08 June 2011

Forward to the Past: Of e-storians and v-ethnographers

Thank you for reading the third part of my IT series, first two parts being:
# iStudent (Part 1 of 2): Navigating through university in the digital age
# Twitterature: Of digital narratives and multi-media story-telling

The evolution of man. Why was it so hard for me to find the evolution of women? Artists, get to work!

As an anthropologist, I have been wondering how the rather recent internet revolution will influence the study of human behaviour with the next generation.

Will Facebook evolve to include a "Deceased" status that will show a dead person's profile in grey shades? Currently, you can "memorialise" a profile which means friends and family can still post on your wall even though your account will be frozen. Will it start to include apps whereby you can transform all your upward and downward family relations into an organigramm, so your future grandchildren can stalk your social activist phase at university 50 years from now? ("Wow, look at grandma's profile! Must have been so exciting to be around when Facebook came out!")

Will family lineage memory be significantly increased, particularly in Western cultures where we only remember up to the last four generations? ("My wife's grandfather seven generations back was a broker until he lost everything in the big recession in 2009s when unrestricted neoliberalism was still the hegemonic system (and CSR wasn't as incorporated into the world economy as today) but when the world introduced [global currency], he kept some of his savings thinking it would be worth a lot later. It paid off for we now live from the money earned through auctioning off his 21st century Euros at Christie's, which made us millionaires 100 years after Euros were recalled and replaced by the [global currency].) It would make researching family histories so much easier for genealogists and historians, particularly in the "age of migration". I wonder how it would affect our sense of identity, would it be liberating or depressing to have history on your shoulders? Instead of just knowing the professions and rough life journeys of people, will people look at their ancestors through a lens of generational criticism possible through the recording of each move in the digital paper trail? ("If great-granddad hadn't been addicted to online poker, we might have had a house to inherit" - "Look what disgusting stuff that great-uncle of mine posted during the Holocaust", if it were possible)

Will e-biographers in 2099 be able to access Obama's private facebook messages, tweets, texts and emails? Will Obama's biography be published as one of the first multimedia biographies made available on the internet in an interactive format?

Will the comparative availability of the internet be qualifiers for cultural advancement or leaps in human civilisation, like the high cultures of the ancient Egyptians/Chinese/Greeks? Will peoples with oral traditions of historiography be moved further into invisibility and assumed ahistory? Or will some of them decide to record themselves digitally, too?

Will today's world of transition be memorialised and mythologised, like the Middle Ages, into fantasy literature of the historical sub-genre? Will the glasses of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, the 'Arthurian figures of the Golden Age' they might be described as in future history books, be enshrined in museums, their value increased by the fact that due to universal availability of laser surgery, corrective glasses have become a thing of the past?

Will cyber terrorism bring about the apocalypse?

Will e-storians study how internet transformed the world, the way we conceive of and construct identity and culture, and how the internet furthered the deterritorialisation of belonging, just like print-capitalism created 'imagined communities' and catalysed nationalism, according to the famous theory by Benedict Anderson.

Will anthropologists' main method of research, participant observation be moved to Starbucks in an evolutionary move from colonial 'arm chair anthropology' to 'fieldwork' to 'coffeeshop anthropology' when anthropologists can interview informants via Skype video chat while slurping a Frappucino, and chat transcripts become field notes? There are pioneering examples of the internet becoming a field of expanding research such as "My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft" by Bonnie Nardi, a researcher at the Department of Informatics, University of California. Or "Coming of Age in Second Life. An anthropologist explores the virtually human" (with Amazon preview!) by Tom Boellstorff, another researcher at the University of California. Media Anthropology itself also occasionally takes places in virtual classrooms in Second Life, such as here for the Master of Arts in Visual and Media Anthropology at the Freie Universität Berlin:

Also, chatrooms, forums and even match-making sites have become new field for participant observation and finding interviewees for anthropologists such as Nicole Constable from the University of Pittsburgh, who is one of the handful of people researching on marriage migration from the Philippines. By accident, I discovered her intriguing book when browsing through the SOAS library: "Romance on a global stage: Pen Pals, Virtual Ethnography and 'Mail Order' Marriages" (also with Amazon preview).

What other phenomena will attract anthropologists, psychologists etc in the future? A few months ago, I read the saddest article in the Guardian about "Münchhausen by internet". The elaborate article describes the cases of two women (one Australian, one Filipina) who either hugely exaggerated or entirely invented their illness online and drew in dozens if not hundreds of supporters world-wide online through chats, emails, dedicated forums etc who sometimes sacrificed quality time with their real-life family and friends over months to be there for either of the lonely women they had never met. The Filipina kept post-its all over her desk to keep up with things she said to different people in emails; the Australian even staged herself in pictures so as to appear bed-ridden and seriously ill. The story went on for months until eventually of course, some supporters became suspicious and posted likewise in forums. The Filipina actually admitted to it and even posted her real telephone number for people to call and rant at her and for her as a kind of penance, I guess. It is a truly interesting article, do read it if you find the time. It is very sad that people feel so incredibly lonely or in want of attention that they would steal time and energy from others.

On the other hand, the (anonymous) internet has made it possible for some to empower themselves through joining self-help communities for all kinds of diseases, life histories and other issues they wish to not be alone with. Never before was it so easy to find like-minded people with similar problems, no matter how obscure the illness. You can even give or receive counselling through Skype which could be especially great if you lived in a small community and would not want people to see you walk into a mental health professional's practice or a family planning clinic for advice or if there is no specialist around for say, survivors of war, torture, or other forms of abuse. You can just hit google and connect with others sharing a related background across the ocean for a therapeutric exchange of experiences. If you are bed-ridden due to an incapacitating physical condition, the edge of your bed must not be the edge of your world anymore.

Some terminally ill people might find purpose and motivation as long as they can type or dictate by documenting their journey in the world wide web, warning from risky behaviour or relieving the fear of others suffering from the same condition or even campaign for better healthcare (if not for themselves, then for those who will survive them) or even for the Right to Die (assisted suicide).

For many elderly people in care homes, Facebook is even more popular than watching TV. It is in such high demand that more and more homes run trainings to teach their elderly residents how to stay in touch with their family and friends online.

On another note, will "analogue people" - those refusing or not able to use mobile phones or IT - be considered people living with disabilities in the future? I remember an Outer Limits episode, Stream of Consciousness, that I saw years ago:  "Due to a brain injury, Ryan Unger cannot enjoy the benefits of a neural implant that allows other people to tap into The Stream - a direct connection into all human knowledge. He tries, unsuccessfully, to keep up with everyone else by using a long-forgotten skill: reading books." There is a virus and of course, Ryan ends up teaching those who looked down on him how to read.

The day we land a person on another planet, will the astronauts tweet from Mars? Will there already be technology to do a 'live' vodcast (with hours or even days of delay naturally, due to distance)?

Will intelligence agencies filter through tweets and visual information recorded by people fleeing violent conflict on their mobile phones? After all, the US military has already launched bots to promote US propaganda in China through fake online personas. Will tweets and online posts become a way to research and update Country of Origin Information (COI) to determine refugee status?

Will e-storians document the role of internet technology in the "Arab Spring"? That's a definite yes.

Some links:
The Impact of the Printing Press and Internet on Social Relationships:

How has the internet affected British identity?

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