The science of anthropology has for over a century given us valuable insights into the way people live and how communities interact.
Such insights have helped inform decisions by business, academia, government and other institutions. Without those insights, everything from marketing campaigns to political movements would be less effective.
But traditional anthropology needs to evolve. It’s a way to study the analog, physical world, while today we increasingly live digital lives.
Technology is greatly altering social dynamics, economies, even entire nations. Google, Facebook, YouTube, WeChat, Twitter, Instagram, Tinder – all sorts of digital properties are driving new behaviors, politics, new reasons for being, and new kinds of tribes and villages that span continents and cultures.
It creates movements without leaders, like the Arab Spring; or products without companies, like Wikipedia. Crypto currencies are changing the idea of national currencies. Virtual reality is on the verge of changing the notion of personal space – of the very notion of “where” we live.
Traditional anthropology misses all of that. It can’t effectively study modern humanity. It doesn’t even have the right research capabilities to do so.
That leaves us with an enormous blind spot. Critical decisions get made without proper knowledge. Opportunities get missed and dangers multiply because we don’t fully understand what’s going on.
It’s like trying to diagnose brain conditions before the MRI, or going into space before the telescope. It’s too hard to make good decisions in the dark.
The world desperately needs new inventions and new thinking that help decision-makers understand digital life and its connection to physical life. We need new ways to understand the reality of how we live today, how we create identities, how we socialize, and how influence works.
But nothing like that exists. There has been no good way to study modern life and get the insights we need.
Just as brain science needed the non-invasive imaging capability of the MRI to advance, anthropology needs new innovations to advance.
These new innovations need to study enormous amounts of data about our digital actions, like the connections we make with others, our buying decisions, our habits, our movements, or the ways we entertain ourselves and tie those actions to the digital groups – our online tribes and villages – we belong to.
The new capabilities need to be able to discover and identify such tribes and villages, track how they emerge, and map the dynamics inside them.
These innovations – these MRIs for modern humanity – must respect our privacy. We need new non-invasive methods for seeing into digital life.
These innovations will fuel the science of digital anthropology.
Just as a highly-trained neuroscientist must draw conclusions from images generated by an MRI, a digital anthropologist will have the ability to peer into the information coming from new capabilities and put together insights about modern humanity.
Digital anthropology needs to be a unified academic discipline. Universities must give birth to a new generation of digital anthropologists who can make sense of our lives today in ways no one can now imagine.
Like any science, academic research will inform our society’s institutions, and will generate new thinkers who go on to work outside of academia, much the way Ph.D.’s in math land at hedge funds or physicists join technology companies.
As it advances, the science of digital anthropology will open pathways to new industries and products, as scientific discoveries always do. It will drive better decisions by leaders across every kind of institution, public or private.
Digital anthropology has to exist in the world. In its absence, we will blunder into a future none of us want.
This is a pivotal moment. If we don’t make bold moves to deepen our data and skill sets, we will continue to widen gaps in inequalities across gender, race, class, nature and beyond.