Book review: Cyberanthropology

Knorr, Alexander. 2011. Cyberanthropology. Wuppertal: Peter Hammer Verlag, 188pp. German language.

Cyberanthropology by Alexander Knorr, an anthropologist from München University, is a pleasant-to-read book. It contains a detailed definition of the different components that form the field ‘cyberanthropology’, shows the interconnection between the literary genre ‘cyberpunk’, gaming, and people’s subconscious everyday involvement with cyberpunk, and provides an example of what a cyberanthropologist’s work can look like.

To begin with, Knorr does not provide the reader with theoretical or methodological tools about how to embed cyberanthropology in ones understanding of society or how to apply different ways of conducting cyberanthropological fieldwork. Thus, for an anthropologist on search for an adequate method for their intended research about “digital China”, for instance, this book would not offer a menu of choice of approaches. Furthermore, so far ‘digital anthropology’ appears to have stronger claims to be established as a field doing what Knorr aims at with ‘cyberanthropology’ (see e.g. The Center for Digital Anthropology). Nevertheless, Cyberanthropology is an eye-opener in several ways. And indeed, raising awareness of what cyberculture is or rather how people live cyberculture, is one of the intentions of the book.

In chapter one, titled “Sense” [Sinn], Knorr defines cyberanthropology, focusing on what the work of an anthropologist and an ethnographer entails. He explains that anthropological knowledge and ethnographic methods – aimed at the understanding of environments [Lebenswelten] that appear strange and different – offer a fitting frame for studying, for example, transnational online communities as well as technical enhancements of the body. Both themes are part of cyberanthropology (p.19). Knorr distinguishes cyberanthropology from digital anthropology by argueing that the latter focuses on consumption of commodities and the former on the handling of things in general [Umgang mit den Dingen im Allgemeinen] (p.25). Most essential for cyberanthropology, Knorr defines, are meaning and handling of, and the inter-relation with modern technique and technology (ibid). In fact, digital anthropology and cyberanthropology appear to be very similar in the idea that by understanding how modern technology is used, we can understand the observed [social] environment (ibid). The theoretical basis for Cyberanthropology are among others Marcus’ article on the emergence of multi-sited ethnography (1995) and Escobar’s concept of ‘cyberculture’ (1994).

Chapter two provides a historical overview of cybernetics. Knorr, applying Foucault’s discourse analysis, follows the coming-into-being of the field ‘cybcernetics’ from the 1930/40s onward and specifically points out its interrelations with anthropological input. Above all, Knorr explains how cybernetic thought and practice are as strong as ever in our everyday life, although cybernetics as an interdisciplinary field vanished in the 1970s. Most important in cybernetics is the idea of the feedback-process, which means that a variable or measurement that has been generated by a system, is led back into the system (p.33). Knorr emphasizes that cybernetic systems can be any system and are not confined to electronic systems or binary code (the latter is the basic definition for digital anthropology, Miller and Horst 2012). For a brief summary of a similar discussion in English, I refer to this conference contribution by Budka and Knorr’s discussion of it.

In chapter three, Knorr presents us with an overview of the literary (and related film) genre “Cyberpunk”. Also historical in approach, the discussion of cyberpunk points out its commodity-oriented and technology-centered content, and its focus on totalitarian regimes which often appear in the form of transnational industrial enterprises against which stands an underdog of society. Knorr shows how this genre is related to cybernetic-induced thoughts of the academic fields of politics and industry in the 1960s. The experiences and experiments with system-theory/cybernetics, politics and industry produced an important topic in cyberpunk, namely omnipresent electronic data processing (p.67) – which by our times has become an everyday phenomenon. The chapter concludes with a quote from Wiener, the proclaimed father of Cybernetics, “if the seventeenth and early eighteenth century are the age of clocks, and the later eighteens and nineteenth centuries constitute the age of steam-engines, the present time is the age of communication and control” (Wiener, 1948 p.50).

Chapter four, titled ‘Play rooms’ [Spielräume], is based on Knorr’s fieldwork in an online gaming community, the Max Payne Head Quarters (MPHQ), of which he was a member between 2002 and 2009. This chapter is not written in the rather clear and explaining style Knorr used before, but the author appears to be engrossed by his status and experience as a member of the group and loses himself, and therewith the reader, in the vocabulary of an insider. In this chapter an explanation about his methods would have been desirable. For example, we only learn that his informants did know that he was an anthropologist. And we come to understand that they respected Knorr and his skills; yet we are not informed about the ethical conduct of the researcher and related problems or about authenticity problems that participant observation online might pose. Although Knorr mentions ‘the digital divide’ and gender – his informants are male for the greatest part – his discussions of these points stay rather vague. Still, the chapter does achieve its effect in explaining how an online community works. With less technical words perhaps it would be able to relieve some parents’ worries and fears about their offspring’s gaming activities, as Knorr explains how social cohesion works – which is part of the aims of cyberanthropology.

Knorr, albeit sometimes lost in his passion for his topic, has, probably for the same reason, a very engaging writing style and draws from a wide range of examples to explain his topic. While the first two chapters provide the basic definitions for the following three chapters – and are especially aimed to raise awareness of cybernetics’ subconscious working in our everyday lives and how to understand these workings with the help of anthropological methods – the chapters on cyberpunk and play-rooms are specific examples of cybernetics’ effects. The last chapter, “Hardware”, links all previous topics in a discussion about the Japanese Bosozoku motorcycle gangs. Despite all enthusiasm for his topic, toward the end, Knorr reveals his slight unease with the fusion of cybernetics, cyberpunk and everyday life as we observe it in for example robots examining dead human bodies.

Escobar, Arturo. 1994. Welcome to Cyberia: Notes on the anthropology of cyberculture. Current Anthropology, 35.3: 211-231.

Horst, Heather & Miller, Daniel (eds). 2012. Digital Anthropology. London & New York: Berg.

Marcus, George. 1995. Etnography in/of the world system: The emergence of multi-sited ethnography. Annual Review of Anthropology, 24: 95-117.

Wiener, Norbert. 1948. Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. New York and Paris: Wiley and Sons

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