So I Moved to London to Study Digital Anthropology

Six years ago in late August I arrived in Yunnan – China’s most ethnically and geographically diverse province – to find a massive techno-cultural transition going on. Five years prior, in 2001, John Bryan Starr had published on page 249 of his book Understanding China that “with the important exception of The Sound of Music – which seems to have been seen at least once by every living person in mainland China – most available foreign films are cheap B-grade movies.” By 2005, the B-movies were still there (see above), but the availability had changed massively. As I wrote then of Yunnan’s capital, Kunming, in rather lengthy bit of research I never found a venue in which to publish:

Scattered amongst the hair salons and mini-marts and clothing stores and the Internet cafes are the disc shops. Their outside walls are cluttered with posters advertising the latest films and albums. Inside and outside are tables, stands, and shelves filled with D5s (single-layer DVDs, holding about 4.5 gigabytes of information) in thin cardboard sleeves. The sleeves are in their own plastic sheathes, which can be unsealed at the bottom… At any given store, a selection of more than 1,000 titles would be considered small. At the shop across the street from Yunnan Normal, I estimate there are over 2,500 different titles for sale. Copies of the same title are rubber banded together, and to see what movies are for sale it’s usually necessary to thumb through the baskets or shelves. Though Chinese and foreign movies are kept distinct and there is some organization by genre, for the most part the shelves seem to be sold with the sheer joy of variety overload.

This is a long way from a few years ago in Beijing, where [my instructor] said that vendors were hiding their movies beneath manhole covers.

I counted 20 such shops within a ten-minute’s walking radius, the opening of which had begun to accelerate in earnest around 2003. While I haven’t back to Kunming since 2005 (and China since 2008), I have noted that Kunming (truly a place I love, lest you view all this by its negative connotations) has been in the news for stores that copy the entire retail experiences of Ikea and the Apple Store. What I didn’t realize quite as much then was all this was only one aspect of globalization of media, something I had been living in small-town Iowa, and that was going to grow beyond physical media into clouds and streams, and beyond the largely one-way art of conventional distribution channels to a social-artistic experience.

All this brings me to why I find myself to the flat of an acquaintance (who I got to know through Facebook) in Camden right now, listening to numerous accents of the sidewalk traffic and the echo of train stop announcements, preparing to spend the year studying Digital Anthropology at University College London (UCL). It is the third year the programme is being offered, and (arguably) the programme is the first of its kind in the world.

While the title ‘Digital Anthropology’ may seem a little unconventional, research into “the social and cultural dimensions of information technologies and digital media” (as described on the programme’s web page) is important, something I first realized you could study back during my undergrad semester in Yunnan. Look at the Internet and think how much time you spend on it – and how its changed the way you make new friends, stay in touch with old ones, find information, conduct business, and (special to Facebook) build imaginary farms. Or the role of cell phone and social networks in the organization, suppression and prosecution of the recent riots in the city I’ll be calling home; as I write this, police are sifting through tens of thousands of hours of footage matching the clothing on masked rioters with footage of them unmasked. Look over this post and think about how comprehensible it might have been a decade or two ago.

Communication has changed dramatically – how its changing is important to try to understand and has implications of art, humanitarianism, business, and policy, and trying to understand some aspects of this is going to implicitly affect all our lives and perhaps explicitly be the focus of a good deal of my primary career.

While there are many academic programs worldwide studying these things under different names (“media studies,” etc), I chose Digital Anthropology in part because I liked the idea of rooting a methodological approach in social and cultural aspects, as well as UCL’s egalitarian ethos. The anthropology program here is known for its emphasis on research in material and visual culture – i.e., stuff, and stuff we can see – and their connection to social relationships. Objects. Keepsakes. Knick-knacks. “Of bleeding skulls and the postcolonial uncanny: bones and the presence of Nonosabasut and Demasduit”; “‘The hallmark of a doctor’: the stethoscope and the making of medical identity”; and “Your Trash Is Someone’s Treasure: The Politics of Value at a Michigan Landfill” to name three relatively recent article titles in the affiliated Journal of Material Culture. The program is co-led by Daniel Miller, whose book The Comfort of Things – concerning how residents of a London neighborhood relate to the objects in their homes, and build/maintain relationships with people with them – I found immensely enjoyable and insightful when I read it last year. As long as humans still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea, there will be stuff, and with it stuff to talk about.

This sort of grounding seems the ideal springboard from which go into new and social media, which at times can seem quite intangible and in other ways is very concrete – as in the record kept by an online message board, or the physical object of a pirate DVD. From several of my classmates who I’ve communicated with via Facebook (again, Facebook!), it seems as if at least a few come with some video/film in their backgrounds, something I fit right in with. For professional considerations, the program also enables me to build on my copywriting experience in BVU’s Marketing & Communications Department, as well as the understanding of the business environment and how websites are run, maintained, and monitored.

I’m not finished writing about Storm Lake yet – before I left earlier this month, I outlined a few entries I hope to write on the city, its people, places, and my time there. I’m not finished with piracy yet, either – building on what I looked at in Kunming in some sense may form part of my masters’ thesis. And, of course, I’ll be chronicling my life and studies in London through some of the same technology I’ll be studying. We’re all doing it – the studying and chronicling, I mean. I just found a place that gave it a name I liked.

  1. #1 by Laura on September 10, 2011 - 11:56 pm

    It sounds like your journey is off to a good start — I look forward to reading all about it (and saying a big ol’ “howdy” when I get to London this January! Also: Quit outlining and WRITE already, would you? I need more stuff to read, and I’m selfish and demanding. 😉

  2. #2 by Jon on September 11, 2011 - 4:28 am

    I always enjoy reading your writings.

  3. #3 by Matt Voigts on September 11, 2011 - 8:16 pm

    Thanks, all – glad to have you reading and posting! Though I will add that as a would-be anthropologist, it’s oft my prerogative to take a very long time writing things. 🙂 Plus fact checks, an upcoming trip to Belgium, etc…

  4. #4 by julianhoffman on October 9, 2011 - 5:55 am

    Good luck, Matt! Sounds like you’re embarking on a fascinating new journey and, like the above comment, I’m looking forward to your new writings, wherever they might take you. Camden is where I first lived when I landed in London many years ago and I have fond memories of the astonishing cultural mix to be found there. Enjoy!

    • #5 by Matt Voigts on October 11, 2011 - 8:01 am

      Always great to have you reading, Julian, and congrats on the award your latest essay – “Faith in a Forgotten Place” – won – I’ll be taking it in thoroughly and adding to the discussion over there soon. I’ve landed more permanently (for the year) around the King’s Cross/Angel area – a little north of Camden, but centrally-located enough that I can walk most places I need and want to be. I’ve heard the King’s Cross area’s changed a lot in the last decade with a push for urban renewal around the international train station. Overall, of course, the city is as vibrant and cosmopolitan as ever – finding a balance between it, the incredible range of seminars, courses, and lectures offered by UCL and the U of London system, and the reading lists, is much of the challenge of the moment – though there will be, no doubt, some new writing here as well. Thanks again!

  5. #6 by julianhoffman on October 11, 2011 - 6:39 pm

    Thanks for the congratulations, Matt! Much appreciated…over at the new Terrain issue there’s an interview with the photographer Frank Gohlke. He’s new to me, but looking at the gallery of fascinating images I think you might be interested.

    I know the King’s Cross/Angel area well! Though it’s probably changed considerably. I used to explore around the beautifully forlorn gasometres behind the station, though I don’t even know if they’re still standing. And I hear what you’re saying about finding a balance between everything to do! Whatever you choose, hope you enjoy…and I’ll be very interested in seeing where the city takes your writing. Take care and speak soon,


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