Michael Wesch, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State University. If you’ve been reading Searchblog, then you know him as the guy behind this amazing video.
After I saw the film, I had to talk to the man who made it. Michael is a very thoughtful fellow, as one might expect, but he comes to “Web 2.0” from an entirely different perspective than your typical Valley entrepreneur (yet he seems to know more than most of us!). For more, read on….and keep in mind the Michael has agreed to answer your questions in the comments field, should any come up!
You did your fieldwork in a Melanesia, and teach at Kansas State. How did you end up making such a compelling video, one that resonates so deeply with folks like, well, those who read Searchblog?
For me, cultural anthropology is a continuous exercise in expanding my mind and my empathy, building primarily from one simple principle: everything is connected. This is true on many levels. First, everything including the environment, technology, economy, social structure, politics, religion, art and more are all interconnected. As I tried to illustrate in the video, this means that a change in one area (such as the way we communicate) can have a profound effect on everything else, including family, love, and our sense of being itself. Second, everything is connected throughout all time, and so as anthropologists we take a very broad view of human history, looking thousands or even millions of years into the past and into the future as well. And finally, all people on the planet are connected. This has always been true environmentally because we share the same planet. Today it is even more true with increasing economic and media globalization.
My friends in Papua New Guinea are experts in relationships and grasp the ways that we are all connected in much more profound ways than we do. They go so far as to suggest that their own health is dependent on strong relations with others. When they get sick they carefully examine their relations with others and try to heal those relations in order to heal their bodies.
In contrast, we tend to emphasize our independence and individuality, failing to realize just how interconnected we are with each other and the rest of the world, and disregarding the health of our relationships with others. This became clear to me when I saw a small boy in a Papua New Guinea village wearing a torn and tattered University of Nebraska sweatshirt, the only item of clothing he owned. The grim reality for me at that moment was that the same village was producing coffee which eventually found its way onto shelves in my hometown in Nebraska, and this boy may never be able to afford to drink the coffee produced in his own village.
So if there is a global village, it is not a very equitable one, and if there is a tragedy of our times, it may be that we are all interconnected but we fail to see it and take care of our relationships with others. For me, the ultimate promise of digital technology is that it might enable us to truly see one another once again and all the ways we are interconnected. It might help us create a truly global view that can spark the kind of empathy we need to create a better world for all of humankind. I’m not being overly utopian and naively saying that the Web will make this happen. In fact, if we don’t understand our digital technology and its effects, it can actually make humans and human needs even more invisible than ever before. But the technology also creates a remarkable opportunity for us to make a profound difference in the world.
So that’s some of the more personal and philosophical background behind this video. I wanted to show people how digital technology has evolved and give them a sense of where it might be going and to give some momentum to the all-important conversation about the consequences of that on our global society. I did not know it would reach so many people, but I had hoped that for those it did reach it would spark some reflection on the power of the technology they were using. Because without proper understanding and reflection, “the machine” is using us – all of us – even those that don’t have access to the machine at all.
Your video was quite sophisticated about how the web works, and the production quality was quite high as well. Where did you pick up those skills?
I made my first website in 1998 using notepad and HTML while I was a graduate student at the University of Virginia. It was slow- going but I saw a tremendous potential for transforming the way we present our research. Since then I have had a passion for exploring the latest technologies and how they an be used to communicate ideas in more effective ways. I like to learn these technologies on my own through trial and error, because sometimes the errors turn out to be new uses for the tool that I might not have discovered through formal training. I’m always looking for ways to use tools in ways other than for what they were intended. The great thing about our current era is that the tools are not only easier to use (as evidenced by an anthropology professor being able to learn them in his spare time), they are also more flexible than ever, allowing for some creative uses that seem to re-invent the tools all over again.
What tools do you use out there on the web that you find useful? Are you a devotee of any of the “Web 2” tools?
One can think of the Web as a place where multiple overlapping global conversations are taking place simultaneously. To keep up with these conversations I have established my online home at Netvibes, which allows me to integrate almost all of the tools I use and organize them into different “tabs” in a way that fits with my online life. I have a tab for blogs and comments which allows me to track multiple online conversations, along with a blog search module that updates whenever somebody posts something related to the topics I am currently interested in.
To keep up with parts of the global conversation that might not have a simple RSS feed, I use feeds from social bookmarking services like Diigo and Del.icio.us. As a visual anthropologist I also need to monitor parts of the conversation taking place in photos and videos. Sites like Flickr that allow photo tagging make it easy to monitor the photos, and with new video services like Viddler, Mojiti, and Bubbleply that allow users to tag, comment, and create their own content within and on top of existing videos, it will soon be possible to be alerted the moment somebody uses a tag to describe any particular piece of an online video. On the other end of the media spectrum, it is now easier than ever to keep track of traditional paper-based journals as well, as many are now providing RSS feeds and putting the articles online. This has created tremendous potential for Cite-U-Like, a social bookmarking service for academic journals, which I use to alert me whenever somebody uses a certain tag, or when somebody with similar interests as me tags anything.
The best tools are those that are flexible enough to be used beyond that for which they were intended. The more a web service can build this kind of flexibility in, the better, as it can tap into the collective intelligence of those using the service to extend its possibilities. Netvibes has this built right in by allowing users to create their own modules. With the help of an “API maker” like Dapper, we can create almost anything we need and integrate it into Netvibes, further extending our ability to keep track of those parts of the global conversation that interests us the most.
As a university professor I have also found Facebook to be useful. I was inspired to use Facebook for teaching by something I saw while visiting George Mason University. Like many universities, they were concerned that the library stacks were rarely being accessed by students. Instead of trying to bring students to the stacks, they brought the stacks to the students, placing a small library right in the middle of the food court where students hang out. We can do the same with popular social networking tools like Facebook. Facebook is not only great for expressing your identity, sharing with friends, and planning parties, it also has all the tools necessary to create an online learning community. Students are already frequently visiting Facebook, so we can bring our class discussions to them in a place where they have already invested significant effort in building up their identity, rather than asking them to login to Blackboard or some other course management system where they feel “faceless” and out of place.
Would you be open to answering any other questions readers might have in the comments section of my site?
Sure, sounds fun.