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E-workshop on digital and media anthropology starts now!!

September 28, 2010

** via Media Anthropology Network mailing list **

Dear All

Welcome to our e-workshop on digital and media anthropology!

As I said in a previous announcement, we thought it would be interesting to continue on this mailing list the face-to-face conversations we had during the recent EASA conference in Maynooth (Ireland). So from now until Tuesday 12 Oct we’ll be holding an informal e-workshop right here on some of the key questions arising from both sessions. The idea is not so much to review what was said and omitted in Maynooth but rather to take some of the questions that were left hanging in the air at the conference and use them as a way of thinking collaboratively about issues of interest to people on this list.

I’ll now give you a brief overview of two of those EASA panels, namely the media anthropology [1] and the digital anthropology [2] panel, followed by a set of suggested questions for further discussion, with many thanks to Philipp Budka, Heather Horst, Daniel Miller and Mark A. Peterson for their invaluable feedback and to all of you who participated in the panels (see also numbered links below).

The aim of the media anthropology panel (convened by Philipp Budka and myself) was to explore ‘a crucial aspect of mediated practice, namely its rewards (cf. Warde 2005). As contemporary social worlds become ever more media-saturated […] questions arise about the considerable amounts of time and money that many individuals and groups appear to spend using, learning, sharing and making all kinds of media technologies […]’. This issue comes at a time when both in the news media and in popular scholarship we constantly hear stories about the dangers and abuses associated with ‘new media’ (e.g. Facebook, computer games and virtual worlds) and, more rarely, about their emancipatory possibilites (e.g. of Twitter, Wikipedia, mobiles…). Paper presenters addressed this question of media rewards through a wide range of empirical examples, including mobile phones in poor countries, computer game modifiers (aka ‘modders’), Silicon Valley families and their digital practices, amateur photographers, activist bloggers, cultural heritage content creation, Bollywood tweets, indigenous online music, radio production in Benin and ethnographic film-making.

The digital anthropology panel [2], co-convened by Heather Horst and Daniel Miller, was held the following day. The call for papers asked the following: ‘How can anthropology contribute to an understanding of the impact of new digital technologies? This session explores topics ranging from how digital technologies become part of everyday life to their role in the development of new infrastructures within both commerce and the state’. In this case, the ethnographic examples included digital music production, hackers, location-aware objects, digital technologies in Muslim Southeast Asia, cultural websites in Tanzania, mobiles and theft in Mozambique, mobiles and activism in India, Web 2.0 and immigrants in Ireland, Spanish bloggers, and a digital archive in Aboriginal Australia. According to the conveners, these papers were organised into a morning period devoted to issues arising from ‘a more self-conscious sense of becoming a digital world’ and an afternoon session ‘directed more towards the wider field of anthropology’.

I can’t do justice here to the richness of the materials presented at the conference. Instead I’ll merely suggest a few issues raised during or after the presentations that stretch across both panels and that we may want to talk about in the coming two weeks:

  1. As Mark A. Peterson commented via email apropos the first panel, there seems to be an interesting tension between what Alan Warde (2005) calls the intrinsic vs. the extrinsic rewards of a practice, e.g. radio production, game modding or ethnographic film-making, that is between the pleasure and enjoyment of performing a given practice in its own right and the external rewards (money, prestige, fame…) that may derive from it. Perhaps we could explore this tension further. Under conditions of swift socio-technical change, when specialist domains of (digital) practice are in a state of flux, how do digital practitioners navigate and shape the ‘rewardscapes’ available to them?
  2. Kerstin Andersson wondered about the usefulness of this ‘rewards of practice’ approach to media ethnographic research. Do we really need it? If so, what for? Tentative answers included: Yes, it allows you to explore what people actually do with (digital) media, especially young people, beyond the current obsession with how wasteful and dangerous these technologies are (Horst). Yes, you can follow the practices (Ardevol et al) and the practitioners (Osorio and Postill) with an open mind and see where they take you.
  3. Daniel Miller proposed at both panels the new term ‘polymedia’ (see also his blog post with Mirca Madianou [5]). As the cost of new media for millions of people around the world continues to drop, Miller and Madianou see the emergence of ‘an unprecedented media ecology which […] makes the social and moral aspects of media choice increasingly significant at the expense of the technological constraints and affordances’. For many, the emphasis has shifted from ‘the constraints and affordances vis a vis a particular medium to an emphasis upon the social and emotional consequences of choosing between a plurality of media. The mere situation of polymedia changes the relationship between communication technology and society’.
  4. A number of papers, especially in the digital anthropology panel, explored the materiality of digital practices. The intriguing notion of ‘digital materiality’ could be discussed further? How does it relate to ongoing discussions in cultural studies and elsewhere about the political economy of digital labour?

You are all now most welcome to post your thoughts directly to the list, […] (if your post doesn’t get through to the list, please let me know off-list before reposting!).

To keep the flow of posts steady but manageable, I suggest we aim for 3 to 6 posts per day max. and that no single participant posts more than 4 times in total.

May the workshop begin!

John

Useful links:

[1] Media anthro panel: http://bit.ly/bNgFxG
[2] Digital anthro panel: http://bit.ly/cs0Nli
[3] Philipp Budka’s conference report:http://bit.ly/bPlB7e
[4] Heather Horst and Daniel Miller’s conference report: http://bit.ly/cTdtoG
[5] Mirca Madianou and Daniel Miller, Polymedia, Material Culture blog, http://bit.ly/cXrvpf

Reference cited:
Warde, A. 2005. Consumption and theories of practice, Journal of Consumer Culture 5: 131-53.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. cheryl hansen permalink
    September 28, 2010 2:34 pm

    First of all I want to say thank you for putting this together. I am a graduate student doing research on digital media and cyberculture and really appreciate the opportunity to participate in this open and diverse forum.

    • September 28, 2010 3:30 pm

      You’re welcome. Please feel free to throw in a comment or two to get things started!

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