The digital revolution and me

Mohandas K. Gandhi’s critique of the modern identification of society with the state was devastating. He believed that it disabled citizens, subjecting mind and body to the control of professional experts when the purpose of a civilization should be to enhance its members’ sense of their own self-reliance. He proposed instead that every human being is a unique personality and participates with the rest of humanity in an encompassing whole. Between these extremes lie proliferating associations of great variety. He settled on the village as the vehicle for Indians’ aspirations for self-organization; and this made him in many respects a typical twentieth-century nationalist. But what is most relevant to us is his existentialist project. If the world of society and nature is devoid of meaning, each of us is left feeling small, isolated and vulnerable. How do we bridge the gap between a puny self and a vast, unknowable world? The answer is to scale down the world, to scale up the self or a combination of both, so that a meaningful relationship might be established between the two. Gandhi devoted a large part of his philosophy to building up the personal resources of individuals. Our task is to bring this project up to date.

Novels and movies allow us to span actual and possible worlds. They bring history down in scale to a familiar frame (the paperback, the screen) and audiences enter into that history subjectively on any terms their imagination permits. The sources of our alienation are commonplace. What interests me is resistance to alienation, whatever form it takes, religious or otherwise. How can we feel at home out there, in the restless turbulence of the modern world? The digital revolution is in part a response to this need. We feel at home in intimate, face-to-face relations; but we must engage in remote, often impersonal exchanges at distance. Improvements in telecommunications cannot stop until we replicate at distance the experience of face-to-face interaction. For the drive to overcome alienation is even more powerful than alienation itself. Social evolution has reached the point of establishing near-universal communications; now we must make world society in the image of our own humanity.

Each of us embarks on a journey outward into the world and inward into the self. Society is mysterious to us because we have lived in it and it now dwells inside us at a level that is not ordinarily visible from the perspective of everyday life. All the places we have lived in are sources of introspection concerning our relationship to society; and one method for understanding the world is to make an ongoing practice of trying to synthesize these varied experiences. If a person would have an identity — would be one thing, one self – this requires trying to make out of fragmented social experience a more coherent whole, a world in other words as singular as the self.

Kant is the source for the notion that society may be as much an expression of individual subjectivity as a collective force out there. Copernicus solved the problem of the movement of the heavenly bodies by having the spectator revolve while they were at rest, instead of them revolve around the spectator. Kant extended this achievement for physics into metaphysics. In his Preface to The Critique of Pure Reason he writes,

“Hitherto it has been assumed that all our knowledge must conform to objects… but what if we suppose that objects must conform to our knowledge?”

In order to understand the world, we must begin not with the empirical existence of objects, but with the reasoning embedded in our experience itself and in all the judgments we have made. This is to say that the world is inside each of us as much as it is out there. Our task is to unite the two poles as subjective individuals who share the object world with the rest of humanity. Knowledge of society must be personal and moral before it is defined by the laws imposed on each of us from above.

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Michael Wesch , an assistant professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University, well-known for his inspiring YouTube lectures and documentary shorts, has received over a hundred applications for his graduate course in ‘digital ethnography’ from around the world. The only problem: no such course exists. Wesch teaches undergraduates and has organized a ‘digital ethnography working group’ for them; and that’s it, so far. But millions have seen his creations on YouTube and people want more of it. The world is changing all around us and anthropology must try to keep up, not just because we study this world as anthropologists, but because our students live in it and they are rapidly leaving their teachers behind.

The new communications technologies are blurring the boundaries of our disciplines, transforming the content of education, spawning new genres and sites of research, demanding fresh intellectual strategies. And contemporary academic institutions act as a brake on our ability to engage with all this. Anthropology as a discipline has not yet grasped the potential of this new world. When we contemplate anthropology’s future – and indeed whether it is to have one — we need to think again about its scope, reach and impact, about the audiences we wish to address and how. This last is the main point of the story I intend to tell here. For reasons that I hope will become obvious, it is a story of my own encounters with the digital revolution as an anthropologist.

We are living through the first stages of a world revolution as profound, in my view, as the invention of agriculture. It is a machine revolution, of course: the convergence of telephones, television and computers in a digital system whose most visible symbol is the internet. It is a social revolution, the formation of a world society with means of communication adequate at last to expressing universal ideas. It is a financial revolution, the detachment of the virtual money circuit from production, linked to the West’s loss of control over the world economy. It is an existential revolution, transforming what it means to be human and how each of us relates to the rest of humanity. It is therefore also a revolution in anthropology that will make everything we have done so far seem like the prehistory of our discipline.

Oswald Spengler observes in The Decline of the West that the world historical moment you are born into does not need you; it will carry on with or without you. But still he offers a challenge to his readers “Do you have the courage to embrace it?” So too with this revolution: you can engage with it or you can hide from it. And every person’s trajectory is particular to them, even if some common outlines can be glimpsed as the revolution unfolds. Obviously, I hope that my experience will have wider resonance for our discipline; but that is for others to say. In any case I have published many programmatic tracts and lectures on my website and elsewhere.

My education was designed by James and John Stuart Mill to train recruits for the Indian civil service: Latin, Greek and algebra, with memo-writing and oral fluency thrown in. Unfortunately for me, the Indians took leave of the empire just as I was starting out. I never warmed to the typewriter. All that whiting out of mistakes was too messy for me. I depended on fierce Scottish matrons to type up my hand-written manuscripts. We both knew where the power was in this relationship and they made the most of it. So, when I was introduced to word processing in the early 80s, I seized my chance for liberation. More than that, I realised that I could become an artisan, designing my own layouts as well as the content.

Email was made in heaven for me, an oral/written hybrid, between a letter and a phone call. I still love the fluency of the medium, although internet chat is in real time. Then I discovered desk-top publishing and produced beautiful pamphlets, adding the roles of editor and publisher to my new craft identity. Next I started a mailing list, the amateur anthropological association or ‘small-triple-a’ (motto: ‘amateurs do it for love’), that flourished for a couple of years and lingered on after that. Today children grow up with mobile text messaging and Nintendo DS at hand; while the rest of us struggle to keep up with the latest innovations from Google.

Even then I realized that I had some of these initiatives the wrong way round. Desk-top publishing was alright, but the problem was distribution. How to improve on the system of putting something on a bookshop shelf in the hope that someone would find it there and have the cash to pay for it? I flirted with introducing the eighteenth century subscriber system amplified by an online data-base of interested readers; but I was already too far down the route of standard print publishing. The mailing list was dominated by a small group of friends at Cambridge; professionals and students tended to write as academic anthropologists do; so that the outsiders I wanted to attract were repelled by what they took to be a jargon-ridden clique. But Prickly Pear Pamphlets and the small-triple-a each expressed what I wanted from the medium in their own way. The point was to embrace the new technologies and to discover at first hand the opportunities they offered.

At about this time, in the mid-90s, the World Wide Web was making the internet more visual, personal and interactive. For two years I headed a Cambridge committee to explore the uses of audio-visual aids and information technology for teaching and research in the humanities and social sciences. People said there was no point in Cambridge University entering this brave new world; we were too old-fashioned and places like Middlesex Polytechnic had much more experience with online techniques. But I argued that over the centuries we had accumulated lots of beautiful stuff that could become a rich internet resource. In any case the digital revolution is not a linear development. Everyone enters it with their own bundle of specific advantages and drawbacks at a particular moment in time. The technology evolves, so that early users may be too adapted to older techniques, while latecomers can make more creative use of software that requires less specialist knowledge than before. The society made by the machine revolution is a river and you can never step into the same river twice.

I asked myself what I could possibly give to the young geeks who helped me keep a toehold in this revolution. I decided that it was ‘history’: I have been around since the Second World War and I have a vision of history that they don’t. I am also a teacher whose aim is not to clone myself, but rather to persuade my students to let me hitch a ride on their lives, since they are going places I could never reach by myself. I also became more self-conscious about my role as a network entrepreneur. What could I offer individuals if my enterprises had no money or prestige? They had to be given a job that they couldn’t do elsewhere. Maybe they fancied trying out graphic design: I got an amateur product, but it was free; and they acquired the experience. I had to accept that, if they no longer gained much from what they did or had more pressing things to do, they would leave. So I also worked on the value added by the collective constituted by the network; this thing had to be cool or hot or both at once! I found these methods at first through my internet-related activities, but I soon adapted them to my academic practice (teaching, running a centre etc); and the two spheres cross-fertilized each other in many ways.

As we approached the millennium, with the dot com boom roaring away, I wanted to write a book that would sum up thirty years of teaching and point forward at the same time. My first attempt was a textbook, Anthropology and the Modern Economy. But I found it depressing: it contained nothing of what I had learned as a journalist, consultant, publisher, administrator and gambler. So I withdrew the manuscript from the publisher. I couldn’t locate myself in my own book! Then I asked myself what it is about us that future generations will be interested in and remember. The answer was, obviously enough, the digital revolution. I imagined that we were like the primitive digging-stick operators whose scratching inaugurated the agricultural revolution. They hadn’t a clue that it would all end up as Chinese civilization. Nor do we know where this thing is going. But our stumbling steps into this new world will have significant consequences for those who come later. I asked what I might have to say about it and I hit on the topic of an old lecture about money that had a minor success. So I wrote The Memory Bank, a book about the implications of the digital revolution for forms of money and exchange.

This was the trigger for the next stage of my engagement with the internet, a personal website (this one). It was intended at first as a vehicle for promoting my book, but it evolved over the next decade into becoming my blog. It isn’t really a blog, even now, since most of the posts are full-length essays and my various attempts to make it more interactive never took off. It is a shop window for my writings. It feels great to bung whatever I have just written out there in a couple of minutes. And now it has quite a lot of video footage, mainly of my lectures. Without a series of devoted helpers I would be nowhere in this revolution. But I have to say that I have come on quite a long way in the last 15 years and so has the internet. I now do a lot more for myself than I once could and the software grows more user-friendly all the time.

And so to the last few years, to the social networking revolution and Web 2.0: Google, Myspace, Facebook, Digg, Flickr, Twitter, Stumbleupon, Flock, Wave and all the rest. This is the heart of the revolution I want to join. I love Twitter for the chance to project myself as an editor of sorts, sending the best economic journalism from Europe to American traders, gold bugs and currency freaks. I meet an interesting class of anthropologists there. And I hone my subediting skills on the 140-space limit. Social bookmarking really turns me on. Classification of knowledge was hitherto done by experts and every piece of information had its unique place in a folder somewhere. Now tagging makes it possible for anyone to leave a mark on something they like or consider useful and you can find their guidance with increasingly sophisticated software. The people are generating the categories; and even a search engine like Google is becoming obsolete because its millions of hits are impersonal, less attuned to the user’s own profile.

Insertion into all this has sharpened my appreciation of the sociology involved. Twitter divides people into followers and followed. For those of us brought up on Fascism and Stalinism, all the talk of leaders and followers that animates Web 2.0 is something of a turn off. But I recall that when the Latins invented ‘society’ to describe their aspirations for collective order, the word they used had as its root sekw-, meaning to follow. If anyone was attacked, the others agreed to support them in battle. The hierarchy was temporary. Well so too on Twitter. The idea of society as a state with fixed boundaries came a lot later. The new social networks are personal and unequal; they often have a commercial feel that puts off many intellectuals. But there is something exciting going on that it would pay us to understand and use. For some time now I have studied alternative approaches to money, especially the community currency system known as LETS, and they have not yet found the right combination of social and technical principles to help them take off. I am convinced that Twitter would be an ideal platform for complementary currencies; but I will be too busy writing about it to be the organizer.

I have left the anthropology of all this implicit so far. But this year, just as a result of joining this phase of the revolution, an unanticipated chain of events led to the launch of the Open Anthropology Cooperative. A handful of friends began discussing on Twitter the possibilities for an anthropology network. The talk moved to the forum of my website for discussion at greater length. Someone suggested trying NING and I jumped in. An administrative team drawn from the launching group has supervised its explosive growth in the first few months. We already have over 2,000 members from an amazing diversity of backgrounds. They include faculty, postgraduate students, undergraduates and outsiders to the profession (genuine amateurs!). Half our 500 visitors a day come from the USA, Britain and Canada (in a ratio of 4:2:1), but the next batch make interesting reading, in order: Portugal, Germany, France, Brazil, Georgia, Italy, Greece, Australia, Switzerland, India, Netherlands, Sweden, Turkey, Norway, Mexico, Spain, New Zealand. We have well over a hundred discussion groups (some of them in Spanish, Portuguese, German, Italian, Russian and Norwegian), blogs, a forum, a wiki repository, the OAC Press (in which I take a particular interest), a seminar series and personal pages in all their multimedia variety. Anyone can start anything on the OAC and many of them do! Our members vigorously defend their independence from bureaucratic interference, but we have managed to get some minimal rules generally accepted.

People ask me how I find time for my work with all this stuff. But, since exchanging Cambridge University for a Paris chambre de bonne 12 years ago, I have doubled my rate of publication over that of the previous three decades. My productivity as a writer benefits enormously from being online 12 hours a day. I can check anything in a fraction of the time. I stay at my work station longer when I can answer an email message there, keep an eye on a football match, surf the OAC for the latest developments. Sometimes the speed and diversity of my online connections generates a wave motion that carries my writing into unexpected regions of discovery. If this is the virtual social life, it will do for me. Bring on the revolution!

We already know that fieldwork will never be the same again as a result of the digital revolution. But what can anthropologists, with our supposed expertise in social relations, do more generally to help shape the future of our institutions in this context? Our students, readers and the people we study will expect to be engaged through these new means of communication. For some this will be an uphill struggle. We must move from monologue to dialogue, from guild disciplines to the kind of lifetime self-learning that the internet affords. The universities now lag behind the students in terms of media literacy. The ‘edupunk’ movement, armed with user-friendly digital technologies, rejects the forced imposition of outdated software systems that universities have spent millions on. The latter now also face a threat to their monopolies when teachers extend their classrooms to non-university students. Anthropology has always been something of an anti-discipline, sitting uneasily with academic bureaucracy. We have a lot to gain, professionally and as human beings, from opening up to this revolution.

What have I learned from all this? I could quote from the introduction to this website: The two great memory banks are language and money. Exchange of meanings through language and of goods through money are now converging in a single network of communications, the internet. We must discover how to use this digital revolution to advance the human conversation about a better world. Our common task is to make a world society fit for all humanity. And anthropology is indispensable to such a project, but what will it take to join it? Michael Wesch offers some reassurance:

“Understanding human relationships within this new mediascape will require us to embrace our anthropological mainstay, participant observation. […] Now we need to participate in the new media in order to understand the forms of sociality emerging in this quickly changing mediated world.”

But is it as straightforward as that, a whole new territory to investigate with the tried methods of fieldwork-based ethnography? By situating my personal story of engagement with the new media in a context of world revolution, I want to suggest that, while this is indeed a wonderful opportunity to join the people and reflect on the experience, anthropological understanding of what we are living through requires much more than an updated version of ethnography. The Victorians knew they were living through a revolution and so they adopted world history as their principal method. The nation-states of the 20th century encouraged a more fragmented and static perspective on the human condition. If we recognize once more that we are living in revolutionary times, we will at least have to mend the rupture between world history and ethnography that gave birth to the modern discipline. We might even turn to autobiography as a method too.

Or we could just sing along with Dai Cooper, a Canadian graduate student, who recorded herself on webcam and put ‘The Anthropology Song: a little bit of Anthropologist’ on YouTube where it soon became a viral video. ‘Maybe nobody has better explained what anthropology is all about’, enthuses Lorenz Khazaleh, whose anthropology news blog,, is the best around. Dai says, “I wanted to be able to express all the reasons why I love and am inspired by anthropology”. Welcome to Web 2.0 and pay attention, because the world is already there!

Comments |2|

  • Keith Hart: “I have studied alternative approaches to money, especially the community currency system known as LETS, and they have not yet found the right combination of social and technical principles to help them take off.”
    Jct: Just like a bicycle, the technical principles of LETS are not the problem, it’s users failure to ride it right that’s the social problem.
    “I am convinced that Twitter would be an ideal platform for complementary currencies”
    Jct: Facebook, Myspace, Yahoogroups, personal accounts like my
    It’s the adoption of the Time Standard of Money that will link all the world’s small community currency anti-poverty lifeboats into one supership where every gets born with a life-support ticket.

  • We have developed a virtually delivered real-time complementary currency trading system that operates seamlessly alongside a national currency. Unlike Groupon however which decimates retailers margins our system turns a merchant discount into a tradable currency which is then sold as a goods and services backed derivative to the consumer market. There is a $2T global market out there for such a complementary currency to run alongside national currencies, thus supporting ongoing purchasing power and wealth preservation.

Category: Anthropology | World