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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

Interview: Erkundungen von Kanadas nördlichen Transportinfrastrukturen published on No Comments on Interview: Erkundungen von Kanadas nördlichen Transportinfrastrukturen

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)

Blog Post: Reflections on the InfraNorth workshop “The Global Economics & Geopolitics of Arctic Transport Infrastructures”

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Budka, P., & Povoroznyuk, O. (2021). Reflections on the InfraNorth workshop “The Global Economics and Geopolitics of Arctic Transport Infrastructures”. InfraNorth – Building Arctic Futures: Transport Infrastructures and Sustainable Northern Communities Blog, 30 Nov.

On September 23 and 24, 2021, the InfraNorth project organized the workshop “The Global Economics and Geopolitics of Arctic Transport Infrastructures” at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the University of Vienna.

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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.

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.

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Seminar: Digital Technologies as Material Culture 2020

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In this MA seminar at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Vienna, we explore digital media technologies from an anthropological/ethnographic perspective in the context of material culture.
More info

This course gives an overview about material culture as a conceptual and practical approach to understand digital technologies. In doing so, it focuses on the everyday incorporation and utilization of digital technologies.

Mobile networked digital media technologies, such as smart phones, as well as social media platforms and services, such as Facebook or Instagram, have become important (visual) communication and (re)presentation tools. For social and cultural anthropology it is of particular interest how these digital devices and technologies are integrated and embedded into everyday life, by considering changing sociocultural, political and economic contexts. This course focuses in particular on the material aspects of digital technologies and how they are utilized on a day-to-day basis. Questions about the relevance of a material culture approach for (the understanding of) technology appropriation – on a theoretical and practical level – as well as questions about (culturally) different usage practices are discussed. How does the understanding and conceptualization of digital technology as material culture contribute to the exploration and analyses of contemporary and emerging sociocultural practices and processes in increasingly digital societies?

By working on different online case studies, students get a comparative overview about material culture in a digital context.

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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.

Article: 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.

Conference: ICA 2018 Pre-Conference “Articulating Voice. The Expressivity and Performativity of Media Practices”

Conference: ICA 2018 Pre-Conference “Articulating Voice. The Expressivity and Performativity of Media Practices” published on No Comments on Conference: ICA 2018 Pre-Conference “Articulating Voice. The Expressivity and Performativity of Media Practices”

International Communication Association (ICA) 2018 Pre-Conference “Articulating Voice. The Expressivity and Performativity of Media Practices”
May 24, 2018, Prague, Czech Republic

Conference Program
Book of Abstracts (PDF)

At this interdisciplinary conference, several papers in the field of media & digital anthropology are presented by researcher who are actively involved in the European Association of Social Anthropologists Media Anthropology Network:

  • Sahana Udupa, U of Munich, Germany: “Enterprise as practice: Fun and aggression in online political discourse”
  • Philipp Budka, U of Vienna, Austria: “Indigenous Articulations in the Digital Age: Reflections on Historical Developments, Activist Engagements and Mundane Practices”
  • Nina Grønlykke Mollerup & Mette Mortensen, U of Copenhagen, Denmark: “The Contested Visibility of War: Actors on the Ground Taking and Distributing Images from the War in Syria”

CfP: The Digital Turn: New Directions in Media Anthropology

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The EASA Media Anthropology Network is organising a network panel at the 15th EASA Biennial Conference “Staying, Moving, Settling” in Stockholm, 14-17 August, 2018.
Please find the Call for Papers below.
Deadline: 9 April 2018.

Convenors

Philipp Budka (University of Vienna)
Elisabetta Costa (University of Groningen)
Sahana Udupa (Ludwig Maximilian University)

Abstract

The digital turn in media anthropology signals the growing importance of digital media technologies in contemporary sociocultural, political and economic processes. This panel recognizes the digital turn as a paradigm shift in the anthropological study of media, and aims to foreground three important streams of exploration that constitute new directions in the anthropology of media.

The rise of online vitriol against vulnerable communities has punctured euphoric pronouncements about digital media as a radical enabler of grassroots democracy. A significant aspect of digital extreme speech is gender based violence in digital environments. Beyond the specific instances of online violence, gendering media anthropology remains a crucial and broader area of intervention. Similarly, different forms of digital visualities have accentuated the materialities that constitute everyday digital experiences and their varied cultural ramifications. Charting the three directions as gendering digital media, materialities of digital visualities and online extreme speech, this panel aims to push further the ethnographic knowledge into the role that digital media play in people’s everyday life and broader sociopolitical transformations.

We invite ethnographic and/or theoretical papers that focus either on
(1) the gendered dimension of digital practices and introduce innovative theoretical insights into the relationship between gender and the digital;
(2) extreme speech and online vitriol aimed at refugees, migrants, sexual minorities and other vulnerable communities, but online extreme speech as also a means for political contestation;
(3) material dimensions of digital visualities as constituting features of new ways of communication and interaction.

https://nomadit.co.uk/easa/easa2018/conferencesuite.php/panels/6386
https://www.easaonline.org/conferences/easa2018/cfp

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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Digital ethnography

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Digital ethnography – a selection of resources

e-Seminars of the EASA Media Anthropology Network:

Literature:

Ethnography in virtual worlds:

  • Boellstorff, et al. (2012). Ethnography and virtual worlds: A handbook of method. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Ethnography and digital and social media:

  • Hjorth, L., et al. (Eds.). (2017). The Routledge Companion to digital ethnography, New York: Routledge. Forthcoming.
  • Miller, D., et al. (2016). How the world changed social media. London: UCL Press. http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/1474805/1/How-the-World-Changed-Social-Media.pdf
  • Pink, S., et al. (2016). Digital ethnography: Principles and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Postill, J., & Pink, S. (2012). Social media ethnography: The digital researcher in a messy web. Media International Australia, 145(1), 123-134. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1329878X1214500114
  • Sanjek, R., & Tratner, S. W. (Eds.). (2016). eFieldnotes: The makings of anthropology in the digital world. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Blog posts:

Research centres:

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