Paper presented to "TASA 98" conference,
QUT, December 1998.
This paper is posed in a somewhat reflective mode. It is reflection
that has been spurred by the availability of the conference proceedings,
the shifting directions of my thesis over the past 12 months and
the title of this session. It is also posed within this session
with a certain amount of trepidation. Despite the title and a
number of claims that I make in the printed paper, 'virtual' could
mistakenly be read here as a synonym for the practices and procedures
of information technology. This bald association does, however,
highlight a key point I would like to make today: that information
technology and electronically mediated space are the contemporary
expressions of a more expansive concept that, perhaps with the
benefit of hindsight, can be identified in different cultures
through, for example, the indigenous descriptions of mythology
and theology. It is in this way that I would argue that the 'virtual'
has been the provenance for a continuum of experiences and spatial
practices that does not start with the consolidation of information
If it isn't on my site,
chances are it doesn't
exist but you are more
than welcome to try out
these search engines
A description of a link on Sean Robertson's Website
And a Unix User said...
and all was null and void
Geek T-Shirt (http://www.gaftee.com/pg.UNIX.html)
The four tiered cosmology of the Yanomamo, for example, provides
an alternative model of the 'virtual' which incorporates both
everyday social experience, the ongoing experience of 'other'
people including ancestors and 'semi-humans' (such as those of
us here today) and the journeys of those with the capacity for
multi-tiered travel. Similarly, I could point to Chinese geomancy
as a philosophy and methodology of both 'virtual' and physical
provenances that has, over the past 700 years (or so), attempted
to produce a spatial understanding of the relationships between
nature, the built environment, the 'spirit' of place, Chinese
people, ancestors and a few others. I, however, stop short of
claiming the 'virtual'/Information technology nexus as some quasi-theological
'other' place. I would suggest, however, that within the 'virtual'/information
technology combination there is a contradiction of potentially
theological proportions. Information technology's 'gift' of the
electronically mediated'virtual' provides the illusion of ultimate
social connection and accessibility. Embedded into this 'gift',
however are also the seeds of inequality. Corporate agendas that
adhere to a belief in the benefits of this gift as a consequence
institute discriminatory practices founded on the spatial differentiation
of opportunity and access. The inequalities described through
the dichotomy of being information rich or information poor appear
to be founded, however, on the premise that space is inherently
public and pre-existent until it is 'owned' or somehow possessed
and made private. Whatever the validity of this perspective might
be for a space construed within a 'physical' provenance, space
conceived with a 'virtual' provenance, I would suggest, is inherently
private from its social conception until it is explicitly altered.
If inequality is measured against one's quantifiable access to
information then virtually provenanced spaces are constructed
as both privileging and unequal.
I have tried, in various work, to tackle the significance, and
even the meaning, of conducting a 'virtual' sociology and anthropology.
Attempting to operate under this perspective has itself been a
problematic juxtapositioning of conceptual frameworks which has
been further troubled by the association of, at least, two separate
meanings to the label of 'virtual' sociology, both as a methodological
approach and as an interpretation of particular contemporary phenomena.
This issue has accentuated some of the difficulties of working
in this 'field' as the two 'meanings' are not entirely complementary.
As a methodological approach, 'virtual' sociology looks towards
electronically mediated means to facilitate various forms of qualitative
and quantitative data gathering. This adopts a generally media
orientated interpretation of the 'virtual' by implying that the
'virtual' is a direct conduit for the flow of information between
the subjects and their researchers. In contrast, the 'virtual'
sociology that seeks to understand the 'virtual' as the overarching
description for a range of venues of spatial practice can offer
critique on sociological inquiry which is conducted 'through'
rather than 'in' the 'virtual'. This methodological procedure
would be seen as treating the 'virtual' unproblematically as an
unmediated, empty space - if that were ever possible This critique,
however, also reveals the juxtaposed conceptual frameworks of
'virtual' sociology. In arguing for the 'virtual' as the provenance
for spatial phenomena a 'virtual' sociology could potentially
represent a examination of the social which fetishises certain
spaces, and a particular provenance in preference to the development
of understanding around particular social contexts or phenomena.
This fetishising can, in itself, obscure the complexity of space
as an artefact/practice/representation and prevent the disentanglement
of provenance from space. This latter issue is particularly difficult
as the language of space itself privileges materiality and implies
an intimate relationship between the physical and reality.
What I am considering in the broadest sense, then, is the extent
to which the 'virtual' provenance is significant as the rationale
for study in itself. Could work orientated around a 'virtual'
provenance, in fact, be compared to an investigation of people
who live at number 17? Alternatively, instead of ignoring space,
a charge leveled at 'traditional' sociology, should space become
the primary focus for the study of the 'virtual'?
The explorative nature of these efforts are also revealed in comments
I received from one reviewer for the paper in the proceedings.
They argued that my paper was effectively an over response (or
perhaps a hyper response?) to the claims of technological determinism
that pervade current discussions of IT. And while this was clearly
a piece of gentle criticism I had to spend some time thinking
through why this may be such an apparently crippling aspect to
My approach to these issues has been to tackle the 'virtual' as
a provenance for spatial practices and the stage for immaterial
artefacts while abjuring the observable connections of the current
versions of the 'virtual' with electronically-mediated spaces
and IT systems. This is not an original approach but it does contrasts
with interpretations which claim the 'virtual' as a media or,
somewhat more obtusely, as a 'technological' thing. These 'other'
interpretations, I would claim, represent the dominant understandings
and representations of the 'virtual' yet they are also readily
accommodated within claims for the 'virtual' as a provenance for
social space. This perspective also constructs the inequalities
found in IT use and 'virtual' spaces as multifaceted and multi-sited.
Inequality is found interwoven into the contextual relationships
between physical space and 'virtual' space in a manner which extends
beyond simply the possession or otherwise of particular material
culture. Similarly, the inequality of experience couched within
the framework of IT assumes many if not all of the sociological
classifications being worked through at this conference: gender,
ethnicity, class, sexuality and age for example. This complex
of inequality prohibits the application of 'simple' solutions
that might be found by supplying computers and network access
to those who do not already possess it. In many ways, the discussion
of inequality in relation to IT assists in the perpetuation of
a privilege currently ascribed to the artefacts of IT. This particular
category of objects focusses the discussion upon IT rather than
on specific social contexts and those who experience or perpetuate
inequality. This centering of the artefact in a discussion which
ostensibly regards immediate social experience could even lead
to the suggestion that the presence of IT is the cause of inequality
rather than a material component in a coherent series of meanings
that reinforce and reflect particular social relationships and
distinctions. IT - as an artefact - when it is cast into a central
position in the discussion of inequality also covertly contributes
to the complexity of the discussion by pitching a seemingly leviathan
but singular 'thing' against the multiple and subtle forms of
inequality that sociology has invested a great deal of time in
identifying. These questions also raise the more problematic issue
of defining what IT actually might be. Treated in isolation as
either a category of artefacts or as a series of social practices
the full impact and scope of IT within contemporary life is obscured.
Similarly reducing the experience of the 'virtual' to a media
(and mediated) experience simplifies the relationship of the 'virtual'
to other modes of experience by constructing a binary upon which
more 'classic' treatments can be laid: good & evil, real &
artifical, authentic & fake and heaven & hell. This treatment
operates to the detriment of those trying to locate a 'virtual'
voice and equally obscures positive and negative aspects of IT.
These combinations are found at finer levels of granularity which
preclude dismissing or accepting electronically mediated 'virtual'
experiences en masse.
As a way of proceeding I will make some bald statements that summarise
these reflections on 'being' virtual. However, I do not want to
assign the role of 'anti-hero' to IT or the 'virtual' in this
paper, nor do I want to present a neo-Luddite view of the world.
These simplistic arbitrations of the world do little for the understanding
of the multiple contexts of the 'virtual' and obscures the potential
advantages that may come from integrating a 'virtual' provenance
of experience into learning, entertainment or other consumption
opportunities. I would like to pose these issues instead in a
more positive light by suggesting that the way in which the 'virtual'
is conceptualised has a direct bearing on how it is utilised.
A conceptualisation of the 'virtual' which can offer an understanding
of its relationships to the 'physical' presents critical opportunities
that do not require the the blind acceptance of the 'virtual'
experience as an inevitable consequence of technological change
or advancement. If the social sciences are to offer sustainable
perspectives on the 'virtual' they cannot be directly tied to
the specific technologies available in 1998 (and this includes
the World Wide Web, MUDs or Email) nor, however, can they become
ethereal philosophies. These extremes either over-contextualise
the material culture and production aspects of IT or ignore its
associations with, and foundations upon, more metaphysical positions
which precede the availability of silicon chips and transistors.There
are many potholes along this middle path, many of which my reviewer's
identified in the first draft of the printed paper. This is, I
suspect, in part the result of attempting to draw together material
culture understandings with more ethnographic concerns into what
is multi-sited research.
A significant difficulty found in interpreting spaces of 'virtual'
provenance is the attempt to understand the manner in which a
particular space combines 'virtual' artefacts with contemporary
social practices. This arguably drives towards the core set of
problems that a 'virtual' sociology is attempting to understand.
The social experiences that educators desire in 'virtual' classrooms,
that capitalists seek in their virtual 'malls' and that dispersed
groups are hoping to construct within 'virtual' communities combine
familiar rationales, processes and ideologies with an unfamiliar
artefactual reality. The various 'virtual' artefacts that assist
in the facilitation of these spaces are often generic and derived
from a starting point that is bound and mediated by the limitations
of a particular technology. The most obvious example of this can
be found with Microsoft. The range of products offered by Microsoft
is small, the company offers, in effect, one word-processor product,
one database product, one spreadsheet product and so on (although
the 'in' joke of late has been that Microsoft's best selling database
program is Excel). These offerings serve the purposes of millions
of people to varying degrees of success. Yet, despite this focussed
marketing approach Word, for example, has a range of limitations.
Do you use the thesaurus? Does Word's dogged insistence on certain
spellings annoy you occassionally? Instead of refining these capacities
to produce something that could perhaps assist the writing process
an increasing arrays of other 'features' are incorporated into
Word. Does Object Linking and Embedding get us excited? Does inserting
AutoText make your palms sweat with anticipation? Despite claims
that the Microsoft Office suite is intuitive universities, coporations
and other institutions spend substantial amounts on training services.
This is a digression but nonetheless it highlights one of the
interesting contradictions of IT discourse.
The intercession of corporate marketing and technical limitations
upon the production and mediation of 'virtual' experience should
not, of course, be seen as something particularly unique. In some
respects, at this broad level of generalisation, these influences
upon the articulation of experience and the meaning of things
should be familiar to any student of contemporary consumer culture.
The 'virtual' artefact, and I include 'virtual' space here, as
with any artefact, is variously constrained and influenced by
a series of interlocking demands. The distinctions between artefacts
are found in these particular demands. Some of these demands are
immediate responses to provenance, however, still others are the
demands of production and consumption.
Positioning and Siting 'Virtual' Sociology
Where does this leave the actual 'doing' of 'virtual' sociology.
My personal responses has been to contextualise and 'site' research
within environments that incorporate multiple provenances. Two
quite different opportunities have presented themselves to me
recently. An explanation of which may assist in clarifying some
of the points I have already made.
The first site is a learning environment, more specifically, the
Logan campus of Griffith University which commenced teaching at
the beginning of this year. This campus has been constructed literally
from the ground up as a 'flexible learning' campus. While I don't
have the time to explain what Griffith means by flexible learning
it is not intended to be a distance education or computer based
learning establishment. The intention of the campus is to facilitate
positive learning outcomes by bringing together the educational
advantages that can be found in either 'virtual' or physical provenances.
The built environment, for example, has been shaped to reflect
this mixed provenance and a learner-centred focus. Lectures don't
exist at Logan. Each subject at Logan has some form of web site
and each student is automatically issued with an email address
which they are expected to use. There is also a high ratio of
computer to student ratio.
It is within this environment that I am hoping to gain an understanding
of the effect of a mixed provenance of experience upon a learning
environment through a combination of material culture and ethnographic
The second site, which is much more tentative, involves the Rotuma
community. The Rotumen are dispersed through the Pacific and elsewhere
to the extent that a majority do not live on the island of Rotuma
itself. To redress the potentially damaging effect that this may
have on the notions of community, tradition and association there
is a Rotuma notice board currently hosted by the University of
At first glance this is a relatively unremarkable web site. However,
closer examination reveals that this site has become one site
for the enactment of the Rotuma community and its reassertion
within a global context...or, rather, I should couch this in the
past tense. I rechecked the site last night and discovered the
a redesigned Rotuman community site that appears to be bereft
of postings. The series of questions that this prompts are numerous
but most seriously why has the use of this site/this space decline
so rapidly? Can this change be understood by solely considering
the virtual provenance or should it be contemplated as part of
the spatial practices of the Rotuman community at large and as
a result reflect a more significant change in that community?
My curiousity has been tweaked.