Distraction Free Reading

Some Thoughts on Computing, Materialism, and the Virtual

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.


  • I must say I’ve never been fond of the term “virtual” which was imported into anthropology and has been overused. It simply does not describe what is going on in many mediated situations. I’ve argued in my work such as in the article “Terminological Obfuscation” that the term “virtual,” with its strong connotation of something that is not quire real (Hine 2000) inadequately characterizes a number of things. First of all, the internet has real networks and physicality that influences interaction. Second, although the term implies that online interaction is not real, this is not and has never been the case. Even something playful or deceptive is an actual interaction. And much of what goes on across the internet has not at all been deceptive. No one would call a love letter in Victorian times a “virtual” letter. It was a real form of communication, as are written forms online. I don’t use that term in my research and I don’t feel that it is helpful, as it has been over generalized to mediated situations to which it does not actually apply–and obfuscates the materiality of mediation.

  • Thanks for your post, Ian! This is a really productive area for anthropological investigations of online media and technologies. I’m also really interested in questions of materiality online and why some media appear or are experienced as less material than others (like print vs. digital). There’s a growing body of work on this topic in a number of fields, including Jean-François Blanchette (2011), “A Material History of Bits,” Paul Dourish and Melissa Mazmanian (2011) on “Media as Material,” and Daniela Rosner et al. (2012) on “From Materials to Materiality.” I also find N. Katherine Hayles’ work and Tim Ingold’s very helpful.
    But I would be careful not to conflate virtual worlds with virtual reality/realities — Boellstorff is very clear in distinguishing between the two. Both the virtual and the actual, in his terms, are equally “real.” Part of what I find helpful in his approach is reminding us that, not only are both online and offline real, physical, material, etc., but both are also always culturally shaped and mediated. Online communications aren’t distinguished by the fact of being mediated, but rather, the specific ways in which they’re mediated. This is partly why I find STS approaches to technologies as part of human and non-human interactions so useful, because it lets us get away from the language of “mediated” vs. implicitly unmediated communication.

    • Ian Lowrie says:

      Great points, all! These are tricky — but fascinating — problems to work through, and I’m thankful for both of your thought-provoking comments, and for this forum to think about these issues together.

      I’m definitely on board with the understanding of virtual and actual as twin modalities of the real; part of what’s interesting and vexing to me, though, is how somewhere along the line, the clarity of distinction between a precise academic definition of the virtual and the folk understanding seems to dissipate in many readings of digital spaces. I do agree with you, Patricia, that the connotation of the term, unfortunately, has a lot to do with this — but I would like to be able to keep “virtual” for use in some of the very precise ways that folks like Boellstorff use it; i.e. as that subset of the real that is not actual. I appreciate his work’s attempt to clear up some of the imprecision in our talk about the virtual, and it’s clearly been a very fruitful move to consider what nontechnical language might call “virtual realities” as virtual worlds in the strict sense.

      I do think a critical focus on the other, actual half of the real arrangements of contemporary computing technology might help us to understand and specify the virtuality of these worlds, though — in other words, I’m interested in an inquiry into how the historically contingent technological-human arrangements underpinning these worlds make possible their existence as a virtual space to begin with (rather than merely actual, technological artifacts and representations). It seems to me that it’s a very particular modality of technicity — and a very particular culture — that has produced these worlds in their virtuality.

      P.S.: I don’t read nearly as much on media as I probably should — thank you for those references, Jordan; I’m curious to scope out what’s going on in that literature!

  • Daniel Miller says:

    In the introduction to our new edited volume Digital Anthropology, Heather Horst and myself argue for six basic principles that could be the foundation of this emergent field of research. The sixth is called `Normativity and the Principle of Materiality’. This critical to us because the study of digital worlds, at the department of Anthropology at University College London, where I work, actually started as an offshoot of our program in Material Culture studies. This background allows for a much stronger arguments that merely insisting upon the materiality of new digital worlds. Though as with a previous comment we build on work such as Blanchette, Kirschenbaum, but also Kelty in starting from an insistence upon that materiality.

    But beyond that our long term theorisation of material culture using concepts such as objectification and the work of previous generations of theorists such as Bourdieu, means that this material aspect is our means for theorising also the new digital worlds that we research.

    Because we argue that for anthropologists the most significant findings with regard to digital technologies. such as new communication media, is not the speed of their development but the rapidity of their acceptance as normative within social orders. Especially the way their usage is subject to moral adjudication in accordance with the ideas we developed around the notion of polymedia. It is this earlier work on material culture that demonstrated the ways in which material orders underpin the role of the normative in cultural life and this is what makes this an ideal starting point for appreciating the social and cultural impact of the digital world.

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