In our recent discussion of hackers and cheaters, Huon Wardle writes,
If I were reinventing anthropology... I would have to invent an anthropology that could deal with culture on a wired planet.
I rather snippily replied that this project is already underway. I think instantly of work by Biella Coleman, Tom Boelstorff and Alex Golub ("Rex" on Savage Minds), who have studied hackers, virtual worlds, and online gaming. A particular favorite, however, is Christopher Kelty's Two Bits.
In Two Bits Kelty introduces the concept of the "recursive public," a public he defines as follows:
A recursive public is a public that is constituted by a shared concern for maintaining the means of association through which they come together as a public.
The prototype of the concept are geeks.
Geeks find affinity with one another because they share an abiding moral imagination of the technical infrastructure, the Internet, that has allowed them to develop and maintain this affinity in the first place.
The key point about geeks is that they, both individually and collectively, are able to directly modify the infrastructure on which their world depends. Since arbitrary change would lead to chaos, geeks have developed mechanisms for determining what is or is not an acceptable change. There are channels through which changes are presented — not simply as proposals but as code — to others who can evaluate and critique them and, once their acceptability is demonstrated, legitimize their inclusion in the the technology that encompasses and sustains the geeks' moral universe.
When I stop to think about the original definition, however, I find myself thinking of other publics than those involved in creating, hacking and modifying software. What of Asian peasants who for thousands of years have been constructing and maintaining the irrigation systems on which wet rice agriculture and, thus, their ways of life depend? What of the visionaries and engineers responsible for railroads, highways, and other transportation systems? A closer look will, I am sure, reveal both strong similarities and differences between these publics and the geeks that Kelty writes about.
Please add new cases and share your thoughts.
Thanks for bringing this up in a creative way, John. It is the core of what the OAC is about and, for all our achievements as a network, we could do with thinking more about practical ways of achieving this goal.
Clearly we need to learn from what is out there and most of it comes out of the US. But it is not just a question of immersing ourselves in the literature. Stretching Huon's remark, I think he was alluding to anthropology as inevitably at some level a personal project. Anthropology would be impossible if we were not each a human being in the first place. This gives us access to a vast cultural repertoire that we potentially share, but we can only do so by starting from our own experience. This is something that most education systems deny.
We are always unconsciously shaped by old ways of doing things that we need to be more aware of when we try to do something new. The old universals (western empire, the catholic church, bourgeois economics) suppressed cultural particulars, but we have to recognize that human universals can only be realised by privileging the cultural particulars that constitute each of us.
It is true that we are living through special circumstances that we need to understand intimately for what they are if we are to find ways forward. But I agree wholeheartedly with your plea to place this moment in a diverse history that links us to much longer run human experiences of communication. We also need a conceptual framework with which to make comparisons. In The Memory Bank (available freely online), section of chapter 2 'The origins of the communications revolution', I made a start, but this issue could go anywhere.
What are digital and analogue forms of measurement? Yes how did the adoption of iron technologies change things for most of us? Above all, what was the agricultural revolution and how do we relate to it as we try to make sense of it in a wired world?
Our best method for reinventing anthropology is to participate actively in the digital communications revolution, to make the most of the opportunities and to learn from making them central to our practice. That is a project that you, Huon and I, as well as most OAC members, share. Thanks again.
It was published by Profile, London in 2000, republished by Texere, New York in 2001 as Money in an Unequal World. Yes I should have included a caveat on the status of its contents. It was written just before the collapse of the dot com boom. Go figure. In any case, ALL my academic friends, when asking what the book was about, recoiled from my suggestion that we might benefit from the internet if we can learn how to use it and don't destroy it first: but it is so unequal, hardly anyone can reach it, the big companies have already taken it over in order to manipulate us. We are all pawns in the latest capitalist conspiracy. A rerun of their attitude to TV half a century earlier and even now. On US breakfast TV and NPR pushing the book after the crash, interviewers were saying things like "Now that the internet is over..." So I stuck with my line that we might be able to make good use of it for ourselves if we learn how and that it was still the most important and positive development of our lifetimes. The original dominance of a few western countries will be soon superseded by globalization
I should have included in this post a warning that the facts were often dated. I don't recant from my optimism, even if historical circumstances change. I couldn't write and teach otherwise. But I am a realist too and pretty well informed. Like the Arab proverb "I think I will live forever, but I could die tomorrow". I operate a side line in FX trading and it doesn't get more up to date than that. I have scores of more recent reflections and even facts about all this on my website. But the passage I pointed to takes a long-term comparative perspective and may be more durable.
So I put unequal world in the title, warned readers that this was based on a very early stage of the phenomenon, but the internet was the fastest breaking medium in world history
'If I were reinventing anthropology... I would have to invent an anthropology that could deal with culture on a wired planet.'
Before we charge off into hyperspace with the idea that I wrote that, it is in fact a direct quote from the conclusion to a startlingly prescient essay by Sol Worth published in 1971 in Reinventing Anthropology --- he was basing his argument on the potentials of cable television in the 70s; decades before the internet as we now think of it was invented.
You mean getting our wires crossed, John? (get it...)
One of the problems with OAC set up is that people can be writing messages unaware that the other person is too. This happened here too -- Keith wrote a message, but I didn't see it until after I had posted mine and the page reloaded.
Sol Worth, Keith Hart... I just want to flag up here what looks like a fascinating book by Radek Trnka and Radmila Lorencova -- Quantum Anthropology. There are relevances to Rethinking Anthropology in a wired world it seems to me. Radek Trnka contacted me with the details having first read a forum thread here on the OAC in which we discussed 'Quantum Mechanics for Anthropologists' (opened by Mikhail Popov) back in 2015 http://openanthcoop.ning.com/forum/topics/quantum-mechanics-for-ant...
Here is a taster of some of the intriguing application of quantum (and other) ideas in the book:
At the beginning of a new social form, individual thoughts,
ideas, actions, and initial beliefs start to interact with each other.
The fluctuations of thoughts and communication flows have a
character similar to the perpetual interactions between microparticles.
It is the perpetual vibrating of elements that is permanently
creating emergent qualities on a higher level of analysis, e.g.
shared cultural standards or norms in the case of social systems.
These initial interactions move toward some kind of strange attractor.
The patterns in the distribution of values, preferences,
imaginations, and expectations within an emerging social system
are the initial conditions also responsible for the future differentiation
of the social aggregate, and these initial conditions represent
the basin of attraction (Arrow and Burns, 2004).
The pattern in the distribution of values, preferences, imaginations,
and expectations, called the basin of attraction, permeates
also through the particular social field (Bourdieu, 1977).
Because of the patterned basin of attraction, individuals do not
live in a completely unpredictable environment. Field-specific
rules enable individuals to anticipate and predict future tendencies
and opportunities with certain probabilities. It is the way of
decreasing uncertainty for individuals acting within particular
social fields. Although the initial stages of cultural existence are
typical by a relatively high uncertainty shared by the members of
a culture, the so-called initial collective uncertainty, this uncertainty
is gradually lowered as the shared system of field-specific
rules becomes formed. This does not mean that from this time,
the stability of a system is guaranteed, but we can at least say that
safety-protecting mechanisms have been developed in a system.
It is necessary to emphasize that the qualities of a culture are
not the simple sum of thoughts and behaviors of the individuals
acting in the social field. There are also emergent properties that
we are not able to extrapolate from the individual actions. Such
emergent phenomena are often not possible to be explained using
classic causality, i.e. as a linear relationship between some
factor and its subsequent effect.
I have often pointed out that quantum, the biggest breakthrough in scientific thinking and practice of our era, was ignored by 20th century social science, including anthropology. It is not as difficult, at least the principles, as most people think. I have benefited greatly in my thinking about the internet from Heidegger's take in his late metaphysics, which is based substantially on quantum. But Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrodinger and the others are more accessible. You can learn a lot from the exchange between Bohr and Heisenberg in Michael Frayn's play, Copenhagen.
So I have often wondered why not even a handful of anthropologists have taken it up before. My conclusion is that modern social science is not at all scientific, but rather an ideology, a way of persuading young people that society is incomprehensible and that there is nothing they can do about it that would make a meaningful difference. In other words, most of the time we look the other way and worry about how to keep our jobs (or get one) without rocking the boat.
This latest collection on Quantum Anthropology does look interesting and, as Huon says, might contribute to our discussions on this thread. It is available as a free pdf at various places online and is starting up as a discussion on academia.edu (which I am finding a very useful medium at present and complementary to our efforts).
A quick internet search pulls up the information that the first U.S. transcontinental telegraph message was sent from California in 1861 and read 'May the Union be Perpetual':
British imperial telegraph relays. Note the clustering of connections in southern Britain. Some hubs have 'instantaneous automatic retransmission':
2015 "Quantum mechanics for anthropologists " and after.
Quantum cross-disciplinary field is rapidly changing now. In 2015 when we in OAC have discussed post EP introduction in some Oxford style, quantum anthropology has been thought of as an attempt of dialog between community of anthropologists and community of mathematically speaking quantum physicists. I tried to identify similar problems for the both communities. However, like in any field work we must have some elementary language understanding in order to have taking communications with Other seriously...
Speaking quantumly wave-function and so-called "collapse of the wave-function " can be merely applied only in microworld, but not in our classical world. This means, real Schrodinger cats cannot exist because any experiment with superposition of cat simply can kill ( high temperature) living organisms.... In other words, all assumptions on quantum effects in macroworld usually represent public myth. Some macro effects like superconductivity qubits are possible indeed, but not Cats, Cultures, etc.
Nevertheless, there is beautiful area of some Futuristic Anthropology where anthropologists can use non-physical imagination to predict mankind future in long term space travels , Martian colonies, etc
Re quantum mechanics itself, the following remarks by Isabelle Stengers (Cosmopolitics II, p. 99) should be considered.
It may be concluded that physicists' questions and misgivings do not refer primarily to any "grand ideas," to realism, determinism, or any others, but to their own constructions, which read in terms of requirements and obligations. In no way does quantum mechanics challenge the "existence" or a "reality in itself." Rather, what is challenged is the relevance of the requirements of quantum mechanics when expressed in terms of statements that bring quantum objects into being (let there be a quantum system represented by a wave function . . . .). But, in answer to this challenge, the definition of requirements that would restore the possibility of defining quantum objects belongs to physical-mathematical inventiveness, and is relative to its historicity. There can be no question of physicists starting from scratch, of contemplating the world with fresh eyes, of escaping a history that does not belong to physics alone.