In the past decade, social scientists have paid increasing attention to a series of novel approaches to the analysis of materiality. Lately and loosely grouped under the rubric of the “new materialisms,” work by scholars such as Jane Bennett, Graham Harman, and Hans-Jorg Rheinberger has pushed for a robust expansion of our understanding of the social to include the material world. While engaged in a polyvalent intellectual undertaking, these materialists are bound together by their shared assertion of the significance of matter, its properties, and its effects for truly robust social analysis. In a sense, this should be old news to anthropologists; the analysis of material culture has been part of our stock in trade since the foundation of the discipline. However, the new, interdisciplinary focus on the material by these thinkers seems to me to offer an occasion for anthropology to revisit certain issues in the anthropological study of science and technology.
Clearly, a short post such as this isn’t the place to go into an in-depth exploration of the (often contradictory) positions held and research programs endorsed by these scholars. Instead, I’d like to take their work as inspiration, and look at just one arena in which I think seriously expanding the field of what counts for social analysis to include material objects in their specificity could make a big and productive difference. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how this growing body of work might push some of our common-sense disciplinary thinking about computers and computation in an interesting new direction. Since at least Escobar’s “Welcome to Cyberia” (1994), the anthropology of virtual spaces has been producing fascinating analyses of their human inhabitation. This tradition of anthropological thinking about the social life of computing has produced a timely and important body of work, attuned to the shifts in subjectivity and collectivity wrought by our increasing imbrication with digital worlds. However, I think, this work has tended to be read by many scholars as demonstrating that the only, or at least the most, salient and novel feature of contemporary digital technology is its virtuality.
Most of us working on digital technologies are likely aware of Tom Boellstorff’s Coming of Age in Second Life (2008). This ground-breaking work demonstrated the rich world of anthropological insight available to those willing to commit to full-scale ethnographic fieldwork in virtual spaces. These spaces, according to Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: a Handbook of Method (Boellstorff et. al 2012), are defined by their sense of “worldness,” their existence as shared social spaces open to multiple users at once, their persistence after a given user leaves them, and the ability they afford users to embody themselves in the world (7). Of course, there are at least two different possible meanings of the term “virtual”: on the one had, the anthropological refashioning of the folk use of the term virtual to describe these digitally constituted world in which subjects become absorbed; on the other, the precise philosophical sense of the virtual as that which exists without being actual. Clearly, Boellstorff’s project charts a careful interrelationship between these two senses of the term. His argument in Coming of Age, as I understand it, turns on the way that technicity itself opens human experience onto the virtual, insofar as it is then removed from the immediate givens of actuality; that, further, the self-conscious experience of this gap in virtual worlds allows for play with new possible articulations of humanities.
There seems to be a tendency among his readership, however — us anthropologists — to both extend his argument to cyberspaces generally and to read his work as unproblematically conflating these two senses of the term. It seems to me that one of the intellectual consequences of this equivocation, of the identification of “virtual worlds” such as Second Life solely with the non-actual, has been a lack of attention to the very actual technologies, arrangements, and processes which support them. I’m not trying to say that an anthropological engagement with digital spaces sui generis, as more or less self-contained worlds, hasn’t produced good work. Coming of Age alone stands as sufficient example of this. Alongside the study of these virtual realities as worlds unto themselves, however, I’d like to suggest that thinking more materially might allows us to return more concretely to the actuality of the assemblages that support them in their virtuality.
Some reviewers have suggested that Coming of Age would best have been supplemented by a turn to the “real lives” of Second Life’s users, to ascertain how the digital world they inhabit through their avatars is (or is not) integrated into their day-to-day lives. To my mind, however, this misses the elegance of Boellstorff’s project. Boellstorff treats the Second Life milieu as field in its own right, and analyzes it as such. In a sense, the most interesting thing about Second Life is that the avatar qua actor exists and acts within this system mostly without reference to the putatively “real” identity of its system-external user. Further, this alternative approach ironically grants too much virtuality, in the exclusively philosophical sense, to Second Life as world. It accepts, much too uncritically, the imaginary separation between the “actual” of real life and the “virtual” of the gameworld by its users – and its creators, Linden Labs.
Looked at through the lens of a revivified, thoroughgoing materialism, however, this confusion of virtual and actual might resolve itself somewhat more clearly. It would be interesting to take seriously the material bases for the experience of digital worlds as properly virtual, that is, as truly separate from the “real life” world. That would mean, for example, taking Linden Labs itself seriously as a fieldsite, and the technology of Second Life seriously as an object of empirical study. Unlike Malaby’s Making Virtual Worlds: Linden Lab and Second Life (2009), however, this project could not confine itself to an organizational ethnography of Linden Labs qua company. In his review of that work, Boellstorff (2010) points out, I think rightly, that little attempt is made therein to present an ethnographically rich view of the interactions between the Linden Lab and the actual worlding of Second Life. This view would demand a focus on the Labs’ day-to-day work in running the Second Life software and server farms; on the mechanics of the transactions in cash which link the “virtual” economy of Second Life firmly to actually existing flows of globalized capital; on the ways in which the limitations of the software and end-user hardware shapes the types of fantasies that users are able to act out; and on the experience of the virtual by users as a culturally-produced effect of branding and historically specific arrangements of human-machine interaction.
In short, I’m interested in foregrounding that the computation behind the production of digital worlds and media takes place somewhere, using real technologies. My wager in my own work, on machine intelligence, is that careful ethnographic investigation of these sites and technologies can open our eyes to the actuality of these worlds; the ways in which they are powerfully shaped and constrained by material considerations and processes occurring outside of cyberspace. Clearly, there remains a need for similarly diligent investigation of the system-internal dynamics of “virtual realities” such as Second Life. In closing, however, I’d like to suggest that these can also be understood in the context of their conditions of production. By looking at the covariance between changes in modes of experiencing the virtual and in their material supports, we might stay abreast, theoretically and ethnographically, of broader changes in contemporary arrangements of science and technology.
This past summer had some pretty big headlines for the space science community. Venus passed between Earth and the Sun, not to do so again until 2117. Scientists announced that Pluto (the dwarf planet formerly known as planet) had a fifth moon, making it the envy of those of us with a single paltry satellite. Most celebrated, was the landing of a new Mars rover, Curiosity, on the red planet’s surface.
Why should we (earthlings, anthropologists) care about Venus, Pluto, or Mars? My current project considers this question by focusing on the planetary science community, those who study planets both in our solar system and beyond. Specifically, I am interested in the role of “place” in the work of these scientists. I don’t mean just the places that these scientists inhabit, but if and how scientists transform planets from objects into places.
Scientists understand other planets as places because it allows them to become explorers. Curiosity is not a static machine, but a rover, a wanderer that must, by definition, go from place to place. Like the rovers Spirit and Opportunity before it, Curiosity has a lively twitter account. On September 29th, Curiosity tweeted, “Ahh…Springtime begins today in the Southern Hemi of Mars.” This simple message bridges our two worlds; Curiosity is experiencing a familiar season, though likely in an unfamiliar way as it would be much colder than our Spring.
While it does not seem like much of a stretch to imagine the seasons of Mars, I often encounter astronomers who study planets in other solar systems (exoplanets) similarly speculating about weather. These planets are so distant and so faint that telescopes cannot take an image of them. Scientists study data they collect about the host star in order to infer the properties of exoplanets. And yet, these invisible planets come to be quite complex worlds. They speak of these planets as having windy surfaces or temperamental seasons. An astronomer might ask, “What is January like on this planet?” This language makes the strange familiar and does the important work of conjuring an imagination of the kind of place this planet is. These planets begin to seem like places because the astronomers establish linguistic bridges between what it is to be on an exoplanet and our experience of being on Earth.
Conceptualizing astronomers (and other scientists) as place-makers allows us to witness how spaces become social even though humans will never visit such planetary places. The latest planetary headlines were over an NPR story that misunderstood a quote from a rover scientist and erroneously reported that there was game-changing news from the Red Planet in the offing. In the days before this rumor was debunked, the news media and excited tweeters imagined how the new finding might make Mars seem even more like a place: more inhabitable by us in the future or other entities of the past.
I would like to respond to Patricia’s questions about tools and techniques by reflecting on my journey regarding qualitative data organisation and analysis, from a hierarchical tree-based approach to a wiki-based network approach. Like probably many other qualitative researchers using Windows, I started out with standard software packages from household names that had come pre-installed on my home and university PCs. But as the amount of my collected data grew, and as I started to get a better sense of what I wanted to do with my data, the limitations of my initial “system” (or rather, lack of it) started to become apparent.
One problem had to do with storing information in hierarchical folder structures, whether in the My Documents folders or in other two-pane outliners and personal information managers (PIM). The inherent limitation of most two- or three-pane viewers of data (such as Windows Explorer) is that in the hierarchical tree you can usually only see the contents of one note or folder at a time. Once you have hundreds and thousands of files and notes, you reach a point after which it becomes increasingly difficult to browse the archive, find things, remember where they are, and retain a general sense of the shape and contents of the data. Having to decide about the place of a note or a piece of data in the tree too soon in the analysis can also reduce the chances for alternative interpretations and subsequent conceptual discoveries.
I thought my problems would be solved once I had imported and reorganised everything in NVivo 8 (and later 9), the computer assisted qualitative data analysis software (CAQDAS) I had selected out of the two that were recommended and subsidised by my university (the other one being Atlas.ti). I threw myself into the coding process with great gusto, only to realise after having coded half of my data that I still ended up being locked into yet another hierarchical system, where despite the ample availability of tools to cross-reference and connect my documents I started to lose a sense of where everything was and what I were to do with the hierarchical tree of codes that emerged out of the analysis.
I needed help and I found it in the Outliner Software forum, a wonderful community of information management software users, many of whom confess to suffering from CRIMP, “a make-believe malady called compulsive-reactive information management purchasing.” Following their recommendations I have assembled an arsenal of helpful software tools over the years. It was also through them that I have discovered that there was a cure to my condition of being “hierarchically challenged,” and it was called a desktop wiki.
A desktop wiki (also called a personal wiki) solves the problem of “not seeing the data forest from your hierarchical trees” by enabling you to create a flat, network-based representation of data. Essentially you end up creating your own mini-Internet – or more precisely, intranet – on your desktop computer, by connecting up all your data in the manner of interlinked webpages.
There are a number of immediate benefits to a flat, network-based wiki organisation over the hierarchical structure that I described above. First, a wiki requires you to set up a homepage, which is very helpful, as it can be used as the research project dashboard, the alpha and the omega from which and to which everything else can be connected in one way or another. Should you feel overwhelmed by your data or lost in the bowels of your project, all you need to do is hit the Home button, and you can get your bearings again.
The second benefit of using a wiki is that the hierarchical folder structure is absent (at least from view). When you can create a new document you don’t need to make a decision about where it needs to fit in within a hierarchy upfront. A few links or categories inserted here and there will keep it anchored in the network, and the implicit hierarchy of the linked documents gets rearranged dynamically every time links between documents are altered.
This is not to say that hierarchies are inherently bad and that seeing them cannot be helpful at times. The desktop wiki solution that I have adopted – ConnectedText (CT) – has visualisation tools like the Navigator, which enable you to construct very purposeful hierarchies. What sets CT apart from the standard hierarchical folder system is that you can switch this visualisation off at will and immerse yourself in the flat network structure of your interlinked pages whenever you feel like it. Besides the Navigator, CT has a number of other ways to find what you are looking for within the database, including a powerful search tool. You have both your own Internet and your own search engine.
As Manfred Kuehn suggests, a wiki can be described as an electronic version of the traditional “index cards in a slip-box” system that qualitative researchers have long used for taking, keeping and coding notes. Each wiki page represents an index card with notes on it. The advantage of an electronic (wiki) version is that the “index cards” can be freely associated with each other via hyperlinks, without the need for a separate catalogue to keep track of how your index cards are related conceptually.
As I gradually delved into ConnectedText, I realised that not only can it serve as the main project dashboard and database for most of my data (reading notes, participant observation notes, collected files, including PDFs and images etc.), but that it also has tools that allow me to code my data, making NVivo redundant. I ended up using CT to develop my own system for coding that suited my specific needs and which was more consistent with the methodological approach I wanted to pursue.
My key requirements were 1) the ability to store, retrieve and rearrange data without a hierarchical tree emerging and obstructing my view too early on in the process; 2) the ability to carry out analysis, abstraction and synthesis; and 3) the ability to maintain a complete and easily navigable audit trail from the raw data to my final conclusions and back.
It is true (and may seem paradoxical) that by using a wiki to avoid a hierarchical structure I still ended up with a hierarchical organisation of my data and findings. However, this eventual hierarchy emerged through a deliberate process of induction, in line with my chosen research philosophy, rather than being the result of unintentional deduction imposed upfront by the technical constraint of hierarchical folder organisation.