In the early decades of the internet, many saw new channels of communication as potentially beneficial disruptions, analyzing largely through a utopic lens, albeit often with a technolibertarian bent. This did not last, and by the 2020s, scholars were increasingly pessimistic about how neoliberal logics structured the ways these technologies produced and extracted economic value. The heady promise of newness associated with recently invented communicative technologies had disappeared, to be replaced by despair of surveillance capitalism. Anthropologists of communication are especially well-equipped to study the construction of newness underlying this trajectory from revolutionary promise to all-too-familiar capitalist containment and control. Anthropologists analyze how media are socially constructed as new by attending to the participant structures that tend to accompany new media use—that is, studying the communicative roles and role fractions that participants can adopt or eschew while interacting with, storing, or circulating utterances. To understand how capitalist forms of exploitation so easily undercut the liberatory potential of new media, anthropologists have turned to how neoliberal logics increasingly shape how people value labor and interpret job roles. And in general, anthropological analysis provides a productive attentiveness to the gaps between what people understand about how media affect the message and what people’s actual media practices are, a gap that can reveal nuanced insights into the clashes between people’s hopes and work’s realities.
Judit Kroo and Ilana Gershon
Paul Wenzel Geissler
Industrial and colonial capitalism, and underlying ideas of melioration and domination, technological progress and encompassing, violent territorial expansion, shorthanded as “modernity,” have made and remade the material world humans inhabit today. Despite mounting doubts about modern projects and their progressive temporalities—on account of their mistakes and failures, and the collateral damage they caused—their material remains and residuals persist in the present, as potential “traces of modernity,” shape human and non-human life, and thus trigger anthropological curiosity. The spatial and temporal scale of such traces after modern endeavors ranges between that of abandoned industries and permanently damaged landscapes and that of toxic molecules and modified DNA. Some traces, such as carbon dioxide molecules transforming the Earth system or endocrine disruptors reshaping reproductive futures, challenge the very notion of scale. Traces include spectacular architectural ruins and trivial everyday objects. Some are attributed potency or beauty; others are considered waste or evoke repulsion. Accordingly, some are overlooked, hidden, or erased, while others are collected, preserved, or turned into monuments. Modern traces enmesh multiple temporalities. Referencing the past when they originated and the progressive aspirations they once served—that now are past futures—they often also embody the subsequent disappointment and decay, and they have present lives, which may or may not relate to these pasts and the temporalities they had harbored. Traces retain future potentiality and trigger unpredictable effects—being transformed or decaying with time, and transforming other materials or lives in turn. And being both damaged and inherently destructive, and ripe with utopian hope, they embody lasting modern ambiguities. Anthropologists have studied such traces explicitly in ethnographies of, for example, abandoned railway networks, postindustrial towns, outdated laboratories, or landscapes ravaged by colonialism and, implicitly, as an inevitable backdrop of social life in the present aftertime of modernity. Informed by neighboring disciplines that reshaped anthropology’s material sensitivities, like science and technology studies, archaeology and geography, these anthropologists are developing “tracing” as an ethnographic method: following and getting entangled with traces’ human sociality and more-than-human ecologies and attending to their affective resonances and effects, in order to explore the intertwining of materials and temporality in traces, their presence, and their potentials for the future. Social life after modernity is lived on and off the material substrate of modern traces, which have been left behind anywhere on the planet and surround or even physically pervade both human and nonhuman life-forms. Human practices and interspecies interactions in the Anthropocene inevitably engage with traces - often involuntarily and unpredictably -, in much the same way as the tentative, searching tracing pursued by the anthropologist. The anthropology of modern traces thus contributes to the key task of social anthropology, which is to understand the social organization, interaction, and process in the aftertime of modernity.