“Down the Rabbit Hole” day

Cory Doctorow points out that today is Down the Rabbit Hole day, so here is something i drafted recently that normally i would never post.


Culture in virtual worlds? Critiquing the complexities and our assumptions

Jeremy Hunsinger

Granted this model of culture makes things more complex and clouded than many current ideological strands of the cultural sciences and humanities might prefer, but in virtual worlds, where the environment is constructed either through fixed programmed interfaces or the through the results of genetic algorithms, the construction of subjects and objects as different in any knowable sense is speculative at best. The assumption that many cultural scientists, and humanities scholars make that if it seems to talk and act like a subject or like them’ then it is a subject very much depends on the environment. People have been simulating conversation in virtual worlds for years, and simulating actions just as long, beyond that people have been designing these virtual world for cultural effects that frequently do not come to fruition.

Consider the possibility of a virtual world developed to support natural and cultural sciences. In this world, the humans interface with the world is intended to simulate nature, such as pseudorandom distribution of wind or water flows over abradable media such as sandstone, or the bifurcations of tree roots as they interact with the soil. The purpose of such a world would be to see to what extent artifacts found in nature are likely man-made or man-influenced or not. In this game, individual actions add up to a part of the simulation, thus an ‘avatar’ would be the combination of forces over time as mixed with the forces and the fun would be had by influencing and changing the additive and multiplicative efforts of many people over time. The actions ‘avatar’, as a natural forces, is a combination of many possible people’s influences over time where time is one of the variables that consensus can effect and the interface can model, so that some people may slow down to a bacteriological time, or speed up to human time onward to the geological times of redwoods, and onto that of mountains. One possible sub-game may be to produce objects that might be confused with archeological artifacts, such as the Sphinx. Another sub-game that would surely arise is the design and or defacement of areas of the world for artistic or other purposes. We can see from such a game, that the ‘avatar’, or that which acts on cultural objects in the world may in fact be plural, and may produce things that are not considered artifacts as much as terrain. This possibility, the dissociation of the avatar from the individual and the dissociation of the products of the avatar from the culture is an extreme example of the reality of what people already do in virtual worlds today.

This dissociation of cultural subject and cultural production problematizes much of the scholarship being done in virtual worlds which depends on the assumptions that subject/s create or exist in relation to objects, but in the messiness of programmable systems, the mixing of subjects/objects into quasi-subjects, quasi-objects, and the pluralization of the relationship between a persons interface and their ‘avatar’, causes one to be immediately skeptical of the reported experiences of people acting through their interfaces in the virtual world. Even their reports should be colored by the researcher’s inability to discern the authenticity of the persons reporting given that the world they experienced through their screens, speakers, and haptic devices could be entirely different from that world experienced by a person using different devices, having different proficiencies, or living in different cultures. This is not to say that we cannot make assumptions about world, subjects, and objects, but it is to say that the assumptions that we rely on in the f2f world that ground our research may not be, and frequently are not valid assumptions. In short, when exploring culture in virtual worlds, we need to take care in our methodological choices and their assumptions for even the most basic assumptions such as, “my student in my virtual classroom had the same experience as my other students” is likely to be false in ways that are profoundly different than the ways it may be false in a f2f classroom. Similarly, our assumptions about the causes of behavior, social, economic, and cultural, must account for the new forms of re/mediation in their models, else they will likely end up describing less a model of subjects in a virtual world, then describing the base assumptions of their observations or experiments yet again.


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