Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Change Agents in Anthropology

Despite our proclivities for emergence, assemblage, and all manner of objects and behaviors in the process of becoming, the institutions of anthropology appear downright procrustean: the lengthy apprenticeship of graduate school, the sycophantic ranking of programs . . .and the fetish for paywalled, proprietary publications.

There are several anthropologists who have worked to challenge these staid formations, and they were active at the 2012 American Anthropological Association in San Francisco in a series of powerful panels on publishing, social media and digital anthropology.  Now that we're all back at our desks, they've had time to reflect, and posts are popping up all over the place.

There's Jason Antrosio in Living Anthropologically, who took his paper from our panel ("Sharing Anthropology") and infused it with insightful reflections on the entirety of the conference.  And Matt Thompson and others at the Digital Anthropology Group (DANG) have continued to press for open access.  Finally, Barbara King weighs in with an ode to the dialogical ecologies of the blogosphere. 

All of these bloggers make me hopeful for changes not only in the ways we communicate anthropology, but also in the ways we organize its production (and its reproduction). 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Twitterscapes at the American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting

It's not exactly a huge data set, but the relatively small number of tweets makes twitter traffic easy to track at the year's AAA in San Francisco.  The following graphs were produced with Twitter data using the #AAA2012 hashtag.  Utilizing NodeXL,  I downloaded data, and constructed a graph using a Fruchterman-Reingold algorithm.  I filtered the data by day; the tweets were generated during a 24-hours period ending at the specified time.

In the following, I reproduce the full text of the top five tweets (determined by in-degree) after each visualization..

November 15, 2012: 12:43 pm

1). americananthro
Obama's english and the racial politics of
American English #aaa2012
Still plenty of room at the plenary - come listen

2). savageminds
let's do #tweetup for #aaa2012
Thursday 5-7 at Johnny Foley's.
Leave the Hilton, turn right, cross
the street and you're there.

3). aaa2012
@Melzter777 - not sure what the
rules are but I'm gonna try! *********

4). 01anthropology
Agenda for our business meeting
is up.  http://t.co/wnsiMQTI #aaa2012

5). daniellende
Neuroanthropology at Annual AAA
Meeting in San Francisco http://t.co/HXhDYEyr
A booth, a session, a meeting
hope to see you there #aaa2012

November 18, 2012: 3:11 pm

1). johnhawks
End of session approaching, and the
backchannel is heating up.  Yay, social
media!  #AAA2012

2). americananthro
Go check out Fireball, the party pony
now appearing at @somarts (934 Branan St.)
for the @ethnoterminalia exhibit
at #aaa2012

3). glethnohistory
@chronicle has an article about the
new ED of @americananthro http://
t.co/n4797HU9 #aaa2012

4. clmorgan
Barbara King talking about blogging
fearlessly.  Really solid examples from
her work with NPR #AAA2012

5. samueljredman
RT @plazdiquehardt: Just had my
thigh pinched by the hand that
sculpted Lucy for Bone Clones.
He called it a "

November 20, 2012: 12 am

1.  RT @clmorgan: @johnhawks I'm
happy that digital sessions got attention
& hope to bring this to the
attention of organizers in the fu . . .

2. rgairnelson
Love my job.  "Research is formalized
curiosity.  It is poking and prying
with a purpose."  Anthropologist
Zora Neale Hurston #aaa2012

3. glethnohistory
#aaa2012 next year there should
be bins to recycle programs in.
That thing is too big for a plane

4. clmorgan
@johnhawks I'm happy that digital
sessions got attention & hope
to bring this to the attention
of organizers in the future.  #AAA2012

5. americananthro
Go check out Fireball, the party
pony now appears at @somarts
(434 Branan St.) for the @ethnoterminalia
exhibit at #aaa2012

November 21, 2012: 2:07 am

1. johnhawks
RT @PeteTaber : Aw, is it over?
Not sure I've had enough Anchor
Steam and Thai food #AAA2012

2. americananthro
Hope you had a great time at #AAA2012!
See you next year at #AAA2013 -
Chicago beckons: http://t.co/3pZxTD2b.

3. rgairnelson
Love my job.  "Research is formalized
curiosity.  It is poking and prying with a
purpose."  Anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston

4. savageminds
Sssshhh--do you hear that?  It's the sound of 5000 700 page long
#AAA2012 conference programs being
thrown away.  #sorry trees // Rx #fb.

5. clmorgan
RT @savageminds:  Sssshhh--do you hear that? 
It's the sound of 5000 700 page long
#AAA2012 conference programs being
thrown away.  #sorry


1. For the most part, anthropologists tweet in isolation.  At least with respect to the #AAA2012 hashtag, little connects these tweeters with other anthropologists.  The density of all of the graphs is low. Moreover, the various controversies that erupt across Twitter during similar events (conferences, concerts, festivals) were notably absent from this conference, and that suggests either a weak investment in social media or the lack of strong ties between anthropologists.  In other words, while people may be enmesched in rich, Twitter networks, they are only weakly connected to one another.  Are we really bowling alone?  

2. Power laws.  A hand-full of people dominate the scene in terms of followers and re-tweets; they are invariably people prominent across other social media.  Social media re-draws lines of disciplinary power in anthropology, but disciplinary power still concentrates in the hands of the few.

2. The tension between inside and outside.  Among SNS platforms, Twitter is unique in that posts frequently represent the liminal zone between online communications and face-to-face interactions.  At AAA2012, many posts concerned "location"--9 out of the 20 reproduced above.  And yet, only 3 of the posts could be said to engage the city of San Francisco directly (and I'm counting the ethnographic terminalia post twice).  Of course, anthropologists go out into the city during the conference, yet, from this analysis (however perfunctory) we might conclude that they rarely do so as part of the conference itself.  If one goal for these conferences is to engage place, then Twitter suggests one avenue for conferencing in a less centralized way across different sites in the city.  Perhaps one day . . .

Thursday, October 4, 2012

"By the Wire," not "Through the Wire"

 It has been 10 years since David Simon's "The Wire" premiered on HBO.  A product of Simon's long-time partnership with Ed Burns, a retired Baltimore City homicide detective, "The Wire" presented Baltimore through the lens of police officers, drug dealers, troubled children, educators.  A Dickensian drama-from-below, Simon's series grew more and more complex through its five seasons.  Actively working to challenge easy interpretations of Baltimore's problems, Simon refused to indulge in the usual media reduction of urban life to pathologized caricatures.

Over those 10 years, some anthropologists began to include "The Wire" in their courses, presumably because they found it ethnographically interesting.  And it is, but not because it offers an empirical "window" onto the lives of Baltimore's urban poor.  Instead, "The Wire" is interesting because it presents the complexities of white, middle-class perspectives on race and social class.  It lays bare the tortured contradictions, the logical inconsistencies of dominant theoretical perspectives, from the neo-liberal, rational choice theory used to interpret some of The Wire's more larger-than-life drug-dealers, to the structural interpretations examining the inequalities of education in the city.  Ultimately, though, the series remains trapped in the puzzle-box of the racialized other, and the failure of the series to indict the neo-liberal (although Simon certainly tried) points to the inabilities of US intellectuals to conceptualize both race- and class inequality.  Bouncing between reformer, radical and reactionary, "the Wire" is probably the best portrait we have today of U.S. urban policy, one that accurately represents the hypostatized contradictions urban lawmakers and pundits bounce impotently between in their perpetual efforts to prescribe a "cure" to the problem of the urban.

In that sense, Peter Beilenson's and Patrick McGuire's Tapping Into The Wire: The Real Urban Crisis (The Johns Hopkins Press, 2012), is a logical next step.  In a series of reflections on his 13 years as Baltimore's public health commissioner (1992-2005), Beilenson examines scenes and characters in The Wire as synecdoches of public health problems inflicting US cities.  As he reflects, "I realized then that it was a perfect crystallization of all of the public health and social problems I had faced in real-life Baltimore during my thirteen years as health commissioner" (4).

Each chapter focuses on a health problem (drugs, STD's, HIV), and Beilenson's response to it as commissioner.  Some of these stories are heroic--e.g., Beilenson's needle-exchange program and his work on a plan for universal health care for Baltimore.  Some, less so.  In fact, my only memory of Beilenson during his tenure is his infamous support for Norplant, a birth-control implant that he wanted to offer to at-risk teens, a plan that led to charges of eugenics.  Later, there was similar controversy over Depo-Provera.  Here, he defends those programs, and there is little doubt that he had the City's best interests at heart.  But he still comes across as disingenuously political.  As he writes,

Although certainly not the only reason, I think it is clear that the provision of contraception in our school-based health centers helped Baltimore drop from having the highest teen birth rate in the country to the number 15 ranking: over the past twenty years, the city's teen birth rate dropped by more than 40 percent. (118)
First, there's a suspicious, semantic shift from Norplant and Depo-Provera to general contraception.  I think making contraception available in schools is an important intervention--but which ones?  Second, it's unclear how much these interventions are responsible for dropping teen birth rates.  Teen pregnancies have been dropping nationally by about 3 percent per year since 1991.  The CDC is not entirely certain why this rate has dropped, and it seems like a bit of shell game to suggest that Norplant led to the Baltimore decline. 

Still, Beilenson's anecdotes are reminders that enlightened public health policy can make concrete changes in the lives of people, and that so many of the things conservatives interpret as the intransigent moral failing of individuals are, in fact, public health problems that impact all of us.  Perhaps we can bring Beilenson back from Howard County (where he continues as health officer of Howard County).

But Tapping Into the Wire also sharply contrasts with our approach in Anthropology By the Wire.  Ultimately, Beilenson and McGuire still take their cues from The Wire and, by extension, hegemonic representations of Baltimore in mass media that define the city and its citizens as a series of problems, as a negative values in indicators for health, education and crime.  The difference: we're starting from the opposite end, building media that begin with people's lives and experiences, not in order to provide fodder for political pathologizations, but to help people represent themselves to each other, and to other institutions and agents of change who might be of benefit to them.  In other words, "By The Wire": in the same places, the same neighborhoods, but getting an altogether different story.  

Monday, July 16, 2012

Tagging Anthropology

In a 2010 article entitled “Academic Search Engine Optimization (ASEO),” Joeran Beel et al sparked controversy in some circles by suggesting that scientists tailor their writing in research articles to search engines in order to maximize web visibility. 
Once the keywords are chosen, they need to be mentioned in the right places: in the title, and as often as possible in the abstract and the body of the text (but, of course, not so often as to annoy readers).  Although in general titles should be fairly short, we suggest choosing a longer title if there are many relevant keywords. (179)

Building on almost 15 years of literature and scholarship in web marketing and e-commerce, Beel et al extended the model to academic work, arguing that the goal in writing for academic journals is little different than writing copy for web advertising: “to make this content more widely and easily available” (190).  That could mean including keywords in significant fields (like the title) or it could mean increasing the number of inbound links, another method for SEO practiced by web developers everywhere.  It means, in other words, scientists utilizing the same methods as, say, websites selling Viagra and dietary supplements. 

Is anthropology the same?  In the era of “public anthropology,” isn’t the idea to reach a “public”?  But what is this “public”?   Despite lots of lip service and theoretical interest in expanding the audience for anthropological research, anthropologists seem to have little more than a vague sense of the public that might exist outside of the immediate academic context.   This question becomes more urgent with the advent of web 2.0 social networking.   When we’re blogging or putting something up on Youtube, it seems obvious that we’re making our work “public,” but that public is not synonymous with the “public” of television news or major newspapers.  Danah boyd has suggested a useful distinction in her definition of “networked publics”:
I am primarily talking about the spaces and audiences that are bound together through technological networks (i.e., the Internet, mobile networks, etc.).  Networked publics are one type of mediated public; the network mediates the interactions between members of the public.  (boyd: 125)
Neither entirely public nor entirely private, “networked publics” imply both the networked creation of a public (the public forged as a series of connections with content and with other members of that networked public) and the networked determination of the access to public content (through search engines, page-ranking, and meta-data).  Rather than an amorphous “public” made up of concerned citizens, these networked publics are forged consciously by people networking together and by corporations exploiting their sociality in order to add value to their social networking sites. 

The “public” here, in other words, is one that is consciously crafted, negotiated, directed and emergent.  It is one that we might enjoin through a variety of means: keywords, tags, links, repetition.   For the scholars and consultants who work on search engine optimization, this means maximizing the number of “hits”, but for anthropologists disseminating work through Web 2.0, the issues of the “public” should be more complex.  The construction of an anthropological public needs to be part of our research from the outset.

Of course, this seems counterintuitive to those of us socialized in more traditional academic publishing where write-up is followed by publication and dissemination.  In this linear process, the question of a public is ultimately the province of marketing.  But in networked publishing, there are at least two differences.  First, it’s up to us to forge those connections with a community of readers and writers (web 2.0 blurs that distinction).  Second, it’s also up to us to encourage the association of our work with a body of other works—e.g., our anthropological media of Baltimore with anthropological media about other cities.  The difference here is that we do this not for profit, but for the effectiveness of our intervention.   That is, a public anthropology in the age of networked media needs to create its public while it’s doing anthropology, a consciously forged interpretive community.


Beel, Joeran, Bela Gipp and Erik Wilde (2010).  “Academic Search Engine Optimization (ASEO).”  Journal of Scholarly Publishing 41(2): 176-190. 

boyd, danah (2008).    “Why Youth Social Network Sites.”  In Youth, Identity, and Digital Media, ed. by David Buckingham, pp. 119-142.  Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

How Alternative Can our Alternative Future Be?

There's an interesting piece in this year's Nebula Awards Showcase, a lively short story about an alternative future premised on Aztec culture, "The Jaguar House, in Shadow," by Aliette de Bodard.  One of the biggest challenges to those of us trying to imagine and evoke alternative futures is precisely what animates de Bodard's story: can we come up with futures that aren't already colonized by Western modernity?  As she writes (185):

Part of the challenge (and what had frustrated me with the earlier attempt) is making sure that "modern" doesn't end up equating "twentieth-century Western culture"; and equally making sure that the Aztec culture doesn't turn out to be an ossified version of what the conquistadors saw.

De Bodard struggles with this premise, ultimately sketching a future Tenochtitlan that is at turns archaeological speculation and Aztec steampunk.  Maglev stations, nanotechnology, religion, traditional drugs, Aztec ball courts.  It all pushes the story forward, and beyond: the ending makes me suspect that there's a novel in the works.

But is this really an alternative future?  Or is this just Western sf playing in the ruins of Tenochtitlan?  De Bodard's protagonist, Oballi, breaks into the house of her own Jaguar order in order to rescue her friend, a feat enabled by various physically extending drugs and technologies, including nanotechnologically enhanced finger-nails.  "She extended, in one fluid, thoughtless gesture: her nails were diamond-sharp,  courtesy of Atcoatl's nanos, and it was easy to find purchases on the carving" (192).  It's that juxtaposition of Aztec carvings and nanotechnology that gesture to the limits of this "alternative" future.  

Contrast this to Andrew Pickering's The Cybernetic Brain (2010), a decidedly non-fictional evocation of an "alternative future" that is premised on what Pickering calls (after the work of Bruno Latour) "nonmodern" ontologies.  
What I want to suggest is that the ontology of cybernetics is a strange and unfamiliar one, very different from that of the modern sciences. I also want to suggest that ontology makes different—that the strangeness of specific cybernetics projects hangs together with the strangeness of its ontology. (17)
In the performative ontologies evoked in cybernetics, the world appears less as the transparent workings of a Cartesian universe than as a series of black boxes that we interact with in a performative way--with frequently surprising results.  Examples of cybernetics as an alternative epistemology for knowing this black-box ontology abound, but one of my favorites (and, I think, also Pickering's) is Gordon Pask's 1950's work on Musicolour.
Materially, the music was converted into an electrical signal by a microphone, and within Musicolour the signal passed through a set of filters, sensitive to different frequencies, the beat of the music, and so on, and the output of the filters controlled different lights.  You could imagine that the highest-frequency filter energized a bank of red lights, the next-highest the blues, and so on.  Very simple, except for the fact that the internal parameters of Musicolour's circuitry were not constant.  In analogy to biological neurons, banks of lights would only be activated if the output from the relevant filter exceeded a certain threshold value, and these thresholds varied in time as charges built up on capacitors according to the development of the performance and the prior behavior of the machine. (316)
Rather than treat music, sound, cognition, perception as divisible parts rendered knowable by science as discrete data, Pask developed a machine that encouraged the adaptive coupling of diverse systems to each other, a kind of performative epistemology that was, as Pickering points out over and over, both a "theater" and an example of what might be called a non-modern ontology: the world construed not as divisible, objectified parts, but as complex systems loosely coupled to each through feedback, where the goal is not to dominate and exploit but to interact, cope--to negotiate a truth rather than command one.   The point, of course, is that this is ultimately an alternative modernity (or, as Pickering writes, a "nonmodern" epistemology). 

It's all interesting, and Pickering hits on what excites me most about cybernetics: it's capacity to interrogate the assumptions that have guided technological development up to now, and possibility for "lines of flight" within the hegemonic discourse of objectivist science and the domination of nature.  Indeed, Pickering reflects on cybernetics in the wake of Deleuzean "nomad science," and finds the work Beer, Pask, Bateson and others to anticipate much of the Deleuzean turn. Of course, Pickering uses that problematic "nonmodern"--I am not nearly so sanguine that we can escape the modern by emphasizing a performative ontology, since the message here is that it was implicit in the cybernetic modern all along.

And this gets me back to de Bodard's story.  Can we evoke a truly non-Western future?  Is there a "nonmodern" modernity?  Can we simultaneously imagine a future and escape from that future's overdetermination by, perhaps, the most central characteristic of modernity itself: "futures thinking"? We can see de Bodard's writing as part of the answer--imagining non-Western futures--although I wish she had spent some time looking at actual Aztec futures, as in the Mexican environmental groups and sustainability techniques that have been developed off of insights into Aztec irrigation and farming. Or even at the interesting (and tumultuous) world of Mexican sf (see Gabriel Trujillo Muñoz's Biografias del Futuro: La ciencia ficcion mexicana y sus autores (2000)).

The other part, though, must be examining Western futures themselves as multiple, or, more precisely, as a virtual field of difference through the potentialities Pickering sketches.  Perhaps we can approach that alternative future through multiple estrangements.  First, undermining our own assumptions about the future by excavating "roads not taken"--cybernetics, Bergonism, etc., while struggling to understand non-Western epistemologies.  Second, the fuzzy coupling of alternative futures, non-Western futures, sublimated utopia: in other words, the performative ontology Pickering lionizes performed on a grander temporal and spatial scale.  Ultimately, the goal is less prediction and control than adapting to these shifting, swirling, Musicolour constellations.

There's a story about his time working in a VA hospital that Gregory Bateson told in a 1971 Naropa Institute lecture that I explore in a 2010 article (Collins 2010: 60):
At the request of the ward superintendent, he invited a new patient to his office and, in way of initialing conversation (and building rapport) offered him a cigarette. The patient took a few puffs and then, looking Bateson straight in the eyes, dropped it on the carpet. The next day, he again met with Bateson, took a cigarette, lit it, and dropped it on the carpet. Only this time, he decided to take a walk. Bateson followed him for 100 yards or so, and then couldn't take it any longer. "Look, man, I've got to know what that cigarette is doing!" They turned back to retrieve it. On the third day, the same thing, only this time, when the resident got up to take a walk, Bateson palmed the cigarette and followed behind. A few yards out the door, Bateson said, "Ed, I think this is your cigarette, isn't it?" Ed laughed, and Bateson felt that he had been admitted in (if only fleetingly) into the resident's world.
What is the point here to Bateson's enigmatic parable?  First, that understanding here is not premised on control.  It's not about forcing the patient into the Bateson's cognitive schema.  Instead, it's about creating cybernetic couplings that interact along "lines of flight" that gesture to something else entirely.  Could this be a metaphor for strange (and estranging) futures?


Collins, Samuel Gerald (2010).  "'An Electronic Buzzer is Laughing'."  Cybernetics & Human Knowing 17(3): 45-64.

Pickering, Andrew (2010).  The Cybernetic Brain.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Coming to Terms with Networked Anthropology

Samuel Gerald Collins
Matthew Slover Durington

It’s happening on your campus now—students in your classes are uploading media about their varied ethnographic projects. Sometimes these photos, films, audio and text end up on blogs, YouTube and Flickr accounts. Some of it ends up on Facebook. Search YouTube for “ethnographic interview,” and marvel (and shudder) at the vast array of student interviews that have been uploaded. But why take student projects seriously? Because it’s not just our students who tweet and update their Facebook pages; the communities with whom we work are networked as never before. Like so many, numerous student goals for the future are tied to their investment in social media.

To us, this looks more and more like the emergence of a different kind of anthropology. It’s where the academy meets the community, not in the style of the well-choreographed, collaborative anthropology that is one of the triumphs of applied anthropology, but something altogether messier: a networked anthropology. What is a networked anthropology? An anthropology undertaken in the age of multimedia social networks, one in which all of the stakeholders—ethnographers, interlocutors, community, audience—are all networked together in various (albeit powerful and unequal) ways.

Networked anthropology generates ethnographic data in multiple media. Here it overlaps with similar advances in different subdisciplines, including visual anthropology, public anthropology and action research. The difference is that a networked anthropology produces data that is simultaneously media to be appropriated and utilized by the communities with whom anthropologists work in order to connect to others (other communities, potential grantors, friends and family). And the opposite is also true—anthropologists are only generating data for their research in the space of their engaged commitments to communities to assist in their efforts to network to different audiences. We firmly believe that a networked anthropology is not appropriate for many fieldsites anthropologists might encounter. But whether or not we engage it as a distinct methodology, networked anthropology is lurching forward with or without us—with students and para-ethnographers stepping in to represent communities, and people in communities stepping in to represent themselves.

Piloting Networked Anthropology in South Baltimore

Several years ago, we became interested in the possibilities and problems of a networked anthropology, largely through the interests of the communities in which we work. Since the fall of 2006 we have worked collaboratively with members of the South Baltimore community of Sharp Leadenhall on a variety of projects. This historic African American community has undergone a series of urban renewal processes that have decreased its population and socioeconomic standing in a fashion unfortunately reminiscent of many urban centers throughout the United States since World War II and continuing in the 21st century. Throughout, we have tried to have student researchers participate alongside us throughout the fieldwork process, with the ultimate goal of producing tangible outcomes for community members in the form of archive creations, volunteer opportunities, entrepreneurial endeavors and multi -media creation.

While there have been inevitable hiccups along the way, the effect on both community members and students has been positive following a principle of debt incurred. One fieldwork moment and eventual ethnographic epiphany came during the fall of 2009 while university students interviewed and worked alongside community members at a concession stand operation mutually created in partnership to benefit different youth programs in Sharp Leadenhall. While all consent and IRB processes were followed by students in their interviews, we were taken aback when students and community members began “friending” each other and field research spilled over into shared media on Facebook and YouTube. Although not part of our initial research design, we nevertheless decided that these unintended networks were entirely appropriate as they were generated by the excitement of collaborative fieldwork and civic engagement. But we needed to re-frame our methodological and ethical considerations to include these networks.

Certain communities and fieldsites such as our collaborative work with the Sharp Leadenhall community are amenable to a networked anthropology such as this. For others, the networked sharing implied in this method may be entirely inappropriate. It works best when reciprocal sharing is at the heart of the relationship: anthropologists would like to generate ethnographic data using a variety of multimedia tools, while interlocutors would like to appropriate multimedia for their own purposes.

Next Steps for Networked Anthropology

Anthropology by the Wire

A screenshot of the Tumblr blog for our networked anthropology project, “Anthropology by the Wire” (anthropologybythewire.com). Image courtesy Samuel Gerald Collins

As we undertake other collaborations, we have been guided by our previous efforts, and we have worked to cultivate relationships with groups who hold similar interests in networked content. One of the current collaborations we are pursuing originates in our National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates grant entitled “Anthropology by the Wire.”

Anthropology by the Wire places students in a number of collaborative research possibilities with residents of Baltimore. One of these has been to document the impact of a program entitled “City Uprising” sponsored by the JACQUES Initiative to expand free HIV testing at multiple sites throughout the city. The role of student researchers and videographers is to work alongside clinicians, counselors and other volunteers to document the life histories of staff, volunteers and individuals facing or dealing with a possible change in status due to testing. These testimonies are compelling and are key to JACQUES’s mission in the community; producing multimedia around them is an important step in their efforts to attract volunteers and support. As our relationship with JACQUES continues to evolve, we hope to provide regular support for their outreach efforts and to eventually sign an MOU cementing that relationship.

But for this kind of network anthropology to work, IRBs had to be filed at different institutions, and multiple consent protocols followed. But, what if similar kinds of life story testimony had spontaneously emerged between students and residents in Sharp Leadenhall at a football concession stand? Our collaboration with the JACQUES initiative presents a host of methodological and ethical concerns that we need to continuously interrogate.

Lessons for the Future

Network graph of Anthropology by the Wire City Uprising video (in red) showing its modest connectedness (by degree and by centrality) to other video content documenting City Uprising. Image courtesy Samuel Gerald Collins

Anthropologists have always known that people agree to ethnographic research for a variety of reasons, and that these reasons might shift over time. Multimedia anthropologies enjoin projects made up of an assemblage of different interests: community self-identity, communication to different constituencies, building up a profile in order to secure grants and donations. In addition, all kinds of audiences may be consuming these media on social media sites for their own purposes, and these become an oftentimes highly visible form of secondary production.

Networked anthropology engages groups of people and communities that are already savvy producers of media, and that already have structures in place for self-representation. As in any ethnographic research, networked anthropology demands an ongoing process of informed consent, but the communities involved in multimedia anthropology may already have robust (though perhaps misinformed) ideas about how their goals might be advanced through social media.

Unlike traditional, text-based production, networked multimedia continues to multiply and mutate even after the anthropologists have packed up their iPads and gone home. Once materials go online, the networked life of those materials cannot be predicted, although it can be channeled. Careful metadata descriptors, narrative descriptions and creative-commons licensing at least work to constrain future appropriations.

Despite its pretensions to large-scale universality, most web 2.0 applications are not viewed by millions; the vast majority of web 2.0 content circulates among small-scale networks of users, and that’s fine with us. In fact, this is one of the characteristics that separates networked anthropology from the work of marketers and publicists; the point is to make useful connections and build a network of interested parties around a specific project or a series of local issues. And this is an ongoing process. Multimedia anthropologists are really building institutional commitments with communities: networked commitments with multiplying nodes and edges.

Samuel Collins is professor of anthropology at Towson University. He researches information society and information and communication technologies in the US and South Korea. His present work examines the urban as the confluence of people and social media.

Matthew Durington is an associate professor of anthropology and director of international studies at Towson University. He specializes in visual and urban anthropology with research on indigenous land rights, race, housing and other issues in both Southern Africa and the United States. 

Copyright 2012 American Anthropological Association, originally published on Anthrosource.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

David Graeber, Debt and SF

A fascinating post by Jo Watson about why David Graeber's Debt: The First 5000 Years is popular among sf readers on the Tor.com wesbite. 

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Networked Futures in Busan

From Wikimedia Commons, courtesy Michiel1972

In a sociological tradition stretching back to Durkheim, the city represents the apogee of alienated life, with residents adopting a variety of strategies to cope with their anonymity and to preserve their privacy amidst multitudes of other residents. Especially important are techniques for managing contact in public transportation—trains, buses and subways—where interactions are simultaneously intimate and anonymous. Those strategies include ways of looking, but also a variety of technologies that urban-dwellers adopt to avoid contact with others: newspapers, books, and, in more recent decades, a variety of technological devices, including MP3 players and smartphones.

But while analysis of these techniques and technologies has revolved around avoiding contact, it may be more useful to think of them as techniques for relating to the anonymous city—for initiating contact through differentiated interactions. All of these technologies, including subways, books, buses and smartphones, can be said to enable a certain construction of place: a networked knowledge of the city that connects to people and space in particular ways. As we become more urban, these technologies are quite likely to increase.  The future, then, may bring new excesses of anomie, but it will also result in new ways of networking to place and people.

This is certainly the case with Korea’s largest city (Seoul) and its second-largest (Busan), both with highly-developed subway systems and ubiquitous computing infrastructures that ensure that residents will never spend an instant unplugged from various social networks, even as they navigate complex, transportation networks above and below ground. Living in the city means initiating and managing relationships in time and space while in constant motion. Some analysis has suggested a “bang” (room) culture that constructs a variety of “third spaces” between home, work and school, but the ubiquity of online social networks means that these liminal spaces can also be mobile--appended to the cityscape during the course of everyday perambulation. 
This is particularly evident in the profusion of social networking software and social apps available for smartphones, including ones available for setting up bling dates  (소개팅)and managing appointments, locative mobile social networking (LMSN) utilizing GPS in order to pinpoint friends and potential contacts amidst an urban scape, as well as locational games that overlay the Korean city with digital game networks. These can mean novel ways of associating, and even new forms of politics. For example, the candlelight vigils following the liberalization of beef imports in 2008 have been seen as a watershed in Korean politics because they involved a preponderance of school-aged girls, and because they were organized through online social networking.

Ultimately, this may say something about the development of urban living as not only a contemporary phenomenon, but as a bellwether for urban futures around the world. However, the profusion of applications and the near-universality of the hand-set in Korean life don’t necessarily signal a “break” with the past and the emergence of a new way of urban living. Rather, the focus on the network discloses the networked character of the city, as shifting assemblages of connected urban systems rather than as a static tableau of spaces. Life networked to the city through the smartphone doesn’t so much initiate new forms of living as re-invent the urban as the elaboration of networked technologies—as the creation of new lines of flight focused on transportation and communication technologies. 
This has important consequences for the study of the future. First, the profusion of smartphone applications and social networking suggests an immanent social critique—the projection of a utopian ideal over the grit of the real city. That is, the popularity of these forms of networked socialites suggests the production of multiple “invisible cities” over the existing one, the analysis of which may suggest the direction of urban futures. Second, although the Korean city construed as an assemblage of transportation and communication suggests ways of living and interacting that may be particularly Korean, it also signals urban futures for other parts of the world where these systems are not yet as developed, including urban spaces in the United States where IT infrastructures have not yet reached the level of integration of Korean cities.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Baltimore Syndrome

wikimedia commons: Iracaz (talk). Original uploader was Iracaz at en.wikipedia

In the March 2012 Wired, an article on the Jerusalem syndrome, the religion-related psychosis associated with visits to Jerusalem ("The God Complex").  The article doesn't really develop any new angles on this culture-bound syndrome, but its appearance in Wired is important.  My thought: while we may never travel to Jerusalem, our future will be the Jerusalem Syndrome.  Now that we have crossed the tipping point of urbanization (over 50% of the world's population as of 2007), all of us have an opportunity to be overwhelmed and enraptured by our urban lives: the Baltimore syndrome.

Generally speaking, discussions of the Jerusalem syndrome devolve into a discussion of religion, psychology and (more recently) neuroscience.  That's certainly the case with the Wired essay (it's the limbic system!), but there are several interesting asides here, especially those moments that move beyond psychologism to the power of the city:

The Old City is a mosaic of sacred spaces, from the al-Aqsa Mosque to the Western Wall of the Temple Mount to the well-trodden stones on which Jesus supposedly walked.  Like every city, it's the combination of architecture and storytelling that makes Jerusalem more than just a crossroads.  Great cities, the places that feel significant and important when you walk their streets, always rely on stagecraft--a deftly curving road, finally wrought facades, or a high concentration of light-up signage can all impart a sense of place, of significance.  (Nashawaty 2012: 117)
That is, psychology aside, there's a lot coming together in a city like Jerusalem: discourse, place, architecture, history.  Something, in other words, more akin to genius loci, the spirit of place, then to the overactivity of the limbic system.

But does this "complex" only exist in Jerusalem? Many point to the "Paris syndrome,"  where it's the art and architecture of the city that overwhelms.  And, indeed, the psychological anthropologist Yoram Bilu seems to locate the power of the city in the depths of its history: "The city is seductive, and people who are highly susceptible can succumb to this seduction.  I'm always envious of people who live in San Diego, where history barely exists" (117).  But this seems unfair.  People in San Diego (or Baltimore, or Busan) live suffocated under the overdetermined weight of the city--its spaces, its discourses, its histories.  Of course, if this triggers some "syndrome," then it is a syndrome of humanity, with a majority of us living in urban areas.

What this "Baltimore syndrome" needs is not a neuroscience of religious psychosis, but something more along the lines of Benjamin's ruins, a way of apprehending the city that bring together the assemblage of discourse, time, self and space--a cultural analysis of the spirit of place.  We will all be "overwhelmed" by the spirit of place; that is, the city will continue to bring us up against assemblages that overwhelm the self.  We will variously sink under the waters of the city's deep significations. Of course, very few of us will exhibit symptoms deviant enough to warrant professional help, bit all of us will need to understand the genius loci around us.


Nashawaty, Chris (2012).  "The God Complex."  Wired (March):112-117.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Future Day and Songdo (송도국제업무단지 )

Songdo Under Construction, Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

March 1 is the inaugural celebration of Future Day, and it's got me thinking about urban futures again.  On my futurist bookshself at the moment: Aerotropolis, by John Kasarda and Greg Lindsay.  It's a business book, really: breathless descriptions of fabulous capitalists and the globetrotting edge cities they build.  I'm reading it because South Korea's Songdo is a poster child for this vision of the future.  At 7 miles from Incheon International Airport, this massive development on land reclaimed from tidal flats is supposed to represent the city of the future--a networked hub with near-immediate access to most of Asia, hard-wired for ubiquitous computing, and constructed for minimal levels of car pollution (although building a new city from scratch surely caused some pollution!).  Songdo will join other poster-cities for globalization, including Dubai and Shanghai.

As Kasarda and Lindsay point out, Songdo, and the many aerotropolis-like encampments in China and Southeast Asia, takes globalization as a mode of production as its organizing principle--both in its design and in its function.  It's all about circulating capital; and it's built to circulate capital and the humans that serve it in the most efficient way possible, from high-rise apartment to subway to airport and back.  They wonder "whether we will consciously choose to live in cities built in globalization's image--machines for living linked in great chains and tasked with specific functions: factories, farms, headquarters, hospitals, and hubs" (p. 13).  Living in Songdo means defining oneself according to flows of capital--living at the the vertiginous heights of advanced capitalism.  

Is this "the future"?  It's certainly one version of urban futures.  But I wonder if Songdo and Dubai are the only places "built in globalization's image".  An alternative possibility on the other end of the globalization scale: temporary housing fashioned from discarded cargo pallets.  The idea here is to utilize pallets discarded from

Pallet House, OpenArchitectureNetwork.org
cargo shipments (including international aid shipments) in order to build temporary (yet sturdy) housing for the enormous mass of refugees and urban poor.  This is another future certainly, but not one reflected in Songdo's design.

Similar to the "appropriate technology" debate in anthropology and development in the 1960's and 1970's, we see here a division: graceful, gated, LEED certified aerotropolises rising out of ground in Asia, squatter- and refugee settlements for the poor in the Global South.  Similar to solar ovens and composting toilets--clever technological hacks, but hacks for those on the other end of capital flows.

As David Harvey, Mike Davis and many others have predicted, the tendency for globalization is to develop according to a power-law distribution of wealth.  Both rich and poor are embedded in global movements of capital, but at opposite ends.  But living in Songdo means that this "other" globalization (what Gordon Mathews suggestively terms "low-end" globalization) is never visible, even though the "high end" spires and parks of Songdo very much depends on the contributions of the "low-end". Songdo--as a city of the future--suggests another future for the city: the ideological division of the world by social class, the networked hubs for the wealthy developing apart from globalized spaces for the poor.  If this seems like the inevitable future, then it is only because we have already (although perhaps tacitly) accepted the logic of these spaces of exception. 

But if we're choosing to live in globalization's image (or, indeed, if we have no choice in the matter), then we might choose a built environment that embraces (at least symbolically) more of the global supply chain.  Devoting a city of flows of financiers and computer programmers represents one end of that, but what about the massive cement industry that supports the spires of Songdo (Korea is the world's fifth largest producer of cement)?  And what about the host of other goods and services that move through, borne not on airplanes, but on trains and cargo ships? 

Globalization layers on inequalities after inequalities.  In terms of urban life, one of the most glaring: enormous amalgams of surplus capital to those states that can afford it (or, in South Korea's case, merely underwrite it), and make-shift re-use and re-purposing for an enormous cross-section of global poor.

Contrast this to Keetwonen, a massive student dormitory complex in Amsterdam fashioned entirely out of re-purposed shipping containers.  While denizens of Amsterdam's Keetwonen are hardly helping the world's poor, they are--at least in a symbolic way--engaging both ends of the supply chain.

If we're to build in globalization's image, then I am advocating a Jane Jacobs approach.  A future city that consciously connects with global flows at multiple ends--that includes multiple reminders of globalization's inequalities and builds accordingly. 

Keetwonen: the largest container city in the world

Monday, January 30, 2012

Apocalypse Now

 Maureen McHugh's 2011 collection of short stories, After the Apocalypse, is a devastating window onto the conditions of bare life--the reduction of self to homo sacer, humans evacuated of any rights until only their bare corporeality remains to be regulated by the State (Agamben 1998).   Each of the stories takes up the question of the apocalyptic, but not from the Hollywood perspective--there are no bombs, tsunami, alien invasions.  Instead, McHugh explores everyday life in the wake of disaster.  And, little by little, we're led from this novum to the realization that we are, in fact, living after the apocalypse: in the wake of successive catastrophes of capitalism, greed and environmental degradation.

This is certainly the case with the second story in the collection, "Special Economics".  In a post-bird flu pandemic China, workers are in short supply, and Jieling makes her way from the provinces to Shenzhen to find her fortune in a factory.  The foreign bio-tech factory where she eventually finds work, though, isn't just interested in exploiting microorganisms--it also wants to exercise total control over workers.

Jieling said, "I though the government was supposed to help workers.  If we get caught, we'll be fined, and we'll be deeper in debt."  [ . . .]

 "Debt?" Mr. Wei said.
"To the company," she said.  "We are all in debt.  The company hires us and says they are going to pay us, but then they charge us for our food and out cloths and our dorm, and it always costs more than we earn." (58)

References to bird flu pandemics aside, there is little here that isn't simply based in today's news.  Recent scandals involving workers in factories contracting with Apple have underscored the exploitation and coercion of capitalism in the age of globalization.
What's makes McHugh's work a fine piece of anthropological science fiction is this attitude towards apocalypse.  "After the Apocalypse" is not about endings, nor even closure.  Instead, it directs us back in time to the apocalypses we're living right now.  That is, the apocalyptic thinking McHugh develops here is a way of interpreting the present and reflecting on the powerful inequalities, structural violence and exploitation in such a way as to unearth the apocalypse of bare life today.  Here, apocalypse is not so much an event as a temporality that moves according to its own progressive calculus of exploitation.

In the final story in the collection, "After the Apocalypse," Jane and her daughter Franny are refugees in an economically broken United States, gradually losing pieces of their middle-class life as they trudge towards Canada.  But, as McHugh reminds us, "Things didn't exactly all go at once" (171).  The "apocalypse" here is a gradual process of loss and displacement that (formally) starts with a dirty bomb explosion and gradually deepens through power outages and an exodus of refugees.  But, with Jane, the apocalypse starts much earlier, in her own experiences with family and boyfriends: the ways she's used people and the ways she's been used.  Her eventual abandonment of her daughter is thee culmination of that apocalypse:

She stays out of sight in the morning, crouched among the equipment in the back of the pickup truck.  The soldiers hand out MREs.  Ted, one of the contractors, smuggles her one.

She things of Franny.  Nate will keep an eye on her.  Jane was only a year older than Franny when she lit out for California the first time.  For a second she pictures Franny's face as the convoy pulls out.

Then she doesn't think of Franny.

She doesn't know where she is going.  She is in motion.  (188)
That is, the "dirty bomb" apocalypse directs us back along a thread to the apocalypse of middle-class desire, the engine that set in motion growth of the suburban sprawl, with all of its pathological alienations. 

In other words, McHugh's collection conjures an apocalypse that leads us back into social critique, but also forward to social alternatives.  It's the consciousness of living the apocalypse that leads many of McHugh's protagonists to critique the status quo, as in the story "Honeymoon".  Having survived a drug trial gone horribly awry and collected her money as a human guinea pig, Kayla goes with her friends to Cancun on vacation.  But it's not enough to soothe her disgust with an economic system that keeps her in a perpetual condition of bare life.

I overheard two girls talking.  They were thin and blond, and it was clear that they had never worked in McDonald's in their lives.  The one was saying to the other, "I don't know if I want to come back here anymore."

The other one asked where she wanted to go instead, and they talked about Hawaii or Miami or something.

I hated them.  I don't know why; they were probably nice enough.  But I just hated them.  I thought, I almost died to get here.  (145-46)
 That visceral disgust is a first step in social change; these are the conditions for the organic intellectual.    

This is a compelling vision for anthropological science fiction.  Developing a hermeneutics of the apocalypse means drawing genealogies of exploitation, markov chains of power, that extend back into history and forward into a murky, dystopian future.  In the tradition of anthropology, McHugh develops a way of seeing that is grounded both in critique and in an understanding of everyday life.