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Notes on Boellstorff (2008), Chapter 9

July 12, 2009

Boellstorff, T. 2008. Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Chapter 9. The Virtual, pp. 237-249

NB – this is the final chapter

237 starts with Walter Ong quote about how technology enhances human life; speaking didn’t go away with advent of writing – equally actual world not about to be superseded by virtual world. There’s no Virtual Age about to sweep aside the actual, but ‘an Age of Techne in which there is continuity and change’

237 Humans have always crafted themselves via culture (homo faber), so ‘The virtual is the anthropological’. What’s new is that ‘human craft…can now create new worlds for human sociality’. This is historically unprecedented for our species.

I cannot meet a lover inside a novel and invite friends for a wedding ceremony there, nor can I and a group of like-minded persons buy joint property inside a television program.

[again, tremendous media theory implications here]

238… thus MySpace or Facebook or other social network sites are not virtual worlds as their significance derives from ‘a direct relationship to the actual world’. Author concludes that ‘virtual worlds are distinct domains of human being, deserving of study in their own right’.

238 Virtual worlds don’t usher in a post-human era, rather they make us “even more human” (Levy 2001, emphasis added by Boellstorff).

238 Although virtual/online worlds ‘draw upon a capacity for the virtual that is as old as humanity itself…aspects of selfhood and society within them are novel’.

238 The fact that ethnography has worked indicates that virtual worlds are ‘robust locations for culture’ [nice formulation, Tom].

238-239 One strength of book form is that cannot update it, will remain unchanged as early analysis of SL.

239 Much of what goes on in SL is not sensational but banal: shopping, chit-chat, mundane creativity, ‘even tedium’. In a sense, people replicating actual lives, as one resident put it. But let’s avoid both cyberhype and cyberdismissal. [This ethnography is excellent, in my view, precisely at discerning changes and continuities].

239 Age of Techne is about homo faber – more precisely, homo cyber – not homo sapiens, man the maker of artificial tools (Bergson 1911); challenges idea of Information Age.

240-241 Defends holistic ethnographic approach of this book; careful with caricatures of traditional anthrop holism, even Malinowski (1922) looking not at bounded place but at open trade network (the Kula). ‘…persons around the world understand themselves to belong to cultures that are discrete even if their boundaries are porous’ [YES, spot on].

242… ‘It is with a deep appreciation of these porosities that I am interested in what happens if we take cybersociality on its own terms rather than as a signifier for another mode of sociality’.

243 Unhelpful to see virtual worlds as simulations or simulacra. “they don’t simulate anything. They approximate aspects of reality – enough for the purposes of immersion – but that’s all” (Bartle 2004)
[I find this notion of immersion highly promising in other contexts as well, e.g. immersion in Malaysian cultural worlds as soon as you get off the train or plane – or earlier if you fly MAS; is Second Life a cultural milieu rather than a medium?]

243 ‘In virtual worlds, cultural objects are not divorced from their referents, because both object and referent are within the virtual world. Both are constituted and kept distinct through techne’.

243 Key difference is that you can log off and on from virtual but not actual world.

244 You couldn’t make a mirror in SL at time of fieldwork. Author struck by ‘a culture that did not prioritize simulating or “mirroring” reality, but assumed human creativity produced its own realities’.

245 Virtual cultures are results of techne but not primarily of conscious intention. ‘What makes these virtual worlds real is that relationships, romance, economic transactions, and community take place within them – in short, that they are places of human culture’ [J. Postill’s emphasis]

246 Some ‘bleed-throughs’ from virtual to actual life, eg residents who try to right-click things offline and expect user interface to pop up.

247 ‘massively multiple’ term not too useful cos implies masses of individuals comprise virtual worlds; ‘aggregate individualism’ implied.

248 Also has a go at ubiquitous notion of ‘network’ [well done, Tom!] and cites Castells, Riles, Strathern and Latour. Sometimes notion of social networking has been used for Second Life but this misses crucial fact that virtual worlds are places, not networks [my emphasis]. ‘One connects relationships “through” networks, but lives relationships “in” places’.

248-249 Toward an anthropology of virtual worlds

248 there are many actual worlds out there as well, not just a monolithic actual world

248 could an anthro of virtual worlds produce techne rather than episteme?

248 Author hopes book can ‘instil a sense of wonder regarding virtual worlds’. [Yes, it’s certainly worked with this reader]. 249 ‘Virtual worlds can be sites of griefing and inequality, but they can also produce new ways of living, including a kind of empathy that recalls the ethnographic project itself’.

249 contra post-humanists, more attention to human needed, not less. We need ethnographies of the ‘as if’ of virtual worlds [see here Holland et al’s work on practice theory and the ‘as if’ of child play, Alcoholic Anonymous and other ‘figured worlds’]

249 Ends book like he started it, by quoting Malinowski: goal is to grasp ‘the native’s point of view’

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