Friday, March 6, 2009

My interest in anthropological futures

My own entry into anticipatory anthropology started with my dissertation work, research that forms the basis for my forthcoming book, Library of Walls: Contradictions of Information Society at the Library of Congress. In the 1990s, the Library of Congress was just beginning its “National Digital Library” program, involving, among other things, the large-scale digitization of multimedia collections and their placement online. This was a technically formidable project, but it also served to telescope the hopes and fears of Library staff and users at the Library for the future. Examining my informant’s narratives about what the coming “digital library” would mean for their work and research revealed a great deal of ambivalence about both the project’s viability and its relationship to information society in general. But these did not simply fall into neatly contained categories of “computopian” and “computropian” (these are David Hakken’s terms), optimistic technophile and sullen Luddite. Instead, people were keenly aware of both the new connections this experiment in information society would enable as well as the ways in which it would lead to new forms of inequality and disenfranchisement. This was a much more complex projection for information society—considered not as the autochthonous development of information technologies but as multifarious shifts in work, social life and culture—an ultimately deeply contradictory prognostication that, over the past ten years since my original field research, has largely come to pass.

I have taken this more nuanced approach to the future of information society in a variety of settings. One of the most fruitful has been my collaborations with computer scientists and robotics engineers—researches undertaken to utilize anthropological ideas to interrogate and critique linear and one-dimensional models of technologically-informed human futures. Our lives are being profoundly shaped (albeit not deterministically) by our interactions with a variety of non-human agents—including the many variously intelligent agents that guide (or goad) us along in the Internet. And yet, most working on the development of these non-human agents have utilized only crude (and even procrustean) models of human behavior grounded in what they believe to be “universal” attributes (cognitive, psychological, social and cultural) of Homo sapiens. One of my goals in collaborating with these engineers has been to act as a catalyst for the generation of alternative (e.g., less ethnocentric and less androcentric) models of the human in order to suggest new human agent/non-human agent hybrids, hybrids that we begin to explore in Handbook of Research on Agent-Based Societies.

In my mind, this is one of anthropology’s greatest resources—the ability to question (if not entirely overcome) hide-bound assumptions in order to open up the space for the imagination of alternatives to an ethnocentric present people assume will continue into an endless future. Accordingly, I began to explore the way anthropology has dealt with the “future,” not just as a theme in anthropological writings, but as a site for the interaction of anthropologists with non-anthropologists in futurology, political science and public policy. The result is my All Tomorrow’s Cultures: Anthropological Engagements with the Future, part historic review of anthropological futures, part plea for redoubling our efforts to impact the ways the future is imagined in government, international relations and other parts of the academy. Whether I’m discussing Margaret Mead’s or Reed Riner’s contributions to anthropological futures or critiquing nineteenth century “survivals” in anthropological writings on the future of race and multicultural society, my goal in the book is to both demonstrate the centrality of the future to anthropology and to salvage some of the our insights in order to stimulate futures premised on difference and diversity.

I have tried to do the same thing in the classroom, and have utilized a variety of methods (including simulations and highly abbreviated forms of Delphi and Ethnographic Futures Research) to elicit narratives about the future from my students, texts that we then have used less to actually predict than to critique the kinds of assumptions people bring to their expectations for the future, assumptions that rest on remarkably homogeneous ideas about the continued geopolitical dominance of the United States and the inevitability of Huntington’s “clash of civilizations”. Moving towards possible alternatives means interrogating these assumptions for what they are—bland recapitulations of the ideological present imprisoning us in ethnocentric (and tempocentric) assumptions that have already proven disastrous for our world.

Here, my experience in the classroom has informed my current research: ethnographic futures research on Korean reunification. I ran similar future elicitations with college students and adult informants in Seoul when I was there on a Fulbright from 2006-2007. Those narratives revolved around the possibilities and pitfalls of reunification and, in particular, the kind of imagined future of a unified Korea, a future with one leg in an imagined past. Examining these narratives suggests the idea of a nation grounded in the “old” Joseon Dynasty (that last dynasty before the Japanese colonized Korea in 1910) while at the same time projecting a new, national space where “distortions” introduced in the colonial era will be resolved and Korea will (re)attain its rightful place among nations in the world. While the policy work and economic studies of institutions such as South Korea’s Ministry of Unification are, of course, vital to the success of a united peninsula, it is, I believe, the quotidian imagination of a unified Korea which will have the greatest impact upon the eventual shape of a north-south agreement, conceived, not just as a treaty or a series of policy initiatives, but as a social fact.