Anthropology in the Age of New Technologies
Rosa Elena Gaspar de Alba1
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Digital techniques have contributed to the creation of data storage, which has been
a decisive factor in the homogenization of the world and it’s conversion to a global
market. But they are also capable of prompting the singularities of the world,
particularly when they contribute to the production of new knowledge.
In this first instance, those interested are primarily the large international
corporations. In the second, scientists and educators use such techniques for
knowledge as the final result. The real knowledge must be critical and nonlinear.
Archaeology and anthropology go hand to hand: the present human communities
which are a heritage of the past and a projection of the future, demand knowledge
always imaginative in its view of the present and the past.
The question today is how the technique and technologies are used and applied to
human societies. Historically, their main goals have been the colonization-
subordination, and in certain cases, liberation as well. The critical and nonlinear
thought, brings us to this point: the new technologies should not be an instrument of
control and oppression, but one used for liberation and education in both developed
and underdeveloped societies. Thus social sciences, particularly anthropology and
archeology, utilizing cutting edge technology, increase not restrict, the development
of human communities.
In the era of information, the new technologies and communication are decisive in
the ways in which the information is structured, in the forms of its availability and
application in the social sciences, including anthropology. Let us remember that
archeology, as a sub-discipline of this science, allows us to understand the past,
linking it to the present, being an important way to understand contemporary cultures
and their values, above all to understand the genesis of our world and our social
Digital world: computers, teaching and diffusion of Visual Anthropology enables us
to incorporate the use of integrated text, video, audio, animations, virtual reality,
simulation, databases, e-mails, discussion lists, newsgroups, digital archiving,
electronic publications, research resources and many other possibilities to our daily
One of their decisive innovations, consists in the interactive character of information
that modifies substantially the simple traditional accumulation of knowledge and
promotes the discussions and the exchange of different points of view.
The use of books continues to be fundamental, but now, researchers and students
are moving more freely between digital and analogue information sources, mixing
traditional culture with a real postmodern experience, in a wider and more flexible
The easy access to any libraries around the world, particularly through Internet, is
part of this radical transformation of the ways in which social scientists work today.
These innovations of doing research, diffusion and exchange of information are
called the “democratization and decentralization of knowledge,” and anthropology
and archeology are not excluded from this phenomenon.2
Theorists in the field of Social Sciences talk of new global structures and
communications that rapidly redefine social relationships in general, but especially to
those with the goal of knowledge acquisition of, and also those referring to changes
in personal identity.2Webster, for example, analyzes five areas in the field of social
sciences where these changes have been decisive:
!.-The assimilation of new technologies is a social phenomenon, which radically
modifies the ways of life even if the use of computers, for example, has different
meaning for different people.
2.-The technological revolution has substantially changed the different kinds of
production and distribution, not only of products and services but also in the way of
making knowledge. Considering that all forms of production implies value judgments.
3.- The “information workers” have replaced the traditional workforce. In the
scientific world, the difference can be enormous, from the point of view of productivity
and consistency of scientific knowledge.
4.- Essentially, the technological revolution has gone beyond the traditional limits of
space and time. The exchange of information in “real time” stimulates the identity with
a community for example a scientific community.
5.- From the cultural point of view, a large quantity of information is not always easy
to handle, to the point where it is difficult to distinguish what is trivial or important. The
danger here is the huge amount of “fake” information created for commercial or
Globalization has created tensions between the more advanced countries and the
“underdeveloped” ones where colonial structures still exist. The “luxurious ways of
life” presented by the media and the web generate hopes that cannot be satisfied
with local resources. The “global village” has become a “local village,” full of
contradictions and undesired effects.
In more than one sense, new technologies have reinforced dependency of the poor
countries producing more unemployment, and increasing immigrations to the
wealthier ones, weakening both sides. This situation has created “gaps” in the
development of the Third World, giving an illusion of development that only favors a
minority. Researchers in the field of anthropology have equally pointed out the loss
of integrity on both sides, presenting additional problems to define the different
cultural identities and values, and even eventually creating new hybrid identities.3
It has been frequently mentioned that the power of transnational corporations
determines the digital future, at the expense of effective human communication.
Personal and intellectual contacts are being ignored or destroyed by those controlling
the rush of progress. (Brown, 1997). Additionally, it should be mentioned, that new
technologies have a tendency to “kill” the present time by isolating its presence here
and now for the sake of another commutative space. This is in fact virtual reality, only
a discrete telepresence whose enigma remains forever intact. (Virilio, 1993). New
Technologies eliminate the duration; that is, time collapses into “real time”. (Moser,
Through time, technologies have been defined and manipulated by the social
forces. In the case of archaeology, not excluding anthropology, its commercialization
is something we cannot control: TV channels and mass media producers are
manipulating the information that has been scientifically generated in order to make
the story more attractive to the general public. The question is: will only scientific
audiences receive full information? Probably they will, but this should not limit our
efforts to do scientific research professionally and to divulge it accurately to the
Surely there is not an answer to the series of questions presented here. But the
main issue is to fully consider these problems and to openly discuss them. Current
societies oscillate between the utilitarian and profitable use of new digital techniques
and information and its efficient utilization to produce real knowledge. We live
between commercial interests and the interest of scientific truth, between
sensationalized media and professional presentations of acquired knowledge.
The study of anthropology and archaeology is continually advanced by the use of
new and rapidly changing technologies. Our role is to educate regarding these
technologies and their potential force. Additionally it is our responsibility to ensure
that this new data is presented scientifically and not commercially.
Beyond this, we need to develop the nonlinear and critical thought in our fields and
to reinforce it through digital and informational techniques. Critical and nonlinear
thinking in analysis and in research, refer mainly to a scientific attitude that requires
further research beyond accumulated knowledge. This research is creative and
dynamic utilizing all current and evolving technology.
With the new technologies in the field of the social sciences, specifically of
anthropology and archeology, specialists must assume ethical responsibilities for a
critical analysis of the human phenomenon, where social relations are almost
invariably of subordination and control.
For example anthropologists, because of the important role they play in every social
relationship, have always studied myths and symbols and that is why they should be
clearly considered in the past, present and future, admitting that in many cases they
define social structures. Of course, myths and symbols are also present in modern
societies. For this reason as social scientists we have to choose between the simple
study of a social conditions, or a critical nonlinear study of past and current societies.
We should present our studies in a non-prejudicial way.
As an archaeologist I would like to mention one of the most remarkable studies of
an ancient remain, an Egyptian mummy. As we all know, mummies are an unparallel
source of scientific data, but applying traditional techniques for their study was
destructive and irreversible. Applying X-rays and computerized tomography scanning
made possible to look inside the mummy without unwrapping it. Due to the latest
computer-generated images, and 3D (three dimensional technology), scientists have
been able to explore inside a mummy’s body: a ‘virtual unwrapping’ of the mummy is
possible. Such is the case of Nesperennub’s of Karnak, of the collection of the British
Museum. Now, after 2,800 years after the burial of this priest, his secrets are
available to the world thanks to the new technologies4. Today we know his place in
history, his role in Egyptian society, the record of his life, what he looked like, his
health, and how he was embalmed for eternal life. In this study, the new interactive
technologies have been applied for the first time to a complete body, preserving a
historical resource intact.
In Mexico, I can refer to the extraordinary experience of the Zapatistas in southeast
Mexico —one of the poorest regions of the country— who, from their apparent
isolation in the forest, they have been capable of achieving a world presence with
liberating messages and a radical democracy directed to people of all ideologies and
social conditions. .A democracy that the Mexican Zapatistas of Chiapas have
practiced through their “Caracoles” (regional and local organizations of self-
government); a democracy that for them signifies “command by obeying”. The
vehicle for the dissemination of these messages has been modern technology.
And what is more amazing, Zapatistas have achieved a world presence with the use
of the new information techniques, from their remote geographical location. These
messages are now being studied at the most important educational centers of the
world as a model of an emerging democracy, and as a model of the role of new
communication technologies in social sciences.
With the use of leading edge technologies, scientists will vastly increase the
potential yield of data about past and present societies.
BROWN, D. 1997 Cybertrends, Chaos, Power and Accountability
In the Information Age. London, Penguin
BAUDRILLARD, J. 1983 Simulations. (Translated by Paul Foss, Paul Patton and Philip
Beitchman). New York, Semiotext.
HABERMAS, J. 1989 The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a
Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
LOCK, Gay 2000 Using Computers in Archaeology: Towards Virtual Pasts, London
MOSER, Mary Ann 1995 Immersed in Technology. Art and Virtual Environments. Mary
Ann Moser, Ed., Cambridge, Mass.
TAYLOR, H, John, 2004 Mummy: the inside story, The British Museum Press.
VIRILLIO, Paul, 1993 The Third Interval: A Critical Transition.” In Rethinking Technologies.
Ed Verena Andermatt Conly (Minneapolis: Minneapolis University Press).
WEBSTER, F. 1995 Theories of the Information Society, London; Routledge.
President of the Commission of Visual Anthropology, Mexico
It has also been said that ”democratization” of information is a myth; neither the access nor the contents would
comply such goal. Commercial interests are becoming more and more evident: consider that 70% of the population of
the world has never made a phone call. On the other hand, Habermas wisely sustains that “the ‘public sphere’ is a
discursive space ‘unregulated by authority’, that has broken down in western society the increased private and
governmental control of the media in western society”.
A combination of causes: products from diverse places in the world which are available in remote countries, the
advertising of different commercial products through TV, films, radio and printed publicity seen around the planet. Such
phenomena have brought the world to fateful simplification and loss of significance. The creation of symbols in all
aspects of everyday life, which coexist with a collapse of life meaning, and result in a kind of ‘hyper reality” bears no
relationship to any underlying reality”. . (Baudrillard).
Economically speaking, new technologies demand continuous and growing investments. In order to continue having
the opportunities of widening our research, we are trapped in the consumer society. Even while doing our research
through internet, which at its origins was free, now a days a subscription fee must be paid in order to have access to
most libraries, discussion groups, etc. Here we can underline the “misbalance” between development and
This project is a result of the collaboration between the Britsh Museum and Silicon Graphics Inc.