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Paper: The failures & promises of transport infrastructure in a remote Canadian town

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Budka, P. (2022). The failures and promises of transport infrastructure in a remote Canadian town. Paper at 17th Biennial Conference of the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA), Belfast, UK: Queen’s University Belfast, 26-29 July.

Abstract

This paper explores changes in the transport infrastructure of the remote town of Churchill in northern Manitoba, Canada. The town of about 900 residents is located on the 58th parallel north at the Hudson Bay and has become known as the “polar bear capital of the world”. Churchill is unique in terms of transportation. Canada’s only deep-water port on the Arctic Ocean is located there. And this port is the only port in the American (Sub)Arctic with a direct link to the North American railway network. The town, which is inaccessible via roads, only exists because of these transport infrastructures.

In 2017, when a flood washed out railway tracks, this infrastructural entanglement once again became apparent. Suddenly, Churchill was without overland access and life changed drastically. Food and other items had to be flown in at high costs and residents utilized snowmobile trails to reduce transportation costs. The port had to close, people lost their jobs and families left. The town negotiated with the province, the state and the company which owned the railway to get the tracks fixed. After 18 months, they were finally repaired. In 2021, however, the port again was closed for grain shipping due to renovations.

By discussing results of a first ethnographic field trip to Churchill, this paper focuses on the failures and promises of transport infrastructures. Churchill is one of several field sites in the ERC project InfraNorth, which looks into affordances of transport infrastructures on a pan-Arctic scale through an anthropological lens.

Interview: Erkundungen von Kanadas nördlichen Transportinfrastrukturen

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In May 2022, I did an interview with the Austrian Polar Research Institute (APRI) about my fieldwork on transport infrastructures in Northern Manitoba, Canada, within the ERC project InfraNorth.

Interview for Austrian Polar Research Institute. (2022). “Erkundungen von Kanadas nördlichen Transportinfrastrukturen“.
Interview in English (translated by APRI)

Austrian Polar Research Institute (Photo by Philipp Budka)

Blog Post: A train ride to Hudson Bay

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Budka, P. (2022). A train ride to Hudson Bay. InfraNorth – Building Arctic Futures: Transport Infrastructures and Sustainable Northern Communities Blog, 25 April.

I wake up because a bright light is shining directly in my face. For a second, I am not sure where I am. Then I remember: I am in Canada, in the province of Manitoba, on the train from the capital Winnipeg to the small northern town of Churchill at the Hudson Bay. I am in my cabin, in the sleeping car with the window blinds open so I can see the subarctic night sky. The train must have stopped at one of the small places along its way. I look at the clock, it’s 2:30 a.m. I am 40 hours on the train and there are only about eight hours to go.

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Churchill train station, MB, Canada (Photo by Philipp Budka)

Paper: Anthropological notes on digital & transport infrastructures in remote communities

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Budka, P. (2021). Anthropological notes on digital and transport infrastructures in remote communities. Paper at Anthropology of Technology Conference, Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus University, 4-5 November.

Abstract

This paper explores the role of digital and transport infrastructures, as operational systems of technological objects (Larkin, 2013), in remote communities in Canada. In doing so, it considers anthropological insights into the relationship between “the technical”, “the infrastructural” and “the sociocultural”.

The development and maintenance of technological infrastructures, for instance, also include the creation of social relations and organisational partnerships. And a deeper understanding of related processes of socio-technical change and continuity requires anthropologically informed contextualisation and ethnographic engagement.

This paper discusses aspects of the similarities and differences of digital and transport infrastructures by building on fieldwork on the development and use of digital infrastructures and related services in remote First Nation communities in Northwestern Ontario and by including preparatory work for a project on the affordances of transport infrastructures in the Canadian North.

Paper: Indigenizing digital futures

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Budka, P. (2021). Indigenizing digital futures: The case of a web-based environment for remote First Nation communities in Northwestern Ontario, Canada. Paper at German Anthropological Association Conference, Online (hosted by University of Bremen, Germany), 27 September – 1 October.

Abstract

Exploring digital phenomena, processes and practices in an indigenous context point to the fact that the mediation of culture and the formation of identity include the mixing and recombination of cultural elements (e.g. Budka 2019). Such an “indigenization” perspective (Sahlins 1999) promotes an open and dynamic understanding of digital culture and offers a critical view of Euro-American centred concepts of digital modernity, such as “the digital age” and “the network society”, that imply a unilinear evolutionary world view that tends to ignore culturally different ascriptions of meaning to digital realities (Ginsburg 2008).

Between 1998 and 2019, the free and community-controlled web-based environment MyKnet.org, which was operated by the First Nations internet organization KO-KNET, enabled residents of remote communities in Northwestern Ontario, Canada, to establish their own web presence, to communicate and interact, and to create and share content. Through an anthropologically informed approach that advocates the significance of indigenous realities in understanding the diversity of digital life and by building on ethnographic fieldwork, this paper discusses how digital futures were imagined and shaped in and in relation to MyKnet.org.

Paper: The rise & fall of an indigenous web-based platform

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Budka, P. (2021). The rise and fall of an indigenous web-based platform in Northwestern Ontario, Canada. Paper at Research Infrastructure for the Study of Archived Web Materials (RESAW21) Conference: “Mainstream vs Marginal Content in Web History and Web Archives”, Online (hosted by University of Luxembourg, Luxembourg), 17-18 June.

Abstract

In 1998, the Kuh-ke-nah Network (KO-KNET), an internet organization established by the tribal council Keewaytinook Okimakanak (KO) to connect remote First Nation communities in Canada’s Northwestern Ontario to the internet, developed the web-based platform MyKnet.org. This platform was set up exclusively for First Nations people to create personal homepages within a cost- and commercial-free space on the web.

By the early 2000s, a wide set of actors across Northwestern Ontario, a region with an overall indigenous population of about 45,000, had found a new home on this digital platform. During its heyday between 2004 and 2008, MyKnet.org had more than 30,000 registered user accounts and about 25,000 active homepages. With the advent and rise of commercial social media platforms user numbers began to drop. To reduce administrative and technical costs, KO-KNET decided to switch to WordPress as hosting platform in 2014. Since this required users to set up new websites, numbers continued to fall. In early 2019, there were only 2,900 homepages left and MyKnet.org was shut down a couple of months later.

MyKnet.org used to be extremely popular among First Nations people. As I found out during my ethnographic fieldwork in Northwestern Ontario (six months between 2006 and 2008, including participant observation and 96 interviews) and in MyKnet.org (between 2006 and 2014) this was mainly because of two reasons.

  1. People utilized MyKnet.org to establish and maintain social relations across spatial distance in an infrastructurally disadvantaged region. They regularly visited the homepages of friends and family members to see what they were up to, they communicated via message boxes, and they interlinked their homepages.
  2. MyKnet.org contributed to different forms of cultural representation and identity construction. Homepage producers used the platform to represent themselves, their families, and their communities by displaying and sharing pictures, music, texts, website layouts, and artwork. Such practices not only required people to learn digital skills, they also contributed to the creation of a web-based indigenous territory on the web (Budka, 2019).

This paper explores the rise and fall of MyKnet.org, aiming thus to contribute to the analysis of missing and marginalized internet and web histories (Driscoll & Paloque-Berges, 2017). By considering the historical and cultural contexts of First Nations’ everyday life and by drawing from ethnographic fieldwork, it critically reviews theoretical accounts and conceptualizations of change and continuity that have been developed in an anthropology of media and technology (e.g., Pfaffenberger, 1992; Postill, 2017) and in postcolonial technoscience (e.g., Anderson, 2002). In doing so, it examines how sociotechnical change and cultural continuity can be conceptualized in relation to each other and in the context of (historical) processes of digital decoloniality.

During fieldwork many people told me stories about their first MyKnet.org websites in the early 2000s, how they evolved and what they meant to them. People vividly described how their homepages were designed, structured, and to which other websites they were linked. To deepen my interpretation and understanding of these narratives, I used the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine to recover archived versions of these websites whenever possible. Thus, the Wayback Machine became an additional methodological tool for my ethnographic research into the history and social life of MyKnet.org.

References

  • Anderson, W. (2002). Introduction: Postcolonial technoscience. Social Studies of Science, 32(5–6), 643–658.
  • Budka, P. (2019). Indigenous media technologies in “the digital age”: Cultural articulation, digital practices, and sociopolitical concepts. In S. S. Yu & M. D. Matsaganis (Eds.), Ethnic media in the digital age (pp. 162-172). New York: Routledge.
  • Driscoll, K., & Paloque-Berges, C. (2017). Searching for missing “net histories”. Internet Histories, 1(1–2), 47–59.
  • Pfaffenberger, B. (1992). Social anthropology of technology. Annual Review of Anthropology, 21, 491–516.
  • Postill, J. (2017). The diachronic ethnography of media: From social changing to actual social changes. Moment. Journal of Cultural Studies, 4(1), 19–43.

MyKnet.org: Traces of digital decoloniality in an indigenous web-based environment

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This blog post is a shorter version of a paper presented at the Engaging with Web Archives (EWA20) conference in September 2020 (Book of Abstracts).
Budka, P. (2020). MyKnet.org: Traces of digital decoloniality in an indigenous web-based environment. Paper at Engaging with Web Archives (EWA20): “Opportunities, Challenges and Potentialities”, Online (hosted by Maynooth University), 21-22 September.

This blog post builds on selected results of an anthropological project that explored various indigenous engagements with digital media, technologies and infrastructures in Northwestern Ontario, Canada (e.g., Budka, 2015, 2019; Budka et al. 2009). The project was conducted in cooperation with the First Nations internet organization Keewaytinook Okimakanak Kuh-ke-nah Network (KO-KNET).

In this post I briefly reflect upon traces of “digital decoloniality”, a concept borrowed from Alexandra Deem (2019), by exploring selected aspects of the sociotechnical history of KO-KNET’s web-based environment MyKnet.org and by discussing facets of a MyKnet.org user’s digital biography.

KO-KNET & MyKnet.org

KO-KNET Network, 2010, courtesy of KO-KNET

In 1994, the tribal council Keewaytinook Okimakanak (KO) established the Kuh-ke-nah Network (KO-KNET) to connect Canada’s indigenous people in Northwestern Ontario’s remote communities through and to the internet. At that time, a local telecommunication infrastructure was almost non-existent. KO-KNET started with a simple bulletin board system that developed into a community-controlled ICT infrastructure, which today includes landline and satellite broadband internet as well as internet-based mobile phone communication (e.g. Fiser & Clement, 2012).

Together with local, regional and national partners, KO-KNET developed different services: from e-health and an internet high school to different remote training programs. The most mundane of those services was the digital environment MyKnet.org, which enabled First Nations people to create personal homepages within a cost- and commercial-free space on the web.

MyKnet.org was set up in 1998 exclusively for the First Nations people of Northwestern Ontario. By the early 2000s, a wide set of actors across Northwestern Ontario, a region with an overall indigenous population of about 45,000, had found a new home on this web-based platform. During its heyday, MyKnet.org had more than 30,000 registered user accounts and about 25,000 active homepages.

With the advent and rise of commercial social media platforms, such as Facebook, user numbers began to drop. To reduce administrative and technical costs, KO-KNET decided to switch to WordPress as hosting platform in 2014. Since this required users to set up new websites, numbers continued to fall. In early 2019, there were only 2,900 homepages left and MyKnet.org was shut down a couple of months later.

Continue reading MyKnet.org: Traces of digital decoloniality in an indigenous web-based environment

Presentation: MyKnet.org: The cultural history & social life of an indigenous web-based environment

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Budka, P. (2019). MyKnet.org: The cultural history and social life of an indigenous web-based environment. Paper at “The Web That Was: Archives, Traces, Reflections” Conference (RESAW19), Amsterdam, Netherlands: University of Amsterdam, 21 June. Presentation (PDF)

Ethnographic Vignette

In the summer of 2006, during my first field trip to Northwestern Ontario, I visited the Frenchman’s Head community of Lac Seul First Nation which is one of the region’s few non-remote indigenous communities that can be reached by car and by boat. In the Band Office, the community’s largest administrative building, I was introduced to 16 year old Candice, a well known MyKnet.org user. She told me that she did set up her first MyKnet.org page a couple of years ago to stay in touch with friends and family and to let people know about her life. To communicate with friends and family members, she added a c-box to her homepage where people could leave messages.

As I found out later, almost everyone in the Band Office had a MyKnet.org homepage. Even though some didn’t know how to work with their websites. They needed the help of young, web-savvy colleagues, friends and family members. Candice introduced me to an older lady who told me that she had to register for a new MyKnet.org page only two weeks ago because her original page was registered under her now divorced husband’s name. And since she didn’t want to be constantly reminded of this, she needed a new homepage. KO-KNET, the First Nations internet organization that has been managing the MyKnet.org homepage service, only approves registrations with real, locally known, First Nation names that are then displayed in the URL of the page.

Candice helped her setting up the page, finding and applying the right layout and updating the content. As she told me later, she was regularly reminding other employees at the office to keep their respective homepages up to date. She also told me that she has started to use other, commercial website providers, such as Piczo (2002-2012). They were easier to use than MyKnet.org and provided more web space and technical features and possibilities.

Paper: Internet for remote First Nation communities in Northwestern Ontario

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Budka, P. (2017). Internet for remote First Nation communities in Northwestern Ontario. Paper at “3rd CoRe Workshop – Mobility and Remoteness: What is the Connection?“, Vienna, Austria: University of Vienna, 26-27 May. Full Paper (PDF)

Introduction

In 1994, the Keewaytinook Okimakanak Kuhkenah Network (KO-KNET) began to develop and provide internet infrastructures and services for the remote First Nation communities in Northwestern Ontario, Canada. Public and private institutions have been reluctant to invest in this “high cost serving area” with no year-round road access, where residents have to travel by plane for medical treatment or to meet with relatives and where people have to move to southern towns to continue their high school education or to find work. In close cooperation with the region’s First Nation communities, KO-KNET has built local broadband internet infrastructures to provide services such as cell phone communication, e-health, online learning, videoconferencing, and personal website hosting. Overall aim of this initiative has been to give people a choice to stay in their remote home communities.

For my first field trip to Northwestern Ontario in 2006, I decided not to fly but to take the train from Toronto to Sioux Lookout, Northwestern Ontario’s transportation hub. This ride with “The Canadian”, which connects Toronto and Vancouver, took about 26 hours and demonstrated very vividly the vastness of Ontario. I could not believe that I had spent more than an entire day on a train without even leaving the province. Finally, I arrived at Sioux Lookout, where I would be working with KO-KNET, one of the world’s leading indigenous internet organizations.

After my first day at the office, KO-KNET’s coordinator wanted to show me something. We jumped in his car and drove to the outskirts of the town where he stopped in front of a big satellite dish. Only through this dish, he explained, the remote First Nation communities in the North can be connected to the internet. I was pretty impressed, but had no idea how this should really work.

While the satellite dish was physically visible to me, the underlying infrastructure of interconnected digital information and communication systems was not. In the weeks and months to follow, I learned about the technical aspects of internet networks and broadband connectivity, about hubs, switches, and cables, about towers, points of presence, and loops. And I found out that internet via satellite might look impressive, but is actually the last resort and a very expensive way to establish and maintain internet connectivity for remote and isolated communities.

KO-KNET satellite dish, Sioux Lookout
KO-KNET satellite dish, Sioux Lookout

Continue reading Paper: Internet for remote First Nation communities in Northwestern Ontario

Vortrag: Medien und Literalität in der Kultur- und Sozialanthropologie

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Budka, P. 2017. Medien und Literalität in der Kultur- und Sozialanthropologie: (Digitale) Medienpraktiken aus kulturvergleichender Perspektive. Vortrag im Workshop “Dark Side of Literacy” am Bundesinstitut für Erwachsenenbildung, Strobl, Salzburg, 20. April 2017. (PDF)

Inhalt:
Kultur- und Sozialanthropologie (KSA)
Medien in der KSA
Literalität in der KSA
„Moderne Oralität“
Digitale & Soziale Medien in der KSA

Article: From marginalization to self-determined participation

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Budka, P. 2015. From marginalization to self-determined participation: Indigenous digital infrastructures and technology appropriation in Northwestern Ontario’s remote communities. Journal des Anthropologues – Special Issue “Margins and Digital Technologies”. No. 142-143: 127-153.

Abstract

This article discusses, from an anthropological perspective, the utilization of digital infrastructures and technologies in the geographical and sociocultural contexts of indigenous Northwestern Ontario, Canada. By introducing the case of the Keewaytinook Okimakanak Kuh-ke-nah Network (KO-KNET) it analyses first how digital infrastructures not only connect First Nations people and communities but also enable relationships between local communities and non-indigenous institutions. Second, and by drawing on KO-KNET’s homepage service MyKnet.org, it exemplifies how people appropriate digital technologies for their specific needs in a remote and isolated area. KO-KNET and its services facilitate First Nations’ self-determined participation to regional, national, and even global ICT connectivity processes, contributing thus to the “digital demarginalization” of Northwestern Ontario’s remote communities.

Text (PDF)

Paper: Indigenous audio-visual media production and broadcasting – Canadian Examples

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Budka, P. 2015. Indigenous audio-visual media production and broadcasting – Canadian Examples. Paper at “Eleventh Conference on Hunting and Gathering Societies”, Vienna, Austria: University of Vienna, September 7-11.

Introduction

This is a short position paper that sets out to briefly discuss how indigenous audio-visual media production and broadcasting initiatives haven been developed and maintained in Canada. I am concentrating on television which still is the world’s dominant audio-visual communication medium. What are the specifics of indigenous media (production) and related practices and processes? And what does the future hold for indigenous media projects? Due to limited time at hand, I am only able to open this field of research by presenting two case studies: the national Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) (e.g., Hafsteinsson 2013, Roth 2005) and Wawatay (e.g., Budka 2009, Minore & Hill 1990), a regional communication society in Northern Ontario.

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Vortrag: Indigene Modernität durch digitale Medientechnologien?

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Budka, P. 2015. Indigene Modernität durch digitale Medientechnologien? Infrastrukturentwicklung, Technologieaneignung und soziokulturelle Praktiken im Nordwestlichen Ontario, Kanada. Vortrag im Colloquium Americanum des Instituts für Ethnologie der Goethe-Universität Frankfurt, 25. Juni 2015. (PDF)

Inhalt:
Einleitung
„Modernität“ & Kultur- und Sozialanthropologie/Ethnologie
„Indigenisierte Modernität“
Indigene & Digitale Medientechnologien
Internetinfrastruktur im Nordwestlichen Ontario, Kanada
Soziale (sozial-digitale) Praktiken
„Indigene Modernität“ durch digitale Medientechnologien?

Review: Unmasking deep democracy: An anthropology of indigenous media in Canada

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Budka, P. 2015. Review of Unmasking deep democracy: An anthropology of indigenous media in Canada, by S. B. Hafsteinsson. Aarhus: Intervention Press, 2013. Social Anthropology, 23/2: 240-242.

In the book’s introduction Sigurjon Baldur Hafsteinsson declares that the anthropological study which resulted in Unmasking Deep Democracy will, on the one hand, challenge the anthropology of visual communication and, on the other hand, contribute to the sub-discipline’s arguments. The anthropology of visual communication, like the anthropology of media, focuses in particular on the relational aspects and characteristics of (visual) media, such as television. This volume is about indigenous television in the Canadian context. By analysing communicative and journalistic practices of the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) it aims for gaining an insight into the sociocultural agency of indigeneity and its (media) politics.

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Paper: Indigenous futures and digital infrastructures

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Budka, P. 2014. Indigenous futures and digital infrastructures: How First Nation communities connect themselves in Northwestern Ontario. Paper at “13th Biennial Conference of the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA)”, Tallinn, Estonia: Tallinn University, 31 July – 3 August.

Introduction

“Now […] if the Aboriginal People could […], retain their tradition, take the technology and go that way in the future. That would be good.”
(Community Development Coordinator and Educational Director, Bearskin Lake First Nation, 2007)

For my first field trip to Northwestern Ontario in 2006, I decided to take the train from Toronto to Sioux Lookout instead of flying. This ride with “the Canadian”, which connects Toronto and Vancouver, took me about 26 hours and demonstrated very vividly the vastness of Ontario. At some point, I could not believe that I have been spending more than an entire day on a train without even leaving the province. But finally I arrived at Sioux Lookout, Northwestern Ontario’s transportation hub, where I would be working with the Keewaytinook Okimakanak Kuhkenah Network (KO-KNET), one of the world’s leading indigenous internet organization.

After my first day at the office, KO-KNET’s coordinator told me that he wants to show me something. So we jumped in his car and drove to the outskirts of the town where he stopped in front of a big satellite dish. Only through this dish, he explained, the remote First Nation communities in the North can be connected to the internet. I was pretty impressed, but had no concrete idea how this really works. So while the satellite dish was physically visible to me, the underlying infrastructure was not. During my stay, I learned more about the technical aspects of internet networks and connectivity, about hubs, switches and cables, and about towers and loops. And I learned that internet via satellite might look impressive, but is actually the last resort and the most expensive way to establish internet connectivity. I also began to realize how important organizational partnerships and collaborative projects are and what important role social relationships across institutional boundaries play. In short: I learned about the infrastructure which is actually necessary to finance, provide and maintain internet access and use. Infrastructure, KO-KNET’s coordinator told me “really defines what you can do and what you can’t do” (KO-KNET coordinator 2007). And this has fundamental consequences for the futures of the region’s indigenous people.

Within this paper I am going to discuss digital infrastructures and technologies in the geographical and sociocultural contexts of indigenous Northwestern Ontario. By introducing the case of KO-KNET I analyse (1) how internet infrastructures act as facilitators of social relationships and (2) how First Nations people actively make their (digital) futures by taking control over the creation, distribution and uses of information and communication technologies (ICT), such as broadband internet. This study is part of a digital media anthropology project that was conducted for five years, including ethnographic fieldwork in Northwestern Ontario and in online environments.

In media and visual anthropology, anthropologists are, among other things of course, interested in how indigenous, disfranchised and marginalized people have started to talk back to structures of power that neglect their political, cultural and economic needs and interests by producing and distributing their own media technologies (e.g., Ginsburg 1991, 2002b, Michaels 1994, Prins 2002, Turner 1992, 2002). To “underscore the sense of both political agency and cultural intervention that people bring to these efforts”, Faye Ginsburg (2002a: 8, 1997) refers to these media practices as “cultural activism”. “Indigenized” media technologies are providing indigenous people with possibilities to make their voices heard, to network and connect, to distribute information, to revitalize culture and language, and to become politically engaged and active (Ginsburg 2002a, 2002b). Particularly digital media technologies offer a lot of these possibilities to marginalized people (e.g., Landzelius 2006a).

Text (PDF)

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