The speeding angels of Línea 5
The speeding angelsAnother instance of culturally appropriating the automobile, going well with bososoku, zelda vans, and bedford’s metamorphosis. Good-looking Joanna Michna, who graduated in anthropology together with me here in Munich, has made a great ethnological documentary movie on Colombia’s balineros, called ‘The speeding angels of Línea 5′. I would translate ‘balinero’ as ‘Of the ball bearings’, or less literally: ‘Dances with trucks’. For everybody capable of receiving German television’s infamous ‘third channels’, her film is rebroadcasted—D’oh!—was rebroadcasted yesterday night. Sorry. But! WDR will rebroadcast it again on Thursday 14 April 2005, 08:45-09:30 AM local, that is German time. The early bird catches the truck.

In Colombia there is only one east-west connection viable for heavy trucks, which crosses the Andes and the Central Cordillera’s high passes—the infamous Línea 5. This highway is the country’s most important lifeline. All commodities, e.g. to and fro Buenaventura, Colombia’s vital harbour, are transported via the Línea 5.

Going through sheerly infinite bends and twists, the Línea 5 climbs up to 3200m above sea level—and down again on the other side. Steep serpentines, sudden falls in temperature, and wafts of mist make the transition over the passes extremely dangerous. At this needle’s eye between east and west the balineros live—them of the ball bearings. In there tinkered carts, made of some pieces of lumber and the hotly desired ball bearings, they speed to wherever they can help out or lend a hand. Here Loco is on the road since thirty years, up- and downhill, up to 80km/h fast. The balineros organize the truck traffic, fetch replacement parts, and guard broken down trucks while the drivers are away. Balineros are proud to earn a living by honest work.

15-year-old Felix desperately wants to become a balinero one day. That definitely is his biggest dream. Untill now he does the less honorable jobs, like washing the heavy-load-trucks. But since one year he has gathered all the necessary parts for his own cart. Now finally—after the first ride in his new cart he will join the order of the speeding angels of the Línea 5 …
more at 360°, and at WDR (both in German)


ethnographic skype

pith helmetOftentimes there is a confusion about what anthropological ‘fieldwork’ actually is. Following the dear, self-created myths of the profession the term ‘fieldwork’ (which—as a term and as a concept— has a longer tradition in sociology than in anthropology) is mixed up with the Riversian/Malinowskian paradigm: at least one year abroad + participant observation (roughly sketched). This is not fieldwork in general, but already one specific version of it. Things are made even worse by an utter uncertainty about what ‘participant observation’ (another dear myth of the profession) actually is. For seeing more clearly in this matter I only can recommend Spradley 1980 (sometimes not recommended by colleagues, but I think it to be a good book nevertheless) and Spittler 2001. Me personally, I am an ardent believer in Spittler’s radicalised form of ‘participant observation’, which he calls ‘thick participation’. But in order not to create yet another myth of the profession, one has to follow Spittler’s advice: complement participation by other methods. Systematic observation, quantitative methods like the ethnographic census, running-wild and structured interviews, and whatyouhave—everything the particular context dictates (see this online-available bibliography of anthropological research methods Dow 1992). Especially the ‘ethnographic interview’ is a strong instrument (Spradley 1979—highly recommended by almost every colleague I know). The whole bundle of all the methods used to gather data and insight while sojourning in the field constitutes ‘fieldwork’. Nothing less.

One aim of my project is to transpose anthropology’s rich and powerful methodology to the terra nova online: thick participation plus its weaknesses compensated by other methods like the ethnographic interview.

skypeQuite a number of papers on cyberculture tell us that computer-mediated communication (CMC) is ‘text’ to be read—obviously influenced by interpretative/postmodern currents. This seems plausible, especially as CMC oftentimes manifests itself as the exchange of the written word. But this all too obvious correllation is misleading. Life online has another quality to which the term ‘communication’ does not necessarily hint: action and interaction, the stuff anthropologists embrace. Furthermore is it not true that only text—in the literal sense—finds its way through the Internet-infrastructure. Images, both still and moving, sounds and music, software-applications, and code himself are exchanged lively via a multitude of channels—at least among ‘my people’. This bulk of exchange does not merely constitute communication. It is action. Despite of that, I confess, it is true that the larger part of communication between the members of my community happens through the written word. Set aside the occasional phone calls. But there is skype, a ‘voice over IP’ aka ‘Internet telephony’ no-cost long-distance service.

Phil Shapiro, who “takes an interest in how rich media on the Internet can assist in the creation of social fabric” published Using Skype as a Community Media Production Tool:

Among my favorite public television programs is the Charlie Rose Show. Host Charlie Rose has a knack for getting his interview subjects to share their ideas and views in a way that illuminates the matters at hand. But did you ever stop to think that the only people who appear on his show are celebrities? And that 99 percent of the interesting people in this world are not celebrities?

So, who is going to interview all those people? Answer: the people [and anthropologists!] will interview the people. What tool will they use to create high-quality interviews that can be widely distributed? Skype. How will these interviews be shared? Using all forms of media: the Internet, public access television stations, podcasting and various computer media. […]

As Damien Stolarz has put it, Shapiro provides us with a “Simple hack using Skype as an audio interviewing and archive tool. Instead of needing phone interview recording hardware (which you might not have) you can use computer tools (which you have in abundance).” This contains tremendous possibilities for every trustworthy cyberanthropologist. And if one agrees, that the theory-based generation of new forms of representing anthropological findings and knowledge indeed is a part of cyberanthropology, even more opportunities arise.
via Damien Stolarz‘s entry at o’reilly weblogs


fatal feedback

Spiegel online since yesterday carries a follow-up to the events behind the MMOG-related homicide in China. The author Christian Stöcker nicely links the ‘dragon sabre murder’ with recent ongoings concerning ‘computergames violence’ issues: Hillary Rodham Clinton seems to appropriate the topic for her campaign and heavily critizes the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series. A somewhat late criticism as already the first installment of the game (for PlayStation and PC) provoked controversy back in 1997. All right, Clinton especially preys on the infamous hooker-murder in GTA3—but GTA3 was released in 2001 (for PlayStation2, then 2002 for PC, and 2003 for the Xbox), therefore being a dated game, too. At least compared to the likes of Doom3, another worthwhile candidate for the mentioned kind of criticism. In GTA3 being the first of the series featuring a Wolfenstein/Quake/Doom-style threedimensional gamespace, I suspect an implicit, subconscious motive for choosing it as a target. In public discussion 3D-space is thought to be less abstracted from meatspace, more prone to ‘realism’, and featuring a higher probability of the player identifying with game-content. The angst is that players, especially the youthful ones, are not able to properly disimmerse from the game, internalize game-behavior and values, and ultimately take them over into the offline-world, generating devastating outcomings. In consequence Clinton now wants to commission a study about the influence of computergames on kids—supported by $ 90 million! I feel tempted to apply.

Legend of MirThe lethal incident in China (cyber sabre) seems to come in handy for Clinton’s argumentation. But beyond the rather curt first story from Reuters (no offence, that is Reuters’ job), a slightly different picture is revealed. It was not a sword with which the victim was stabbed, but a knife. Immediately after the attack the 41 year old perpetrator surrendered to the police and, on advice from his lawyer, pleaded guilty to intentional injury—he never meant to kill, he said. Not trying or wanting to excuse anything, but it seems that the homicide was commited in a rage. A rage born out of a feeling of having been betrayed. That the subject matter of the betrayal was a game item is mere coincidence, not a central issue. But by the power of elocution, slight alterations, well-aimed omissions, and accentuations it easily can be made the core issue. Then the story reads like this: A hardcore online role-playing nerd, already having lost every sense of ‘reality’, day-in day-out running around gamespace, carrying and using archaic weapons, transposed the alarming rules, values, and habitus of a deeply violent ‘virtual reality’ to ‘our real world’. The spoilt kid [for that is always assumed] grabbed a sword—a sword, Ladies and Gentlemen, imagine: a sword!—as he would have done inside the vicious game he is hopelessly addicted to, and cruelly slayed a human being whose only deed was selling an insignificant, immaterial game-item which entirely consists of bits and bytes only. The conclusion following that interpretation is blatant. But that is not the focus of the article at china daily. It concentrates on the now created “legal dilemma in China where no law exists for the ownership of Internet gaming weapons.” Which indeed is a topic worthwhile—especially in the face of the fundamental meaning those items evidently have for the members of an already immense and ever-growing MMOG-followership.

The fine article at Spiegel online goes on telling us about a recent project of VirTra Systems, a company developing virtual reality (VR) systems for military and related training: “With proprietary 360-degree, interactive photorealistic technology [that is: a game engine capable of feeding a holobench or even a CAVE—nice], VirTra Systems constructs marksmanship, judgmental use-of-force, and situational awareness firearms training simulators for military branches such as the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force, and for domestic and international law enforcement agencies.” The company now has developed a firearms combat simulator that fights back. If the ‘player’ is hit by a ‘NPC‘s’ projectile, the system delivers an electric shock to the ‘player’s’ pelvic area [sic!]. A spokesman said that the shock is as powerful as that of an electric stun-gun, it blows you from your seat. So far on judgmental use-of-force.

Never Say Never AgainBut this too is a rather dated idea, obviously taken from the 1983 movie “Never Say Never Again”. The title is an obvious pun, as the producers had persuaded Sean Connery to once more star as James Bond (Connery had forever … left the series after the 1971 “Diamonds Are Forever”). Max von Sydow virtuously impersonates Bond’s arch-enemy Blofeld, and Austrian actor Klaus-Maria Brandauer ‘the other bad guy’ Emilio Largo (not to forget the beauties Barbara Carrera and Kim Basinger). At one point in the movie’s plot Largo challenges Bond to fight against him in a computergame. And, you guessed it, the baroque game-console, including a virtual globe, delivers electroshocks when a player looses points. The higher the loss, the stronger the shock which is channeled through the joystick-handle. Up to electrocution. Who lets go off the handle first has lost the game. As far as I remember in the course of events someone indeed is wiped from his chair—though I can’t remember who.

Steve Haag, VirTra System’s spokesman, thinks that gamers would like that radical form of feedback, too. Not the electrocution bit, I guess—thanks a lot. He foretells that a system like that soon will hit the console market, and concludes that now the ultimate shooter is born.

As I already said in the discussion with orange, I am not necessarily a believer in the heightening of immersion into games via force feedback or the known VR-interfaces. At LAN-parties I very seldomly observe the occasional joystick, let alone force-feedback ones. What I do see is mouse and keyboard. And where the hell are hardcore-gamers to be found congregating to herds, if not at LANs? Therefore I am inclined to ascribe a certain significance to that part of my fieldwork. Compared to the rather clumsy devices I once had the chance to use with a holobench, mouse and keyboard are perfect tools to navigate 3D-space. Immersion is accomplished by the particular game’s story and atmosphere. VirTra Systems’ idea corresponds well with Abu Ghraib, not so well with computergames. <ballroom bolshevism>The madness Clinton is up to fight against campaign-wise does not rise from the gamers’ rows, but from the military-industrial complex itself.</ballroom bolshevism>

Seen from my—I confess, decidedly European—vantage point the development of computergames for military schooling and indoctrination (in this context the controversial entry America’s Army—Behind the Scenes at game matters and the appending discussion are of particular interest) is much more alarming than the issues now reraised by Clinton. Not the mentioned console-causing-pain-by-electroshocks, that is just a strange pipe dream, a gadget stolen from a Bond-flick, but the deliberate production of games serving the sole purpose of training and mentally preparing [sic!] the young for real-life close quarters battle (CQB—which not only is the subtitle to Sierra’s ‘Swat 3′, but a genuine military term). Believe me—I have enough experience from having been an officer in a so-called ‘special unit’—firing a live weapon has nothing at all in common with playing Q3A, CS, or BF42. And in my opinion it should stay that way.
via spiegel online, china daily, and game matters
tnx to Bernhard Krieger who sent the initial hint via e-mail


world wind works


There is something new: A globe about the size of a grapefruit, a perfectly detailed rendition of Planet Earth, hanging in space at arm’s length in front of his eyes. Hiro has heard about this but never seen it It is a piece of CIC software called, simply, Earth. It is the user interface that CIC uses to keep track of every bit of spatial information that it owns-all the maps, weather data, architectural plans, and satellite surveillance stuff.
Hiro has been thinking that in a few years, if he does really well in the intel biz, maybe he will make enough money to subscribe to Earth and get this thing in his office. Now it is suddenly here, free of charge. (Stephenson 1992:100)

Tso MorariYes, it is here, free of charge: NASA World Wind 1.3. All you need is a computer that has no problems with high-end computergames and a fast Internet connection, as the amount of data is far too big to be stored on your machine. Map-data wise World Wind fetches from the net what it needs piecemeal. You start with the globe, spin it around with your mouse as you wish, zoom in and out with the mousewheel. Spin, pan, and zoom to a point of interest. Dig the beauty of the direct-above satellite view. And now—hold your breath—comes the best part. Move the Mouse while pressing the right mouse button. Earth will tilt and gives you stunning 3D-views.

But that is not all. Not by far. Are you interested in the temperature -dispersion around the whole globe? I mean the temperature-dispersion NOW! World Wind shows it to you. Longitude-latitude grid, atmosphere, place-names, animated earth, and, and, and … Well, by now you got it: I simply am amazed, enthusiastic, zesty. Those guys have every right to be proud. “… as only NASA can.”

Tso MorariThe pictures show Lake Tso-Morari (4553m) in Ladakh, northern India, which I have visited a long, long time ago. I had to choose a spot as remote like that to test NASA’s claim about World Wind including the whole globe. And there it is: mysterious Tso-Morari. On the gravel bedding at the south end of the lake was my tent. Zooming in I can see the very exact spot. Through the gravel the river flows into the lake—and sometimes out. It’s true. The 3D-picture is a view along the lake almost directly to South. Close to the horizon you can see the Himalayas. Enough talking, I got to go back … Initializing Earth

Hiro turns his attention to Earth.
    The level of detail is fantastic. The resolution, the clarity, just the look of it, tells Him, or anyone else who knows computers, that this piece of software is some heavy shit. It’s not just continents and oceans. It looks exactly like the earth would look from a point in geosynchronous orbit […] (Stephenson 1992:103)

world wind

World WindNo time to test it today, but tomorrow I surely will. My machine copes with HL2, so hopefully it will cope with the recently released NASA World Wind 1.3: “World Wind lets you zoom from satellite altitude into any place on Earth. Leveraging Landsat satellite imagery and Shuttle Radar Topography Mission data, World Wind lets you experience Earth terrain in visually rich 3D, just as if you were really there. Virtually visit any place in the world. Look across the Andes, into the Grand Canyon, over the Alps, or along the African Sahara. […] NASA has released World Wind as an open source program to improve its quality through peer review, maximize awareness and impact of NASA research, and increase dissemination of World Wind in support of NASA’s mission: To inspire the next generation of explorers … as only NASA can.”
via entry at


cyber sabre

Dragon BladeQuite a time ago, while drinking beer at a party organised by our students, I told a fellow anthropologist about game-items from Everquest being sold at ebay (see e.g. Castronova 2001 and 2003). All I harvested was an amused smile and the somewhat depreciatory comment “That’s completely crazy!” Resisting the temptation to answer “And what about ‘your people’? Talkin’ to the Dead! Bah!—Humbug!” (my colleague has done equally extensive and phantastic, simply great fieldwork in Southern India) I instead started to think about the response—I had to think a bit in order to reach the following quite obvious conclusions, for I was at a party drinking beer, remember. Everybody not accustomed to MMORPGs encounters the culturally alien with this stories of selling game-items for hard cash (same with the conversations with the Deceased). Essentially this is because of the non-realization of what this items—or the Dead—are meaning for the everyday-life of the people involved. Now this meaning has manifested itself in the form of a new peak of drama: “Reuters reports that Qui Chengwei loaned Zhu Caoyuan his virtual game sword from the MMORPG Legends of Mir 3 known as a ‘dragon saber’. Zhu then went and sold the sword for 7,200 yuan (US$870). Qui reported the dragon saber to the police as a stolen item but the police said there is no law for protecting ‘virtual property’. So, Qui took revenge into his own hands and murdered Zhu with a real sword.”
via entry at gamersgame and entry at digital-lifestyles


biella in the maelstrom of complexity and confusion

biellaEnid Gabrielle ‘Biella’ Coleman is a graduate student in cultural anthropology at the University of Chicago. Currently she writes her PhD thesis on the ethical dynamics and political implications of the Free and Open Source movement. Her fieldwork, which mainly took place in the San Francisco Bay Area, consisted of going to free software meetings, interviewing programmers, and conducting online research. Besides her homepage she has at least three blogs: Research, Sato Roams, and her newest at digital genres: biella’s blog. The latter carries a recent entry on Hacker Humor: What is It all about?

Much more difficult than I had imagined was the period many anthropologists find awkward for good reason — ‘initial contact.’ […] Soon it became clear that hackers had an uncanny and exhaustive ability to ‘misuse’ most anything and turn it into food for humor. […] Out of this everyday form of technical activity, hackers have constituted an expansive pragmatic practice of instrumental and non-instrumental experimentation and production where the lines between play, exploration, pedagogy, and work are rarely drawn rigidly…. […] Among hackers ingenuity exceeds a means to regiment and guide technological innovation but has taken a substantial life of its own. Hackers have come to value cleverness for the sake of cleverness. And the most crystalline, lucid example of the autonomy of cleverness is hacker humor – a punctuated and sovereign expression of wit.

And then she used a favorite word of mine, for which I am somewhat famous in the MP-community: maelstrom.

Hackers self-reflexively idealize cleverness as the poetic characteristic par excellence that transforms what they spend all of their time doing – creating technology and fixing problems in a great maelstrom of complexity and confusion – into an activity of shared pleasure and a crucial vehicle for expressing creativity, constituting individuality, and designating the social boundaries of hacking.

All this strikes me to be very valid for the realm of game-modding, too. Alas, biella, hurry up, finish and publish your dissertation, so that I can prey on it big time. And those of you anthropologists interested in ‘ICTs in the field’, do not miss biella’s The Politics of Open Source Adoption, NGO’s in the Developing World.
via entry at digital genres


chip reads mind

This BBC story would be a hell of a lot easier to judge, if it had been published tomorrow: Brain chip reads man’s thoughts A paralysed man in the US has become the first person to be fitted with a brain chip that reads his mind. Matthew Nagle, 25, was left paralysed from the neck down and confined to a wheelchair after a knife attack in 2001. The pioneering surgery at New England Sinai Hospital, Massachusetts, means he can now control everyday objects by thought alone. The brain chip reads his mind and sends the thoughts to a computer to decipher.” If that is true then the drawing of Vévés has been started—we are approaching Mona Lisa Overdrive.
via Anthro-L


call for papers: book on games

Games without frontiers—war without tears
Computer games as a sociocultural phenomenon
In Germany a new academic book on computergames is in the making. Here is an excerpt from the call for papers:

As a rule Computer games remain to be the focus of media attention when specific acts of violence which deeply horrify the audience (war and ampage – Iraq and Erfurt) draw the public’s perception to them. The first ever occuring impetus then is aimed at a more or less serious examination of their dangerous and problematic aspects (blunting people’s senses, playing down and provoking violence, player’s loss of touch with reality, escapism, unscrupulousness, etc.). Beyond the dominating reflex of such an often monocausal, naive formulation of the topic, a thoroughly controversial – yet most of the time superficial – discussion about the critical sociocultural implications of computer games has been established.

Even in the academic analysis the surely relevant, though by no means sufficient concentration on the link between computer games and violence is dominant. Up to now only few studies have offered a contextualizing view of the political, aesthetic, narratologic, economic, historic aspects with regard to their mutual connection.

Accordingly this volume is meant to become an extensive account of the phenomenon “computer games” with all its different genres. The various perspectives of analyses (aesthetics, economy, narratology, etc.) will thus provide the reader with a sound insight into the subject.

As I understand the matter, texts are welcome in English and German language.
via ludology and entry at academic gamers


call for papers: cyberspace 2005

The call for papers for the Cyberspace 2005 Conference has been released:
Paper abstracts are solicited for submission to the following workshops of III. International Conference Cyberspace 2005: 1) e-government, e-justice 2) philosophy and sociology of cyberspace 3) psychology and internet 4) law in cyberspace 5) crime and security in cyberspace 6) regulatory framework of electronic communications. [Read all] The conference will take place 7 to 8 November 2005 in Brno, Czech Republic.