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Paradoxes of Distributed Knowledge among the Warumungu
I found Kim Christen’s project to be engaging and informative. As someone whose knowledge of Australian Aboriginal religion is limited to what I’ve learned from a handful of ethnographies and, more controversially, Bruce Chatwin’s “The Songlines,” the site makes many complex concepts clear, and it brings a human face to abstract ideas.
That said, the information conveyed in the website raises several questions:
--In cosmopolitan societies, secret knowledge typically arouses suspicion. The assumption is that secrecy provides cover for a multitude of sins. Yet when we contemplate secrecy among Aboriginal Australians, our inclination is to treat it with sympathy and a degree of awe. Admittedly, there is little reason to believe that the Aboriginal “secret/sacred” domain encompasses morally troubling practices. Still, terms like “transparency” have positive connotations, whereas “furtive,” “occult,” and “clandestine” are more likely to have negative ones. How do we account for the dual standard by which we deplore secrecy in our public life and celebrate its persistence among indigenous peoples such as the Warumungu?
--The project stresses the degree to which knowledge is compartmentalized among the Warumungu. Given the small scale of the society and the relative lack of privacy, however, I wonder how discrete such knowledge is in reality. Are we talking about a social convention by which, say, men publicly claim ignorance of “women’s business” but in fact know a great deal about it? One could, I suppose, argue that it doesn’t matter much either way. As long as people act as if men’s or women’s knowledge is a completely different sphere, then it becomes social reality. Nevertheless, I’m left wondering whether the separation of knowledge between clan groups and along the male/female divide is as unambiguous as anthropologists make it out to be.
--Systems of distributed intelligence are generally held to be more stable than centralized ones. Yet in the case of groups such as the Warumungu, whose population is likely to have undergone a steep decline after contact and whose mechanisms for the transfer of knowledge between generations were unhinged by colonialism, isn’t it possible that such discretely held information could easily be lost by the unexpected death of a knowledgeable elder? Couldn’t the obsession with secrecy prove immensely maladaptive to indigenous peoples in the circumstances under which many have been forced to live? Does the system have enough redundancy to reassemble itself when gaps unexpectedly appear?
As a final observation, I strongly recommend that users of the site read Kim Christen’s terrific article “Gone Digital,” downloadable from the opening page. It links the site’s information to a broader set of questions about sharing, reticence, “public” versus “private,” and the impact of new technologies on all of the above.
- Michael F. Brown, Williams College, 04.20.2006
In addition to Kim Christen's important paper "Gone Digital," noted by Michael Brown (and linked to from the opening page), readers interested in related digital work in Aboriginal communities are encouraged to consult Christen's extensive and careful review of the Ara Iritija project (www.irititja.com) in the latest issue of Museum Anthropology (volume 29, number 1). [In print now, this review will be available digitally late this year when Museum Anthropology fully joins AnthroSource (www.anthrosource.net).] Like this rich and important site, and "Gone Digital," the review fruitfully extends Christen's arguments about the continued salience of local (but not only local) systems governing the circulation of knowledge in new digital contexts and in shifting legal and social circumstances.
- Jason Baird Jackson, Indiana University--Bloomington, 05.23.2006
In veiwing this project I was struck by the tension it suggests between mastery and partial knowledge. Of course this is working most obviously at the level of erasure suggested by the masking tape and more detailed protocal pages, but I think the point is perhaps more powerful made through the realtionship between the interface and the database. Of the thousands of images, videos, and other material available, any given instance of the project only offers up a portion for the "reader's" engagement. A single visit to the project allows a reader to feel as if they understand a "place" in just a few minutes. Upon reloading the project and revisiting a given place, it is revealed that the previous visit only provided partial information relevant to that place, and thus that the knowledge aquired in the first visit was necessarily partail.
Beyond the explicit boundaries of this project, the resistance of this project to the mastery of knowledge hints at the partial and distributed knowledges that characterize most forms on online knowledge production.
- Daniel Chamberlain, University of Southern California, 08.15.2006
Adding to Chamberlain's comment, with each visit the information available changes. This change seems meant to parallel being in a vital environment, of passing over or returning to country or land. This is also a dynamic experience. Christen made some clarifying comments on the collaborative anthropology blog savageminds.org. She wrote about the piece, “It is not supposed to be a place to learn about Warumungu culture. Instead, the site advances the argument that indigenous (specifically here Warumungu) intellectual property systems with their specific sets of protocols surrounding the distribution, reproduction and extension of knowledge challenge the dominant IP discussions that fall either to the ‘free culture’ side or the ‘piracy’ side. Neither of these debates can account for or contain the dynamic system of knowledge creation and distribution that we attempt to highlight in the site.” She adds, “The goal of the Vectors project set out by USC was to use technology to make an argument rather than make it in writing as we normally do in academe. To that end, we use the disruptions to make a point about Aboriginal systems of knowledge management.”
- Meg Stalcup, UCB, 08.15.2006