Decoding the Digital Part 1: The Playful Aristocracy

Two weeks have passed since Decoding the Digital at Rochester University, and if I don’t write it up now I’ll have forgotten what my notes mean.

A small aside – I write terrible notes. I always have. I find that I can either listen or write notes, never both. If I try and write notes, then i realise that I’ve be concentrating so much on putting the words down and I’ve totally lost track of the lesson, lecture or presentation. That was especially true of Physics at school. I passed my a-level on just eleven pages of notes for a whole two year course. So in the end I trained myself to just listen at University, and forego notes. That worked back then when my mind was agile, but now I’m older I find I’m not quite so good at remembering stuff. So I’ve taken to writing singles words down in the hope that it will trigger the memory of something I felt was important. I fancy getting one of the new iPads, and that programme that records while you are note taking, so when you tap on a word, it plays back the recording of what was actually being said at the time.

This though is a combination of written notes (from the handy-dandy note-pad and pen that was in our welcome packs), a couple of notes typed on my phone (I’ve taken to tweeting as a form of notetaking but the University of Rochester wifi wouldn’t play with my phone for some reason), and my own imperfect memory.

The meat of the conference, for me, started with the second presentation, from Australian New Yorker, McKenzie Wark. He told us he’s been on “Facebook” since the early nineties. Of course Facebook itself  didn’t exist back then, but the early social internet instead occurred on newservers and listservers. Listserve was an email sharing protocol whereby people shared an email diatribe with a community of subscribers. I used it a lot when I was doing my MA, taking a text to the pub then ranting about it (sorry, I mean critically appraising it) when I got home in the middle of the night. Now of course I’d do the same thing on a blog, however, as a family man, I go to the pub to read texts less often, and drink less, so my posts are somewhat more sober.

Enough about me though, Wark described his time on the listserve NetTime as the Silver age of Social Media, and spoke with a great deal of nostalgia about the proto-utopian, post-perestroikan days of the early internet. His presentation felt like a piece of digital archaeology. The community of NetTime, he said, were explorers of the digital frontier, creating a new culture and new digital artifacts without the limits of real world real-politik (other than the disdain that post-communist eastern European NetTimers had for their western peers’ enthusiasm for a Marxist internet). Some of the people from the virtual commune of NetTime went on to carve careers out of the digital age, but Wark wondered where all the others went. He lamented the freedoms of at early experimental time, commenting that the internet had been enclosed by corporate interests, and the likes of Apple’s iPad. I’d counter that more people have probably jailbroken iOS devices than had even had access to the internet in the 90s, but Wark said in questions afterwards that the same spirit of invention and creativity now only exists in play, in the gamer culture of the twentyfirst century.

Which made me think that all those NetTimers of the nineties were playing, really. Playing at politics, playing around with code, and trying on different identities. And maybe those names who’d disappear from NetTime without becoming academics or movers and shakers, probably only did so, because in the real world, family and work and responsibility had curtailed their playtime.

The social media of today takes a lot less effort than back then when people had to book time on university servers, and wait for the 1200 baud dial-up modems to whistle and whir through their digital handshakes. Back then, to play on the internet took effort and time. NetTime was therefore a privilege, not a universal right. And those who managed to carry on playing, like Wark were (or are?) a playful aristocracy, not the Marxists they (at least the western ones) thought they were.

Once I had the idea of a Playful Aristocracy in my head, it  kept coming up in later presentations. Sarah Higley, Professor of English at Rochester (and creator of Star Trek: TNG’s popular re-occurring guest character Reg Barclay), co-presented, with her Second Life avatar, Hypatia Pickens, a short history of Machinima, the art of creating movies out of virtual worlds like second life and mod-able games. Second Life is another example of how people with time to play, to devote to crafting can build themselves a not just a virtual pad, but a real-world reputation. I watch my kids build intricate Minecraft homes, and wish I had the time to do the same.

(Who am I kidding – I make time to play pen and paper RPGs. I’m not entirely sure I’d choose Second Life to spend my playtime in, I had a look at it once, but decided it would take too much of my time to even look good, that I couldn’t be bothered to continue.)

Aubrey Anable returned to Second Life the following day, this time with a slightly archaeological gaze. After suddenly becoming a media darling and the subsequent massive surge in popularity, the reported population of Second Life has now shrunk to about 30,000 to 60,000 active avatars. Given that users might have more than one identity in Second Life (Higley had previously mentioned a number of avatars that she used), that suggests the number of active users is even smaller. The digital homes, landscapes and other creations that laspsed users created still remain though, empty worlds that few visit any more. The active parts of second life have also been segregated into “adult” areas where participants gather to share alternative sexualities, and the somewhat less popular “clean” areas. Anable introduced us to two artists who explore the ruins of this virtual world, creating machinima of two very different styles. Cao Fei, or China Tracy as her Second Life avatar is know, produced a haunting documentary of the wastelands left by the Second Life property boom, called i.Mirror.

Jon Rafman, on the other hand, offers tours of Secondlife with his avatar, Kool-Aid Man. The sight of this American advertising icon in the silent discarded worlds and even the busy eternal nightclubs of the adult areas is strangely compelling.

Though it feels dilapidated, Second Life has, it seems, shrugged off the the tourists and hangers on, the newbs and time wasters. and those 60,000 avatars belong to a community of dedicated players, like Cao Fei, Rafman, and Higley, another playful aristocracy, who have the space (and time) to create new virtual artforms. Is it sustainable with such a small active population? We’ll have to wait and see. Its a commercial enterprise after all, and the company behind it could turn off their servers at any time.

But who are those who won’t or can’t dedicate their time to creatively play? Lu Wei of Zhejiang University shared some research into the digital divide. Once, he said, the digital divide was easy to define. On one side, a minority had access to the the internet, and on the other, the majority didn’t. But now that so many people, even (as one slide portrayed) peasant farmers in China, have access to the internet through their phones, does the digital divide still exist? He ask the audience who used the internet for email. We all put our hands up. Who used the internet for news? Again, we all put up our hands. Then he asked how many of use played games on the internet. Only half of us put our hands up. Lu Wei had been looking at what people used the internet for. And using date from a US survey in 2008, he showed that of the 11 activities listed in the survey, only a few were used by the majority of respondents. He demonstrated that the people who used the internet for more things tended to be better educated, wealthier etc. So he suggested, the digital divide remains. And it is somewhere around four activities, if you do more, he suggests, you are likely to be empowered by the internet, for example, by actively participating in local politics. If you do four or less, you are likely to be more of a consumer. Now, this data was from 2008, and although the iPhone was released the previous year, the explosion in smartphones mobile internet hadn’t quite happened. And as one of the audience pointed out, the eleven activities in the survey didn’t include playing games, or (possibly more notably) watching porn, so the data could do with updating, but the theory is a useful one, which has some resonance.

It made me think of a counterpart to the Playful Aristocracy which I’ve taken calling the Leviathan, the unawakened digital majority who now have access to the internet, but no time to play with it. Lisa Nakamura and Sara Perry offered two insights into darker side of the Leviathan. In her presentation Blowing up the Digital Humanities, Nakamura touched on identity and race in the digital domain, and how easy it is, and how willing some are, to push people of colour into “the other” on the internet. Perry, meanwhile, explored the transition between the pseudonymous internet (in which Higley, among others could build a playful reputation with her Hypatia Pickens avatar, and post-Facebook “real name” internet, which we have to use now, to build our real-world reputations on Linked-in, etc. Its an uncomfortable period for many of us used to the pseudonymous norms of yesteryear. Back then gender played a different role and, as in Second Life, one could present on-line as a different gender if one so wished. So gender and race, it seemed through rose tinted nostalgia-goggles at least, was less of an issue than now. Now we have awful threats directed towards a woman who simply campaigned for a notable female figure on a bank note, and a respected academic castigated for her looks while appearing on television debating programme,

I don’t want to tar the whole Leviathan with the same brush, but it seems there is a contingent there who, possibly feeling dis-empowered by the those who wield an on-line reputation of any sort, seek to drive their targets off the internet, though constant anonymous abuse. It feels as though we are approaching a fork in the road. Will the Leviathan learn how to engage socially and politically for the good of society? Or will the rule of the loudest drown out the voices of reason, and the internet descend into an angry dystopia?

Check out Sara’s Gender and Digital Culture project here.

Woah! This is in danger of turning into a dissertation, and I’ve covered less than half the speakers. So I better wrap up for the day, and cover the rest in another post,