(For more details on my past and current work, see my cv. Check out this video for a summary of my virtual worlds research.The documentary Our Digital Selves is now out (74 minutes, Bernhard Drax, Director, 2018). Here’s a link to the film, and also a link to a discussion I had in the virtual world Sansar with the filmmaker and several participants in the film.)
Current Research: The Anthropology of Artificial Cultures
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is rapidly becoming inescapable; its impact will rival the internet itself. Offline we encounter AI in robots, autonomous vehicles, drones, smartphones, wearables, home assistants. Online we encounter chatbots, non-player characters in video games, digital assistants on websites. AI will render millions of jobs obsolete but eliminate much repetitive and dangerous work. AI could foster inequality, misinformation, and surveillance—but also unprecedented prosperity, transforming domains like transportation, health, and governance. AI’s implications for community and identity are virtually limitless.
Developments like these herald the rise of “Artificial Cultures,” cultures composed of human and AI agents. We desperately need a synergy of research agendas to explore the implications of Artificial Cultures; this project will contribute an anthropological perspective to that effort. In this project, I will engage in a series of ethnographic studies of Artificial Cultures in the three environments in which they are appearing: (1) AIs in digital worlds (like AI avatars in online games); (2) AIs in digital media (like chatbots on social network sites); and (3) AIs in physical spaces (like home assistants). The project goals are all oriented around the following key research questions: what norms, practices, and meanings are taking form in cultures that include both human and AI agents? What are the implications of this for understandings of society, technology, and human being?
The core concept of “culture” will be transformed by Artificial Cultures. It would be a catastrophic error to assume future ethnographers must strip AI from their analyses to discover authentic, real culture. Any ethnographic project now involves digital technology thanks to the global spread of smartphones, social network sites like Facebook, etc. The anthropological challenge of Artificial Cultures is that before long, any ethnographic project will also involve AI in some form. This project will provide conceptual frameworks and methodological innovations to respond to this reality, confirming the value of anthropology in this new era of Artificial Cultures.
Current Research: Intelligent Visions—Platform Cultures and the Intellivision System
Intellivision, developed by Mattel Electronics in the late 1970s and early 1980s, is one of the most important but understudied home video game consoles. This research project, a collaboration with Braxton Soderman (Film and Media Studies, UC Irvine) uses but also expands upon a “platform studies” approach to explore Intellivision and its broader significance. From a platform studies perspective we explore Intellivision in terms of individual games, but also in terms of the physical device, its computational infrastructure, and its aesthetics and marketing. By linking these various perspectives we show how Intellivision responded to dominant notions of video games (“shoot ‘em ups”) and television (the “idiot box”) at the time. This response pivoted around conceptions of “intelligence” implemented in domains ranging from the design of the hand controllers to gameplay and even advertising.
In two ways we expand upon previous platform studies scholarship. First, we develop the concept of “transplatform” to explore in depth how competition (particularly with the Atari VCS system) shaped Intellivision. We thereby show how platform studies is enriched when it takes phenomena like rivalries, which appear to be “beyond” the platform, as crucial to platforms themselves. Second, we develop the concept of “platform cultures” to show how culture and context are not external to platforms. Combining approaches from anthropology, game studies, media studies, and Science and Technology Studies, we use these concepts to show how Intellivision reveals how notions of intelligence and computing have intersected over time. This has implications for understanding contemporary assumptions regarding Artificial Intelligence, human being, and the nature of society itself.
Our article “Transplatform: Culture, Context, and the Intellivision/Atari VCS Rivalry” is a first publication from this project.
Current Research: Virtual Worlds and Disability
With support from the National Science Foundation, my colleague Donna Davis (University of Oregon) and I have completed primary data collection for the 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 “The Opportunity to Contribute: Disability and the Digital Entrepreneur“; another 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).
FORMER RESEARCH PROJECTS
The research projects below are ones for which I am not presently engaged in active data collection. However, in many cases I still publish on these topics, and they inform the current research projects above. I am happy to advise students with interests in these topics.
One 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 addressed 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.
Several of my publications address questions of selfhood, technology, and the politics of belonging. In “Botanical Decolonization,” I and my coauthors (Tomaz Mastnak and Julia Elyachar) used 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 article Trending Ethnography: Notes on Import, Prediction, and Digital Culture, I explored 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.
I 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).
Another significant current project in relation to these topics is Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method (Princeton, 2012), which I coauthored 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 addressed 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 also 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).
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.
My first sets of projects involved 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.