Digital uncertainty. Culture and everyday appropriation

By: Iván Flores Obregón


Our historical moment allows us to talk about digital culture, the presence - almost invisible - of digital technologies in our daily life contributes to reflection on this subject. However, we are faced with a series of conceptual difficulties that we must take into consideration while trying to understand what digital culture is and how we can study it.

If we have learned something through Anthropology is that defining culture is a complicated task, an agreement has not been reached to specify its limits and fundamental characteristics. Therefore, we do not have a consented definition of culture because each author has interpreted, changed and added elements to their own definitions. The definition created by UNESCO (1982) is usually considered as an operative conception, it states that "culture can be considered as the set of distinctive spiritual and material, intellectual and affective features that characterize a society or a social group. Literature and the arts include ways of living, the fundamental rights of the human being, the systems of value, traditions and beliefs ". In this sense pretty much everything that surrounds us is culture.

One hundred and eleven years before, Tylor (1871) explained that culture is a complex that includes knowledge, beliefs, art, morals, law, traditions and any other faculty and/or habit acquired by humans as members of society. On the other hand, Sapier (1921) states that it is a socially inherited set of practices and beliefs that determine the texture of our life. Ten years later, Malinowski (1931) argued that culture includes artefacts, goods, technical processes, ideas, habits and inherited values. In this totality, thought by Malinowski, utensils and consumer goods are articulated as elements that organize and regulate social groups.

Therefore, we could say that culture is expressed in many phenomena and situations that can be linguistic, ritual, spiritual but that also materialize in objects that require the development of a technique. It is difficult to think about culture separating the material and the ideal (Godelier, 1984) just as it is unproductive to think of culture as alien to a specific place and time. This is an interesting theoretical movement because it can help us focus some elements of digital culture as deeply rooted in technological artefacts and practices. It is no coincidence that many of the anthropological studies done with, in or about digital technologies focus their attention on what users do, since in everyday uses an expression of culture is synthesized and built within these objects. This is so because when studying the uses we are implicitly discussing the appropriations and meanings attributed to the artefacts, in that process -which entails habits, beliefs, practices- a specific aspect of the culture is constituted and revealed, although not necessarily and specifically digital.

This theoretical and methodological route is not new at all, in fact it has already been explored by those who study another aspect of culture: its material expressions, which confronts us with a peculiar situation: digital culture -as the very definition of culture - It is not finished, in fact we build it while we talk about it. In the process we find new elements that shape it, specific expressions that modify our daily experience with technological artefacts, practices of certain social groups -all users, artists, researchers, etc.- and simultaneously this produces specific imaginaries that respond to conditions social, economic, political in which we find ourselves. It is a process therefore of creative invention but also of constant feedback where we sharpen the look and improve the theoretical devices to distinguish new possibilities and limitations. The digital culture has - therefore - something of uncertain and inaccurate but that is there waiting to be explored and conceptualized.

Digital culture can be seen in the work of the artist who creates an exhibition using virtual or augmented reality devices but also in the subway user who uses their phone to watch series or play Candycrush while spending hours on public transport. In both cases there is a use that reveals the deep relationship we have with objects and the agency with which they establish new meanings to what surrounds us. The ancient tension of nature and culture becomes more evident, where the objects enter the web remains to be analysed through our own constitution as individuals and subjects within the technological artefacts we use and incorporate to our lives. In this sense, it is valid to think that objects are the result of a design, a reflection that has been achieved through a technological system, Sarmiento (2007) explains that we cannot ignore that technology forms social structures, fixing its dimensions and its own cultural development.

Therefore, the digital as an abstract, open and inconclusive concept makes sense when we consider its material supports to understand its integration to everyday life. This exploration is also open and enables a multidisciplinary work with which we can understand what digital culture is for us, here and now.



Godelier (1984). Lo ideal y lo material: pensamiento, economía, sociedades. Madrid.

Malinowski, B. (1931). Culture en Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, t. 4, Nueva York.

Sapier (1921). Language: an introduction to the study of speech, Nueva York.

Sarmiento, I. (2007). Cultura y cultura material. Aproximaciones a los conceptos e inventario epistemológico. Anales del Museo de América no. 15, pp. 217-236.

Tylor (1871). Primitive Culture: Researches into the development of mythology, philosophy, religion, language, art, and custom. London.