Tuesday, November 15, 2011

#Occupy World of Warcraft

Ernest Cline's Ready Player One is a satisfying recapitulation of a favorite SF trope--the underdogs pitted against the evil establishment.  In this case, Wade (aka Parzival), and his friends eek out a meagre existence in a dystopian near-future while spending most of their time in a vast, online world--the Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation (OASIS).  OASIS was the brainchild of an eccentric computer genius (and 1980's nostalgic geek), James Halliday; when he dies without heirs, his will remits his entire online empire to someone who can complete  a series of puzzles and quests, find three keys, and win Halliday's "easter egg" (a nod to Warren Robinett and "Adventure").  Of course, finding Halliday's egg becomes an obsession for a generation of children raised on OASIS, but, of course, not just them.  The world's largest Internet service provider (Innovative Online Industries) has developed an entire "Oology Division" devoted to researching Halliday and finding the egg.  And they're Microsoft-ruthless.  The resulting corporate monopoly over both Internet and Internet content would turn "OASIS" into a mirror-image of the corporate oligarchy Wade and his friends inhabit in the real world.

The resulting, fast-paced shenanigans (without giving out any spoilers) will be familiar to SF readers--and to people who watched Cline's "Fanboy" (2009).  The novel is drenched--suffocated--by a miasma of popular culture references to the 1980's.  For people of a certain age (in other words, people like me), it may bring moments of welcome nostalgia, but I felt agonizing embarrassment as I went through this novel--and yet I read it anyway.  Wade and his friends are nothing if not dedicated students of the 1980's: researchers and fans.  Much of this tracks the obsessions of the characters in "Fanboy".  Wade's success owes much to his exhaustive "research": arcane references to D&D, perfect games of Pac-Man, knowing the entire script of Mont Python's The Holy Grail.  Ready Player One is a nerd primer, a gateway drug to cos-play. 

But there's another reason to focus on the 1980's: media and commodification.  During the 1980s, Ronald Reagan gutted FCC oversight of media, paving the way for the obnoxious, media monopolies that plague us today.  In this, the equally desultory 1996 Telecommunications Act was entirely consistent with this pandering to corporate interests (McChesney 2004).   The desolate landscape of mass media in the United States today is testament to the self-destructive path of American late-capitalism, and to the government-corporate collusion which fuels its agonizing paroxysms.

In the midst of the corporate plundering of the public sphere, the growth of the Internet seemed like anarchic panacea.  Never mind that the Department of Defense bankrolled it with ARPANET--the hagiography of the Internet is premised on its anarchic beginnings, and the valiant efforts of a select group of digerati to defend those freedoms from corporate takeover (Lessig 2006).

Ready Player One unfolds against these assumptions.  OASIS is the ultimate, anarchic space--the biggest MMORPG ever, with "haptic" gear to make the virtual reality co-extensive with our physical selves.  The corporations that seek to control it by finding Halliday's egg embody all the characteristics we've come to know and loathe: homogeneity, lack of creativity, outright criminality.  It is entirely natural that we would root for Wade and his friends against the faceless, corporate stormtroopers from Innovative Online Industries.

But who are we really rooting for?  Wade's hero--the eccentric, gaming tycoon, Michael Halliday, is the archetypal Silicon Valley entrepreneur--the Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg.  Those brilliant Ivy-league drop-outs who are the poster children for would-be entrepreneurs, the creative class, critics of higher education, liberals, conservatives: an empty, commodified sign waiting to be filled with our own capitalist desires for success.  But, to point out the obvious--aren't these also uber-capitalists with a monopoly death-grip over their respective corners of our information society?  Apple is not exactly synonymous with personal freedoms, is it?  Unless I'm mis-reading all of those EULA's.  Is the question here the "right" kind of capitalist?  Do we find some monopolies more palatable than others?    

There's a similar string of debate in gaming studies.  World of Warcraft (and other MMORPG's) are most certainly capitalist enterprises, with Blizzard Entertainment and Linden Labs profiting off both players and the content they produce.  That said, there's still a strong feeling that this is more "free" than, say, if Second Life got bought out by Time Warner.

In a recent article in European Journal of Cultural Studies, Harambam, Aupers and Houtman take on the question of capitalism and gaming, framing the debate as one over successive levels of capitalist penetration, what they term "orders of commercialization".   "First-order commercialization" here is the most benign--the "game as a commodity".   Here, players find their autonomy most assured, since they are allowed to pursue their play within the game without overt reminders that they are, in fact, consuming a commodity.  But with "second-order" and subsequent levels of commercialization, the heavy hand of neo-liberalism is more visible--in the real world markets that allow one to profit from selling avatars, and in the creation of a virtual space as a commericial space (as in Second Life).  But it's what Harambam et al term "fourth-order commercialization" that evokes the strongest, negative reactions from informants: "the plain, open and legitimate colonization of virtual game worlds by 'real' economic powers" (313).

It's this level of capital penetration that Wade and his friends oppose, but it's unclear that they represent a real alternative.  Does it ultimately matter if one group controls the monopoly over another?  To put it another way: if Wade wins the egg and becomes an instant trillionaire, is the world substantially different?  Ultimately, the debate is one over two levels of capitalism--a "lower" level capitalism allowing players the illusion of freedoms, or a "higher" level that reveals the commodification at the heart of the entire gaming enterprise.

But is one really more moral than another?  The difference between them comes down to the level of mystification: with higher levels of corporate penetration, the veil between the virtual and the real is lifted.  When we can take a break from epic battles to take our avatar shopping at Walmart, then the corporations have won.  But wasn't it corporate all along?  The only difference is one of strategy, with the overt commodification of the virtual piercing the illusion of corporate-controlled fantasy, but also, perhaps, setting the grounds for its own destruction in the disillusionment of players who realize they've been played.

As Second Life and other virtual worlds witness demonstrations and direct action that parallel that of the occupy movement in our physical world, it's worth asking what alternatives these occupiers are advocating.  Outside of rose-colored evocations of LamdaMOO, can we really imagine a MMORPG outside of capitalism?  What would that look like?


Harambam, Jaron, Stef Aupers and Dick Houtman (2011).  "Game Over? Negotiating modern capitalism in virtual game worlds."  European Journal of Cultural Studies 14(3): 299-319.

Lessig, Lawrence (2006).  Code: And Other Laws of Cyberspace, Version 2.0.  NY: Basic Books.

McChesney, Robert (2004).  The Problem of the Media.  NY: Monthly Review Press.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Hurricane Irene, the 7th Sigma and Cyberpunk Futures

Last night, I turned the pages of Steven Gould's 7th Sigma--basically a cyberpunk Western set in the arid hills of New Mexico.  For me, on Day 4 of no power in post-Hurricane Irene Baltimore, the words flickered in the candlelight and the novel seemed entirely appropriate.  In particular, the cyberpunk/steampunk mash-up of pre-industrial technologies with advanced IT--since I was simultaneously checking news and email on an iPhone.  Gould's novel, though, is interesting even if you don't live in a area recovering from a natural disaster.

We do not live in a world where technological and economic development move in lock-step.  In fact, just the opposite--vast swathes of the planet are locked into miserable underdevelopment; other zones explode into hyperdevelopment.  We are used to thinking about a "digital divide" that tracks closely along other forms of inequality: race, class, nationality, ethnicity.  But our everyday experience of technology is not particularly consistent, either.  In my case, legacies of earlier periods of urbanization (electrical wires mounted on poles) have led to the current, Stygian darkness at my house.  But there are lots of other areas of technological dissonance we encounter every day: taking trains, driving, filing papers, mailing letters.  Advertisements suggest that this is only a temporary, temporal anomaly, that we are moving inextricably towards an integration singularity that will sync my family with my entertainment system and my laptop.  But what if it's not?

What if we considered our technological futures as a palimpsest of different temporalities, the past, present and future cobbled together, with newer technologies overwritten on older ones?  There are plenty of people who do this when designing new technologies/ front ends/ use-interfaces for the present.  But what if we jettisoned our myths of technological convergence, those assumptions that these temporal discontinuities will all eventually approach equilibrium?  If it will never be the case that the technologies we might develop will be in perfect sync with the lives and organizations that antedate them, how might that change the ways people imagine technological futures?  Could those legacies move from being considered an obstacle of progress to being exploited in design?  

Monday, July 4, 2011

multimedia city

It’s December of 2010 in Seoul. A woman in her 20’s has taken a seat in the part of the subway reserved for the elderly and physically disabled (noyak chwasŏk). An elderly man approaches, expecting her to relinquish the seat (yangbo) to him. Instead, she refuses. “I’m sitting here—sit somewhere else!” An argument ensues. As luck would have it, a passenger sitting across from the disturbance tapes the whole episode on his cell phone, and within a short time, uploads the video onto the Internet, where it quickly gets cross-posted across hundreds of forums and blogs. Some netizens find her cyworld account (a social media site ubiquitous in South Korea) and start blasting her with abuse until she’s forced to close it down. Others recognize her from school. Someone says that she’s pregnant—and that’s why she deserved the seat. Finally, more established new sources in Korea (e.g., Oh My News) pick up the story—contextualizing the disturbance against societal change in a way not dissimilar (and perhaps all too similar) to what the blogs had been saying just days before. The incident of “Rude-speech Girl” (panmal nyŏ) focuses critique on several perceived problems in Korean society: the alienation of the city, the generational divide, the replacement of the multi-generational household with the nuclear family. But it also opens a door onto a shifting, kaleidoscope city.

It’s been over ten years now since the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai introduced “mediascapes” to anthropology—or not exactly, since anthropologists had engaged media many times before (think Hortense Powdermaker’s work in Hollywood: the Dream Factory). That essay, “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy,” opened up a productive inquiry into an urban ecumene that exceeded geo-political boundaries in significant “scapes” that linked (and decoupled) one place from another.

Built upon these disjunctures (which hardly form a simple, mechanical global 'infrastructure' in any case) are what I have called ‘mediascapes’ and 'ideoscapes', though the latter two are closely related landscapes of images. ‘Mediascapes’ refer both to the distribution of the electronic capabilities to produce and disseminate information (newspapers, magazines, television stations, film production studios, etc.), which are now available to a growing number of private and public interests throughout the world; and to the images of the world created by these media. These images of the world involve many complicated inflections, depending on their mode (documentary or entertainment), their hardware (electronic or pre- electronic), their audience (local, national or transnational) and the interests of those who own and control them. (35)

With Appadurai as provocateur, anthropologists looked to the intersections of people and what Guy Debord called “society of the spectacle”: global media, journalism, internetworked communications. The anthropology of mediascapes as a cottage industry extended anthropological consciousness beyond locality into global spaces.

The city is key to this—indeed, as many have argued, the city’s modernity coincides with the birth of media. Accordingly, the city develops as a particular way of knowing, of desiring, of seeing and of being seen. Photography appears as “an important placebo to the looming problem of cultural memory” (McQuire 2008: 34). Media represents new “forms of cultural display” to a population forever estranged from the medieval city (38). The “imagined community” of the nation is said to be premised on the architecture of print media—as well as the media of the state.
But here is where the bundled metaphors of Appadurai’s mediascapes fall apart—so helpful to think about the extension 19th century modernity into the mass mediated urban of the 20th century. Haussmannization means the top-down structuring of the experience of the urban—mediascapes extend that logic of control to mass media. But what to make of “rude-speech girl”? Is the primary function of the social media here representational? Are they about the production of images of reality? Are these “mediascapes” tracing a kind of representational architecture?

Many assumptions about the functions of media are limited by—imprisoned in—their spatial metaphors. The “media city” appears as a series of overlays sitting on top of the physical city, where we “leave” the physical to enjoin the “virtual”. But the multimedia city can’t be reduced to a kind of nonce-space: it’s primary functions are relational, temporal, phatic. Likewise, “virtual” and “real” shift back and forth in a way that resists awkward, “cyberspace” metaphors from Web 1.0 days. Here, “real” and “virtual” endlessly interpellate each other—non-Euclidean topologies, perhaps. Finally, the power relations are a good deal murkier than the media of previous eras of modernity. To be sure, the “rude speech girl” incident shows capital in the ascendent, neo-liberal technologies penetrating deep into the cortex of everyday relationships. But that said, neat algebras of media producers, media consumers, of domination and resistance, fail to describe the messy scrum of productions, reproductions and para-productions. On the other hand, the fault lines revealed in this episode—between older and younger generations, between gender identities—remind us that we haven’t “transcended” anything; indeed, to assume that would be to fall back upon bankrupt, spatial metaphors. That is, far from some break with modernity, “rude speech girl” continues the frisson of modernity into new, recurvate technologies that double back onto older identities and relationships.

Anthropology of the Multimedia City

How do we come to grips with the multimedia city? On the one hand, “rude speech girl” resists totalizing representation—lines of flight extend and multiply media into fractal complexities that cannot be reduced to a single, authoritative account where ultimate significance can be “mapped” against physical and social space. On the other hand, “rude speech girl” is an excess of representation—images, discourse, endless commentary, infinite regress. Finally, “representation” here may be less important than the capacity of multimedia to connect people together: the formation of networks of strong, weak and virtual ties that momentarily congeal around the production/reproduction/dissemination of multimedia. In actually, all of those goals and media effects coincide in behaviors that are as much about the performance of the self as the representation of the other.

The only way to accomplish an anthropology of the multimedia city is to intervene in that efflorescence—the way to the multimedia city is through the multimedia city. When we “intervene” here, it is not to arrest the viral movement of social media, but simply to generate the possibilities for different connections against entropic fields that will proliferate endlessly before finally collapsing on themselves. Not, in other words, to become media “producers” but to generate nodal constellations against those media productions.

Ultimately, the goals of an anthropology of the multimedia city may seem merely tautological: the multimedia city itself. But there’s more to it than that: the production of difference against a field of meaning that is as much about connection as it is about disconnection. That is, people weigh-in, re-post, re-mix, link—but in ways that exclude critiques against a neo-liberal development that atomizes and alienates the human even as it connects people together in novel and profound ways. Anthropological responses should be to enjoin that circulation, but to do so through a critical context that mediates against the totalizations of capital.


Appadurai, Arjun (1996). Modernity at Large. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

McQuire, Scott (2008). Media City. Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE Publications.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Anthropology By the Wire: A Public Anthropology?

At the moment, 12 community college students are sitting in a classroom on our campus getting visual anthropology reports ready for Monday.  They are here to work on multimedia anthropology--perhaps the public anthropology of the future.

Our NSF-funded project is an effort to bring together anthropological methodologies with multimedia production and community activism. In that, it seems to fit in well with the tenets of a “public anthropology” which, over the last decade, has transformed the rhetoric (if not the structure) of anthropology in the United States. As Robert Borofsky (who claims to have coined the term) defines it,
Public anthropology engages issues and audiences beyond today’s self- imposed disciplinary boundaries. The focus is on conversations with broad audiences about broad concerns. Although some anthropologists already engage today’s big questions regarding rights, health, violence, governance and justice, many refine narrow (and narrower) problems that concern few (and fewer) people outside the discipline. Public anthropology seeks to address broad critical concerns in ways that others beyond the discipline are able to understand what anthropologists can offer to the re-framing and easing—if not necessarily always resolving—of present-day dilemmas. The hope is that by invigorating public conversations with anthropological insights, public anthropology can re-frame and reinvigorate the discipline.
It is hard to object to these goals; they certainly speak to the desire of many of us to combine our academic interests with our responsibilities as educators to speak out on issues that affect all of our lives today. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing? Let me suggest (and I am not the only one to do this) that there may be a tension between addressing “broad critical concerns” and efforts to “re-frame and reinvigorate the discipline”. The one concerns our duties to contribute to public discourse, the other to draw attention to the discipline itself—or, perhaps, to the work of a select group of elite “public anthropologists”.
So is our project “public anthropology”? Yes, although I think of our effort as distinctly different than the “pundit” model of public anthropology. In other words, this isn’t an effort to become a contributor to the Nation, the Huffington Post and NPR. It is, however, an attempt to utilize anthropology for a critical re-framing.
Let me start with a parable, one that Michel Serres employs to great effect in his “The Parasite”:
A poor man is starving with an empty belly. He approaches the kitchen door of a restaurant. The smells of the fine food inside and finds that his hunger is somewhat sated. An angry kitchen hand come out and demands that the poor man pay for having taken his fill, for the services rendered. An argument
ensues. A third man arrives and offers to settle the matter:
‘Give me a coin, he said. The wretch did so, frowning. He put the coin down on the sidewalk and with the heel of his shoe made it ring a bit. This noise, he said, giving his decision, is pay enough for the aroma of the tasty dishes’ (p.34-5)
This is Serres’s theory of the “third man,” a noise that interrupts a system and transforms discourse. Picture a network map—lines (edges) link together people, ideas and institutions (nodes) in a structured, directed way. This person calls me. I use this form to communicate with this city bureaucracy. I go here on the weekends (but not there). But here comes a “third man”--another node in the network. Perhaps a new idea, new infrastructure, new conditions. These have the effect of transforming the value of all of the “links” (edges)--not, perhaps, in a revolutionary way, but with a measurable impact. The third man shifts emphasis from one path to another, opens up new paths, closes down others.
Multimedia anthropology intervenes in just such a way. Rather than be “transformative” in some absolute sense, anthropology here creates new linkages, new paths, shifting discourse, different understandings. But not in some monolithic way. The new meanings and possibilities only exist as a function of the nodes and edges that went before. They elaborate, qualify, re-connect. Also, this is not another narrative of the anthropologist-as-hero. Here, anthropologists are just more people joining a crowded social and discursive field: one more person to the table, to be sure, but also one who relies on the connections that preceded her. And one, ultimately, beholden to the other people at that table.  

And in this, "social media" is both metaphor and medium.  "Metaphor" because social media emphasizes the connectedness of what we do--even more, it structures the content of what we say and the way we communicate.  "Social media" implies that we are not collecting, interpreting and analyzing in a vacuum.  It reminds us that we are connected to many nodes--other people, other anthropologies, other histories--and that the weight of those connections not only shapes what we do, but enables it.  And "medium" because a social media anthropology is always already a public anthropology--an anthropology inextricably embedded in an audience.  

Thursday, June 2, 2011

A Korean multiculturalism?

A journalist contacted me about race and racism in South Korea, and I summarized some of my thinking (and prognostications) for him.  You may not believe it, but I think some of the most interesting (and potentially positive) things are happening right now with attempts to address race and multiculturalism in South Korea.

Is there racism in South Korea?  Absolutely, although the real question here is: what is the context for Korean racism?  And how is it different than other countries?  “Minjok" is a neologism borrowed from the Japanese that refers to a national ethnos.  It’s not the same as US operationalizations of race—nor would it be accurate to simply gloss it as “Japanese”.  Instead, it needs to be contextualized in the colonialist past—that is, while Korean minjok makes some of the same historical claims as Japanese minzoku (ancient, homogenous lineage, glorious destiny), Korean nationalist/ ethnic discourse develops first in the crucible of resistance to Japanese imperial ambitions, and then again in the wake of US occupation, partitioning (bundan) and the Korean War.  This is why you might find heavily nationalist rhetoric on both the Left and the Right—there are both conservative and progressive messages there.

But there’s another kind of “race” as well—this one very much the result of occupation by US forces during the USAMGIK period.  This “race” is, perhaps, more familiar to Westerners: the hierarchy of perceived phenotypical differences institutionalized in government, citizenship, employment, media representation, etc.  Koreans adopted this system as well.

But prior to the 1990’s, most people outside of Korea had little opportunity to experience either system—the resident foreign population was negligible.  But as that population has ticked upwards to 2%, so have opportunities for people to define themselves vis-à-vis racial others, and, in particular, guest laborers (who, whatever the complaints of expat American and Canadian English teachers, really bear the brunt of racism in Korea).  People from South Asia or Southeast Asia bear the double, racial burden as being defined both as non-Korean and dark-skinned.

As far as addressing these issues, there are all kinds of things going on right now in Korea, from lots of Korean academics studying multiculturalism, to lots of governmental and non-governmental organizations working to mediate discrimination and prejudice.  So I absolutely see things changing in South Korea.  But some of the more deep-seated (and hence more serious) problems are probably the same factors that contribute to deep racial inequalities in the US: not the incidence of hate speech itself (which, of course, still proliferates here), but in the access to networks of contacts that, in Korea, are invaluable for anything from education and employment to housing and marriage.

This sounds insurmountable—and it is certainly is challenging to progressive elements in South Korean society.  But it’s also exciting, because it means that whatever “multiculturalism” emerges in South Korea will be uniquely Korean—not, in other words, a recapitulation of the sometimes shockingly hollow US-style multiculturalism.  That is, it will address not only racial discrimination and differential citizenship, but also the post-colonial relations that reproduce these powerful inequalities. 

So, I continue to follow this issue, not just because of my Korean research, but to get some ideas for building a more inclusive society in the US.     

Monday, May 16, 2011

The New Anthropological Science Fiction--A Review of Ekaterina Sedia

Over the past months, I have been trying to decide (if only in my own mind) what anthropological science fiction looks like today.  After all, if you're looking for "fully realized worlds" in the style of 1960's and 1970's fiction, you'll not find it.  Even authors synonymous with "anthropological science fiction" (e.g., Ursula K. Le Guin) have moved away from that style towards something more like what James Clifford has called "partial truths".  "Ethnographic truths are thus inherently partial – committed and incomplete” (7). But, that said, anthropological science fiction still exists, albeit not by that name.  Or, rather, what's produced today is a kind of anthropological science fiction under erasure. 

That is, rather than the full (and functionalist) anthropological sf of the 20th century, what seems "anthropological" about sf today are exactly those partial, contradiction-ridden evocations of difference and alterity--no easy way to divide the alien other from the self.  

Ekaterina Sedia's The House of Discarded Dreams (2010) follows the dream-like adventures of Vimbai and her roommates through a perambulating, mutating house rife with variously mischievous spirits. It is absolutely in the tradition of the mysterious house--the genius of place that exerts its (oftentimes baleful) influence over its residents, from Hawthorne's House of Seven Gables to Lovecraft and beyond.

But when I read Sedia's novel, I had a more contemporary text in mind--Richard Grant's View from the Oldest House (1989).  Both, after all, feature disaffected college students discovering GREAT TRUTHS amidst an inexplicable house.  In Grant's novel, it's the tiresome Turner Ashenden, a Stephen Daedalus knock-off who is a spiritless foil for the postmodern jouissance that swirls decadently around him.

Sedia's text is certainly in that bildungsroman tradition, and even takes the same mis-en-scene, but with Vimbai, a New Jersey college student with parents from Zimbabwe. Her own relationship to Harare is tenuous--some vague memories of pictures, coloring books, and her grandmother--i.e., a very different place than the Zimbabwe her politically active parents fled.

But the New Jersey beach house she moves into is just the place to explore tenuous memories, ambiguities and contradictions.  As the house inexplicably takes to sea, Vimbai and her roommates, Felix and Maya, gradually confront their unresolved conflicts through encounters with various spirits--baleful or beneficent.  For Vimbai, a bestiary of Shona folklore, from the appearance of her grandmother as an ancestral spirit (vadzimu) who, fortunately, can cook for the roommates, to the "man-fish" Njuzu, a "Zimbabwean urban legend" (110).  The house seems to materialize her ambiguous relationship to her family, to the experience of race and racism in the US, to her education (marine biology) and to her sexuality:

Obedient, Vimbai dreamt,  Her dreams were vivid--more vivid, it seemed, than the waking landscapes inside the house.  She dreamt of smells and sounds, of saturated solid planes of color.  She dreamt of Africa as she had half-remembered it from her trip, half-imagined from the coloring books her mother bought her, and then got upset when Vimbai colored children on the pages pink instead of brown. (142)
Their exploration of the house's "pocket universe" brings Vimbai up against these dreams, and up against a life that she only understands in half-articulated kaleidoscopes of memories inflected with her parent's post-colonial critiques of Mugabe's Zimbabwe.

As she confronts zombie horseshoe crabs stricken with soul loss, the cognitive dissonance is too much:

This collision of worldviews--one that allowed for talking horseshoe crabs and one that hinged on graduate school applications--made her breath catch in her throat, bowled her over, brought her to her knees, and she clutched her head in her hands. (86)
But, eventually, she begins to come to terms with herself qua the contradictory networks that run through her life, connecting her to family, to ancestors, to other women.  
With every passing second, the wrinkles on her grandmother's face grew more and more familiar, with the same inevitability as one's face is recognized in the mirror.  Soon, the vadzimu and Vimbai would not be able to tell where one ended and the other began. (242-43)
With her grandmother's animus, it is Vimbai who begins to spin her own kind of magic.  Telling her own contemporary versions of ngano (pedantic folk stories), Vimbai is able to make peace with the trickster-figure man-fish and bring some semblance of order to her world.

It is an enigmatic novel--certainly as potentially narcissistic as Grant's View From the Oldest House, but never so self-assured.  Instead, the house stands at the intersection of global networks that bring together places, cultures, identities, social class, race and sexualities.
"That there are forces in the world," Felix answered.  "Forces that run along invisible wires--like phone wires of the spirit, and sometimes you get trapped in them like Peb, and sometimes you stumble in the middle and get caught like a fly in a spider web . . ." (71)
Sailing off into the ocean falls in to that "there and back again" cycle as much Odyssean as Earthsea, but it is also a way of enjoining a world of transitional, sociohistorical connections--a physical movement to mirror the movement of immigrants.   

So what kind of anthropological science fiction is this?  Perhaps some would place it more with  fantasy, but I see here a desire to interrogate the world-making that characterized more assured science fiction in the 1960's and 1970's--think Michael Bishop's early work, but more complex and more uncertain.  With Sedia, it is not the experience of culture contact that is at stake, but the open-ended life of a person stretched between different identities, what Lila Abu-Lughod has called a "halfie".  Who is self?  Who is Other?

And this kind of question cascades into the consciousness of multiple connections puncturing holistic visions of identity: nature and culture, local and global.  An animism that takes Sedia's protagonists over and beneath the seas, and one that ultimately undermines our understanding of culture as unified, integrated and autonomously human (in the Cartesian sense).  

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Future is a Foreign Country: locating tomorrow’s world in the world of the Other

It has been almost thirty years since Johannes Fabian published Time and the Other (1983), a scathing critique of the ways anthropologists have slotted the Other into “other” times—the “savages” or “primitives” said to resemble the West’s history.  In many ways, his critique is still relevant today; the same kinds of discourse are used to explain contemporary politics in the Middle East with reference to supposedly ancient ethnic conflicts.  But there are other temporal machinations at work these days as well.  A fairly typical, recent example: a February 22 New York Times article on South Korea’s ubiquitous computing (“ For South Korea, Internet at Blazing Speeds is Still Not Fast Enough”)—years ahead of the United States.  Instead of being slotted into the past, here Korea appears as the future—underscoring US fears of being overtaken by Asian economies.  In this way, US futures are invoked in comparisons with the demographics, educational institutions, health care and environmental concerns of other nations, and there are other axes of comparison as well, with people in South Korea looking to Singapore or Japan (rather than the United States) for clues to its own future.               
In an era of globalization, these “future states” proliferate, part of a perpetual state of crisis that constantly compares self to others, agitating for restructuring, free-market reforms, retraining, mobility.  Comparisons and rankings regularly contrast multiple indexes of neo-liberal development.  Conditions at home are critiqued, and the warning is clear: we may be overtaken by global futures that continue without us.  But unlike other forms of allochronism, these future states are multidirectional and stochastic.  While the West represented a privileged modernity at one time, now a diffuse, unsettled capitalism locates the ”the future” in several places simultaneously, along networked lines of flight that link, for example, Asia and the West together at different points.  In an age of neo-liberal globalization, images of the future travel along flows of capital, migrants and media, generating representations and desires that are at once diffuse and ecumenical, simultaneously critical and complicit with the present.
Of course, thinking of Iran, South Korea or Singapore as the “the future” is no more credible than looking to other places as representative of the past.  Here, we’re just reversing the gaze, while leaving the orientalist architecture in place—fear of “yellow hordes” updated for the age of the smart phone.  But there more positive possibilities here as well—call it a “cultural arbitrage” that highlights gaps between people’s expectations for modernity and its unequal realities; that gap can open a window onto contradictory experiences and force us to question the course of our futures.  Ultimately, we might question inevitability of neo-liberal globalization itself.   
I’m planning to compare discourses on “future states” in the United States, South Korea and Singapore.  Through anthropological research on state reports , media, future-oriented events and expos, together with interviews with informants (parents, educators, employers, state technocrats), I plan to explore moments when the future is displaced onto the Other, with particular emphasis on technology, education, multicultural policy and health.
Ultimately, I believe my findings will tell us much about how a relentlessly networked globalization works to colonize future imaginaries.  But I also hope it will open up the possibility for alternative futures.  That is, in the gap created by what is perceived to be the present and the future purportedly located in another place may constitute what Ernst Bloch called a “utopian surplus”: the possibility for a different global future altogether. 

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Can A Place Be the Future?

In a January 26th New York Times op-ed, "25 Years of Digital Vandalism," William Gibson reflects on the Stuxnet attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.  As a genuine futurist, Gibson looks to Stuxnet as a sign of the times--and a bellwether for the future.  He confesses, "I briefly thought that here, finally, was the real thing: a cyberweapon purpose-built by one state actor to strategically interfere with the business of another."  But he's disappointed in the end, to find that Stuxnet is really just another virus--albeit one perhaps appropriated by one government against another.  He is ambivalent about the meaning of this for the future of nuclear security. 

One of Gibson's strengths is his restless, global search for sites of the future.  Here, he looks to Iran, but he is best known for his (highly selective) evocations of Japanese postmodernity.  But this is a never-ending quest--the future proves elusively peripatetic.  As he commented in a 1989 interview, “I think that at one time the world believed that America was the future, but now the future’s gone somewhere else, perhaps to Japan, it’s probably on its way to Singapore soon but I don’t think we’re it” anymore."

But is this an ultimately pointless quest?  To what extent is it useful to think of the future as another place?  On the one hand, in an era of globalization, there's a certain temporal relativism at work.  One way of thinking of financial arbitrage (and other financial instruments) is precisely that: the exploitation of pricing irregularities that are a function of temporal distance.  After a relatively short time, these differences will disappear in a more homogeneous time of globalized capital.  But those are short, and necessarily fleeting, temporal distortions.   

In a sense, thinking of Iran, Japan or Singapore as "the future"is no more credible than looking to other places as representative of the past, a familiar tactic in 19th century anthropology, and still part of racist, ethnocentric depictions of non-Western peoples as "caught" in the "primitive past."  Here, we're just reversing the gaze--now, because of culture, politics or economy, the other place is thought to exist in an accelerated time horizon; looking at their "present" is said to grant us some insight int our future.  

But our more quotidian moments are more obdurately Netwonian or, perhaps the better way to think of it is "more Taylorist."  That is, after the work of F.W. Taylor, time for us is parsed out according to a unified, commodified form, ultimately synchronized into the monolithic, mechanical timepiece of global capital.  

Still, there is a real point to looking past the U.S. or Europe for the future.  And not because it opens up onto some magic window onto the next, big thing.  Call it "cultural arbitrage"--the gap that opens up between global modernity and the kind of hopes and expectations people have for their lives.  Looking somewhere else doesn't mean that our life will become more like their life.   But it does open up the possibility for reflecting on similar conditions in the US.  That is, the "gap" opens up onto our contradictory experiences and expectations and forces us to question the course of our own futures.

We'll be doing this in August of this year with our study abroad course in Seoul, South korea:   Harmony of Modernity and TraditionWe'll be reflecting on exactly those tensions that open up between people's lives and the modernity that we all share.  We'll be visiting temples, shrines, factories, shopping meccas, nightclubs.  Along the way to making sense of it all, we'll reflect on what it means for us as well.  Seoul not as a window onto the future, but as a means for thinking about our mutual futures.


Gibson, William (1989).  Interview (February) with Terry Gross on "Fresh Air."  Washington, D.C.: National Public Radio.   

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Technologies of Waiting

I've been reading Orvar Löfgren's and Billy Ehn's
The Secret World of Doing Nothing (University of California, 2010) in preparation for the Spring semester.  It's the first time I've used a work of ethnology  (i.e., a comparison of different cultures) in the classroom, as opposed to the conventional, in-depth monographs that are the bread and butter of US anthropology.

Lofgren and Ehn explore the cultural and social life of non-events, i.e., those parts of our life that we ordinarily "bracket" as irrelevant--the times we wait in line, or idly stare out a window.  There are interesting questions--especially with regards to methodology.  How do you do anthropology when no one thinks it's even worth talking about?  

Not surprisingly, they find that our experiences of these kinds of phenomena are culturally variable, and that "our" (US and Europe) expectations for non-events are very much conditioned by a modernity which 1) sets up a variety of institutions to organize people into spaces to contain "empty" time: waiting rooms, departure gates and 2) places a premium on "productive" time while making it immoral to "waste" time. 

One of the results is an in-built tension between "using" and "wasting" time--a double bind which places people in situations where they must surrender to the "empty" time of waiting while at the same time craving the productive, commodified time of the protestant work ethic.  If modernity replaced meaningful time (Biblical, moral, mythological) with time as an empty variable, then it is not surprising that people would find this unsettling.  Accordingly, there have been many technologies developed to solve the dilemma of empty time:
The accelerated pace of everyday life in the Western world is often said to have influenced the way people feel about waiting.  A whole industry has been built up around diminshing delays. (28) 
One of the major successes, of course, has also been the most Pyrrhic--the automobile has both sped up and slowed down--first by raising expectations for speed and crushing them with the multiplication of sprawl around the world.  Thanks to this effort to speed transportation (and the concomitant spread of suburbs), commute times are high: The average commute where I live (Maryland, USA) is 31 minutes.  China's average commute: 42 minutes.  Tokyo workers: 60 minutes. This hasn't stopped the desire for faster transportation at all.  Indeed, based on The Secret World, one would have to prognosticate that the future will mean various other devices to accelerate.

Still, thinking about waiting and technology, I can imagine other desires besides acceleration.  For one thing, many of the information technologies that we utilize have little to do with "saving" time--in fact, they introduce a number of time effects that include different ways of parsing out time, the frisson of sudden time dilation, the rhythm of turn-taking, etc.  This has been a major draw in gaming: the introduction of "game time" (Tychsen and Hitchens 2009).  Other IT introduces different time effects, the point being less that they introduce "more" speed, then that they demand that the user enter into the new pace.  Social network technologies aren't about speeding up or slowing down along a linear continuum so much as the introduction of different, temporal rhythms.  Aren't these temporalizations another reason for their popularity?

To take this back to Lofgren's and Ehn's book, the growing blight of "empty time" in the form of commuting and bureaucratization may give rise to various technologies of speed (in Virilio's sense), but will also stimulate the development of technologies that introduce new time effects.  "Empty time" acts as a an abstract table upon which variously commodified, variously meaningful time effects can be overlaid--e.g., the rhythm of text messaging and the dialectic of anticipation and expectation produced in the space of that temporalization.  But it's the difference that's important there, not necessarily the speed. 

Tyschsen, Anders and Michael Hitchens (2009).  "Modeling and Analyzing Time in Multiplayer and Massively Multiplayer Games."  Games and Culture 4(2).