Cosmopolitics: The Collected Papers of the Open Anthropology Cooperative, Volume I
edited by Justin Shaffner and Huon Wardle


Keith Hart

© 2017 Keith Hart
Creative Commons License
Open Anthropology Cooperative Press

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The digital revolution1

Michael Wesch, then an assistant professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University, is well-known for his inspiring YouTube lectures and documentary shorts. In 2009 he received over a hundred applications for his graduate course in ‘digital ethnography’ from around the world. The only problem: no such course existed. Wesch teaches undergraduates and had organized a ‘digital ethnography working group’ for them; and that was it, so far. But millions have seen his creations on YouTube and people want more of it. The world is changing all around us and anthropology must try to keep up, not just because we study this world as anthropologists, but because our students live in it and they are rapidly leaving their teachers behind.

The new communications technologies are blurring the boundaries of disciplines, transforming the content of education, spawning new genres and sites of research, demanding fresh intellectual strategies. And academic institutions act as a brake on our ability to engage with all this. Anthropology as a discipline has not yet grasped the potential of this new world. When we contemplate its future, we need to think again about its scope, reach and impact, about the audiences we wish to address and how.

We are living through the first stages of a world revolution as significant for humanity as the invention of agriculture. It is a machine revolution, of course: the convergence of telephones, television and computers in a digital system whose most visible symbol is the internet. It is a social revolution, the formation of a world society with means of communication adequate at last to expressing universal ideas. It is a financial revolution, the detachment of the virtual money circuit from production, linked to the West’s loss of control over the world economy. It is an existential revolution, transforming what it means to be human and how each of us relates to the rest of humanity. It is therefore also a revolution in anthropology that will make everything we have done so far seem like the prehistory of our discipline, whatever its name becomes.

Oswald Spengler observed in The Decline of the West (1918) that the world historical moment you are born into does not need you; it will carry on with or without you. But he offered a challenge to his readers “Do you have the courage to embrace it?” So too with this revolution: you can engage with it or you can hide from it. And every person’s trajectory is particular to them, even if some common outlines can be glimpsed as the revolution unfolds. The revolution is based on social networking: Google, Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, Stumbleupon,, Instagram and all the rest. Social bookmarking is especially important. Classification of knowledge was hitherto done by experts and every piece of information had its unique place in a folder somewhere. Now tagging makes it possible for anyone to leave a mark on something they like or consider useful and you can find their guidance with increasingly sophisticated software. The people are now generating the categories. Even Google is becoming obsolete because its millions of hits are impersonal, less attuned to the user’s own profile.

Participation in all this has sharpened my appreciation of the sociology involved. Twitter divides people into followers and followed. For those of us brought up on Fascism and Stalinism, the talk of leaders and followers that animates Web 2.0 is something of a turn off. But when the Latins invented ‘society’ to describe their aspirations for collective order, the word they used had as its root ‘to follow’. If anyone was attacked, the others agreed to support them in battle. The hierarchy was temporary; so too on Twitter. The idea of society as a state with fixed boundaries came much later. The new social networks are personal and unequal; they often have a commercial feel that puts off many intellectuals. But there is something exciting going on that it would pay us to understand and use.

In May 2009, an unanticipated chain of events led to the launch of the Open Anthropology Cooperative. Some Twitter friends began discussing the possibilities for an online anthropology network. Someone suggested trying Ning and I jumped in. An administrative team drawn from the launching group supervised its explosive growth in the first few months. In less than a year we had 2,000 members from an amazing diversity of backgrounds. Our visitors settled down at around 500 a day; the largest group came from the US, Britain and Canada (in a ratio of 4:2:1), but the next batch made interesting reading, in order: France, Portugal, Germany, Brazil, Georgia, Italy, Greece, Australia, Switzerland, India, Netherlands, Sweden, Turkey, Norway, Mexico, Spain, New Zealand.

We soon set up over a hundred discussion groups (some of them in Spanish, Portuguese, German, Italian, Russian, Norwegian, Turkish and Georgian), blogs, a forum, a wiki repository, the OAC Press, a seminar series and personal pages in all their multimedia variety. Anyone can start anything on the OAC; some of them do, many more stay quiet. The administrators got some minimal rules generally accepted. In time, however, the Ning platform became less heterogeneous (despite having over 8,000 members today); the active users now come mainly from the US and Britain; linguistic diversity has vanished, participation rates are lower. This pattern is not unusual in web networks. We later started an OAC page on Facebook which is livelier, with 12,000 members who keep up a daily flow of announcements, links to pages elsewhere, short posts and personal updates.

We already know that fieldwork will never be the same again because of the digital revolution. It will be less lonely for one thing. But what can anthropologists, with our supposed expertise in social relations, do more generally to help shape the future of our institutions? Our students, readers and those we study expect to be engaged through these new media. For some this will be an uphill struggle. We must move from monologue to conversation, from guild disciplines to the lifetime self-learning that the internet affords. The universities now lag behind the students in terms of media literacy. The ‘edupunk’ movement, armed with user-friendly digital technologies, rejects the forced imposition of costly out-dated software systems that universities have bought. The latter face a threat to their monopolies when teachers extend their classrooms to non-university students. Anthropology has always been something of an anti-discipline, sitting uneasily with academic bureaucracy. We have a lot to gain, professionally and as human beings, from joining this revolution.

What have I learned from all this? The two great memory banks are language and money.2 Exchanges of meanings through language and of goods through money are now converging in a single network of communications, the internet. We must discover how to use this digital revolution to advance the human conversation about a better world. Our common task is to make a world society fit for all humanity. And anthropology is indispensable to such a project.

The digital revolution is driven by a desire to replicate at a distance or by means of computers experiences that we normally associate with face-to-face human encounters. All communication, whether the exchange of words or money, has a virtual aspect in that symbols and their media of circulation stand for what people really do for each other. It usually involves the exercise of imagination, an ability to construct meanings across the gap between symbol and reality. The power of the book depended on sustaining that leap of faith in the possibility of human communication. The virtual is abstract, but reliance on more abstract forms of communication carries with it the potential for real persons to be involved with each other at a distance in concrete ways. The idea of ‘virtual reality’ expresses this double movement: on the one hand machines whose complexity their users cannot possibly understand, on the other live experiences ‘as good as’ real.

If we would make a better world, rather than just contemplate it, we must learn to think in terms that reflect reality and reach out for imagined possibilities. This entails capturing what is essential about the world we live in, its movement and direction, not just its stable forms. The idea of virtual reality expresses this form of movement — extension from the actual to the possible. ‘Virtual’ means existing in the mind, but not in fact. When combined with ‘reality’, it means something that is almost but not quite real. In technical terms, ‘virtual reality’ is a computer simulation that enables the effects of operations to be shown in real time. ‘Reality’ is present in time and space (‘seeing is believing’); and its opposite is imagined connection at a distance, something as old as story-telling, but given new impetus by the internet. Already experience of near synchrony at a distance, the compression of time and space, is altering our perception of social relations, of place and movement.

How might offline activities influence what we do online and vice versa? I have been influenced by Martin Heidegger’s The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude (1929). For Heidegger, ‘world’ as something whole is an abstract metaphysical category and its dialectical counterpart is ‘solitude’, the idea of the isolated individual. Every human subject makes a world whose centre is the self. This opens up only when we recognize ourselves as finite, as individual; and this leads us to ‘finitude’, the concrete specifics of time and place in which we live. So ‘world’ is relative both to an abstract version of subjectivity and, more important, to our particularity in the world (seen as position and movement in time and space).

Living alone in our own world seems more real when we go online. But the two are imagined and reciprocal; neither is a suitable object of inquiry. We experience them from a relative location in society. Thus it is unsatisfactory to study the social forms of the internet without considering what people bring to them from elsewhere. This off-line social life is an invisible presence when people are online. We should not deny some autonomy to ‘virtual reality’. Would we dream of reducing literature to the circumstances of readers? And this is Heidegger’s point. ‘World’ and ‘solitude’ may be artificial abstractions, but they do affect how we behave in ‘finitude’. The dialectical triad forms an interactive set.

Anthropology for the internet age

Like the editors, I start from Immanuel Kant’s (1795) argument that the basic right of all world citizens should rest on universal hospitality. We should be free to go anywhere, since the world belongs to us all equally. We are highly mobile today, but most human beings are more restricted in their movement than ever. Kant’s confidence in an emergent world order, when launching ‘anthropology’ as a modern academic discipline, was the high point of the liberal revolution, before it was overwhelmed by its twin offspring, industrial capitalism and the nation-state.

The world is much more socially integrated now than two centuries ago and its economy is palpably unjust. We have barely survived three world wars (two hot, one cold) and brutality provokes fear everywhere. Moreover, the natural consequences of human actions are severely disruptive, if left unchecked. Kant (1784) held that “In man (as the only rational creature on earth) those natural faculties which aim at the use of reason shall be fully developed in the species, not in the individual.” He meant through libraries or the means of communication that we have today. The anthropologist, Roy Rappaport (1999) recently wrote that “Humanity is that part of the world through which the world as a whole can think about itself”. Or, in C.L.R. James’ (1938) words, “The distinctive feature of our age is that mankind as a whole is on the way to becoming fully conscious of itself”. The task of building a global civil society for the 21st century is urgent and anthropological visions must play their part in this.

Copernicus solved the problem of the movement of the heavenly bodies by having the spectator revolve while they were at rest, instead of them revolve around the spectator. Kant extended this achievement into metaphysics. In The Critique of Pure Reason (1781) he wrote, “Hitherto it has been assumed that all our knowledge must conform to objects…(but what) if we suppose that objects must conform to our knowledge?” In order to understand the world, we begin not with the empirical existence of objects, but with the reasoning embedded in that experience as all the judgments we have made. The world is inside each of us as much as out there. We must bring the two poles together as subjective individuals who share the object world with the rest of humanity.

The cheapening of information transfers thanks to the digital revolution makes it possible for much more information about individuals to enter into commercial transactions at a distance. This trend to customize economic relations has its counterpart in many aspects of contemporary social life. It involves a new idea of the person, one based on digital abstractions as much as on new forms of individuality. Academics’ dealings with Amazon are at once remote and personal.

The use of new technologies means that learning can now be more individualized and ecumenical at the same time; and this poses a threat to the academic guild’s traditions. Teachers must live with this radical revision of subject-object relations. Learning anthropology would be impossible if we were not human beings in the first place. Anthropologists must also cope with mass mobility and media. What can we offer that is not delivered more effectively through novels and movies, journalism and tourism? The rhetoric and reality of markets today encourage individuals to choose the means of their own enlightenment. Anthropological teaching must reflect all this; any new paradigm for the discipline must reflect the social and technological implications of the internet age.

The Open Anthropology Cooperative: between social movement and the academy

Ever since the internet went public and the World Wide Web was invented, I have made online self-publishing and interaction the core of my anthropological practice. The OAC promised to be the most powerful vehicle for this project yet. The predominance of academics there is reflected in this collection. The chapters show that anthropologists are often idiosyncratic individuals with an extraordinary range of interests. But as a collective we are extremely conservative. It is unsurprising then that publishing papers for discussion in seminars was the OAC’s most prominent achievement. Our network has not moved with the times, as we once hoped. Nevertheless, the OAC has been and still is a great leap towards bringing anthropology into the 21st century. This book and its subsequent companion volume on economy serve as eloquent testimony to its hybrid originality.

In practical terms, the OAC is a place of online interaction. It is also an archive where each member can store photos, videos, music and texts on their home page and post similar material around the site. The language issue, however, is crucial. Despite the OAC’s worldwide reach and initial linguistic variety, the trend has been inexorably towards the dominance of a few native Anglophones. Our inability to sustain a multilingual community is particularly troubling given anthropology’s global aspirations and the public impact the network could have had. The OAC’s founders believed we were launching a social movement; and the heady first weeks reinforced that feeling. But the network was born in reaction to academic bureaucracy and its leadership has since been trying to catch up with events.

The most useful lessons from the OAC experiment for other online organizations (including public anthropology web projects) are pragmatic. The social web offers an ever-evolving selection of sites, apps and services, many of which are free or relatively low-cost. Innovation is rapid and open source is increasingly common. On the other hand, the speed of application launches and failures means that free sites are often not stable for long. Most anthropologists feel powerless in the face of technological change. New software and web applications (increasingly for mobile phones) are not usually tailored to academic needs; but they are often flexible enough, given basic technical knowledge; and willingness to endure many bouts of trial and error helps. You have to invest time and energy to find out what works and what does not.

The OAC opposed elitism, bureaucracy and academic hierarchy; so we tried to avoid centralized leadership and control. But what kind of leadership replaces hierarchy? In a context of calls for less bureaucracy among academic anthropologists, the site’s laissez-faire policy privileged self-regulation over firm rules. But this is like promoting the free market without rules of oversight. No-one would try to build a community on free market principles; but in retrospect it seems that we did.

The OAC shows that anthropologists may be adaptable bricoleurs online, piecing together communication technologies for chatting, learning, teaching and sharing. But it remains problematic to break with academic prejudices about online publication and interaction. To attract participants, we reproduced the very academic values that we founded the OAC to escape from. The network thus offers an anomalous commentary on how anthropology treats online and academic conversation as being mutually exclusive. The OAC became a compromised public island avoiding academic bureaucracy, yet populated by its denizens.

Social and academic networks are significantly different in their need for time investment, volunteer labor and long-term objectives, not to mention power relations and status hierarchies. Much social web activity does not concern itself with aims, intentions or long-term goals. It’s easy and can keep ticking over until boredom or newness force change. Academic networks do not work like that. The OAC mixes them together. Dabbling on Twitter or Facebook is not analogous to what goes on at the OAC. Being an active member there takes more time commitment, at least some critical thought and the shared expectation of pointed exchange or response.

The ethnographic model was never intended to inform a movement to change the world. Contemporary anthropology and social science reflect the world and are not designed to improve it. The internet’s growth has generated a strong counter-movement to the status quo. Anthropologists spent the last century – a time of urbanization, war and the break-up of empires – seeking out isolated places that we could study as if they were outside modern history. Having realized at last that we live in a world unified by capitalism, we now spend our time bemoaning the fate of the universities and our own irrelevance to public discourse.

The OAC was born as a reaction more than a movement. Its slogan of being ‘open’ turned out to be contradictory. The leadership, who abstractly rejected hierarchy, became managerial and half-hearted. We preferred to maximize membership at the expense of making rules that might exclude people. They left anyway. We were always catching up, never ahead of the game.

The OAC’s instigators, members and critics never used anthropology or social theory to address the problems we faced. Anthropologists, it seems, cannot catch up with a changing world while they meticulously document it. We are losing control of our master-concepts like culture to other disciplines and even to web moguls who are not afraid to engage with the popular media. Anthropologists do have something to offer the general public. It is just that we are terrible at communicating it. More often than not, anthropologists are confounded when interacting with the world outside academia.

The OAC struggled to reverse this trend and reinforces it by producing little to attract a general audience. Fear of marketing our expertise, of ‘branding’ anthropology or seeking out media attention undermined an innovative project that once promised so much. Our web-based activities closely resemble office politics. So a public-facing anthropological experiment became inward-looking, being by and for academics and subject to prejudices and hierarchies similar to those in the universities. Like academic anthropology, the OAC is better at describing what happened than explaining it. The social media have undoubtedly shaped the OAC’s attempt to expand anthropology’s horizons to a global level. Worse, we have not yet been able to draw on our own discipline to help fulfil its promise.

‘Anthropology’ and the new human universal

By ‘anthropology’ I mean a human teleology in the sense of Kant, Rappaport and James above. We must develop self-knowledge as individuals and as a species, especially the relationship between the two. This relationship is mediated by a bewildering range of associations and identities which have been the prime focus of anthropology conceived of as a social science. The vast bulk of humanity is more interested in how each of us relates to the whole.

For Kant a ‘cosmopolitan’ approach to world society would lead us to the exercise of human reason at the species level. For him, humanity’s last and hardest task would be the administration of justice worldwide. Meanwhile, anthropology explores the cognitive, aesthetic and ethical universals on which human unity might be founded. The categorical imperative to be good provides a moral link between individuals and this inclusive order.

Kant published Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View in 1798. It was based on lectures he had given for a quarter-century. He wanted to attract the general public to his subject. Histories of anthropology rarely mention this work, perhaps because anthropologists have since moved far away from Kant’s original premises. He summarized “philosophy in the cosmopolitan sense of the word” as four questions: What can I know? What should I do? What may I hope for? What is a human being? The first question is answered in metaphysics, the second in morals, the third in religion and the fourth in anthropology. But the first three questions “relate to anthropology” and might be subsumed under it.

Kant conceived of anthropology as an empirical discipline, but also as a means of moral and cultural improvement. It was an investigation into human nature and into how to modify it. He aimed to provide his students with practical guidance and knowledge of the world. His lectures were to be “popular” and of value in later life. Above all, the Anthropology contributed to the task of uniting world citizens by identifying the source of their “cosmopolitan bonds”. The book moves between vivid anecdotes and Kant’s sublime vision as a bridge from everyday life to horizon thinking. Kant concentrated on “what the human being as a free actor can and should make of himself”. This is based on observation, but also involves the construction of moral rules. Anthropology is the practical arm of moral philosophy. It does not explain the metaphysics of morals which are categorical and transcendent; but it is indispensable to understanding interaction between human agents. It is thus ‘pragmatic’ – “everything that pertains to the practical” – popular and moral, being concerned with people’s motives for action. His book’s value lay in its systematic organization, so that readers could insert their experience and develop new themes appropriate to their own lives.

Academic anthropology is not equipped to inform participation in the world today because its cultural relativism reflects the dominant nation-state structures of the twentieth century. How might people find a more secure foundation for self-knowledge as individuals and as a species? Anthropology for Kant reflected both his idea of a just world society and his vision of individual subjectivity as a means to that end, as a branch of humanist education. Twentieth-century civilization placed barriers between each of us as a subjective personality and society as an impersonal object. Its anonymous institutions – states, capitalist markets, science – left little room for personal agency, beyond spending the money we had.

We all embark on a journey outward into the world and inward to the self. Society is mysterious to us because we have lived in it and it now dwells inside us where it is ordinarily invisible from everyday life. Wherever we have lived becomes a source of introspection regarding our relationship to society; memory allows us to synthesize these varied experiences of the world. If a person would have an identity, this requires making out of fragmented social experience a more coherent whole, a world as singular as the self.

Emergent world society is the new human universal – not an idea, but the fact of our shared occupation of the planet crying out for new principles of association. This entails making a world where all people can live together, not the imposition of principles that suit some powerful interests at the expense of the rest. The next universal will be unlike its predecessors, the Christian, bourgeois and imperialist versions through which the West sought to dominate or replace the cultural particulars that organize people’s lives everywhere. We discover our common humanity in great literature which aims for universality by going deeply into particular personalities, places and events. Good ethnography does the same. So does case law at its best. The new universal will not just tolerate cultural particulars, but will recognize that true human community can only be realized through them.

There are two prerequisites for being human: we must each learn to be self-reliant to a high degree and to belong to others, merging our identities in a bewildering variety of social relations. Western cultures emphasize how problematic it is to be both self-interested and mutual. When conflict between the two is expected, it is hard to be both. Yet the two sides are often inseparable in practice and some societies, by encouraging private and public interests to merge, have integrated them more effectively than ours. One premise of the new human universal will thus be the unity of self and society.

It is now harder for self-appointed guilds to control access to professional knowledge. People have other ways of finding out for themselves, rather than submit to academic hierarchy. Many agencies out there compete to give them what they want, including the self-learning possibilities afforded by the internet. Popular resistance to the power of experts is moral – most people want to restore a personal dimension to knowledge. Anthropologists’ dependence on academic bureaucracy leaves us highly vulnerable and the OAC’s aspiration to liberate anthropological discourse through online media foundered because academic norms took it over.

‘Anthropology’ is indispensable to the formation of world society. The prospects for the academic discipline to contribute to this process are poor, given its prevalent localism and anti-universalism. Kant’s vision of anthropology as humanist education contrasts starkly with the emphasis on scientific research outputs in today’s universities. We should emulate his program of personal life-long learning to develop practical knowledge of the world. Kant recommended both systematic observation of life around us and that we study “world history, biographies and even plays and novels”. He aimed to integrate individual subjectivity with the moral construction of world society.

The rapid development of telecommunications networks today contains a far-reaching transformation of world society. Anthropology is one way of making sense of it. The academic seclusion of the discipline, however, its passive acquiescence to bureaucracy, prevents us from grasping this historical opportunity. We rightly cling to our commitment to joining the people where they live, but have forgotten what this move was for or what else is needed if humanity can build a universal society. The internet offers a wonderful chance to open up the flow of knowledge and information, already partly realised.

It matters less that an academic guild should retain its monopoly of access to knowledge than that ‘anthropology’ should be taken up by a broad intellectual coalition for whom the realization of a new human universal – a world society fit for humanity as a whole – is an urgent personal concern. Rather than obsessing over how we can control access to what we write, which means cutting off the mass of humanity from our efforts, we must figure out new interactive forms of engagement that span the globe and make the results available to everyone.

Keith Hart
Paris, 2016

1. I want to thank Fran Barone for writing Barone and Hart (2015) together; Huon Wardle for providing the opportunity to publish Hart (2010a); Justin Shaffner for the help he has given me in navigating the internet; and all three for their companionship and work at the Open Anthropology Cooperative and its Press. This essay also draws on Hart (2009, 2010b).
2. The motto of my website,

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