Digital Ontologies

Hannah Knox, Department of Anthropology, UCL
Last year, someone made the observation at a workshop I was attending, that no single person knows how a contemporary computer works. The rapid development of computing over the past 70 years, the interconnectivity of the internet, and the layers of programming needed to make digital devices function, mean that digital technologies have gained a kind of distributed autonomy, divorced from the understanding or expertise of any individual person or group of experts. One response to this complexity has been to argue that if we want to understand digital technologies as material culture, we should not really concern ourselves with how these technologies come into being, but should simply look at how they, like other forms of material culture, are understood and deployed in everyday life. Digital technologies are simply another cultural mediating device, enabling social relations in multiple and unpredictable ways. From this perspective, to understand the digital as anthropologists our job is to traverse the networks, find the varieties of people who imagine, design, make and use digital devices, and trace the ways in which digital technologies manifest practically and imaginatively in different times and places. This approach produces a rich repository of stories, experiences and ideas about what digital technologies are and how they are used. But does it tell us anything about what difference it makes that these relations are digitally mediated?
By even articulating ‘the digital’ as a field of study, we make an implicit claim that something must hold together the digital as a particular kind of material culture. Similarly when we talk of databases, of search engines, of devices, and of websites, we are deploying an understanding that we know what these things are and that there is something that makes them entities of a similar order. The Internet for example, is not just any kind of material culture, but a particular technological system that is based on distributed networks of computers, on grids of cables and satellite communication, on the principles of packet switching and technologies of encryption. As a form of mediation, it could be argued that it is one that ontologically privileges the principle of networked connectivity, of information theory and the concept of noise, and the fear or threat of exclusion from flows and repositories of information. Similarly, the algorithms that power things like spam filters and recommendation engines also entail particular relational principles as they sort things that are acceptable from those which are not, and link people and products based on characteristics derived from observed connections and projections of future activity. These sorting principles are both designed into the technologies and also the outcome of the conditions of possibility that binary code, materiality of cables and wires, and the physics of energy make possible.
In March 2016, Antonia Walford and I curated a discussion that formed part of Cultural Anthropology’s Theorizing the Contemporary section. Here we aimed to bring together thoughts and reflections from anthropologists and sociologists who have been exploring the relational logics, or ‘ontologies’ of digital technologies. In order to move beyond a discussion of the varieties of ways in which digital technologies are interpreted and used in everyday life to the question of whether there is anything specific about the way in which digital technologies become part of social relations we posed the question: Is there an Ontology to the Digital?
The responses were varied and rich. Contributions included Adrian Mackenzie’s analysis of the processes by which cats become analytically defined by search engines (and the surprising mistakes that occur), Amade D’Mcharek’s study of race as defined by data practices, and Hogsden and Salmond’s study of an attempt to create an indigenous computational logic in the creation of a database of Te Aitanga A Hauiti objects that exist in museum collections. It also included reflections on what it means to theorise ‘digitally’ (Victor Cova), on the productive process of making digital technologies actually function as intended (Haidy Geismar), and the attempt to deploy digital technologies to create green Energy (Jamie Cross).
What I found most striking was that the pieces repeatedly illustrated that to approach digital technologies ontologically is not only possible but also generative not because it requires an abstraction from social relations but because it requires attention to the very human responses to this ontology and to the role of people in reshaping technologies and working with their ontological capacities to turn them to social and political ends. It is precisely because no one person knows how a computer works that people are experimenting with, exploring and testing the relational principles that both make computers work, and also cause them to fail. Perhaps rather than answering definitively whether there is one or more ontologies of the digital then, what the pieces we published in the collection demonstrate is that digital technologies are on-going ontological experiments, from which users and anthropologists alike have much to learn.

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