Collaboration, Deep Thoughts, Identity and Expression, Second Life

The Future of Thinking Virtually: Tom Boellstorff on Overlays, Cyborgs and Second Life Culture

I could chat with Tom Boellstorff all day – but I’ll take an hour when I can get it, as I recently did on Metanomics (full video at the end of the post).

During my recent interview with Rod Humble, the new CEO of Linden Lab, I had one major piece of advice: reach out to Tom and spend some time with him (and while you’re at it, hire an ethnographer to work at the Lab!).

Excerpts from my interview with Tom might help explain why:

On Virtual Worlds, Techne, and the Concept of the Overlay

DUSAN: So one of the concepts that you followed in your book quite beautifully and, I think, made clear that although there may be multiple cultures within Second Life, there was also a Second Life culture, which was defined by certain things that the broader community had in common. And then you also posed the question that broader community, was there anything particularly defining, and you talk about techne and episteme. And I’m still fascinated by that idea, and I’m fascinated whether your thinking on that has moved further since you wrote the book. Maybe just explain a little bit what you meant about techne within techne.

TOM BOELLSTORFF: Sure. One thing for me, especially as a researcher, that I’m extremely lucky. I have a job. I’m a professor. I have tenure. They can’t fire me unless I just do something incredibly stupid. I can take some risks, right, and say things that people might debate with or disagree with. But to try and put my virtual hiney on the line a little bit and try and push the envelope. And so one way in which I did that is, I really want to say that there is such a thing as Second Life culture. There is a broader, general culture, even though there are, of course, all of these other subcultures. And it reminds me how often Americans don’t think there’s such a thing as American culture. We’re so diverse. There’s 50 states. But then, when you go to Indonesia, right from the outside, they’re like, “Tom, there’s a thing that’s American culture. You don’t realize it because you’re in it, but there are some things that Americans share.” And then there’s all this diversity as well.

Another interesting thing that anthropologists have talked about for a long time is what can unite a culture can be disagreements and conflict, not just agreements. We can be bound together, and, if you look it by conflict, and if you look at the political debates in the United States right now, it’s a great example of how conflict and disagreement can be something that binds people together. I guess some people could talk about that’s how it is with their family or something. But that culture isn’t the same thing just as consensus, as agreement. It’s about shared meanings and beliefs that we can disagree on.

And there’s always subcultures in any culture, but there are also sort of broader cultural issues that you will find. For instance, in Indonesia or in the United States or in Second Life. And when I try to think about what are those really broad things, things like AFK show up. And then, in the book, when I try and step back, and this is something I still think about, the difference between knowledge which the Greeks call episteme and crafting and making things, which the Greeks call techne and is the root of our term technology.

In the western tradition, the origin myth for knowledge is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the Christian tradition is the best known example. And the back of my Apple computer has a picture of that, right, the apple with a bite out of it. But in the old Greek mythology, the origin of craft is from Prometheus stealing fire from the gods. And, in the original Greek, what he actually steals isn’t just fire, but the ability to use fire, which they call techne, this ability to craft things.

And so I’m very interested in especially the sort of user generated Virtual Worlds, like Second Life. But even in things like World of Warcraft where there’s a lot of modding things, people doing creative, unexpected things with the platform that the designers never intended. We see all of this stuff around crafting, and that even spreads out to people putting their photos up on Facebook and doing blogs. People used to think that mass media would mean that people wouldn’t write anymore. They would just buy and mass produce newspapers. No one expected that these technologies would lead to all of this new authorship and all of this new creation in so many different ways. And so I play around with this in my book, by talking about this age of techne, this way in which crafting has become this really interesting not new at all, obviously it goes back to the Greeks but it is really becoming visible in a new way.

And then when I try and think about what makes a Virtual World different than email or then making something in my back yard or something with wood, it’s that you can have techne inside of techne, in a way. That we are sitting here in this Metanomics place, in this Sim that is made by silicon and chips and computers, and people building things with prims, and then we are building stuff inside of that thing. There’s this interesting kind of recursion, this kind of way in which it’s eating its own tail. I still am trying to think that through.

And, if my next book I haven’t told anyone this before because it’s years from being done because of all the work I’m doing that right now I think maybe the title for it might be something like Overlay because I’m very interested in all of the stuff on augmented reality, on immersion, on even language about addiction and compulsion, ambience, the way in which people are using cell phones and laptops and iPads and mobile devices to augment an overlay these different technologies in the physical world, in all kinds of directions, without them blurring into each other: that layering for new kinds of meaning and new kinds of social groups and all kinds of new stuff. And I can’t say more about that yet because I don’t know. But I really think I want to try and do some research on that and think about what techne might mean in that kind of space.

On Cyborgs and the Avatar

DUSAN: Do you want to talk a little bit about that and where might research take us as we start to understand the impact on other cultures or on ourselves by embodying through an avatar?

TOM BOELLSTORFF: That is such an interesting issue and actually by June or July, I have a new piece coming out. I just put the information on it in the text, about the virtual body. I just wrote a whole article, trying to think theoretically even more about the idea of the avatar and how the avatar is different from the cyborg that works quite differently because a cyborg you’re attaching physical flesh and machine, right? But I don’t walk around with an avatar arm attached to my physical arm. Instead I have two bodies that lie across a gap between the physical and virtual. So that’s actually very different from a cyborg.

We have a lot of ideas and theories about cyborg embodiments, and we need a lot more actually about avatar because it is quite different about how avatars work and how the idea of embodiment works. It’s one of the biggest areas of difference because, in the physical world, I could cut my hair, I can do whatever, but I can’t become a puppy dog. I can’t become two people at the same time and have sex with myself or have an alt. I can’t change my gender or my race or become a glowing ball of light that bounces around the room. There are some really interesting differences when the body is crafted from top to bottom, so to speak.

In the physical world, I could change my gender, but I couldn’t do it and then change it back one hour later, like I could in Second Life. It’s a much bigger thing. I couldn’t become two feet tall or whatever. So the way in which that shapes ideas around choice, ideas around nature, ideas around the body, I mean there’s been really interesting work people have done about how avatars of different races or genders get treated differently inside of Virtual Worlds. How might that change as people get more accustomed to Virtual Worlds and when there’s avatars around that are a snake. I’ve seen avatars where the person’s a refrigerator. I mean how do you even think about that. It’s so interesting.

So there’s a couple separate issues. One, the range of possibilities. Number two, the ability to change and change back very quickly and easily. Number three, the possibility that the link that you have in the physical world between one person and one body can be changed in both directions. Right? You can have two people controlling one avatar. Some of you may know Hamlet, and New World notes early on had that great piece on Wild Cunningham where you had nine persons controlling one avatar together. So if you interview that person, am I interviewing one person, or am I interviewing nine people? That’s a really interesting, philosophical and culture question.

So the issue of embodiment just goes in so many directions and this is such interesting issue. I have this article coming out in a couple months about it, that it’s still just a big question mark. It would be awesome to do more research, and we need more people doing research on all kinds of questions of embodiment. It’s so interesting.

On Kids on the Grid and Our Life Journey

DUSAN: Okay, so here’s another question that probably has no answer, and I know it’s something that you’re not studying, but we had a bit of back and forth email about the fact that teens are now allowed on the main grid. They closed down the teen grid, and they changed the age criteria for the main grid. I mean I guess the first question would be, would you expect to see an impact on the broader culture, is the first question. I think the second question is–or is more of a comment: You had some interesting thoughts about how our journey as avatars isn’t dissimilar to our journey as humans. So I’ll ask you to just kind of riff off the topic of teens on the grid.

TOM BOELLSTORFF: Sure. And welcome, teens, any of you who are around. First, Botgirl just had an awesome point about how people experience their avatar in different ways. A really important thing you learn when you do ethnographic research and you’re really hanging with people is very often there’s not just one answer to any question, like: Is an avatar a representation of a body or a body? There may very well not be one answer. It could be that, for some people, it’s one thing. For some people, it’s others. And even for some people, they have one avatar where it feels like a representation and another alt where it doesn’t feel like a representation. All of those possibilities might be out there. Very often people are so complex and interesting.

To a lot of these questions, sometimes there is a single answer, but most of the time there’s a cluster of answers. And, as a researcher, when I know I’ve discovered something is when I interview and I’m talking to hundreds of people, doing participant observation around an issue like this, I’ll find out that there’s not just one answer, but there’s also not a hundred different answers. There’s like four or five top answers. And then you know you’re starting to learn about a culture because a culture doesn’t mean that everyone has the same view, it’s not unanimous. But it’s not total chaos either where there’s a million different opinions or approaches for a million different people.

So I think that question of: Is an avatar a representation? My guess is that as we do more research, what we’ll find is that there’s going to be three or four or five dominant ways that people experience that, and that’s going to tell us something really significant. And it probably won’t come down to just one thing, but it probably just won’t be a hundred zillion random things either, that culture clumps in a certain sense, and, to me, then I know when I’m onto something when I find, hey, here are the three or four most common ways that people are thinking about some issue, and it’s not just one thing, and it’s not a hundred. Anyway, it was just a great point that Botgirl made.

So about the teens, and welcome to any teens here because, as we know, there were no teens in Second Life prior to the closing of the teen grid. But it is exciting. I remember in the early days–does anyone else remember this. I think Hamlet wrote about this, that in the early days of the teen grid, some of the teens figured out that the teen grid was actually a continent in the Second Life ocean that was connected to the main continents. And they scripted these rockets, and they would shoot themselves into the air and the move it over one degree and shoot it again and move it over another degree and that they actually managed to land on the main grid and wander around.

I’m pretty sure Hamlet even has some pictures of this. But how awesome! Teens always get around what parents tell them they can or can’t do. But I think it’s so awesome that they were shooting themselves around in the early grid. It’s so cute. So awesome.

So in terms of thoughts around the teens, let me just throw up two or three thoughts, and people can add more because it’s such an interesting issue. From my earlier work on gay identity and sexuality, no topic brings up people’s desire to control more than the topic of children. It is a place where so often the regular rules don’t apply, and forms of control and oppression can often show up, under the excuse of protecting children. I mean even when you think about all kinds of discrimination, anti Semitism thing where “they’re drinking the blood of children” or whatever, all those kinds of things. And when you look at the internet in general, all of the fears around children.

Obviously, I have a kid. You want to protect children. Please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. In most societies, children are exposed to sex and death from a very young age. I mean I grew up in Nebraska with much of my family on the farm, and we forget how kids are not as naive as we often make them out to be and that segregation is a really limited way of approaching that. Up until recently, we had a Second Life world where anything was possible. You had anything was thinkable except for one thing: there were no children. I mean that’s so interesting that, in a place where anything is possible, the one place we draw a line is that there’s no children. So anyway, I think this issue of children is a really interesting issue.

And then the question of the life course. Different cultures divide up the life course in different ways. Sometimes they do it in two or three ways. In the Jewish tradition, you have a Bar Mitzvah when you’re 13, and then you’re an adult. Really, there’s no category of teenager. Even in the western society more generally, the idea of the teenager was a fairly recent, I think a twentieth century invention. And now we have tweens and all this other kind of crazy stuff. We’re dividing up the life span into more and more pieces often in the west. And how we think about the life course is a really interesting issue.

And then what’s the relationship between a virtual life course and a physical world, life course, where there’s all these great examples. Bonnie Nardi talks about this in World of Warcraft, where you could have an 18 year old kid, who’s a level 60 super player and a 60 year old doctor who’s a newbie in World of Warcraft and can’t even figure out how to swing their axe or something. So these kinds of disjunctures between different kinds of life courses is a really interesting issue that you’re seeing in many of these different technological spaces. Margaret Mead, I think it was, actually had some great quote about how one of the biggest ways you see a change from a traditional society to a modern society is that, in a traditional society, the elders teach the young. And, in a modern society, the young people teach their parents, teach the older people. And, if you’ve ever helped your parents with a cell phone or a DVD player, you know what I’m talking about.

How technology changes these ideas of the life course is really interesting, and it’s going to be so exciting in the next year or two, to see how Second Life will shift now that it is multi generational in a new way. Personally, I think it’s just so exciting, in terms of the questions that it throws up.

On Future Research and Where Next

DUSAN: If there was a fertile ground for research related to Virtual Worlds, where do you think it lies right now?

TOM BOELLSTORFF: I think that the direction that things are going is in multiple directions. It’s like a big rock has been thrown into a pond and those ripples going out everywhere. So we need more people to do in depth studies of Virtual Worlds, in general, like studying Second Life or studying EVE Online. And then also, in some cases, looking at specific communities, looking at uses around education or looking at Furries or looking at religion or whatever. We need people doing comparative work, comparing different Virtual Worlds, and that could be people who do a study of one place and then compare notes with a colleague and do something together, like I’m doing right now. Or, someone who does a project in a couple different virtual Worlds. They’re not going to be able to spend as much time in each one, but if they focus the question they can do that.

We need more research about ways in which physical and Virtual Worlds are shaping each other. And you’re absolutely right that that goes in both directions. The overlay goes in both directions so Virtual Worlds are changing the physical world in ways we don’t completely understand. We need research about the relationship between Virtual Worlds and social networking sites, like Facebook and Twitter. Those aren’t Virtual Worlds themselves, but they share many underlying concepts, like the idea of friending someone, and they link up with a Virtual World in so many interesting ways.

We need to look at the transnationalization of these spaces and how they work differently in different parts of the world. And, as well, how new cultures are coming into being, that can’t be reduced to any one physical world location. So when people from Peru and Mexico and Indonesia get together in Second Life or wherever, they can make something new that you couldn’t just learn about by going to Mexico or Indonesia. It’s a new thing in that in world space. What’s up with all of that kind of thing is an interesting question. Those issues of governance that you mentioned are so interesting. So, for me, in the next year and a half, my personal goal and people here in the audience and elsewhere I’m happy to get ideas and talk to people because there’s so many interesting possibilities. The problem isn’t what to study. The problem is what not to study.

One last thing I’ll add is that, to me, one of the most exciting things that’s happening is not just all of these new questions and issues, but the real emergence in the last three or four years of a research community that includes people with formal research jobs, like my own, includes people who are bloggers or journalists, includes all kinds of people out there, who are interested in these questions about Virtual Worlds and that we have an emerging community of people who are putting our heads together and challenging each other and coming up with ideas and methodologies and things to look at.

So to me, the excitement isn’t only just about these spaces, but about a research community of people that we are sharing ideas and right now writing this book with three other people. I mean how exciting that I can do that. Five years ago, six years ago when I started this research in 2004, no way was that possible. So another very exciting thing moving forward and something that I think we need to think through how can we nurture it is this new research community of people from all over the world and all walks of life, who are sitting back and saying, “Wow! What’s going on with all this stuff?” And learning from each other, I think that’s another very exciting aspect of what’s happening. And so, in closing, for myself, just thank you so much for inviting me, and I hope this wasn’t completely weird or boring to people, that this was so unscripted and informal that I’ve had a lot of fun, and I’m happy to do it again. I think it’s great that we have these kinds of conversations.


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