Tue 6 Feb 2007
This video from Michael Wesch, an Anthro. Professor at Kansas State, is less interesting to the tech. savvy crowd than it likely is to many anthropologists. Still, it's fairly well done, and in my mind fairly uncontroversial. (Which means there's sure to be some debate).
David Hakken, author of a series of fascinating but fairly impenetrable books like Cyborgs@Cyberspace? and The Knowledge Landscapes of Cyberspace dismisses the summary in a very 'ivory tower' sort of way:
I found it an interesting animation of much of the promotional drivel I hear from promoters of so-called social networking software, completely lacking in any critical perspective or sense that such claims about the world need to be evaluated against evidence. This is not an information ethnography in which I am interested.
Ken Erickson of Pacific Ethnography, on the other hand, understands what the video is actually about, responds with (I think) the appropriate amount of perspective despite his admitted lack of technical expertise:
I thought it was an introductory think-piece designed perhaps to inspire undergraduates to think more about the Internet. And on U-Tube. Why aren't other anthropologists or IT design researchers on U-Tube? (Maybe they are and I'm just not an adept.) Do we all have nothing worth saying that can be said in five minutes? I bet we do. I say, Bravo Dr. Wesch. And, I'll bet this could become an interesting thread. Maybe Dr. Wesch will join in.
And, of course, what would a 'critical' debate among anthropologists be without resorting to WMDs – that's Weber, Marx, and Durkheim.
The idea that the web "learns", that we are the web, etc. etc. restates the venerable Marxian argument about how human labor gets embedded in technology, and subsequent generations of that technology fully incorporate and make automatic what formerly could be done only through direct human action. It's the same phenomenon one sees in the evolution of tools used to make other tools — Volume 1 of Capital has a chapter called "Machinery and Modern Industry" which lays out the basic ideas (It also discusses the "intensification of the working day" — something most dot-com worker bees like myself would've been able to relate to, if we'd had any free time to read long books.) — Jerry Lombardi
The discussion goes on through AnthroDesign, but where does this leave us with our impressions of anthropologists? Confused, I think, since even in this short debate we span from scholars like Hakken who are clearly extremely knowledgeable about new technologies but also overly dismissive and haughty about thought-provoking commentary on them, to others who attempt to integrate ideas about Web 2.0 with classical social theory.
For my part, I thought the video was a nice (if technocentric) summary of how the confluence of certain trends have laid the groundwork for the social phenomenon we see today (which is sometimes referred to by the shorthand Web 2.0. Ok, I'm cool with that). My only real 'critique' stems from the pet-peeve of my adviser, Coye Cheshire. And that's this: let's not start with the assumption that Web x.0 changes anything. Let's assume – reasonably based on historical evidence – that seemingly paradigm-shattering technologies tend to influence organically, not seismically. What's going on right now is not so fundamentally different. Although it's all those little details that make it fascinating.