“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.


Delanda, M. (2006). A new philosophy of society: Assemblage theory And social complexity. Continuum.

Guattari, F. (2000). The three ecologies (G. Genosko, Trans.). London: Athlone Press.

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social : An introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford University Press, USA.

Latour, B. (1993). We have never been modern. Harvard Univ Pr.

Latour, B., & Porter, C. (2004). Politics of nature: How to bring the sciences into democracy. Harvard Univ Pr.

Law, J. (2004). After method: Mess in social science research. Routledge.

Maltzahn, K. E. V. (1994). Nature as landscape: Dwelling and uderstanding. McGill-Queen’s University Press.

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Fellowship and Conference

Since Tuesday I have been in Milwaukee visiting SOIS and CIPR as part of my Information Ethics fellowship. I attended a discussion about a possible future conference on translating intercultural information ethics across the situated understandings that term implies across a plurality of contexts. That seems like a great project, I’m happy to help out there. For the rest of the time, I attended the conference Thinking Critically:Alternative Perspectives and Methods in Information Studies. It was an excellent conference and I met many interesting people in the field of information studies, most of which are leaders in their field or soon to be so. I also attended the 2008 Samore Lecture: “Interpreting the Digital Human,” by Professor Rafael Capurro, at the Allis Museum, which provided an excellent end to the conference. I had excellent dinners and conversation with colleagues that I’ve not seen for some time, and with new friends and colleagues. I suspect that I’ll be seeing many of these people again over the years. It was a great experience all around, though I did not get enough writing done on a promised paper that is overdue. It really looks like the CIPR and SOIS are up to some great things and I’m happy to be affiliated with them as an Ethics Fellow for another year.

Unrelated to the conference and my fellowship, I had the opportunity to meet and talk with Thomas Malaby who has a book forthcoming on Linden Lab. We spoke at length about problems of research, computer game studies, his work with Linden Lab and his related work. It was a fantastic conversation and I hope to have similar conversations in relation to my work in Second Life in the future.

All in all the problem of alternative methods and the communities that support them is an important issue in my career. I have been affiliated with many groups on this topic from Phil Graham’s old NewMediaResearch, heterodox economics, and the political science perestroika movement list, to my current work with InterpretationandMethods and Theory, Policy and Society, not to mention my work with the Association of Internet Researchers. The work that I perform is primarily interpretive methods, from ethnography to textual analysis, though I’ve been known to use quantitative when it adds to the argument. The key to me though is to come to notion of understanding and being able to communicate what actually leads to certain understandings of the world. It concerns me that there are so many people with so many of the same issues across so many different disciplines and there is so little conversations amongst them. Though there are broad interdisciplinary efforts and efforts toward inclusion.

Students want chance to defend themselves – CNN.com

Students want chance to defend themselves

[From Students want chance to defend themselves – CNN.com]


in recent times, the chance for students to defend themselves is not in the classroom. that is too late. if these students want to defend themselves they need to care for their fellow students and take responsibility for the people around them. Both NIU and VT may have been avoided had the students, friends, and family of the individual ensured through their direct action that they got mental health support. If you need guns in the classroom, you are already too late to defend yourself. Be socially pro-active, and live a good life.

I drank Google's beer, then left

It was the only right (ethical) choice that I had. You see I went down to google’s new york office tonight to see a colleague of mine speak on the future of the internet. I thought it was an open invite without any specific rules as to what I could do with the knowledge that I found there. I registered and attended until Google asserted the rules.

Sometimes… Google gets it wrong. You see I did not have any prior ruleset to know that they do not allow people to blog or otherwise publish their visit to such talks. They did not send one, it was not in any announcement that I received, and I’ve otherwise not seen one. However, there is a set of rules that prohibit blogging or publishing that they announced before the talk. Google said that if i wanted to blog or publicly discuss the event, I had to get their permission. If I’d have known, I would not have attended or been affiliated with the event in any way. I am a professor, was and still am, and by the very nature of my job, i cannot guarantee that I will follow their rules about publication or blogging. I couldn’t consent to them, so I had to leave. I don’t want to have to ask google for permission to speak about something that I already know a good deal about and am perfectly happy dashing an email off to colleagues to learn more. I don’t want to be obliged to them for any intellectual content or public knowledge at all beyond the general service they provide.

The rational that google said justified this request for secrecy and the privatization of knowledge was one of collegiality. I found that justification to be ironic. Colleagues share within the limits of their judgment. Collegiality is broken as soon as the judgment is turned into a ruleset, as soon as trust becomes moot and i no longer have to trust you, instead i just have to trust that you are following the pre-ordained rules. At that point in time of the announcement of rules, anyone in the room could be called colleagues, afterwards we were all subjects to Google and any collegiality was limited by Google’s rules. We were all constructed as lesser beings, less equal, more likely to damage others. We were ‘other’, and untrustworthy, which is the implication of the ‘no blogging’. If you want people to be friends, to become a community, you have to let them communicate, you have to let them establish the common ground by consent.

Thus I had to leave, as I was not going to be subject of Google beyond what I’ve already contracted. I could not consent to silence. I am surprised that the speaker in question would allow this rule, but not that surprised in the end.

Please if you have a talk where people who take ethics seriously are present, never change the rules after the fact, make them public beforehand.

Now I know 2 things,
1. Google changes the rules of public engagement to suit it’s own interpretations
2. Before I attend any future Google event, I should ask for clearly defined rules to be made public and distributed, so that I can decide to either be complicit or not beforehand.

Public access group challenges Smithsonian over copyrights

Public access group challenges Smithsonian over copyrights:
Grabbing pictures of iconic Smithsonian Institution artifacts just got a whole lot easier.

Before, if you wanted to get a picture of the Wright Brothers’ plane, you could go to the Smithsonian Images Web site and pay for a print or high-resolution image after clicking through several warnings about copyrights and other restrictions — and only if you were a student, teacher or someone pledging not to use it to make money.

Now, you can just go to the free photo-sharing Web site flickr.com.


Carl Malamud and his group are doing some good work on freeing and sustaining the freedom of access to public resources

from Doc: The Living Edge

The Living Edge:
David Sifry has just put up The State of the Live Web, April 2007. To explain the Live Web, he points to a pair of pieces I wrote in 2005. If you’d like a more visual explanation, follow the slides from this talk I gave at OSCON last summer, starting here.


Doc points toward Dave’s use of some of his work in the live web and more important the communal or collective web as compared to what might be thought of as the individualistic web. Of course, in my view, the www is a policy regime, a device that constrains and constructs relationships, not merely among data, but primarily among humans. The current transformation of the web into user-generation and user-integration is fascinating because it is making possible a much broader mode of awareness, communication, and community construction.

UNESCO Survey on Infoethics Released

UNESCO Survey on Infoethics Released:

“Ethical Implications of Emerging Technologies”
A UNESCO survey on INFOethics

Cover of the publication, copyright UNESCO

The survey was prepared by Mary Rundle and Chris Conely of the NGO Geneva Net Dialogue at UNESCO’s request.

In presenting the results, an introductory story is first provided of how the technologies covered relate to one another. Infoethics goals are then presented. Subsequently, for each technological trend surveyed, the report contains a short chapter drafted in lay terms to provide an overview of the relevant technology and to highlight ramifications and concerns. The infoethics analysis is then summarized and the story of the emerging technologies revisited. Finally, the report offers recommendations on ways to advance infoethics goals in anticipation of these oncoming technologies.

The ethical, legal and societal implications of ICTs are one of the three main priorities of UNESCO’s Information for All Programme and UNESCO was recently designated as the Facilitator for the implementation of Action Line C10 “Ethical Dimensions of the Information Society” of the Geneva Action Plan adopted by the World Summit on the Information Society.