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Explorer of the Week: Mike Wesch

Cultural anthropologist and media ecologist Mike Wesch examines how the internet has changed communication and relationships today. He addresses questions of anonymity, user generated filtering, participatory culture, and more with various experiments online. As one reviewer exclaimed, “Who knew anthropology could be so much fun?” What project are you working on now? I am working...

Cultural anthropologist and media ecologist Mike Wesch examines how the internet has changed communication and relationships today. He addresses questions of anonymity, user generated filtering, participatory culture, and more with various experiments online. As one reviewer exclaimed, “Who knew anthropology could be so much fun?”

What project are you working on now?
I am working on a book about “wonder”—what it is, how to harness it, how to inspire it, why it is on the decline right now, and how to bring it back. Wonder is both a sense of awe and a capacity for contemplation. More than just curiosity, wonder allows us to see beyond the surface of things, to seek patterns, or even better, to question the patterns we have taken for granted. To wonder is to embrace the possibility that we have it all wrong, that the frameworks around which we have built our view of the world might need to change, that the pillars upon which our worldview sit might need readjusting or be destroyed altogether. To wonder is to leave aside our taken-for-granted assumptions, peel away our biases, and contemplate the world beyond our judgments and desires. In wonder, the world invariably reveals itself to us in ways we have never seen it before.

How has being a National Geographic Emerging Explorer helped your work?
Being a National Geographic Emerging Explorer connects me to a broad range of people from many disciplines who share my enthusiasm for “anything goes” question asking, unbridled curiosity, and insatiable wonder. Here were people who, like me, were much less concerned with the disciplines they were from, than by the questions that drove them. Explorers are a truly undisciplined group of folks, harnessing and leveraging tools and perspectives from any and every field, reaching far beyond academia, in pursuit of answers and solutions to big, relevant, and important questions and problems.

What are your favorite and least favorite things about the internet?
My favorite thing about the internet is that it is, quite simply, the world’s most amazing knowledge machine ever created. But, it runs on wonder. Without wonder, it becomes my least favorite thing—the world’s most seductive distraction device.

Out of all your viral videos, like the The Machine is Us/ing Us, Information R/evolution, and An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube, which is your favorite?
I see these videos very differently than other people might. When I watch them I am immediately drawn back into the creative process through which they were created. Watching them is a journey of the spirit, taking me back to those wonderful “aha” moments, as well as the sometimes long and arduous creative struggle. So my favorite is “An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube,” because it takes me back to all the raw moments of insight I shared with my students as we were creating it. YouTube was so new and exciting back then, and we really felt like we were exploring a foreign frontier, and the people we encountered there were wonderful. They opened up and shared themselves so deeply.

Watch “An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube”

In addition to the YouTube project we created a heart-warming promotion for K-State Proud, a student organization on our campus that collects donations from students to give money and support to other students when they need it most. Since the organization is all about “students helping students,” we gathered about 100 students, pooled all of our money together, and then ran around doing good deeds for people while capturing it all on video. We handed out money, bought strangers lunch, and even paid for a student’s textbooks. It was kind of like a “flashmob of kindness.” We posted the video on YouTube, it went viral, and several universities were inspired to start their own similar organizations.

Watch “Students Helping Students”

If someone wanted to create a viral video, how would you suggest they proceed?
Step 1. Do not set out to create a viral video.
Step 2. Think. Open yourself up to new ideas and perspectives. A good video always has what we call a “KYHOI”—a “Knock Your Head Off Idea.” These are not easy to come by. If you have one KYHOI in your entire life, you will have one more than most. KYHOIs tend to be found in the spaces between disciplines, so read broadly and always look for connections.
Step 3. Embrace the medium. Video is a different language. You can’t convey the KYHOI in the same way you would in text or by voice.

If you had unlimited funds what project would you work on?
I would probably spend the funds on city infrastructure, health promotion, and other methods to transform our little town of Manhattan, Kansas into the ultimate bicycle-friendly and walkable city and then study the effects of the transformation on sense of place, community, creativity, and wonder.

What do you wish for your students and the future of education?

I used to think of the shift we need to make in education as one in which we move from making our students simply knowledgeable (knowing a bunch of stuff) to being knowledge-able (able to find, sort, analyze, criticize and ultimately create new information and knowledge). But more important than anything is that we must inspire them to wonder. Wonder is the wellspring from which ideas and creativity flow. One could even argue that there is no truly creative act or critical thinking without wonder, for it is only through wonder that we attempt to go beyond what has been said and done

What do you see for the future of the internet and mobile devices?

We are headed for ubiquitous communication, ubiquitous networks, and ubiquitous information about everything everywhere from anywhere on multiple kinds of devices. We are moving beyond the screen to information, communication, and “intelligence” being embedded in door knobs, appliances … almost anything. But the buzzword of the day will no longer be “mobile” or “social media.” The hallmark of our time is the algorithm. Algorithms create the “intelligence” of these devices, and algorithms are proliferating everywhere. They are already involved in over 70% of trades on Wall Street. They help decide which movies we watch, and which movies are created. They don’t *make* movies yet, but they do make music that is so good that even a discerning scholar cannot recognize it as coming from a machine. They are becoming more involved in every aspect of our society, economy, and culture.

If you could trade places with one explorer at National Geographic, who would it be and why?
Do I really only get to pick one? I fell in love with the people of the Pacific when I did my PhD fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, and I love working with video, so trading places with Elizabeth Kapu’uwailani Lindsey and taking on her magnificent travel schedule would be fun, but I also love my students and the sense of place and connectedness I feel living in Manhattan, Kansas.

What do you think National Geographic explorers will be exploring in a hundred years?

Same as today. They will be on the frontier. We just have no idea where that frontier might be, or if it is a “where” at all.

Have you ever been lost? How did you get found?

I once tried to travel between neighboring villages in Papua New Guinea by myself. The villages were about seven miles apart, which in the mountainous terrain of New Guinea is a hard day’s walk. I lost the trail several times, and at one point the path I was on came to a river and just stopped. I assumed that people must cross here, so I grabbed a good strong stick to brace myself against the powerful current of the river. It was all I could do to keep from being swept away. I made it, but barely. When I arrived at the next village they asked me why I was wet. I told them about the river and a look of concerned terror came across their faces. “Ah, you took the dry season road!” they exclaimed. I was lucky to have survived.

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Meet the Author

Amy Bucci
Amy Bucci is a web producer for National Geographic. Her projects mainly cover National Geographic explorers, grantees and initiatives.