Deep Thoughts, Education in Virtual Worlds, Identity and Expression, Second Life, Virtual World Platforms

Accounting for Human Nature: Anthropology, Academia and Virtual Worlds

I couldn’t help wondering after this past week’s Metanomics whether Robert Bloomfield is reading the same newspapers I am, whether I misinterpret some of the stuff that got the world into the mess we’re in today, or whether maybe I just have that liberal arts bias or something. According to Bloomfield, disciplines like anthropology need to be, well…they need to be more organized and systematic and scientific….like accounting, say, or experimental accounting, whatever that is.

His commentary followed a wide-ranging interview with Tom Boellstorff and Celia Pearce, two well respected anthropologists, and it seemed to be saying – well, it seemed to say that the entire field of cultural anthropology is bunk because it can’t PROVE anything:

“My impression, as an outsider, is that detailed theory testing in cultural anthropology is so difficult that empiricists often don’t even try. The problem is that anthropologists are walking into existing cultures and then working backwards, trying to figure out whether their theories might explain the culture that has already arisen.”

Image: Crap Mariner

Intriguingly, this comes at about the same time that I’m reading Panic, by Michael Lewis, which points out that financial panics are often preceded by pronouncements that the “old rules are over” and are followed by endless post-mortems which often end with a collective shrug of the shoulders over what happened – this stuff just isn’t as measurable as you’d like it to be, at least when it comes to finding the reasons for why people behave the way they do.

Lewis points out that much of the current crisis is based on the “provable theory” of Black-Scholes but then, let me echo Bloomfield here and say, I’m not an economist NOR am I an accountant so who knows – maybe the empiricism behind it wasn’t empirical ENOUGH?

I suppose my first point is that the idea that empiricism and ‘provable theory’ (although I can’t help wondering whether there’s a difference between theory and hypothesis, which strike me as two different things) is hardly without its detractors. But in Robert’s world, you’re an intellectual lightweight if you can’t back stuff up with stats, with proof, with empirical evidence: “Whether it’s economics or anthropology, theory is what separates serious research from mere storytelling.”

Don’t Study Worlds, Build Them to Test Culture
Bloomfield echoes the rather frightening memes of economist Edward Castranova’s second book, Exodus to the Virtual World (read my commentary here). In that book, Castranova argued that virtual worlds are both fun, and that they can manipulated to be MORE fun. Similar to Bloomfield, Castranova would like to see virtual worlds as a testbed for academia – setting up controls, tweaking the economies, testing the idea of contagion, say, or setting up alternate banking systems in a virtual world to see, um, whether they’ll collapse I guess…whatever theory they want to test, the idea goes, can be proven in a virtual world.

Absent from these discussions is any reference to the rights of the users. In the hands of academics, these are platforms in which social or economic or accounting theory can be tested. The people using the platforms are just, well…subjects, I guess. And I’m not denying that there are ways to get informed consent, to produce data with consent, but it’s an augmentationist view: these aren’t worlds, these are platforms with controllable inputs and outputs.

Castranova took this one or two frightening steps forward, claiming that if you could increase the “fun quotient” of virtual worlds by manipulating the user’s senses and experience, then there are valuable lessons here in how to make the REST of life more fun. He actually argues that governments should look to how platform owners manipulate virtual world environments in order to “hook” their users and should extrapolate best practices for creating – well, for creating a happy, “fun” society.

I suppose the real world economy is a good example of where this extrapolation of lab theory to the real world can take you no? The last 10 years was one giant test bed for the formulas and theories that said you could ELIMINATE RISK – and those theories were taken out of the arm chairs and into the marketplace.

As the New York Times reported this week, however, academia will probably take a decade to adapt and refine its theories of the economy, although my guess is it will be slower even than that. At least amongst the empiricist set who like numbers and spread sheets and still wish that the world contained only rational actors and controllable variables.

Study Cultures or Create Them
Bloomfield says:

“Virtual Worlds give anthropologists a fascinating new opportunity to actually create cultures. And so I see actually in the backchat Curious Sciurus has said anthropology is not a hard science. I think it can be because Virtual World developers have already been creating cultures, as our guests showed clearly over the last hour. So let’s bring research anthropologists into the mix right up front and use Virtual Worlds as a laboratory to test and refine the predictions of anthropological theory.”

There are so many things wrong with that statement, and I’m not even an anthropologist. The phrase “not a hard science” jumps out at me – as if “hard science” is what we’re all pining for, or what makes something useful.

What I WILL agree with is the concept that anthropologists should be consulted in the development of virtual worlds: as should disciplines like accounting, economics, and every other discipline that touches on PEOPLE – but they should be brought in to shed light on how cultures evolve so that those lessons aren’t lost as new worlds are created. Much as a game designer studies old games to see what mechanics make sense, world developers should consult anthropologists to understand what factors influence a society, but not for the purposes of manipulation and study – but rather for the shared betterment of society.

The notion of using platforms to test hypotheses strikes me as not empirical, but imperial. Human nature is not a hard science, and virtual worlds are not platforms on which to conduct experiments on human nature – they are cultures in their own right, they are societies. If this is true, then why would Bloomfield’s argument be any LESS true if it was applied to actual cultures?

Imagine if he had written the following:

“Tribal cultures give anthropologists a fascinating opportunity to actually create cultures, because modern man can enter these societies and take over the controls and the variables. Our position of power over these cultures gives us a unique opportunity to test anthropological hypotheses.”

Coincidentally, Boellstorff has a piece in the most recent issue of the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research which addresses this issue of methodology and whether research is less valid because of its methodology. In it, he says:

“I have been disappointed to encounter, upon occasion, a methodological partisanship contenting that quantitative methods are the only scientific or rigorous approaches for studying culture in virtual worlds. One way this partisanship manifests itself is via the claim that qualitative methods are “anecdotal.” This profoundly mischaracterizes ethnographic research and fails to consider how quantitative methods using behavioral data and surveys are themselves “anecdotal” (not least because of the term’s etymological meaning of “not yet published”), distillations of complex and meaningful issues not always fully present to consciousness.

To concretize my concerns, it will prove helpful to consider the example of some recent work of the economist Edward Castronova, whose influential research I often cite with great approval in my own. In his article “On the Research Value of Large Games: Natural Experiments in Norrath and Camelot,” Castronova (2006) draws upon large datasets from two online games on develop fascinating insights about interpersonal coordination. Castronova rightly sees in this approach possibilities that have “never before existed in the long history of social thinking” and are “of incredible power and value” (p. 183).

Unfortunately, Castronova predicates this claim of methodological value on methodological partisanship. Contrasting his method “with the methods currently available to social scientists” means, among other things, that “the results are not based on the researcher’s impression after having spent 12 months living with a small subset of one of the populations” (Castronova, 2006, p. 184). He then states that “it should be apparent from the tone” of his argument that he feels his “mode of study is at least as reliable, and quite probably more so, than those that precede it . . . That being the case, a major realignment of social science research methods would seem to be in order” (p. 184).

Tone, indeed! It is extremely important that we interrupt such utterly unnecessary methodological partisanship, which is furthermore at odds with Castronova’s earlier work.

That work typically had a recognizably ethnographic component: at the very least, it did not falsely reduce ethnographic research to the gathering of “impressions.” Nor did it construe its methodological palette in a zero-sum fashion, placing methods on a timeline such that one method can “precede” another. Yet, this placing of differing methods on a timeline is wholly consonant with the implicit narrative of progress that structures Castronova’s partisanship. Given Castronova’s claim to methodological superiority, while asserting that he is discussing culture, it is instructive to recall Strathern’s insight that “culture consists in the way analogies are drawn between things, in the way certain thoughts are used to think others.”

It’s a Whole World Out There
Bloomfield closes his argument in what I’m sure he thought was the happy idea that he could join up the anthropologists with the developers over on places like OpenSim and everyone would win: anthropologists would stop sounding like “storytellers” and would be able to prove stuff, and Robin Gomboy would be, um, manipulating their users to test theories, I guess.

Robert isn’t entirely WRONG – the instinct to use anthropology as a way to understand how virtual cultures are shaped is useful. The idea that the reason to take this approach is so that anthropology can be backed up with “hard science” is a fallacy.

What was kind of odd about his closing was his idea that by doing so, the OpenSim folks might be able to coax anthropologists “out of their arm chairs”:

“Despite a reputation for being free thinkers who challenge old ideas and orthodoxy, academics tend to be a pretty cautious lot and would rather just keeping doing what’s been traditional in their fields. But, for the developers, these tests would be systematic ways to learn how to make a successful World that has the type of culture the developer wants to build. So I see this as the win win kind of relationship that can create a better World in the most literal sense, while helping a cultural anthropologist get tenure.

I understand the risks. I understand the challenges. But, you developers, and, yes, I’m talking to you, Robin Gomboy of Reaction Grid, the pace of industry doesn’t allow you the privilege of patience. So get on the phone to your favorite cultural anthropologist and see if you can get them out of their armchair and into the laboratory: your World.”

Now, I’m all for breaking orthodoxy but this comment ended a show in which he interviewed two people who HAVE broken the orthodoxy, who have been out of their arm chairs and have explored corners of the Grid and participated in the culture, attended art show openings and sat in people’s beach houses and, through observation, have gained insights that you just can’t GET by testing structures and data variables or, for that matter, by simply interviewing their “subjects”.

I’ll have to check Tom’s rez date again, of course, but I’m pretty sure he hasn’t been sitting in any arm chair glancing in at virtual worlds from some ivy-walled tower. Having said that, with some of the theories and hypotheses that did the rounds these past few years, well, maybe an arm chair isn’t such a bad place to be.


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