Digital Pedagogies – Experimentation as Method in the Digital Humanities

Updated: Aug 21, 2020

Nick Smith

In this paper I’d like to think through some of the overlaps between digital anthropology, experimental methods, and pedagogy. An experience I had at a seminar in Greece over the summer is the example I will use to trace the line of my arguments, but these points are touched on in different ways by the other presentations here, and are a reflexive component of the forays into digital anthropology that we are making with the Body Online Project at U of T and Middlebury.

Emergent scholarship on digital humanities has taken on the zeal of flourish and fetish that the tech industry itself trades in. this is not a new story. Anthropology in the age of globalization (AKA the 90s) came to reflect the very forms of dispersion and movement which characterized its object of study, for example multi-cited ethnography, and the scaping of the world. Not only this, but as people like George Marcus pointed out at the time, there was a curious coincidence between the aesthetic of nouveau research terrains made possible in the era of globalization, in the form of an academic capture of attention, and the kind attention capture which was endemic to the image of “globalization” itself, the imagination of progress and its entailed aesthetics, down to the glass facades and erasures of violence which author’slike Alan Klima have described in great ethnographic detail. The appeal of multi-cited ethnography, then, might be thought of not only as a response to changes in the way the world worked but as an active harnessing of the zeitgeist of globalization in other forms of economy, that is, the knowledge economy. We can safely say something similar of a current interest in digital media in the social sciences, that it is intimately bound up in a sense of its discovery of new sociocultural territory, and a pioneering spirit. And indeed even this comment is not new. Much work in Digital Anthropology has not only concerned the uncovering of new terrains of ethnography, but the demystification of this newness altogether. As Crystal Abidin points out in her recent blog post on Anthrodendum, we might confront this demystification in much the same way that Bruno Latour confronts modernity. Just as we have never been modern, might

we have never been digital anthropologists? Despite this, funding in the digital humanities, like funding generally, is often tied to an ethos of emergence and cutting-edge research, even if our research itself might interpolate this newness into being or may unknowingly answer a call whose origins we are unaware of.

Rather than either recapitulating the aura of “digital cultures” or critiquing their status as a fabrication, maybe we can follow Henrieta Moore and think in terms of our pre-theoretical commitments to the digital, to what we share with our interlocutors in terms of passion or disdain, enjoyment or a sense of loss when it comes to our understandings and engagements with digital contexts. to understand the utility of a silo’d conception of the digital culture, such as we risk here, as maintaining rather than resolving ambiguities, for instance between the digital and the real. “digital” here is quite obviously less of an analytically consistent concept than a concept-metaphor which we as researchers share with the general public and with our own, non-academic selves. The digital is a framing device whose primary point of reference is that against which the digital is set: the un-digital, the analogue, the natural, whose status as “real” has been questioned by some (Boellstorf) and defended by others (ingold). Our pre- theoretical commitments to the digital are the framing device through which we offer a particular perspective on these various dualities. But we are still faced with this choice of whether, and in what ways, we engage with the newness of the digital. If the digital is a companion to the non-digital, and a concept-metaphor through which to think our entanglements with its conceptual zeitgeist, then on what grounds do we engage? Using a recent example from an experimental seminar I had the opportunity to attend over the summer, my argument is that the realization that we have never been digital anthropologists is not simply a re-affirmation of the pillars of our discipline, that is, of long-term place based ethnographic fieldwork. It has not been illusory in that sense, and there is no need to relish its demystification just as there is no need to rue the concept-metaphor for being a metaphor. Instead, my argument is that the digital offers us, as ethnographers, tangible new tools and possibilities for ethnographic engagement which intimately link methods of research with pedagogy. These possibilities link work in digital anthropology with an experimental, or imaginative, predisposition and this in turn makes the instructional environment a productive place for digital anthropology to happen. Between the experimental and the new an important distinction arises. The experimental certainly gives rise to the new but to what end? One end might be the dream of expansion, as I have mentioned already, and the pioneering spirit of techno-capitalism. Another direction, however, deals in a different kind of indeterminacy, that of the experiment and of the imagination whose cultivation might be conceived of as an end in its own right. Care is needed here as words like the imagination are clearly also quite bound up in techno-capitalist subjectivities: the innovator, the creative, the fetishized outside the box thinker etc. And yet we do not have to take our understandings of imagination from these places in order to apply them here. In the rest of this paper I use the example of a serious game developed at the Pelion summer lab in Greece this summer, to argue for the utility of a link between Digital anthropology and imaginative forms of ethnography, and between pedagogy and methods more generally.

The Pelion Summer lab The pelion summer lab is an annual 10 day seminar hosted by the department of history, archaeology and social anthropology at the university of Thessaly in volos, Greece. Over its three years of existence the PSL has convened in rural locations throughout central Greece, this year we met in Makrinitsa, a small village in a densely forested sprawl of valleys and cliffs known as mount pelion which has no shortage of mythological history or tourist appeal. Our schedule involved seminars in the mornings, taught by invited lecturers, and in the afternoons, a collaborative effort to compose a “serious game”. A serious game, for those who might not be familiar, has gamified features, like levelling up, competition, goal orientation, and incentives, but is “played” for purposes beyond pure entertainment. There has been a recent explosion of serious games in healthcare, the military, and education. This gamification of career trajectories, warzones, and triage scenarios is directly related to the affordances of the new digital technologies which these games are platformed on. With the theme of our seminar as “data and power” our serious game was to be a more critical engagement which drew on the topics of our seminars: platform capitalism, surveillance, and virality.

But before we could get into discussions of our seminar texts, we had to confront the difficulties of group work and consensus building in determining what exactly our serious game even was. The logistical and personal minuteau that accompanies the shimmer of an idea that we, a hodgepodge of anthropologists, artists, historians, techies, and interested people, had come together to turn into a concrete game which was accessible to the public. Ideas ranged from a treasure hunt in which personified cookies (and by this I mean the bits of personal information that third party websites collect about our online activity) would chase people around, pestering them with advertisements as a real life mock-up of the ways our personal information comes back to haunt us online, to something closer to a standard ethnography, composed by the players of the game, which would aim to explore the human face behind the digital life of the village of Makrinitsa which we, along with the other tourists to the village had already explored in the visage of platform capitalism (on trip advisor, air BnB, etc.)

Our own backgrounds with games and gaming, and our established professionalized predispositions meant that we often clashed in our opinions of what might constitute a good game and what, in the first place, the rules of our game should be. We started with nothing to guide us except our daily seminars on the theme of data and power. It was an awkward process. Whereas serious games often bring the real to the digital, digitally gamifying aspects of life which had formerly been free from this modality, our serious game flipped the script, bringing the digital back into the real so to speak. It forced us to confront our own discomforts in the space we occupied as academics in Makrinitsa. How do we make a game that touches on the themes of data and power without it feeling immediately like didactic trickery for the people we hoped would come and play? Not only this but the situation which we approached, in an open ended way, revealed to us the extent to which our own taken for granteds about digital sociality and the space it affords anthropologists in the objects it present, forestalled this jump, from Makrinitsa’s digital life to its articulations with our very grounded presences in makrinitsa.

Many in our group, myself included, who would have no problem critiquing or analyzing others’ public Instagram posts, collectively shied away at the idea of turning Instagram hashtags into a critically oriented game at makrinistas selfie hotspots. Even more repulsive to many was the idea that we might try to “educate” people with our game. When the idea that our game could have players set out on an embodied quest to recover their data from the third party sites who trade in our personal information, we quickly entered uncomfortable territory. Who would want to play a game that seemed to chide them for their ignorance of the sins of big data? And with whose voice were we speaking when we designed our game this way? Our academic insularity, and the spirit of critique which it fostered, vanished when its audience and performativity were shifted outside of their usual context. In the end we settled on two games, conceived collectively in the spirit of a festival which we hoped would entice locals and tourists to play them both. The first was a board game with human players where contestants acted out to one another, some of the typified behaviors we engage in on various social media platforms (posing for likes, deciding how to respond to breaking news on twitter etc.). The second game, which I was a part of, took a more sensorial approach, and was played out in the context of a fantastical futurist narrative which had players digitally recompose the soundscape of one of makrinitsa’s abandoned churche grounds for the sake of a future civilization who had lost their analogue sensorial abilities.

The games were a success by most measures, they were fun, and they were also helpful in thinking about how a different approach to digital life, in this case a collaborative performance, can also facilitate new understandings of “digital culture.” One of the appeals of digital anthropology is how malleable an object of study it can be made into. You can be a digital ethnographer from your home, or the classroom, you have an ability to make cuts and recompose your data in never before thought of ways. Crystal Abidin, to return to her article in anthrodendum, reminds us that ethnography is an art of lying, and that it is always important to keep in mind how we lie? In Makrinitsa, our collective efforts to gamify the critical discussions happening in the digital humanities resulted not so much in the sheek unfurling of academic theory in a new, fun, from, but the messiness that scholars of the digital humanities negotiate and cover up.

Performance, might also help us visualize, work through, and confront the implications of digital life which are not performative at its interfaces, but whether purposefully or unintentionally are backgrounded. All those processes that are dispersed in nature or inhuman in their processions while nevertheless having very real human impacts. In short, our performance, and especially the process of creating the performance, helped up us to work through our pre-theoretical commitments to the digital, some of which we shared with each other and some of which we did not, but which were exposed and played with in our commitment to creating our game.

This, I think, allows us to open venues for critical engagement which are not only oriented towards the critique of what has happened, but towards what is and what might be as well. Arnd Schneider speculates on the possibility of a non-retrospective ethnographic engagement in experiemental film, and I think there is something similar at work in projects that pursue experimental engagements with digital culture. They can make available what is conceived of but not present to the empirical eye. They upset the givenness of the digital, if ever there was such a thing, for example by expanding the things we think of as the anthropological field in digital humanities beyond sites of production or consumption. What does it feel like to be a piece of your own data? Can we physically embody our online profiles to one another in person? What if it were possible to reconstruct the past out of data? These were the questions we bandied about while designing our game, and just as they helped us to demystify the digital, and expose our pre-theoretical commitments, they also helped us grasp at something transitory and not altogether encapsulated by distinctions between the digital and the real. In this sense an imaginative form of ethnography might be integral not only to Digital ethnography, but to its post-human entanglements as well. the effervescence of techno-fetishism was not overlooked by the PSL, just as it has not been overlooked by the team members of the Body Online. It is a core sensitivity or tension which structures the context of our work as “more than” that which would be known otherwise. Because everybody knows that big data is constantly getting it wrong, even as we aim to install smartboards in every classroom. And everyone knows that more tech just as easily leads to more distraction, and more wasted time in the classroom, as it does to the seamless flow of information from instructor to student, or from memory board to mind. It is this reason that the Participants in the PSL’s Serious game were hesitant of the way we might come across to the public in performing the critiques we were reading or else were quick to offer a new form of critique by way of a return to the “real” from the digital.

Imagination and creativity can help us to live in this space of ambiguity, between the real and digital, or between our digital pasts and our digital futures, and it is in this spirit that I really look forward to doing more work with this group of people and the body online collective!

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