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Interview: On COVID-19 & digital technologies in everyday life

Interview: On COVID-19 & digital technologies in everyday life published on No Comments on Interview: On COVID-19 & digital technologies in everyday life

In May 2020, I was asked by the European Science-Media Hub to participate in a short written interview about COVID-19 and digital technologies in everyday life. Since this interview has still not been published, for unknown reasons, I decided to post my answers here in my blog. Comments are, as always, more than welcome.

Q: How do you evaluate the current push to “live” our personal lives with and through digital technologies?

As an anthropologist who has been exploring digital phenomena from a social and cultural perspective for more than 15 years, I wouldn’t describe the current situation as a “push” to a more digitized and digitalized life, but rather as an accelerated development, which includes social, technological and economic changes and transformations in all sectors of society (Thomas Hylland Eriksen nicely illustrates the aspect of accelerated change in relation to globalization in his book Overheating [2016]).

People have been living their lives with and through digital technologies long before the current health crisis – some more, some less. In 2006, when I started to conduct an ethnographic project about the appropriation and utilization of internet technologies in remote indigenous communities in north-western Ontario, Canada, I learned that due to the region’s geographical remoteness and people’s sociotechnical isolation, self-organized infrastructural connectivity and self-designed internet-based services and programs were well underway for some years. Local people were using all sorts of digital media and technologies to connect to each other, to create online presences and digital identities, and to access globally distributed information. Internet services, such as online learning and video conferencing, were – thanks to broadband connectivity – already embedded into local everyday life.

I notice similar tendencies in Europe today, where people have been forced to isolate and distance themselves due to COVID–19; not only from family and friends, but also from colleagues at work and school. E-learning, for example, has become part of the everyday learning experience. Which is probably not a big issue for students, who grew up with digital technologies and social media and are therefore used to computer-mediated communication and interaction, but certainly a challenge for institutions and teachers who are not yet that familiar with digital technologies in an educational context. In respect to digitality, I understand the current health crisis as a phenomenon that has been speeding things up. Our lives have become more digital; faster than expected, but not necessarily different than without the virus.

Q: More generally, what did you find in your project about the blending of our intimate space with the professional, the administrative, the cultural and the political spheres by means of digital technology?

Throughout my career, I have been involved in anthropological projects about the sociocultural consequences of digital media and technologies, which build on ethnographic fieldwork as the key methodological approach. Such an approach situates the researcher into the daily life of research participants over a considerable period of time. The intimate, the personal and the private are therefore central to the work of anthropologists and difficult to artificially separate from collective spheres of sociality. People have always brought their personal positions and individual interpretations – that are shaped by intimate experiences – into politics or the workplace, for instance. However, through digital and networked technologies, it is much easier today to identify, share and also manipulate private data and personalized information.

From an anthropological perspective, it is important to emphasize that there are cultural differences. Not all people share Euro-American conceptions of privacy or intimacy and therefore indicate different concerns over these matters in respect to digital life. While people in remote north-western Ontario, for example, were well aware that their very personal reflections, which they openly posted and shared in an online environment, can be potentially accessed globally, they were not concerned. They rather experienced this environment as a purely local space of expression for indigenous people only, not of any interest to outsiders (for more ethnographic examples in different cultural contexts, see, e.g. the results of Daniel Miller’s Why We Post project).

Due to the rise of social media monopoly, platform capitalism, the Cambridge Analytica scandal and current debates about COVID–19 tracing apps, digital privacy and surveillance are high on the public and political agenda, particularly in Europe. However, as anthropological evidence continues to show, related ideas and concepts are perceived and evaluated differently also because of cultural diversity.

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.

Book Chapter: Indigenous Media Technologies in “The Digital Age”

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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.

Introduction
Indigenous engagements with digital media technologies have been analyzed from different angles and by discussing a variety of issues, from technology access and literacy, to language, culture, and politics (e.g., Dyson, Grant, & Hendriks, 2016; Dyson, Hendriks, & Grant, 2007; Landzelius, 2006a). By drawing on a literature review and on an ethnographic case study, I am providing an anthropological perspective on the relationship between indigenous people and digital media technologies that focuses on digital practices related to the mediation of culture and the formation of (cultural) identity. Within this mediation process, cultural elements of the dominant, non-indigenous societies are recombined with elements from indigenous cultures. “Indigenized” media technologies promote thus an open and dynamic understanding of culture in “the digital age.” But when it comes to characterizing and understanding non-Western media phenomena and processes, terms such as “the digital age” or “the network society” have their conceptual weaknesses. These concepts are inherently ethnocentric, that is, Euro-American centered, implying an evolutionary world view that tends to ignore culturally different ascriptions of meaning to digital realities. I am following here Ginsburg (2008), who states that these concepts are rather reinforcing the imaginary of “the other,” existing in “a time not contemporary with our own” (p. 291). Thus, this chapter presents an anthropologically informed approach to the relationship between media technologies, culture, and politics that advocates the significance of non-Western perspectives and realities in conceptualizing and understanding the diversity of digital life.

Paper: Indigenous articulations in the digital age

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Budka, P. (2018). Indigenous articulations in the digital age: Reflections on historical developments, activist engagements and mundane practices. Paper at International Communication Association 2018 Pre-Conference “Articulating Voice. The Expressivity and Performativity of Media Practice”, Prague, Czech Republic: Hilton, 24 May. Full Paper (PDF)

The relationship between indigenous people and digital media technologies is ambivalent and enthusiastic at the same time; reflecting individual experiences and expectations as well as collective sociocultural contexts and developments. Considering indigenous people’s colonial history and colonization’s continuing effects on indigenous communities, it is not surprising that many indigenous representatives are particularly concerned about issues of power, control, and ownership related to digital technologies and new ways of knowledge production, circulation, and representation (e.g., Ginsburg, 2008).

There is a strong sense of sociopolitical activism and agency in indigenous people’s collective engagements with digital media technologies which are closely connected to the (re)construction and mediation of cultural identity, cultural articulation, social intervention, and self-determination. At the same time, indigenous people’s digital practices are related to mundane necessities of everyday communication, social networking, family bonding, or self-expression. To understand indigenous articulations in the digital age, the collective and the individual dimension need to be considered.

Idle No More Twitter Account
Screenshot: Idle No More Twitter Account, 2018

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Seminar: Indigenous Media 2018

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For the 4th time I am organizing the seminar “Indigenous Media” for the MA Program Visual and Media Anthropology at the Free University Berlin.

In this course, students are introduced to indigenous media technologies by actively discussing in 10 units/sessions different questions, issues and problems:

  • How do indigenous people produce, distribute and utilize audiovisual media?
  • How has ethnographic and anthropological film making changed through indigenous media?
  • What role do politics, power, globalization and (post-)colonialism play in the production, distribution and consumption of indigenous media?
  • How do indigenous people utilize media to construct and negotiate their individual and collective identities?
  • How are indigenous cultures and languages represented through media?
  • How do indigenous people appropriate and (co-)develop digital media technologies?

We start our seminar with the contextualization of indigenous media within an anthropology of media. In the second unit students are introduced to selected debates about the meaning and relevance of (mass) media for indigenous people and their sociocultural life worlds. We then discuss ethnographic film making and visual anthropology in the context of indigenous people’s changing role from “objects” for ethnographic films to partners in (collaborative) media projects. The fourth unit deals with (post-)colonialism and decolonization and their implications for indigenous media. This discussion leads us to the self-controlled production of indigenous media and its relevance for issues such as (self-)representation, appropriation, control and empowerment. Globalization, modernity and related questions of collective indigenous identity construction are the topics of the sixth unit. The following three sessions are closely connected, discussing aspects of identity, community, networking, ownership, activism, empowerment, aesthetics, poetics and popular culture in relation to indigenous media. In the final unit, students learn about the significance of digital technologies and infrastructures for indigenous people.

Through several case studies, students are introduced to the similarities and differences of indigenous media projects throughout the world. These case studies take us to different regions, countries and continents: from Nunavut, Canada and the United States to the Caribbean, Guatemala, Mexico and Brazil, to Nigeria, Myanmar, Australia and Finland. The seminar’s assignments include the preparation of an essay at the end of the seminar and short weekly literature and film reviews/critiques as well as an active contribution to discussions during the online sessions, which are organized with the online conference tool Adobe Connect.

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

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Seminar: Indigenous Media 2017

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Seminar “Indigenous Media” for the MA Program in Visual and Media Anthropology at the Free University Berlin.

Course Description

“Indigenous media matters because indigenous people do.”
(Wortham 2013: 218)

Indigenous media can be broadly defined as media and forms of media expression conceptualized and produced by indigenous people. From an anthropological perspective, indigenous media can be understood as cultural product and process that are both closely connected to the construction, expression and transmission of identity. Reflecting thus indigenous people’s history as well as contemporary sociocultural and political situations. By (strategically) inserting their own narratives in the dominant media landscape – may this be accomplished through films, TV and radio programs, or websites – indigenous people also utilize media technologies as means for social change and political transformation. Indigenous media-making practices have thus become part of the “ongoing struggles for Indigenous recognition and self-determination” and can therefore be understood as a form of cultural activism (e.g., Ginsburg 2000: 30).

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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

Barack Obama names two new National Monuments important to Native Americans

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from The Huffington Post:

The White House designated two new national monuments on Wednesday, one in Utah and the other in Nevada, that will protect important Native American cultural sites and continue the president’s legacy of environmental stewardship far beyond the end of his term. …

“Our connection with this land is deeply tied to our identities, traditional knowledge, histories, and cultures, …”

Seminar: Indigenous Media 2016

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Again, I have the pleasure to teach the Seminar “Indigenous Media” for the MA Program in Visual and Media Anthropology at the Free University Berlin. Find below a brief description of the course.

In the seminar “Indigenous Media” students get an introduction to indigenous media technologies. In ten seminar units selected questions, issues, and problems are discussed: How do indigenous people produce, distribute, and utilize audiovisual media? How has ethnographic and anthropological film making changed? What role do politics, power, globalization, and (post-)colonialism play in the production and use of indigenous media? How do indigenous people utilize media to construct and negotiate their individual and collective identities? How are indigenous cultures and languages represented through media? And how do indigenous people appropriate and (co-)develop digital technologies in times of increasing globalization?

We start with the contextualization of indigenous media within the framework of an anthropology of media. In the second unit students are introduced to selected debates about the meaning and relevance of (mass) media for indigenous people and their culture. We then discuss ethnographic film making and visual anthropology in the context of indigenous people’s changing role from “objects” for ethnographic films to partners in media projects. The fourth unit deals with the phenomena of (post-)colonialism and decolonization and their implications for indigenous media. This discussion leads us to the self-controlled production of indigenous media and its relevance for issues such as (self-)representation, appropriation, control, and empowerment. Globalization, modernity, and related questions of collective indigenous identity construction – “indigeneity” – are the topics of the next unit. The following three sessions are closely connected and discuss aspects of identity, community, networking, ownership, activism, empowerment, aesthetics, poetics, and popular culture in relation to indigenous media. In the final unit students learn about the importance of digital technologies and infrastructures for indigenous people, their activist projects, and networking initiatives.

Through several case studies students are introduced to the similarities and differences of indigenous media projects throughout the world. These case studies take us to different regions, countries, and continents: from Nunavut, Canada, and the US to the Caribbean, Guatemala, Mexico, and Brazil, to Nigeria, Myanmar, Australia and Finland. The seminar’s assignments include the reading of selected articles, the watching of films and videos, and the discussion of these in small essays. The online conference tool Adobe Connect is used to present and discuss aspects of texts, films, and essays.

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.

Text (PDF)

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?

Concept map: Post-colonial technoscience

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This map visualizes the concept of “post-colonial technoscience” discussed by Smith, L. C. 2010. Locating post-colonial technoscience: through the lens of indigenous video. History and Technology: An International Journal, 26(3): 251-280. It was done by using the free CMap Tools (click to enlarge).

postcolonial_technoscience

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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