INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY AND ANTHROPOLOGY

DAVID ZEITLYN and GUSTAAF HOUTMAN


GUEST EDITORIAL EXCERPTED FROM `ANTHROPOLOGY TODAY', JUNE 1996 Copyright Royal Anthropological Institute


In writing the history of anthropology, the technological ~ as against methodological ~ dimensions are apt to be underemphasized, even marginalized.

It is only relatively recently that it has been taken to heart that the act of writing, its conventions and established discourses, had perhaps as much impact on the discipline as participant-observation in the field. Though sound-recording and visual technologies have been used from the earliest days of anthropological fieldwork, these have not been thought of as shaping mainstream anthropology in any real sense.

To suggest that information technology (IT) ~ the branch of technology concerned with the dissemination, processing, and storage of information, especially by means of computers ~ might yet significantly shape the discipline attracts the accusation of technological reductionism. MacLuhan may be regarded, in today's language, as something of a `Nerd'.1 Yet print-technology permitted the emergence of new religions and new scientific disciplines. Evidently, the more technology is integrated into everyday life, the less we seem to be paying attention to it for there are hardly any contemporary studies of the social and cultural effects of the technology of print.2

There is considerable literature on particular roles for IT in anthropology, but very little of it focuses on the broad implications for the discipline. IT is making its impact felt on anthropology as a discipline at several different ~ but mutually dependent ~ levels. Apart from having become something of a sub-discipline in itself ~ e.g. as in the anthropology of cyberculture (Escobar 1994) ~ here we identify its impact on the discipline more broadly in terms of data, methodology, and subject-matter.

The way we acquire, record, transmit and publish data has changed enormously over the last decade. This parallels the involvement of photography and film in the discipline in the early 1960s, and Polunin's summary of the state of visual anthropology in 1970 could serve for computing in the 1990s.3 Just as uptake of devices such as small portable cameras and, most importantly, the portable cassette recorder, had radical implications for the conduct of anthropological research, so the portability of information technology facilitates not only collection of visual and aural data, but its integration with fieldnotes on a scale not previously possible. Such technologies truly facilitate the move from the verandah to the field and permit collection of a richer variety of data.

At the level of methodology, new techniques of manipulating data will increasingly affect the sorts of analysis we undertake (Fischer 1994). As Podolevsky put it back in 1987, improvements in qualitative techniques result in `a transformation of ethnographic research analogous to that which occurred in quantitative methods four decades ago'. Today this concerns more than `word-crunching'. Tasks previously unattempted because of the amount of labour involved (for example, demographic simulations, particularly when they attempt to model the complex relationship between population and economics, or the production of dictionaries and concordances) are being attempted and computer-assisted techniques will increasingly lead to re-examination of our premisses. The way data is stored and transmitted has already led to new forms of cooperation. Some examples illustrate the point: among papers of the late Edwin Ardener is a Bakweri dictionary on file cards. There is still little data available on this Cameroonian language, and it is only becoming available to researchers with the help of St John's College, Oxford: the file cards are now being typed up (using a phonetic font) for electronic distribution. Another anthropological researcher, in collaboration with a linguist, has been able to prepare and circulate a draft dictionary of Chamba. The easy interchange of information which is achieved by the use of information technology means that anthropologists are better able to help colleagues such as linguists, and vice versa. Versions of papers are made available on the `Language and Culture' online archive. A review is posted and this is followed by an email discussion of the paper in question.

As fieldworkers and researchers pipe more varied data across world-wide communication channels, this material will be looking for new publishing outlets; eventually such material will alter the world of publishing, including anthropological publishing, where sounds and images will be integrated with text. However, with current limitations on storage and communication bandwidths, the impact is first being felt in the conversion of established print material into electronic text and hypertext documents for which the financial threshold of publication is too large to appear in conventional print. At the Centre for Social Anthropology and Computing (CSAC), for example, The Bulletin of Information on Computing in Anthropology (BICA) ~ originally print-published and distributed free to about 500 subscribers ~ is now made available on the Internet, achieving potentially far wider access than the original ever had at less cost.4 Also, work is under way to add to the electronic text of Paul Stirling's monograph Turkish village, together with his fieldnotes and digital versions of the photographs and films he made in the field. By a complex set of linkages between the published conclusions and the original rough notes (the `raw data' of anthropology) a valuable resource will be created both for researchers interested in 40 years of change in rural Turkey and for teachers trying to explain to neophytes how research experience is transmuted into analytical results. Hypermedia publications allow different kinds of hitherto unassociated materials (research data and its analysis) to be linked together and distributed on CD or on demand across alternative communication channels such as the Internet. By joining together large bodies of data through intersite and interpublication hyperlinks, these publications begin to assume a reality of their own, with the potential of raising substantive questions about anthropology generally.

Emailing and conferencing facilities, and the ready forums for exchanges of ideas, are currently having a substantial impact on the discipline. The experimental and somewhat spontaneous exchange of ideas sometimes gives the appearance of low quality publishing, but it is also a boiling pot in which academic research is being disseminated more broadly than ever before; not just to the world-wide community of anthropologists, but to other non-professional consumers of anthropology, in a way which can precede and/or complement research results published conventionally, as well as providing a forum for informal commentary on published work. It provides a means to distribute research data that mainstream publishers deem financially non-viable, and a way in which colleagues can read and comment on drafts of work-in-progress (which may later be published conventionally).

IT is also changing the subject of anthropology. Minority groups - ranging from the Inuit to the Saami - are proactively framing their own identity on the Internet. In an analysis of electronic exchanges on the Middle East, Anderson (1995) found that highly educated professional `outworkers' or `cybarites' from Middle Eastern background in academic posts in countries with sophisticated communication channels are beginning to have a major effect in the framing of public identities of the Middle East. This, he suggests, is analogous with the way identities of early modern empires were shaped by overseas Europeans ~ through newspaper print-technology and shipping channels ~ as suggested by Anderson in his Imagined communities. These developments cannot but lead to a more `permeable' and decentered anthropology, in which anthropologists, the inheritors of privileged access to the infrastructure of empire, may yet have to compete in framing identities with others shouting equally hard on the newer publication channels. Here, a broader lay public will be engaged ~ much in the manner of, for example, `The Small Triple A' (Amateur Anthropological Association5) ~ in which subjects of research themselves will increasingly wish to participate. It is likely that IT will have us reexamine familiar concepts. By collapsing geographical divide between home and field-site, hitherto an assumed element in anthropology's self-definition, the concept of fieldwork is changing from the Malinowskian model. Indeed, with time, it may yet `plunge us back into the armchair' by affording such rich data set in addition to personal fieldnotes, including remotely accessed data channels, permitting new forms of interactive fieldwork off-site. Another way in which IT is changing the subject is by gradually blurring of the concept of what it signifies to be a human being. On the one hand, information technology is being made to adopt more human-like qualities in terms of ease of communication and handling ~ in the ways computers see the world and handle speech and writing ~ which means some migration in anthropological skills to a new industry. On the other hand, humans are equipped with increasingly portable technology which is gradually becoming embedded in human beings themselves who come to see it as an extension of themselves; e.g. technology now permits a computer in the heel of a shoe, and the transmission of email addresses via a handshake. Study of `the whole of man' will thereby take on an entirely new significance, and come to include investigations of consciousness and information technology as part of core anthropology. Thus, IT affects anthropology more substantially than simply changing the way we acquire, record, transmit, publish and collaborate over data; it has the potential to alter the way we think, and the discipline must follow.

Lowering the threshold to publication of large quantities of informal and unedited materials invariably has consequences. Email discussions can deteriorate into wild polemic (so-called 'flaming') which in some cases has led to successful prosecution for libel. Other issues may have excited passion but with happier results. For example, the pulse of the CUP controversy (see A.T. April 1996, p 1) could be felt from day to day in the angry email exchanges. This, in turn, influenced the media, who pick on these exchanges and who converted it into the realm of print-publishing and terrestrial and satellite broadcasting. The speed with which issues can be aired on the Internet may lead to a less shielded and more politicised anthropology which is unavoidably more involved in controversies of all kinds.

In short, information technology is affecting anthropology at various levels ~ data, method and subject. It has the potential of revolutionizing the discipline, and in making anthropology less formal, less monologuic, and more accessible, even by non-professionals. However, the recognition that there is a broad range of alternative interests in their data means that anthropologists may have to be even more sensitive in preparing their data for electronic publication.

DAVID ZEITLYN and GUSTAAF HOUTMAN

David Zeitlyn is Lecturer in Anthropology at the Centre for Computing and Anthropology, University of Kent (D.Zeitlyn@ukc.ac.uk). Gustaaf Houtman teaches Anthropology and Information Technology at Goldsmiths College(ghoutman@cix.compulink.co.uk).

FOOTNOTES AND REFERENCES

We would like to acknowledge the helpful comments on drafts from Anna Rayne, Mike Fischer, and Martijn Houtman.

1. `Nerd' is a term invented by Dr. Seuss in If I ran into the zoo in 1950, where it represented a small comically angry-looking and unpleasant humanoid creature ~ `And then, just to show them, I'll sail to Ka-Troo And Bring Back an It-Kutch a Preep and a Proo a Nerkle a Nerd and a Seersucker, too!'. Initially popularised in the 1970s as a reference to uninteresting persons, as the information technology revolution turned playful hippies into serious businessmen, later films such as Revenge of the Nerds granted them intelligence as bespectacled, but unathletic maths student wizards (in opposition to the athletic and sportive jovial `jock') who turn the world upside down with their wizardry.

2. Eisenstein's magisterial start (1979) has not been followed up by similar anthropological studies.

3. The role of computers in anthropology has been addressed as early as 1951 (Thieme), though the role of minesweepers is no longer discussed (Rowe 1953: 912). Fischer (1994:1-2) discusses the related theme of how distinctively `anthropological' computing in the discipline should be.

4. Available at http://lucy.ukc.ac.uk/bicaindex.html ISSN: 1363-1829. It is hoped that BICA will continue publication electronically. Note: The WWW site run by CSAC has an area open to contributions by other anthropologists who may have material they wish to make available.

5. Access to the small-triple-a can be gained by sending email with the text `Join small-triple-a firstname(s) lastname' (substituting appropriately) as the only text in the body of a message addressed to: mailbase@mailbase.ac.uk

Anderson, Jon 1995. `Cybarites', knowledge workers and new creoles on the superhighway. A.T. 11 (4): 13-15.

Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. 1979. The printing press as an agent of change: communications and cultural transformations in early-modern Europe. Vols I and II. London: Cambridge Univ, Press.

Escobar, Arturo 1994. Welcome to cyberia: notes on the anthropology of cyberculture. Current Anthropology 35 (3): 211-231.

Fischer, M.D. 1994. Applications in computing for social anthropologists (ASA Research methods in social anthropology). London: Routledge.

Podolevsky, Aaron 1987. New tools for old jobs: computers in the analysis of fieldnotes. A.T.3 (5):14-16.

Polunin, I. 1970. Visual and sound recording apparatus in ethnographic fieldwork. Current Anthropology 11 (1), 3-22.

Rowe, J.H. 1953. Technical Aids in Anthropology: A Historical Summary. In Anthropology today: an encyclopedic inventory (ed.) A.L. Kroeber. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

Thieme, F.P. 1951. The use of IBM machines in analyzing anthropological data. In Essays on archaeological methods.

J.B. Griffin. Anthropological Papers no. 8. Ann Arbor: Museum of Anthropology, Univ. of Michigan.