Digital Ethnography

Digging in the Digital Database of the Mundane

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I am working with a fantastic group of scholars preparing a session for the American Anthropological Association meetings in San Francisco in November. I thought I would share with you the latest draft of my abstract and gather some feedback, comments, and ideas. Here it is:

Throughout the world, people are increasingly uploading detailed information about their lives onto the web via tweets, tags, blogs, vlogs, photos, and videos. Even more is uploaded unintentionally, as much of what we do now leaves a digital trail. The transformation of physical objects into digital ones through the use of RFID tags and 2D barcodes promises to exponentially increase the amount of digital debris our movements leave behind. Meanwhile, emerging web standards such as XML, RSS, RDF, and GeoRSS are enabling this information to become both the form and content of a massive interactive database of the mundane: a nearly ubiquitous always-on, context-aware, semantic, social, and mobile network of information, people, and things. While such proclamations of radical change are now commonplace, the actual production of anthropological knowledge remains relatively unchanged. What happens to the way we do anthropology when we fully accept the implications of living digitally? In this presentation, I will suggest that the digital mediascape has created an untapped potential for a form of digital archeology, unearthing and sorting the masses of digital information being produced to see cultural patterns previously unrecognized. As an illustration, a digital “dig” of San Francisco will attempt to account for all of the digital data currently being produced in the city. Using Google Maps mashups and other data visualizations such as those produced by the Exploratorium’s Invisible Dynamics project, this presentation will explore the provocative notion that we may be able to create a new genre for ethnographic description and interpretation by writing small programs and APIs to organize, aggregate and represent cultural information.

Comments

  1. achilles3

    February 20, 2008

    You’ve left another well thought-out digital trail, professor. :-)
    Well done!

  2. Kevin Guidry

    February 20, 2008

    The only thing that really caught my eye was the word “exponential” in the third sentence. It caught my eye because it’s become a very overused and misunderstood word. If it is what you really mean to say, particularly in an academic and scholarly context where it may be challenged, go with it. Otherwise, it might be better to find another word or phrase that expresses the same meaning (“increasing very rapidly”) without the excess mathematical baggage.

  3. Kevin Mahoney

    February 21, 2008

    Thanks for uploading this…I check into this site every once in a while. Next week I will be showing “A Vision of Students Today” to both my College Composition and Advanced Composition classes.

    I don’t know if you are familiar with the composition textbook, _Rhetorical Visions_ or not, but your work lends itself to that text quite nicely. In my Advanced Composition course we talk about “available means” in our contemporary culture–including the digital environment.

    Just wanted to add to the “digital trail” for ya!

  4. Brian Goodman

    February 23, 2008

    Some thoughts…

    >>>The transformation of physical objects into digital ones…

    Certainly this is true, however the prior sentence describes how our interactions with this content – often content we did not create – through tagging, rating and commenting leaves fingerprints. So it is really, the transformation of physical objects and the passive recording of online interactions that are transforming, persisting and in the end mediating future experiences. The connective tissue we weave in interacting with content is itself content. The scale of this data greatly outweighs that of RFID etc.

    I agree with the comment on the word exponential. I wouldn’t replace the word as much as highlight the point if it is important. The growth of digital information will increase by unbounded measures eclipsing our ability to digest this content – we are there, but wait until even the masses can no longer filter and we will actually need a super computer to browse the web.

    >>>In this presentation, I will suggest that the digital mediascape has created an untapped potential for a form of digital archeology, unearthing and sorting the masses of digital information being produced to see cultural patterns previously unrecognized.

    This is the start of your sell and it could be crisper. You provide a vivid pop context and throw an academic punch line. I would re-think how to keep the jazz. Why is this as exciting as the context you created?

    I am interested to see what you end up with.

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Our work explores how humans use media, how media uses us, and how we can use new media to reveal our insights in new ways.

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