Thinking Digital: Anthropology and the new media*






Aleksandar Boškoviæ











1. Introduction: The old and the new


As anthropologists struggle to tackle new phenomena, they are faced with challenges that are not that new. One of the most common definitions of anthropology is that it is a discipline (or a conglomerate of disciplines) that deals with the other. In presenting, describing, analyzing and evaluating the other(s), anthropology constructs its own field of study and defines itself. Thus, anthropology owes its very existence to the existence (real or imagined, we shall deal with that later) of alterity.


The alterity within the digital world is interesting because it shifts almost constantly. The line between “us” and “them” is fluid on the one hand, while on the other, issues of power, domination and authority are very much present. Anthropologists should use methodological insights from their own discipline to question these concepts – while the population that physically has access to computers is still very much limited (and limited to certain developed – “Western,” for the lack of better word – countries), the issues of access to information as well as shifting boundaries are becoming increasingly important. As the ones in positions of political power are trying to control (and restrict access to) information, it is crucial that new ethnographies be produced, exposing these mechanisms and revealing the nature of “digital thinking” as a global emerging cultural form.


In the everyday life, aspects of it are seen in the changes in the registration processes at universities, online access to library materials and different databases, as well as in the increasing technologization of various bureaucratic processes that deal with physically running departments (or projects). All of this creates different types of social interactions, as well as changing social spaces – not unlike what Augé has referred to in one of his works as “non-places” (Augé 1995).


Ever since the seminal paper by Spitulnik (1993), the media has entered the “mainstream” anthropology curricula. The problems, however, remain. The questions as well. To quote from Spitulnik:

How, for example, do mass media represent and shape cultural values within a given society? What is their place in the formation of social relations and social identities? How might they structure people’s senses of space and time? What are their roles in the construction of communities ranging from subcultures to nation-states, and in global processes of socioeconomic and cultural change? (1993: 293-294)


I do not intend to try to cover these questions in a short paper. I would like to try instead to point to some new ones that new technologies (primarily associated with the “digital revolution”) open, but primarily linked to the issues of the construction of identities. By “new media” I refer to the developments primarily within the last two decades – and they include (but are not restricted to!): “the personal computer, fax, video-conferencing, virtual reality…CD-ROMs… WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) phones and MP3 digital music” (Horrocks 2000: 16). While authors like Fletcher (N.d.) have pleaded for “an anthropology of cyberspace” (and new social sciences that will take into account emerging forms of communication), this whole realm is still mostly ignored by contemporary anthropologists.


2. Virtual worlds


The new technologies have proved to be at the same time a source of fascination and a source of frustration for social scientists. All is good when one uses Internet to access academic web sites and send/receive electronic mail, but what about the physical spaces that such new medium opens? Can they be perceived as social (as Augé does)? To further this sense of frustration, in most cases the most adept users of this new medium are teenagers – not academics with titles and important academic positions. The paradox is that the teenagers do have knowledge of the medium, but they do not know necessarily how to use it in a global context (understanding the world), while on the other hand scholars have the general knowledge (or a very vague idea of it) of the social/economic/cultural relations in the world – but lack the practical ability to use new technologies to their advantage.


One of the key new spaces being explored (and studied) in discourses dealing with new media is virtual reality (Morse 1998, Horrocks 2000). Virtual reality is also known as “artificial reality,” “virtual worlds,” and is also taken to represent “a visual form of cyberspace.”[1] It has also been defined as “a real or simulated environment in which the perceiver experiences telepresence” (Steur 1992; quoted in Featherstone and Burrows 1995: 5). “It is a system which provides a realistic sense of being immersed in an environment” (Featherstone and Burrows 1995: 5-6). According to Howard Rheingold,

Virtual reality is the revolutionary technology that immerses you in a computer-generated world of your own making — a room, a city, an entire solar system, the interior of a human body. With the aid of computer gloves, a Star Wars helmet and some super-sophisticated software, you can now explore the uncharted territory of the human imagination with all your senses intact.


It is also seen as “a way for humans to visualize, manipulate and interact with computers and extremely complex data” (Isdale N.d.). These “extremely complex data” are presented as straightforward or simple – in the contemporary TV news bulletins, the information is condensed, shrunk to the size of sound bites and then fed to the audiences. The problem of social or political construction of these information is rarely posed. To quote one example of asking the right questions in a wrong way:

They [the masses] are neither good conductors of the political, nor good conductors of the social, nor good conductors of meaning in general. Everything flows through them, everything magnetizes them, but diffuses throughout them without leaving a trace. And, ultimately, the appeal of the masses has always gone unanswered. They do not radiate; on the contrary, they absorb all radiation from the outlying constellations of State, History, Culture, Meaning. They are inertia, the strength of the inertia, the strength of the neutral.

                                                                                    (Baudrillard 1983: 2)


While many theorists would question the very ability of “the masses” to understand what is it that they are being fed, very few consider that the information flow is actually a two-way one: that the masses are not only passive consumers but also creators of the final product. It is a type of seduction that (for whatever reason) many people want and then they succumb to it. Therefore, criticism of authors like Baudrillard does not explain much. (This line of criticism was sometimes used to “explain” the events in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, with the assumption that “the people” were always passive receptors and that they never exercised actual choices nor influenced the media.)


In our “virtual age” computer-mediated communication (CMC) forms an important part of how people understand the media. Personal computers have in fact influenced the construction of new social and cultural spaces, where identities have to be re-negotiated. But there is something to be said about the possibilities of extending this concept, in the sense of talking about “virtual places” (Boskovic 1997), or even “virtual communities.” The latter have frequently been discussed in recent years in terms of construction of ethnic or national identities, but when it comes to the anthropology of the media, I would like to point to an exemplary work done by Kolar-Panov (1997). In her book, Dona Kolar-Panov studied how using of a specific form of media (video tapes from the war-ravaged parts of the former Yugoslavia) influenced and re-shaped senses of identity for the Macedonian and the Croatian communities in Australia. (Actually, most of her work was among the Croatian community.) Through this excellent ethnography of communication, one can observe how a specific information was received, culturally translated, and then appropriated in the construction and re-examination of one’s own political, ethnic, cultural, etc. identities.


3. The power of the media


The power of the media has traditionally been recognized at least since McLuhan (1964). In the last two decades, particular stress has been on the idea of the media (TV and international news organizations in particular) dominating the helpless people and essentially transforming them into obedient robots. Again, it frequently depends on the perspective that one takes. The fact that there is much more information available does not mean that one can necessarily find out more about what is happening in the world (as a matter of fact, for an average US citizen spending time in front of her/his TV set, it might appear that the outside world does not really exist). However, there are changes in perceiving the world that are brought by the distant and exotic actors creating their own narratives and speaking with their own voices.


Above all, the changes in our perception of the world are brought by the multiplicity of information (in fact, the second part of the title of Lyotard’s [1979] highly influential book is A Report on Knowledge). This multiplicity changes the cultural landscape — to the point of creating an understanding of the landscapes that French anthropologist Marc Augé calls non-places.[2] Places which are there, but not for everyone and not necessarily at the same time, places where socialization takes completely new and sometimes even unpredictable forms. With its numerous Web sites and almost endless possibilities for interactive communication, the Internet provides a good example of one of these non-places. At the same time, new technologies are proving to be more difficult to control and censor, so they provide a way for literally any alternative discourse. For example, the Zapatistas in Mexico have their own Web site (and this access to the media was instrumental in getting the Mexican government officials to start negotiating with them), and numerous indigenous groups (like, for example, the Kayapo from Brazil using video) have been using modern technology to further their own cause and present their own views and their own “histories.” The histories that are being written (and lived) today will have to take into account this multiplicity, as well as the fact that numerous marginal groups are increasingly coming into a position from which their own views can finally be heard on a global level.


Alternatively, not noticing this multiplicity of discourses that is increasingly becoming a fact of life, could only produce total ignorance and complete misunderstandings of the processes (particularly the ones that new information technologies bring along) that are shaping our reality. It could also produce deep misunderstandings of the ways in which our own cultures are interacting, as well as of the products of these interactions.


The power of the media (just like the political power in general) lies more in the media moguls’ ability to convince the public that this power exists, than in anything “real” or “tangible”  (cf. Kroker and Kroker 1996). I believe that the media corporations (the way they are run, the choice of the cultural models they use, etc.) present a very promising area for future research.



4. Shifting and re-constituting contexts


The political, the social, and the visual have re-constituted and re-configured themselves in recent years. Much of this re-configuration was done through the media. I would like to point out three contributions that make interesting suggestionsfor the future research.  Tambini (1999) has shown how the new media (or, more precisely, technology associated with them) can be used in  the attempts to improve participation in local democratic processes.

Initiatives range from using city hall web pages as a more efficient means to make political information available to those who use internet, to experiments in electronic voting, to encouraging all citizens to use interactive media to organize interset groups and neighborhood alliances. (1999: 306)


However, Tambini specifically sees civic networks (“local experiments”) as the most promising examples of the use of new media. Of course, the interaction on this level (local initiatives, neighborhoods, etc.) takes place in the contexts where face-to-face communication is possible as well (1999: 324-325), and civic networkers do not still grasp the full importance of the political organizing. The people’s identities shift – from the local to global, and beyond – but they still do not use “virtual communities” as their points of reference.


Oguibe (1996) has touched upon the issues of politics, power, and, above all, access to the cyberspace. Using examples of different African countries (from Kenya to South Africa), he points to the global inequalities that “virtual worlds” tend to ignore. The acronym that the Internet users in South Africa for the people who are not “connected” is quite telling – PONA – which stands for “Person Of No Account” (1996: 5). One cannot help but wonder whether whole countries or parts of the world will one day become “of no account” – the process of what Ramonet calls “informatisation” is leaving out many people.


On the different level, media studies scholars like Poster propose a new way of looking into the sphere of visual. In Poster’s words, visual studies can be most productive if incorporated within the media studies (2002: 67). It is again about spaces, or, in this case, the whole field of the visual, for it creates new cultural forms:

The dissemination of information machines alters basic attributes of culture. Humans and machines, in a potentially planetary arena, mix and intermingle to form new cultural objects and experiences. (...) When media are fundamentally changing, as they are now, it behoves those of us concerned with visual culture to pose the questions in the broadest possible way. With media interacting with one another in unpredictable ways (one media such as internet absorbing radio, film and television, while television absorbs the internet and film), with new technologies expanding existing media (fiber optic cables, new compression algorithms, wireless information transmission), with information machines taking on more and more human faculties (voice recognition, translation programs, sight capabilities of global positioning systems, expanded digital storage capacity) and so many unforseeable possiblities on the horizon, we must theorize and study empirically visual culture accordingly. (2002: 68-69)


What Poster proposes seems to be very plausible, but I would like to extend it to “studying empirically” new media and all the new forms of cultural re-configurations that they bring. There is a whole new cultural landscape in our everyday lives, and I believe that much is to be gained through looking at it through the prysm of ethnography (again, Kolar-Panova’s book is a good example of how it can be done), and then developing adequate theoretical insights.



5. Concluding remarks:

Towards an anthropology of the new media


Information is impersonal and imperceptible, knowledge stripped of its context in order to be transformed into digital data. It is at once a means of production and a currency of exchange that can be accumulated and stored as virtual wealth that is also cultural capital. Just as the computer is a “universal” machine that can emulate any other, information is a freely convertible currency between material and symbolic orders and reservoirs of value. Bodies and goods, as well as images, money, and other symbols can be exchanged once they have been replicated as digital abstractions, programmed and processed. (Morse 1998: 5)


The above paragraph outlines another area of contemporary life where anthropology could make a contribution – information. Of course, one can be forgiven for often feeling suffocated with tons of useless information on the Internet (these unsolicited e-mail messages that you get on servers like Yahoo, for example…), or with news bulletins that repeat the obvious ad nauseam. There are different strategies of dealing with this, as well as dealing with the pressures that the “information age” brings. An example of the compendium of the new media technologies and various influences they exercise is the Nettime ( volume Readme! (Bosma et al., ed. 1999). This impressive book brings together some of the most influential people on the Net in the last decade, and it shifts back and forth between art, software, politics, markets, sound, subjects (just some of the headings/sections), bringing together a variety of perspectives and attitudes. However, the issue of media themselves is not dealt with directly. 


In response to the media saturation and manipulation, the Dutch collective Adilkno (The Foundation for the Advancement of Illegal Knowledge) suggests ignoring the media or, when not ignoring them, subverting them (Agentur Bilwet 1998). They seem to believe that it is possible to do these subversions from within, through series of small steps. An interesting offshoot of this concept is present in Lovink’s “theory of the sovereign media” (revised version in Lovink and Richardson 2001).


This view is not shared by another influential collective, Critical Art Ensemble (CAE). In their book Digital Resistance, the CAE actually take the concept of the “tactical media.” The concept originated at the 1993 event/scene in Amsterdam called the Next 5 Minutes (N5M),[3] and was for the first time formulated at the N5M meeting in 1996:


The term “tactical media” refers to a critical usage and theorization of media practices that draw on all forms of old and new, both lucid and sophisticated media, for achieving a variety of specific noncommercial goals and pushing all kinds of potentially subversive political issues. (quoted in the Critical Art Ensemble 2001: 5)


 The importance of the cultural context is emphasized as well (Critical Art Ensemble 2001: 7), so this is actually another area where anthropologists could have something to say. The new social forms arise from the reconfiguration of meanings (CAE: “by any media necessary”) that allow the participants/actors to adjust to given situations. Furthermore, the activism associated with the concept of the tactical media allows for the participants/actors not to be “invested in institutionalized systems of knowledge production and policy construction, and hence do not have irresistible forces guiding the outcome of their process such as maintaining a place in the funding hierarchy, or maintaining prestige-capital” (Critical Art Ensemble 2001: 8-9). As one of the examples of this activism, the CAE mention the work done by various political activist groups (like the ACT UP in the US, or the TAC in South Africa) on shaping or influencing the policies regarding the HIV/AIDS.


The spaces opened up and created by the tactical media are just some examples of the new spaces opening up for research in the forthcoming years. The new artistic forms (such as CD-ROMs, “body art,” MP3) create plenty of new territories for interaction, construction and reconfiguration of meanings and identities. Of course, whether our colleagues and friends in the field of anthropology will take this challenge up still remains to be seen.






Agentur Bilwet (1998) Arhiv medija. Translated by Goran Vujasinovic & Bastard Trans/Lation Machine, Djordje Matic, Hrvoje Glavac, Ada Beier, and Boris Buden. Zagreb: Arkzin.

Augé, Marc (1995 [1992]) Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. Translated by John Howe. London: Verso.

Baudrillard, Jean (1983) In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities. New York: Semiotext(e).

Bosma, Josephine, Pauline Van Mourik Broekman, Ted Byfield, Matthew Fuller, Geert Lovink, Diana McCarty, Pit Schultz, Felix Stalder, McKenzie Wark, and Faith Wilding (eds.) (1999) Readme! Filtered by Nettime: ASCII Culture and the Revenge of Knowledge. New York: Autonomedia.

Boskovic, Aleksandar (1997) Virtual Places: Imagined Boundaries and Hyperreality in Southeastern Europe. CTheory Vol. 20, No. 3, Article 54. <>

Critical Art Ensemble (2001) Digital Resistance. New York: Autonomedia.

 <All the books and most of the texts of the CAE are available at>

Featherstone, Mike, and Roger Burrows (1995) Cultures of Technological Embodiment: An Introduction. In: Cyberspace/Cyberbodies/Cyberpunk: Cultures of Technological Embodiment, Featherstone and Burrows (eds.). London: Sage.

Fletcher, Gordon (1997) …Towards and Anthropology of Cyberspace. <>.   

Horrocks, Christopher (2000) Marshall McLuhan and Virtuality. London: Icon Books.

Isdale, Jerry (1998) What is Virtual Reality? <>.   

Jones, Steve (ed.) (1994) Cybersociety. London: Sage.

Kolar-Panov, Dona (1997) Video, War and the Diasporic Imagination. London: Routledge.

Kroker, Arthur, and Marylouise Kroker (1996) Hacking the Future. Montréal: New World Perspectives.

Lovink, Geert, and Joanne Richardson (2001) Notes on Sovereign Media. Subsol Webzine, Number 2.


Lyotard, François (1984[orig. 1979]) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

McLuhan, Marshall (1964) Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: Signet.

Morse, Margaret (1998) Virtualities: Television, Media Art, and Cyberculture. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Oguibe, Olu (1996) Forsaken Geographies: Cyberspace and the New World ‘Other’. Paper presented at the 5th International Cyberspace Conference, Madrid, June 1996.

Poster, Mark (2002) Visual studies as media studies. Journal of Visual Culture 1(1): 67-70.

Rheingold, Howard (1991) Virtual Reality. London: Mandarin Books.

Spitulnik, Debra (1993) Anthropology and mass media. Annual Review of Anthropology 22: 293-315.

Sterling, Bruce (1990) Cyberspace (™). Interzone 41. <>

Steur, J. (1992) Defining Virtual Reality: Dimensions Determining Telepresence. Journal of Communications 42(4): 73-93.

Tambini, Damian (1999) New media and democracy: The civic networking movement. New Media & Society 1(3): 305-329.

*  Acknowledgments. This is a revised version of the paper presented at the workshop Anthropology’s Challenge: The Contemporary Cultural Complexities (Marian Kempny and Rajko Muršiè, organizers) of the 7th Biennial EASA conference, Copenhagen, Denmark, 16-17 August 2002.

I am very grateful to Professor David Coplan (University of the Witwatersrand) for his suggestions regarding this paper, as well as to Dr. Rajko Muršiè (University of Ljubljana) for inviting me to take part in the EASA panel that he co-organized. The paper was written while I was Visiting Researcher in the Department of Social Anthropology, University of the Witwatersrand. I acknowledge my debt to Igor Markoviæ (MaMa, Zagreb) and Vuk Æosiæ (Literal, Ljubljana). All the errors, omissions and value judgments are my own.


[1]  “Following Sterling (1990), cyberspace is best considered as a generic term which refers to a cluster of different technologies, some familiar, some only recently available, some being developed and some still fictional, all of which have in common the ability to simulate environments within which humans can interact. Other authors prefer the term computer-mediated communication (CMC) (Jones 1994) to refer to much the same set of phenomena” (Feathersone and Burrows 1995:  5). The same authors make a distinction between “Barlovian cyberspace,”“Virtual reality,” and “Gibsonian cyberspace.” Cf. also Sterling 1990, Steur 1992, and Morse 1998.


[2]  Augé refers to the queues in banks, ATM machines, airport lobbies, etc. – all of these are places where people are engaged in some form of social interaction, but places that have (so far) not been studied as such.


[3]  Which was in turn inspired by de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life.