Some Thoughts on Computing, Materialism, and the Virtual

December 11th, 2012, by § 4 Comments

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.

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