Artificial Cultures in the Digital Anthropocene
Forthcoming research project (beginning July 2018)
This project responds to the emergence of Artificial Intelligence (AI) with regard to a whole range of activities, from robots, vehicles, and drones to chatbots, non-player characters (NPCs) in video games, and digital assistants on smartphones and websites. AI has been identified as central to a “Fourth Industrial Revolution” that may render millions of jobs obsolete but may also relieve humans of repetitive and dangerous work. AI may foster unprecedented inequality but also may create unprecedented prosperity.
Despite these uncertainties, what is clear is that AI will transform what “sociality” means. Our digital future will not be exclusively human. We are entering a world where to be online will be to participate in socialities that include AI, and where offline sociality will include AI as well. A growing body of work challenges the tendency for the programs, protocols, and algorithms of AI to be “black boxed”—to be taken for granted, hidden, locked behind proprietary regulations so that they are unavailable to scholarly analysis and activist response. I will complement this work with a project that challenges the tendency for the sociality of AI to be “black boxed,” and to explore what happens if we subject this sociality to ethnographic analysis. While there are circumstances where AIs interact only with each other, for the most part they interact with humans. More importantly, there are already few contexts in which humans interact online (and increasingly, offline) in the absence of AIs.
Thus, the ethnographic subject of this project is what I term “Artificial Culture” (AC), a culture composed of human and AI agents. Human cultures have of course always been artificial in a sense, but I use “Artificial Culture” to highlight connections and divergences between questions of Artificial Life, Artificial Intelligence, and the emergent socialities that are the focus of this forthcoming research project. This focus recognizes the urgency of better understanding how it is that data is no longer just “about” society, and furthermore is no longer just a “context” for society, but is now sociality itself. Data is society. It should thus be amenable to ethnographic investigation: AIs and the ACs in which they exist are inseparable from our human futures.
The study of ACs presents exciting challenges and opportunities for anthropology. Anthropology has from its origins been concerned with the relationship between cultures—shared systems of practices and meanings embedded in power relations—and the specificities of place. Attention to the location of culture has thus been central to the ethnographic methods developed by anthropologists. Rather than conduct laboratory experiments, anthropologists conduct participant observation in fieldsites so as to interpret the everyday, often tacit assumptions and actions that constitute social life in the places where that sociality takes place (even if those places can now be multiple, networked, and translocal).
In my earlier work on virtual worlds, I built on this tradition to explore what happens when we recognize online worlds as places of culture. Tongue in cheek, I introduced this innovation by playing off the classic trope of the anthropologist arriving at a “remote island” to study the “natives,” asking what happens if the “remote island” is digital. This project takes that challenge to ethnography one step further, asking what happens if some of the “natives” are digital as well. In ethnographically studying AIs to learn what they have to say about ACs, my goal is not to evaluate if AIs are truly sentient. I am not proposing a new “Turing Test” to determine if computers can impersonate humans. Rather, I seek to recognize AIs as part of ACs and explore their role in emergent socialities that straddle the human and nonhuman, as well as the online and offline. To ethnographically investigate human cultures, it is not necessary that the anthropologist also be a neurologist. You do not need to understand the detailed workings of the brain, or even the detailed grammar of a language, to study and converse with members of a human culture, for the goal is to better understand the culture itself as a shared sociality. Similarly, to ethnographically investigate artificial cultures, it is not necessary that the anthropologist be a computer programmer. You do not need to understand the detailed workings of the code to study the human and nonhuman members of an artificial culture, for the goal is to better understand the culture itself as a shared digital sociality.
In this project, I will engage in a series of six-month ethnographic research projects addressing Artificial Cultures. I have long foregrounded methodology and ethics in my work, and key to this project will be the methodological and ethical issues it raises. How can Human Subjects protocols work when the socialities studied are composed of an assemblage of human and nonhuman subjects? In what ways can AIs be not just the object of ethnographic inquiry, but ethnographers themselves? Another methodological intervention involves time. The norm for fieldwork has traditionally been one year, based on the need to observe a full agricultural cycle of planting and harvesting. This has been questioned as ethnographers turn to new fieldsites. Unfortunately, this has sometimes led to claims that research is “ethnographic” when based on interviews in isolation, or a few days of observation with no real fieldsite participation. By experimenting with a series of six-month projects, I seek to explore differing time frames for ethnographic research. This can counter claims that analyzing “big data” requires quantitative approaches. It can also assist junior researchers in developing effective ethnographic skills that are legible in academic contexts, but also legible in industry and nonprofit contexts, where limited timeframes for research can otherwise make ethnographic research seem impractical.
In addition to ethnographically exploring the binarisms of human/nonhuman and online/offline, this proposed research project on ACs will explore the binarism of nature/culture through the rubric of what I term the “Digital Anthropocene.” Despite some claims that the concept “Anthropocene” is already dated, it remains empirically accurate and conceptually rich. It highlights how human technological action, which has always altered environments, is now immanent to a range of transformations of a different order than in preindustrial eras. From climate change to pollution and extinction, human action is now part of global ecology. The division between nature and culture, long identified as a conceptual supposition not an empirical reality, is now reworked (but not simply erased) as never before. And both sides of this binarism, “nature” and “culture,” are now partially digital. For instance, the digital shows up in the Anthropocene in everything from the poisons of electronic waste, to the growing ubiquity of remote sensing, to virtual travel’s potential to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
It is for these reasons that I contextualize Artificial Culture in the “Digital Anthropocene.” This will ground my new research project at the triple intersection of human/nonhuman, online/offline, and nature/culture. “Anthropology” is a powerful and still comparatively untapped resource for exploring the “Anthropocene.” Contextualizing Artificial Culture in the “Digital Anthropocene” will also allow me to draw on rich literatures in Science and Technology Studies (STS) that elucidate how the human has always been a multispecies project, from the microbiome to companion species, domestication, and ecologies—and now AIs. STS literatures have also challenged the nature/culture divide via attention to actors and networks, the materiality of sociality, and the affordances of systems. How can ethnographic attention to ACs through the lens of the Digital Anthropocene contribute to understanding nature and culture as both digital and physical, and both as constituted (not just occupied) by assemblages of human and nonhuman actors?
In the broadest sense, through this “Artificial Cultures in the Digital Anthropocene” project, I hope to foreground the vital need for treating current technological transformations as fundamentally social. They thus have crucial implications for selfhood, society, power, and ecological futures. What are these implications? How will different forms of Artificial Intelligence shape different forms of Artificial Culture? Different forms of human selfhood, embodiment, and interaction? How can ethnographic methods and anthropological frameworks contribute to understanding these artificial intelligences and cultures in formation? What do these new forms of “artificiality” tell us, in the widest sense, about artifice—the “art” and “craft” that share an etymology with the notion of “techne” that lies at the heart of “technology” itself? What will be the place of the artificial in the human, the world, and our shared future in the Anthropocene?
With support from the National Science Foundation, my colleague Donna Davis (University of Oregon) and I are engaged in a research project “Virtual Worlds, Disability, and New Cultures of the Embodied Self.” This website provides some basic information about this research project. How is the internet changing how people think of themselves as individuals and interact as members of communities? Many are currently investigating this important question: for this project, we focus on the disability experience in “virtual worlds,” three-dimensional, immersive online spaces where disabled persons can appear any way they choose and do things they may not be able to do in the physical world. Since some early human first picked up a stick to use as a cane, people with disabilities have been at the forefront of technology innovation. What can their creative uses of and adaptions to online social interaction teach us? We explore this question by collaborating with disabled persons as they create and interact socially in virtual worlds, and how they use different kinds of devices in their homes to experience these online environments. Virtual worlds have millions of users, but they are just part of a much larger domain of internet technology that includes everything from devices like smartphones and laptops to online venues like social network sites, blogs, and e-commerce. Anthropologists are expert in looking at smaller communities to see what they teach us about larger questions. This research will have implications for improving health care and social support. But it also will use the insights of disabled persons to better understand now new online technologies influence how we think about our bodies, how we think about social interaction, and how we think about the role of the internet in everyday life.
One publication related to this project is “Compulsive Creativity: Virtual Worlds, Disability, and Digital Capital.” Another article I have written related to disability (with Heather Thomas) is “Beyond the Spectrum: Rethinking Autism.” In this article, we draw on ethnographic research with autistic communities to explore how the notion of the autism spectrum has become a focus of explicit identification, reflection, and contestation. To further this inquiry, we place these debates into conversation with earlier debates regarding another spectrum—the Kinsey Scale, a “spectrum” for conceptualizing sexual orientation that first appeared in 1948 but has been critiqued since the 1970s. How might responses to the Kinsey Scale (like the Klein Grid) contribute to rethinking the autism spectrum?
Other work that speaks to this project includes (1) Rethinking Digital Anthropology (in Digital Anthropology. Heather A. Horst and Daniel Miller, editors. Pp. 39–60. London: Berg); (2) Placing the Virtual Body: Avatar, Chora, Cypherg (in Companion to the Anthropology of Bodies/Embodiments. Frances E. Mascia-Lees, Editor. Pp. 504–520. New York: Wiley-Blackwell); (3) Queer Techne (in Queer Methods and Methodologies: Intersecting Queer Theories and Social Science Research. Kath Browne and Catherine J. Nash, editors. Pp. 215–230. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2010); (4) Culture of the Cloud (Journal of Virtual Worlds Research 2(5):3–9, 2010).
Another current set of research projects has involved thinking theoretically about debates over “big data” and the digital. In Data, Now Bigger and Better!, my coauthors and I respond to “current debates regarding the new salience of big data in society” (Introduction, p. 1). In my chapter in this volume, “Making Big Data, In Theory,” I develop a set of theoretical tools for addressing questions regarding “big data,” including the notions of dated theory, metastasizing data, the dialectic of surveillance and recognition, and rotted data. Another version of this chapter appeared first in the journal First Monday, and it has also been translated into German. In “For Whom the Ontology Turns: Theorizing the Digital Real,” I address one of the most important theoretical and political issues haunting contemporary theories of technology: the opposition of the “digital” to the “real.” This fundamentally misrepresents the relationship between the online and offline, in both directions. First, it flies in the face of the myriad ways that the online is real. Second (and just as problematically), it implies that everything physical is real. Work in the ontological turn can help correct this misrepresentation regarding the reality of the digital. However, as it stands this potential contribution is limited by difference—a presupposition the ontological turn shares with the interpretive frameworks it ostensibly “turns” against. Drawing on ontological turn scholarship, my own research, and a range of thinkers including Tarde, I work to show how an ontological approach that problematizes both similitude and difference provides better resources for understanding digital culture, as well as for culture theory more generally.
I coedited the special issue (with Cymene Howe) Queer Futures which appears in Theorizing the Contemporary, Cultural Anthropology Online. For this special issue I also coauthored the introduction, “The Production and Reproduction of Queer Anthropology,” with Naisargi N. Dave, and wrote the article “Emergent Coherences.” I was a longstanding dream of mine to bring together a group of colleagues, of a particular cohort, to think about anthropology and sexuality. Scholarship, to me, is a deeply, deeply collaborative project, and I love nothing more than building these kinds of conversations and inviting as many people as possible to participate in them.
With my Irvine colleague Braxton Soderman, I am currently engaged in an interdisciplinary research project on the Intellivision gaming system, which was sold between 1979 and 1984. We develop the notion of “platform cultures” to approach Intellivision through a range of perspectives, including exploring Intellivision as social history, as computational platform, as gaming space, and as digital experience. In doing so, we seek to engage with a range of questions regarding platform and social form, material and computational affordances in digital experience, and emergent relationships between social context, visual culture, and gameplay. Our goal in this project is both to document an important episode in the history of video games, and to show how attention to early computational systems can provide conceptual and methodological insights regarding social media and algorithmic living in the contemporary moment. Precisely when so much appears to be changing so fast, attending to enduring dynamics as revealed in “legacy” systems can offer important insights.
Our article “Transplatform: Culture, Context, and the Intellivision/Atari VCS Rivalry” is a first publication from this project.
Several of my recent publications address questions of selfhood, technology, and the politics of belonging. In “Botanical Decolonization,” I and my coauthors (Tomaz Mastnak and Julia Elyachar) use an exploration of debates over “native plants” to engage in a historical and conceptual analysis that links notions of the Anthropocene to colonality. In the recent article Trending Ethnography: Notes on Import, Prediction, and Digital Culture, I explore the relationship between temporality and two striking features of contemporary digital culture research: the ways in which “the popular value of digital culture research is effectively (even ideally) expressed in a language of predicting success and failure; and second, that ethnographic methods are doomed to failure because anecdotal.” A short piece published collaboratively with the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk and participants in a reading group I organized in 2013, “Satan at the Center and Double Rhizomes: Discussing Spheres and beyond with Peter Sloterdijk,” speculates on questions of the human and relationality.
In recent years I have engaged in a collaborative research project on how Indonesians use mobile devices for purchasing and shopping, and what this reveals about emerging forms of online socialites. You can access the final report for that research project here. I have also written a number of afterwords regarding various aspects of digital culture, including Afterword: Consuming the Digital, An Afterword in Three Postcards, and An Afterword in Four Binarisms (in The Oxford Handbook of Virtuality). Some recent review or conceptual essays include Digital Anthropology (in the Oxford Bibliographies in Anthropology), The Politics of Similitude: Global Sexuality Activism, Ethnography, and the Western Subject, and Some Notes on New Frontiers of Sexuality and Globalisation. I have also recently published a book chapter exploring the notion of “moral terrorism” in Indonesia in the context of what I have previously termed “political homophobia.”
All these projects build on lines of inquiry articulated in my research on sexuality and nation in Indonesia (as discussed in a number of articles (see below) and my books The Gay Archipelago: Sexuality and Nation in Indonesia (Princeton, 2005) and A Coincidence of Desires: Anthropology, Queer Studies, Indonesia (Duke, 2007)), as well as my research on virtual worlds (as discussed in a number of articles (see below), my book Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human (Princeton, second edition (with a new Preface 2015; originally published in 2008).
My other significant current project in relation to these topics is Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method (Princeton, 2012), which I have co-written with three colleagues (Bonnie Nardi, Celia Pearce, and T.L. Taylor). While virtual worlds have existed for thirty years, interest in them has skyrocketed in the last decade. Once the domain of a narrow niche audience, online games such as World of Warcraft and more open-ended virtual worlds like Second Life have now entered into the mainstream, and intersect in multiple ways with other venues for online sociality like social networking sites and blogs. This expanding interest in virtual worlds has fueled a parallel surge of interest in how we might better understand the forms of identity and community emerging within them. These are questions of culture, and as such they prompt a consideration of practices and meaning-making (1) in specific virtual worlds, (2) between and across virtual worlds, and (3) between virtual-world and physical-world contexts. Ethnographic methods have long been recognized as one of the most powerful ways to explore such questions of culture. However, there remains great confusion as to how ethnographic methods must be modified (or not) for different kinds of virtual-world environments.
The Handbook addresses this confusion by focusing upon questions of methodology with regard to the specific context of online virtual worlds (including both non-game and game spaces). Ethnographic methods have become one of the principal means for studying virtual worlds and online games. Unfortunately, many researchers attempt ethnographic research with little understanding of how these methods are employed in anthropology and sociology, much less how these methods might be modified for the case of virtual worlds. The Handbook offers a succinct and practical guide on how to employ ethnographic methods in virtual worlds as described and practiced by internationally recognized experts, focusing in particular upon the key method of participant observation. The book provides a clear definition of ethnography as distinct from other qualitative research methods, an overview of ethnography’s epistemological foundations, and an explanation of ethnography’s core methods, including pointers to other resources researchers can use to expand their knowledge. In addition, it examines ethnography’s strengths and weaknesses when used as a solitary method or in conjunction with other qualitative or quantitative methods. Building on this foundational knowledge of ethnography writ large, this volume then turns attention to specific challenges and scenarios encountered in virtual world fieldsites. My co-authors and I hope the Handbook will provide a long-overdue resource and guide book for embarking on ethnographic research in multiplayer games and virtual worlds.
My coauthors and I have recently published an article recounting our online collaboration in writing the Handbook: “Words with Friends: Writing Collaboratively Online,” published in ACM Interactions. Another recent publication addressing questions of method is “A Typology of Ethnographic Scales for Virtual Worlds” (in Online Worlds: Convergence of the Real and the Virtual, William Sims Bainbridge, editor, Pp. 123–134, London: Springer, 2009).
Earlier Research and Editorial Projects
From 2007–2012 I was Editor-in-Chief of American Anthropologist, the flagship journal of the American Anthropological Association. During my editorship the journal experienced a 36% increase in 5-year impact factor, 61% increase in immediacy index (how quickly articles are cited), and 50.9% increase in article influence (how often articles are cited). In 2011, the publication became the most downloaded journal in Wiley-Blackwell’s 490 social sciences and humanities repertoire. I expanded the editorial board was expanded to include an Associate Editor for Public anthropology, and the journal now contains a public anthropology review section. I internationalized the editorial board, began publishing non-English abstracts, facilitated transnational collaboration, and added “Year in Review” articles, a “Vital Topics Forum,” and the journal’s first virtual issue.
The research projects described above build on earlier (and in many cases still ongoing) research projects. One of these projects involves questions of sexuality and nation in Indonesia, addressing as well questions of HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment among homosexual men and warias (male-to-female transgenders). This research builds on my work in HIV/AIDS prevention in Indonesia since 1992 (my first two visits to Indonesia were as a health outreach worker, before beginning graduate training in anthropology). Two publications based upon this work are “Nuri’s Testimony: HIV/AIDS in Indonesia and Bare Knowledge” (American Ethnologist 36.2 (2009):351-63) and “But Do Not Identify As Gay: A Proleptic Genealogy of the MSM Category” (Cultural Anthropology 26.3 (2011):287–312).
This research lies at the intersection of sexuality and gender studies, Southeast Asia studies, postcolonial theory, and the anthropology of globalization. It begins from the apparent puzzle of Indonesians who identify with the ostensibly Western terms gay and lesbi and consider these to be “authentically Indonesian” concepts, demonstrating how these subjectivities have originated at the conjuncture of globalization and post-colonial nationalism. Under conditions ranging from grudging tolerance to open bigotry, gay and lesbi Indonesians reach halfway across the world to appropriate these terms, transforming them to interpret their local experiences. At the same time, members of this network of organizations, friendship circles, and intimate relationships describe their struggle as a national movement, in accordance with government ideologies of nationalism that represent Indonesia as an “archipelago” of diversity in unity. Beyond the national level, they also portray themselves as linked to international gay and lesbian movements elsewhere in Asia and in the West, envisioning Indonesia itself as one “island” in an global archipelago. How are we to understand subjectivities that connect and confound traditional social scientific levels of analysis (and, arguably, lived experience in the West) such as local, regional, national, and international?
My work asks how this case demands a rethinking of Western assumptions about contingency, hegemony, and belonging beyond the specific case of Indonesian sexual subjectivities. Indonesia, at the center of vast changes in the Pacific Rim, the fourth largest nation on earth and the world’s largest Islamic society, presents challenges to contemporary frameworks for understanding the relationship between subjectivities and structures of power, but much more. This nation’s gay and lesbi citizens have much to teach us about how cultural citizenship is linked in unexpected ways to nationalism, consumerism, and globalization. Scholarship on sexuality outside the West tends to cast subjectivities like Indonesian lesbi and gay as either evidence for global homogenization, or evidence for a deeply universal human sexual nature. Classically anthropological scholarship ignores these sorts of subjectivities altogether in a search for “authentic,” “indigenous” sexualities. I show that the false dichotomy of either celebrating “global homosexuality” as revealing a hitherto hidden essence, or condemning it as a homogenizing force obliterating local diversity, is grounded in the modernist belief that sexuality is a self-contained, ahistorical domain.
My second set of ongoing research projects concern human culture in “virtual worlds,” persistent places online where persons interact and forge new forms of selfhood and society. Throughout human history, technologies—from the wheel to the book and beyond—have shaped forms of identity, community, and society. This second research project originates in the realization that we are on the verge of one of the most massive technological transformations in human history, the creation of societies on the Internet. The social sciences and humanities have only begun to acknowledge the speed with which online societies are becoming taken for granted among the young and are spreading among all age groups and around the world. We must develop tools and theories for investigating these online societies and their increasingly fundamental impact on human relations.
In my ongoing research in the virtual world Second Life, I apply the same ethnographic methods I have used in my work in Indonesia to examine virtual culture, as well as to explore how ethnographic methods must change for online contexts. In this virtual world my avatar (Tom Bukowski) has an office, “Ethnographia,” which you can visit within Second Life (it is located in Dowden, click here for a link). As Tom Bukowski, I study cybersociality in Second Life using participant observation, interviews, focus groups, and the analysis of texts ranging from newsletters to blogs. A key element of my approach is thus to pair the study of virtual worlds with “traditional” ethnographic methods, paying attention to moments of breakdown when the social relations of the virtual world in question resist ethnographic interpretation as generally understood.
Here are some images from the party held in Second Life (at the Cetus Gallery District) on June 18, 2008, for the official release of Coming of Age in Second Life.