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  • Rethinking Documentary in the Digital Age
  • Faye Ginsburg

In March 2005 the United Nations inaugurated a long-awaited program, the Digital Solidarity Fund, meant to underwrite initiatives that address "the uneven distribution and use of new information and communication technologies" and "enable excluded people and countries to enter the new era of the information society." What this might mean in practice—which digital technologies might make a significant difference and for whom and with what resources—is still an open and contentious question. Debates about the fund at the first meeting of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in December 2003 are symptomatic of the complexity of "digital divide" issues that have also been central to the second phase of the information summit held in November 2005 in Tunisia.

In this essay I consider the relationship of indigenous people to new media technologies that people in these communities have started to take up—with both ambivalence and enthusiasm—over the last decade. Why are their concerns barely audible in discussions of new media? I would like to suggest that part of the problem has to do with the rise of the term the "Digital Age" over the last decade and the assumptions that support it. While it initially had the shock of the new, it now [End Page 128] has become as naturalized for many of us—Western cultural workers and intellectuals—as a temporal marking of the dominance of a certain kind of technological regime ("the digital") as is association of "the Paleolithic" with certain kinds of stone tools for paleontologists. This naturalization seems even more remarkable given certain realities: only 12 percent of the world is currently wired (according to statistics from the January 2005 World Economic Forum in Davos), and only sixteen people in every one hundred of the world's population are serviced with telephone land lines. Digerati may see those numbers and salivate at the possibilities for entrepreneurship. But for an anthropologist and film scholar who has spent a good portion of her career looking at the uptake of media in remote indigenous communities, the unexamined ethnocentrism that undergirds assumptions about the Digital Age is discouraging. I am not suggesting that the massive shifts in communication, sociality, knowledge production, and politics that the Internet enables are simply irrelevant to remote communities; my concern is with how the language itself smuggles in a set of assumptions that paper over cultural differences in the way things digital may be taken up—if at all—in radically different contexts. These unexamined assumptions serve to further insulate Western thinking against the recognition of alterity presented by different kinds of media worlds, particularly in key areas such as intellectual property.

Concepts of the Digital Age have taken on a sense of evolutionary inevitability, thus creating an increasing stratification and ethnocentrism in the distribution of certain kinds of media practices, despite ongoing efforts to de-Westernize media studies. Looking at new (and old) media that are being produced in indigenous communities suggests how this new work might expand and complicate our ideas about the Digital Age in ways that take into account other points of view in the so-called global village. Whatever the nomenclature, there is never a neat division between so-called media ages—video versus digital, for example. In many indigenous communities, from the Arctic to central Australia, small-format video was enthusiastically embraced beginning in the late 1980s. This technology, which required little literacy and could be learned quickly, offered exciting possibilities for creating documentary practices—from the recording of elders' ritual knowledge to the creation of antic kids' stories as a way to engage a younger generation in speaking traditional languages. There is considerable interest in continuing this kind of practice, and in some cases communities are finding ways to link their documentary work with web-based platforms to make new kinds of links. But the path from here to there is far from clear.

A Brief History of Digital Debates

Within the ranks of those who have been writing and worrying about cultural production in the Digital Age and its global implications, there is some contestation as to "whether it is appropriate, given...


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