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Ethnography, Technology, Industry: The 105th Annual American Anthropological Association Meeting

I recently had the opportunity to visit and present at the 105th Annual American Anthropological Association Meeting in San Jose, California, deep in the Silicon Valley, where I attended several panels on the intersection of ethnography, digital information technology, and the digital information technology industry. The following is an account of my experience:The AAA meeting opened on Tuesday, November 14th with the Society for Visual Anthropology Visual Research Conference. On Wednesday, the Visual Research Conference continued with a presentation from Kate Hennessy on her work with the Doig River First Nation in Northern British Columbia. Kate and her team of scholars worked in collaboration with Doig River elders, youth and leaders to created a documentary website: Dane Wajich - Dane-Zaa Stories and Songs: Dreamers and the Land. The website is hosted by the Virtual Museum Canada (which itself is fascinating; there is a My Personal Museum feature, it?s not a great interface, but it?s a very intriguing idea). Kate explained to us how and why Dane Wajich came to be centered around a very specific Dreamer?s drum. I wish Kate had spoke more about the collaborative nature of the web design because it seemed to me to be the same old template you see on commerce and other websites, but I was assured by Kate and others who were worked on the project that the Doig River people with whom they worked did influence the web design, I just wish I had the chance to hear how. But, I?ve put in an email to Kate and hopefully I?ll have an update to share with you shortly. Wednesday evening played host to a panel titled "Video Games and Anthropology," however I missed that one as I was hopping between other panels to catch single presentations.On Thursday morning I attended a panel titled, "Anthropology at the Crossroads of Digital Society: Virtual Worlds and Their Challenge to Anthropological Thought." This was a heavy hitter, it began with Tom Boellstorff?s presentation, "Virtually Human: Place and Selfhood in Second Life," in which he argued for the concept "virtually human." Tom, who is a professor in Anthropology at UC Irvine, argued that we are all "virtually human;" we have to learn how to exist in our social contexts, whether they be online, in the virtual world of Second Life, or offline, in the halls of academia. Next was Douglas Thomas from USC Annenberg Center who presented on "The Boundaries of Play" in online video games. He surveyed several games and the ways in which the cross the boundaries of play into arenas of choreographed in-game dance performances, as in the Cantina Crawls of Star Wars Galaxies, and websites promoting hate speech and virtual hate crimes against Korean players who had become too skilled in the game to be tolerated by American players. After Doug, came Genevieve Bell of Intel. Genevieve?s title was "Does Jesus do SMS? Towards a New Ethnography of Religion." Her presentation was fascinating. The statistics themselves were fascinating: 82 million Americans, that?s 64% of all wired Americans, use the internet for religious or spiritual purposes. But, Genevieve?s presentation was not contained to the American relationship between religion and technology, in fact her title came from the headline making story of the forced cancellation of a Finnish SMS service where the faithful, or just curious, could, for a fee, text message Jesus, who would reply back. I told you it was fascinating. Following Genevieve was Mizuko Ito, also of USC Annenberg Center, who spoke about the super-popular website, 300 million users world wide, Neopets. Don?t feel bad if you haven?t heard of Neopets, it?s target audience is elementary school aged children. Mimi?s presentation was titled, "Neopoints and Neo Economies: Emergent Regimes of Value in Kids Peer-to-Peer Networks." Neopoints are the exchange units kids use to buy and sell commodities in Neopets. Again, fascinating. The last presentation was given by the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee?s Thomas Malaby, "Games and the Anti-Bureaucratic in Virtual Worlds," and like Tom (Boellstorff), Tom (Malaby) spoke of how one must learn how to act in virtual worlds. The papers were followed by a discussion with Michael Silverstein of the University of Chicago who eloquently contextualized the panel as a whole.The next panel on this intersection of the digital and the ethnographic took place on Friday morning. It was titled, "Beyond E-Text: Exploring the Possibilities and Challenges of Digital Ethnography" and I actually walked in halfway through while the aforementioned Kate Hennessy was presenting her aforementioned presentation. Following Kate was Peter Biella of San Francisco State University with his presentation, "Coherent Labyrinths: Aesthetics and Intelligibility in Digital Ethnography." Peter used the examples of Chartres Cathedral and a Perry Mason novel to discuss the concept of labyrinths in relation to ethnography. He explained how good labyrinths, like that in the floor of Chartres Cathedral and the plot line of Perry Mason novels, lead the audience along a path that crosses back upon itself allowing for pause and reflection along the way. Peter continued to suggest that this is how digital ethnographies should operate. I agree, but it was Mike Wesch's presentation that really struck a chord for me because of its particular relevance to my research interests. Mike's presentation was titled "What Phantoms are Lurking in Hypermedia Ethnography 2.0? Presenting Edmund Carpenter?s Media Studies of New Guinea in Web 2.0." I am anxiously awaiting the paper on which it was based to arrive in my gmail inbox. Mike used Edmund Carpenter?s 1972 study, "Oh What a Blow That Phantom Gave Me!" in which Carpenter explored the effects of photography and film on tribal people in New Guinea to address how, just as the New Guineas ideas of self changed upon their discovery of photography and film half a century ago, our ideas of self may be changing as we make developments in new media. This was particularly relevant to my research interests because I am looking at how the activity of online social networking is an identity and community forming process and how that activity changes our ideas regarding identity and community. Mike?s presentation was the last in the panel. Liam Buckley served brilliantly as the discussant.The last panel I want to address was titled, "Dangerous Intersections and Critical Issues of Anthropology at Intel ? A Leap Ahead" which took place on Saturday afternoon and which I mentioned as the best use of a corporate slogan and conference theme (it was Critical Intersections/Dangerous Issues) in reverse on Savage Minds, a great anthro blog. As you may have guessed, the papers were all about Anthropology at Intel, and although they were all excellent, I am only going to discuss one: "'Um... I Think We Need Counseling...' Working Through Differences in Collaborative Fieldwork" by Todd Harple. Todd presented about the differences in approach between Anthropologists and other staff in his Domestic Designs and Technologies Research department at Intel. I got the chance to talk to Todd about the use of ethnography in corporate and non-Anthropological academic settings and we both agreed that a lot of what people are doing and calling ethnography is not, but that?s not to say that these non-traditional research methods are not valuable, rather Anthropology and corporate and non-Anthropological academic settings need to be more collaborative with each other, both sides are guilty of hiding in their own shadows. So, bring it! If you need an Anthropologist, you know where to reach me.


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