Leonardo Electronic Almanac
Vol. 9:1, January 2001
WHERE ARE THE ANTHROPOLOGISTS?
This fall I had a chance to visit Expo 2000 in
Hannover, Germany. Over a decade in the making, it was expected
to rival the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900, where 47 countries
showed 83,000 exhibitions, including sound cinema, electricity,
and Art Nouveau, to over 50 million visitors.
World Fairs ought to be great. Theyre a
chance to be physically co-present with international architecture
and artifacts, to encounter cultural diversity with exhibitors and
visitors, and to experience unique large-scale special-venue media
(Imax, for example, grew out of Expo 67 in Montreal).
But something went wrong in Hannover. Attendance
was less than half the expected 40 million. The Expo ended up with
a two-thirds of a billion dollar debt. CNN labelled Expo 2000 "bland."
I managed to blitz through 44 of the 50 pavilion
buildings in two days (with a press pass, as Ive done since
Expo 86). It was a curious disappointment, and a consistent
one. It seemed as though all the attractions were designed by the
same U.S. ad agency. Instead of "here is what were proud
of" it was "here is what we think youll like,"
and instead of "here is the way we express ourselves"
it was "hey we have the same style and high-tech as
you." Someone put the melting pot on "homogenize,"
and the results were useless flash and volunteer colonialism.
There was, to be sure, some edgy, interesting
stuff, but so little. The United Arab Emirates had a great CircleVision
film, using the nine-screen panoramic movie format to combine their
own culture pride with an internet theme. The Finland pavilion housed
a multi-sensory landscape in a soundproof space with soil under
foot and forest scents in the air, combining a static panoramic
painting with several video projectors on pan/tilt heads which served
as "movie spotlights." The Dutch pavilion produced a six-screen
short film which was fast, richly detailed, and witty. The strongest
architectural statement was made by the Swiss, whose pavilion was
a dense labyrinth of stacked solid rough-sawn wood beams, with nothing
inside but a small café and roving improvising musicians.
In the theme pavilion area, the "Knowledge" exhibition
included a large, dim, open space with dozens of human-size robotic
blobs (designed by the ZKM) wandering, flocking, and responding
to visitors. And the enormous Africa Hall was a refreshingly real
bazaar, with scores of booths from 40 African nations selling their
Only six interesting attractions? Why was everything
else so, well, bland?
I couldnt help wondering: where are the
anthropologists? If anthropology purports to have the experts of
humankind and cultural diversity, where were they? Why arent
anthropologists taking a more central and pro-active role in international
presentation and use of new media technologies?
I know an anthropologist (folklorist, actually)
whos tried, and his story is relevant.
Alan Lomax is an 85-year-old ethnomusicologist
who has lived mostly in New York and is now a stroke victim. In
the 1930s, he and his father, ethnomusicologist John Lomax,
made the first audio recordings in the field (using a 500 pound
audio recorder given to them by Thomas Edisons widow). By
the 1960s, Alan Lomax had amassed the largest collection of recorded
song and dance from around the world. By the late 1970s, Alan
became convinced that the emerging multimedia technologies could
be used to make this material easily accessible to everyone, and
called his dream the "Global Jukebox." He believed that it would
enable everyone to discover their own cultural roots and to learn
how they fit into the world picture.
By the early 1990s, Alan and his team had built
a first-pass version of the Global Jukebox. The system was complex
and its interface a bit clunky, but almost everyone who experienced
a demo was utterly astounded. It seemed clear that the Global Jukebox
would have popular and commercial appeal. His fans have included
George Bush (Sr.), Brian Eno, Jerome Wiesner, and Mick Jagger. He
has received numerous foundation grants, the US Presidential Medal
for the Arts, and was named one of the 1998 "Wired 25."
As an anthropologist, Alan Lomax has been as media-savvy and pro-active
But Alan has been struggling for funding for years,
and the Global Jukebox remains under-funded and unfinished. It seems
to have fallen in an abyss between content and technology, between
the academy and pop culture, and between world-saving and money-making.
With all the rhetoric in the media industry around internationalism
and "content," where are the anthropologists?
So where are the anthropologists? I found 5,000
of them last month at the American Anthropological Association annual
meetings, held this year in San Francisco. The AAA has 33 different
sub-fields (e.g., Im a longtime member of the Society for
Visual Anthropology section of the AAA), with many diverse, parallel
The big news in anthropology is around a scandal
"unparalleled in the history of anthropology." A new book,
Darkness in El Dorado by Patrick Tierney, accuses several notable
anthropologists, biologists, and filmmakers studying the Yanomami
people in the remote rainforests of Northern Brazil. These accusations
include human rights violations, deadly genetic experimentation,
doctoring data, and staging film sequences. Its ugly, and
passions run deep on both sides. A high-visibility excerpt of the
book appeared in New Yorker magazine, and the tweedy, scholarly
community of anthropologists freaked.
The last big scandal in anthropology remains unresolved.
Remember the Tasaday, the isolated stone-age, cave-dwelling, "gentle
people" discovered in the early 1970s in the remote southern
Philippines? National Geographic magazine did a feature (August
1972). NBC news made a documentary (1972). But over the next two
decades details accumulated suggesting that the Tasaday were local
farmers paid to act stone-age, as part of a property scam masterminded
by a Marcos crony. Today most everyone living in the Philippines
takes for granted that the Tasaday was a cruel hoax. And most of
the anthropology community agrees. But the rest of the world continues
to have fond memories of these "gentle people" with no
reason to doubt their authenticity.
Far-off cultures and indigenousness are no longer
marginalized areas of study, confined to a small community of academics.
"The Others" now have websites, and you will get email
from them someday soon. Their art and culture have value, while
the international media industry spends billions of dollars missing
the mark. The anthropological community can play a major role here,
and I for one would heartily welcome them.