Category Archives: Digital, Virtual, Actual

Horst & Miller – The Digital and the Human

The Digital and the Human: A Prospectus for Digital Anthropology

by Heather Horst & Daniel Miller

[Horst, Heather A., and Daniel Miller. 2012. “The Digital and the Human: A Prospectus for Digital Anthropology.” In Digital Anthropology, 3–35. London ; New York: Bloomsbury Academic.]

Points:

Six main principles

  1. The first principle is that the digital itself intensifies the dialectical nature of culture
  2. Our second principle suggests that humanity is not one iota more mediated by the rise of the digital
  3. The commitment to holism, the foundation of anthropological perspectives on humanity, represents a third principle
  4. The fourth principle reasserts the importance of cultural relativism and the global nature of our encounter with the digital
  5. The fifth principle is concerned with the essential ambiguity of digital culture with regard to its increasing openness and closure
  6. Our final principle acknowledges the materiality of digital worlds, which are neither more nor less material than the worlds that preceded them

“The primary point of this introduction, and the emergence of digital anthropology as a subfield more generally, is in resolute opposition to all approaches that imply that becoming digital has either rendered us less human, less authentic or more mediated. Not only are we just as human within the digital world, the digital also provides many new opportunities for anthropology to help us understand what it means to be human” (13).

“In effect, the digital is producing too much culture, which, because we cannot manage and engage with it, renders us thereby superficial or shallow or alienated” (15).

“At the level of abstraction, there are grounds for thinking we have reached rock bottom; there can be nothing more basic and abstract than binary bits, the difference between 0 and 1. At the other end of the scale, it is already clear that the digital far outstrips mere commoditization in its ability to proliferate difference” (16).

“Digital anthropology fails to the degree it makes the nondigital world appear in retrospect as unmediated and unframed. One of the reasons digital studies have often taken quite the opposite course has been the continued use of the term virtual, with its implied contrast with the real” (22).

“Rather than seeing predigital worlds as less mediated, we need to study how the rise of digital technologies has created the illusion that they were” (23).

“Social science had demonstrated how the real world was virtual long before we came to realize how the virtual world is real” (24).

“the term real must be regarded as colloquial and not epistemological. it should be clear that we are not more mediated. We are equally human in each of the different and diverse arenas of framed behaviour within which we live” (24).

“Materiality is thus bedrock for digital anthropology, and this is true in several distinct ways, of which three are of prime importance. First, there is the materiality of digital infrastructure and technology. Second, there is the materiality of digital content, and, third, there is the materiality of digital context” (34).

“We would therefore suggest that the key to digital anthropology, and perhaps to the future of anthropology itself, is, in part, the study of how things become rapidly mundane. What we experience is not a technology per se but an immediately cultural inflected genre of usage” (38).

Being human is a cultural and normative concept. As our second principle showed, it is our definition of being human that mediates what the technology is, not the other way around” (38).

“The faster the trajectory of cultural change, the more relevant the anthropologist, because there is absolutely no sign that the changes in technology are outstripping the human capacity to regard things as normative” (39).

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Escobar – Welcome to Cyberia

Welcome to Cyberia: Notes on the Anthropology of Cyberculture

by Arturo Escobar

[Escobar, Arturo. 1994. “Welcome to Cyberia: Notes on the Anthropology of Cyberculture.” Current Anthropology 35 (3):211–31.]

Points

  • “The point of departure of this inquiry is the belief that any technology represents a cultural invention, in the sense that it brings forth a world; it emerges out of particular cultural conditions and in turn helps to create new ones” (211).
  • “the priority accorded science and theory over technical creativity has led moderns to believe that they can describe nature and society according to laws. Rather than as the effect of practice nature and society appear as objects with mechanisms and are therefore treated instrumentally” (213).
  • cyberculture” refers specifically to new technologies in two areas: artificial intelligence (particularly computer and information technologies) and biotechnology [… to] the realization that we increasingly live and make ourselves in techno-biocultural environments structured by novel forms of science and technology” (214).
  • Anthropological research into cybercultures should be guided by four inquiries:
    1. What are the discourses and practices that are generated around/by computers and biotechnology?
    2. How can these practices and domains be studied ethnographically in various social, regional, and ethnic settings?
    3. What is the background of understanding from which the new technologies emerge?
    4. What is the political economy of cyberculture? (215)
  • “The anthropology of cyberculture holds that we can assume a priori neither the existence of a era nor the need for a new branch of anthropology” (216).
  • “technoscience is motivating a blurring and implosion of categories at various levels, particularly the modern categories that defined the natural, the organic, the technical, and the textual”
    • “Bodies,” “organisms,” and “communities” thus have to be retheorized as composed of elements that originate in three different domains with permeable boundaries” (217).
  • Possible ethnographic domains and research strategies:
    1. The production and use of new technologies
    2. The appearance of Computer-mediated communities
    3. Studies of the popular culture of science and technology, including the effect of science and technology on the popular imaginary
    4. The growth and qualitative development of human computer-mediated communication, particularly from the perspective of the relationship between language communication, social structures, and cultural identity
    5. The political economy of cyberculture (217-219).
  • Then a bunch about complexity, including:
    • “The discovery that “inert” matter has properties that are remarkably close to those of life-forms led to the postulate that life is a property not of organic
      matter per se but of the organization of matter and hence to the concept of nonorganic life (de Landa 1992)” (221).

Terms

  • interface anthropology—put forth by Laurel (1990, 91-93), it is a “focus on user/context intersections, finding “informants” to guide the critical (not merely utilitarian) exploration of diverse users and contexts” (218).
    • appended to that definition is this cool footnote: “Walker (1990) distinguishes five phases in the history of user interfaces (1) knobs and dials, (2) batch (a specialist computer operator running a stack of jobs on punched cards), (3) timesharing (,4) menus, (5) graphics windows. The next phase will take the user directly ‘inside’ the computer, through the screen to cyberspace, so to say. This will be a three-dimensional space such as the one achieved by virtual reality today. The hope of designers is that it will replace more passive viewing with active participation” (218)
  • Poeisis—Heidegger’s term for the essence of Being. It’s present in the arts and certain Eastern philosophies. See The Question Concerning Technology
  • Social constructivism—a methodology and theoretical stance based on the idea “that, contrary to the technological determinism of past times, contingency and flexibility are the essence of technological change; by showing that social processes are inherent to technological innovations, they deal a fatal blow to the alleged separation of technology from society and of both of these from nature” (212).
  • interpretive flexibility—”the fact—long known to anthropologists—that different actors (“relevant social groups,” in the constructivists’ parlance) interpret technological artifacts in different ways” (212).

Abstract

Significant changes in the nature of social life are being brought about by computer information and biological technologies to the extent that—some argue—a new cultural order, “cyberculture,” is coming into being. This paper presents an overview of the types of anthropological analyses that are being conducted in the area of new technologies and suggests additional steps for the articulation of an anthropology of cyberculture. It builds upon science, technology, and society studies in various fields and on critical studies of modernity. The implications of technoscience for both anthropological theory and ethnographic research are explored.

 

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Coco & Woodward – Discourses of Authenticity in a Pagan Community

Discourses of Authenticity Within a Pagan Community: The Emergence of the “Fluffy Bunny” Sanction

by Angela Coco & Ian Woodward

[Coco, Angela, and Ian Woodward. 2007. “Discourses of Authenticity Within a Pagan Community: The Emergence of the ‘Fluffy Bunny’ Sanction.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 36 (5): 479–504.]

Points

  • Discussing “fluffy bunnies” is “a group boundary defining exercise based on moral judgments.”
    • It explores pagan ethics associated with the deployment of pagan artifacts and spiritual understandings.
    • Implicit in the discussion is a sense of a “them” who are seduced by media images and popular practices, or implicated in producing them, and a (serious, authentic) “us” who presumably distance ourselves from such things (480).
  • “In a consumer society one purchases objects—commodities such as Tarot cards, ritual tools, medieval dress—that enhance, edify, improve, and sustain self.
    • These objects then act as material boundary markers that suggest things people wish to cultivate about themselves and exclude polluting aesthetics/others” (482).

 

  • pagans are conscious of and practically engage in discussions about constructions of pagan identity and commodification of the craft which is exemplified in the notion of the “fluffy bunny” (499).
  • “A range of tensions emerges which we argue indicates the ways pagans in late-capitalist (or postmodern) society reflexively create meaning-structures around the production and consumption of goods and services that have become popularized as “pagan.” The nuanced features of these tensions reveal the conceptual distinctions and symbolic boundaries pagans create in establishing an “authentic” pagan identity” (483).
  • “The establishment of an “authentic” pagan identity is formed partly by one’s ability to discern the proper limits of commodification and consumerism in the pursuit of religious practice” (499).

 

  • Fluffy Bunnies defined:
    • “those people who gain a surface grasp of pagan practices but fail to incorporate pagan beliefs into their day-to-day life practices” (500).
    • “uninformed, immature, and lacking in their understanding of the forces of nature and consequently dangerous because they may misuse magic”—informant (500).
    • “a person who doesn’t know what they are talking about, or as was said not steadfast in there (sic) beliefs. I am sure that we have all met the 12 year old who is a high priestess and the leader of huge demonic armies and has alliances with the elves!!!!”—informant (500).
    •  “perhaps what bugs me most about these type (sic) is not so much the superficiality (which the ‘fashion-witch’ has in spades) but the hyposcrisy (sic) which often enables them todo harm whilst preaching love and light, and never once recognizing the results of their own actions”—informant (501).
    • “They refer to the superficial practitioner’s tendency to focus only on the light, happy side of life without balancing it with the dark and difficult aspects of experience” (501).

 

Abstract

The commodification of the religious impulse finds its most overt expression in the New Age movement and its subculture neopaganism. This article examines discourses in the pagan community in an Australian state. Pagans, who have been characterized as individualist, eclectic, and diverse in their beliefs and practices, network through electronic mail discussion lists and chat forums as well as through local and national offline gatherings. We explore community building and boundary defining communications in these discourses. In particular, we examine interactions that reveal the mobilization of pagans’ concern with authenticity in the context of late-capitalism, consumer lifestyles, and media representations of the “craft.” Our analysis highlights a series of tensions in pagans’ representations of and engagement with consumer culture which are evident in everyday pagan discourse. These notions of in/authenticity are captured by invoking the “fluffy bunny” sanction.

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boyd – It’s Complicated

It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens

by danah boyd

[ boyd, danah. 2014. It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. New Haven, CT, USA: Yale University Press. ]

Points

  • “Networked publics are publics that are restructured by networked technologies. As such, they are simultaneously
    1. the space constructed through networked technologies and
    2. the imagined community that emerges as a result of the intersection of people, technology, and practice.” (8, my spacing added)
    3. they are “publics  both  in  the  spatial  sense  and  in  the sense of an imagined community. They are built on and through social media and other emergent technologies … [and] serve much the same functions as publics like the mall or the park did  for  previous  generations  of  teenagers.” (9)
  • “Four affordances, in particular, shape many of the mediated environments that are created by social media.
    • persistence: the durability of online expressions and content;
    • visibility: the potential audience who can bear witness;
    • spreadability: the ease with which content can be shared; and
    • searchability: the ability to find content.” (11)
  • Four affordances further explained:
    • “Content shared through social media often sticks around because technologies are designed to enable persistence… Such content enables interactions to take place over time in an asynchronous fashion.”
    • “Through social media, people can easily share with broad audiences and access content from greater distances, which increases the potential visibility of any particular message… In networked publics, interactions are often public by default, private through effort.”
    • “Much of what people post online is easily spreadable with the click of a few keystrokes. Some systems provide simple buttons to “forward,” “repost,” or “share” content to articulated or curated lists.”
    • “Since the rise of search engines, people’s communications are also often searchable. Search engines make it easy to surface esoteric interactions. These tools are often designed to eliminate contextual cues, increasing the likelihood that searchers will take what they find out of context.” (11-12, italics added)
  • “The internet mirrors, magnifies, and makes more visible the good, bad, and ugly of everyday life. As teens embrace these tools and incorporate them into their daily practices, they show us how our broader social and cultural systems are affecting their lives.” (24)

  • BUT, “As a society, we often spend so much time worrying about young people that we fail to account for how our paternalism and protectionism hinders teens’ ability to become informed, thoughtful, and engaged adults.” (28)

  • Because adults don’t understand teens’ use of social media:
    • we take posts out of context
    • we conflate cyberbullying and “drama,” (“performative interpersonal conflict that takes place in front of an active, engaged audience, often on social media” [138]) when teens feel that actual ‘bullying’ doesn’t happen nearly as much
    • we don’t recognize that teens use social media as a way of being social with each other, not as a method of withdrawing from sociality
    • we see their acts of protest and politics as illegitimate
    • many other reasons…
  • on publics—”People develop a sense for what is normative by collectively adjusting their behavior based on what they see in the publics they inhabit and understand.”(201)
  • definition of meme—”Memes start when a particular digital artifact—be it an image, a song, a hashtag, or a video—is juxtaposed with other text or other media to produce a loosely connected collection of media that share a similar base referent.” (210)

Abstract (blurb)

What is new about how teenagers communicate through services such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram? Do social media affect the quality of teens’ lives? In this eye-opening book, youth culture and technology expert danah boyd uncovers some of the major myths regarding teens’ use of social media. She explores tropes about identity, privacy, safety, danger, and bullying. Ultimately, boyd argues that society fails young people when paternalism and protectionism hinder teenagers’ ability to become informed, thoughtful, and engaged citizens through their online interactions. Yet despite an environment of rampant fear-mongering, boyd finds that teens often find ways to engage and to develop a sense of identity.

Boyd’s conclusions are essential reading not only for parents, teachers, and others who work with teens but also for anyone interested in the impact of emerging technologies on society, culture, and commerce in years to come. Offering insights gleaned from more than a decade of original fieldwork interviewing teenagers across the United States, boyd concludes reassuringly that the kids are all right. At the same time, she acknowledges that coming to terms with life in a networked era is not easy or obvious. In a technologically mediated world, life is bound to be complicated.

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boyd—None of This Is Real

None of This Is Real: Identity and Participation in Friendster

by dana boyd

[Boyd, Danah. 2008. “None of This Is Real.” In Structures of Participation in Digital Culture, edited by Joe Karaganis. Social Science Research Council.]

Points

  • Based on fieldwork among users of the social networking site Friendster, specifically during the year 2003
  • Explores how the built in affordances of what was intended to be a dating site both constricted user communication and provided avenues for creative expression

Initial design of Friendster

  • Friendster allows users to see people at up to four degrees distance from themselves, which is much more than is possible in face-to-face social engagement
  • however—”Friendster flattens those networks, collapsing relationship types and contexts into the ubiquitous “Friend.” More problematically, Friendster does not provide ways of mapping or interpreting the contextual cues and social structural boundaries that help people manage their social worlds” (134).
  • So—”Not surprisingly, participants responded to the lack of differentiating texture and shared reference points in Friendster’s flattened social networks by negotiating new social norms and rules of conduct, communicable through the existing features of the system” (134).
  • This lead to the invention of fakesters—”fake profiles that signaled not the individuals behind the profile but communities, cultural icons, or collective interests” (139).

Participatory Performance

  • “The performance of identity relies on the active interpretation of social contexts. Familiarity with a context increases a person’s ability to navigate it—to understand what is appropriate or advantageous within it—and thereby shapes choices about the persona one tries to present within it (boyd, 2002). Contexts are not static backgrounds, but constantly evolve through this process (Duranti & Goodwin, 1992). Digitally mediated performance is no different, but the novelty and narrower channel of interaction affect our capacity to interpret context” (141).
  • The user interface started to interfere with users’ performance of impression management (Goffman 1956)
    • “A growing portion of participants found themselves simultaneously negotiating multiple social groups—social and professional circles, side interests, and so on. Because profiles presented a singular identity to the entire network, however, this diversification brought with it the potential for disruption of individuals’ carefully managed everyday personas” (142-43)

Articulated Participation

  • “Although transparency of information poses an interesting challenge, where the information comes from is also a problem. As Jenny Sundén (2003) noted, digital embodiment requires writing yourself into being. On Friendster this means an explicit articulation of who you are and how you relate to others, using the predefined mechanisms for expression. Through a series of forms, profiles must be crafted to express some aspect of identity and relationships must be explicitly acknowledged in order to exist within the system. Unlike everyday embodiment, there is no digital corporeality without articulation. One cannot simply “be” online; one must make one’s presence visible through explicit and structured actions” (bold added 145).
  • Friendships became strategic—”Impression management is encoded into articulated networks. The variable ways in which people interpret the term friend play a critical role, as does the cost of signaling the value of a relationship” (147).

Rise of the Fakesters

  • Many Fakesters began as practical endeavors to connect groups of people; alumni networks were constituted through Fakesters representing universities, and Burning Man was crafted to connect Burners .., Fakesters were a way of “hacking” the system to introduce missing social texture. These purposes were not limited to group networking: The vast majority of Fakesters were exercises in creative and usually playful expression” (148).
  • Friendster began cracking down on the Fakesters, deleting profiles that seemed fake, and the Fakesters became political.
    • “the Fakester Revolution … crafted “The Fakester Manifesto” (Batty, 2003) “in defense of our right to exist in the form we choose or assume” which included three key sections:
      1.  Identity is Provisional
      2. All Character is Archetypal, Thus Public
      3. Copyright is Irrelevant in the Digital Age (151).
    • Fakesters created Fraudsters, who impersonated other people on the service. Fraudsters were meant to confuse both the Friendster service and serious users …
    • Pretendsters combined random photos from the Web and random profile data. They were not fraudulent portrayals of any particular person, but automated Fakesters that mimicked real profiles” (152).
  • “Although Fakesters had taken on a collective impression of resistance, their primary political stance concerned authenticity. In discussing Fakesters, Batty was quick to point out that there’s no such thing as an authentic performance on Friendster—“None of this is real” …
    • “Through the act of articulation and writing oneself into being, all participants are engaged in performance intended to be interpreted and convey particular impressions” (153).

BIG POINTS

  • The abolition of distance—the classic Internet virtue—rendered many social distinctions invisible; the impact of Friends’ performances on individual profiles undermined the individual’s control over social performances; and the binary social network structure—Friend/not-Friend—erased a broad field of relationship nuances. Absent these strong orienting features, participants negotiated new norms and reintroduced new forms of social complexity” (154).
  • “digital networks will never merely map the social, but inevitably develop their own dynamics through which they become the social. The interaction of people with information systems is recurrently marked by play and experimentation, as people test the limits of their settings and manage the consequences of unexpected interactions and altered contexts” (155).

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Csikszentmihalyi & Bennett—An Exploratory Model of Play

An Exploratory Model of Play

by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Stith Bennet

[Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, and Stith Bennett. 1971. “An Exploratory Model of Play.” American Anthropologist, New Series, 73 (1): 45–58.]

Points

play is:

  • “action generating action: a unified experience flowing from one moment to the next in contra- distinction to our otherwise disjoint “everyday” experiences … “
  • grounded in the concept of possibility. We assume that in general individuals have the ability to assess what actions are humanly possible within the bounds of a given situation. The point is that in “everyday,” non-play situations the number of things that can happen is always more than the one series of events that does happen. Of all the possibilities for action that we perceive, only a few become ongoing projects: we can only do “one thing at a time”

So play is a way to think about the actions we take at any given moment—we acknowledge the choices for action, choose one, and commit to it.

  • “the ability to synchronize “starts” and “stops” with their social environment to produce interaction. This operational volition or decision for immediate action will be referred to as the “voluntary fiat” (45).

Play is the enactment of voluntary fiat under the right conditions.

  1. not too much worry:
    • “A multitude of boundaries constrain our projects at every moment, and talking about what to do and how to do it crowds the time for doing it to the extent that a full consideration of the potential frustrations of any project leads to hopeless anxiety.
    • Worry is experienced when the assessed possibilities in a situation far outnumber the projects available to the actor by voluntary fiat.
    • “The more things we perceive requiring us to act, and the less compatible these actions are with each other, the more worried we become” (45-6).
  2. not too much boredom
    • “A wearing tedium or dullness can pervade action that has become routinized, making it hard to tell present action from past actions, since monotony lacks change or variety.”
    • Boredom is experienced when the projects available to the actor by voluntary fiat far out-number the assessed possibilities in a situation.”
    • The fewer opportunities for action we perceive, the more bored we become” (46).
  3. “When there is a “balanced” state of affairs, when we can make each action by voluntary fiat, but still do not exhaust possible actions, the necessary conditions for play are established. ”
    • Play is experienced when it is impossible for the actor to differentiate projects available by voluntary fiat from assessed situational possibilities” (46).

BIG POINT:

  • “If one accepts the postulate that the essential aspect of the play-experience is a state of merged awareness and action, then the requirement of a good game, that is of an institutionalized play-form, is that it should allow the player to sustain this experience throughout a relatively long span of time. In order to accomplish this, games must limit by convention the realm of stimuli that the player need pay attention to: by establishing a playing field or board, by defining what are the relevant objects of the game. The game also has to limit the choices of action open to the player: by establishing the rules of the game. And finally the game has to limit the time within which the player can act: by clearly setting the starting and finishing times of the process. Within this limited spatio-temporal unit the player can abandon himself to the process, acting without self-consciousness” (46).
  • In other words, rules + limited relevant information + time limit = play / flow / free action

The article then goes through ethnographic information on games of chance, strategy, and skill, linking each to ritual divination. For more on this, see the annotations below.

Finally:

  • “We have been most concerned with the concept of “self”: of how it is forgotten when action is plentiful, and perhaps of what the experience of “selflessness” is like.”
  • “It is our contention that the full theoretical significance of the “self” concept does not unfold until the possibility of playing is considered.”
  • “Any concept of “self” relies on the ability of an actor to share perspectives of “others” who see him. Interaction is grounded in the “self” as integrator of one person’s actions with another, and therefore as the continual negotiator of social reality”
  • “What is important here for social theory is that a negotiable reality which is subject to varying interpretations and requires a “self” (everyday life) coexists with a voluntarily structured reality with no referential requirements (play). In other words, the traditional theoretical conflict between individual and society (or monism and dualism) is irrelevant for a man at play.”

Abstract

Play is defined as a state of experience in which the actor’s ability to act matches the requirements for action in his environment. It differs from anxiety, in which the requirements outnumber the ability, and from boredom, in which the require- ments are too few for the ability level of the actor. Games are reviewed with illustrations from a cross-cultural context of traditional and modern societies. It is suggested that games of skill, strategy, and chance all share structural characteristics that allow the player to limit his experiences so as to maximize the play experience as defined. Further theoretical implications are drawn from the model in terms of the relationship of individuals and the social system.

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Malaby— Anthropology and Play

Anthropology and Play: The Contours of Playful Experience

by Thomas Malaby

[Malaby, Thomas. 2009. “Anthropology and Play: The Contours of Playful Experience.” New Literary History 40 (1): 205–18.]

Points

  • The use of play as a theoretical tool, rather than being brushed off as a leisure activity, has taken hold across academic disciplines within the humanities and social sciences. Malaby wonders why Anthropology hasn’t been invested before now.
  • He argue that “while the ingredients of a more useful conception of play as a disposition (as opposed to an activity) were always present, and even found expression on occasion, the field as a whole stressed only two viable possibilities: play as nonwork and play as representation” (205-6).
  • BUT, “Departing from this pattern prepares us to recognize a better model for thinking about play, one that draws ultimately on the pragmatist philosophers’ portrayal of the world as irreducibly contingent. On this view, play becomes an attitude characterized by a readiness to improvise in the face of an ever-changing world that admits of no transcendently ordered account” ( bold added, 206).

Historically, play is divided in Anthropology

  • Non-work—position held by Materialists
    • Callois: “play is an occasion of pure waste” (206).
    • play cannot be commoditized, so it is worth nothing
  • Representation—position held by representationalists (gasp)
    • Ex. Geertz & Deep Play
    • play stands as a symbol of larger and deeper cultural meanings
    • BUT WAIT: “What should interest us about this treatment of a game, however, is the way it trades one kind of reductionism for another. In his zeal to trump whatever material stakes were in play with the different stakes of meaning-making, Geertz eliminated from consideration any consequence beyond the affirmation of meaning. On his view, games become static appraisals of an unchanging social order; and thereby, one element that is vital for any understanding of the experience of play is lost” (207).
    • “That element is the indeterminacy of games and the way in which, by being indeterminate in their outcomes, they encapsulate (albeit in a contrived fashion) the open-endedness of everyday life” (207-8).
  • So the point is that games are indeterminate, much like our complexly contingent lives.
    • “an approach to games that acknowledges this indeterminacy looks quite different from its past treatments. It connects games to other domains of experience by showing how they contain the same kinds of unpredictabilities and constraints that saturate our experience elsewhere, albeit combined in a contrived fashion. Viewed this way, games assume a powerful relationship to human practice and social process.”
      • “What is more, this view allows us to see how games may be related to a particular mode of experience, a dispositional stance toward the indeterminate. This is an aspect of experience that disappears from view when practice is left out in favor of materiality or representation” (208).
    • in Play and Work: A False Dichotomy, Stevens makes “a vital point that game researchers (and social scientists generally) are still prone to forget: if by “play” we are trying to signal a mode of human experience—a way of engaging the world whatever one is doing—then we cannot simultaneously use it reliably as a label for a form of distinct human activity (something that allows us to differentiate categorically between activities that are play and those that are not)” (208).
    • So then “when the work/play distinction is left behind, we see instead in ludic practice a more useful contrast between a cultural form (a game-like activity, no matter how playfully engaged in) and a mode of cultural experience (a playful disposition towards activities no matter how game-like)” (209).
      • Csikszentmihalyi’s flow is a mode, for instance
      • For Huizinga, it is the play-element
  • In the world, we also have this type of indeterminacy or contingency
    • can be compared to Heideggerian thrownness
    • also fits well into the concepts behind practice theory
  • There are three main features to this disposition of play in the world
    1. “First, it is an attitude that is totalizing in the sense that it reflects an acknowledgment of how events, however seemingly patterned or routinized, can never be cordoned off from contingency entirely …”
    2. “Second, the disposition of play is marked by a readiness to improvise, a quality captured by Bourdieu in his development of Marcel Mauss’s concept of the habitus …” 
    3. Finally, play is a disposition that makes the actor an agent within social processes, albeit in an importantly restrained way; the actor may affect events, but this agency is not confined to the actor’s intent, or measured by it. Rather, it allows for unintended consequences of action” (211).
  • The playful disposition does not need games, but can be leveraged to other means: “just as with ritual, it is the power of the mode of experience associated with it that makes the deployment of the cultural form a tempting project for individuals and institutions”

Play and institutions:

  • “In its study of ritual, anthropology undertook with great success a similar project, whose enabling insights should inform our current inquiries into play not least with regard to the relationship of these institutions to a social form they are beginning to deploy for purposes of their own …”
    • “games, as outlined above, manifest a playful disposition that, seeming to lift them above institutional interests, can, by the same token, be seen to validate those interests impartially” (213).
    • examples given
      • Linden Lab and its semi-successful attempts at gamifying the in-house decision making process
      • “gold-farming,” tying gameplay to actual capital accumulation IRL
      • TopCoder.com having coders compete to write the best code for specific commercial uses—the company then owns the code

Game vs. Ritual

  • There is an important “difference between the cultural forms of ritual and game. Rituals, despite the fact that they can go wrong—the fact, that is, they are subject to contingency—aim to bring about determinate outcomes …”
  • and “Games, while also a contrived cultural form and subject to similar kinds of sponsorship, are marked by the legitimacy of their indeterminacy; that is, their outcomes are supposed to be contingent” (214).

and finally—BIG POINT

  • “What is most provocative about the current moment, then, is how the explosion of thoroughly digitized games prompts us to confront the play element and its powerful yet indeterminate relationship to the emergent cultural form of computerized games. As institutions are coming to deploy games in their governance and in their engagement with a computer-mediated public, we may be well advised to see their efforts as similar to the age-old and ongoing attempts to employ ritual to prompt sentiments for nations or other groupings. The disposition of play is, in many ways, the latest sentiment to have been turned into the object of institutional desire. Some of us are prepared to bet that its roots in indeterminacy will be a bulwark against corporate takeover; but a bet is probably the most we can hazard. “

Continue reading Malaby— Anthropology and Play