It might be argued that anthropology has come late to the question of whether there is an ontology to the digital. Although scholars in software and media studies have long described the logical structure of digital media, anthropologists have tended to critique such accounts as overly generalized, focusing instead on the local specificities of technology use. The aim of this Theorizing the Contemporary series is to provide an interface between these positions. We suggest that anthropology’s recent turn to ontology offers the potential of expanding the anthropology of the digital in a way that allows us to attend to ontological questions without falling into the trap of universalizing claims.
This series emerges from two workshops convened by Antonia Walford and Hannah Knox in London in September 2014 and May 2015 to explore the material, epistemological, and ontological character of digital technologies. The workshops were supported by the Economic Social and Research Council’s Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change and the University College London Centre for Digital Anthropology. They included a mix of participants working across anthropology, the digital humanities, and science and technology studies. Some had thought a great deal about the relational affordances of digital technologies, but less about whether it was helpful to think of these technologies in ontological terms. Others had strong opinions about the usefulness of an ontological approach to understanding social relations, but had not explored their ideas in relation to digital technologies. The essays in this series are the culmination of the lively discussions that ensued, as we worked to tease out the difference it might make to an anthropology of the digital to approach digital technologies as ontological formations.