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Internet and cultural diversity: a brief annotated bibliography

December 8, 2009

In a comment to a previous post of mine on the Internet and cultural diversity, Lusine has asked for some bibliographic references that may help her with an essay on this topic. I’m a bit short of time at the moment, so here’s just a preliminary – and very tentative – list of readings to get a conversation going (as always, further suggested readings most welcome):

Anderson, Chris (2006). The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More. New York: Hyperion

From the author’s blog: “The theory of the Long Tail is that our culture and economy is increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of “hits” (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail. As the costs of production and distribution fall, especially online, there is now less need to lump products and consumers into one-size-fits-all containers. In an era without the constraints of physical shelf space and other bottlenecks of distribution, narrowly-targeted goods and services can be as economically attractive as mainstream fare. One example of this is the theory’s prediction that demand for products not available in traditional bricks and mortar stores is potentially as big as for those that are. But the same is true for video not available on broadcast TV on any given day, and songs not played on radio. In other words, the potential aggregate size of the many small markets in goods that don’t individually sell well enough for traditional retail and broadcast distribution may someday rival that of the existing large market in goods that do cross that economic bar.”

Aunger R (2002) The Electric Meme: A New Theory of How We Think. New York, NY : The Free Press.

Aunger calls for a rethink of our received ideas about social transmission. Over the course of human cultural evolution, he proposes, memes evolved the capability of spreading from one brain to another by means of signals. Because signals are merely ‘air-pressure fluctuations or series of photons’ (p. 237) they cannot carry memes along with them. Instead, they are ‘rabble-rousers’ that operate on other brains not through construction but rather by instigating conversion from one state to another using local materials. This entails micro-changes at neuronal levels, e.g. by flipping a neuron from state A to state B. In a nutshell, while the idea of a car may well be a meme, the spoken word ‘car’ is a signal. With the development of modern media technologies such as books and computers, memes have found indirect yet powerful new channels of distribution. These artefacts have co-evolved with memes by providing the latter with catalytic signals that allow them to be recreated within brains that may be far removed in time and/or space. See J. Postill review here.

Boellstorff, T. (2008) Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

For the author, the 3D virtual world Second Life (SL) is not a simulation; it may approximate aspects of reality for purposes of immersion, but it does not seek to replicate the actual world. SL is not a social network comparable to Facebook or MySpace – it is a place. SL is not a posthuman world; in fact, it makes us more human. SL is not a sensational new world of virtual Californication, virtual money that can be exchanged for real money, etc; more often than not it is place where everyday banal forms of interaction take place. SL  does not herald the advent of a Virtual Age that will sweep aside the actual but an Age of Techne with continuities as well as changes with what came before. Humans have always crafted themselves through culture (homo faber). What is truly unique about SL and other virtual worlds is that they allow the emergence of homo cybers, humans who can craft and recraft new worlds of sociality in a virtual ‘third place’. In SL you can find friends and lovers, attend weddings, buy and sell property: you cannot do that inside a TV programme or a novel. This is why an ethnographic and holistic approach adopted in this study has worked so well, because virtual worlds are ‘robust locations for culture’, locations that are bounded but at the same time porous.

Bräuchler, B. (2005) Cyberidentities at War: Der Molukkenkonflikt im Internet. Bielefeld: transcript.

From an Ethnos review by J. Postill: “One central area of analysis is the question of online identity formation […]. Bräuchler is particularly interested in processes of online identity formation and community building (Vergemeinschaftungsprozesse). She demonstrates empirically that such processes are far from homogeneous, as they will vary greatly depending on the specific Internet technologies being used (MUDs, IRCs, web forums, etc) and the socio-political context. She rightly stresses, however, a fundamental difference between individual and collective identity projects. Whilst the online identity performances celebrated by postmodern theorists in the 1990s allowed individuals much room for playful experimentation, the online collective identities sought by Moluccan activists were strongly constrained by their subordination to political and military imperatives. In wartime, playfully ambiguous identities are not in high demand.”

Chevalier, S. (1998). “From woollen carpet to grass carpet: bridging house and garden in an English suburb“. Material Cultures: Why Some Things Matter. London: University College Press.

Provides material culture evidence for the distinctiveness of  national cultures in two long-established European states: “Nature in appropriated by transformation: in France and Britain, the externalities of temporalities and mediations are different. The differences between the kitchen and the garden follows the differences between lineage and couple. Lineage is embodied in the use of land in France, by contrast to the short-term use of land by British couples. The French express couple-relations and affections through cooking, the British through gardening (as a continuation of home decoration)” (1998: 67)

Diamond, J. (1997)  Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. W.W. Norton & Company.

Jared Diamond has been under such fierce cricitism in recent years (particularly at the hands of anthropologists) that it is easy to overlook the crucial point made in this book: the urgent need for anthropologists and human scientists to attend to the geographical and environmental dimensions of cultural differentiation over long historical periods. Wrongly accused of geographical determinism, Diamond in fact argues that geography affords (it does not determine) certain cultural innovations but not others. For example, Australia afforded its early human settlers – known today as Aborigines – ample land but no domesticable plant or animal species. The first domesticated species were introduced by European settlers who in turn had acquired theirs millennia earlier from West Asian immigrants.  

Hallin, D. C. (2005) Field theory, differentiation theory, and comparative media research. In Benson and Neveu (eds) in Bourdieu and the Journalistic Field. Cambridge: Polity.  

Differentiation theory – a fundamental approach to the history of media production – has a number of limitations, esp. ‘the assumption of a universal trend toward greater differentation’. Bourdieu’s field theory is more helpful here, for it does not assume ‘whether media move over time toward differentiation or de-differentiation’ (2005: 240-241). (See tree-like model of cultural evolution in Mace et al 2005, this blog entry).

Hine, Christine (2000), Virtual Ethnography, London: Sage.

Hine suggests that in cultural terms we can understand the Internet in two different ways: (1) as culture, (2) as cultural artefact. The first approach focusses on studying the construction of bounded ‘online communities’ in their own right. This largely ethnographic endeavour was an improvement with regards to early ‘reduced social cues’ models of computer-mediated communication (CMC) studies, but it tended to overstress the separateness of online worlds from everyday offline contexts. The second approach – the Internet as a cultural artefact – treats the Internet as being thoroughly social, a product of the struggles and negotations of variously positioned social agents.

Kelty, C. (2008) Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Free Software (FS) is all about practices, not goals or ideologies. This book is on cultural significance of FS. By studying FS and its modulations (appropriations in other fields) we can understand better wider issues like porn, stock quotes, Wikipedia. Kelty introduces term ‘recursive public’ = specific kind of C21 public sphere or commons where geeks modify and maintain the very technological conditions (infrastructure) of their own terms of discourse and existence. FS not just about software, it is part of ongoing global reorientation of power/knowledge. Three main contributions of this book are empirical (geeks caught ‘figuring out’ things), methodological (ethnographic + archival) and theoretical (recursive public vs. Habermas, Taylor, etc.).

Mace, R., Holden C., Shennan, S. (2005) The evolution of cultural diversity: a phylogenetic approach. Walnut Creek, CA:  Left Coast Press.

Contributors use a Darwinian approach to explain the rich cultural diversity found within the human species from prehistoric times to the present. They explore the idea that cultural diversification may be tree-like, i.e. phylogenetic, e.g. material as well as non-material culture is inherited by descendants, languages are hierarchically related, etc. On the other hand, in other respects, they add, cultural evolution is not tree-like: cultural inheritance can be vertical, horizontal and oblique; there is plenty of cultural borrowing about; etc.

Miller, Daniel & Slater, Don (2000) The Internet : an ethnographic approach. Oxford: Berg.

Based on short-term fieldwork in Trinidad where Miller had previously done research. Authors argue against 1980s notion of ‘cyberspace’ as a placeless realm. Instead they locate Internet practices in their everyday contexts. They do not subscribe to the ethnographic notion of ‘appropriation’ though: Trinidadians are not merely ‘appropriating’ an alien technology – they are active co-producers of new social technologies and practices as members of our common global society (albeit non-metropolitan). The Internet is a true Trini phenomenon, as Trini as calypso and TV soaps. My response: there is no diffusion without appropriation (and vice versa).

Postill, J. (2008) Localizing the internet beyond communities and networks. New Media and Society 10 (3), 413-431,

Internet Studies has so far relied too heavily on the etwined notions of ‘community’ and ‘network’. We need to broaden our conceptual lexicon to capture some of the rich diversity of Internet-related social formations and practices that we find on the ground, not least at the level of neighbourhoods and localities.

Postill, J (in press, Jan 2010) Researching the Internet, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

A review of four recent anthropological studies of the Internet (Boellstorff 2008, Hinkelbein 2008, Kelty 2008, Roig 2008; search through this blog for details). Considered together, these studies suggest that the Internet is becoming ever more (sub)culturally diversified and that no ‘network logic’ (or totalising logic of another kind) is at work.

Postill, J. (forthcoming) Localizing the Internet. Oxford: Berghahn.

An extended version of the argument put forth in Postill (2008) that draws from anthropological fieldwork among Internet activists and other local agents in Subang Jaya, a middle-class suburb of Kuala Lumpur.

Rogers, R. (2009) The End of the Virtual: Digital Methods. Amsterdam: Vossiuspers UvA.

The Web epistemologist Richard Rogers asks how we may rethink Web user studies were we to turn to data routinely collected by software, e.g. by Google. Web has become increasingly ‘grounded’ throughout this decade, e.g. IP-to-geo technology allows France to channel content along national lines: when you type ‘google.com’ into a browser in France you are now returned to google.fr by default. Granted that we’ve moved beyond the 1980s idea of a placeless ‘cyberspace’ and towards more fruitful ethnographic methods, we now need to ‘follow the medium’ and adopt more Web-specific methods that take seriously Web objects such as tags and links. ‘Web epistemology, among other things, is the study of how these natively digital objects are handled by devices’ (2009: 29).

Shirky, C. (2008). Here comes everybody: The power of organizing without organizations. New York: Penguin Press.

From Wikipedia: “In the book, Shirky recounts how social tools such as a blogging software like WordPress and Twitter, file sharing platforms like Flickr, and online collaboration platforms like Wikipedia support group conversation and group action in a way that previously could only be achieved through institutions. In the same way the printing press increased individual expression, and the telephone increased communications between individuals, Shirky argues that with the advent of online social tools, groups can form without the previous restrictions of time and cost. Shirky observes that every, ‘institution lives in a kind of contradiction: it exists to take advantage of group effort, but some of its resources are drained away by directing that effort. Call this the institutional dilemma–because an institution expends resources to manage resources, there is a gap between what those institutions are capable of in theory and in practice, and the larger the institution, the greater those costs.’[3] Online social tools, Shirky argues, allows groups to form around activities ‘whose costs are higher than the potential value,’[4] for institutions. Shirky further argues that the successful creation of a online groups relies on successful fusion of a, ‘plausible promise, an effective tool, and an acceptable bargain for the user.’[5] However, Shirky warns that this system should not be interpreted as a recipe for the successful use of social tools as the interaction between the components is too complex.”

Sperber, Dan. 1996 Explaining culture : a naturalistic approach. Oxford: Blackwell.

Sperber outlines a new theoretical and empirical programme: the study of culture from an epidemiological perspective. Steering clear of the problematic notion of ‘memes’, he seeks to conceptualise cultural representations (anything that stands for something else: a text, a play, a picture) and what makes the evolved human mind predisposed towards acquiring and transforming certain representations and not others. As far as I know, this programme has yet to find its way into Internet Studies.

Tuzin, Donald. (2001) Social Complexity in the Making: A case study among the Arapesh of New Guinea. Routledge.

The history and evolution of Ilahita, a village in New Guinea. Riveting story of how Ilahita came to get so big, and the organisation innovations that evolved to counter schismogenic forces.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. December 8, 2009 7:21 pm

    I am not an anthropologist but neither is Jared Diamond for that matter. For those interested in a Marxist critique of this character who just wrote an op-ed piece in the NYT lauding Walmart, Coca-Cola and Chevron’s dedication to the environment, I suggest this article by Jim Blaut that was included in “8 Eurocentric Historians”:

    http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/Blaut/diamond.htm

    My own articles on Diamond are here:

    http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/my_ecology.htm

  2. Lusine permalink
    December 10, 2009 2:46 am

    Hi John, thanks so much for posting this bibliography. Will do my best to find some of the books ASAP (I am familiar with 2-3 of them already).

    The most confusing in all the discourses of the problem of Internet and cultural diversity, is that online and offline cultures are mixed.

    Are we talking about diversity on the Internet or the cultural transformations in real life in local communities (indigenous communities)? Or do we assume that online activities absolutely reflect the real life?
    If we see Trinidadian websites manifesting their culture and national identity on the Web (which represents small community of Geeks who create or maintain the websites), does it mean that social life in Trinidad is not affected by use of mobile, internet or other advance technologies (or any other culture)? Isn’t the way of social organization, lifestyle and maybe way of thinking changing (becoming more homogenized) in the age of new technologies?
    I guess there are no clear answers to these questions which makes me even more confused. 🙂

  3. December 13, 2009 10:06 am

    Thanks Lusine

    These issues are indeed complex. Perhaps it’s best not to use oppositions such as ‘real life’ vs. ‘online activities’, though, as Internet scholars have reminded us throughout this decade. The conversation we’re having right now, for instance, is as real as a phone or face-to-face conversation, it is just being mediated differently.

    Online realms – like all social realms – cannot be reduced to the logics and particularities of offline realms, and vice versa. This is a point well argued by Boellstorff in his Second Life ethnography. Thus you cannot expect the interactions found in an online poker game to be pale reflections of those of an offline poker game – even if the former originated as a ‘remediation’ of existing face-to-face templates.

    I’ll have to continue later re: cultural diversity, I have offline obligations to attend to!

    John

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