Art and Exploration, Deep Thoughts

Neo-Positively Immersed: Virtual Worlds Give Us Back the Humanities

I’m wading in well over my head when people start talking about neo-positivists and non-neo-positivist traditions and “the academy” (which should probably be capitalized, and seems to be what people who are professors call, um, that place where they work and all the reams of deep thought that comes out of it).

I mean – too many isms, but there’s an interesting story hidden in here somewhere, and it all started when Robert Bloomfield commented in his “Connecting the Dots” segment on Metanomics that anthropologists should join up with OpenSim developers and work hard to collect hard data, provable data, SCIENTIFIC data.

I wrote a lengthy post, which elicited lengthy replies, and then we held a special Metanomics community forum, and the upshot of what I called the Anthropology/Accounting Smack Down ended up being a lot less Jerry Springer and a lot more like a tea party or something, with a lot of clucking and nodding and gentle sparring over um that positivism thing.

Bloomfield decided to sum up his thoughts from the forum over on Terra Nova, which is where the tweedy types hang out.

Bloomfield writes:

Enterprising young scholars who are interested in cultural anthropology and are also trained in statistical methods are going to draw out testable predictions from the body of existing qualitative work, and test those predictions by applying experimental or econometric methods to data extracted from virtual worlds and social media. They will garner funding and publicity in the areas where they compete head to head with qualitative researchers, and the latter will be forced to defend their methods and conclusions. Some schools will conclude that they can make a bigger impact in the field by hiring faculty trained in these methods. Several decades later, the top departments and journals studying the ideas of cultural anthropology will be dominated by quantitative methods. Qualitative methods will either be relegated to less-prestigious schools and special-interest journals in cultural anthropology, or else cultural anthropology will decline in influence relative to other departments (like psychology) that embrace quantitative methods to study similar questions.

Which means – well, it means that Bloomfield thinks that in a results and graph-driven world, data will win, and if you’re one of those woolly types who believes that actually observing the mess of human nature and culture and making sense of it through field studies and “qualitative methods” will be consigned to, well, clean up I guess.

Tom Boellstorff and others reply to Bloomfield’s post, but to me the whole thing seems strangely arcane.

Or at least, it feels like it misses the point of my OWN experience of Second Life: that while, yes, it is built on technology, and as such has embedded in it the ability to measure lots and lots of things, what I’VE learned through virtual worlds is that while our spread sheets are bigger, and contain more data, and we can measure more things – the reality is that life, and the enterprise, and culture are MESSIER now than they’ve ever been. The world is moving faster. The ways in which we collaborate are constantly morphing, with information coming from different places and target markets decamping to new adventures while we’re still sitting around measuring where they were yesterday.

Virtual worlds show us that art, emotion, and human connection are taking on new forms, and that those new forms are continually changing.

So while our storehouse of quantitative data grows, our understanding that we need insight, observation and just plain intuitive thinking to try to make sense of a fluid and changing world perhaps grows even more exponentially.

Sure, give me a spread sheet to start my day. But let me finish it telling stories with a bunch of interesting people while on the Grid.

And by the way- I may technically get more “data” from the spread sheet, or be able to predict whether we’re really at the end of the bull market or not, but what I learn at night by observing and talking will probably carry me further in the end.


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