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Notes on Boellstorff (2008), Chapter 8

July 12, 2009

Boellstorff, T. 2008. Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


Chapter 8. Political Economy, pp. 205-236

206 Aim of Part III to take distance from ethnography and ‘set forth hypotheses about culture in virtual worlds’

206 virtual worlds, unlike actual worlds, can be owned (usu. by a corporation); ‘through coding the platform and managing many aspects of social interaction, they enjoyed influence most actual-world governments could only dream of attaining’

206 SL good example of ‘creationist capitalism’,

…a mode of capitalism in which labor is understood in terms of creativity, so that production is understood as creation. Techne is the modality this creation takes; self-fulfillment becomes a means of production – a Robinson Crusoe-like fantasy of the individual working outside social relations’

207 stress on “you” shows ‘pronominal logic of customization seen in the ubiquity of “my” in Internet discourse”, e.g. MySpace, MyYahoo etc. [see my personal media article]. ‘In creationist capitalism, selfhood is understood as the customization of the social’ [Nice one, Tom].

208 SL shaped by Californian Ideology, ‘bizarre fusion’ of Frisco bohemia and Silicon Valley hi-tech; these opposites could become amalgamated “through a profound faith in the emancipatory potential of the new information technologies” (Barbrook and Cameron 2001) [can one speak, similarly, of the Singaporean and Malaysian Ideologies with their own unbounded faith in ICT?]

208 Christian metaphysics behind creationist capitalism [see also Kelty’s Two Bits on free software narratives and Protestantism]; 209 ‘In creationist capitalism it is persons who create, not God’; it is millenial capitalism that regards itself as “a gospel of salvation” (Comaroffs 2000)

209 predominant ethics is “Be creative” [cf. work by Kelty on free software or Roig Telo on collaborative filmmaking]; 210 as early as May 2004, SL residents had created over 99% of over one million inworld objects; prosumer model of capitalism. The cultural logic of creationist capitalism ‘renders intelligible a state of affairs where consumers labor for free…to produce advertising materials for a product they have already purchased’.

211 creativity as an inherent reward of practice in residents’ discourse: “I just like being immersed in so darn much creativity”.

211 although time and place are ‘the foundations of virtual worlds’ money was more sensational a phenomenon; so many concluded virtual worlds were real

212 author more interested in pragmatics (techne) of money than its semantics (episteme, meaning); the use of money ‘as a form of techne within the horizon of creationist capitalism’.

212 creativity not just use value, it’s form in SL of exchange value

213 bodily modifications as an aspect of fashion: you could design eyes, hair, skin for avatar bodies

214 inworld media, e.g. radios could tune a parcel of land to an Internet station

214 controversy over reselling things made by other people; also open source issues

215 rewards of practice – incentives paid by Linden Lab for ‘traffic’

215 highest paid job was sex worker; many other jobs, e.g. bouncer [see PhD thesis of Oxford student working on SL]

215 to build permanent objects residents had to own property – ‘an economic model in which property made the virtual “real”‘

216 reiterating thesis once again: virtual worlds are places; Linden went from initial object-based economy to a property-based one, putting into operation assumption that place at the heart of the virtual; this has long historical antecedents in the West, links tween capital and landscape.

217 a lot of social engineering needed to run vast properties owned by land barons

217 you could set any object you created to be ‘for sale’ for any amount you wanted; but if option not clicked avatars could interact with object but it couldn’t circulate as a commodity [see Appadurai, Social Life of Things, and its critics]

218 immaterial digital (re)production not the same thing as virtual materiality; eg you can reproduce a digital song infinitely, but a SL chair had ‘virtual materiality’: avatars could sit on it

219 interactivity not to be conflated with creation; but some companies that came to SL to advertise didn’t get this, they didn’t understand creationist capitalism. 219-220 ‘[T]he cultural logic in play was not that residents interacted with a commodity and its producer, but that they literally produced what they consumed through self-actualizing acts of creation’. [all sorts of media theoretical implications here, on interactivity see for instance Thompson, The Media and Modernity]…

220 …in sum, creationist capitalism is all about techne (practice) not episteme [see notes on earlier chapters]

220-225 Governance. Foucault (1991): shift from sovereigny to governmentality that went with rise of nation-state. Modern governmentality ‘concerned with an infinitely knowable and improvable population – seen, for instance, in the invention of mass education and public health’ [on improvable natives, see Geertz’ 1988 Works and Lives, last few passages].

221 …no privacy for avatars! Linden surveillance, residents always aware of its presence or possible presence, quite paranoid [my term] about Linden watching [sort of Truman Show or Big Brother scenario]

222 SL certainly not a democracy, absolute authority from Linden Lab [is this form of totalitarian power legal in the US? is there a legal loophole here?]; they claimed laissez-faire mode of governance – Californian Ideology

225 some local forms of governance did emerge, though, e.g. via ‘covenants’ on land Linden Lab staff said they wanted to delegate more governance to residents, but some controversy as leader often big landowner [this is absolutely fantastic stuff]; many residents shared in the Californian Ideology

225 inequality present in SL, just like in any human society studied by anthros. 226 Took on many forms among residents: on top were Lindens, i.e. ‘salaried employees of a company that owned the virtual world’; the came “Feted Inner Core” of long-term residents, often ‘content creators’ who ‘actualised the ideology of creationist capitalism’. 227 Some members of this class even hired by Linden Lab.

227 Darker side of Calif Ideology: poverty, exclusion, environmental degradation.

229 ability to script also created inequality

229 nevertheless, despite these inequalities, pervasive practices of egalitarianism

230-236 Platform and Social Form

230 SL fundamentally a program, 231 strong relation design and culture; virtual worlds allow much greater control over culture and social engineering than actual worlds

231-234  ‘How, then, does the platform shape the social form?’ Through:

  1. private property
  2. notions of place
  3. building
  4. embodiment
  5. friendship
  6. partners
  7. groups
  8. combating ‘griefing’
  9. platform downtime (“update Weds”)

234 That said, despite all these possibilities for social engineering and control, indications of how emerging forms of resistance could challenge this dominance, 235 e.g. protest on 23 June 2006 over new registration scheme so that Linden would bring back in identity verification for new accounts. [Residents concerned about their safety and that of their properties, Californian Ideology again; cf. Subang Jaya activism, Malaysian Ideology and similar concerns but in the actual world].

236 So SL governance is complex and two-way. ‘Struggles over governance will play a pivotal role in determining the possibilities for culture online in the Age of Techne’.

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