Culture, Techne, and Virtual Worlds: An Interview with Anthropologist Tom Boellstorff

I consider Coming of Age in Second Life by Tom Boellstorff one of the five pillars of virtual world literature. It is a foundation study that will act as a de facto primary source for not just anthropologic research in virtual worlds, but other disciplines as well.

Tom’s book helps us to understand that virtual worlds are WORLDS – they have their own cultures, their own norms, their own tools, and as such are as deserving of ethnographic studies as, say, Samoa when Margaret Mead showed up. This may not be news to those who have participated in virtual worlds, but to others it can be a leap, and Tom has had his share of discussion and controversy around his study site and methods.

Even for someone who’s spent time in Second Life, Tom’s book opened my eyes on things as IMs, chat, and how the subtle shadings of AFK actually have a deeper meaning for Second Life as a culture.

Boellstorff makes the case that the counterpoint to virtual worlds is not the real world, but the actual. And that this virtuality includes two important things: it is virtual (of course, but he explores this with incredible insight and finesse) meaning that you are never QUITE there, and that this is incredibly important; and two, it is grounded in craft, in techne, and that virtual worlds may be a harbinger of a shift from a knowledge or information culture, into a craft-based one….or perhaps a mash-up of the two, what’s now coming to be known as “crafty knowledge”.

Tom’s work is monumental and rightly stands beside Castranova’s first book, Synthetic Worlds, amongst others, as a foundation piece of research on virtual worlds. I was thrilled to have a chance to interview Tom. Grab a cup of coffee or settle in – Tom was generous with his time, although I probably could have gone on for hours longer.

Dusan Writer: I want to kind of start out with a really broad question first. I’ve had these misconceptions of anthropology – this kind of notion of remote villages and trekking off into the jungle kind of thing. Explain away some of those notions. How do you define anthropology?

Tom Boellstorff: Anthropology really got started early in the 20th century. The version of it that came out of Britain, out of the U.K. was really interested in the remote, the primitive. Primitive was defined as any person living in a small-scale society that didn’t have technology.

And then the American tradition that came out of Boaz, there was a real focus on Native Americans, although you then see all those traditions mixing. So Margaret Mead, for instance, was a student of Franz Boaz. Most of her most famous work was in the Pacific.

And so early on, in anthropology, there really was a kind of focus on sort of the primitive human, often with an idea that you could sort of get at the essence of what it means to be human by looking at primitive people that were uncorrupted by modern ways of life. There were multiple reasons for that interest. Although even back then, anthropologists were savvier than we sometimes now give them credit for and they actually, even early on, were interested in sort of questions of technology or even what we would now call globalization.

But the way they look at those people is very different than the way they were looked at back then. But that view of anthropologists as only being interested in sort of people you know living on remote little islands still is surprisingly common.

One of the reasons that I call my book Coming of Age in Second Life, which is playing off of Margaret Mead’s famous book Coming of Age in Samoa, is to sort of play with that misunderstanding and play with that tradition and sort of talk about ways of making anthropology, people understanding how incredibly relevant and important it is for current issues.

So I wonder then, coming out of that tradition, and when you start, you talk about modern society and technology, whether there were different schools of thought on how contemporary culture should be viewed against that backdrop, and I guess in particular the role of – let’s just call it modernity or technology or whatever you want to call it.

The way the concept of modernity originally showed up in anthropology was interest in what was being called culture change, the idea that traditional cultures were basically disappearing and were often sort of a figment of our imagination if we still thought that we saw them.

So there was this question of how to talk about cultural change. Which then backed off into discussions about development, how we talk about Third World development or you know development of humankind as a whole. One way that modernity, the modern er,a sort of got talked about was in terms of development.

There’s an assumption that we are modern, they are not. We want them to be, we assume they want to be, how does that happen? And at that point in time, and even going up to the present, one of the most important sort of contributions that anthropology made was to say that maybe there’s different kinds of modernity. Modernity and alternative modernity because the problem with that earlier model of culture change and development was that it basically placed all human cultures, all human society on a single line and that was assumed to be a time line basically.

You assumed that when they got more modern “they,” whoever they were, were going to become more like “us” whoever we were. And it assumed this kind of singular march. There really was an idea of social evolution that was very rigid, very narrow, and this animated those early discussions around development and modernity.

So one thing that not just anthropologists, but the anthropologists played a big role in I think is in trying to just the simple act of observing and talking about how we think about different visions and different ways to be modern, including different ways to use technology. We don’t have to assume that the whole world will evolve to look just like France or the U.K. or Canada or the US or whatever.

I wondered what sort of framework you had when you arrived in Second Life. Second Life can clearly be a place that you go to. It’s like Margaret Mead, you get a backpack and you’re heading off to a foreign land to see what the natives are like. And so do you picture yourself entering that land? How would you describe that?

I found Richard Bartle’s work fascinating because he sort of got all this going in a way and has a great understanding of it. And one thing that he says over and over again in his writing is if you look at the design of virtual worlds it really is useful to think of it as a world. There’s culture happening in that place – there’s people there – that in theory, you should be able to study it as anthropologist.

So that was sort of the basic idea that I went into this with: the possibility that there could be a culture, that maybe it really was a place, or alternatively that maybe there was somehow a limitation that anthropology just wouldn’t work there.

I was really open to the possibility of failure because you know, I don’t care. I mean I could write about that too, right. So I really was very open to the idea that maybe this would all fall on its face and that I could write a really interesting book or a series of articles about how it’s not you know a culture or not a place and that you know I thought I had been and that could have been really interesting as well.

Not everyone knows that Coming of Age in Second Life is my third book, that I’ve already written two other books on Indonesia before I even went into Second Life. And that was incredibly helpful to me because I already knew how to do anthropological research. I was already very well established at doing this kind of thing.

And so I really wanted to try to see what happens if I take the same methods that I used in Indonesia, halfway across the world from California, and tried them in Second Life. My first few days in Second Life were back in 2004. It was a much smaller place than it is now, and I was surprised by how well things worked and how little I had to change. And the amazing data that I was getting and that really struck me in a very profound way.

The methods that I used in Indonesia were perfectly suitable for Second Life with just a few small changes. And it didn’t hurt that you know with the exception of the occasional beef or whatever, that people in Second Life tend to be incredibly generous and kind and social and you know, were begging me to interview them and to spend time with them.

I mean it was an incredibly warm community, and you don’t have to only do research in friendly communities of course, but that smoothed things even more because at a fundamental level, it soon became very clear to me that Second Life was a place and a place of human culture that you can study as a researcher, including as an anthropologist.

Is there resistance to this idea of virtual worlds as worlds? As cultures? And how do you see this thought evolving across disciplines?

I think virtual worlds are one of the most interdisciplinary spaces out there. Any discipline in theory has something to offer to the study of virtual worlds, and not only across the social sciences and people in psychology and economics and sociology and anthropology or whatever. I mean so many different disciplines and approaches have something to offer and have offered really interesting things.

Now, one thing I talk about is that while I’ve learned so much from my colleagues in games studies, I feel that one place where I do think there needs to be more discussion and where I challenge them is around the notion that virtual worlds are games to be studied. People will say things like Second Life is a game. My joke was you know, if you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail and to a games studies person, everything looks like a game.

And I just think that there’s no way you can define Second Life as a game in a way that doesn’t make every single moment of human waking life into a game. Richard Bartle had that great example of a football stadium not being a game. A game is played in the football stadium, but the football stadium isn’t a game, unless you’re going to be speaking in a very metaphorical kind of way.

There are games played inside of Second Life and the people that I interview when I’m doing my research, people who really feel that Second Life is a game, what they tend to mean is that it’s a space of play. They tend to talk about it as play or they might say it’s a game because of role playing that they do inside of it. But of course virtual worlds don’t have to have role playing. They don’t have to have avatars with different names from our physical world themselves.

You could imagine a virtual world where I was Tom Boellstorff where I couldn’t be Tom Bukowski, where everyone you know has the same name as they do in the physical world. Just because most of the biggest virtual worlds have been forced to choose an avatar name that’s different from your physical world name doesn’t make that an essential feature of virtual worlds, right. And we’re at a stage now in research where some of the most exciting discussions, in my opinion, have to do with fundamental matters of definition.

I think that’s extremely important. What does virtual mean? What does game mean? Are virtual worlds games or not? Does the phrase ‘real life’ versus ‘virtual life’ or real world make sense? I don’t think it does. I’m very careful to never use that in my writing, even though when people are sort of talking quickly in Second Life, they might say RL or real life, when you push them on it.

In most cases, they don’t feel that nothing that they’re doing in second life is real, even though they might use that as a quick turn of phrase. And so I think these sort of basic discussions are going to be really interesting and move things forward so that you know a challenge for me, for instance, is when you look at games like World of Warcraft or some of these other kinds of spaces, that from a certain stance are clearly virtual worlds, that have a much more obligatory or much more pervasive element of gaming.

And I think compared to almost any other topic I can think of, I think that this area is an area where there has been so much fruitful and generous and productive discussion happening between so many different disciplines and approaches, where people have to sort of go out of their comfort zones and go out of the terminology that maybe they’re used to using in order to speak to really smart people who are coming at things with a very different approach. I think it’s really exciting and really integrating.

One of the choices you made in your study was to preclude any research on the “person behind the avatar”. This has been controversial in some corners. Why did you preclude studying people’s actual lives and solely focus on their virtual selves?

That’s one thing I get asked about more than anything else. When I interviewed people or got to know them inside of Second Life, I didn’t try and find out who they were in the actual world and physical world. Now the actual world intrudes upon Second Life all the time, in everything from green grass and blue sky and the sun and the moon, to avatars that for most people have two arms and two legs, or houses that typically have doors and stairs, though you don’t necessarily have to have that.

There’s all these ways that the actual world’s intruding into Second Life. Or even time, time zones, and people have to log off. But I studied those things as they showed up inside of Second Life, for the simple reason that most of the people that you’re meeting inside of Second Life and the people inside Second Life who are meeting other people all the time. In the vast majority of cases, they don’t know who those people are in the physical world, and so it’s not crucial that I need to know that either.

This is a crucial issue of matching your research questions to your methods. Now if I was doing a study and someday if I had enough time, I would like to do this, let’s say I wanted to do a really in-depth study on people with disabilities and how Second Life changes their experience. Now if that were the case, you could imagine that it might be really helpful for me to go and meet in the actual world, meet these people and see what disabilities they have and how it’s affecting their actual world life, and then compare that to what’s happening inside of Second Life.

But where I really take a very strong stand is that there are still people out there who say that every research project in virtual worlds is not legitimate unless it also involves meeting people in the physical world as well. And that’s why I say no, that’s wrong. There are some research projects for which it totally makes sense to meet people in the physical world. But there are kinds of research projects for which it doesn’t make sense because to assume that to understand what’s happening in terms of the social forms that are emerging and getting you know, are taking place within Second Life.

To assume that in order to understand those, you have to meet people in the physical world does a kind of violence to the sociality and the culture of Second Life itself. If I go to a club in Second Life and there’s 40 people around chatting and dancing, maybe one or two of them know each other in the physical world. There are people from ten different countries there meeting together. In most cases, they’re never going to meet in the physical world, but they might get to know each other, even get married or have sex or you know become your friends or whatever.

There are of course some cases where people might carry that over into the physical world and become friends in the physical, but everyone knows that those are exceptions. In the vast majority of cases, that doesn’t happen and people don’t even feel the need for that to happen, that the friendship they have in Second Life is only real if they’re meeting in the physical world as well.

And so I think where there has been a problem has been when there are people who basically say all research projects in virtual worlds have to involve meeting people in the physical world. If you did that, if you look at the great stuff that’s been published on Second Life, World of Warcraft, all these virtual world studies from the few years, you’d already have to chuck out a ton of the stuff that’s been written.

So I think it’s really as simple as that and that we’re at a moment once again when these worlds are emerging, where people may not realize that they are actually robust enough that there are forms of social relations in them that aren’t just mimicking or predicated on stuff that’s happening in the physical world. And as a result, we as researchers have to follow the ball. We have to go where they are, and in this case that means go online.

Yeah. But don’t – maybe virtual worlds are threatening because the artifice or the masks that people can wear are more visible. You know talk about culture and marriage and things in virtual worlds, but you may not even know whether the avatar you’re with is the same gender as their avatar. Maybe people feel a threatened by this notion.

Some of these same kinds of issues show up and certainly for some people, something that is threatening you know about Second, something like Second Life is you know are the women really men or if they say they’re women in Second Life, and then they are, because that’s how people are treating them, then what’s up with that, right? And then what do you say about that can be very threatening or confusing to people.

Just like in the physical world, people often go for the sensational. But if you actually do the long term ethnographic research in something like Second Life, of course what you find out is those sort of unusual things certainly do exist, but the lion’s share of what happens in Second Life is much more banal. It’s often not as newsworthy or tabloid fitting. It’s just people hanging out and doing stuff and that doesn’t make it any less interesting.

And for me as an anthropologist, I’m actually attracted to the everyday, to the stuff that doesn’t seem out of the ordinary because that’s typically where the biggest presuppositions lie, where the real secrets to what makes a culture tick lie are typically not in the really unusual, crazy stuff. Even though I love that stuff as much as anyone else and it’s fascinating, but what is often the most interesting for me as an anthropologist the stuff that seems so everyday be everyone takes it for granted.

And to try and understand the common sense of a culture is often our biggest goal because common sense isn’t as common as you think if you’re not from that culture, right. And so it’s often to me what I’m most interested in are the things that seem very uninteresting to people, like people who are, who know Second Life, who read my book at first often are just sort of laughing that I spent all this time on lag or going away from keyboard AFK.

The AFK section was one of my favorite! Another was your notion of “techne”, although I’m not sure I entirely follow the basis of your argument about techne.

Clifford Geertz, who’s a very famous anthropologist, once said something along the lines that anthropology often involves sort of hacking back and forth between the most local of local detail and the most sort of global of global issues to try and bring them both into clearer view.

And that often what you, you know, what you want to do with this kind of stuff, what as an anthropologist I try and do is look at the really obvious everyday stuff, whether that’s AFK or lag or building or whatever it is, but then also try if I can to step back and say okay, what’s some of the big picture stuff that’s going on here? What can we learn from this? You know, learning about AFK that’s cool. But then are there any bigger take-home points or broader issues that we can look at.

And often when you do that kind of stepping back and you’re trying to look at the broad stuff, often then you should question though where you’re less able to sort of offer a definitive answer but that as we all know, sometimes a really well crafted question can be the best thing to move a conversation forward. So even if you can’t answer it, can you at least give us a new question or a new way of looking at these things, that maybe we can get some kind of big picture you know perspective that will be useful.

So when I try to, tried to sort of step back from this research I’d done in Second Life, to step back and say okay, what were some of the really big picture issues that might be interesting, even to people who could care less about virtual worlds or you know, to anyone sort of interested in contemporary life. What can we take home from virtual worlds, take home to think about things more broadly?

So after just reading around, thinking about things, because this is about technology, I started, you know, what does technology mean, where does that word come from? And so I got interested in this idea that technology is rooted linguistically in action, in the term techne, meaning something much more like craft or arts.

And so that was interesting to me, that techne is about art or craft. I immediately started thinking about how important building and making things is in Second Life. And then I started looking at – there’s as whole range of philosophers and thinkers who for a long time now have been talking about how in the original formulation, techne’s opposite is knowledge, or episteme.

So it’s about knowing something versus crafting something, and this notion in Western culture goes back a long way. It turns out this is also important to a lot of non-Western cultures and that it’s been percolating around you know for 2,000 years now. There’s sort of this distinction between techne and episteme.

And so I got very interested in that and especially how if you look at the last let’s say 50 years, there has been a real emphasis on knowledge, so people have always been talking about the age of information and how important information is, right. And that goes back to sort of World War II, even a little earlier, and some of the early work in cybernetics.

Claude Shannon and all these people who did this early cybernetics work, it was all about information, right, the mode of information and all this, all this kind of stuff that they were talking about. And so I just sort of kept putting these pieces together in my head, right, going back and forth between the everyday experience I’ve had in Second Life and the writing I’d done about Second Life on the one hand, and then on the other hand, this interesting stuff about knowledge versus craft.

And then it got me thinking what’s happening here where in what’s supposed to be the age of information, we’re getting all of this stuff happening in virtual worlds about craft, not about knowing about houses in Second Life, but about building a house in Second Life. Building relationships and all the crafting stuff seems to be so important.

And so that’s why the third part of my book is called the Age of Techne. It’s asks: what if this actually may be not the age of information or only information, but about the age of craft or about sort of a new working towards craft. And then I started to think about what’s different about craft in Second Life compared to craft in the actual world? In the actual world, I can build things, I can make things, I can make a newspaper or a chair or whatever, but I can’t live inside it in the same way that I can in the virtual world of Second Life itself.

I mean I can make a house and live in the house, but that isn’t quite the same thing as what’s happening in Second Life, where it’s like craft sort of turns back on itself and you have craft creating the whole world that you’re living in.

And so what does that do to the way we think about craft and the way that we think about knowledge? And it’s really at that point then that I really start to really question no, I don’t have the answers, I don’t know entirely where that’s going. But I am pretty sure that I’m onto something, that there’s something going on with that.

So for instance, one thing I mention in the book is that in reflecting upon myself and my own discipline as much as I can whenever I do this kind of research, is that historically anthropology has always been about episteme, about knowledge, right? So Margaret Mead goes to Samoa and she writes a book about Samoa so we could know what it’s like to be there.

And there’s the a famous article by Clifford Geertz, about the native’s point of view, that you’re sort of trying to understand what it means to know something, to have knowledge of something. What is it like to be a child in Kenya, what is it like to be a young person in Samoa. So I actually ask in the book, what would anthropology look like if you were trying to create techne instead of episteme?

If we had sort of a crafty bent to what it was that we were doing and actually since the book’s written it’s been called crafty knowledge. You know, what would it mean to have crafty knowledge, you know, episteme that had techne in it, in a certain sense. And it’s really at that point where I don’t have all the answers either and I don’t know exactly where that will go, where that will lead.

Look at the culture of modding or spinning. Or now things like Little Big Planet where that’s woven into the whole construction of the game. It’s all this craft, right? So part of the game is making new levels, that’s a kind of crafting of things that we see happening obviously beyond just Second Life. And so I think that for 50 years now have been talking about as the information age but that perhaps we’re entering something else, that something else is going on, where crafting is becoming really important, and that crafting is getting linked to the virtual.

That there’s something about virtual worlds and it’s opening up new possibilities for crafting, new definitions of what it means to craft and how might that change the idea of even like friendships and relationships, that you craft them in a certain sense.

What’s next for you? Where’s your research headed?
The situation to me is that right after I sent in the final manuscript of the book I became editor in chief of American Anthropologists which is basically the biggest anthropology journal in the world. It’s the official anthropology journal for the entire American Anthropological Association and it publishes research from archaeology, biology, linguistics, special cultures. It does everything and has a large staff.

And until September of 2012, I’m going to be editor in chief of the journal which is a huge honor. It’s a very, very important position and it’s a wonderful thing for me personally and in terms of my career and I think it’s actually also a really wonderful thing to sort of hammer home the legitimacy of doing research in virtual worlds. Because it’s going to – it’s harder for anthropologists to dismiss this stuff when the editor in chief of American Anthropologist does it. So I think it will help sort of argue that this is not a side, freaky, you know, whatever thing, that this really should be part of the mainstream.

The price I pay now is that until September of 2012, this just takes up my whole life and so it’s going to make it very hard for me to keep doing my research.

Now that said, I’m still trying to do research in Indonesia, although that’s going to be very, very hard, and research on virtual worlds. And so in my Indonesia life and that’s what my first two books are about, I’m doing research now on, basically HIV-AIDS prevention and sort of conceptions of health and disease and stuff like that in Indonesia. And I actually have an article coming out in May in the Journal of American Ethnologists about HIV – about testimony about living with AIDS in Indonesia and what that tells us about a whole bunch of stuff.

And I actually use a little bit of my Second Life work to talk about some aspects of how HIV-AIDS testimony in Indonesia is almost a kind of techne. And so I think that’s a really great thing is for us to be able to start using our research on virtual worlds to teach us something about the actuals instead of only the other way around.

One thing I would love to do is a more in-depth study of religion in Second Life. It’s really interesting how people are using Second Life to do new kinds of things around religion, whether that’s based on their actual religions or creating new religions or doing all kinds of new religious practices, you know. Virtual proselytizing to try and gain converts, you know, areas in Second Life that they’re trying to run by Islamic law because the people I work with in Indonesia are 90% Muslim.

I know something about Islam and that’s very interesting to me. So there’s, it would be very interesting for me to do a more in-depth study on religion in Second Life. That’s one topic that’d be very interesting to me. I would love to do more research on disability, on what counts as disability in Second Life, and how people think about that.

Another area is obviously my first two books are on gay Indonesia and I’m very interested in sexuality and gender. It would be so easy and fascinating for me to do a more in-depth study in Second Life about sexuality, love, romance, all that kind of stuff, and obviously that’s what my first two books are about, so bringing those things together would be fascinating to me.

Second Life probably will get bigger, but this is more than just Second Life. It’s about virtual worlds in general. It’s already getting, it’s going to get bigger, it’s an important part of what it means to be human in the contemporary world, all over the world. And we are way behind the ball in terms of understanding what’s going on and what its significance is for different folks. And so you know, let’s get out there and keep doing this kind of research because there’s so much to learn at such a fascinating time.


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