anthropologist undercover

Pith_helmetThe Opensource interview with Jason Scott and Christopher Lydon got me thinking about who will capture an ethnographic record of contemporary society and how. 

Good news from Time Magazine.

It has become fashionable to take a menial job–nanny, say, or assistant to Anna Wintour–and then snitch about it in a thinly veiled novel. 

The latest case in point, apparently, is a novel by Rachel Pine, The Twins of Tribeca.  This is said to be an insider account of Miramax, here called Glorious Picures.  This won’t be as good as a true ethnographic study, but then it’s hard to imagine that the Weinstein brothers would have let an anthropologist in.  (For God sake, Harv, let me know if this is wrong.)

What we need know, for someone with lots of time and a very deep knowledge on contemporary non-fiction, is a map of contemporary culture (and its groups, activities, institutions, economies, and so on) that shows where all the existing "first person ethnographies" now stand and where the blanks exist. 

I expect Hollywood is pretty well covered.  The world of capital somewhat less well.  And the world of Little League coaching, for instance, not at all.  Too bad.  But then the publishing industry is "funding" only those ethnographies that promise scandal, titillation, celebrity worship or schadenfreude. 

Wouldn’t it be a good idea for an "Institute of Contemporary Culture" to recruit and fund people to do the rest? This was an issue that did not emerge in the Open Source show.  Thank god for people like Jason Scott who now captures podcasts.  But until the documentation of contemporary culture is given over to the safe keeping of the marketplace, it will remain a minority enthusiasm and a spotty one at that.

We need two things:

1. Someone needs to set up a documentation service.  This will drop in on us every x months and record as much or as little as we want them to.  At a minimum this should be a detailed record of our material surroundings, a 40 minute interview in which we say who we think we are and what we think we are doing in/with our lives, and, less often, a quick race around the neighborhoods and cities in which we live and work.  We need a snappy name.  (Paging Leora Kornfeld.)  And we need storage facilities.  And then we need a business model.  I don’t think we’d have to charge much for capture and storage.  And there is a failsafe factor here.  Even if someone decides that they no longer wish to continue with the service, we can store their data indefinitely and sure as shooting someone in the next generation is going to want it.  (What would you pay for this kind of record of your parents in their 20s?  I personally would pay a small fortune.) 

2.  We need a Paul Allen or some other patron to create the Institute that would capture the things that private, for-profit initiatives do not.  It might not quite as much fun as owning a major league sports franchise, but hey, you get to be remembered forever. 


Anonymous.  2005.  Five fantastic first novels.  Time Magazine, June 20, 2005. p. ~70. 

1 thought on “anthropologist undercover

  1. Tom Guarriello

    Karen and I have been watching the engrossing, “Up” series on DVD recently; we’ve just finished, “35 Up.” It fits the bill for those people over the last 40+ years. Your comment about paying a tidy sum for a visual record of our parents in their 20s was dead on.

    Name? How about, “Every Step You Take…”

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