Is There an Ontology to the Digital?

From the Series: Digital Ontology

Photo by Gerd Altmann.

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 for many years been describing the logical structure of digital media (Manovich 2001; Mackenzie 2006), anthropologists have tended to critique such accounts as overly generalized, focusing instead on the local specificities and varieties of technology use. The aim of this Theorizing the Contemporary series is to provide an interface between these positions. We suggest that the recent turn to ontology in anthropology 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 making universalizing claims.

Several different notions of ontology have spread unevenly, but steadily across the social sciences and humanities over the past two decades, and even within anthropology there is considerable discussion about what ontology might mean. It is therefore important to explain that we are using ontology here in at least two separate, but related senses. In the first sense, we are thinking about the specific role that material arrangements play in bringing forth social realities. The vast majority of anthropological studies of digital technologies have focused their attention on the creative ways in which people manipulate, reformulate, and deconstruct a variety of digital formats with an array of different ends in view (see Coleman 2010 for an overview). Here, ethnography reclaims culture from technological determinism. However, in these accounts digital technologies often become merely a substrate for more meaningful practices of human creativity. In drawing attention to the ontological dimensions of digital technologies, we want to explore what happens when we attend to the affordances, agencies, and logics of digital devices themselves, as they participate in making social worlds (Boyer 2013; Kockelman 2013; Boellstorff 2012; Kelty 2008). One benefit of this ontological approach is that it allows us to pay attention to the unexpected or unforeseen effects of digital technologies and their capacity to disrupt, destabilize, rechannel, unsettle, all the while calling forth different ways of relating.

The second sense in which we are using the term ontology is by way of emphasizing the methodological potential of this move. We want to call not only for a renewed attention to how digital technologies disrupt or reroute social relations in our ethnographic material, but also for a recognition of the potential of ethnographies of digital technologies to disrupt anthropological ways of thinking and doing. Within anthropology’s “ontological turn,” alterity has been held up as the grounds for such methodological distortion and disruption, meaning that the relation between ethnography and theory becomes constituted through recursive iterations of difference rather than assimilative flows of identity (Viveiros de Castro 2004). There has been heated debate around these issues (Laidlaw 2012; Bessire and Bond 2014), but our interest is less in taking any one side than in exploring how digital materials and logics complicate, disrupt, and extend this debate. We use ontology in this methodological sense to focus on what the digital does to the relation between ethnography and theory, exploring the extent to which digital technologies and practices might contribute to a re-elaboration of alterity as the basis for anthropological thought (see also Kelty 2008; Boyer 2013).

The essays that make up this series weave in and out of these two ways of thinking ontologically, sometimes bringing them together and sometimes problematizing them both. For example, even as they take digital devices to be generative of social realities, several of the essays also seek alternatives to the dualisms that shape what we think of as social or real in the first place. By drawing attention to the complex agency of digital light bulbs (Cross), the reflexivity of administrative databases (Ratner), the organizational metaphysics of search engines (Gross), the scaling capacities of DNA phenotyping (M’Charek), the cosmological potency of Big Data (Abramson), and the recursivity of air pollution monitors (Gabrys), these essays cut across the easy binaries upon which social critique often rests. Some of them approach the notion of ontology as it is shaped by specific digital logics such as machine learning (Mackenzie), while others trace its contours from a historical and interdisciplinary perspective (Goriunova). Several of the other essays draw explicitly on digital practices, from technologically mediated ritual repatriations (Geismar) to the databasing of indigenous knowledge (Salmond and Hogsden), as a means of both reimagining and problematizing notions of alterity in social scientific imaginaries. Each contribution pays close attention to the affordances—or lack thereof—that digital engagements offer, tacking between different levels of description and analysis in order to think not only about how and if digital practices elicit difference, but also about how notions of difference might be digitalized. As Victor Cova’s essay suggests, there are intriguing theoretical repercussions for a digital anthropology that digitalizes itself in this way.

As the mutability and variety of digital relations described in these papers demonstrates, to ask whether there is an ontology to the digital is not to suggest there is one singular, behemoth onto-logic of digital existence. Recent contributions to the ontological turn have argued, to the contrary, that difference is not external to ontological assemblages, but rather internal to them (Holbraad, Pedersen, and Viveiros de Castro 2014). Thinking about digital ontologies along these lines shifts attention from how and whether digital technologies are somehow essentially distinct from other forms of technology or practice (externally), toward asking if their distinctiveness resides in an inherent capacity to be distorted and transformed, to be continuously other than they are (internally). This, we believe, suggests new avenues for inquiry into digital worlds that are no longer constrained by disputes over what the digital is, but instead investigate what the digital is becoming. Many of the essays in this series strike a delicate balance between these two positions, simultaneously interrogating the promises of digital technologies and celebrating the emergence of different, disruptive, digital relationalities.

Finally, we recognize that to ask whether there is an ontology to the digital invites the possibility that the answer might be “no.” We have brought together scholars from across the social sciences to debate this question, including those who sense there might be ontological dimensions to the digital and those who remain more skeptical of these claims. By keeping the conversation interdisciplinary, by positioning the ontological as neither easily empirical nor unproblematically methodological, and by providing ample room for discussion (Pedersen; Boellstorff), we hope to bring fresh perspectives to bear on anthropology’s ontological turn, even as we also bring novel insights to the study of digital worlds.


Bessire, Lucas, and David Bond. “Ontological Anthropology and the Deferral of Critique.” American Ethnologist 41, no. 3: 440–56.

Boellstorff, Tom. 2012. “Rethinking ‘Digital’ Anthropology.” In Digital Anthropology, edited by Heather Horst and Daniel Miller, 39–60. London: Berg.

Boyer, Dominic. 2013. The Life Informatic: Newsmaking in the Digital Era. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Coleman, E. Gabriella. 2010. “Ethnographic Approaches to Digital Media.” Annual Review of Anthropology 39: 487–505.

Holbraad, Martin, Morten Axel Pedersen, and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. 2014. “The Politics of Ontology: Anthropological Positions.” In “The Politics of Ontology,” edited by Martin Holbraad and Morten Axel Pedersen, Theorizing the Contemporary, Cultural Anthropology website, January 13.

Kelty, Christopher M. 2008. Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Kockelman, Paul. 2013. “The Anthropology of an Equation: Sieves, Spam Filters, Agentive Algorithms, and Ontologies of Transformation.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3, no. 3: 33–61.

Laidlaw, James. 2012. “Ontologically Challenged.” Anthropology of This Century 4.

Mackenzie, Adrian. 2006. Cutting Code: Software and Sociality. New York: Peter Lang.

Manovich, Lev. 2001. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 2004. “Perspectival Anthropology and the Method of Controlled Equivocation.” Tipití: Journal of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America 2, no. 1: 3–22.