The realm of the digital is a quintessentially modern one in the sense that it is geared towards constantly producing new things, be that apps, platforms, devices etc. For the inhabitants of this realm – producers or consumers of the digital or both at once – novelty and being up-to-date is often a value in itself, if not a necessity to position oneself in this field in the first place. Like in modernist understanding more general, time is conceptualized hierarchically, privileging the future over the present and all the more so over the past.
Developing or using latest versions of particular technologies in the present can acquire the image of seizing the future, as “being ahead of the times”, implying that others are lacking behind, are “backwards” or “behind the times”. Anthropologists are well aware of these modernist tropes (Fabian’s Time and the Other  is the classic reference here), as the discipline itself was not immune to them, relegating – in an evolutionist fashion – some groups of people that were ethnographically studied to a bygone age or at least to a time that always fell short of the European present.
At this point at the latest, readers might object that this kind of thinking is itself a thing of the past and that anthropology has in the meantime successfully overcome such evolutionist approaches, and that the discipline’s more recent occupation with the digital is not affected by it anyway (for the genesis of the field of digital anthropology see Budka ). While I would largely agree with the first part of this assertion, I am not so sure whether we are completely immune to the temporal hierarchization of people and their practices, in this case: media practices, in digital anthropology. At least we have to consider the might of modernist discourses that hierarchize the digital and its related practices in a temporal manner. For anthropologists working in this field the challenge would then be how not to fall into the modernist trap of temporal hierarchization without denying temporal sequence altogether, since there clearly are older and newer manifestations of the digital (the World Wide Web was obviously invented before social media platforms, for example). Moreover, how do we deal with the temporal hierarchizations that we encounter in our fieldwork that inform and sometimes even govern the perceptions of our interlocutors? These questions bring me to an ethnographic example that will allow me to explicate the problem that I have raised here a bit further.
When I visited Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city and the capital of the province of East Java, in 2016 researching the uses of social media in Islamic practice, a friend of mine wanted to introduce me to an elderly man who did not use social media at all. Nevertheless, he thought that I should meet the man who is engaged in a rather unusual form of Islamic proselytization (dakwah). Pak Fauzi, as I call him here (“Pak” is the respectful term of address for men in Indonesia), was in his early 70s and did not own a smartphone but an old mobile phone which he used to send SMS containing religious messages to a limited number of friends and acquaintances every Friday and Sunday. Pak Fauzi started this practice of sending Islamic messages in the year 2013, when smartphones and social media had already existed. He told me that he found the latter too complicated and was very happy when he realized that through SMS he could reach fellow Muslims and do what preachers usually do, reminding people of the values and regulations of their religion. However, Pak Fauzi does not consider himself to be an Islamic preacher that are called ustadz in Indonesia, many of whom skilfully use social media today engaging in a set of practices that has become part of a preacher economy that generates its own temporalities (Slama 2017).
In Pak Fauzi’s case, the written form of SMS that does not necessitate face-to-face encounters is crucial here, since Pak Fauzi suffers from chronic stuttering, which prevented him from Islamic preaching throughout his life. Yet he always felt a strong urge to spread the word of Islam. Since his youth he has been a member of the reformist Islamic organisation Al-Irsyad that was founded in 1914 in the then Netherlands East Indies by Arab migrants from the Hadhramaut, a region in the south of the Arabian Peninsula and today part of the Republic of Yemen. Pak Fauzi is of Hadhrami descent as well and thus part of a diasporic community that occupies a special place in Indonesia’s Islamic landscape being known for their religious zeal. When he was younger he was an active writer for Al-Irsyad’s printed media and rose later to high positions in the organisation’s East Javanese branch. Thanks to the introduction of mobile phones and SMS, Pak Fauzi could satisfy his desire for proselytizing even after his retirement.
When I was introduced to Pak Fauzi, simple mobile phones were hardly used and people rarely communicated through SMS anymore, at least not among middle-class Indonesians. In fact, SMS acquired the image of a lower-class communication tool in Indonesia and became another sign of the backwardness of the poor (see Baulch ; and Slama  for the relationship between class, media uses and Islamic piety), or the elderly as our example suggests. When my friend brought me to the house of Pak Fauzi, a sense of coming into contact with a bygone age was in the air, as he prepared me beforehand to meet an elderly man who uses an old communication technology.
This perception differed markedly from how Pak Fauzi saw his SMS proselytization activities, namely as a contribution to the spread of Islamic reformism in the present and to the continued existence of this version of Islam in the future. Interestingly, he also saw no contradiction of using an older technology in an Islamic reformist environment that is known for having embraced Western notions of progress and modernity, and for reconciling them with Islamic religiosity. Yet for Pak Fauzi, SMS was “modern enough”, so to say. The temporal hierarchization that my friend and I had in mind – messaging apps as being the up-to-date and SMS as the old-fashioned communication tool – did not particularly bother Pak Fauzi who only recently discovered SMS as a proselytization medium.
That elderly people like to stick to a particular older technology and are reluctant to use new ones is not an uncommon phenomenon, and they might be more prepared to accept the consequences of being regarded as old-fashioned. By refusing to use a smartphone Pak Fauzi seems to confirm this cliché that should, however, not lead to hasty generalisations, as recent work on elderly people’s varied social media uses suggests (Walton 2021; Colas 2021). In any case, this line of reasoning cannot entirely explain Pak Fauzi’s insistence on SMS communication. Again, for him it is not a tool of the past, but of the present. One could even say that his example is subversive to temporal hierarchization because for him SMS is something relatively new. Therefore, we can distinguish here between an objective temporal sequence – SMS became popular in the late 1990s and messaging apps in the late 2000s in Indonesia – and subjective perceptions of time that can differ widely, such as whether SMS is a thing of the past or of the present in the 2010s.
As anthropologists in digital settings, we thus should be prepared to encounter different temporalities and perceptions of time, including their hierarchizations. The latter almost always exist prior to our fieldwork with the phenomena we study being already embedded in complex temporal settings. Without questioning the chronological order of appearance – i.e. SMS was born before messaging apps – we nevertheless need to de-hierarchize time, so to say, in order to recognize the multiple perspectives that can go beyond or run counter to perceptions of time governed by chronology and teleology.
I see here a particular challenge for digital anthropologists that operate in a technological environment that is based on and lives from temporal hierarchization. New devices, platforms and apps (or new versions thereof) are constantly developed sometimes with the very aim to make their predecessors look old and redundant in a competitive market that idolizes novelty. Moreover, many interlocutors of digital anthropologists have absorbed this modernist techno-driven ideology that exalts the new and the future at the cost of the old and the past.
One, then, has to respond analytically to this temporal hierarchizations and their corollaries, such as the association of “old” technologies with the elderly, the lower classes or ethnically defined marginalized groups. And one has to deal with situations in which, for example, meeting an elderly man who regularly uses SMS is presented to the ethnographer almost as time travel back to a bygone age. In other words, what I want to assert here is not something eminently sophisticated, but it is momentous: doing digital anthropology necessitates a particularly high awareness of how people relate to time and of discourses about time in society at large, as otherwise one risks being unable to detect the broader power asymmetries that inform the research setting through such temporal hierarchizations.
And as a last thought, let me briefly refer to how we choose our research topics when working on the digital, as digital anthropology is not unaffected by this ideology of being up-to-date. Or perhaps it is better to phrase this as a question: Is digital anthropology not at least partly informed by this urge to study the new? And if we consider the current landscape of research funding in which a similar urge prevails, we can ask: Who would fund a study of SMS communication in today’s age of messaging apps? I am not saying that it is impossible to convince reviewers and funding institutions to finance a study of how a particular group of people use an “old” technology, as this can indeed be innovative research generating inspiring results. But it might be much harder, I guess, as one would have to argue in more detail why this is a relevant research focus than in the case of the latest communication technologies that many people use today and are currently a public topic.
My own research is not an exception in this regard, if we consider my encounter with the SMS-sending Pak Fauzi during a study on the uses of the latest social media platforms. Ironically, I met him because of my focus on the new, yet not to confirm this focus, but as a kind of deviation from it, a curiosity (which it is not, of course) seemingly at odds with my research interest and the contemporary world. And yet, from today’s perspective, I am tremendously grateful for having had a conversation with Pak Fauzi, as he urged me to think more about time and temporality in anthropological research on the digital than any other person that I have met in the field.
- Baulch, E. (2020). Genre Publics: Popular Music, Technologies, and Class in Indonesia. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press.
- Budka, P. (2011). From cyber to digital anthropology to an anthropology of the contemporary? Working Paper for the European Association of Social Anthropologists’ Media Anthropology Network. https://easaonline.org/downloads/networks/media/38p.pdf
- Colas, S. (2021). Aging in a Digitalized World: Beyond a User/Non-User Framework. DEI Blog, posted 24 June 2021. https://digitalethnography.at/2021/06/24/aging-in-a-digitalized-world-beyond-a-user-non-user-framework/
- Fabian, J. (1983). Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Slama, M. (2017). A subtle economy of time: social media and the transformation of Indonesia’s Islamic preacher economy. Economic Anthropology, 4(1), 94-106. https://doi.org/10.1002/sea2.12075
- Slama, M. (2021). Tracing Digital Divides in Indonesian Islam: Ambivalences of Media and Class. CyberOrient: Online Journal of the Virtual Middle East and Islamic World, 15(1), 290-313. https://doi.org/10.1002/cyo2.15
- Walton, S. (2021). Ageing with Smartphones in Urban Italy: Care and Community in Milan and Beyond. London: UCL Press. https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10126968/1/Ageing-with-Smartphones-in-Urban-Italy.pdf
I would like to thank Philipp Budka, Suzana Jovičić, and Monika Palmberger for their valuable feedback on this text and for their careful editorial work. The fieldwork on which this blog is based was made possible by the research project “Islamic (Inter)Faces of the Internet: Emerging Socialities and Forms of Piety in Indonesia” funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF P26645-G22).
*Martin Slama is a senior researcher at the Institute for Social Anthropology, Austrian Academy of Sciences. He graduated from the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the University of Vienna with a PhD thesis about the online practices of young internet users in Indonesia. His post-doc projects include research on diaspora communities of Hadhrami-Arab descent in Southeast Asia that play a salient role in the region’s Islamic landscape. More recently, he combined his expertise on Islam in Southeast Asia and the anthropological study of new communication technologies by examining the varied Islamic uses of social media in Indonesia. For more information on his research and for his publications, please see: https://www.oeaw.ac.at/isa/das-institut/mitarbeiterinnen-mitarbeiter/slama-martin