Monday, April 18, 2016

Visual Ethnography — Digital Experiences and Orientalism

A friend of mine posted a link on Facebook some time ago and it has ever since been on my mind.

Steven J. Bernstein once wrote, 
"I like to think when something disturbs me - that - it - is - important."

Initially, I would not have characterized the link as one that "disturbs" me. But, over time and upon reflection it has caused me some serious contemplation. Something about it bugs me — i.e. evidently it does disturb me. Here is the link — "Falling Up" – Genre Busting Digital Ethnography  

I don't know how to write/right this so... I will write... 
My initial reaction to this blurb/video about this strange new candy referred to as digital ethnography was quite positive. But, being a designer and a researcher has warped me. I can no longer partake of such fresh delights without quickly descending into the madness of my own personal cynicism.

What is the purpose of such an ethnography?!

Does this serve the purpose that an ethnography should?!

What does new media such as this actually do when it is used as "ethnography?!"

Cultural anthropology of the past/present followed a "salvage" model where the work was intended to preserve knowledge of current cultures by generating written ethnographies and other fairly static artifacts. Photos, films and other forms of media have increasingly been wove into the works that cultural anthropologists generate. I have been experimenting with ethnographic video so my post here is aimed not just at Wesch's project but at my own work as well. Arguably -- photos, film, video and audio records can be immersive and they do present their own set of challenges. But, interactive digital experiences are less a "record" of culture. They are more of a re-creation that claims to allow the viewer/user to feel as though they are stepping into a culture. Producing and editing such a re-creation puts the anthropologist in a position to manipulate the ethnography to a much greater degree than with previous media.

New media such as video and digital artifacts could be seen as pursuing a new model aimed at providing an "experience." This new model of experience is exciting to me. Seemingly, it can provide the audience with a means to understand a culture more deeply, to feel, empathize, and... well... experience other cultures. But, does it really do this? Does it do it in a way that is true, real or productive? I'm not sure that it always does. I fear that too often it will not. And yet I feel compelled to create such ethnography. There is power in these new methods. It seems that spreading knowledge through such experiences could have such positive outcomes that it would be foolish to not make the attempt.

Still I have serious questions and reservations. Let's consider anthropological exhibits as they are often created within the context of a museum. When we put the seemingly strange object of another culture on a white pedestal and light it dramatically in a large white room what exactly is the experience for the viewers? What is the experience when we fill that room with other carefully lit objects in glass cases and on white pedestals? Does it respect the culture? Does it represent it in such a way that the viewer gets an accurate feel for the culture?

A digital virtual space seems all to similar to this type of treatment — the digital screen is a glowing, candy-like window hanging in space. In fact it seems to have even a greater potential for ill (or good?). Does such a presentation become a feast on knowledge or does it become a binge on candy? Is it a fine line that is in some ways too easy to cross? More importantly -- are we "othering" the subjects of such an ethnography? We have lived this problem before through the orientalism of the 20th century. I believe it is possible to do better if we are aware of this recent past.

So, many concerns come with creating an ethnography of this type or in this way. I will end this post with more questions that may act as provocations or perhaps guide me to make better ethnographic artifacts.

Does it treat the culture and people being studied with respect?

Does it treat the viewer/reader/user with respect?

What is the purpose of such a project?

Does it represent the culture in a way that is "real" and who is defining what "real" is?

Does it compel the audience to explore their world or does it make them just crave more candy?



  1. It seems to me that any work of ethnography can represent its subjects poorly. I can write a set of accurate notes and then present them in a distorted report. I may present artifacts or photos that represent some truths correctly but omit or obscure others. This isn't a function of the tools or the technology, it's an intrinsic problem in conveying knowledge from one person to another. The interactive video is just a new tool. It can be used badly, and there's probably some increased risk of it being used badly because it is new, without established guidelines or best practices for its use. But there is no tool that can't be misused. We limit ourselves unnecessarily when we blame the tools instead of ourselves.

  2. Carl - indeed I agree with much of what you say. It feels very hard to put into words how I feel about this stuff. Some of my concerns are about context as well as what is stripped away from the experience. In the example of the museum that I mentioned in my post — placing some artifact in a space so far removed from it's original context that it becomes something almost completely different. It's like putting the artifact on display in a clean-room -- stripped of all context. And in the case of digital recreations the dangers in my mind run even deeper as it is a complete re-creation. It COULD be a very powerful and useful tool but I fear that those creating such experiences will act irresponsibly or without giving such things the deep thought and considerations that they deserve. In the example that brought all of this on — the culture of an assisted live facility — it just felt very sterile to me.