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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)

Article: Social media – power & politics

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Udupa, S., & Budka, P. (2021). Social media: Power and politics. In H. Callan & S. Coleman (Eds.), The International Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Hoboken: Wiley. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118924396.wbiea2482

Abstract

By centering and unpacking the “social” in social media, anthropological scholarship has drawn on its disciplinary strengths in excavating the social, cultural, and everyday dimensions of mediated milieus, offering, in turn, some unique contributions toward understanding the political cultures and sociocultural ramifications of internet-enabled social media.

While social media have been the subject of intense scrutiny in other disciplines, anthropological scholarship distinguishes itself with its focus on embodied contexts of use and situated meanings surrounding social media.

Anthropological studies have examined progressive activism and everyday experience, as well as violent movements enabled by social media in the context of longer histories of racialization and colonialism. However, ethnographic research on difficult topics such as populism, extreme speech, and surveillance confronts several challenges in terms of data access, safety, and data confidentiality.

Article: Anthropological perspectives on digital-visual practices

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Budka, P. (2021). Kultur- und sozialanthropologische Perspektiven auf digital-visuelle Praktiken. Das Fallbeispiel einer indigenen Online-Umgebung im nordwestlichen Ontario, Kanada (Anthropological perspectives on digital-visual practices). In R. Breckner, K. Liebhart & M. Pohn-Lauggas (Eds.), Sozialwissenschaftliche Analysen von Bild- und Medienwelten (pp. 109-132). Berlin: De Gruyter Oldenbourg. https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110613681-005

Abstract

In times of increasing digitalization, it is of particular interest for anthropology to understand how people in different societies integrate digital media and technologies, internet-based devices and services or software, and digital platforms, into their lives. The digital practices observed here are closely related to emergent forms of visual communication and representation, which need to be described and interpreted through ethnographic analysis, careful contextualization, and systematic comparison.

This paper discusses aspects of digital-visual culture through a case study of the online environment MyKnet.org, operated exclusively for First Nations between 1998 and 2019 in the remote communities of Northwestern Ontario, Canada, by the Indigenous internet organization Keewaytinook Okimakanak Kuhkenah Network (KO-KNET).

The analytical framework is a practice theory approach linked to ethnographic fieldwork, historical contextualization, and cultural and diachronic comparison. The creation, distribution and sharing of digital images, collages and layouts for websites in MyKnet.org can thus be described, analyzed and interpreted in relation to the phenomenon of hip hop and the associated fan art, as well as the digital biographies of users.

These digital-visual practices are closely connected to individual and collective forms of representation, as well as the maintenance of social relationships across larger distances, and thus also to the construction, negotiation and change of digital identity. They point not only to the global significance of visual communication, representation and culture, but also to the locally specific relationships that people maintain with online environments and digital platforms.

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.

Paper: Anthropologies of sociotechnical mediation in Austria

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Budka, P. (2021). Anthropologies of sociotechnical mediation in Austria. Paper at EASA Media Anthropology Network Workshop: “Media Anthropologies in Europe”, Online (hosted by European Association of Social Anthropologists), 14-15 October.
Co-organization of EASA Media Anthropology Network Workshop “Media Anthropologies in Europe”, 14-15 October.

Abstract

This paper discusses aspects of the development and the current situation of “media anthropology”, as an anthropology of digital media technologies, in Austria. Since the 1990s, Austrian sociocultural anthropologists have been exploring new forms of media communication, digitally mediated practices of sociality as well as emerging sociotechnical systems and environments (Budka & Kremser, 2004).

While such engagements were then referred to as “cyber anthropology” or the “anthropology of cyberculture” to indicate connections to new sociocultural spaces related to the Internet, the World Wide Web and digital media technologies, they can also be conceptualised as anthropologies of sociotechnical mediation. It is through constantly changing technologies that communication, culture and sociality are mediated. As already early media anthropologists emphasised, this technical and material dimension of media cannot be neglected (e.g. Ginsburg et al., 2002).

Anthropologies of sociotechnical mediation in German-speaking countries like Austria are, however, not necessarily tied to sociocultural anthropology as empirical social science. Due to well established traditions of philosophical anthropology, media related phenomena have also been investigated from a humanities perspective that does not build its theories upon empirical data generated through ethnographic fieldwork like in sociocultural anthropology.

As this paper argues, this has resulted, on the one hand, in a dynamic field of media anthropologies and several projects that are open, diverse and interdisciplinary by nature. On the other hand, this has also contributed to a weakening of the sociocultural anthropological position, e.g., in terms of academic visibility and research funding. Similar tendencies can also be observed in anthropological explorations of “the digital” in Austria; research that frequently runs under the new rubric of “digital anthropology”.

References

  • Budka, P., & Kremser, M. (2004). CyberAnthropology – anthropology of cyberculture. In S. Khittel, B. Plankensteiner & M. Six-Hohenbalken (Eds.), Contemporary issues in socio-cultural anthropology: Perspectives and research activities from Austria (pp. 213-226). Vienna: Loecker Verlag.
  • Ginsburg, F., Abu-Lughod, L., & Larkin, B. (2002). Introduction. In F. Ginsburg, L. Abu-Lughod, & B. Larkin (Eds.), Media worlds: Anthropology on new terrain (pp. 1-36). Berkeley: University of California Press.

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.

Interview: Quo vadis, Feldforschung?

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In April 2021, I was interviewed by German news outlet Forschung & Lehre (Research & Teaching) about anthropological fieldwork in times of a global health crisis.

Interview for Forschung & Lehre. (2021). “Quo vadis, Feldforschung?“.

Forschung & Lehre

Interview: Theorising Media & Conflict

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In an interview for the University of Vienna’s Uni:view Magazin, I am talking about the edited volume Theorising Media and Conflict (Berghahn Books, 2020), its purpose, conclusions and significance for understanding recent crises (in German).

Theorising Media and Conflict brings together anthropologists as well as media and communication scholars to collectively address the elusive and complex relationship between media and conflict. Through epistemological and methodological reflections and the analyses of various case studies from around the globe, this volume provides evidence for the co-constitutiveness of media and conflict and contributes to their consolidation as a distinct area of scholarship.

The book’s introduction is accessible for free:
Bräuchler, B., & Budka, P. (2020). Anthropological perspectives on theorising media and conflict. In P. Budka & B. Bräuchler (Eds.), Theorising media and conflict (pp. 3-31). Anthropology of Media. New York & Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Blog Post: Collaborative ethnography in the digital age: Towards a new methodological framework

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Palmberger, M., & Budka, P. (2020). Collaborative ethnography in the digital age: Towards a new methodological framework. Digital Ethnography Initiative (DEI) Blog, 13 Nov.

Digital ethnography has become a very vibrant research field, as the growing body of literature indicates (e.g. Hjorth et al., 2017; Pink et al., 2016). Nevertheless, we sense that methodological debates often fall short. With this contribution to the Digital Ethnography Initiative (DEI) blog, we would like to open up a discussion on key methodological and ethical issues.

More precisely, we would like to start sharing a reflection process on theoretical and methodological debates in the field of digital ethnography that we have been engaging in over the last year. This resulted in (1) a project proposal to an Austrian funding body as well as (2) in the Digital Ethnography Initiative at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the University of Vienna that we launched together with our colleague Suzana Jovicic.

In this blog post, we propose and briefly discuss three key issues and questions that are related to the challenges of ethnographic research in times of increasing digitalization. They address

(1) the individualization of interaction via smartphones and other mobile devices, which is connected to

(2) new issues of confidentiality and intimacy that call for the development of

(3) explicit collaborative research methods involving research partners in the process of collecting, interpreting and representing data.

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

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In May 2020, I was asked by the European Science-Media Hub of the European Parliament to participate in a short written interview about COVID-19 and digital technologies in everyday life. The interview can be found below and on the website of the European Science-Media Hub, where it is also part of the new Digital Humanities Series.
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.

Panel: Digital Ethnography: Revisiting Theoretical Concepts & Methodological Approaches

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Panel “Digital Ethnography: Revisiting Theoretical Concepts & Methodological Approaches” @ Vienna Anthropology Days 2020 (VANDA2020, Sept. 28 – Oct. 1), convened by Philipp Budka & Monika Palmberger.
More details, including the paper abstracts, to be found at https://vanda.univie.ac.at/scientific-program/.

Session 1

Rebecca Carlson (Temple University / TMDU): Online with bioinformatic scientists in Tokyo: Doing digital ethnography in a pandemic

Simone Pfeifer (Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz): Digital ethnography on, with, and through social media and messenger services: Ethical and methodological reflections from two different research projects

Monika Palmberger (University of Vienna): “New media of care”: Methodological reflections on digital diaries

Annika Richterich (University of Sussex): Critical making and digital ethnography

Franziska Weidle (Brandenburg University of Technology): Co-creating with software: Towards a computational correspondence in digital ethnography

Session 2

Cristiane Damasceno (UNC Greensboro): Innovative research methods for the disinformation age

Marie Hermanová (Czech Academy of Sciences): Too real is fake: Authenticity and digital intimacy between influencers and researchers

Christian Ritter (Tallinn University): Mediated relationships and remote ethnography: Following the rise and fall of travel influencers

Suzana Jovicic (University of Vienna): Neither here nor there: Smartphone in the ethnographic encounter

Libuše Veprek (LMU Munich): Bringing the subject into focus in large scale textual data analysis

Session 3

Maria Schreiber (University of Salzburg): #strokesurvivor: Studying a “hashtag public” on Instagram

Zoë Glatt (LSE): Becoming a YouTuber: (Auto)ethnographic explorations of the online video industry

Xiaowei Huang (Guangzhou College of Commerce): Second Life, ethnography and virtual culture

Philipp Budka (University of Vienna): Digital ethnography and web archives: The case of an indigenous web-based environment

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