Our new issue of the Journal of Visual and Media Anthropology consists of four articles and six short ethnographic films. Reflecting the expanding diversity and variety of research fields in Digital Anthropology, these works present new research topics beyond what has previously been thought of as digitalization processes. Specifically, this journal contains the topics of religion, games and play, urban mobility, community development, online dating and big data.
Yun Ke’s (China) article is set from within a Buddhist monastery in China where she follows and participates alongside Chinese Buddhist monks and volunteers.The monastery’s ancient temple attracts thousands of visitors each year and maintains an outreach program involving manufacturing, animation production, and the endearing robot monk Xian’er.
Since ancient times, humans have sought refuge in religion to ease and address conflicts between the mind and the material world. Ke’s study attempts to discover the links between modern technologies and Buddhism, specifically in China, which she finds has faced an enormous mental crisis following recent economic and material success.
Carmen Belaschk’s (Germany) film “Connected” contextualizes the numerous benefits of one of the digital age’s greatest inventions: the smartphone. Her question aims to determine the value of this device specifically for refugees fleeing war and persecution.
In cooperation with the private initiative swisscross.help, this documentary was filmed on the island of Lesvos across 6 days within refugee camps and among volunteers working on the beaches where refugees arrived. Belaschk was afforded the opportunity to understand a small part of the voyage these individuals were undertaking. She offers an insight into their situation on the flight to Europe with a simultaneous focus on the role of smartphones throughout the journey.
Contributing to the enquiry of data transmission Joanna Sleigh (Australia) enters the dynamic space of ‘Big Data’, which she describes as a communally produced layer of digital documentation that when analyzed and categorized often elicits a sense of ‘overwhelmingness’. Her paper focuses on the experience of accessing this data both as producer and analyst. She has approached this topic through participation in a trans-disciplinary workshop where artists, researchers, designers, architects, philosophers, engineers, physicists, and other thinkers from across the world gathered in the context of the our current era’s unprecedented hyper-connection and data mining capabilities. Her research follows the groups projects to produce wearable technologies and a collaborative online platform, that represent the groups collaborative findings on the human reaction to the complicit and interconnected world of big-data.
The short documentary "Looking for Mr. Right Now", by Visual Anthropologist and filmmaker Anne Chahine (Germany) portrays the current phenomenon of virtual dating in form of mobile dating-apps such as Tinder. Communication through digital platforms have become an everyday activity, yet what impact does it have on the search for a partner? Chahine’s film examines whether the inclusion of these apps are ‘extending your hunting ground’ as one participant vividly describes, or whether they can be compared to ‘choosing your man from a catalogue’ as another shares. Further, her film offers an insight into the effect of this process on personal perception, and personal history and narrative in reference to the markedly different partner searching resources available to elders or parents of earlier eras.
Offering further commentary on specific platforms, the practice-led-research and article: Sharing the Road: The Post-Internet-Hitchhiker by Embodied / #BlakePaulKendall (Australia) explores the relationship of hitchhikers using the platforms BlaBlaCar, Hitchwiki, Couch Surfing, TrustRoots and Hitch Gathering. Although the platforms vary in functionality, according to the author, they collectively inform tangible relationships on hitchhiking in a post-internet age. He offers that the very essence of the share economy is brought into question with research participants marking the distinction between aspects of profit revenue, means of exchange and the limits between the actual and virtual worlds. In so doing, this research bypasses the rhetoric of ‘gift exchange’ dominating literature of hitching, and explores the aspects of community building through the informed adoption of share economy rhetoric.
Visual Anthropologist and filmmaker Yoonha Kim (Korea) sheds light on how digital technology suggests that this specific vocational benefit of city life is actually available worldwide in different formats with simply a stable Wi-Fi connection. Nine to five office jobs shift towards goal oriented remote jobs, Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) open access to high quality education, and social media offer the rapid exchange of ideas and information.
Yoonha Kim’s film takes place within the context of 3.4 million abandoned, empty houses in Spain, primarily in rural and often picturesque areas. A group of individuals, able to reap the economic benefits of urban life from a remote area, seized the opportunity to build a new model of ‘counterunbanization’ in these abandoned villages. She has coined these modern-day pioneers, “Buillagers” – the village builders.
Henry Denyer-Simmons’ (Australia) article and short film questions the perspective that technologies blending multiple realities are “enhancing” because people then proactively “make and share” rather than simply consume as users (Applin and Fischer 2011:1). His visual research project explores the recent global phenomenon Pokémon GO as medium for augmenting reality. Some common themes of augmentation that surfaced through interviews and an online questionnaire included an enhanced appreciation for physical nature, an increased wellbeing through greater exercise, as well as an aesthetic appreciation for blended reality images.
In Simmons’ experimental video accompanying the project – interview audio recordings are laid over images of the Bathurst (Australia) environs captured with a 360-degree Virtual Reality camera, illustrating the environment where his respondents used Pokémon GO to change and augment their realities.
Valerie von Kittlitz (Germany) continues the examination of augmented reality technology at the Berlin Wall memorial, Bernauer Strasse in Berlin, Germany. The site commemorates what were often fatal attempts at fleeing the surveillance state of the former East Germany. Visitors to the site move amongst open-air monuments, signs, bits of the original Wall, and scattered visualizations of political dominance, stretched across 1.4 kilometers.
A layer of reality rendered through a privately funded, publicly available (i.e. downloadable) app entitled ‘Time Traveler,’ which enables mobile device users to screen archival footage juxtaposed at the site of its origin. Through GPS, the app detects the position of its user, guiding them to that which the filmmaker would have taken at the moment of the film fragment’s production. Optical tracking of the camera image enables the app to transmit said fragment onto it resulting in a threefold retinal amalgamation of ‘reality’.
Ahmed El Kady’s (Egypt) film “Let me walk: Ubering” reveals how a mobile app can affect social realities. Specifically, as the ability for women to safely travel by foot in Cairo has continued to diminish, Uber, the car order service app, has surfaced as a new tool enabling safe mobility across the city. Fueling its popularity are features allowing users to monitor the identify of their drivers and observe the route in real time. El Kady’s film offers a glimpse into the world of Uber in Egypt. Prior to the app, one of the main modes of transportation Cairo was the often unreliable and unsafe taxi service. From heckling with the taxi drivers to charge a fair price and or use air conditioning in the extreme Egyptian heat, to the unpleasant experience of trying to stop a cab in the city as a female susceptible to harassment, the emergence of Uber (and of course the popularity of smart phones in Egypt), has improved the quality of life through transportation.