history, generations, the Internet, and cyberculture

With the decline of Kulturhistorie in German sociocultural anthropology diachronic approaches to culture and society somehow went out of fashion, sometimes even got ostracised, and synchronical approaches started to reign supremely—became tacitly paradigmatic, became fashion. Speaking in a bold and simple style. But I learned that there is no modern sociocultural anthropology without a historical component. In other words: There is hardly any sensible approach to society and culture which completely neglects the diachronic dimension. This is true for all kinds of cultures, e.g for cyberculture, and for academical cultures.

The cultures of sociocultural anthropology—that is what anthropologists did and do, thought and think—can be categorized differently. Alan Barnard for instance proposes the following divisions: a) by diachronic, synchronic, and interactive perspectives (Barnard 2000:9) b) by perspectives on society and on culture (11). But, when trying to get an overview of anthropology more often than not one falls back on a diachronical order. Barnard’s book is organized in exactly that fashion.

I started to talk about diachronical accounts of academical cultures because academical discourse is inseparably intertwined with both cyberculture and the rise of ‘modern ICTs’. Cyberculture and ICTs in turn are intertwined, too. Jakub Macek‘s Defining Cyberculture (v. 2) (Macek 2005) does justice to this circumstance and historically divides cyberculture into early and contemporary cyberculture. The former—upon which the essay’s focus lies—is subdivided into four historical periods. Having established this, Macek focusses on cybercultural narratives which he senses to be “the key defining characteristics and the most important symbolic inheritance of the mainstream from cyberculture.”:

Early cyberculture, which I understand as a diversified cluster of social groups and their discourses and cultural practices, can best be characterized in my opinion with the help of cybercultural narratives, i.e. accounts of the nature of advanced information and communication technologies that emerge within its framework. Although these narratives cover a wide range of topics they have an identifiable core that ascribes certain typical characteristics to technology. They describe it as an agent of social and cultural change, as a means of empowerment but also as the tool of new forms of power, they link it with the emergence of a new cultural space of temporary freedom and a catalyst of change in relation to the authenticity of lived experience.

While reading and reviewing broadly scoped essays and articles on cyberculture and analogous issues it struck me that in most cases a diachronical approach is at least one of the essential pillars of interpretation and/or analysis. Building upon his essay Lessons from the history of the Internet (Castells 2001a) Manuel Castells in The culture of the Internet (Castells 2001b) identifies and describes “four layers of the culture that, together, produced and shaped the Internet.” (60) This layers can, or better: have to be understood both diachronically and synchronically. That means that with the emergence and development of ‘modern ICTs’ they came into being one after another. But in my understanding one historical layer did not replace its predecessor. Rather all layers remained and from a certain point on exist side-by-side. Albeit not in there ‘original’ form. The layers are: the techno-meritocratic culture, the hacker culture, the online communes, and the Internet entrepreneurs. Castells sums it up like this:

The culture of the Internet is a culture made up of a technocratic belief in the progress of humans through technology, enacted by communities of hackers thriving on free and open technological creativity, embedded in virtual networks aimed at reinventing society, and materialized by money-driven entrepreneurs into the workings of the new economy. (61)

Christine Hine‘s diachronic review of the academic approaches to the Internet is divided into two parts. She strives to clarify her argument of the Internet as culture and cultural artefact and hence at first reviews the approaches that have established the Internet as a culture. Then she reviews the approaches which take the Internet to be socially shaped in production and use. (Hine 2000:14-40)

But also articles which ‘only’ review academical approaches to cyberculture follow the historically oriented pattern. For example David Silver‘s Looking backwards, looking forward: Cyberculture studies 1990-2000 (Silver 2000), which was written as an introduction to Web.studies: Rewiring media studies for the digital age (Gauntlett 2000):

In an attempt to contextualize the chapters found in this volume, this essay traces the major works of scholarship on cyberculture from the last ten years, seen in three stages or generations. The first stage, popular cyberculture, is marked by its journalistic origins and characterized by its descriptive nature, limited dualism, and use of the Internet-as-frontier metaphor. The second stage, cyberculture studies, focuses largely on virtual communities and online identities and benefits from an influx of academic scholars. The third stage, critical cyberculture studies, expands the notion of cyberculture to include four areas of study—online interactions, digital discourses, access and denial to the Internet, and interface design of cyberspace—and explores the intersections and interdependencies between any and all four domains.

And then there is the classic piece The anthropology of online communities (Wilson & Peterson 2002) by Samuel M.Wilson and Leighton C. Peterson:

This article addresses the phenomenon of Internet-based groups and collectives, generally referred to as online communities. In reviewing anthropological approaches to these groups, we must raise several questions: How have scholars approached online communities and online communication in general? Is the concept of community itself misleading? How are issues of power and access manifested in this arena? And given that the Internet and the communication technologies based upon it—as well as all the texts and other media that exist there—are themselves culturalproducts, will an anthropological approach to these phenomena necessarily differ from other types of anthropological investigation? (449-450)

In my view the five texts briefly discussed above (Macek 2005, Castells 2001b, Hine 2000:14-40, Gauntlett 2000, Wilson & Peterson 2002) mutually complement each other and are obligatory reads for everybody who wants to academically belabour cyberculture, the Internet, and related issues—particularly obligatory for ‘cyberanthropologists’.



After last year’s excellent Rules of play (Salen & Zimmerman 2004) now everybody recommends:

KOSTER, RAPH. 2005. A theory of fun for game design. Scottsdale, Arizona: Paraglyph Press.

For background information see the according entry at game matters with extensive comments, and Conversation with Raph Koster by Celia Pearce. And if we’re talking about ‘definitive’ books on computergames, here’s a hint: Chris Crawford’s classic The art of computer game design is online already since 1997. Just to round it up, the ludologist points to The evolution of gaming: computers, consoles, and arcade, another take on game history. And then, academics concerned with games, get always_black and its repository of non-fiction articles, the black_box on your radar, just as Rex has proposed—tnx for that. Not that I am an evolutionist, stating that graphic novels are the evolutionary predecessor to computergames, but of course there are connections between those ‘genres’. Hence another classic:

MCCLOUD, SCOTT. 1993. Understanding comics: the invisible art. Northampton, MA: Tundra Publications.


the awakening

The Awakening

Machinima is not only about using resources available in the game which’s engine is used to ‘shoot’ and produce a movie. Like for game-mod[ification]s, for machinima all resources available are put to use. That means all kinds of visual and audio material to be found scattered all over the Internet and in meatspace. That means for example hiring voice-talent. Furthermore, again analogous to mods, machinima most of the time are collaborative efforts. That means online and offline peers and friends help out and contribute—be it by providing material, or by offering skills and workforce/time, or both. And, again like mods, machinima often are artistic expressions, not bricolages, but collages, bringing together, rearranging, ascribing new meanings and metaphors, commenting and associating scores of aspects of popular- and cyberculture. The Awakening by April Hoffmann—which just recently won the bitfilm award 2005 in the category machinima—is a perfect example. Watch the three parts in the correct order, get grasped by the story, try to grasp the allusions and citations, and have a look at the credits, too. Machinima is neither a revolution nor a counterculture. At best it’s a subculture of cyberculture—one that perfectly fits in.


molyneux’ machinima movies

The MoviesThe Movies, a new game by game-designer legend Peter Molyneux of Black & White fame has hit the shelves just recently. The game allows the player to take over the part of a Hollywood mogul, to design a movie studio, shape movie-stars’ careers, and finally produce and shoot movies. This ultimate results are of course machinima—according to the strict sense of the latter’s definition. The release of The Movies has triggered an article by Jürgen Schmieder [in German], published in the Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) [the SZ is one of the more respected transregional daily newspapers in Germany; as ↑2R correctly has ↑observed and stated, the SZ’s coverage and comments of and on gaming culture and related issues have substantially improved during the last year, both in frequency and quality] which reflects a bit on the game and the phenomenon of machinima in general. Schmieder argues that machinima once was a revolution, but now no more is, and that both The Movies and machinima in general create a new hybrid out of movies and games. When hearing or reading “revolution” I always feel a bit uneasy, as it implies replacing one thing with a radically other one. For example, I do not take the Open Source movement[s] to be a revolution, but to be a manifestation of resistance. Open Source does not thrive to overthrow the current global economic system, but it strives to install changes in procedures and new policies within that very system. Likewise I do not take machinima to be a revolution—striving to destroy and replace ‘traditional movie making’. Whatever the latter may be, or did it ever really exist? In my view the phenomenon of machinima is a result of the cultural appropriation of computergames, heavily related to the demoscene.

I do not understand the concept of machinima to be a term for a genre of movies, merely referring to the technicalities of production. The Wikipedia-entry for machinima hits it right home:

Machinima (a portmanteau word for machine cinema and/or “machine” “animation”) is both a collection of associated production techniques and a film genre (film created by such production techniques).

As a production technique, the term concerns the rendering of computer-generated imagery (CGI) using low-end 3D engines (as opposed to high-end and complex 3D engines used by professionals) in video games (typically, engines in first person shooters games have been used). Consequently, the rendering can be done in real-time using PCs (either using the computer of the creator or the viewer), rather than with complex 3D engines using huge render farms.

As a film genre, the term refers to movies created by the techniques described above. Usually, machinimas are produced using tools (demo recording, camera angle, level editor, script editor, etc.) and resources (backgrounds, levels, characters, skins, etc.) available in a game.

Machinima is an example of emergent gameplay, a process of putting game tools to unexpected ends, and of artistic computer game modification. ↑[…]

The Movies in turn means the commodification of creating machinima in the form of a consumable commercial computergame. In my opinion the interesting things in respect to cyberculture will be the mods for The Movies—if there will be any.

See also
strong and dreamscream. For loads of machinima see machinima.com—there’s an Interview with Stephen Wood, one of the designers of The Movies, too.

initially via entry at 2R


negotiation of ethnicity on the Internet

The Internet—the new global media, linking people transnationally, providing a public for the marginalised, fostering democracy—versus the internet—virtual irreality, detached from the real world, space for escape, leading to social isolation. From these extreme views research has moved to ethnographic analyses of what actually happens online. Especially young people around the world have adopted the internet as their medium, creating their own virtual spaces. The research project “↑The virtual second generation” [in German | parts in English] analyses how, why and with what consequences second generation Indians in Germany do this.

via entry at ethno::log


top 20 g33k novelz

The influence of literary fiction and movies is not to neglect when trying to understand cyberculture, the cultural appropriation of ICTs, or parts of that. Currently The Guardian‘s technology blog has a top twenty list of geek novels, constrcuted by a vote open to all citizens of geekdom. An interesting thread of comments has developed, too. And if you still do not know what to present yourself for Christmas …
via entry at infocult


digital literacy divide

Tony Salvador and John Sherry, triple-A members as well as researchers at Intel, have just recently published an article called Taking the Internet to the people (Salvador & Sherry 2005), telling us about some of their findings after four years traveling the world to see how computers are used. See Kerim Friedman‘s fine entry on it at Savage Minds, which thankfully points to the related weblog worldchanging.
initially via entry at ethno::log