We Have Never Been Digital Anthropologists

We Have Never Been Digital Anthropologists

anthro{dendum} welcomes guest blogger Rebekah Cupitt, contributing the third post in the Private Messages from the Field series edited by Crystal Abidin and Gabriele de Seta.

We Have Never Been Digital Anthropologists
by Rebekah Cupitt

A Chimera painting
“A Chimera” (1590-1610), attributed to Jacopo Ligozzi, from the Royal Collection of the Museo del Prado

Ethnography: A Chimera

Ethnography is the methodological chimera of Anthropology, composed of a snake (the researcher, who insinuates into other people’s lives), a lion (the fieldwork, the daunting practice through which we fall bodily into an ‘other’s’ world), and a goat (the task of writing, that has us consuming our fieldwork experiences, masticating and digesting them into the more palatable documents that we then publish and share). Ethnography is a multi-headed beast with mythical qualities – and I am of course paraphrasing John Law here, who writes that method in the social sciences is a multi-headed beast (Law 2004, p. 4). In this post, I want to foreground the chimeric nature of ethnography because it was only once I situated myself in an interdisciplinary research setting and a technologically saturated field site, that I realized how little the epistemological frameworks and methodological toolkits of digital anthropology had prepared me to make sense of the digital itself.

While all heads of the ethnographic chimera warrant examination, the primary focus of this short blog post is on the lion’s head: The fieldwork experience that roars loud enough to be heard even in other disciplines. How does ethnography shift, change and morph when it is carried out in digitally saturated settings? Here follow some reflections upon my own experiences of doing research at Swedish Television alongside the production team that creates and curates its programming in Swedish Sign Language (SVT Teckenspråk). Doing participant observation and becoming entangled with the people and other entities at SVT Teckenspråk left me considering how the very foundations of ethnography relate to the digital. As a result, I began to wonder whether the notion of ‘digital anthropology’ has not perhaps become inordinate.

The Lion: Fieldwork

Arguably, the fiercest head of the ethnographic chimera is the lion: The practice of fieldwork an ethnography is based upon. In my case, fieldwork included participant observation, interviews, photographs, films – you know, the regular devices of field research. Fieldwork is perhaps the one aspect of Anthropology that, through its sheer dogmatism, stands as the proud figurehead of the discipline. Since the Malinowskian cries about extended periods of “isolated study” in the Trobriand Islands, to the Geertzian occupation of the native’s point of view, and into contemporary debates on the form fieldwork should take (Marcus & Okely 2008), fieldwork has been Anthropology’s primary method of understanding ‘the other’, digital or otherwise. Each field site is distinct, and a first step on our roads to becoming professional anthropologists requires us to navigate our First Encounters and adapt our methodologies as a compulsory rite de passage.

Finding myself in a field site that stretched from technologically saturated editing suites, sound mixing rooms and film studios to equally technological filming locations, video meeting rooms, and the production team’s own computer-centered office spaces, my primary difficulty was fitting my own fieldwork practices and conceptualization of the digital with those of the employees at SVT Teckenspråk. In the daily lives of the Swedish Television’s production team that worked hard on programming in Swedish Sign Language, the digital was unremarkable and mundane.

Photo collage of technologies of television production
Technologies of television production: Tools for collaboration, administration, and creative processes (photo by R. Cupitt, 2018)

At SVT Teckenspråk, technology is important in some settings but unimportant in others; it is new and old in a disconcerting mix. Brand new mixing equipment interfaces with archaic microphones; a top-of-the-line monitor is connected to a 7-year old video-meeting system; someone is running a brand new version of Microsoft Office on an outdated PC, and so on. The definition of new technology is not as fixed as we might assume, and what seems entirely new soon becomes thoroughly old. What we perhaps mean, as anthropologists, when we talk about ‘new technologies’, is that we are ourselves discovering new communication forms that are carried out via technologies that are as new to us as they are to our discipline. At SVT Teckenspråk, the entire workplace was rife with technologies of work – new, old, redundant, essential – all tangled up in one big mess of cables.

However, a conflict arises when a reference to the digital comes to signify a new disciplinary frontier on the researcher’s end: Emphasizing the digital as a way to contribute to the understanding of society at large, and to prove that Anthropology still matters. A scale of possible responses to this contradiction stretches across a spectrum including: The extreme decision to abandon the native’s point of view and depict a field site rife with objects of digital anthropological fascination; a choice to render the objects as conduits for novel human behavior while emphasizing their embeddedness in pre-existing patterns of everyday life; or an equally radical stance that gives up posturing the digital as a new frontier and instead recognizes that the field under study is a place filled with practices much like the one the researcher herself may come from – where technology is inextricably and unassumingly entangled in the everyday. Confronted with this dilemma, I chose the last option, but only after pondering on a critical question: How can fieldwork of the mundane be carried out when the researcher themselves is conceptualizing their fieldwork as discovering ‘new’ sociocultural territory? The implicit futurist and technocentric innovation and pioneering spirit I was surrounded by in my interdisciplinary setting colored the analysis and the tone of my ethnographic text.

Collage of photos of researcher technologies: engulfed by cables, devices, and tools
Researcher technologies: Engulfed by cables, devices, and tools (photo by R.Cupitt, 2018)

We Are Beast

While it is certainly more common in digital anthropology today to side-line rhetorics of novelty, exotic digital practices, and fantastical democratic possibilities that open up new avenues for revolution, carrying out anthropological research in interdisciplinary and technocentric fields of research demands a more considered approach to an ethnography of the digital. At SVT Teckenspråk, everyday work was the production of digital television using digital tools, and communicating was often mediated by digital technologies such as video meeting technologies. I, the researcher, documented, analyzed and wrote about the everyday communication that took place as a part of television production in Swedish Sign Language using digital tools, and was as engulfed by digital technologies as the fellow researchers who studied, designed and developed in the offices and labs right next to my own. There was no end to the digital, and no moment in which it was absent. It was simply there, entangled with people and their everyday lives.

Rather than a new frontier or object of study, the so-called digital has become a companion to the non-digital in the sense that Haraway means when she talks about companion species (2010). The digitally driven cultural revolution seems to have been exaggerated, and we have instead undergone a kind of “symbiogenesis” of the digital and the human (Haraway 2010, p. 15ff). The digital and the human are bonded in “significant otherness”, and to focus on one as a driver of change and use it to explain the other is to miss their critical entanglements and to not take these posthuman relationships seriously enough. This intertwining of technology and the human is well-acknowledged by researchers in STS, techno-anthropology and certain strands of the digital humanities, and yet the continued use of the term ‘digital’ begs the apparently unanswerable questions: If technology is now mundane and its centrality to our ethnographies becomes an analytical artifice or, at worst, a strategy to secure funding, are we still digital anthropologists? Is there still meaning in this moniker? Or is it so that, not only have we never been modern (Latour 1993), but we have never been digital either?

Dr Rebekah Cupitt is an academic precariate currently navigating post-phd life and researching deaf culture, technology and deaf visuality on the sly. She has a doctorate in mediated communication from KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden, and her research generally takes a critical and anti-normative approach to the socio-technical, questions the empowering capabilities and other design fictions that underlie human technologies.

26 Replies to “We Have Never Been Digital Anthropologists”

  1. Because I am now in my 70s, I have lived through the advent of the digital, the period in which it appeared to change everything, and now spend my days in an office where we mostly take it for granted. I am reminded of the idea that Clifford Geertz borrows from philosopher Suzanne Langer at the start of his essay on thick description. There are concepts that burst onto the scene and appear to radically transform everything we take for granted. As examples, Geertz points to the second law of thermodynamics and Freud’s concept of the unconscious. After a while, critics get to work and start figuring out in which particular circumstances they are most useful, and if they are truly great ideas, they become taken for granted tools in every intellectual toolkit.

  2. Hi John, Thank-you for the comment. I agree. It is important not to dehistoricise concepts. This is my history of my experience of ‘digital’, so far… definitely not taken for granted but resolutely everyday.

  3. I don’t know, for me (working with medias and virtual communities) probably the most important was M. Auge concept of Non-places. Yes, of course, we are surrounded by digital, assisted by digital, etc., however the trouble starts when I go to a well established online forum, which does not have any equivalent IRL (in real life), but I refer to it as a “place”. It has “address”, it has “patrons”, it has very specific culture and own history. Also there is a chance that someone will pull a plug soon and it will disappear to the digital oblivion without a trace, just like that. I think things like that are a bit too alien to just call it a fusion of human and tech, we perceive it as “places” and “people”, but are they? Or maybe we simply do not have the language to describe it better? In a way it is some kind of strange social synesthesia, when I see written this (¯·.,¸¸,.·´¯· for an informants name and think about it/him as a person, with imagined picture and character traits. :))) I never met him, I am probably totally wrong in my imagination, I experienced… we can call it, his soul? Yeah, it is confusing enough when you think about it. 🙂

    1. For many years now, I have challenged the use of “community” to describe first brand and now virtual communities. I have asked how many of the members of such communities will attend each other’s weddings and funerals, or show up with a casserole or other assistance when sickness or misfortune occur. More recently I have seen lines blurred in the opposite direction. What I had taken to be stable groups firmly anchored in brick-and-mortar spaces have disappeared after just a few months. I think in particular of the coffee shop in Taiwan where I became a regular last spring. The physical space exists and continues to sell coffee but the woman who ran the shop a year ago and the friends I made are no longer there. Now, as my wife and I stroll around Hsinchu on our first day back in several months, I notice how many of the small restaurants and other shops that I thought were permanent presences are no longer there, replaced by new small businesses.

  4. You know what is interesting? When I did research of the browser based MMO’s sometime just before 2000, those groups of players (alliances, guilds, depending on the game) had a social dynamic very close to what you describe as the community. They did send each other money, they did call people IRL, they, in fact, went at least to the weddings (they were too young to worry about the funeral, most of the time). Other major differences were the ability to talk online about pretty much anything (I remember, there was a Politics forum in one of the games), also a rather elaborate social control system (so not direct ban and kick out of your bubble). I still see some of it in some very old half dead communities, which are there from the early 2000, but at the same time somewhat “forgotten” by the search engines (because they use some ancient semi hacked php forum, self hosting, etc.). Which leaves me wondering, if we took away an ability to get rid of the toxic people (aka ban/kick/ignore), how that would change the social interaction?

    As for the disappearing world… I was born in CCCP and experienced the change when I was 12. I was old enough to vividly remember the soviet, however I was not old enough for it to become “me”. In a way, I have seen the whole world disappear, in 30 years. 🙂

  5. Bracketing for the moment the ontological difference implicit in contrasting real versus virtual worlds, I wonder how ban/kick/ignore works in different contexts,e.g., those in which people cannot or will not go away and those in which severing ties is easy? In terms of IRL cases, I think of siblings or close neighbors who may develop violent antipathetic but remain stuck with each other versus migrants who leave behind small communities to move to cities full of strangers, in which indifference is more to be feared than hostility. When I try to imagine virtual counterparts, I think of the shrinking cores of once more vibrant online communities where a few remain constantly rehashing the same old quarrels. Are there other possibilities?

    1. I am quite not sure, in that sense that I am not quite sure where exactly did we loose the ability to discuss things online, without placing the typical wards of taboo (aka the group rules, where we state that we do not tolerate religion, politics, pornography, reproduction topics, spam and other languages in the group discussion). When I look at the collapse of the certain online communities, quite often I see that a “punishable deviation” becomes more and more obscure over the time (in a rather Durkheim-ish sense), members get kicked out for something minor, also rules become more and more tight, until only tumbleweeds are left to roll in the silence. 🙂

      On the other hand, I also get a feeling, maybe we so blinded by waiting for that “social change” Godot to appear on Twitter (in a rather MacIntyre’s sense), that we totally miss the actual shift of the tradition in the virtual? I think the first sense of that I had back in 2008, when watching Blizzard’s Worldwide invitational live on PC, and there you had that moment, when you hear the first few acoustic guitar cords from a tune from their game Diablo… and there you know, that yes, they are going to announce the Diablo III. A lot of gamers I spoke since, remember that particular moment in time, with its close to a perfect execution, as something that comes close to the religious experience, even now, 10 years later. It did not seem that obvious at the time, but when I look at the current development in that particular genre, World of Warcraft, Diablo, Game of Thrones, Witcher… all of those are big names, all of those are incarnations of the old folklore, to some extend. What I find interesting, is that now we can talk not only about individual creativity in using certain sources, but also about certain culturally shared concepts of magic, or moral norms, or appearances of mythical creatures. Holy magic is golden yellow, unholy is green or black, they form a binary opposition. Shadow magic is black or purple and frost spells are related to water, none have a power of healing. Holy or nature can heal, it is the domain of clergy: priests, druids, shamans, monks, paladins. It is “known”, any kid old enough to use a cellphone should be also able to tell you how the elf or a zombie looks like and what you have to do when you encounter them. Perception? Not-real? Perhaps. It is serious though, creators are accountable for their mess-ups, lore is an important thing, creators have to establish which texts are “canon” (!).

      In retrospect, it probably does not answer a question what are the other possibilities that well… 🙂 But every time I get out my “Horde” wallet and a registry personnel goes “omg how long do you play?” it does have some pinch of virtual freemasonry to it… So I get to think, what if the old narratives are indeed something which is hardwired in our brains and rather defines the inner psychological experiences of the world (in Jung’s sense), rather than being just historical curiosa? What I find also fascinating is that all of that we can call a “male culture” (in a sense of the usual implication that when a tradition wanes, it takes a men->women->children route).

      I am sorry for such a big offtopic to the original post. 🙂

  6. My own view, for what it’s worth, is that there is a finite set of what might be called, following Mary Douglas, “natural symbols.” Most are grounded in conditions built into human bodies (here I nod to George Lakoff in Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things and Philosophy in the Flesh). That said,we know for certain that relatively small, finite sets of mathematical (not anthropological) “primitives” can be used to construct infinite numbers of combinations and permutations. The five Peano postulates get you the infinite set of real numbers, number theory and calculus. The table of chemical elements, to which new tranuranic elements are added occasionally, defines the space of possible chemical compounds, including all of those in human bodies. In another lifetime, the 1960s, when I was an undergraduate, I recall reading geneticist Theodore Dobzhansky remark that the number of possible combinations of genes in the human genome is larger than the number of electrons in the visible universe. Which brings me round to Clyde Kluckhohn’s observation that in some respects every human being is like every other human being, in other respects every human being is like some other human beings, and every human individual is in still other respects entirely unique. The anthropological problem is determining for any particular bit of human anatomy or human behavior to which level of analysis it belongs.

    The problem is further complicated by the enormous scope of “some,” which thanks to humans living in multiple group contexts involves exposure and possibly conformity with several sets of culturally specific meanings/values/symbols. Suppose, for example, you look at me taking a shower on a normal morning at home in Yokohama. In how many different ways is this fat, flabby, 74-year old male body of mixed Scots-Irish-Franco-German descent, a native born U.S. citizen who grew up in a Lutheran family in the pre-Civil Rights Movement South, an anthropologist who stumbled out of academia and into working in advertising, has lived in Japan for over three decades and been happily married for nearly fifty years a typical white male, a “typical” anything?

  7. I think in some ways anthropology/culture studies abandoned a concept of high and low culture too quickly. When we speak about typical, first thing that comes to my mind are the current terms of neurotypical and neurodiverse, which replaced the normal/abnormal in the psychology of children development. It seems that anything truly gifted falls under the abnormal in a sense of brain development and the common rules of social-cultural development do not apply there that well, if at all (so it is a pathology, to put it in a simple way). What is interesting is that it seems to come in a triad of M’s: memory, math, music. As an anthropologist I was sent so many times to the elderly who had at least two of those Ms, exceptional memory and music ability. So there always is a question if what we research is typical at all, in that sense that we might just be collecting a data about a gifted version of the universe and then wonder why our predictions/analysis does not work?

  8. To me “neurotypical” and “neurodiverse” refer to individuals’ conformity with or deviation from Kluckhon’s “resembles all other human beings.” What is omitted from consideration is the resemblances to “some other human beings” that can only be accounted for by reference to membership in social groups or cultural categories. As Bourdieu observes, the boundaries of groups and categories are frequently, if not always, disputed. That said, that such boundaries exist depends on social interaction and overlapping definitions of the situation by those inside and outside the groups or categories in question.

    Differences in custom and habit are as real as differences in genome and neurology, but require different explanations. Thus, for example, the Japanese custom of taking off one’s shoes before stepping up from the genkan (entrance) into a home requires historical explanation, taking into consideration the history of Japanese architecture. Its significance depends on the importance of distinguishing uchi(inside/us) from soto(outside/them) which has long been deeply rooted in Japanese culture. For example, it provides the context in which a senior executive at a Japanese advertising agency described young Japanese as too polite, too averse to conflict, and went on to compare them with his own generation: “We were so eager to learn what others were thinking that we trampled into each other’s hearts with our shoes on.”

  9. Aurelija, re-reading our previous discussion, I am struck by the question “where did we lose the ability to discuss things online.” I wonder, what about offline? I think of classrooms dedicated to rote learning and regurgitating what the teacher teaches, of family and military hierarchies in which “Don’t speak until you are spoken to” is the rule. In a more personal vein, I recall my daughter saying “Too Much Information!” if something said suggests a connection between her parents and sex. I recall, too, many mentions of prescribed and proscribed forms of speech in the ethnographies I have read. In all of these cases, the rules are instilled and reinforced through direct personal contact, authority, anger, and embarrassment.

    Do these mechanisms work online in the same way as offline? How might they differ? And how do they interact with what we might call the “hyper-urban” quality of online spaces, in which, in most cases, strangers briefly interact then drift away?


  10. Well I think here we probably fall into a “in the living memory” trap. I can see two major currents emerge at this point in time (in the West at least), the first one glorifying the time of authority, clear moral norms, honor, restraint (through suffering we get better), suppression through share power and in certain ways, a tunnel vision and violence (lets call it the masculine way), the second one glorifying the time of minorities, moral relativism, nourishing (only pleasant experiences please), suppression through a psychological pathologisation of the undesired behavior and in certain ways, uncertainty and manipulation (lets call it the feminine way). The first ones glorifies the past (the elusive Golden Age), the second ones glorifies the future (the elusive Equal Age).

    Now considering our history of the West, the theoretical question would be why humanity was putting up with the old system for so long? Yes, there are economical questions of course, however, it does not seem that the current changes produce a much happier and much more creative population? Otherwise we would not have the obligatory doomsday notes from pretty much every culture theorist still alive, regardless of where in the masculine-feminine spectrum they are. It seems that instead of enjoying the conflict which is inherited in yin and yang dynamics (the process of the relationship between the elements), we can’t get out of the post-romanticism mire, which at first birthed nationalism as a patriarchal homicidal nightmare and then swung the other way, bringing the multiculturalism (in a broader, sub-culture sense) on top, with the subsequent introverted forms of self-destruction (hence the doomsday feel). Both of them, imho, are good at labeling their side (white-black), but are absolutely terrible at seeing the forest, instead of their own tree(s). Now here the living memory trap happens, imho, because what we remember, in many ways, is one or the other, depending on when we are born and with whom we grew up, however, those might be not the best representations of either side. In other words, we probably do not have, in a living memory, a good example of yin and yang functioning, because our elders were already born in the turbulent times.

    So there we have it, in the digital at least, where we not only scalpel-separated yin and yang to left and right, but now also try to perform a cultural operation and make sure we also get the spots out, or at least paint them over. In a way it brings us to a situation similar to what we try to abolish, the one of the very rigid society, where any progress is very difficult to achieve, because for that we have to get out of our comfort zone (which is, in a way similar to your remark about trampling into each other’s hearts with our shoes on).

  11. Also re-strangers and the urban spaces. Personally I think “a stranger” is more of an inner category than a social label. When we moved to this small village in the Netherlands 10 years back, we did that in a hope “to find a sense of community”, but instead we just accepted we are the weird ones out. It is not that a community is not there, or shut us out, or that we cannot co-exist with it on a practical level. It is that when it comes to the “friendship”, I did not meet anyone here who would come even close to the level of that particular intensity, where the communication is particularly satisfying (I suppose, in Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development sense, which describes the optimal opportunity for meaningful learning). When I think about that experience, I think it is probably very similar to that of many other curious people over the centuries, who gave up on their immediate surroundings and kept elaborate correspondences with their far-away peers. It is not that their environment was less “estranged”, in many cases the opposite, they were a part of a “proper” society, but it was not enough, just like it is not enough in the urban jungle, for the similar reasons, the setting being just that, merely a stage decoration.

    I like to use the folklore analogy when I try to explain it. In a common fairy tale, you have a village, where a hero is born. Then you have a forest, which is somewhat a transitional area, but where some fun stuff can happen. Then, behind the forest, you have a castle, with all the damsels in distress, cursed princes and what not else. Then even further you have things like heavens, hells, fairy mounds and other even more strange places, until eventually there are bottomless pits with the Old Gods of a very Lovecraftian universe sense, aka where going mad is a very viable possibility. So when we speak of someone intending to have a journey, most of the time the hero departs alone from the village, because well, for the majority of people even the Forest is too far away and if they go there, it is just to pick some mushrooms or gather some wood for the fire. In the Forest it is a good possibility that a hero will meet a companion, but a real action usually happens somewhere around the Castle. How further the hero will go often depends on their personal qualities or those of their companions, but in many ways the community is nowhere in the picture, apart of being shortly mentioned as a bunch of annoying snobs (calling the hero names, messing up things with meddling with magical items, etc.). I suppose it is as good explanation as any to what happens in the “urban societies” – yes, there are less pragmatical ties, but in the end the result is the same, if you want some quality communication, start out alone, in the Forest. 🙂

    1. I suppose that depends on the narrative, the personal preferences and the wish to be in a spotlight. :)))

  12. “Narrative,” “personal preferences,” “wish to be in the spotlight”: All seem to me to collapse the argument into consumerist individualism. Is that really the place to begin or end a search for conditions for viable communities?

    1. Well the narratives and personal experiences were there long before the consumerism, we also know the warnings from the ancient wise (wo)men against the traps of fame (spotlight). It was intended as a “light” comment, however, if you look at the Western tale tradition (because it is the one I know fairly well, unlike the Eastern), it is much more rich than Disney princess stories. Take for example one of the swan-bride tales, one way to look at it is through human vs. supernatural. The trouble is, I never encountered a storyteller who actually believed in literal swan brides (of course, his/her ancestors might have had, but that is not the point), non the less, many of them loved that tale. Why? I think it has a lot to do with looking at it through a personal experience, moving far away for marriage, inability to go back to pre-marriage (swan) state, a need to burn the feathers (bridges) in order to feel happy in the new environment, admitting that sometimes it does not work, the impact it has on a family, the difficulties of a long distance relationship (a character has to go to look for the gone bride, eventually) and various outcomes of all of that. Relevant to the modern economical nomads? I think so. Interesting also that in many of the variants the “hero” (or main character, to avoid the confusion with the film “hero”) changes as the story goes, parts of it are told from the swan’s POV (point of view), parts from the man’s POV, also sometimes, parts from the mother-in-law, sister’s, POV. That’s what I meant about choosing the role and the narrative, it really depends on the personal.

      Now where the community comes into this? It is difficult to achieve a good interpersonal relationship without first establishing your own identity, in more simple terms, if one has no idea what he/she wants and what he/she is, it will be difficult to relate to anyone (and yes, there I refer to Erik Erikson and his theory on psychological development of human beings, which, although not perfect, is one of the few we have). Then we have C.G. Jung and the collective consciousness, which also sometimes is sub-split into the cultural consciousness. What if all of this is not socially constructed, like more (post)modern authors would like us to believe, but hardwired (in a sense of sub-conscious bios)? What if the conflict, the suffering, the deviant, the sad are the sub-conditions of the healthy individual and healthy society? What if removal of those creates nothing more than a happy cage? I admit, I do not like behaviorism too much, so I would like to believe, regardless of what neurology and behavioral psychology likes to tell us, that we, in fact, have a free will, however freedom, in many ways, is internal state, rather than a forced upon us “liberation” – and in current society, especially online, there are just too many of those “liberations”.

      The bottom line is, I have seen someone (whom I respect quite a lot as a philosopher), ponder, in a similar context, why virtual communication does not work as an instrument for the “social change”. And there I have to wonder myself, why we have ever assumed it had to? Because we tried to “liberate” someone and they were not interested? Life would be so much easier if people just listened for once, what the other side has to say, because they mean it. To run away from it, to pretend it does not exist, or pretend we do not feel the same way, at least sometimes… in theory imho it should make our problems bigger, instead of “social change” it for the better. And there also is the old as world issue of temptation of the dark side… and we seem to be surprised when we realize some choose it willingly, in the best spirit of moral relativism, because it is just a matter of how you look at it, right?

  13. Does not work as an instrument of social change? Or does not work as an instrument of the social change we hoped for?

    I have, serendipitously, just begun to teach a seminar on Ritual and Advertising. Since I am teaching in Taiwan, where I came in 1969 to do fieldwork on Chinese popular religion, I thought it would be interesting to put my non-Christian Taiwanese students to work on the ritual I grew up with, the Lutheran liturgy. That led to the realization that they might not be familiar with the Protestant Reformation and the discovery that there is a lot of useful material online, especially on YouTube. That led to our looking yesterday at a marvelous BBC 4 documentary on Bach and the sacred music he composed for the Lutheran Church. To establish the context the narrator recounted the history of the Reformation and mentioned, yes, I am finally coming to the point, that when Luther translated the Bible into German, he supposed that once everyone could read the Word of God in their own vernacular language they would agree on what it said. He was, of course, wrong. Thus, what had begun as an effort to reform the Catholic Church rapidly splintered into a rapidly proliferating motley array of denominations and sects, each based on its own particular reading of scripture.

    I am reminded, too, of when I began writing advertising in Japan in 1983. One of my clients was NEC, whose chairman was promoting a then radical idea called C&C (Computers & Communications). We (it wasn’t just me) imagined a future in which the combination of computers and communication networks would make all the world’s knowledge available to everyone and make it possible for everyone to engage in interesting, creative work instead of rote physical labor. We failed to imagine a future in which universal access would fuel a winner-take-all economy in which superstars take the lion’s share of attention and the rest scramble for the bits of attention and work left over in an increasingly competitive world.

    So no, it isn’t just a matter of how wee look at it. The world is a complex system and changes in unexpected ways, ways that even with the best of intentions we fail to anticipate.

    1. It somewhat reminds me the common saying in the gamers communities “it is working as intended, except that it is totally broken”, which often comes as a reply to a clumsy PR attempt to defend a flawed gameplay design. 🙂 Or, if I draw on my more ethnographic side “the turnip is not roasting the way the belly desires”.

      Yes, ofc world is a complex system, but I also think that part of the problem is in denial and neglect of the “common”. Anthropology is in many ways a chase for the Other and ignoring of the Ours. Yes, of course, it gives some insights… however most of the time those insights are hard to convert into the universal patterns, aka what drives the common. I still struggle to understand what gave people an idea that virtual, even in the early days, was a magic panacea? Back in 1996 when I started the research, there was no hint whatsoever, from what I was observing, that this would bring some kind of age of the Tolerance, Fairness and Peace… if anything, in many ways Usenet (and subsequently IRC and other mediums) was a glorious cesspit of uncensored humanity, very useful to see what people actually think, but not a confirmation of what we thought they thought and certainly not a proof of things getting “better”. A lot of the research, at the time, was cherry picking the “other”, but paying little attention to the “common”, glorifying the “deviations”, but ignoring the “patterns” and it seems to continue to this day, to a certain extend.

      I would agree though, that the change is happening, but not the one we expected/wanted. In a way, I was amazed to see how successful were the conspiracy legends in shaping the public opinions (the process which happened earlier in the Eastern Europe than in the West). I also was amazed to see a change in how successful certain common sense campaigns were vs the well funded “activism” and how the view on “activism” changed in general (in a negative sense). There is fun stuff going on, for sure, yet each time I see another “Other” study funded and a total research vacuum in the East Europe… I have to think with a grain of sarcasm, yeah, this is surely going to bite us in the rare end at some point in time, in so many not anticipated ways. 🙂

  14. Beware what time does to perspective. When you started your research in 1996, I had been using computers since 1979, when the Internet was still DARPANet and there was no worldwide web. It was already more than a decade since Apple launched Macintosh with the famous one-off Super Bowl commercial that likened IBM-style mainframe computing to George Orwell’s novel 1984. In retrospect, the optimism of the early days was fueled by being one of a small group of pioneers who shared still exotic interests in things like text-based role-playing games as well as digital technology. It was very exciting and great fun. No wonder we weren’t thinking too far beyond our initial enthusiasm.

    1. Well my mother is a coder, so I spent my early days playing with the punch cards and my dad was a radio engineer, so when us, kids, were getting too annoying, we were kicked out to play into the telephony station (just stay away from a high voltage line!). 🙂

      When we speak about the virtual communication though, as a social phenomena, imho it is hard to talk about it before Windows in general, and Windows 95 in particular, even though yes, there were early attempts before that. There might be also some country differences, because in the 80ties and 90ties a lot of countries still had to catch up with certain technologies, so certainly not world wide.

  15. Aurelija, in an earlier comment you mention moving to Holland, hoping to find a community and, instead, finding yourselves “the weird ones out.” Would it be impertinent of me to ask if we might explore that experience a bit?

    When Ruth and I moved to Japan in 1980, we settled in the High Town, a condominium complex with five buildings and four hundred-forty apartments. We have been there ever since. There is, we have since discovered, community to be found in the High Town; but, here’s a very rough estimate, only around 5% of the people who live in the High Town are active members of it. Located close to the center of Yokohama, it is the kind of place where most people keep to themselves and rarely interact with their neighbors.

    We became involved in the “community” through our daughter. When we arrived in Japan, our daughter was four years old, Ruth was in an intensive Japanese language program, and I had to find work to supplement her grant, which meant that I we both wound up commuting into Tokyo. We needed to find daycare, and noticing children lining up every morning to walk to a local kindergarten my wife threw herself on the mercy of their mothers, explaining our situation and asking for help. Bingo! In a very Japanese way, the mothers quickly arranged for our daughter to go to the kindergarten, and one of them volunteered to take care of her until her mother got home from school. That step led to Ruth’s becoming a member of the Children’s Association, serving our regular turn on the Local Government Association, and one of our most charming anecdotes about life in Japan.

    One day, as Ruth was walking up the road that connects our local shopping street with the High Town, she passed two little boys, one who lived in the High Town, the other apparently visiting. The visitor spotted Ruth and shouted, “Gaijin da! Gaijin da!” (Foreigner! Foreigner!), to which the boy from the High Town replied, “That’s not a foreigner. That’s Katie’s mom.”

    Self-introduction, appealing for help, active involvement in local affairs….We will never be Japanese, but, yes, we have found community, albeit in a place where we will always be weird.

    1. I am living in the Netherlands for 14 years now, first in Groningen and then later in a small village nearby. It was/is an interesting experience, in many ways. On one hand, it is a very liberal and (on a surface) friendly country, but also, in many ways, extremely conservative and self-preserving. It can be very fun, but also very frustrating at times, in that sense that, in way, I am living somewhere in-between the cultures, as far as the labels of nationality, class, (sub)culture, etc., are concerned.

      Either way, when we moved to the village 10 years back, I somewhat expected it to be a similar experience to villages everywhere else in Europe, and in my home country in particular, where you sort of just go around your own business, stop to chat with a neighbor, on a big scale share some common events and on a small scale share some plants (I am sworn gardener!). We wrote our daughter into a local school and it was somewhat an entry point into a “community” for us. She was doing ok, she had play dates with her classmates, she was involved in the children events of the village, etc.

      There, however, I started to realize that things are not going to work the way I imagined they would. There was, ofc, the polite exchange of “how are you”, but it never got deeper into the actual interest. Even in those cases, when I did share some common interest (for example, knitting, nevermind the academic stuff) it did not work and I had issues figuring out why!

      So, around the same time I decided to go and do some Dutch language courses (I speak it fairly well, but struggle with writing), with other mostly Eastern European people. In a way I was surprised to hear that most of the folks in my language group were struggling with the same, and one of them suggested that the problem lies in a micromanagement side of the Dutch culture. I think it is true, to some extend, and it is big enough deal, for us, Eastern Europeans, to end up sticking to the people from the same origin, as far as the real community is concerned. There, however, I also started to realize that I never truly understood Marx, before I moved to the Netherlands… because the split into the social classes is much more strong here than it ever was in East Europe (ironically, even after 50 years of the communist rule). For my village community members it was very hard to understand how someone with my education level can live with someone belonging to a working class, also they could not figure why us, educated immigrants, do not intend to stay in the boundaries of the upper class and seriously consider working class employment. They cannot understand why me, with a work experience in the university and high management, wants to hang out with working class folks, instead of my own bracket, also why I do not have the interests and lifestyle arrangements appropriate for my status. In their micromanaged culture, it was a big deal, they could not place it! It was just too weird.

      As for the help, we had a different experience there as well. We came to realize that sure, we can expect help when it comes easy, but not when we actually need it – that was when our second child got labeled as a problematic/mentally retarded in the local pre-school (eventually, it turns out he is in gifted range, but that is another story). When play dates were easy with our easy going daughter, nobody wanted their child to play with the “retard” and we struggled to find a babysitter, because the rumors spread. .. Eventually, it came to that, that we had to move our daughter to another school in the city (because the local one is known for avoiding the “problematic” children and our son was the king of those, according to them). It was interesting, in a way, to see how, in a few months, we pretty much stopped being a part of the local community in any cultural sense, we live here, but we do not have any ties, it is just as “alien” as living in the city, but without the benefits of the city life. I don’t know if it is just the random luck of the specific village, however, at least in this case, the “real” did not make us feel a part of the social, quite the contrary.

  16. Mikhail Bakhtin
    Letter to Novy Mir

    Aurelija, thank you for this thick description of your situation. It offers so many possibilities for continuing our conversation that I hardly know where to begin. Then the phrase “micromanaged culture” leaps off the page. It strikes me that this phrase might also be used of Japan, another place whose culture is famous for obsessive attention to what you and I would likely consider minutiae.

    I think instantly of my wife’s experience preparing lunch for our daughter to take to her kindergarten. Day 1, she made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, added an apple, and put both in a paper bag. She was informed that this wouldn’t do. Day 2, she made a Taiwanese-style bento [lunchbox], leftover rice topped with other leftovers from the previous day’s supper. She was informed that this wouldn’t do. Then the mothers who had arranged for our daughter to go to this kindergarten showed up at our door and told her that she was to report to one of their apartments the following Saturday for lessons on how to make a proper Japanese bento. Do a Google search for “Japanese bento” and you will see what they were talking about, meticulously crafted, aesthetically pleasing demonstrations of a mother’s sacrificial willingness to get up early in the morning and prepare a new creation for each new day. (There are, in fact, cookbooks with titles like “365 bentos: One for Every Day.”)

    I think, too, of the meeting of a men’s group to which I belong, at which before we settled down to eating and drinking together, had first to go over every detail of the mochi-pounding ceremony at which we had lent a hand. Was there enough pork in the soup? Why were so many sweet potatoes only half cooked? Why was the timing of having the glutinous rice steamed and ready for pounding so irregular compared to previous years?…..On and on the discussion went as my hand kept creeping toward my beer.

    These memories make me want to know more about the everyday practices and attitudes involved in micromanagement, which, I suspect, vary from culture to culture and within the same culture in different situations.

    1. It is interesting, in that sense that ofc Japanese and Dutch are very different cultures with very different histories, but on a certain level I think there are also interesting similarities (and both cultures are also different when compared to their neighbors). There also is Huis Ten Bosch in Japan, which I would love to visit some day, to see how one could be possibly replicated in the other. :)))

      In Dutch culture the micromanagement appears a bit differently I think (although, I am not familiar with Japanese culture on a similar level so there might be some misunderstanding). It is ofc deeply protestant culture, except a few provinces in the South, with a lot of the classic traits in a very Weber-ish sense. I think where it feels the most in food culture is not so much aesthetics, but in exercising the restraint. Sometimes it can come as being a “scrooge”, I literally had asituations at my in laws (with whom overall I have a very good relationship) where I was not sure if it is ok to ask for a piece of bread for my kids, because it was not a “lunch time”. :))) When we get a cookie with coffee in NL, that literally means 1 cookie and the rest are tidied up from the table. When we go for the birthdays, we can expect 2 cups of coffee, 1 piece of cake and 1 bowl of soup (which is also acceptable food for a small wedding!). Speaking of celebrations, after surviving numerous job and school birthdays, I figured the recipe for success is something self-made (cake for example), but divided in small precise pieces, with just enough decoration to be nice, but not too much, because then it is “too nice to eat”. :))) 1 glass of wine is appropriate, 2 is for special occasions, 3 is frowned upon, 4… you have a drinking problem. :))) Then there is the casual eating, which means that for lunch you have bread (with something on it), I remember people being very surprised to know that at home we eat pancakes for lunch, the luxury! The dinner is at 6 pm, at a dinner table, everyone has to stay at the table till the last one is done, the you can either have coffee or leave. On Sundays you have something more nice. Unexpected guests are not going to get invited to the table (because you are not supposed to be here, you were not calculated!) It is also somewhat reflected in the classroom, at 10 am they eat a piece of fruit, at 12 am they eat their bread and if you are hungry… well, you have to wait, even if you are 2 (did not work that great with our youngest!). In the old school of my daughter, you had to first eat your bread and only then you could drink your drink and you absolutely could not drink tap water, even if you were thirsty. Because such are the rules, which in the new school, they agreed, were slightly too strict. :)))

      In the more broad sense though, it is a web of tiny unwritten rules, which you have to be aware of, which makes the country the way it is. The law is liberal, the customs are conservative and provide the regulation on a micro level. It applies to the big systems, such as water management, with its elaborate pumping water from south to north, sea gates, etc., or law, with the concept of “gedogen” (non-enforcement), but also it regulates tiny things, like, for example, if you can feed the seagulls on your ferry trip (no), if you can paint your front door the other color (sometimes), if you can just call in sick at work without a proof you are actually sick (yes).

      As a matter of fact, I do like how Wikipedia explains the “gedogen” concept: “To give an example in layman’s terms: a mother may tell her child he can’t have cookies from the cookie jar. The father, regardless of his beliefs, can’t tell the child it’s okay to have a cookie as that would result in a conflict with the mother. If the father sees the child taking a cookie anyway, he may choose not to say anything. He may not want to punish or stop the child but can’t condone the behaviour either. The father may act as if nothing had happened to avoid a conflict with both his beliefs and the mother. He “gedoogs” the behaviour.” I see that kind of behavior a lot, in practical sense, for example someone might be having a public tantrum about something, and the other people (for example in the train) are going to pretend they do not see it happen. It does not mean they agree, it means they do not want to act on it. It creates a false impression of high tolerance in some cases, but the real tolerance depends on the actual values of the society, which is not always easy to figure out. Also, in certain cases, it creates a situation of dead-ends, when encountering a different culture, because in a certain way it can be very inflexible. I see more of that when I have to save my language delayed kid from the social situations which he cannot handle himself, in that sense that normally in Dutch culture you do not say anything to another’s children. It does not work very well when your own kid has a disability, so I have to break that rule fairly regularly and being an outsider, I notice that it does put the other parents in the situations of being powerless, when the interests of their children are concerned. I think it is also part of the tensions in the greater sense, with the immigration, because other cultures have different rules of engagement.

      Also, on a bit more funny note, I remember a few times we braved going on holidays with my husband’s family (he is Dutch). It was beyond frustrating, because the meals were a total chaos, as much as the plans where to go and what to do… and there my sister in-law said, in a very straight forward way (like all Dutchies), that “oh cmon, it is a vacation, you do not plan things in the vacation”. :))) So yeah, in many ways, Dutch way of holidays is to rest from the micromanaging their life. :)))