A fragment from the future of anthropology
By Florin Slabu
In the memory of Taylor Booth Translation from Romanian by Salome Japiashvili
This story was written in memory of Taylor Booth, a young Canadian who lived life to the fullest, without becoming caught up in the trap of everyday life. He chose to live on the road, loving the people he interacted with and leaving unforgettable impressions. He was and will remain an inspiration to all travelers. He left us in the February, 2013 doing what he liked most -traveling, being hit by a car while he was hitchhiking at night, between Abéché and N`Djamena (Chad).
A little girl was running on the fresh grass of spring, playing with the family puppy. She was incredibly happy and she had every reason to be happy since spring brought Vancouver’s luxurious flora to life, her puppy had just recovered from a nagging illness and maybe, most importantly, her dad, Taylor was at home after a long absence. Katie was only 6, but was more used to her father’s absence than his presence. This is why Taylor was wearing a burden and constantly blaming himself. On one hand he knew that he was missing out too much of his daughter’s life; on the other hand he loved his job a lot. However, the excuses he was telling himself to make peace with his thoughts at night were not enough.
His wife was not at all satisfied with his schedule, but she was keeping it to herself mostly for Katie’s sake. She had developed a very strong bond with her daughter, because they had to cope with the paternal absence together. She knew that Taylor’s “home raids” were too short and that he would soon be gone to follow his obsession that ‘earned’ him critics and jokes from his peers. He was called old-fashioned, stupid, “detechnologized” (acid insult in 2088), lousy husband and father and a scientist lacking the sense of reality.
Taylor had graduated from the Faculty of Philosophy, specializing in Anthropology, being fascinated by the work of an anthropologist named Japiashvili, whose writings were the result of his field work in East Africa, half a century ago. He was fascinated by the idea of living among a population that holds onto different values and habits than his own. He believed this was the only way to produce high-quality work in anthropology. His dream was to become the highest authority in the domain of studying Inuit population in North Canada and Canadian ethnic minorities in general.
The reality was profoundly different when Taylor had just started to make his way in the branch at the beginning of his master studies. Because of the financial crisis in the 60s, triggered by oil wells being dried up, many of the countries with advanced economies had to reconsider their priorities and better distribute their finances. Thus, the budget for humanities and social sciences had been drastically reduced, anthropology being no exception. Because nobody could touch the salaries and benefits of experienced professors, the funds for research were cut instead. The decision was explained by the fact that field research is costly, useless and time-consuming. This was followed by pointing out the advantages of modern technology which supported anthropologists delivering valuable work sitting comfortably in their own offices. Over a short period of time, the term “Office Anthropology” or “Technologized Anthropology” had been emerged. Taylor simply couldn’t reconcile with the status-quo and he was trying to change it, at least at the University of Vancouver.
In the 80s of 21st century anthropology had the latest technology at its disposal and scientists could research communities anywhere in the world. Thanks to a Chilean invention, you could find high performance electricity generators every other kilometer on the whole surface of the globe. These generators had a real-time communication system, with a video camera and many other devices which all made it very appealing. Designed for military and security purposes in the 30s, people found the strangest ways to use it – scouting for real estate, barbeque, launcher for those who were skydiving and so on.
Technological progress in the last decades had simplified the human work or at least that’s how people wanted it to happen. Eventually, the machine that was to replace the person behind the counter proved its shortcomings and the potato-peeling machine was voted the funniest useless invention of 60s. As for anthropology, technology was embraced more or less willingly, mostly because of the 60s financial crisis that completely shifted the geopolitical power poles. Over time, anthropologists had become accustomed to the new realities, especially since they could now go home at 5 o'clock, even when doing fieldwork, excepting the cases when research was done in other parts of the world where there was significant time difference. Video-conferencing was the most common way of doing field research for which you only needed a local person who would turn on the machine, select interviewees and mediate the process. It was usually a student of humanities from the nearest university, where research was taking place. This also served as practice for students who could just as well be philosophers assisting an anthropological process. However, most often, they were anthropologists, sociologists or, if needed, linguists. Even though many anthropologists were overwhelmed by historical events beyond their control and were swimming along with the wave of change, there was also small but very powerful group consisting of those anthropologists, for whom the real fieldwork was the only way to get to know the culture of the studied population and interact with interviewed people. Taylor, even though he was young, had made his voice heard in the community of Canadian anthropologists. He was one of the most outspoken critics of the new technological systems that produced anthropological data. Taylor’s opinions, however, were discomforting for the dean of the Faculty of Philosophy. He wasn’t at all pleased by Taylor’s approach and by the fact that he was constantly being criticized for not being able to shut the mouth of this “neurotic young man”. Although Canada was a decentralized country until the financial crisis, it could not afford to be careless with its expenses, taking into account the new economic reality. The allocation of substantial funds for anthropological fieldwork seemed to be the last concern for policymakers. The latest statement Taylor had made was the reason why he was summoned in Dean Brown’s office. It was not the first time, but this was a more serious matter because the accusations made by Taylor were against those leading the education and research fields in Canada. "Taylor, I was the one who encouraged you to enter research, despite all those arguing that you were too young. All your last statement is doing is to draw even more criticism from Ottawa.” “I am only trying to defend the interests of anthropologists" argued Taylor, "After all, that's your job… and you know I'm right, but you’re giving directives only to secure your warm seat/comfortable position in the university". It all started from the insertion of a tracking device in the body of the subjects. It was a device that transmitted certain type of information about their activity. Costs were further reduced and information they got from the device became more varied. The fact that human rights were severely violated was of no concern to anyone except Taylor. Taylor was furious and he made aggressive and sarcastic comments in press addressing almost everyone in charge, thus, he very quickly managed to make a lot of enemies. Despite this, he decided to go back to fieldwork, as it had been done in the very beginnings of anthropology. His wife announced him that they would soon have a baby. He was very happy to hear the news, but still fully immersed in his field work he would soon begin in Northern Canada, studying the Inuit population, as he had dreamed since his teenager years. The latest field work done "by the book” was in the early 60s, nearly two decades ago. He went to the office of Mr. Brown again to tell him about his ideas and how he wanted to implement them. Of course, Mr. Brown responded to his endeavors with resistance for an obvious and predictable reason – not enough funds. Taylor remained calm, smiled and told him that he did not need more money than it would be necessary for the well acknowledged type of research.
He had already managed to save some money in the past and even the news of becoming a father would not ruin his plans at all. He had to leave early summer, going from the heat of Vancouver to the cool far North of Canada. He left behind his pregnant wife who protested half-heartedly, knowing, however, how much he wanted to go through this experience. Some peers at the university were mocking him, but the vast majority secretly looked up to him with sheer admiration, not making their opinions public fearing of being considered against official ideas. Even the dean secretly admired Taylor’s qualities of being direct and determined in his actions, not accepting any compromises. He considered him as a kind of romantic hero and even supported him at the Faculty Council and the Financial Commission. In June, Taylor Booth went to the extreme North of Canada with the equipment for anthropological study which could be considered very minimalistic: 4 notebooks to keep 2 diaries (personal and ethnographic), 5 small notebooks for quick notes, 5-6 pens and a couple of recently published books to stay updated about what has been written in the field. This “equipment” was enough to write down his thoughts and impressions. He believed that living in the community that was being studied, was the most important research tool of all. He found something spectacular in every detail and he enjoyed a lot to be among those people. Being raised in Vancouver Island's natural environment, he felt like fish in the water in Northern Canada’s wilderness. Everything made sense for him there... After returning to Vancouver he had to write a book about how the Inuit have adapted to new economic and social realities, and how they changed social relations in their community. Because no one was concerned about these subjects after the financial crisis, Taylor’s findings were the most endorsed out of all the related literature. He was welcomed well by his colleagues and the critics have decreased. However, the system has still remained loyal to rigid economic principles. In the following years, Taylor Booth went often on the fieldwork, covering in depth all ethnic minorities of Canada and becoming one of the leading anthropologists. he was gone so often that the existing technology would even help him as he would give his lectures from the place, where he was doing the fieldwork, using the devices he hated so much and that replaced the work of the anthropologist . He even caused a trend among anthropologists, especially among the young ones since more and more young researchers were going on fieldwork with almost no resources, relying completely on hitchhiking and sleeping in tents to do the field research and not be taken for a lame „office anthropologist”.
In 2088, Katie was starting her school and Taylor had to leave for the fieldwork 2 weeks before the start of her school and he did not know how to break the news. He was observing how she watched cartoons in the hologram of her room. He knew that the news would break her heart, but could not give up the way he had chosen. Wife had reached the rock bottom and already hated Taylor’s job, although she herself was a doctor of humanities. It was last summer and again Taylor was again packing his small suitcase with the necessary objects to pursue his dream.
After Taylor and his wife got divorced, Katherine was already an adult and Taylor was not anymore distracted from his work, which he still pursued obsessively. Although he was no longer seeking career prospects (in 2108 he was already among the greatest North American anthropologists), he did not intent to change the fervor that he had towards his work . "I`m on top of my game" he kept repeating at every opportunity rather trying to convince himself than others. He was already over 50 and it wasn’t easy to keep up with the same speed as before. He expanded his working area in the southern United States and Alaska, but he did not manage to go further than that. Authorities had not changed funding policies, so, the problems remained the same. Because he only had limited number of research opportunities, he was studying communities with the intervals of few years, and because of this, he feared to become redundant. Although Taylor became the deputy dean of the Faculty of Philosophy, he could not change much in terms of financial policy. He was very angry and unsatisfied since he had hoped that the results of his work and his new position would allow him to "move" things. He managed, however, to bring Dea Japiashvili to the department of anthropology. She was the granddaughter of the anthropologist by whom he was so impressed in childhood. Being a talented third generation anthropologist in her family, Dea got recognition very fast in the scientific society of Vancouver and managed to integrate quickly. For Taylor, she was like a daughter (or a little sister), being even closer to her than to Katherine.
Katherine was now a doctoral student of gene mapping, being attracted by biology since she was 8, after her parents made a subscription to the journal "Science Magazine". She disliked anthropology from the very start as it stood between her and her father, and later she disliked it for scientific reasons. Technology was so advanced that gene mapping could respond to the most diverse and odd questions about the human body. It could detect exactly what disease you could get throughout your life, to what diseases you could be more prone to in case adopting a certain lifestyle and it could even identify with precision the genes of an offspring of two individuals.
Consequences of applying the technology have been disappointing at first for the society. People started to be paranoid that they were to suffer from some illness after certain time or that they had to radically change their lifestyles in order to prevent a a lethal bacteria to develop in their bodies. Perhaps even more surprising was the drop of the importance of marriage for romantic reasons. Who would have thought in the 60s of the 20th century, during the full-blown hippie movement in the Western societies that love would not be an important factor while choosing a life partner?! For most people, choosing a partner with whom you would have perfectly healthy children and with whom you could live a healthy life was more important than love. It was progressive paradigm and those who considered love as the core and basis for the establishment of a family were considered as morons. Of course, Katherine was not a fan of romantic marriage, and that caused bitter dispute with between her and her father. Their arguments were were scientific and professional, but the wounds were old and were coming from their family history. “You know very well that it's not natural, Katie! You were raised in a normal family, where affection was the basis of relations between its members...” “Affection? Come on, dad… You're the last person who can speak about affection, you were always missing, upsetting my mother, and as for me… I felt your absence more often than your presence.” He constantly felt guilty for missing from his family and he knew that his daughter was right. However he continued to argue by changing the subject and going back to the initial issue “All I want is for you to be happy ... I really don’t know to what extent you can be happy with a person for whom you don’t have any feelings ... I know you're very passionate about your research findings and I know you're excited to experience those discoveries yourself, but maybe that's not the answer to everything ... “Dad, you're not in chancellery of Faculty of Philosophy, here you have no moral domination, on the contrary even...” “What does the past have to do with this?! You destroy your life by being appealed to some machines while this should be the most emotional phase of your life, and I know that's what you really want.” The process of identifying the perfect match of genes for each individual was an awkward, long-lasting and a painful process. And those who were going through it regardless did it out of intellectual snobbery. If you had accepted to go through the process, it was clear that you understood its purpose and thus, you were smart enough. The feeling of superiority was even strengthened by coupling with an individual having the same intellectual level as you and the descendants that would result from that combination. This made you a part of the top “caste”. The strangest instrument invented in the latest years must have been “Argus 187”. In short, it was a device that was supposed to extract “reproduction material" from sexual organs, both male and female. Even though it was strange and pretty unnecessary, it was widely used.
As for anthropology, new technological inventions continued to replace the fieldwork. Taylor Booth was considered as an exception since most anthropologists embraced technological advancements. It was "cooler" to be "fashionable" than to be an “idealist fool". Immediately after becoming the deputy dean, Taylor opposed to the array of research methods. A good example was the device that would give the answers instead of the people who needed to be interviewed and studied. Basically, the machine was intended to be a smart invention, capable of generating a response closer to that given by a man who had been studied, based on an algorithm that considered all the responses given by all community members studied in previous researches and social change index for the corresponding communities. This invention was interesting enough to attract amateurs and absurd enough to infuriate Taylor. Its name was SC 2100, i.e. "Social Calculus" plus 2100 - the year of its invention. Critics used to call those who were working with these machines "Science cunts" using the acronym “SC”. Despite his opposition his influence of a deputy dean, Taylor could not stop all the madness concerning the implementation of “SC 2100” into anthropology. His colleagues considered the invention extremely good, innovative and progressive. Not to mention that the device was simplifying their job. Jason, a young researcher was one of the supporters of “SC 2100” “Jason, I think you’re trying to hide your incompetence with the help of inventions and technology that insults all that was left pure in anthropology. You're an amateur and you simply prefer just to stay in the office all day just waiting for the directives from Ottawa.” “This is complete nonsense, Mr. Booth. Anthropologists have never been able to know more, extract more information and you complain that you have too much comfort?! It seems to me that you just want to remain rebellious without comprehensive analysis of the entire process. Don’t you think that most anthropologists around the world would have chosen your way if you were right?” “If you would be as good scientist as you are an orator, maybe we could change something together in this department ... but you're just a puppet of decision makers, you just accept all the crap that comes from the center.” “SC 2100 allows us to research the way our predecessors could only dream of. The level which science has reached now is better than ever. Sorry, Taylor, but you don’t want to see things for what they are. You're not a young 20 year old guy anymore, it’s time to grow up and stop making so much fuss ... you have enough fame now, you are the deputy dean...” Taylor left slamming the door. As usual, he kept rejecting the views of majority, even though he knew there was some truth in their point of view.
Taylor left doctor’s office being pretty troubled. Chronic back pain forbade him to do the fieldwork and this news hurt him even more than the pain itself. In 2114, the number of researches was further decreasing and he was trying to see how he could use the existing technology without compromising the scientific process as he saw it. People kept talking about a new invention that seemed a bit more humane and even Taylor couldn’t criticize it too much. Relationship with his daughter, Katie, was greatly improved after the birth of Jeanne-Marie. The child was born in a romantic relationship since Katherine gave up the idea of seeking genetically compatible life partner. Taylor was very happy about this and this was a nice opportunity for them to finally become closer. Taylor missed lack of fieldwork in his life, but the time spent in the company of his niece helped him forget his troubles. As for his professional life, he was promoted as the Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Vancouver, mainly because he finally subsided, but also for his undeniable merits as a scientist.