Michael Wesch: Papua New Guinea to the Digital Age

Michael Wesch, professor of anthropology at Kansas State University, is one of the leading anthropologists of the internet, as well as education in the digital age. Wesch gave a presentation in August at TEDxKC, an independently organized TED event with the theme “What the World Needs Now.”’

Wesch’s talk, From Knowledgeable to Knowledge-Able, is probably my favorite of his videos. He puts together a well-crafted presentation with a good synthesis of his ideas.

Critical thinking, the old mainstay of higher education, is no longer enough to prepare our youth for this world. We must create learning environments that inspire a way of being-in-the-world in which they can harness and leverage this new media environment as well as recognize and actively examine, question and even re-create the (increasingly digital) structures that shape our world.

See for yourself:

I appreciated his summary of how digital media make it really easy to:


Yet ironically these are actually hard things to do, because they depend on practice and skill for their execution. They depend on human relationships, organized and mediated through technology.

To teach these types of skills, Wesch advocates embracing real problems, engaging students (working with them), and harnessing the relevant tools. For this to work well, students not only need to practice, they need to find meaning in what they do. Traditional educational approaches, focused on delivering content to them (rather like a television), only does this haphazardly. Students are meaning seekers – and meaning often comes from what we create.

Wesch also gave a presentation at TEDxNYED last spring, another independent TED event that focused on “Examining the role of new media and technology in shaping the future of education.”

This talk is also great, because he explicitly lays out how he went from doing ethnographic work in Papua New Guinea to examining digital media. In both places, new media led to dramatic transformation in the local society. It’s the clearest I’ve heard him be about how field work and anthropological ideas led him into what he does now.

In the case of New Guinea, he argues, the local village was radically changed by the arrival of “mediated” culture through books, a census, and other media. Similar things are happening now with digital media.

For more on Wesch, see his website Digital Ethnography

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One Response to Michael Wesch: Papua New Guinea to the Digital Age

  1. Anyone who hasn’t watched Wesch’s “An anthropological introduction to Youtube” should check it out – it is fantastic!


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