Carsten Sorensen of LSE gave an entertaining keynote, we got distracted by video snippets that illustrated the stories of interaction asymmetry: mobile technology imagined in the future. James Bond shots and the General Post Office’s view dating back to 1964 helped us remember how much things have changed and how intrusive technology has become. Nodding audience. Some of the points he made echoed research conducted in the late 1990s when researchers such as Paul du Gay, Hugh Mackay et al. had started looking into the use of media in the domestic sphere with practices of appropriation ranging from muting the TV screen to behaviours such as collective commenting . I felt that even though technology has been insinuated in complex environments and helps us to micro-coordinate our multiple commitments and roles within all the massive amplification of networked connections, again, the actual practices and meaning making processes on the underlying individual level are hardly understood. This may be due to the fact that they are embedded in wider discourses, ‘unconsciousnesses’, taboos and collective cultural and sub-cultural systems – all of them extremely hard to grasp in surveys aiming at representative samples.
From the very general level to a much more specific field, the research done by David Wilson, Mark Bailey, and Philip Gray, University of Glasgow, was placed in the ‘organisational context of molecular genetics research laboratories’ and investigated individuation, privacy and social media from various angles. Collaborating and sharing data and equipment, i.e. notebooks in labs (lab books) enables post-graduate and doctoral students to capture progress but at the same time, the issue of community versus personal [intellectual] property poses dilemmas which cannot be resolved in a culture that demands individuation and places the highest incentives and rewards on those who rather don’t share. Apart from the powerlessness and the limited sense of control also issues such as monitoring others’ work progress are at stake.
The dilemmas made visible by Wilson et al. were fascinating as they may be paralleled in other fields where online collaboration and content sharing are equally subjected to the notion that competing against each other is rewarded – for status and power reasons – rather than the produced result itself. It would be a major step forward to review and redefine acknowledging practices such as the display of share of work done by individuals, for instance in papers published by more than one author. Currently, one of the most common practices is to list authors in alphabetical order. Here, also publishing entities, editors and reviewers would have a chance to bring about change. For instance by using social media and making reviewing processes more transparent, including the commenting on each other’s reviews.
Why aren’t reviews of papers submitted for conferences made accessible to delegates so they can learn from each other and/or collaborate on future projects? Facilitating such possibilities would mean to rethink plagiarism and power and take a more innovative approach. Current practices are not transparent, they often seem to protect the reviewer rather than the reviewed. In some instances, reviewers gave less than constructive feedback, resulting in a notion that more transparency would be beneficial in multiple ways. This issue was also subject to discussion at the 3rd ICWSM, the AAAI conference I attended in San Jose, California.
At The 2nd Digital Cultures workshop, though, Nic Crowe’s paper was my personal favourite. A lecturer at Brunel University with a background in youth work and teaching, his ‘Work, rest and play in the Digital Playground’ was not just striking in terms of presentation, he made all the difference due to his empathy and sound understanding of youth culture, practices and dilemmas. As Digital Natives (Prensky: 2001), youth in online worlds such as Runescape use these virtual spaces as social contexts, not any different from material spaces in their imagined potentials, they offer safe arenas which allow for trial and error experiences that prepare for real life actions. As an interlocutor was quoted “I can try my best lines online and avoid making myself a fool in real life” – she was referring to a virtual boyfriend. Becoming streetwise in virtual worlds while engaging in ‘deviant’ activities in virtual spaces as well as mundane experiences such as getting a haircut or treating oneself to a holiday too expensive in real life, the experience results in real life pleasant feelings that are all providing supplements and replacements for lost real spaces.
As conventional spaces have been made unworthy accessing or have become altogether inaccessible – Nic mentioned the curfew in Richmond/London area and spaces that had been equipped with policing devices such as mosquitos – this piece of research echoes danah boyd’s findings in the US. He also presented a few statistics that underlined why these conditions are not due to change any time soon: the US$60 billion p.a. industry is booming with 9 video games sold every second on every day in 2007.
In Coming of Age in Second Life, Tom Boellstorff argues that virtuality is actually an ‘ancient human practice and that many media have given us leave of the here and now: cave paintings, Jane Austen novels, Howard Nemerov poems’ (2008). His words in mind I went to see Inkheart in Berlin and could not have found a better illustration of the notion that virtuality is indeed ‘older than sin’ as Boellstorff quotes Plato. Assuming, we imagine our deeds first, then act – although, there is an element of awareness implied that might make all the difference.
Boellstorff’s extensive ethnographic research in Second Life provides us with a richness that won’t allow to dismiss virtual communities as less real as it would mean to miss the key point: what makes them real is our imagination. Equality of imagined and non-imagined places, communities and actions is probably what we can argue for now, having access to so much information and proof of what people imagine and how they imagine.
New social media are the places where a considerable amount of our daily interaction and non-verbal communication take place. Where happiness and depression have a lot in common and reproduce themselves. Without imagination there is little beyond routine: the future is a child of your creative imagination, imagination can destroy, combat crime or start wars. Imagine fear and the cold hand taking hold of you is not far. In this sense new social media is actually not new at all. Interacting with others, forming sustainable and healthy social relationships as well as learning from conflicts are subjects to our imaginative powers and just as Inkheart illustrates so colourfully: escaping from inside the written words into the world declared as real or being pulled inside a book – remember The Neverending Story, Peter Pan’s Neverland, Pippi Longstocking? – it all does seem to be very real. We used to be skilled in imagining whole worlds and futures before we internalised what we were told then: to be realistic, to not get lost in imagined and fantasized worlds. Imagination has become highly status-related: certain literature, music, opera and theatre are encouraged and socially rewarding whereas some popular culture, certain video-gaming and virtual interaction do not enhance our social and cultural capital, so far at least a still dominant argument brought up by many who don’t think much of virtual communities.
Whose reality is it anyway? Imagined readers and writers are closely tied together in Inkheart, escaping from outside into the other world becomes possible by reading the words to an audience, a listener. Do we imagine the other and their world when addressing someone in a letter, an electronic message, on the phone or in Second Life? Perhaps we need to ask when we do not imagine an audience and when we are not imagined as part of the visible or invisible audience…in online and offline worlds full of CCTV, cookies and user statistics leaving traces just as bold as tinkerbell’s fairy dust.
We would benefit from a more holistic approach, I believe, when it comes to understanding the real impact of our imaginations upon our manufactured ‘real worlds’. Imagine, all the people, sharing one virtual world – with many virtual sub-worlds, of course – in awareness of their imaginative powers….imagine all the people understanding the responsibility that comes with such powers…