Origins, Control & Understanding

In response to another post, I ask – Is the debate really about the origin story and a human desire to ‘control’ all that is outside of them? I have been thinking about this, and I’ve come to think that the majority of research is human-centric, not because of our desire to control, but our desire to understand. The research carried out – even if we are looking at two non-human entities, is still being viewed through a human perspective. Through all attempts to be objective, research is still filtered through the ideology of the researcher, the methods selected by the researcher and ultimately, by determining the results – which, in the case of non-human actors, is an imposed meaning by the human researcher based on the tests, experiments, observations and readings.

I am struggling with this as much as I seem to agree with it. The argument that has been put forth to me is that non-human agents have (potentially) an identity of their own. But from my definitional understanding, identity is attributed meaning attributed. From my understanding, identity – like meaning, is a human construct. A rock is a rock (in all its physicality) whether I say it is or not. It exists outside of my human intervention of definition. But once I call it a rock, I ascribe meaning to its physicality, as the word rock has meaning behind it. So, another question is, is the rock’s meaning inherent in its physicality? Does an animal see the same meaning (definitionally speaking of course) as a human would? And how do other rocks see it? I know I am pushing the example a little far, as I know that when my friend speaks of non-human agency and interaction (and identity) she is not really speaking of rocks. But I am having trouble moving away from the idea that as long as it is a human looking at something, it will inevitably be, at its core at least, be human-centric – but not for control, but mere contextualized understanding.

If we, for a moment, forget about origin stories – are we starting in the middle? How far back does an origin story need to go before it blurrs (or spoils) the true phenomena that one is looking to understand? Maybe these questions are contextual? Different answers for the hard sciences and social sciences – since origins may have more meaning, more relevance in one or the other?

I am comforted by the fact that some of the great philosophers spent their entire lives never finding the answers.

*Note: If prompted, I could find references to contextualize some of this – at the moment, it is just an informed, personal ramble.

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I am a Sociologist; I study people.

Always something I have been uncomfortable stating – that I am a sociologist. But now that I am stepping towards convocation again, after 5 years of reading, writing and studying in one field I think I can say it proudly.

I have been working with digital culture and technology as a research focus, and have often read books about cyborg theory (Gray, Harraway, and Niedzviecki) which talk about the fusion of humans and technology. A friend of mine has been walking a slightly different path, looking at non-human agency in digital technology, and we have had many conversations about the possibility of identity and culture without humans. I have not read the literature she has, but my argument always comes back to the “but humans made the AI in the first place” argument, while her retort has often been “but moving past the human.. once it exists, there can be agency without the human”. I do not disagree with her, I just have not been wholly convinced yet.

Maybe its the anthropomorphic-centrism instilled in me by modernity, or maybe I’m just being difficult – either way, I stumbled upon an interesting passage last night while reading Hans Christian von Baeyer’s Information: The new language of science. Although my personal research interest lays in trying to remove the human from the absolute center of identity in the digital age, the following passage stuck with me – and reminded me that I am a sociologist, and (for now) I study people.

If it is true that the limits on information-processing will turn out to be more human than physical, technological or economic, it is ironic that popular usage makes so much of the prefix ‘cyber’, as in cyber-cafe, cybersex, cybercrime, and cyberworld. ‘Cyber’ was introduced into the English language back in the 1950’s by Norbert Wiener’s world ‘cybernetics’, which referred to the science of control over systems. He derived it from the Greek kybernetes for helmsman or guide – whose initial K appears in the name of the American academic honour society ΦΒΚ, an acronym for the Greek maxim ‘Philosophy, the guide of life’. As we surf the Web for the latest high-tech magic, it pays to remember the human roots of the word. A cybership without a human steersman is a vessel without control. [p. 8]

Indeed, it is human-centric – but for as long as I am studying cultures and identities (both human constructs) I think it’s ok to start from the inside out. This is not to say that there is not agency sans humans, but the question is, can culture and identity exist without the human? Perhaps I need to start with defining the difference between agency and identity – a task I have avoided until now.

Blogging & Identity Construction

The difference between face to face and digital identity construction has been my research focus for the past several years. As I finished reading Malaise of Modernity, I got to thinking about how identity constructed traditionally, in what Taylor calls a ‘dialogical’ process. Although not new to the idea of identity construction, he situates the process in contemporary society that is becoming increasingly individualised. The jist of the dialogical process of identity construction is that it is a two-way, reciprocal process between the self and the outside world. This follows the symbolic interactionist approach to identity construction as well.

The important point behind the dialogical process is that the individual is confronted with negotiating the actions and behaviors outside of themselves. They are influenced and affected by outside opinions, ideas and morals. The individual internalizes this information and in turn re-negotiates their identity. So far, nothing new here.

But what got me thinking, was Taylor’s focus on the alienated individual who becomes more and more seperated from outside influences, as individuals become less politically involved, less socially involved in an increase in self fulfillment over social fulfillment. This got me thinking about the role of blogging in Taylor’s view of modern society. It is also no secret that blogging has an impact on the blogger’s identity, often being seen as a public space for individuals to work out and negotiate elements of the self (think of Foucault, journals, essays and hupomnemata). But I wonder if blogging is a false dialogical process because of the blurring of the line of public and private within many blog spaces.

What I mean is, I sit here and I blog, knowing full well that it is a public space. Theoretically, I would be tempted to say that by blogging publically, I am participating in a dialogical process between myself and the outside world. But, seeing as there is little feedback in the blogging process, I am really only externally contemplating ideas and issues that are essentially internal – just in a public space. If this is the case, one could argue that blogging offers a false sense of exteriority, only really reinforcing the blogger’s position and therefore their identity. Is this a syndrome of an increasingly individualised society? I THINK I am having a conversation with the world, but really its all inside my head?

Moving On

Well, it’s been a week since I submitted my thesis, and I suppose it’s time to move on. It took me a few days after submitting to calm down, get rid of the jitters that plagued me every day wondering how my committee was taking to it. A few good days of junk television and hockey games, and it’s time to get on with my academic life.

I started last night by tackling the stack of books that I have been buying during my “no read” time. Over the past year, I have been discouraged to read as I was forever being inspired and spiralling out of theoretical control, so in order to focus on narrowing my work, I read only what was necessary to complete my thesis. It was nice to pick up Taylor‘s Malaise of Modernity. It’s short, sweet and written in a simplified dialogue of sorts (it comes from the Massey Lectures).

I will write more on this text and how it sparks questions of contemporary identity and the desire to seek (or create)digital community and identity.

Indeed, before I start theorizing anew, I need to wrap up some gamecode projects and get my PhD apps out there! Ah how tempting procrastination is =)

Another Good Book

A colleague and good friend of mine, Shanly Dixon; along with Dr. Sandra Weber have an edited volume due out soon called Growing Up Online: Young People and Digital Technologies available for pre-order over at Amazon.com.

From the original flyer:

In this cutting-edge anthology, contributors examine the diverse ways in which girls and young women across a variety of ethnic, socio-economic, and national backgrounds are incorporating and making sense of digital technology in their everyday lives. Contributors explore identity development, how young women interact with technology, and how race, class, and identity influence game play.

The Everquest Reader

Looking forward to seeing it in print!

“Online role-playing games are one of the most important yet least intellectually understood areas of digital culture. The EverQuest Reader is a collection of new essays that breaks fresh ground in the fast-growing field of games studies by theorising the major themes, ideas and activities surrounding
the online fantasy role-playing game EverQuest, which boasted nearly half a million players at its height and became a landmark of interactive entertainment in the online age.
Contributions come from many of the most respected writer/players in the world of gaming, including exclusive interview material with EverQuest creator Brad McQuaid. While media coverage often portrays online gaming as an addictive vice, The EverQuest Reader suggests it can be usefully seen as a platform for potentially endless social interaction and competition, thus shedding light on one of the defining social phenomena of our time.”
Eric Hayot is is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Arizona.
Edward Wesp is Assistant Professor of English at Western New England College.

THE EVERQUEST READER
Edited by Eric Hayot and Edward Wesp
July 2007
224 pages

Cod of War

From sex and violence to … violence in a fish costume? Yes, indeed! After finishing the game, you are rewarded with being able to replay the game with your full abilities, arsenal and a bonus fish suit. Yup! Kratos pulls up his tights and slithers into a giant fish costume and resumes the vengeful battle. There are other alternate skins (7 to be exact) to be found through completing higher levels and different tasks, but surely none are as great as the “Cod of War”