Michael Wesch

Cultural Anthropologist/Media Ecologist

Emerging Explorer

Girl using laptop

Brendan O'Sullivan

Photo: Man leans against a chair.

Photograph by Erinn Barcomb-Peterson

Where does this cultural anthropologist’s exploration take him? A remote Himalayan village?

An indigenous Arctic settlement? No…cyberspace.

Michael Wesch starts with a simple premise. All human relationships are mediated by communication. Change the medium of communication, and you’ll change the relationship, much as the printing press transformed the world 500 years ago.

Yet today, he argues, the power of technology to change our relationships and culture is unprecedented. "Anthropology," he explains, "has always explored connections—political, religious, economic, global. And since the Web is the most powerful connecting force ever, anthropology can play a key role in understanding it."

As a professor at Kansas State University, Wesch and his students examine social networking and other interactive Internet tools collectively known as Web 2.0. Examining YouTube, the popular online video streaming service, he observes that when people create and share personal videos, "It’s a gateway to anyone, anywhere, throughout all time. This inspires some to feel a profound connection with the entire world. But that’s not the same connection felt with a close family member. It’s a relationship without any real responsibility, one you can turn off at any moment. So what does YouTube’s popularity say about the kind of communities that are emerging, and where we are as a society at this moment?"

Wesch unexpectedly proved the impact of digital media himself when he created and posted his own short video on YouTube. It attracted immediate attention and has been viewed millions of times. Challenging us to reflect on the power of technology, his video titled "Web2.0…The Machine is Us/ing Us" points out that "Humans click on a Web page 100 billion times a day. A blog is born every half second. It’s no longer just linking information, but people. We’ll have to rethink a few things: copyright, authorship, identity, ethics, aesthetics, governance, privacy, commerce, love, family, ourselves."

He notes that "We're moving increasingly toward a world where information about everything is completely available at all times in all places. What are the implications of that in our daily lives? Is it changing us in ways we don't even see, or perhaps want? I try to make sure my students wind up in control of the technology, not vice versa. I ask them to think not about what new media was designed for, but how they can hijack it for something else." A prime example, he believes, is Facebook, the social networking website used widely by college students. While initially designed to help friends connect, it's also been used to create petitions which are sent to Congress, uniting tens of thousands of strangers around a common cause.

Wesch also believes a culture transformed by digital media may require fundamental revisions in education. "Today, my job as a teacher is less about making students memorize content, and more about helping them see their world in new ways." To that end, he has introduced a number of untraditional teaching techniques, most notably his World Simulation, developed for large introductory anthropology classes. Each student becomes an expert on a specific aspect of a culture; and together they design a complex world, complete with global economies, currencies, rules for military engagement, and consequences of technological innovations. "It's a powerful exercise," he finds, "in dispelling myths and revealing how complicated our world's problems are. Suddenly things that students might have merely memorized become important to them in a very visceral way."

Outside, in the real world, Wesch believes it's crucial for both students and academicians to be adept at navigating the new environment of digital media; leveraging it to make the greatest possible impact. "It's the tragedy of our times that we are now so connected we fail to see it. I want to believe that technology can help us see relationships and global connections in positive new ways. It's pretty amazing that I have this little box sitting on my desk through which I can talk to any one of a billion people. And yet do any of us really use it for all the potential that's there?"

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in Their Words

Technology is connecting us in ways never seen before in human history. How will that change our societies, our relationships, ourselves?

—Michael Wesch


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