May 2, 2007

Blogging Feminism: (Web)Sites of Resistance

Category: Academic,Politics,Tech,Virtual Worlds — Biella @ 10:00 am

Blogging Feminism: (Web)Sites of Resistance

As blogging has more widespread interest, especially vis-á-vis electoral politics, feminist activity on the internet has remained marginal to the mainstream. Thus, we were thrilled when Gwendolyn Beetham and Jessica Valenti proposed “Blogging Feminism: (Web)sites of Resistance” as a Scholar and Feminist Online journal topic, as well as a theme for a Barnard Center for Research on Women panel discussion. As Beetham and Valenti point out in their introduction, all too much feminist activity exists in the blogosphere invisibly. This theme runs through many of this journal’s contributions, and is taken up directly by Clancy Ratliff and Tedra Osell in the section entitled “Women and Politics in the Blogosphere.”

March 19, 2007

Soft Core, Hard Core, or something else

Category: Academic,Politics,Tech,Virtual Worlds — Biella @ 6:27 pm

Awhile back, one of my favorite bloggers, Philip Dawdy of Furious Seasons, deviated from his usual posts that place a big fat critical magnifying glass under the marketing (and other shady) tactics of Big Pharma and wrote a very thoughtful, (also furious) account of Web 2.0 claiming:

this whole Web 2.0, social networking, virtual community business is essentially a pornography of the self—a projected, fictionalized self that is then worshipped by the slightly less-perfect self.

It is a little off the top at times but makes some really good points that I agree with (and generated a really interesting discussion).

It merits reading alongside Danah Boyd’s recent rumination on the very same topic, fame, narcissism and MySpace, where she seeks to address narcissism but she deflects blame the suite of technologies and places it instead on the broader set of cultural practices that sustain this accentuated inward focus:

My view is that we have trained our children to be narcissistic and that this is having all sorts of terrifying repercussions; to deal with this, we’re blaming the manifestations instead of addressing the root causes and the mythmaking that we do to maintain social hierarchies. Let’s unpack that for a moment.

These two read nicely with an older piece in Harpers Attack of the superzeroes: why Washington, Einstein, and Madonna can’t compete with you . The author, Thomas de Zengotita claims “Being famous isn’t what it used to be” because new technologies of mediation and reflexivity (and by new, he means a lot more than web 2.0, it includes reality shows, focus groups, karaoke, the hyper-representation of the real stars, alongside the usual suspects) and concludes that we life as if we were always on stage, concluding somewhat disparagingly “We are all method actors now.”

Of course, this is an important part of the story but not the whole story. There are times, for example, these social technologies help to patch up what is arguably as common in North America as is this narcissistic self, which is the fragmented self, that comes into being, for example because many of us, migrate here and the, for example, for work.

So a social networking site like Facebook, provides somewhat of a stable point of reference, where there are individuals collected, in the same place, even though the people are no longer really in the same place. It is at least a recognition of certain relationships whose “local” face has now passed but instead of completely completely fading into the realm of memory, the past lives on, albeit in transformed ways, within a virtual space. This facet of social networking is not particularly narcissistic, but is building new technologies of memory that I think works somewhat against the conditions that fragment the self. And while the patching up of the person may make an individual “whole” and “individuated” it seems it is a form that is much more mundane than the “pornography” or “narcissism,” explored above, though of course, they do abound–but karaoke, that is always pornography of the self. But… porn can be fun.

November 24, 2006

Play Money by Julian Dibbel

Category: Academic,Anthropology,Books/Articles,Tech,Virtual Worlds — Biella @ 5:06 pm

A few months ago I finished Play Money by Julian Dibbel and like his My Tiny Life before it, the writing style is simple yet sumptuous, or I guess just simply sumptuous.

Like the travel writings that pre-figured anthropological writing, Dibbel takes us to a “far-away” exotic land (but only a click or two away) that are populated by a motley crew of wizard (or is lizard)? slayers, gold-diggers, money-makers, and virtual-world-builders. For many, these MMOGsare no strange-lands but are becoming weaved firmly and intimately into the fabric of everyday life, whether as entertainment, sociality, and or for a cadre of folks, as a source of income generation.

I think the book has gotten enough coverage that I don’t need to rehearse its content in any detail but the basic story is that Julian embarks on a real world quest in the virtual land of quests to try to make enough money (to be specific make a little more than his monthly salary as a freelance writer) from trading and selling a slew of virtual objects and gold. In taking us along, he gives a compelling entry into the imaginative and morally complex world of these games. And better is that whether you know nothing about them or are a seasoned player, the book has much to offer.

One of the reasons I respect Julian Dibbel is because he takes his sweeeet time to churn out a book-length manuscript. In a day and age when there is so much pressure to release quick and often, especially when writing about anything in the so-called virtual plane of existence, he waited nearly 8 years from the publication of his last book on gaming, My Tiny Life before publishing on a considerably higher-tech phenomenon.

Following him on his most recent adventure, you learn that he threw himself into a variety of gaming environments persistently and consistently and did at least 3 years of research and writing (at one point in the book he confesses how excruciating writing for him, which is hard to believe as the words slip so nicely off the paper but whatever the extent of his writing angst is, he clearly spends a lot of care in crafting his sentences). And I am starting to think that if more people followed this ethic of long-term immersion, coupled with slow-brewed productive sparsity, we would get higher quality products (Yes, kinda like the Debian release cyclce).

Like any good ethnographer, he gives an intimate portrait of life in these worlds of copious play where various types of real world economies have mushroomed apace with new technological developments. That is, he gives us a taste of what it is like, as he cleverly puts it “to own unreality.” Couched within tales of gaming gone real world economic, are hearty reflections on the place of play in social and economic life, the close resemblance and conceptual affinity between computers and games (and not just computer games, and here he does a fantastic job at explaining the Turing Test), self-doubts about writing in general and in particular about this topic, commodity fetishism, and the changing nature of capitalism in a world of ever-greater abstractions. All of this makes for an enjoyable read that if used in the classroom (which like A Tiny Life, I am sure will become standard for courses on Virtual Worlds) allows you to bring in some good supplemental material whether Edward Castranova’s Synthetic Worlds, Greg Lastowka and Dan Hunter’s The Laws of Virtual Worlds and or older heavy-hitters like Max Weber and Karl Marx.

The only topic I think I would have liked to seen included is that of capitalist finance, because there are, I think, some real affinities, phenomenologically and conceptually, between finance capitalism and “gaming the virtual game.”

Otherwise some of my favorite sections were on hackers and the object of the computer, but of course, I am biased that way. So here I leave you with a tasty morsel of something that was sumptuous to ingest:

“It is this endlessly repeatable collusion of freedom and determinism-the warp and woof of fixed rules and free play, of running code and variable input—that sets both games and computers apart, together from the larger universe of information technologies they inhabit…. But only games share the universal machine’s game’s thoroughgoing commitment to the principle of recursion: the chained repetition of simple operations, each building on both the input of the moment and the outcomes of preceding steps. And only games, therefore, come close to capturing that precise mi of unpredictability and inevitability that makes the computer such a powerful simulator of our lived experience of the world.” p. 104

September 11, 2006

“Warcraft is the new golf” (only better)

Category: Tech,Virtual Worlds — Biella @ 1:07 pm

Last spring I was invited to join an academic guild on WoW, but since my computer runs on, with, and through pure freedom (and I was too lazy to run an emulator and my computer does not have the processing power for it anyway), I did not join.

But reading Steven Levy’s recent piece Living a Virtual Life makes me wish I had a more powerful computer or had sacrified my morals… Because hundres of naked gnomes protesting, is well, just worth it.