Thursday, October 11, 2007

Walking the River and Flying Through Space

People often describe what I do as "ethnographic" work on game developers or digital librarians, because I own a voice recorder and actually interview people and carry a tiny notebook with me everywhere I go in which I write down copious notes. As someone very conventionally trained as a creative writer and a rhetorician in the academy, I find this assumption odd, since I think of these things as merely the most basic tools for competent writing, as good journalists know, rather than those associated with studying particular ethnographic subjects in their native habitats. So it was odd to be on a panel with people at the 4S who were actually part of the discipline of anthropology and able to articulate what "participant observation" or "ethnography" might mean in a truly scholarly context in connection with digital media.

In reflecting about computer-mediated experiences, the panel I was on presented two radically different points of view. Tom Boellstorff of my own campus at U.C. Irvine discussed how the research that he was doing in Second Life for a forthcoming book from Princeton University Press didn't require contact with people in their "real world" incarnations, a term that he problematized during his talk. This podcast from The Chronicle of Higher Education, "An Anthropologist Goes Native," explains his research methods to a less specialized audience than the one at 4S, which was very engaged with the questions that he raised about the relationship of techné to epistêmê in virtual worlds and the role that embodiment gaps may play in online sociality.

In contrast, USC's Jennifer Cool, told the story about VP pal Lisa Micheli, author of my alltime favorite title in an article in the JSTOR archive "Is wetter better?" and supercool geomorphologist. In Jenny's paper on "Walking the River," she argued that excessively formalist computerized data representation models based on high-tech mobile electronic gear were often not as valuable as the actual practice of "walking the river" by field scientists, which generates more constructive empirical knowledge in a highly situated personal record of the physical space in photographs, drawings, and hand-made maps. Just as 4S president Susan Leigh Star argues that computer architecture privileges a worldview dominated by formalism, Cool argues that computer 3D modeling programs that represent the natural world are similarly defined by rigid, hierarchical, syllogistic reasoning.

Update: After this posting appeared, Jenny Cool objected that "the summary isn't at all representative of my argument." Cool writes, "I did not focus on how formal models were less valuable, but rather on the blindnesses associated with them and the way they push aside and devalue non-formalized knowledge."

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