Arturo Escobar, (1994) Current Anthropology

In “Welcome to Cyberia, Arturo Escobar provides details how anthropological research methods can be used to explore and better understand cyberculture. The fact that “technologies are bringing about a fundamental transformation in the structure and meaning of modern society” (211) warrants an anthropological approach to research. According to Escobar, to articulate an “anthropology of cyberculture” (211) we need to move away from the idea that technology is value-neutral and independent of socioeconomic and political contexts. Taking a constructivist approach, we could recognize the situated-ness of tech and its relationship to social processes in order to reveal the  inter-relatedness of technology, society, and nature. Research from this perspective would result in “a multipath and multilevel evolutionary model of technological change” (212) that identifies socially relevant groups and their interpretations of the technologies they encounter to provide insight into the common uses of  technologies and their adoption.

An inquiry into cyberculture necessitates reflection upon the notion of modernity, where we situate ourselves in relation to it , and the arrangement of life within this period. (Post? Escobar: perhaps we have not left it since capital and science still dominate) Drawing on Foucault, if modernity is characterized by certain arrangements life, labor, language, and related practices, it would be important to investigate whether or not (and how) cyberculture reproduces these arrangements. Acknowledging these arrangements is important because modernity “constitutes the ‘background of understanding’ – the taken for granted tradition and way of being…that inevitably shapes the discourses and practices generated by and around the new technologies.” (214) For example, modernity has supplied us with the idea of technology as a neutral tool that draws on natural energy to transform everyday life. {While likely the creation and use of tech relies on resources and assumptions such as: building these technologies via labor and resources provides greater good to the world than protecting the welfare of the individuals and environments that is required to create it.}

To study technology anthropologically, one could investigate the rituals it initiates, the social relations it creates, the practices users develop, and values the users/technologies foster. Though Escobar focuses on AI and Biotech, the anthropological inquiries he outlines could be applied more broadly:

  • *“What new forms of social construction of reality (‘technoscapes’) and of negotiation of such construction(s) are introduced by new technology? How do people routinely engage technoscapes, and what are the consequences of doing so in terms of the adoption of new ways of thinking and being?”*
  • “What established anthropological concepts and methods would be appropriate to the study of cyberculture?” How will notions of community/fieldwork/the body/nature/writing/etc. Be transformed by tech? (some answers starting to emerge on this already)
  • Which modern practices (life, labor, language) shape our relations to tech?
  • What is the political economy of tech? How does the local reflect the flows of global capital?

Reflecting that “only with modern science and technology studies has the possibility arisen of seeing science and technology in relation to complex techno social systems” (215), Escobar highlights several past attempts to articulate an anthropological investigation of science and tech. He mentions Margaret Mead’s work in cybernetics as an important precursor to 3 projects:

  1. David Thomas’ work on cyberspace and the cyborg and the social productions of certain technologies and virtual worlds
  2. “Cyborg Anthropology – ethnographic study of the boundaries between humans and machines” displacing “Anthropos” as the main unit of study coming to the understanding that “human and social reality is as much a product of machines as of human activity, that we should grant agency to machines…to examine ethnographically how technology serves as an agent of social and cultural production.” (216)
  3. “’Anthropology of, and in, cyberspace’ [in which] anthropologists would study technologies in the cultural contexts from which they originate and in which they operate…[in order to] describe, in the manner of an initial cultural diagnosis, what is happening in terms of the emerging practices and transformations associated with rising techno-scientific developments.” (216)

Regardless of which approach is taken,  “all of these analyses need to take into account the social and cultural relations of science and technology as central mechanism for the production of life and culture in the 21st century” keeping in mind that capital will continue to play a dominant role in shaping life and society and reinventing nature for its own exploitation. Some anthropological investigations of tech that Escobar suggests include:

  • Production and use of new technologies – following scientists and experts through development etc.
  • The production of subjectivities, computer as “an evocative object”, “technologies of the self”
  • Reconstruction of space and the body
  • Computer-mediated communities and “interface anthropology” that investigates human/computer interfaces
  • Effect of science and tech development on popular imaginaries and the “aesthetic and practical incorporation of technology into daily life”
  • Techno-literacy and practices that help people use and relate to new tech
  • Computer-mediated communication, human interaction via computers, changes in communicative and linguistic practices, and relationship between machines and subjects to produce discourse(s)
  • Political economy of cyberculture, tech and changes in capital accumulation, the relationship between information and capital, possible “mode of information” much like “mode of production”, and how information, science and tech have become crucial to capital accumulation, etc.

Escobar’s “Welcome to Cyberia” provides simulating ideas for jumping off points  and methodological possibilities for exploring use of technology in higher education. More on that HERE.

Cite: Escobar, A. (1994) “Welcome to Cyberia: Notes on the Anthropology of Cyberculture”.  Current Anthropology 35(3), 211-231.