The Digital That Will Be

From the Series: Digital Ontology

Photo by Gerd Altmann.

Given word limits I obviously cannot summarize the rich and varied reflections in this series on digital ontology, all of them drawn from broader research projects. My goal, rather, is to comment on a few key themes arising from these analyses as a conversation.

At the core of current debates regarding digital ontology are questions of the real, often confused by conflation with the physical. This masks how the digital (or the analog, for that matter) can be real (or not) in various ways, and how the physical can also be real (or not) in various ways. As I have noted elsewhere, just as worrisome as the dismissal of the digital as unreal is the concomitant assumption that everything physical is real (see Boellstorff, forthcoming). In place of such sweeping generalizations, these essays show how forms of reality interdigitate with the online and offline—with forms of being and forms of knowledge.

The engagement with knowledge is another important contribution of these essays. From citizen sensing and representational fields to recognizing cats and racialized faces, these essays demonstrate the fundamental imbrication of epistemology and ontology on the terrain of the human. Indeed, in these essays interpretation and meaning are, if anything, more salient than being. That being and meaning provide valuable joint lines of inquiry is obscured when attention to ontology is presented as a turn away from epistemology, which too often happens when the analysis takes place in an anthropological register.

Speaking of anthropological registers: a note on generalization. If we pose the question “is there a digital ontology,” I can absolutely answer “yes.” To assert otherwise participates in the damaging conflation of both culture and being with difference. The idea that we cannot speak of “the digital” partakes in the “hasty equation often made between macrological explanations and metanarratives . . . [which] has too often been extended to any explanation that seeks to account for global phenomena such as capitalism, confusing closure with scale” (Gupta 1998, 12). Anthropologists get to generalize too. Generalization is not always what I termed above “sweeping generalization,” and one can overgeneralize about a localized case study. As a result there is, with regard to the digital, a great need for what I have termed platform-agnostic theory to complement fine-grained ethnographic work. Search, databases, translation, and machine learning (to take a few examples from these essays) are all different, but they share things too, and we need to respond to this.

One reason generalization has a place in discussing digital ontology is the continuing need to refine terminological frameworks. In addition to digital and ontology, particularly significant in this discussion are difference, material, real, and virtual. All of these terms are etic and emic, with complex histories and significant polysemies. What are presented as debates are oftentimes people talking past each other. To take just one example, virtualhistorically implied potentiality, and many discussions of the virtual that set it against the actual are strongly flavored by this (as is typically the case in the work of Gilles Deleuze). However, when discussing the virtual with respect to digital ontology (for instance, with regard to the distinct but linkable phenomena of virtual worlds and virtual reality), virtual references an online sociality or materiality that has an actuality of its own. A conversation held over Skype is not a potential conversation that must be actualized by a physical-world conversation. This polysemy of the virtual has explicit consequences for ontology in cases where the potential is not seen as real.

Consequently, a theme that emerges from these essays is an interest in practice, in “how things work, rather than how things are” (Geismar). This recalls how in the 1980s, scholars like Pierre Bourdieu and Sherry Ortner used notions of practice to think outside the structure/agency binarism. Similarly, these essays push beyond a logic of displacement, of either/or framings that present “how things work” and “how things are” as exclusionary options. Instead, we find fascinating explorations of how things “work” through how they “are,” or “are” through how they “work” in practice.

Some of the essays engage with these intersections of being, practice, and knowledge through what is known as big data. To me, what is most novel about big data is not that it is a more threatening, accurate, or comprehensive commentary on the social, but that it has become a sociality in its own right that interpenetrates intersubjectively with the contexts that generate it (see Boellstorff 2015). This co-generation of sociality and knowledge is just one reason why the valuable attention to ontology becomes less productive if posed as a turn from representation.

In the last instance digital ontology depends on the physical: if you pull the plug or let the battery run down, the digital no longer exists. But in the last instance any human culture will disappear without bodies or gravity. In place of such depth ontologies, these essays contribute to understanding digital ontology as actually existing phenomena. One way the digital is thus of particular promise is in foregrounding ontology not just as multiple, but also as constructed though alteration, ones and zeroes on the plane of being. I look forward to the further insights and conversations these brilliant scholars will provide us!


Boellstorff, Tom. 2015. “Making Big Data, In Theory.” In Data, Now Bigger and Better!, edited by Tom Boellstorff and Bill Maurer, 87–108. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

_____. Forthcoming. “For Whom the Ontology Turns: Theorizing the Digital Real.” Current Anthropology.

Gupta, Akhil. 1998. Postcolonial Developments: Agriculture in the Making of Modern India. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.