A holistic view on digital culture

With social media becoming a larger part of everyday life in the contemporary world, the sphere of digital anthropology has been growing and becoming more important. Digital Cultures (ANTH 138A) taught by Professor Brian Horton (ANTH) provides students with an overview of the various aspects of digital anthropology. 

Digital Anthropology (also known as techno-anthropology, digital ethnography, cyberanthropology and virtual anthropology) is the anthropological study of the relationship between humans and technology in the digital age. The class aims to examine how traditional anthropology, applied to this new situation, can contribute to one’s understanding of the various new forms media can take, and how media can act as transformative forces in the socio-cultural sphere.

“Rather than thinking about the digital solely from the terms of computer science, policy, engineering or other classic ways of approaching it, in this class we will think of the digital through its cultural, artistic and human-centered manifestations,” said Horton on the syllabus. However the impacts of online actions, from Facebook activism to creating a completely alternate online persona, are not yet widely studied. But the digital world opens a lot of rich cultural, political, economic and ethical questions.
When describing the class, Horton said to “envision it is as kind of a survey of everything within digital anthropology,” in an interview with The Brandeis Hoot. The class covers everything from the various forms of digital communication to the ethics of the digital field, as well as the ways in which people interact in these different contexts. The course is meant to “explore how anthropology opens up new modes of understanding digital technologies and social media,” added Horton. 

Although this is a class in the anthropology department, Horton said that he has students from various majors in the class. Furthermore, although he agrees that this is an important field for anthropology majors to explore, it is almost as important, if not more important, for computer science majors to study. 

 New forms of digital technologies are shaping forms of identity, community and society. However, a lot of contemporary technology also includes a lot of bias, which affects the way algorithms work. This is another issue Horton addresses in the class. Students learn how to identify bias, how they work as well as how to avoid them. 

Horton hopes that a student planning on going into the sphere of computer science will “take away sophisticated knowledge on the social, cultural, economic underlyings of their work.” Computer science students often do not realize how powerful their code can actually be. Indeed, when a person writes code, they usually include their bias, which often manifest in social and cultural ways that coders often do not or cannot account for. 

However, the class covers more than just topics of interest to computer science majors: influencers, online persona, surveillance as well as hacking are also discussed. These topics will often be connected to the contemporary political sphere, allowing students to actively engage with current events under an anthropological and technological lens.

As complex of a topic as digital anthropology may be, Horton manages to find a way to include variety in his course: combining seminar discussion, film and other media exploration, presentations and other activities in a perfect harmony to educate and entertain his students.

This course serves as an introduction to digital anthropology, offering a survey of sub-fields as well as the major themes and questions of the field. Horton does warn that the class is reading-heavy and requires in depth analysis and understanding of the material. He advises the students to treat this “like a literature course.”  

Horton hopes that after taking the course the students will be able to place media and digital technologies into holistic, social, cultural, political and historical contexts.

Menu Title