Commentary and Discussion on the Digital Form Curated Collection

Contributors

Christopher Kelty, University of California, Los Angeles, Anthropology

Gabriella Coleman, New York University, Media, Culture and Communication

Karen Strassler, Queens College, City University of New York, Anthropology

Discussion

Methodology: To what extent do the material components (e.g. hardware, source code, network protocols) and properties (e.g. speed, malleability, erasability) of digital technology influence the methodologies one might employ to study it?  Is there a specific “ethnographic toolkit” that is particularly well-suited for studying the digital form and related socio-cultural phenomena?

Christopher Kelty

This is such a hard question.  On the one hand, the answer should be an emphatic no.  The practice of ethnography should not be tightly coupled to any particular technology, and especially not those in the thrall of the incessantly new.  There are always better and worse ways to conduct research, and every particular new technology can be assessed in terms of its power or its constraint. But I think it is unfortunately up to each individual to confront and make sense of this practice him or herself.

On the other hand, there are all kinds of new “affordances”— to use the language of digital scholars—for ethnographers to draw on, from the archives of mailing lists (like USENET, which I used in my work) to the ever-increasing archive of Twitter data about events. Anthropologists might find particular archives of this sort incredibly rich and detailed, if it is possible to triangulate events or practices that implicate a particular archive.

There is a larger question which I think a lot of people intuit but no one has answered to my satisfaction, and that is: can one give an ethnographic account of digital media or technology without employing the technologies and practices that one is encountering.  This is in some ways a classic emic/etic sort of question, in so far as one wants to treat the users of digital media as occupying some sort of separate space or place with respect to the analyst or his/her readers.  I find this uncompelling as an approach.  On the other hand, the speed with which these tools and practices change, and their increasing ephemerality would seem to suggest that it is simply impossible to keep up.  Certainly at the rate we publish our research, any claim to understand a technology in terms of itself is going to have been superceded before it can be published.  As such, it would seem wiser to focus on identifying the continuities that make a difference in this domain, not the differences.

I myself have given up on using social media of any kind—either for research or personal purposes, but I have plenty of colleagues who swear by it.  Will it make my research better or worse as a result?  I don’t know. However, I nonetheless take seriously the exhortation to understand how technologies work, how they are constrained and what we can know about them, even if I do not use them in my work.  But I wouldn’t hold the position that one cannot understand these technologies unless one uses them.

Gabriella Coleman

As an anthropologist who researches and writes on geeks, hackers, and digital activism I often joke I resurrected what Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski is said to have ended over a hundred years ago: arm chair anthropology. My research entails an inordinate (some might say sick) amount of time sitting, glued to my computer, sifting through mailing lists, perusing news articles, and doing my best and often failing to follow multiple conversations on Internet Relay Chat (IRC). Last year, during the height of research on Anonymous, I would often spend up to four to five hours online, seven days a week.

Aside from purchasing a comfortable and ergonomic office chair, I am reluctant to identify indispensible components of an “ethnographic toolkit” for the study of digital media. To be sure, there are attributes of the digital world or pieces of software (like IRC) whose properties matter across a wide variety of different types of projects. It is also often the case that studying online worlds means you will often face mounds, reams, mountains, and piles of data, such as thousands of pages of chat conversations or mailing list discussions that can fill an old school, tree ware encyclopedia. It is disorienting, dizzying, and often plain dispiriting to live with such informational plenitude.

Thankfully tools and techniques have helped me with data management. I use Zotero to take snapshots of web pages that one day are here, the next day are gone.  It is great for tagging and searching. I now compile a daily or weekly log where I include notable events, excerpts from longer conversations, and key points, which has been a lifesaver.  Data visualization tools also come in handy.

But what the volume of data most speaks to is the continued need for old-fashioned long-term fieldwork (what Bronislaw Malinowski is credited for inventing). Spending a lot of time online is vital to know what you must hold on to for dear life, what you can discard, and what might be one day be useful. One of the distinctive parts to this type of research, however, is that in contrast to anthropologists who leave their home to go to the field, we don't even have to leave our bed. In some ways this arrangement is easier: there is no visa to procure, no yearlong dog sitting to secure, few domestic hardships, and so on. But in some ways it is harder: you are expected to carry on with life as usual (but that is difficult when you devote so much time to research and everyone starts to think your research is a disease: OCD) and the data assault never seems to end. There comes a point when you must make the tough decision to pull the plug on the most intensive phase of research even as everything you study continues to unfold.

But comparing free software with Anonymous, which are my two primary areas of research, reminds me that the so called digital is too diverse to mandate anything like a shared toolkit (aside from some basic elements). These domains, despite both being populated by geeky types, are in some ways configured so differently, that my research experiences have been in many ways incomparable. For instance, consider issues of access. With free software, it was relatively easy and straightforward to secure—unsurpising given these programmers, advocates, and system administrators are so wedded to the ideals of transparency and access. In person meetings and conferences are central to the social upkeep of this world and became key places for research. In contrast and as their name indicates Anonymous, the global protest movement, is more clandestine. Access has thus been harder to come by and research has felt more like an adventure (and headache). In my forthcoming book on free software I spend next to no time theorizing much less agonizing over my methods (they were quite traditional). In the current book I am writing on Anonymous, the agony of access is central.

I belabor this point because today the category of this digital works ideologically, in so far as it has become a governing and master category corralled to do too much work, packaged with many false assumptions—spectral ghosts that are everywhere and thus difficult to stamp out. Take the first handful of results from an Amazon book query using the word 'digital' which turns up the following titles (and thousands upon thousand more similarly worded titles about a digital age, generation, and moment):  Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World; New Digital Media and Learning as an Emerging Area and "Worked Examples;” Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives. These titles are instructive for the point to the way the digital, whatever that may be, is assumed to have the agency to affect entire generations (and many other things as well).  But what is the digital anyway? Internet protocols? Playing Second Life? Software (a particular piece of software)? Data Farms? Texting? I can go on and on.

This not to say the material properties of particular digital artifacts do not impinge in quite palpable ways to touch and reshape the lives of many across many distinct contexts. They do. But how they matter to research wholly and distinctly depends on the object of analysis and its framing (as Max Weber reminded us so long ago in Methodology of Social Sciences2). For instance, in my study of Anonymous, the role of the system or net administrator who installs the IRC network where many participants flock during operations and where many spend their days and night channels is central to grasp broader ethical dynamics.  But for someone studying the role of privacy among teenagers on Facebook, examining the hordes of system administrators who works for Facebook may have less or no relevance. Instead, privacy settings, and design of the site will play a more important role.

Academics, journalists, and especially pundits not only overstate the role of particular digital tools, like social networking platforms, in political and social life but the category is so general it is often useless for the sake of explanation or analysis; too much is hung on this categorical hook and perhaps my reluctance in declaring a tool kit for digital anthropological work is part of my broader desire to step back from the use of this term and understand it categorical abuse.

Karen Strassler

When “The Face of Money” was in draft form, a reader questioned how I could venture claims about the images discussed in the essay without having interviewed people to ask how they understood and made sense of them. The reader’s reproach, articulating a traditionalist ethnographic critique, raises for me three questions about the adequacy of conventional ethnographic methods when it comes not only to the ethnography of images, but also the study of digital and other forms of media technologies and the practices, publics, and imaginaries they engender.

First, the “naïve” ethnographic critique reveals the limits of ethnography’s traditional logocentric privileging of face-to-face dialogues between ethnographer and informant (and immersion in small-scale, face-to-face communities) as the authentic foundation of anthropological knowledge. Modern ethnographic method, of course, was based on the authority of “being there,” and saw its own reliance on devices of technological inscription as secondary to the primary, authentic experience of “unmediated,” direct interaction, observation, and dialogue pursued by the ethnographer. How then can such a methodology address the technological as anything more than artifice or prosthesis?

How do we “hang out” in a complexly mediated public sphere, characterized by stranger sociality and the swirl of restlessly moving, ephemeral images and texts circulating through multiple media channels? To the extent that image-texts such as those I discuss in “The Face of Money” can be said to produce “publics,” they are often fleeting and fluid, rarely coalescing into a stable or coherent form, and therefore exceedingly hard to locate. Thus it is movement itself—circulation and reproduction—that must become our subject. In thinking about how to track the movements of digital artifacts (that is, image-texts produced by and/or disseminated via digital technologies) I have found it productive to borrow tools from literary theory (key terms: “intertextuality,” “iterability,” “publics and counter-publics”), as well as from those within anthropology working on the ethnography of communication, texts, and archives. Just as anthropologists have productively brought an ethnographic sensibility to bear on historical archives, for example, demonstrating the “content in the form” and revealing the implicit rules that structure and regulate the production and circulation of knowledge, so we can bring an ethnographic sensibility to the complexly mediated public sphere. These approaches must be combined with sensitivity to the materialities and historical and cultural construction of specific media technologies and the wider media ecologies within which they operate. As texts and images travel across and through different media channels, they acquire claims to authority, modes of address, conventions of practice, and circulatory pathways distinctive to those media.

It has always been ethnography’s strength that in-depth immersion, talk, and observation yields “thick” understandings of the taken-for-granted knowledge and implicit structures that undergird people’s way of being in the world. I am certainly not advocating that anthropologists stop talking to people (and a great deal of traditional ethnographic talk and “hanging out” with Indonesians certainly informed my essay). But it is now clear that what we mean by immersion, talk, and observation has to be extended beyond the face-to-face encounter (whether or not “the digital” is our focus).

This brings me to the second problem with the reader’s critique: its reliance on a narrow, dyadic model of “reception” that limits what we know about how people “receive” media messages to what they can articulate about them. To ask informants to articulate verbally what images “mean” may radically distort their embodied and non-discursive experience of and interactions with images, and it reduces “meaning” to an individualized and temporally delimited encounter with a particular discrete artifact. One of my answers to the methodological problem of “reception” is to argue that production is a form of reception, circulation is a form of reception. In my book on Indonesian popular photography, for example, I read the poses and backdrops of studio portraits as evidence of the ways that people take up global media images circulating via films, television, and print media and incorporate them into their own self-presentations. Both the making of these images and the practices that surround them tell us a great deal about the social imaginaries people inhabit. Similarly, in the “Face of Money” essay, I treat the production and circulation of money images (as well as the “talk” they generate both on the street and within the media) as forms of reception; each remediated iteration of money is itself a “reading” or interpretation of money and the social and political relations it emblematizes, and the proliferation of these signs as they ramify and echo across different media is itself evidence of popular engagement.

Finally, the naïve ethnographic critique treats the image as an inert prompt for social action, locating agency in a human subject posited as a discrete entity that exists prior to and separate from the image. It does not ask what kinds of subjects and what kinds of publics might be addressed and interpellated by such images. An alternative starting point is to begin by asking, as WJT Mitchell (2005) does, “What do pictures want?” That is, what aspirations do images materialize, what anxieties do they condense, and what kind of viewers do they cultivate? We could ask the same object-centered question of a social media platform or any kind of software. Taking digital artifacts seriously as the subjects of ethnographic research means recognizing their interpenetration with the intentions and imaginations of human actors. We may follow theorists as diverse as Alfred Gell and Bruno Latour to think about digital images as social agents shot through with the intentions of their makers and capable of motivating and provoking action, thought, and emotion. Recent work in the anthropology of images, objects, and media provides ample ethnographic evidence of the impossiblity of drawing clean lines between people and things. To treat digital artifacts as if they were not agentive participants in a social, cultural, historical, and political situation and to treat “meaning” as if its locus were the discrete human subject is to deny this critical insight.

Theory: Scholars in anthropology and science and technology studies (STS) have pointed to an ethics and politics of openness and accessibility at the heart of both the formal components of digitality and the debates surrounding it.  What does digital technology “open up” or make accessible, both ontologically and epistemologically?  Does this opening index – or help to produce - a certain kind of subject?  What boundaries does digital technology make permeable? In what ways does digital technology work to create new boundaries or reinforce existing ones?

Christopher Kelty

One might want to distinguish here between the problem of “openness” and that of “the digital” in order to get some clarity on the issue.  The problems associated with openness and accessibility in IT, science, scholarship or culture are largely issues of political economy to my mind, and in particular the legacies of liberalism and its figuration of the relationship of knowledge to power.  The concern with openness (sometimes also a concern with freedom) as a problem of liberalism is about how the control of information and knowledge structures the relationships of power we have over ourselves and others.  These issues are not specific to the digital, or the digital age, but can be seen in operation from the very origins of liberal political societies.  New forms of knowledge production and circulation—public spheres, print media, radio and broadcast media, national television culture… in every era there is a struggle over the relationship between the power of control over information, knowledge and discourse and the technological structures that produce or circulate it.  Benedict Anderson in Anthropology, Paul Starr in sociology, Armand Mattelart in Communications and more recently Tim Wu in “internet” studies and legal scholarship have all written sweeping histories that show this process at work; indeed, it would seem to be a core obsession of modernity to dwell on the relationship between technological form and political collectives.

The concern with the relationship of the digital to the ontological or epistemological seems to me much different.  The introduction of new phenomenologically distinct orientations (constant chatter, instant access, device ubiquity, individualizing technological frames, etc.) would seem to have some kind of anthropologically interesting effect on subjectivity, and this is a question that has broad scholarly and popular appeal.  People from politicians and teachers to transhumanists and priests want to know if we are becoming “different kinds of people” because of the technology that is rapidly saturating our lives.  It’s a good question, but I am not sure it is specifically related to the issue of openness or access.  Too often it is rendered in suspect evolutionary terms so sweeping that they crowd out any kind of nuanced explanation or analysis. Certainly one would want to try to draw some kinds of connections between the liberal political subject’s relationship to knowledge and power and the role of digital technologies in shaping that subjectivity, but this is no small undertaking.  Indeed, the question may simply be too broad to explore in this way.

Gabriella Coleman

My first answer was long so this can be shorter. Given what I already stated, it should come as no surprise when I say I am quite skeptical of posing any straightforward relationship between the digital and subjectivity although this is exactly what happened in the early, 1990s, hey day of theorizing the Internet whereby many assumed pounding at your keyboard and interacting online engendered some postmodern, posthuman subject (which in many cases is spectacularly false). Thankfully this sort of theorization is less common today and we have moved on to far more specific sets of research questions that examine the relationship between particular digital formats and subjectivity and behaviors.

Narrowing our optic can go a far way in preventing overblown assessments.  We should also marshal empirical research comparatively to question received wisdom being built on narrower research frames. Take for instance anonymity online. It is currently often said that anonymity produces snarky, offensive behavior. This claim can be backed up by solid social science research. But you can still easily find examples, such as the anonymous message board Urban Mommy,1 which do not easily fit this so called truism. Other factors—such as the type of content discussed or the values of a message board—can be as relevant as the base communicative conditions.

As someone who has spent considerable time studying those who insist access is a social good and tied to the properties of digital media, I would like to finish this section commenting on the politics of openness and digital media. It is hard to deny that one of the most important properties of digital content is the ease by which it circulates: digital content almost screams to be copied (and in many instances it is easy to modify). This is one of the reasons why there is so much trucking, trafficking, and bartering in digital content matched by a rich and lively ethical and political set of ideas animating a politics of access from free software in Brazil to the Pirate Parties in Europe to the open access movement in universities.

The properties of digital media in concert with social practices like those of free software have opened up new possibilities to rethink knowledge distribution and sharing in nearly every sector from government to corporations to educational settings. The changes have in many ways been profound and will continue to be felt and tested in the next few decades as individuals and organization invent new modes for distribution, models that in some instances rightly insist on partial access, 2 models that creatively make design integral to content delivery, 3 and models that also realistically assess the cost of offering content digitally. The latter two are particularly salient. It is not enough to throw content up on a blog and expect individuals to flock there. In fact the contemporary landscape of publication is so crowded, one most work extra hard to have new content stand out. And great design matters enormously for securing attention and loyalty. Cost too bears discussion in more frank terms. Another (misguided) idea is that to publish online is cheap and easy. This is true for some publication genres like blogs. But add design, add multimedia, and add a desire to control the content on your server, and costs start to add up. It may be that most of the costs are incurred in the start-up phase (to create customized software and implement the design), which is handy as one might need to simply procure a grant and in-kind support from an academic institution. In the long run costs are perhaps cheaper than print publication and worth the considerable initial effort and investment.

Karen Strassler

I will begin by saying that I do not consider myself a scholar of “the digital” per se, and I question whether and under what conditions “the digital” offers much purchase as an analytical concept. I am skeptical of the attempt to define a priori characteristics of the digital as opposed to other forms of media and technology. As someone who works in the field of visual culture, and who has spent many years thinking about photography in particular, the supposed differences between “analog” and “digital” photography are often more spurious than real. The question of the manipulability of the camera image, for example, is not newly provoked by digital technology, though one can argue that this capacity has been enhanced and democratized. Are the differences between digital and analog photography a matter of degree or do they represent a qualitative, even radical, shift? Have the ideologies of transparency and evidence that have historically attended photography been undermined or enhanced by digital photography? These are open questions that can only be addressed ethnographically, that is, by looking at specific instances rather than by relying on universalizing theories.

With this caveat in mind, my essay in this collection, on the creative reinvention and alternative circulation of “money,” does (cautiously) celebrate the liberatory potentials of media (not exclusively digital!) that empower people to tinker with the materials of their immediate environment, transforming fetishized signs of power into artifacts of the popular imagination. Digital technologies can be powerful tools enabling official emblems to be repurposed as vehicles for the expression of parody, commentary, and alternative visions of political community. Such forms of critique and play are not new, but they have become more widely accessible and less easy to stifle due to the ease of alteration, reproduction, and dissemination made possible by digital technologies. Indeed, as I argue in that piece, the very circulation of these appropriated and revisioned signs becomes a powerful symbol of the ideals of a participatory public sphere and the free circulation of information.

In my work on media and political communication in post-authoritarian Indonesia, I have struggled with the term “small media” (or “minor media”), which is often used as a shorthand for media technologies characterized by amateur production, decentralized (often privatized) ownership, lack of regulation, and horizontal, rhizomatic networks of distribution and dissemination. This term has the advantage of allowing us to group together media in terms of their modes of production and circulation: “small media” can encompass both graffiti and youtube videos, both cassette tapes and blog posts. In my essay, the “big” medium of money (an official emblem of the nation authorized and circulated by the state) is echoed, altered, and countered via the “small” media of painting, political cartoons, photocopies, street protests, and stickers, all of which are popularly produced and circulated outside of official channels (and only some of which depend on digital technology).

But this advantage is also the term’s weakness, because “small media” are defined entirely in relation to “big” or “mass” media (imagined in monolithic, Frankfurt school-terms), and the term therefore tends to assume an a priori oppositional content. In contemporary media ecologies, in which the relations between “big” and “small” media are blurred and entangled, such a dichotomous picture of the media landscape is deeply flawed. Nor, of course, can we assume that “small media” are deployed for liberatory or progressive ends. I am searching for a new kind of theoretical vocabulary that can enable us to account in more sensitive ways for the complex (at times parasitical, symbiotic, and competitive) interrelationships between media technologies positioned differently within a wider media ecology. Bolter and Grusin’s notion of “remediation” (2000) is productive in part because it helps us get at the shifting relationships among media forms (which cannot be known in advance, but must be traced ethnographically and historically). Remediation also draws our attention to how the distinctive properties of a particular medium are ideologically construed in relation to other media and how those properties are variously exploited and extended through specific media practices. The term suggests that “the digital” (including the discourse of “the digital”) is always relational.

Writing/Representation: Can you discuss your own experience translating data on digital technology into writing?  What are some of the challenges you encounter working with ethnographic objects that are “more-than-representational” - to use Hayden Lorimer’s revision of Nigel Thrift’s term (non-representational) – when the “end result” of data collection is a representational form such as the written word?

Christopher Kelty

My data (which I only refer to that way when I am writing NSF proposals) is primarily textual and representational, in the sense that I care about the referentiality of statements more than any formal or substantive analysis.  If I can’t correlate events, statements and documents in some way, then I can’t actually write anything that I feel makes sense, or gives form to something that is difficult to understand.  That said, I had to look up what the talk about “more-than-representational” means, because (and this is not irrelevant to part of question #2 above) there is no longer any warrant for assuming that there is a shared scholarly discussion in the social science and humanities, even among close friends like cultural geography and cultural anthropology.  Contemporary scholarly work has 1) been rendered partially or not at all accessible (an issue of open access); 2) proliferated wildly through the requirements of over-publication and audit culture (an issue of the political economy of the university) and 3) overly individualized and propertized (“Hayden Lorimer’s revision of Nigel Thrift’s term”) rendering the idea of collaborative ownership of concepts apparently inconceivable.  The result is twofold: first, it confines progress in thinking of even the most modest sort to the smallest possible circles of academics; and it sacrifices the kind of cultural authority—if either field ever had it—of shared agreement about and defense of concepts in a public sphere.  I think more about this issue today than I would like to, and so have less time to keep up with research in cultural geography.

In any case, I was nonetheless delighted to engage a conceptual claim I’d never encountered before.  The problem of “non-representational” or “more-than-representational” geography is of particular interest amongst the kinds of sites I study.  One good reason is simply that representing is doing in most online, digitally mediated forms of interaction.  Software programs can be read representationally or pragmatically, and it is a feature of the phenomenological world of the present that we can engage all manner of action-at-a-distance with the insanely powerful devices each of us now has in our pockets world-wide.  This is “more-than-representational” because, for instance, what is interesting about something like mobile money in Africa is not the really the little screen interface that people use, nor the language or graphics that it uses, but the way it cuts and reconnects networks of transaction, kinship and social relation in new ways.  It is, to me at least, more interesting to investigate the political economy of such changes (who regulates the banks in Africa? what kind of “insurance” is emerging around these practices? which kinds of people are made elite vs. those who are “disintermediated”, to use a nice 1990s dotcom buzz word) than it is to focus on the digital-as-such.  People who want to create a sub-field called “digital anthropology” would probably argue with me.

Gabriella Coleman

I remain unconvinced that representing digital artifacts is substantially any different than the type of work we already do, which consists in taking unfamiliar set of ideas, artifacts, and practices and rendering them intelligible and legible for others. Technology is no more or less esoteric, although broader cultural perceptions might dictate they are.

But what is different today is there are such exciting new opportunities at our disposal to supplement and at times exceed the written word. Rich content in the form of images, videos and visualization can enrich and embolden arguments. Multi-media projects can be used in lieu of the written word. Some of these elements such as the addition of videos and images are quite easy to implement (though not necessarily cheap), others, such as multimedia projects are much harder to implement and much more expensive as they require quite extensive digital literacies and skills.

Karen Strassler

This particular essay started as a collection of about 20 images (some of the images that were not included in the 2009 article are now posted on the essay’s supplemental page). I had gathered the images informally during my fieldwork in Indonesia in 1998-2000 and began to weave a story around them, to flesh out their relationships, their history, and their context. To me, the images are not illustrations but are themselves both material and argument.

Although at first glance the essay may appear to be a standard academic journal article, its structure essentially mimics a hypertext slideshow. Each section of the essay is built around an image (or several linked images); it is as if the text is what you read when you “click” on the image. The textbox on art and money functions like a link to a related, but separate, topic. Ideally, if it really were a multimedia hypertext document, it would be far more flexible and responsive to the reader/viewer: you would be able to delve deeper and deeper into the historical resonances and interocular references of each image, and you would also be able to see more examples of each type of money-image, to gain a sense of their relative scarcity and profusion and the range of variation in each iteration. Perhaps you’d see a kind of geographical mapping or a timeline that would give a sense of the images’ movements over time and space. Perhaps readers/viewers would be able to post their own images and text, transforming the essay into an open-ended archive and a space of commentary. What is truly exciting is that this ideal form is eminently possible technically (if not practically within existing constraints of publication venues and tenure requirements).

Anthropology has always dealt in subjects that are “more than representational,” and problems of “reduction” and “translation” have always bedeviled the attempt to convey anthropological knowledge. What is new is not the problem but the potential for addressing it. New media technologies and digital infrastructures make it possible to realize new forms of ethnographic knowledge production that need not be straitjacketed by traditional forms of authorship or by the conventional forms of textual monograph/essay, photo illustration, or ethnographic film. Over time these new forms, which are already emerging (see, for example, sensatejournal.com), will inevitably move from the experimental to the mainstream.