- Introduction:Culture In, Culture Out
Here are three essays dealing with computers. I intend that to sound sort of like "here are three essays dealing with ritual" or "here are three essays dealing with kinship"—to sound as if it were entirely unsurprising to open up a copy of Anthropological Quarterly and see three essays about computers, alongside three on social organization, religion, or pragmatics and ideology. It should be entirely unremarkable by now that computers are involved in the social and cultural life of the people and processes anthropologists study, everywhere in the world (digital divides notwith-standing). It should be clear by now that the interactions and uses by which people make meaning, act, or build societies is as inextricably linked to software, networks, computers, devices, and infrastructures as we insist it is to kinship or social organization. In all honesty, we should be well past the time when we need labels such as "digital life" or "the anthropology of the virtual" or "online sociality" as if they helped to clarify something. [End Page 7]
On the one hand, it will not do to simply suggest that computers make no difference to the social and cultural lives of humans, and that we ought to go on as if information and communication technologies are simply a diacritical mark on otherwise fundamental features of human life. On the other hand, it cannot change everything. The requirement to say what difference computers make to things like sociality, knowledge, language, or human life in general is not met by appending the word "digital" to whatever noun or verb commands more immediate attention; but nor can the difference be approached as if it were one problem among many, parceled out after the fashion of area studies, or divvied up as if it were one qualifying field exam alongside others (which we nonetheless know to be a frequent occurrence).
Often such a problem can only be addressed by demonstration, and this is what makes the three essays gathered here so valuable. Each of them is, in its own subtle way, struggling with exactly this issue: how to maintain a classical orientation towards anthropology, yet bring it to bear on a problem whose significance is widely felt, over-analyzed, and poorly understood. The essays collected here do not seek to forge a new sub-field, or to simply apply anthropological concepts to new objects like Facebook friends or cell-phone users; they do not seek to radically reinvent the methods, fieldsites, or topics of anthropology; and despite being written by people immersed in the technical details of software and networks, they are not any more inter- or trans-disciplinary than many other anthropological studies underway today.
Instead, what they do is something that should be familiar to any anthropologist: they form concepts out of rich empirical fieldwork and try to rectify them against those realities. They criticize approaches to problems and concepts forged in other places and in other times; and in doing so they leave open the possibility for future criticism that might take account of the changing technical conditions of our world (Strathern 2006). Each delivers good ethnographic value, explicating and orienting readers to very specific worlds and ways of being, and explains in each case what difference the difference engine makes. This is not special or new in any threatening sense; rather it is simply what anthropology looks like today.
These three essays each take on one of the peculiar burdens of anthropol-ogy: the ongoing remediation of the concept of culture. Culture, as a concept [End Page 8] and as a feature of anthropological thought is both broken and yet impossible to leave behind. Within the discipline, it has been through so many changes, so much re-use and modification, and so much critique, that it seems impossible to see in it the distinctive form it might once have had; and yet, there are no other serious nominees for the position it holds.
Even more burdensome is the fact that all around anthropology, other disciplines wield this concept (and the associated claim to investigate it via ethnography) with abandon. Much of this work is conducted without much awareness of...