Saturday, May 17, 2008

Tom Boellstorff's "Coming of Age in Second Life"

Tom Boellstorff is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine, and Editor-in-Chief of American Anthropologist, the flagship journal of the American Anthropological Association.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human, and reported the following:
Coming of Age in Second Life is an ethnography of the virtual world Second Life. The book explores a range of issues in Second Life and also, as is typical of most ethnographic work, thinks outward from these issues to pose broader questions about human life online. Page 99 of Coming of Age in Second Life includes the following:

Because objects could have permanence only on property, residents without property were largely excluded from building, an important dimension of Second Life sociality. Such residents often termed themselves “homeless.” Some residents were homeless because they did not like building or saw no benefit in owning property; others were homeless because they could not afford to own virtual land […] Fundamental to Second Life culture during my fieldwork was that textures, scripts, prims, and even entire builds could be sold; Second Life was a commodity economy.

This passage is representative of Coming of Age in Second Life in that it emphasizes that questions of inequality do not disappear when we go online. Virtual worlds hold great promise for human sociality, a promise as dimly understood at present as was the potential of the Internet in its early years. However, there can certainly be negative aspects to virtual worlds. I think it is crucial that we find a language with which to discuss such issues without sliding into a pessimism wherein we dismiss virtual worlds as the exclusive provenance of either “alienated geeks” or a mass culture that is, Matrix-like, cut off from its own reality.

The questions about property and commodification raised in the passage above are part of a larger argument in Coming of Age in Second Life in regard to what I term “creationist capitalism.” I define this on page 206 as “a mode of capitalism in which labor is understood in terms of creativity, so that production is understood as creation.” There is no inevitable reason why virtual worlds must be structured around capitalist principles, but for good or ill it seems that the vast majority of them to date are predicated on a specific understanding of capitalism linked to creativity, customization, and modification. One thing that I (and many others) will be watching in the years to come is how forms of inequality continue to be reproduced but also challenged by all those engaged in the design and everyday social life of virtual worlds.
Read an excerpt from Coming of Age in Second Life, and learn more about the book at the Princeton University Press website.

Visit Tom Boellstorff's faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue