In our recent discussion of hackers and cheaters, Huon Wardle writes,

If I were reinventing anthropology... I would have to invent an anthropology that could deal with culture on a wired planet.

I rather snippily replied that this project is already underway. I think instantly of work by Biella ColemanTom Boelstorff and Alex Golub ("Rex" on Savage Minds), who have studied hackers, virtual worlds, and online gaming. A particular favorite, however, is Christopher Kelty's Two Bits.

In Two Bits Kelty introduces the concept of the "recursive public," a public he defines as follows: 

A recursive public is a public that is constituted by a shared concern for maintaining the means of association through which they come together as a public.  

The prototype of the concept are geeks.

Geeks find affinity with one another because they share an abiding moral imagination of the technical infrastructure, the Internet, that has allowed them to develop and maintain this affinity in the first place. 

The key point about geeks is that they, both individually and collectively, are able to directly modify the infrastructure on which their world depends. Since arbitrary change would lead to chaos, geeks have developed mechanisms for determining what is or is not an acceptable change. There are channels through which changes are presented — not simply as proposals but as code — to others who can evaluate and critique them and, once their acceptability is demonstrated, legitimize their inclusion in the the technology that encompasses and sustains the geeks' moral universe.

When I stop to think about the original definition, however, I find myself thinking of other publics than those involved in creating, hacking and modifying software. What of Asian peasants who for thousands of years have been constructing  and maintaining the irrigation systems on which wet rice agriculture and, thus, their ways of life depend? What of the visionaries and engineers responsible for railroads, highways, and other transportation systems? A closer look will, I am sure, reveal both strong similarities and differences between these publics and the geeks that Kelty writes about. 

Please add new cases and share your thoughts.

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Thanks for bringing this up in a creative way, John. It is the core of what the OAC is about and, for all our achievements as a network, we could do with thinking more about practical ways of achieving this goal.

Clearly we need to learn from what is out there and most of it comes out of the US. But it is not just a question of immersing ourselves in the literature. Stretching Huon's remark, I think he was alluding to anthropology as inevitably at some level a personal project. Anthropology would be impossible if we were not each a human being in the first place. This gives us access to a vast cultural repertoire that we potentially share, but we can only do so by starting from our own experience. This is something that most education systems deny.

We are always unconsciously shaped by old ways of doing things that we need to be more aware of when we try to do something new. The old universals (western empire, the catholic church, bourgeois economics) suppressed cultural particulars, but we have to recognize that human universals can only be realised by privileging the cultural particulars that constitute each of us.

It is true that we are living through special circumstances that we need to understand intimately for what they are if we are to find ways forward. But I agree wholeheartedly with your plea to place this moment in a diverse history that links us to much longer run human experiences of communication. We also need a conceptual framework with which to make comparisons. In The Memory Bank (available freely online), section of chapter 2 'The origins of the communications revolution', I made a start, but this issue could go anywhere.

What are digital and analogue forms of measurement? Yes how did the adoption of iron technologies change things for most of us? Above all, what was the agricultural revolution and how do we relate to it as we try to make sense of it in a wired world?

Our best method for reinventing anthropology is to participate actively in the digital communications revolution, to make the most of the opportunities and to learn from making them central to our practice. That is a project that you, Huon and I, as well as most OAC members, share. Thanks again.

Keith, thanks. You have made my day. May I ask when your piece on the Communications Revolution was written? I ask because of the way that accelerated change can transform the world as we write about it. I noted, for example, your statement that the USA has 60% of the world's Internet users. I do not challenge that figure as of the time you were writing. I did, however, turn to Wolfram Alpha and discovered that as of 2014 estimates, the top three countries in the world in terms of number of Internet users was

1. China, 672.6 million users
2. USA, 278.6 million users
3. India, 233.2 million users

And as these figures demonstrate, as of 2014 there were more Chinese users than American and Indian users combined.

I also note in your analysis a taste of the optimism that for me is indelibly associated with the advertising I was writing for companies like NEC in the early 1980s, when it seemed that the fusion of computers and communications would lead to a utopian future in which all the knowledge in the world would be freely available to everyone. We did not anticipate that a massive deluge of misinformation, coupled with limited human bandwidth, and algorithms designed to feed users more of what they already like would lead to a fragmentation of the human noosphere and sharpen rather than mitigate political differences. It has already been at least two election cycles in the USA since I read a story in the Washintron Post by a reporter who observed that members of whichever party lost the election would be certain that the other party had cheated. After all, everyone they knew on or offline had voted for their candidate.

Changing subjects slightly. You are absolutely right. There is too much literature. Immersion without drowning seems impossible. That said, I would like to recommend a book that I think you and others here might find enlightening: Stephen Kern. 1983. The Culture of Time and Space: 1880-1918. Harvard University Press. A richly detailed and delightfully lucid account of a previous period in which people felt variously excited, inspired, or depressed and frightened by new technology, its biggest lesson for me is that while the world has changed even more dramatically, our intellectual apparatus for analyzing the effects of change is not much better than it was around the turn of the last century.

Thanks again for the compliment and the link to your chapter. Very thought provoking.

It was published by Profile, London in 2000, republished by Texere, New York in 2001 as Money in  an Unequal World. Yes I should have included a caveat on the status of its contents. It was written just before the collapse of the dot com boom. Go figure. In any case, ALL my academic friends, when asking what the book was about, recoiled from my suggestion that we might benefit from the internet if we can learn how to use it and don't destroy it first: but it is so unequal, hardly anyone can reach it, the big companies have already taken it over in order to manipulate us. We are all pawns in the latest capitalist conspiracy. A rerun of their attitude to TV half a century earlier and even now. On US breakfast TV and NPR pushing the book after the crash, interviewers were saying things like "Now that the internet is over..." So I stuck with my line that we might be able to make good use of it for ourselves if we learn how and that it was still the most important and positive development of our lifetimes. The original dominance of a few western countries will be soon superseded by globalization

I should have included in this post a warning that the facts were often dated. I don't recant from my optimism, even if historical circumstances change. I couldn't write and teach otherwise. But I am a realist too and pretty well informed. Like the Arab proverb "I think I will live forever, but I could die tomorrow". I operate a side line in FX trading and it doesn't get more up to date than that. I have scores of more recent reflections and even facts about all this on my website. But the passage I pointed to takes a long-term comparative perspective and may be more durable.

So I put unequal world in the title, warned readers that this was based on a very early stage of the phenomenon, but the internet was the fastest breaking medium in world history

'If I were reinventing anthropology... I would have to invent an anthropology that could deal with culture on a wired planet.'

Before we charge off into hyperspace with the idea that I wrote that, it is in fact a direct quote from the conclusion to a startlingly prescient essay by Sol Worth published in 1971 in Reinventing Anthropology --- he was basing his argument on the potentials of cable television in the 70s; decades before the internet as we now think of it was invented. 

How would it be if we started with the assumption that both Sol Worth and Keith Hart have, around 1970 and 2000 respectively, offered arguments that are not only thought provoking but, in light of subsequent experience prescient, without completely predicting the future in which we now live. Then we could both celebrate their insight and ask how their ideas may need modification.

We might observe, for example, that the process Worth recognized as cable TV broke the monopoly of the broadcast networks and made it possible for viewers to follow their own preferences has accelerated with the advent of the internet, mobile devices, and filtering algorithms that track and reinforce viewer preferences. We might fully accept the broad outlines of Hart's argument while also noting that it was written during the bubble, before the rise of mobile devices and services like Google and Facebook, and, the particular issue at which I have pointed, the rise of China as an Internet superpower, albeit one that remains largely invisible to most English speaking users behind the twin barriers of the Chinese language and the Great Firewall.

In simpler terms, the question before us is how to conduct a conversation that avoids the recurring cycle of critique and defensive reaction into which we have heretofore been so likely to fall.

You mean getting our wires crossed, John? (get it...)

One of the problems with OAC set up is that people can be writing messages unaware that the other person is too. This happened here too -- Keith wrote a message, but I didn't see it until after I had posted mine and the page reloaded.

Sol Worth, Keith Hart... I just want to flag up here what looks like a fascinating book by Radek Trnka and Radmila Lorencova -- Quantum Anthropology. There are relevances to Rethinking Anthropology in a wired world it seems to me. Radek Trnka contacted me with the details having first read a forum thread here on the OAC in which we discussed 'Quantum Mechanics for Anthropologists' (opened by Mikhail Popov) back in 2015

Here is a taster of some of the intriguing application of quantum (and other) ideas in the book:

At the beginning of a new social form, individual thoughts,

ideas, actions, and initial beliefs start to interact with each other.

The fluctuations of thoughts and communication flows have a

character similar to the perpetual interactions between microparticles.

It is the perpetual vibrating of elements that is permanently

creating emergent qualities on a higher level of analysis, e.g.

shared cultural standards or norms in the case of social systems.

These initial interactions move toward some kind of strange attractor.

The patterns in the distribution of values, preferences,

imaginations, and expectations within an emerging social system

are the initial conditions also responsible for the future differentiation

of the social aggregate, and these initial conditions represent

the basin of attraction (Arrow and Burns, 2004).

The pattern in the distribution of values, preferences, imaginations,

and expectations, called the basin of attraction, permeates

also through the particular social field (Bourdieu, 1977).

Because of the patterned basin of attraction, individuals do not

live in a completely unpredictable environment. Field-specific

rules enable individuals to anticipate and predict future tendencies

and opportunities with certain probabilities. It is the way of

decreasing uncertainty for individuals acting within particular

social fields. Although the initial stages of cultural existence are

typical by a relatively high uncertainty shared by the members of

a culture, the so-called initial collective uncertainty, this uncertainty

is gradually lowered as the shared system of field-specific

rules becomes formed. This does not mean that from this time,

the stability of a system is guaranteed, but we can at least say that

safety-protecting mechanisms have been developed in a system.

It is necessary to emphasize that the qualities of a culture are

not the simple sum of thoughts and behaviors of the individuals

acting in the social field. There are also emergent properties that

we are not able to extrapolate from the individual actions. Such

emergent phenomena are often not possible to be explained using

classic causality, i.e. as a linear relationship between some

factor and its subsequent effect.


I have often pointed out that quantum, the biggest breakthrough in scientific thinking and practice of our era, was ignored by 20th century social science, including anthropology. It is not as difficult, at least the principles, as most people think. I have benefited greatly in my thinking about the internet from Heidegger's take in his late metaphysics, which is based substantially on quantum. But Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrodinger and the others are more accessible. You can learn a lot from the exchange between Bohr and Heisenberg in Michael Frayn's play, Copenhagen.

So I have often wondered why not even a handful of anthropologists have taken it up before. My conclusion is that modern social science is not at all scientific, but rather an ideology, a way of persuading young people that society is incomprehensible and that there is nothing they can do about it that would make a meaningful difference. In other words, most of the time we look the other way and worry about how to keep our jobs (or get one) without rocking the boat.

This latest collection on Quantum Anthropology does look interesting and, as Huon says, might contribute to our discussions on this thread. It is available as a free pdf at various places online and is starting up as a discussion on (which I am finding a very useful medium at present and complementary to our efforts).

Serendipitously, I received a message from Radek day before yesterday, thanking me for my contributions to the OAC discussion that Huon has mentioned and providing the link from which I downloaded the PDF. I will happily participate in a discussion of the book, either here or on For the latter,however, I need more than the link that Keith provided, which takes me to the place from which I downloaded the PDF but, I am probably missing something, has no obvious link to a discussion.

At the moment, however, I am already reading another book that I commend to your attention: Embracing Complexity: Strategic Perspectives for an Age of Turbulence by Jean G. Boulton, Peter M. Allen, and Cliff Bowman. It seems to cover much of the same ground as the bits from the Quantum Anthropology book that Huon has posted here, but does so in what I see as a more straightforward style and does not, at least to the point that I have reached use quantum mechanics as a model or metaphor. For example,

1.3 Complexity thinking in brief
Complexity in a nutshell
Although the whole book is about developing this topic, here is a succinct definition of what complexity theory and complex thinking is all about. When we say the world is complex we are saying it is:
• Systemic: the world cannot be understood through taking apart the bits and understanding them separately. Factors work together synergistically, that is, the whole is different from the sum of its parts. We live as part of patterns of relationships.
• Path-dependent: history matters and the sequence of events is a key factor in giving shape to the future.
• Sensitive to context: one size does not fit all, and the way change happens and the way the future emerges is dependent on the detailed and particular events and patterns of relationships and particular features in the local situation. By generalizing we risk throwing out the very information that sheds light on why things happen and what might happen next.
• Emergent, uncertain, but not random: although the future does not follow smoothly from the past, neither is what happens random. The world is neither chaotic nor predictable but somewhere in between.
• Episodic: things are becoming, developing, and changing, but change seems to happen in fits and starts.

The intriguing thing about the world is that on the surface patterns of relationships and structures can seem almost stable for long periods of time, although micro-changes may be going on under the surface. And then radical change can happen suddenly and new patterns of relationships can self-organize and some completely new features that could not have been predicted may emerge.

Ideas from quantum mechanics may help to explain the properties of complex systems described here. How is an important question.

I note, too, that Isabelle Stenger's Cosmopolitics I and II is in large part a philosophical reflection on the history of quantum mechanics and may have much to offer as we reflect on Quantum Anthropology.

A quick internet search pulls up the information that the first U.S. transcontinental telegraph message was sent from California in 1861 and read 'May the Union be Perpetual':

workers putting in infrastructure for the telegraph:

British imperial telegraph relays. Note the clustering of connections in southern Britain. Some hubs have 'instantaneous automatic retransmission':

2015 "Quantum mechanics for anthropologists " and after.

Quantum cross-disciplinary field is rapidly changing now. In 2015 when we in OAC have discussed post EP introduction in some Oxford style, quantum anthropology has been thought of as an attempt of dialog between community of anthropologists and community of mathematically speaking quantum physicists. I tried to identify similar problems for the both communities. However, like in any field work we must have some elementary language understanding in order to have taking communications with Other seriously...

Speaking quantumly wave-function and so-called "collapse of the wave-function " can be merely applied only in microworld, but not in our classical world. This means, real Schrodinger cats cannot exist because any experiment with superposition of cat simply can kill ( high temperature) living organisms.... In other words, all assumptions on quantum effects in macroworld usually represent public myth. Some macro effects like superconductivity qubits are possible indeed, but not Cats, Cultures, etc.

Nevertheless, there is beautiful area of some Futuristic Anthropology where anthropologists can use non-physical imagination to predict  mankind future in long term space travels , Martian colonies, etc


I agree that any direct application of quantum physics to anthropology would be misguided, for the reasons you state. Tha said, concepts like "collapse of wave function" may still be useful metaphors/models for thinking about anthropological questions.

Consider, for example, classic accounts of shamanism, in which the shaman's selection and training are treated as examples of social norms/rules such that if candidate Y satisfies conditions Z, he or she becomes a shaman. Consider as an alternative an observation collected by David Jordan in Taiwan.

A young man begins shaking violently in what appears to the anthropologist to be an epileptic fit. The neighbors do not leap to a conclusion. They consider four possibilities: possession by a god - with proper training the young man could become a spirit medium; possession by a ghost - the young man needs an exorcism; physical sickness - no spirit is involved; faking - the young man is pretending to be possessed to attract attention and, if accepted as a spirit medium, achieve a higher status and more profitable occupation than his current day labor job.

Rephrased in terms of quantum metaphor, the villagers consider a space of four possibilities, each of which could be described as having a certain probability. Their decision collapses the curve, reducing it to one actualized point. Now, as a thought experiment, consider a description based on a sample of say 10,000 similar cases, with which an observer can refine the probabilities of young men exhibiting similar symptoms being seen as possessed by gods, possessed by ghosts, sick, or faking. Since actual data are unlikely to be available, the best approach could be an agent-based simulation modeling the processes by which a community with actors predisposed to different degrees to one or another interpretation, negotiate (or, another interesting case, fail to negotiate) a consensus on what is happening. Whether mathematics derived from quantum physics would be relevant or not remains an open question.

In short, if instead of seeing our data as customs and habits uniformly shared by members of certain groups, we started with sets of individuals sharing cultural spaces in which there are multiple possible interpretations for their decisions.... there is lots to consider here.

Re quantum mechanics itself, the following remarks by Isabelle Stengers (Cosmopolitics II, p. 99) should be considered.

It may be concluded that physicists' questions and misgivings do not refer primarily to any "grand ideas," to realism, determinism, or any others, but to their own constructions, which read in terms of requirements and obligations. In no way does quantum mechanics challenge the "existence" or a "reality in itself." Rather, what is challenged is the relevance of the requirements of quantum mechanics when expressed in terms of statements that bring quantum objects into being (let there be a quantum system represented by a wave function . . . .). But, in answer to this challenge, the definition of requirements that would restore the possibility of defining quantum objects belongs to physical-mathematical inventiveness, and is relative to its historicity. There can be no question of physicists starting from scratch, of contemplating the world with fresh eyes, of escaping a history that does not belong to physics alone.

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