Coming of Age in Digital Anthropology

Daniel Miller, UCL
I wonder if this can be considered a coming of age year for Digital Anthropology. Of course there is a blowing of our own trumpet here with the launch of our new MA degree programme in the topic at the Dept. of Anthropology UCL, but the current publications coming out certainly seem to justify the initiative. There is the radical energy of Two Bits by Chris Kelty, with a very engaging narrative and clear agenda for the wider importance of open source thinking and practice, as a vanguard with potential for much wider application. There is Tom Boellstorf’s Coming of Age in Second Life which convincingly demonstrates that it is possible to undertake a classic ethnography within a virtual world. Then there was also a wonderful conveying of participant observation in Julian Dibbell’s highly readable Play Money from 2006. The trends are also seen in postings here, such as the recent one by Barbara Kirschenblatt Gimblett showing the degree to which digital practices are becoming central to Museum practice.
One book that perhaps may not garner as much attention as these but is perhaps particularly important in thinking about the issues involved for material culture studies is Thomas Malaby’s book Making Virtual Worlds: Linen Lab and Second Life, published in 2009 by Cornell University Press. Although the topic clearly overlaps with Boellstorff in that both are about second life, the strength of Malaby’s book is less from its ethnography, which in any case is more about the production than the usage of second life. Rather the book is much more an important complement to Kelty, because it is concerned not just with the libertarian ideals of technology and material, or if you prefer immaterial, culture more generally. As Dibbell had noticed in his earlier work there was something special about the way in which Linden Labs took on the ideological mantle of virtual worlds and tried to put their ideology into practice.
The starting point for the argument, from an anthropological perspective, comes from Malaby’s last page and its discussion of the work of Sahlins on the relationship between history/structure and event/contingency. This takes on a more specifically material culture direction with the trajectory from Mauss to Bourdieu on habitus, which increasingly also focused upon structure, this time in the order or things or the order of practice, and disposition in its own tension with contingency. Malaby is fascinated by this tension, but his perspective, which in this case he shares more with Dibbell, rather than either Kelty or Boellstorff is coming from a very particular perspective, which is the theory of gaming. He sees gaming as the kind of antithesis of bureaucracy and modernist attempts at rational control. Since while they create structure in order to eliminate contingency, gaming creates structure in order to proliferate contingency. Which is why earlier theorists of gaming saw this as a kind of alternative history of modern life based on play as an imperative in its own right.
Material culture theorists will find in Boellstorff and Dibbell a continuation of important debates about the nature of the material/immaterial and online/offline worlds. But what Malaby beings to the table is his specific study of Linden Labs and the way they conceptualized and realized the relationship between production and consumption in gaming. Linden Labs sought to cede more of the construction of the virtual world to users. Following from the ideals of liberation through technology they envisaged a kind of co-construction between the game and the gamer. Respecting contingency as central to gaming they tried to eschew hierarchy or control by constantly learning from the unexpected appropriations of consumers. At least that was the theory. How it works out in practice is excellently analyzed in the course of this book.
This volume was written during the period when Second Life went from being relatively small to relatively large, but ended with expectations that were becoming huge. Second Life has certainly stimulated some incredibly useful anthropology. Yet it looks like it may have stalled with regard to public usage more generally. I admit to some curiosity as to what Boellstorff and Malaby would say about what didn’t happen and why. But the larger point is how the combination of these new books and writings make this digital world of increasing interest to material culture studies, which ought to in turn provide precedents and ideas that can contribute to this field.
Boellstorff, T. 2008. Coming of Age in Second Life. Princeton: Univ. Press.
Dibbel, J. 2006. Play Money. NY: Basic Books.
Kelty, C. 2008. Two Bits. Chapel Hill: Duke Univ. Press.
Malaby, T. 2009. Making Virtual Worlds. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press.

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5 Responses to Coming of Age in Digital Anthropology

  1. Haidy Geismar October 13, 2009 at 5:36 pm #

    Alex Golub has a commentary on this post over at….he cites some other refs which come from other parts of anthropology and other disciplines. This could be a good place to recommend further readings to one another, as I’m sure Gabriella’s forthcoming article for Annual review will also do…

  2. Tom Boellstorff October 14, 2009 at 11:03 pm #

    Since in addition to making very kind comments about my book (thank you for that!), you ask what I and Thomas might think about how Second Life “may have stalled with regard to public usage more generally.” This is an interesting question of course and one that I’m asked quite frequently.
    When I decided to conduct my ethnographic research in Second Life versus some other place, size was not the determining factor. Second Life at that point had only about 5,000 accounts and I chose it over some other candidates, the closest #2 of which was The Sims Online (which at that time was far larger than Second Life but is now defunct). There are I think two interesting issues here. I write this at 430am, having just arrived a few hours ago in Vienna from Los Angeles to give a talk about Second Life, so I’m not completely conscious and I’m sure there are other things I’m forgetting, but wanted to chip in after learning about your post from Alex Golub’s commentary.
    One issue is that I think the whole question of the size of virtual worlds or online games and how that might link up to questions of significance and relevance is very shaped by conversations in the design and development communities, and also by people understandably interested in where things are going. Anthropologists, of course, since the beginnings of the discipline (and right up to the present) have conducted very insightful work, with implications for very general questions and debates, based upon research with communities of a few thousand or less. Trobriander or Chinese, Arapesh or German, anthropologists have usefully refused to accept an isomorphism between population size and relevance of the culture in question. This is particularly the case now that forms of globalization and translocalization really complicate questions of size and population. So from this perspective, I’m pushed toward a kind of “who cares” reaction: there are flourishing cultures of all sizes, small as well as large, and they have something to teach all of us regardless of size.
    Then of course analytically I can put on another hat and think about all kinds of hypotheses regarding the various spurts and plateaus in the growth of Second Life and other virtual worlds and online games. One of the most interesting to me, one that’s become something I now mention at almost every talk or interview I give, is that I really think virtual worlds now are in a similar place to where the Internet more generally was in the early 1990s. In those early Internet years, we could have had Twitter, Facebook, Ebay, all kinds of things we see online now, many of which don’t really need that much bandwidth or technological pizzazz. What held us back in the early 1990s was not technology, but imagination: people just didn’t know what to do with this new Internet thing, so started with “webpages” that basically duplicated physical text. Only over time did some of the really transformative possibilities become apparent. Don’t get me wrong even in my jet-lagged state: there are incredibly, amazingly creative things happening in Second Life and other virtual worlds and online games – indeed, there have been such creative things happening since the days of MUDs. But I can’t imagine it not being the case that all kinds of really transformative uses of virtual worlds will appear in the next 5-15 years.
    Okay, that’s my two cents – off to bed! I can try to comment more in a few days when my brain is more functional. Actual-world lag can be more irritating than virtual world-lag, to be sure!

  3. Danny Miller UCL October 15, 2009 at 2:40 am #

    First to thank Tom for his response, especially given the jet-lag circumstances. Briefly I would be just as irritated as he would be if someone suggested a phenomenon was of no interest because of size (though I admit I am drawn more in my own work to mass consumption topics). I too cite from studies on tiny Melanesian groups, that by Frederick Barth on ritual I think was barely over 100 people. But honestly that was never my point. It was rather that precisely given all the extraordinary and exciting things that Tom does document in his book, in Malalby’s book and others I am genuinely surprised that Second Life hasnt got bigger. Tom has now put a marker down that says in effect, that sooner or later, it or its equivalents will be. If he turns out to be right then there is nothing to explain. If in a while we find we come back to the same situation, then I would argue anthropologists really do have an interesting dilemma from which we should be able to gain important insights. Perhaps time will tell, but I am not sure I want to wait 15 years before one of us has the pleasure of saying `I told you so!’

  4. Thomas Malaby UWM October 25, 2009 at 6:46 pm #

    I am arriving a little late at the tail-end of a month filled with teaching and advising, but I hope that is not too late to attempt to respond to your query, Danny. But first I hasten to thank you for the gracious account of my book and its place amongst these other distinguished works.
    In a way, by highlighting how I close the book with some considerations of institutions and the material implications of these architected worlds, you have encapsulated my answer better than I could have. Guesses are always dangerous, but my opinion is that Second Life will not continue to grow and become what it was dreamed to be, and, more importantly, no virtual world of its kind will realize those aims.
    As I discuss in the book and you note, Second Life is in part the material realization, in code, of a very peculiar imagining of the human, one that followed from the historically-emplaced cultural logic of the Lindens that I call technoliberalism and which for them was interwoven very deeply with the practices of software development, on one hand, and game design on the other. But in holding to this view of people, technology, and authority the Lindens are not at all alone. Technoliberalism is all over Silicon Valley and similar sites of digital production, and it can be easily identified in new virtual worlds, such as Raph Koster’s Metaplace, which is built on fundamentally the same ideas. More obviously, in a way, Google’s continued dissemination of its “tools” to users — in a kind of implementation of public policy that cannot be so named — and its use of things like its Image Labeler Game, speak to the very same technoliberal ideals.
    Such realization of ideology in architecture is not determinative, of course. In many surprising ways the residents of Second Life outstripped these expectations in their practice in the world, but I find myself seeing the effects of these ideas as colliding too heavily with the expectations of users to win the day. In particular, the bifurcation of creativity between in-world makers and the Linden world creators that the software of SL inscribes charts a vast gulf of cultural distinction, one perhaps too great to be overcome by SL’s users.

  5. Danny Miller UCL October 27, 2009 at 1:46 pm #

    Thanks to Thomas for what amounts to quite a strong answer, in that it has many implications for what can and cannot work in the long term on the web. I guess the implication is that there are limited to the degree to which users can appropriate beyond anything what the producers inculcate through their establishment of the infrastructure. I never gave my own answer in the original blog, butI think it would have to be that users will always be interested in that which a virtual world does prostheticly beyond their previous experience, but once they have achieved that I think they just get bored and leave.

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