Why I Study Cyborg Anthropology.

Sketchbook Image of Technological AdoptionTraditionally…

The traditional form of Anthropological study is stereotyped by outings to third world countries to study “the anthropological other”. However, I find it more challenging to study what’s happening to us as a series of technosocial a world mediated by dynamic objects, processes, and change. I first used cyborg anthropology to create an analysis of Facebook, as I was one of the first adopters of the platform. I later wrote my thesis on mobile telephony and the future of communication.

Donna Haraway, Deborah Heath and Robert Goldman

I was first introduced to cyborg anthropology by Deborah Heath, a friend of Donna Haraway’s. She was my professor and thesis advisor at Lewis & Clark college. I was also introduced to the concept of Light/Liquid Modernity by Robert Goldman, a sociology professor who specialized in advertising and sign culture. These two professors introduced me to a set of theories that I took immediately to my analysis of the real world. With Bob I studied traditional advertising from the 19th century, and afterwards,  advertising and business through postmodern theory.

The Digital Field Journal

I kept a digital journal during my last year of college that stored snapshots of the Internet. I used this platform to capture data over time in order to understand trends and patterns that worked their way into
conclusions. I also began to visit local businesses and network with corporate groups. Along the way, I began to realize that companies were fighting to understand social media and online presence through processes such as search engine optimization. Most of the marketers and company owners had extremely sophisticated profiles on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. I learned to embrace social networks from 30-50 year olds rather than from my peers. The methods of dispersing, collecting, and attracting people to data
and experience were completely new to me. I had only studied it from the context of an digital field journal before.

I realized very quickly that the qualitative and quantitative methods of anthropology were a perfect fit for cyberspace. These tools could be used to analyze the methods by which humans seek out and produce information in cyberspace. They could easily be used to improve and criticize interface design, user flows, data management, resource optimization, and the phenomenology of the online experience.

I used this new knowledge to secure a job in search engine marketing for a small startup company. This part time job guarantees a standard of living while I compile my research on the compression of time and space online, and the types of businesses that can survive in the digital jungle.

Conducting Research in Zero Gravity, Zero Friction Environment

The research is different than any I’ve ever done before. It is both simple and difficult with respect to traditional research. First, data collection is no problem. Humans are leaving a sort of geological history of themselves with every action they create online. Data management is becoming a series of lists, where things are new to old, or “most viewed” to “least viewed”. Old information sinks to the bottom of the data pile, but sometimes is dug up by future visitors, or data Paleontologists. Neglected or stale data is ignored and quickly buried by successive layers of data with a faster refresh rate. This is evident on Twitter, RSS readers, Facebook, YouTube and almost any new media platform in existence. It is also true on search engines like Google and Yahoo. Google Analytics can be easily used to track conversion rates and page views.

Some Limitations of Data Management

But data management needs certain tools or it becomes overwhelming. My own foray into social media caused me to rely on new tools to understand and soft through all of the data my profile and conversations was generating. I realized recently that this is PR 2.0. I now help companies understand and expand their online presence through intelligence feeds created through Yahoo! Pipes. The Yahoo! Pipe application I use takes relevant data from one site and relevant data from another and collects it into a single data feed. In this way, streams of relevant data can be created, instead of sorting through endless amounts of information that does not directly relate to one or one’s goals.

Another question comes up when this subject is accessed — the question of value and how it is created online. I’m studying the different patterns and ways value can be created online, and the natural systems that these values mirror.

The Construction of Value in an Age of Instant Duplication

For instance, what makes one link on Twitter is more valuable that another? What makes one’s Tweets are seen by thousands of people, while another’s Tweets are seen by 15. This is post-art in the age of mechanical reproduction. This is a world in which everything is infinitely reproducible. Disney’s Club Penguin has successfully harnessed this by implementing artificial scarcity in a controlled, secure environment. A
cyberspace within a cyberspace with its own rules. Facebook took another route. It’s story closely mirrors that of an early gold rush. The construction of value within that environment was tumorous. Too many of the
same application reduced the value of each application to near-zero levels.

Add Twitter

I chose Twitter as a social media platform of choice because it offers a sort of ‘omnipresence in the wired’ that other websites don’t. Twitter’s data is constantly flowing, while the text of most webpages and even blogs are still caught up in silos and behind opaque walls. This is where liquid modernity comes into play. Old industry is heavy and takes a long time to move. Light industry works best in frictionless environments. RSS feeds make data dynamic and accessible. Every page on a site can be a front door to content without the time liability that an extra click creates for a user trying to find the correct content. Networks that shorten the distance between content an action while reducing unnecessary and awkward interface transitions are generally more successful online than those that do not. To quote a student of Donna Haraway’s:

To ‘go virtual’ is to free the self from the weight of the flesh incarcerated by ‘heavy modernity’. Cyber Ethnologist Sandy Stone discusses the theoretical benefits of joining virtual communities:

Electronic virtual communities represent flexible, lively, and practical
adaptations to the real circumstances that confront persons seeking
community in what Haraway (1987) refers to as ‘the mythic time called
the late twentieth century.” They are part of a range of innovative
solutions to the drive for sociality—a drive that can be frequently thwarted
by the geographical and cultural realities of cities increasingly structured
according to the needs of powerful economic interests rather than in ways
that encourage and facilitate habitation and social interaction in the urban
context (Benedikt in Cyberspace, First Steps 1991: 111).

At a long dinner table, the person at the head of the table is physically distant from the person at the other end of the table. But online, everyone at the table can be the same distance apart. A 301 redirect can easily change an entire highway of traffic from one website location to another, while the brick and mortar manifestation of this concept involves bulldozers, urban planners, and millions of dollars.

There’s also the development of online communities as a recolonization of public space. As anthropological places create the organically social, so non-places create solitary contractility (Augé Non-Places: An Introduction to a Theory of Supermodernity 1995:94). Non-places are the sources of modern anomie. In Emelie Durkheim’s perspective, a malnourished public sphere deprives individuals of real social connections. In the face of this anomie, technosocial relationships mediated through the cell phone or social network allows an organic social network. Through the subject and the technology combined, the subject can become an Actor on the larger actor network (Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Theory). If the human spends time in a non-place, then the addition of a non-place accessed through the social group tears through the solitary contractuality characterized by the non-place. Both the place and the non-place can exist at once, because in the supermodern perspective all dichotomies blur into one another. The world is full of non-places and strangers. An airport is has nothing to do with history, identity, or relation. It is a liminal place – a space between spaces. It is the same with a highway or a supermarket.

Regaining Community After Isolation

The isolated human in the non-place seeks to reconnect with those in proximity, but cannot. The isolated human can either turn to an music comfort object such an ipod to regain a sense of place, or a network of
others sharing that same alienated strangeness.

What emerges from the fading social norms is naked, frightened, aggressive ego in search of love and help. In the search for itself and an affectionate sociality, it easily gets lost in the jungle of the self…Someone who is poking around in the fog of his of his or her own self is no longer capable of noticing that this isolation, this ‘solitary-confinement of the ego’ is a mass sentence. [Ulrich Beck, 40 in Bauman’s Liquid Modernity 2000:37].

Twitter allows the “everyday” to be discussed, and thus it reopens the public sphere to discussion. But, modern information, or ‘light information’ is only accessible by hybrids (those whose social landscapes are mediated by technological exchange), or those who are capable of liminally transforming into technosocial hybrids or ‘light industrial’ objects. It is not enough to simply liminally transition. The online self is becoming omniscient and omnipresent. Each network allows one to digitize different elements of one’s
lived reality of ‘everydayness’.

Post-Isolation, Social Rules Begin to Reappear

An entire set of new social roles have developed around the use of technology. Erving Goffman’s “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” relates directly to this. A profile Is another extension of connection and
etiquette that can be optimized or used poorly. In a reputation economy, companies are breaking down into social constructs as well. The days of billboard approximation are dissolving into one-on-one company/customer communications where the user co-creates the psychology of the online space just as much as the creator. In this world, the concepts of physics are even more prevalent. The shape of space makes people move, and flow of people shapes space.

Entering into a network by becoming part cyborg creates the ability for the subject to augment social and physical capabilities. The cell phone allows people to be more omniscient and omnipresent. Technology allows one to transcend more readily the confines of the flesh-burdened human body. Information stored on the computer can be seen as accessed by many at once, allowing copies of a person’s essence to
be present in many places at once.

Maureen McHugh once wrote that “soon, perhaps, it will be impossible to tell where human ends and machines begin”.

What part of us connects to others when we use a cell phone? If the cell phone is the carrying device for our auditory avatars, are we still fully human when we use it? Online, when we use Twitter, are we living more fully and quickly than we ever could in real life? I think so. When I sit at long table with twenty seats, I can’t communicate with twenty people at once, but online, everyone is the same distance away, if I choose them to be. Also, I don’t have to worry if there’s a rude guest sitting across from me. I can silence that person with a short click of a button. Spam be gone.

Not that I’m suggesting that dinner parties be replaced by Twitter conversations, by any means. Rather, I’m suggesting that Twitter is a way to filter through and find a bunch of gems across space and time that one can really interface really well with in real life. Twitter also adds another dimension onto life — this sort of backchannel rapid communication. That way, when you have a dinner party full of Twitter people, you can all feel like you’ve known each other for a lot longer than you really have. And maybe not have to worry about the spammers.


Amber Case is a Cyborg Anthropologist and New Media consultant living in Portland, Oregon. You can find her on Twitter @caseorganic, or may contact her via E-mail at caseorganic at gmail.com.