Tuesday, November 15, 2005

EPIC Day One (by BC)

So, with the first official day of blogging at an end, I was able to step back to observe this long, snaking column of text that has somehow coming into existence. It serves as a testament to those first harried moments, as the speakers took the stage and now something meaningful had to spill forth from my fingers. In fact those first few posts read to me like the first set of fieldnotes as one enters a new site, testing the boundaries, discovering what is and isn’t possible. Of course we were constantly renegotiating our interaction with this space, moving to longer posts in an appeal for calm in our own selves and also having to deal with intruders (what would you call them – spam comments, spam posts, which are the unrelated comments added to a blog that contain misrepresented links to sites like online gambling?).

With today’s (Tuesday) papers, we will hear from some researchers who have employed these blogging methods in their research – to promote better group cohesion, to improve how work gets done. I’ve even talked to EPIC attendees about the use of blogs in the academic sphere, to offer a space similar to a class discussion for remote students. Blogging thus to me seems both firmly established and wildly emergent. One enters with a set of expectations (and I have tweaked past entries when finding them lacking) but also with that sense of uncertainty – how the users will claim and repurpose this space? I doubt that CBS could have anticipated the bloggers’ role in Memogate scandal. Or, moving further out in the Internet space, how about the phenomenon of Google bombing?

I do want to revisit this notion of product elasticity – this theme from Kris Cohen that “products have a more diverse life” than we can anticipate. (Heck, movies like The Terminator and Screamers have been saying this for years. Even C-3PO goes from mere protocol droid to Ewok God.) I can’t help but think of examples from my own research of MMORPGs, where gamers navigate and play in an online space populated by many other users. Here we see products that exist within the game crossing that virtual line (could one say breaking the fourth wall, i.e., the computer screen?) and are being traded, bought, and sold in the “real” world. This practice is against gaming policy but happens nonetheless, for social relations and character status are in large part tied to the possession of certain, high-level objects (object-centered sociality, perhaps?). The game designers intended these objects to be highly prized, yes, but it would appear they did not anticipate that these products would exist and have such currency outside of this “virtual” gaming world. Here we see the unintended consequences of that product-oriented design. (And in the realm of ethnographic study, it is natural that we attempt to predict future uses, for to paraphrase David Hume, there is an inductive assumption in science that today will resemble the next. It is just that tomorrow does not always resemble today.)

I think at this point I can return to the theme of object-centered sociality, which was discussed throughout EPIC’s first day. Stokes brought it expertly into his presentation on grassroots campaigns by commenting on how, in large part, these campaigns start as a reaction to or against certain objects. It was also a recurrent theme in Tim Plowman’s talk as he reconciled de Certeau and Knorr Cetina. I personally like Kris Cohen’s example of homeless mothers using cell phones to control their social life, which I mentioned in a previous entry. As ethnographers looking into the field, we are facing a reality in which social relations are formulated and in large part governed in relation to objects. (At this point I will just put forward the question – is this a particularly Western way of looking at the world? I don’t have an answer to that, so I’ll just leave it for now.) The ethnographer has the unique position of being at that point of interaction, the point at which a participant/user/person encounters and negotiates use of an object, and brings that interpretation into social world. The ethnographer is “capturing” the “emergent behavior” Stokes referenced in his discussion. As we venture into the Methods section of the EPIC agenda, we will discuss ways of capturing this behavior as well as means to explore the spectrum of use in both time and space, to see “the way in which the products that we use become extensions of ourselves,” to quote from Tina’s earlier entry, and then use them to occupy a social world. And the theory section has done us the benefit of forcing us to reexamine the assumptions we are carrying into this field.

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