Anthropology without airplanes

By Peter Versteeg and Herbert Ploegman

“The Future is a Metaphor” – Ursula K. Le Guin

“You have a video conference in twenty minutes,” the voice on the phone says. “You will receive the holocall on the left side of your room. “Alright Pieter,” thank you,” the Anthropologist replies to the work unit’s secretary. It’s odd, he thinks, while putting down his phone. We now have excellent audiovisual connections with faraway places, but still use the same smart devices people have been using since 2005. Of course, the older ones are fossils compared to what we are able to do with them now, 40 years later. Although that is something we always get used to and then tend to forget. 

Bliss, the third year student who is doing her internship in the Museum of Forgotten Technology, told him that most young people who visit the museum at first seem only interested in noughties tech. The older stuff they tend to neglect, because they simply can’t understand what it does. It’s up to geeks like her and himself, he thinks, to show the actual value and beauty of these older technologies. Lately however, registrations for the course Salvage Ethnography are increasing, so apparently their enthusiasm for old tech is paying off. For anthropological research this really is a Fundgrube, and students are gradually discovering that. Perhaps he should keep an eye out for a collaborative project with the archeologists, once they start digging at the Zuidas site. He makes a note and looks outside. It had frozen, these early winter days, for the first time in eleven years.

Today the allocation of flying funds for his work unit will be announced. The policy for flying is that once every five years a unit member will be able to make use of airplane traffic to a destination outside Europe. Younger workers have priority. Although electric flying has been improved, it is too expensive for most academics. Train connections between major university cities in Europe have been completely renewed over the last 50 years. To travel rapidly to smaller places or places close by, hybrid four-person hover boards are in use. Flying has become an anachronism. 

He remembers the hard struggle this has been. Anthropologists just didn’t want to give up the image of the traveler, and they seemed blind to the privilege of being able to cherish it. When Lévi-Strauss famously commented that he hated travelers and explorers, the grandmaster turned this self-hate into a corpus of inspiring theory and stories, created behind a gorgeous antique desk, undoubtedly sitting in an equally beautiful antique arm chair. Lévi-Strauss’ quote would have looked great on the glass walls of the work spaces, the Anthropologist thinks. But it would probably have been too close for comfort – it would worry the frequent flyer who is so keen to suggest that being there is what matters in the end. The view from the airplane window had become anthropology’s Archimedean point. How different are things now, with our personal devices bringing together people from everywhere into virtual non-places. To save a suffocating globe, the local had to be reinvented, with people taking matters into their own hands in their own contexts, in collaboration with ‘us’. 

The Anthropologist walks out to get a coffee. “TOM 2 is broken,” says Qeesha, his colleague, without taking her eyes from the cloud-screen in front of her. “Crap,” he thinks. Should he get something from the old machine from the basement or should he go for a stroll to the campus coffee counter? “Screw beverage robotics,” and he walks to the tap to pour water in a mug. His smart-wrist beeps softly and glows pink. 

A few more minutes before the Mongolian partners call in. The first project evaluation of The Ontology of a Local Circular Economy. The Anthropologist remembers how excited he was about their research proposal, and how it changed what he used to call ‘worldview’. Every world we make and inhabit is equally fascinating and can be equally valid to the ones we first thought to be on top of the knowledge pyramid. We have come a long way, he mumbles. Just as one of his teachers predicted, anthropology departments have vanished, but anthropological approaches are very much alive within the social-humanities multi-faculties. Neither as the engineers nor as the bricoleurs we once thought ourselves to be, but as techno-cultural scavengers we have found our way through the junk heap, once we discovered we were actually part of it. “Hello professor, how are you?” From the corner of his eye, he sees five faces appearing, smiling at him. He puts on his glasses, turns his chair to the left, and wholeheartedly returns their smile.

Peter Versteeg is lecturer at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology. Herbert Ploegman is currently working as a teacher and coordinator for the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Additionally, he is doing a PhD research on art practices in Athens in the aftermath of Documenta 14. 

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