The Geography of Virtual Worlds

I’m editing a special issue of the journal Space and Culture on the “Geography of Virtual Worlds.” Here’s a draft of the introduction. It’s still in process, but it might give some sense of what I think will be a very interesting issue.

This evening I am home in front of the fireplace, chatting with friends and looking out the window onto a wide expanse of ocean. Not far from my beach house, there are dance clubs, art spaces, snowy mountain peaks, and classrooms. I am only seconds from London, Berlin, New York, Dublin and Tokyo. And without much effort I can summon my friends from around the world to join me in my spa. You’re probably wondering how, on a professor’s salary, I can afford all this. The answer: log onto Second Life.
Second Life is a multi-user virtual environment (MUVE). But it’s not a game. Unlike other virtual environments like World of Warcraft or even The Sims Online, there is no built-in objective to the Second Life world. And yet, millions of users have “moved in” and participated in creating it – from building homes like the one described above, to building natural landscapes, and even entire cities. At the time of this writing, the world is composed of nearly 900 square kilometers of virtual landscape (Linden, 2008) used for everything from simple chat to collaborative work, performance, education, commerce and of course, sex. Corporations such as Nike, Toyota, and IBM have created presences there. The Center for Disease Control and the Red Cross have set up services.…

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Modernist Cartography

Jorge Luis Borges’ story “Of Exactitude in Science” tells the story of a King who orders a map made of his kingdom with a 1:1 ration.  The map is made to overlay the territory.  When you consider some digital cartography projects, including PdPal, it seems as though artists working in locative media of one sort or another are engaged in a similar modernist impulse to define the territory by overlaying a map.  Through the construction of a complete map, the ambiguity of the territory recedes.  While the digital versions of Borges’ story creates a malleable document, space is converted to a document nonetheless.

Seeing this contemporary work in light of Borges’ instead of Debord, as many people prefer, it gives the work a bit more historical consistency.  The new cartography is the realization of a rather modernist impulse towards the gestamtkunstwerk. 

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Visible Evidence

I’m sitting in my hotel room in Montreal after attending the Visible Evidence conference.  It’s been years since I’ve attended this conference, and I’m glad to be back in the fold.  It’s really a quite sophisticated gathering in many respects.  While the discourse on new media leaves something to be desired, the participants are dealing with many of the issues that confront people working in new media: indexicality, reality, ethics, arhives, etc.  I found the sincerety of the discourse at the conference to be refreshing.  More than many conferences, it seems as though there is a common project between academics, filmmakers and artists.  The role of documentation in a culture obsessed with documentation is a theme that demands many voices, and I commend the openness of the disciplines involved for accepting that multiplicity.

Over the past several days, I discovered new connections in my own work as well.  First, I realized that the paper I gave was too concerned with criticizing art work for not acknowledging connections.  I don’t want to be one of those people who criticize because they have no other way of participating in a discourse.   The work is interesting as experiment.  All I intend to do is place the work in a different context – a larger context of urbanism and spatial consumption.  The idea that artists are beginning from the same assumptions as commercial developers shouldn’t come as a shock: we’re all building on an existing culture.  The goals are certainly different, but that doesn’t detract from the important lines that connect the different aspects of cultural production and consumption. …

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Culture and Technology

Friedrich Kittler argues that “culture cannot be had without technology, and technology cannot be had without culture” (“The Perspective of Print“).  This seems like a fairly simply idea, but Kittler makes it complex.  What he’s trying to get at here is that they these two discourses (technology and culture) are always already the same thing.  Technology doesn’t emerge from culture (as a response to cultural needs and desires), nor does culture emerge from technology (as Internet culture or gaming culture that corrupts the minds of youth); rather, culture is a kind of technology (or system) and it is simply manifested through machines.

In Geoffrey Winthrop-Young’s article called “Silicon Sociology, or, Two Kings on Hegel’s Throne? Kittler, Luhmann, and the Posthuman Merger of German Media Theory”, he explains Kittler’s position this way:

This does not mean that computers are artificial human brains, or that they digitally ape specifically human ways of thinking.  Rather, they optimize certain patterns of information processing that were also imposed on human beings but subsequently were mistaken to be innately human qualities.  Where subjects were, there programs shall be because programs were there in the first place.

This gets to the crux of the matter: programs were there in the first place.  We mourn the loss of some pre-technical reality, or what Kittler calls the “ecologically sound Stone Age,” but it is just a myth.  Human beings have always been engaged in systems, and with each technological change the preceding system has been seen as natural. …

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