Sirpa Tenhunen on her new book, A Village Goes Mobile


Interview by Ilana Gershon

Ilana Gershon: What is so fascinating about A Village Goes Mobile is how effectively you use your long historical relationship with a West Bengali village to reflect upon how the introduction and decade-long use of mobile phones affects social relationships.   Which aspects of your previous research shaped your research foci and your questions? 

Sirpa Tenhenun: My previous research in Janta focused on gender, kinship and politics, so I was inclined to continue to observe these aspects of culture and society when I started working on the appropriation of mobile phones. Without my long-term relationship with the community I might not have been able to recognize changes, and how mobile phone use, on the one hand, contributed to these changes and, on the other hand, to how mobile phone use was intertwined with changes. I, for instance, could observe how mobile phone use helped transform kinship relationships. I also witnessed how most people could accomplish more in a shorter time by being able to coordinate their activities with the help of mobile phones. However, the most significant economic change in the village since the turn of the century was not due to the use of mobile phones, but to the agricultural policies. Since farming small plots of land has become increasingly unprofitable, young men from small farms use their phones to find paid employment outside the village.

Ilana Gershon: You discuss the fact that most West Bengali villagers did not have landlines, that their only experience of telephony were the mobile phones.  This reminded me of Terry Turner’s discussion of Kayapo videos, that their makers had experienced radio and then video cameras without experiencing all the different media in-between that Euroamericans have.   How do you think this affected people’s experiences of telephony – to never have had an experience with landlines first?  

Sirpa Tenhunen: Villagers who never had an access to a landline phone experienced the ability to use mobile phones as more spectacular than those of us who have routinely been using landline phones before mobiles became available.  This does not mean that the idea of a landline phone did not at all affect how mobile phones were used: initially, when the phone density was low, mobile phones were mostly kept at home and shared by the household members.   However, villagers were able to use mobile phones more innovatively since they had not developed routines of landline phone use. For instance, they frequently used the phone’s speaker to share the phone conversations with whoever was present.

Ilana Gershon: How did the introduction of smartphones affect social organization in Janta?  Did it change gender relationships?

Sirpa Tenhunen: Smartphones were used to strengthen pre-existing identities but they also offered opportunities and technical affordances which challenged hierarchies. Contrary to their hierarchical position, educated young wives and children could become the phone use experts in their families. Low caste people were able to make identity statements simply by possessing smartphones. Digital sphere constructed through mobile telephony was first associated with male-dominated public sphere but it proved much more malleable than the public sphere outside the home from where women are still largely excluded—the great majority of women continue to be housewives despite women’s growing aspirations to be able to work outside the home. The young men pioneered the use of smartphones—if their older models were still working, they were kept in the house and used by the rest of the family, mainly by women, who usually stay at home more than men do. At the same time, few women who moved outside the home for work or study started to acquire their personal phones. Young women now also preferred smartphones, readily discussing the multiple functions of these phones and demonstrating their ability to use them. Most people stored music and films on the smartphone’s memory card from downloading shops instead of browsing the internet independently. I never saw women listening to music on their phone in public places like men do —listening to music on smartphones through the phone’s loudspeaker is used to ascertain the meaning of the public sphere as a masculine space where men can spend their leisure time. The few men and women in the village who have used their personal phones to browse the internet all had a college education. The ability to browse the internet with one’s phone was, therefore, related to one’s education and wealth rather than merely gender.

Ilana Gershon:  What kinds of social relationships or circulation of knowledge changed because phones made it common to have a one-to-one or dyadic conversation, which might have been difficult to achieve before the advent of mobile phones?

Sirpa Tenhunen: Within the sphere of politics, mobile phones provided a channel to contact opposition political leaders discreetly. The use of mobile technology amplified multiplicity by strengthening clandestine political activities and alternative discourses. Women’s increasing access to a mobile phone influenced their relationships with men, but—more crucially— it influenced the kinship code of conduct and kinship hierarchies within families and between kin groups. I observed how phones offered women a channel to express unconventional ideas and exert their will through networking. For instance, a mother could advise her daughter over the phone to not to obey the mother-in-law whose demands were excessive. Thanks to phones, young wives were able to stay in constant touch with their natal families which was unheard of in the past.

Ilana Gershon: One of your findings that I found startling was that mobile phones had contributed to a marked decline in village-level leaders’ power.  Could you explain why this is the case?

Sirpa Tenhunen: Mobile telephony was a crucial factor in the rise of the opposition in West Bengal, where the Communist Party had been in power largely through its network of local village leaders from 1977 until 2011. In 2010 opposition activists related to me how mobile phones help them secretly mobilize against the ruling party. Political activists used phones more to organize party meetings and offer political patronage than to organize spontaneous demonstrations and support. The parties’ power used to be largely derived from their role as arbitrators of disputes: any person who feels that he or she has suffered an injustice can call a village meeting, led by local political leaders, during which a solution will be negotiated between the disputing parties. Thanks to mobile phones, patronage could now increasingly be sought from opposition leaders and from outside the village. When I visited the village in 2013, I found that after the end of CPI(M) rule in the village in 2011, not a single general village meeting had been held to solve local problems and disputes. Mobile phone use had helped amplify translocal political networks thereby reducing the power of local village leaders.  Phone use for political purposes built on earlier political patterns and meanings, but it made politics faster, more heterogeneous, and translocal.

Jena Barchas-Lichtenstein takes the page 99 blog test

My dissertation looked at how media impacts community. Specifically, how does the global circulation of regular publications help create a sense of community among 8 million Jehovah’s Witnesses in more than 200 countries, and how do we know that these publications are key?

Before writing this blog, I spent a lot of time thinking about the affordances of new technologies: was I supposed to look at the page numbered 99, or the 99th page of the PDF file?

As an anthropologist, I’m not normally in the business of talking about intentions – but Ford Madox Ford died well before the age of the PDF, so I started with the page numbered 99.

Unfortunately, if I am honest, that page (page 116 of the PDF) is one of the most boring pages in the entire document. It’s the very end of chapter three, which introduces two different types of field sites: the town where I conducted primary research and the global institution of Jehovah’s Witnesses. This particular page lists out physical research sites:

Additionally, I visited both Jehovah’s Witness worldwide headquarters in Brooklyn, New York and the Mexico Branch Office near Mexico City. Worldwide headquarters, collectively known as Bethel, include collections of buildings in three New York cities: Brooklyn, Paterson, and Wallkill, where a total of nearly four thousand Witnesses live and work.

So I turned to the 99th page, or page 82. That’s about halfway through this same chapter. It’s also the page where I first introduce the role of Jehovah’s Witnesses in my primary research site:

Jehovah’s Witnesses from elsewhere in Mexico first arrived in Zapotitlán in the mid-1940s and had converted approximately half the population by 1959 (Turner 1972: 90). Community members seem to get along well despite these divisions, but there are some aspects of life in which they are strongly felt. For example, most Mexican communities hold large festivals on the holiday associated with the town’s patron saint. In Zapotitlán, however, since Catholics are not a majority and adherents of other religions do not want to contribute or participate, these events are no longer held.

The page then moves into an anecdote about religious responses to the celebration of an important political anniversary in the town. It sets the scene, to be sure – but it doesn’t fully succeed at capturing the tensions between the centralized global institution and the practices of one small community. For that, you might still need to read the whole thing.

Barchas-Lichtenstein, Jena. 2013. “When the dead are resurrected, how are we going to speak to them?”: Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Use of Indigenous Languages in the Globalizing Textual Community. Ph.D. Dissertation. University of California, Los Angeles.

Gil Hizi flips to page 99 of his dissertation

My dissertation deals with pedagogic programs for self-improvement in a city called Jinan, northeast China. I focus on workshops that cultivate interpersonal “soft” skills, namely emotional expression, communication, and public speaking. Through the work of various state and market actors, these type of pedagogies have expanded in recent years from the middle-class culture of big metropolises to wider urban China. The crux of my work delineates the ideal of the person that is promulgated through these pedagogies and the ways it is enacted in workshop exercises. In short, soft skills in China offer an imagined avenue for self-transformation and social mobility that supposedly traverses more rigid factors such as background, educational credentials, and social capital.

Page 99 concludes a section where I introduce Aisong, 33, who joined interactive workshops offered by a local psychology club. During a short time, Aisong became a dominant participant and a poignant voice of expertise in the club. Despite his lack of prior experience in psychology, he expressed his goal of becoming a “master teacher” (dashi), and complemented his verbal performances with a new appearance: traditional suits, hair gel, a hairband, a Buddhist bracelet, and a fan in his hand. While undertaking this journey, Aisong maintained his blue-collar technician job. Like many other workshop participants I met, he was not pursuing self-improvement as merely a hobby or self-help method, but he was also not undertaking a new profession. I raise this point on page 99:

Unlike the visions of scholars of soft skills and immaterial labour, Aisong’s affinity to soft skills was not a response to direct demands of an enterprise. Yet, being both fascinated by and anxious regarding the potentialities of the market, Aisong was motivated to experiment with new modes of self-assertion while heralding new values.

Many self-improvers in urban China meticulously pursue self-improvement through a vision of entrepreneurship and market success, while also celebrating “doing what I love” and “becoming a better person”. They illustrate an intriguing coalition between a market-driven impetus for self-development and a moral cultivation of the person as a whole.

Anxieties about one’s competence in a changing world lead individuals as Aisong to envision new channels for professional success and social influence (the “master teacher” encompasses both), as well as to experience an untapped potential to become more competent. By practicing soft skills in an interactive workshop where he affects other participants through his speech and gestures, Aisong could achieve these goals ephemerally.

Hizi, Gil. 2018. “The Affective Medium and Ideal Person in Pedagogies of ‘Soft Skills’ in Contemporary China”. Ph.D. Dissertation. Sydney University.


David Parisi on his new book, Archaeologies of Touch


Archaeologies of Touch (US & Canada: use promo code MN82600 for 30% off):

Archaeologies of Touch (EU: use promo code for CSF18TOUCH 30% off)

Interview by Carlin Wing

Carlin Wing: Archaeologies of Touch opens with an examination of contemporary haptic human-computer interfaces, then quickly jumps backward to situate haptic technology in a linear chronology that begins with electrical machines in the 1740s, and moves forward by examining the way institutional actors in the fields of psychology, engineering, computer science, and advertising address touch. With so much material to cover, it feels like a boundless topic—how did you decide what you were going to focus on? Why did you organize the book in a linear chronology?

David Parisi: Although haptics technologies are commonly associated with contemporary digital media, and virtual reality in particular, research into computer haptics began in the late 1960s (though it wasn’t called ‘Computer Haptics’ until the 1990s), as a response to Ivan Sutherland’s prompting in his 1965 address “The Ultimate Display.” And the term haptics itself retains a neologistic connotation, in spite of having a history that reaches back at least psychophysics & psychology research in the nineteenth century. So part of what I wanted to do is show that, in spite of the tone of novelty perpetually enveloping digital touch, the technology has a material and discursive history that predates the 21st century. The book’s narrative arc is organized around five successive phases of interfacing, beginning with touch’s productive interfacing with electrical machines in the 1740s, and concluding with touch’s expression in recent attempts to market digital touch technologies like vibration-enabled touchscreens. I emphasize the continuity between each phase, showing how specific instruments and experiments and were passed down from one generation of researchers to the next.

Drawing boundaries around this archive of technologized touch—deciding what was on its inside and outside—was a tricky and fraught process, especially since touch itself is such a slippery and often contested category, once you begin to push on it a bit. Ultimately I decided to try to write the history of a hegemonic and normative model of touch, one that emerged piecemeal from the exertions of researchers across three centuries, and is currently being embedded in the design of digital media interfaces, as engineers attempt to fix and standardize haptic vocabularies that will be used to communicate messages through touch (think of vibrating alerts sent from your phone or smartwatch).

Of course, any history of a concept so vast and elusive will necessarily be incomplete. But I hope that this will at least provide the groundwork for deeper investigations of the relationship between touch and media—even if it turns out there are glaring and problematic omissions from the archive that Archaeologies of Touch constructs, at least it provides a point of departure for future studies of haptic media. When I started this project (well over a decade ago!), no such foundation existed, outside of the piecemeal and fragmentary histories contained in psychology textbooks. So my hope is that this book saves anyone doing empirical or theoretical work on haptics some intellectual legwork.

Carlin Wing: Given the way your own experience motivated your attentiveness to this history of touch, how did you approach the task of representing the many individuals that appear in these archaeologies of touch? What kinds of decisions did you make regarding how to write people in the context of a book whose primary characters are the techniques, objects, and apparatuses?

David Parisi: Your point about my story centering on objects and machines over people is spot-on. There are some actual humans who take center stage in the book, but you’re right that I downplay their individual biographies to focus instead on the things they built, and the ideas they invested in their objects. My method here was strongly influenced by Hand-Georg Rheinberger’s notion of experimental systems, which de-emphasizes the importance of any one individual or any one individual experiment, in favor of locating experiments in broader networks of scientific research around a given problem. This mainly involves a question of where and how we assign agency: by focusing on techniques, objects, and apparatuses, I wanted to get at a lineage of research and thinking on touch that transcends and outlives any one individual researcher. By doing so, we can see how particular experiments and experimental techniques concretize, attaining hegemonic status in the way that touch is studied. The two-point threshold tests that Ernst Heinrich Weber first carried out in the 1820s, for example, have outlived Weber by nearly two centuries, becoming foundational for the scientific study of sensory perception later in the nineteenth century, and then carried out again by experimenters in the middle decades of the twentieth century as they tried to figure out the optimal placement of the motors and electrodes used to transmit language through touch.

But, following Rheinberger, it is not the experiment itself that matters; instead, we should focus on how the experiment constructs and implies future experimentation in the system, how it shifts the border between the known and the unknown, or between the manageable and the unmanageable. The corollary of the experiment is the instrument—and here too we consistently see similar instruments employed and adapted for the strategic stimulation of touch across the five phases of interfacing I examine in the book. This sequencing hopefully has the effect of showing how contemporary haptic interfaces, in spite of the often-repeated claims about their revolutionizing novelty, are part of a longer tradition of attempts to transform touch through technology, many of which were met with similar enthusiasm, in spite of the fact that most of these techs failed to make it much beyond the lab’s walls.

Carlin Wing: The notion of training runs through many of the chapters and is perhaps most apparent in the chapter on the Tongue of the Skin where you talk about different attempts to train people to receive patterned symbolic communication through touch. How do you think about training, specifically training the senses? Did your thinking about training change as a result of writing the book?

David Parisi: The question of training is interesting to me in these different historical periods because it highlights the context-specific disciplining of the senses in general, and of touch in particular. For instance, early psychophysics and sensory psychology research aimed at uncovering the absolute limits of human sensory perception. In order to get at these boundaries, experimenters had to hone their abilities to perceive machine-generated stimuli—they had to become so-called ‘good observers’ through repeated drilling and training in carefully-constructed laboratory conditions. Graduate school involved not only repeatedly carrying out the foundational experiments of the new discipline, but also being the subject of these same of experiments, in order to cultivate their perceptual abilities. Becoming part of the discipline entailed a bodily and sensory regimentation, in addition to gaining a particular intellectual disposition. Deborah Coon’s Standardizing the Subject and Rand Evans work on the history of psychological instruments were both helpful for me here.

In contrast, contemporary interface design aims at building machines that will be appealing to wide swaths of users hailed as consumers—so they’re much more interested in understanding how the putatively average person experiences their products. This means they’re constructing normative models of sensation and perception, and embedding those models in interfaces through the standardization control and feedback mechanisms. In practical terms, this means that someone who wants to decode the complex messages sent through the Apple Watch’s Taptic Engine has to train themselves to be sensitive to an artificial vibratory language black boxed in the design process.

As a result of writing this book, I’m far more attuned to the sort of materiality and hard calculability involved in training processes. Going into the project, I was already thinking about media as involves processes of bodily and sensory discipline (in part as a result of McLuhan, and in part due to this Marcel Mauss essay I know you and I share an enthusiasm for). But examining lab experiments, and reading accounts of gradual refinements to particular instruments and models, gave me a strong appreciation for the microphysics of training processes—the material circulations that underpin abstractions of the human body and its senses.

Carlin Wing: This book is full of compelling and charismatic objects and apparatuses — an electrified venus, Leyden jars, electric eels, electrodes for the eye, tonsil, uterus, and rectum, aesthesiometric compasses, The Apparatus for Simultaneous Touches, the Teletactor (a mechanical ear for the skin), the Vibratese apparatus, Tactile Televisions, the Argonne Remote Manipulator, the CyberGrasp and CyberForce interfaces, force feedback joysticks and game controllers, touchscreens. What do you make of the charisma of these strange objects and apparatuses? What do you want us to understand about what compelled the effort that went into make these variously extraordinary, oppressive, curious, therapeutic, banal, and magical things and about what compels you and us to consider them in turn?

David Parisi: This is a really productive and important question, because it pushes a degree of reflexivity about this project—essentially asking about the subjective aesthetic preferences of the research expressed through the selection of objects. Part of what I was trying to do especially with the images throughout the book is highlight a continuity to the technoscientific imaginary around touch—a sort of cold, mechanical, and efficient modeling of touch through these instruments. This works as a counter to our typical imagination of touch as warm, as human, and as irreducible to mechanization and electrification. And it shows us that touch, like seeing and hearing, can have its own dedicated set of machines for knowing and revealing it, for capturing, storing, transmitting, and playing back its data.

But at the same time, these so-called strange objects are the embodiment of a devotion to and passion for touch—a technoscientific imagination around touch motivated by the humanist hope that life might be made better through the technological enhancement of touch (a sense often ideated as the most human of all the senses). They are captivating objects because of their ambiguity: because they were not only technical objects, but also objects that had cultural lives, inspiring wonder and bewilderment. They were used to inflict pain, both on experimenters themselves and on their experimental subjects (the Leyden jar and the electric eel); they were thought to heal and revivify (the electrodes for the eye, tonsil, uterus, and rectum); they promised to give hearing back to the deaf and sight back to the blind (the Teletactor and tactile television); they offered to reveal tactile system’s arcane secrets (aesthesiometric compasses and the Apparatus for Simultaneous Touches); they assured us that we could reach out and feel distant objects (the Argonne Remote Manipulator), and caress objects or people that existed only in the memory of a computer (the CyberGrasp). I hope these objects spark that same complex fire of emotions in my readers that they light for me each time I try to think through and with them.