From Welcome to Cyberia: Notes on the Anthropology of Cyberculture by Arturo Escobar. Current Anthropology, Volume 35, Number 3, June 1994.


The study of cyberculture is particularly concerned with the cultural constructions and reconstructions on which the new technologies are based and which they in turn help to shape. The point of departure of this inquiry is the belief that any technology represents a cultural invention, in the sense that it brings forth a world; it emerges out of particular cultural conditions and in turn helps to create new ones. Anthropologists might be particularly well prepared to understand these processes if they were to open up to the idea that science and technology are crucial arenas for the creation of culture in today's world. (211)

Some researchers... assert that nature and machines have become important actors in the historical processes that determine technological change. (212)

[In cyberculture] are the systems that account for the production of life (body, self, nature), labor (production, the economy), and language (discourse, communication, the speaking subject) being significantly modified?.... The spread of the written word, the preeminence of the machine, the control of time and space, and the biological and biochemical revolutions of the past 100 years produced unprecedented biotechnical arrangements which today find new forms of expression in cybercultural terms. (213)

"Cyberculture" refers specifically to new technologies in two areas: artificial intelligence (particularly computer and information technologies) and biotechnology.... They embody the realization that we increasingly live and make ourselves in techno-biocultural environments structured by novel forms of science and technology.

Cyberculture... orients itself towards the constitution of a new order -- which we cannot yet fully conceptualize but my try to understand -- through the transformation of the range of possibilities for communicating, working, and being.

Anthropological research might be guided by the following overall inquiries:

1. What are the discourses and practices that are generated around / by computers and biotechnology?...

2. What established anthropological concepts and methods would be appropriate to the study of cyberculture? Which would have to be modified?...

3. Which modern practices -- in the domains of life, labor, and language -- shape the current understanding, design, and modes of relating to technology?...

4. What is the political economy of cyberculture? In what ways, for instance, are the relations between First and Third World restructured in the light of the new technologies? (214)

Critical positions... are beginning to be articulated, most notably in visual anthropology.... it is not surprising that the branch of anthropology most attuned to the analysis of visuality as a cultural and epistemological regime has been the first to react to uncritical celebration of cyberspatial technologies. (215)

Three dimensions of the process of construction of computer-mediated communicative communities are particularly relevant in this regard (Celso Alvarez, personal communication, 1992): (a) the relationship between machines and social subjects as producers of discourse at the threshold of the birth of an international "cyberliterate" society; (b) the question of the creation and distribution of and access to the "authorized" or "legitimate" computer-mediated communication codes and languages whose mastery and manipulation grants particular groups of practitioners symbolic authority and control over the circulation of cyberculture; (c) the role of computer-mediated communication in establishing links between, giving cohesion to, and creating continuities in the interaction history of group members. (219)

[contrasting "scientists of complexity" with other scientists:] Instead of emphasizing stability in nature and societies, they emphasize instabilities and fluctuations; in lieu of reversible linear processes, nonlinearity and irreversibility are placed at the heart of scientific inquiry. (221)

Perhaps the language of complexity signals that it is possible for technoscience(s) to contribute to the design of forms of living that avoid the most deadening mechanisms for structuring life and the world introduced by the project of modernity. It is not a question of bringing about a technosocial utopia -- decentralized, self-managed, empowering -- but one of thinking imaginatively whether technoscience cannot be partially reoriented to serve different cultural and political projects.

Cyberculture... offers a chance for anthropology to renew itself without again reaching, as in the anthropology of this century, premature closure around the figures of the other and the same.... What is happening to life in the late 20th century? What is coming in the next? (223)

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