empowerment and disempowerment in Ginsburg and Tacchi. As Karanovic notes positive developments such as free software work best when they grow beyond mere utopianism and recognise that they require many of the same forms of copy write protection and legal infrastructure as the corporate owners they oppose. After a certain point many of them would settle for successful reformation rather than failed revolution.
Yet, curiously contemporary mass societies seem often no more ready to accept culture as intrinsically contradictory than small-scale societies. Just as Evans-Pritchard understood the response in terms of witchcraft (1937), so today we still find that most people prefer to resort to blame and assume there is human intentionality behind the negative side of these digital coins. It is much easier to talk of patriarchy or capitalism or resistance and assume these have done the job of analysis, rather than appreciate that a digital technology is dialectical and intrinsically contradictory; often what we adjudicate as its good and bad implications are inseparable consequences of the same developments, although this is not intended to detract from appropriate political intervention and discernment.
6) NORMATIVITY AND THE PRINCIPLE OF MATERIALITY
The final principle of materiality also cycles back to the first principle concerning the dialectic. A dialectical approach is premised upon a concept of culture that can only exist through objectification (Miller 1987). Several of the authors in this volume have been trained originally in material culture studies and have engaged with digital anthropology as an extension of such studies. As has been argued in various ways by Bourdieu, Latour, Miller and others, rather than privilege a `social’ anthropology that reduces the world to social relations, social order is itself premised on a material order. It is impossible to become human other than through socialising within a material world of cultural artefacts that include the order, agency and relationships between things in themselves and not just their relationship to persons. Artefacts do far more than just express human intention.
Materiality is thus bedrock for digital anthropology and this is true in several distinct ways, of which three are of prime importance. First there is the materiality of digital infrastructure and technology. Second, there is the materiality of digital content, and, third, there is the materiality of digital context. We started by defining the very term digital as a state of material being, the binary switch of on or off, 0 and 1. Kelty’s (2009) detailed account of the development of open-source clearly illustrates how the ideal of freely creating new forms of code was constantly stymied by the materiality of code itself. Once one potential development of code became incompatible with another, choices had to be made which constrained the premise of entirely free and equal participation. The recent work by Blanchette (2011) is promising to emerge as a sustained enquiry into the wider materiality of some of our most basic digital technologies, most especially the computer. Blanchette explicitly rejects what he calls the trope of immateriality found from Negroponte’s Being Digital (1995) through to Blown to Bits (Abelson, Lewis and Ledeen 2008). His work builds, instead, upon Kirschenbaum’s (2008) detailed analysis of the computer hard disc. Kirschenbaum points out the huge gulf between meta-theorists who think of the digital as a new kind of ephemerality, and a group called computer forensics whose job it is to extract data from old or broken hard discs and who rely on the very opposite property, that it is actually quite difficult to erase digital information.
Blanchette proposes a more sustained approach to digital materiality focusing on issues such as layering and modularity in the basic structure of the computer. What is notable is that at this most micro level, dissecting the bowels of a Central Processing Unit (CPU), we see the same trade off between specificity and abstraction that characterised our first principle of the dialectic at the most macro level, what Miller (1987) called the humility of things. The more effective the digital technology, the more we tend to lose our consciousness of the digital as a material and mechanical process, evidenced in the degree to which we become almost violently aware of such background mechanics only when they break down and fail us. Kirschenbaum states `computers are unique in the history of writing technologies in that they present a premeditated material environment built and engineered to propagate an illusion of immateriality’ (2008: 135). Objects such as hard discs constantly produce errors but are designed to eliminate these before they impact on what we do with them. We delegate such knowledge as the syntax of a UNIX file to those we term `geeks’ who we characterise as anti-social thereby exiling this knowledge from our ordinary social world where we find it obtrusive (Coleman 2009).
Another example of this exclusion from consciousness is evident in the topic of e-waste. As with almost every other domain the digital has contradictory implications for environmental issues. On the one hand, it increases the potential for less tangible information so that music and text can circulate without CD’s and books, thereby removing a source of waste. Similarly, the high carbon footprint of long haul business class fights can potentially be replaced by webcam conferencing. On the other hand we are becoming aware of a vast detritus of e-waste that often contains problematic or toxic materials that are difficult to dispose of. These are of particular concern to anthropology since e-waste disposal tends to follow the inequalities of global political economy, being dumped onto vulnerable and out-of-sight areas as in Africa (Grossman 2006, Park and Pellow 2002, Schmidt 2006)
While Kelty, Kirschenbaum and Blanchette deal with the forensics of material infrastructure, chapters by Drazin, Geismar and Malaby reveal how design itself is a means of systematically embodying and often imposing ideology. Malaby shows how far at Linden Labs this included explicit consideration of how to incorporate the creativity of future users. As Drazin illustrates, it has taken a while for those involved to move from seeing the social and cultural as merely the context to technology, and instead acknowledge that they themselves are actually the agents who attempt to realise social and cultural values as technology. In a similar way Geismar shows how attention is moving from the representational implication of museum displays to the way the catalogue often encodes ideas about social relations. Such issues remain pertinent to everyday digital goods, such as Barendregt’s discussion of how Islam tries to ensure that the mobile phone itself is rendered Halal or religiously appropriate. This is part of a wider field of technology performed as part of a system of informal cannibalisation favoured by the street market re-engineering of phones found in such peripheral economies as Indonesia.
The second aspect of digital materiality refers not to digital technology but to the content it thereby creates, reproduces and transmits. Dourish (forthcoming) points out that virtual worlds have made us increasingly, rather than decreasingly, aware of the materiality of information itself as a major component of such content. Coleman (2010) has several references to anthropological and others examination of the impact of digital technologies upon language and text (Jones, Schiefllin and Smith, 2011, e.g., Lange, 2007, 2009). The chapter by Broadbent on the specific technologies of personal communication is clearly relevant. There are also obvious domains of visual materiality. For example Miller (2000) used Gell’s theory of art to show how websites, just as art works, are systematically designed in order to seduce and entrap some passing internet surfers, while repelling those they have no reason to attract. Similarly Horst shows how online worlds are aesthetically integrated with the bedrooms of young people going on line in California, while Geismar explores the impact of digital technologies on museum display. In general digital, and especially online words, have greatly expanded the scope of visual as well as material culture studies.
Materiality applies just as much to persons as to that which they create. Rowlands (2005) ethnography of power in the Cameroon grasslands is a study of such relative materiality. A chief is a highly substantial and visible body, while a commoner may be only ever able to be a partially realised, insubstantial and often rather invisible body. A similar problem arises for the disabled individuals given voice here by Ginsburg. A person can be present but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are particularly visible. The critical feature of digital technologies here is not technical; it is the degree to which they impact upon power. Where being material in the sense of being merely visible can be transformed into material in the sense of being acknowledged and finally respected. If you will forgive the pun, fundamentally being material means coming to matter.
Third, in addition to the materiality of technology and the materiality of content, there is also the materiality of context. Issues of space and place are the central concern of DeNicola’s chapter and his discussion of spimes, which imply objects, and not just people’s, awareness of space. This leads to a kind of internet of things where the digital results not just in enhanced use of absolute space, as in GPS, but increasing awareness of relative proximity. This may refer to people, such as gay men making contact through Grindr but also objects sensing their own relative proximity. As DeNicola notes digital location awareness is not the death of space but rather its further inscription as indelible material position. Similarly several chapters demonstrate how what has been termed the virtual is more a new kind of place rather than a form of placelessness. For example Boellstorff’s work on Second Life, Horst’s discussion of a fan fiction writer navigating parents, teachers, friends and her fan fiction community of followers, and Miller’s suggestion at the end of his chapter that that in some ways people make their home inside social networks rather than just communicate through them.
There is no chapter on time to complement that on space but this volume is replete with references to speed that suggest how far digital technologies have been important in shifting our experience of time, but also that so far from creating a timelessness we seem to be becoming constantly more time aware. We might also note a truism within the digitisation of contemporary finance. Here digital technologies are used to create complex instruments intended to resolve issues of risk, which simply seem to increase the experience of and exposure to risk. The example of finance supports DeNicola’s contention following Gupta and Ferguson (1997) that one of the consequences of these changing forms of materialisation may be the transference or more often the consolidation of power.
Context refers not just to space and time but also to the various parameters of human interaction with digital technologies, which form part of material practice. Suchman’s studies have led to a greater emphasis upon human-machine reconfigurations (2007) that are complemented by the whole development of HCI as an academic discipline (e.g. Dix 2004, Dourish 2004), an area discussed within Drazin’s contribution. Several chapters deal with another aspect of interaction which is what Broadbent calls attention. A good deal of contemporary digital technologies are, in essence, attention seeking mechanisms, partly because one of the most common clichés about our digital world is that it proliferates the amount of things competing for our attention so any given medium has, as it were, to try still harder. Broadbent notes that some personal media such as the telephone require immediate attention, while others such as Facebook are less demanding. Malaby’s chapter has many references to the attention attracting and maintaining capacity of games.
Finally, although this section has concentrated on the principle of materiality, it also started with Blanchette and Kirschenbaum’s observation of the way digital forms are used to propagate an illusion of the immaterial, a point central to Boellstorff’s discussion of the concept of the virtual, but evident in fields as diverse as politics and communication. But then, as MacKenzie (2009) notes in his excellent book on the materiality of modern finance, with regard to new financial instruments `we should not simply be fascinated by the virtual quality of derivatives, but need to investigate how that virtuality is materially produced’ (2009:84). It is because technologies are constantly finding new ways to construct illusions of immateriality that a material culture perspective become ever more important. Of all the consequences of this illusion of immateriality the most important remains the way objects and technologies obfuscate their own role in our socialisation. Whether it is the infrastructure behind computers to that behind finance, or games, or design or museum catalogues - we seem less and less aware of how our environment is materially structured and that creates us as human beings. The reason this matters is that it extends Bourdieu’s (1977) critical argument about the role of practical taxonomies in making us the particular kinds of people we are, who subsequently take for granted most of what we call culture. Bourdieu showed how a major part of what makes us human is what he called practice, a conjuncture of the material with the socialisation of habit, that makes the cultural world appear as second nature, that is natural. This is best captured by the academic concept of normativity.
To end this introduction on the topic of normativity is to expose the single most profound and fundamental reason why attempts to understand the digital world in the absence of anthropology are likely to be lacking. On the one hand we can be left slack jawed at the sheer dynamics of change. Every day we share our amazement at the new: a smarter smartphone, the clear webcam chat to our friend in China, the uses of feedback culture, the creativity of 4Chan, which gave rise to the more anarchist idealism of Anonymous in the political sphere, as well as Wikileaks. Put together we have the impression of being immersed in some Brave New World that washed over us within a couple of decades. All these developments are well covered by other disciplines. Yet perhaps the most astonishing feature of digital culture is not actually this speed of technical innovation, but rather the speed by which society takes all of these for granted and creates normative conditions for their use. Within months a new capacity becomes assumed to such a degree that when it breaks down we feel we have lost both a basic human right and a valued prosthetic arm of who we now are as human beings.
Central to normativity is not just acceptance but moral incorporation (Silverstone and Hirsch 1992). Again the speed can seem breath taking. Somehow in those few months we know what is proper and not proper in posting online, writing in an email, appearing on webcam. There may be a short moment of uncertainty. Gershon (2010) suggests this with regard to the issue of what media within polymedia we are supposed to use to dump a boy and girlfriend. But in the Philippines Madianou and Miller found that, this more collective society, tended to impose normativity upon new forms of communication almost instantly. In her case studies of new media technologies in the home Horst also shows how quickly and easily digital technologies are literally domesticated as normative. One of the main impacts then of digital anthropology is to retain the insights of Bourdieu as to the way material culture socialises into habitus, but instead of assuming this only occurs within long term customary orders of things given by history, recognise that the same processes can be remarkably effective when telescoped into a couple of years.
We would therefore suggest that the key to digital anthropology, and perhaps to the future of anthropology itself is, in part, the study of how things become rapidly mundane. What we experience is not a technology per. se., but also an immediately a cultural inflected genre of usage. A laptop, an archive, a process of design, a Facebook page, an agreement to share locational information - none of these can be disaggregated into their material as against their cultural aspects. They are integral combinations based on an emergent aesthetic that is a normative consensus around how a particular form should be used which in turn constitutes what that then is. What we will recognise as an email, what we agree constitutes design, what have become the two accepted ways of using webcam. The word genre implies a combination of acceptability that is simultaneously moral, aesthetic and practical (see also Ito, et al. 2009).
Normativity can be oppressive. In Ginsburg’s powerful opening example, the disabled activist Amanda Baggs makes clear that digital technologies have the capacity to make someone appear vastly more human than before, but the catch is that this is only to the degree that the disabled use these technologies to conform to what we regard as normatively human. For example, performing that key process of `attention’ in what are seen as appropriate ways. This direct confrontation between the digital and the human is what helps us understand the task of digital anthropology. Anthropology stands in direct repudiation of the claims of psychologists and digital gurus that any of these digital transformations represents a change in either our cognitive capacities or the essence of being human - thus the title of this introductory chapter. Being human is a cultural and normative concept. As our second principle showed, it is our definition of being human that mediates what the technology is, not the other way around. Technology may in turn be employed to help shift our conceptualisation of being human, which is what Ginsburg’s digital activist is trying to accomplish.
The anthropological apprehension is to refuse to allow the digital to be viewed as a gimmick or, indeed, as mere technology. A key moment in the recent history of anthropology came with Terence Turner’s (1992) report on the powerful appropriation of video by an Amazonian Indian group - the Kayapo, in their resistance to foreign infiltration (see also Boyer 2006). It was the moment when anthropology had to drop its presumption that tribal societies were intrinsically slow or passive or what Levi-Strauss called cold. Under the right conditions they could transform within the space of a few years into canny, worldly and technically proficient activists, just as people in other kinds of society.
Prior to this moment anthropology remained in in the thrall of associations of custom and tradition which presumed that anthropology would become less relevant as the speed of change in our material environment grew apace with the advent of the digital. But with this last point regarding the pace of normative impositions we see why the very opposite is true. The faster the trajectory of cultural change, the more relevant the anthropologist because there is absolutely no sign that the changes in technology is outstripping the human capacity to regard things as normative. Anthropology is one of the few disciplines equipped to immerse itself in that process by which digital culture becomes normative culture and to understand what this tells us about being human. The lesson of the digital for anthropology is that so far from making us obsolete, the story that is anthropology has barely begun.
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[i] Acknowledgements: Thanks to Stefana Broadbent, Haidy Geismar, Keith Hart, Webb Keane, Wallis Motta, Dan Perkel, Kathleen Richardson, Christo Sims and Richard Wilk for comments upon a draft of this paper.
[ii] All references to authors within this book are to their contribution within this volume unless stated otherwise.
[iii] See also Keith Hart’s website: http://thememorybank.co.uk/papers/
[iv] At the methodological level, holism represents a commitment to understanding the broader context and the integration of the various institutions into an analysis. Theoretically, holism is associated with structural functionalism which held that certain phenomenon in society (e.g. kinship or houses) represent the whole.
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