What is digital anthropology? In an ongoing blog series, VINAYA's in-house anthropologist Sammi demonstrates through exploring different questions and ideas. Here, she explores how a the question of how technology impacts real human connection.
When I tell people I am a ‘digital anthropologist’, I'm often met with surprise that such a thing exists. A relatively new and very particular perspective within the social sciences, digital anthropology refers to the study of the relationship between humans and digital-era technology. The aim of this discipline is to question how categories, such as 'digital' and 'technology', are being used on a colloquial level to produce particular ways of experiencing our modern world.
So how does this apply to your life? In this blog series, I’ll aim to show this by applying a digital anthropologist’s analysis to different questions. The first question is one that sits at the core of VINAYA’s mission: How do we enable real human connections in the face of digital mediation?
Rather than attempting to answer such a multifaceted question within the confines of a single blog post, I instead will propose a series of questions. Just as an anthropologist must start with the right questions to engage in their fieldwork, we believe that we can only begin to approach the subject of how humans interact with technology by posing the right questions.
1. What makes our digital devices unique?
First, we must recognise the danger of falling into the realm of relativism. A relativist discussion of ‘human connection’ states that digital devices do not interfere with human interaction or connection any more, or any less, than any other artefact in human history. Even the face-to-face conversations we have are examined through a cultural lens– meaning human connection can never exist outside of a cultural and material context or frame.
Is this a legitimate line of analysis? While there is certainly an argument to be made for the consistent mediation of human interaction throughout history, this kind of approach undermines the moral and political implications of our scientific and technological artefacts. You only have to take a glance around to see how the smartphone, a human artefact, has significantly impacted the way we communicate. It has a much more profound impact on how we as humans interact with one another than for instance the cardboard box or the ping pong ball.
In fact, we could say that today our smartphones, tablets and laptops have become much more than an artefact– they have become an extension of self. What exactly is it about our modern digital devices that differentiate them from the previous, more subtle ‘frames’ through which we as humans have experienced daily life?
2. How do humans interact with their technological devices?
More importantly than the nature of our devices, we must ask ourselves what they do to us. There is an increasing body of scientific research telling us that our hyper-connectivity habits make us unhappy, despite their design to bring us instant gratification. This is where we can ask ourselves, how are technological devices affecting our social relationships? We're more connected than ever online, but is this true human connection?
The nature of digital mediation, and the general goal driving innovation in consumer technology, is to achieve an increasing amount of speed, accessibility, and visibility. By virtue of always being a click of a mouse or a tap of a finger away, we have become increasingly impatient as we expect responses to be equally as immediate as our technologies afford them to be. Perhaps it is these expectations that we have become uncomfortable with, and that make us feel less ourselves– less human.
3. What is the difference between ‘human’ and ‘digital, ‘real’ and ‘virtual’?
In determining our subjects, we must first understand the difference between these categories before we can compare them to each other– especially as this differentiation becomes increasingly difficult to make. With terms like 'biohacking' and 'transhumanism' entering the public psyche, it is a question that will only continue to be more and more complex to formulate an answer to. But by posing this question, we can begin to see how these categories are being used by the technologists and innovators employing them, and of course how they effect the end consumer. How can we then move forward to build products that take all of the above questions into mind?
Such open-ended questions are what we continually ask ourselves at VINAYA, and we recognise that a growing number of people around the world are beginning to ask themselves similar questions. It is certainly of use to think of these categorisations not as innate, but as reflective of broader needs and anxieties within society. Digital mediation is something we must approach with specificity.
So what is next for innovation? As a digital anthropologist, I’m certainly keen to keep observing closely.
Samantha Rosenthal is a digital anthropologist contributing to research at VINAYA with an MSc in Digital Anthropology from UCL. She is an American living in London and wine enthusiast.