Cybercultural studies and the role of ethnography

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The history of cyberculture studies is fascinating for one main reason, the arguments people make haven't changed in the twenty some odd years of it's existence! As David Silver describes, the discourse about cyberculture generally fell into one of two camps: utopian or dystopian. Scholars and the mass media alike have either raised cyberculture to the level of panacea, or argued that it is single-handedly destroying the world as we know it. While I can see this as a rational and likely dialog when the original networks were being built and the first generation technologies were mediating cyberculture, I am shocked that I still see this simple dichotomy expressed today. Even more, I am stunned that I often fall into one of these camps, defending the internet as the potential savior to all the negative things I see in the world.

I find myself in a difficult position as someone who engages the web, both personally and professionally. I constantly feel the pressure to defend the way I use technology and the work I do attempting to enhance technology against some fictional "bad-man" who is set to prove the dystopian scholars and journalists right, and render all my hopes and efforts fruitless. Unfortunetely, in my own mind and in social/professional situations, this often puts me in the position of the utopian advocate, defending and explaining why this internet thing is really important. I say unfortunately because I find it makes it really difficult for me to maintain a balanced perspective, one that healthily integrates the utopian and dystopian. It also forces me into a sort of trap, where I end up thinking about cyberculture in meta-theoretical ways, treating it as an it, rather than engaging cyberculture as process.

Of course the processual view is equally frustrating. While scholars look at particular parts of the web, particular communities, and study them in ethnographic fashion, I often find this approach less than appetizing. Most often, these studies end up commenting on a very simple point, that cyberculture is much like real culture, and can legitimately be thought of and studied as such. While this is an important point, it is hardly worth rehashing numerous times. What I find lacking in this more "nuts and bolts" perspective of the web is the theory of the utopian/dystopian argument. It's missing a critical compenent that outlines why this is important and what it allows us to say about our lives and humanity itself - it's missing meaning.

So where we end up is not far from where cybercultural studies began. Many people are attempting to bridge the gap between the real and cyber worlds, showing the impacts of cyber activity, or the lack there of (digital divide), on the real world. While important, much of this study seems to outline simple ideas and idiosycratic notions.

Just beneath the gaze of academia and popular culture is an emerging sense that cyberculture is no longer a thing unto itself that is separable. It is now becoming an integrated part of our thoughts and theories, offering commentary on every aspect of society. While we try to study cyberculture, it is studying us. Just as we make discoveries and weave theories, it is making damning commentary on all of our best efforts. There is a certain agency about cyberculture, one that is beginning to undermine all of our notions about the institutions that make up society. There is something afoot, something like an adolescent child finding her voice and declaring that she is no longer a projection of her parent's will, but a fully formed human being all her own.

Cyberspace/the internet/the web viewed as an organism, not a static it or a simple process, but a full fledged evolutionary organism seeking its own enlightenment, offers a metaphor that will become increasingly more salient. This organism is a grand act of creation, an interweaving of collective knowledge and consciousness as vast as can be imagined. As a grand manifestation of human creativity, it is clear that anthropology must engage it. But ethnography will not survive if it continues to see the internet as a thing or as a machine without agency (no matter the complexity). Ethnography must engage it as an organism, as a being; it must join the creation; it must create. As cultural anthropologist Neil Whitehead says, "in the realm of cyberspace it is only through active participation that there is anything to observe at all." 

Stunted by postmodern reflexivity, anthropology has been stagnant for many years now, unable to reconcile human agency with cultural holism. Cyberspace seems to offer a light out of this morass, an opportunity to participantly observe by creating. By creating in cyberculture, we are simultaneously participating and observing, and all through an act of near narcissistic auto-ethnography. But, the hyper-social online environment acts like a mirror that reveals the external projection of an individual to her internal perspective. It liberates creations of their creator by making them living social commentary. And so, as Whitehead demonstrates, this form of creation "is not just the presentation of theory, but rather an active performance of theory."

Thus, the task is to create a digital ethnography...

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