Virtual Anthropology and Prometheus Myth: where is the connection?
Amateurs and Craftsmen in Virtual Worlds
I admit my ignorance. The only thing I really know is that I know nothing, as a famous phylosopher said many centuries ago. Like many in SecondLife I improvised in many jobs I don’t do in real life and I can be easily listed as “amateur” by expert people (educators, historians, journalists, lawyers, economists, etc).
In Virtual Worlds this is a well known and typical attitude. It is true that there are experts in SL which are conveying their expertize, but I saw a moltitude of people, communities, ideologies and projects which are creating good quality installations, buildings, sims or happenings without the need of using sophisticated tools but just using the enthusiasm and the devotion we acknowledge to the real artists burnt by creativity fever, sleepless geniuses dreaming their projects in every moment of their day. Some of them are shooting machinimas, others are creating terrific mesh statues, others are re-creating with high fidelity environments and roleplaying worlds reproducing fantastic worlds or historical periods. We have crowds of builders, fashion makers, forging make up, clothes and shapes. Self learned scripters and artists who produce installations rich with unthinkable effects (even if only to play soccer or to light a disco, it doesn’t matter). What is needed is just to express your own creativity. In fact the official SecondLife advertise from the first page sounds this way: “Your world, your imagination”.
Now, this particular attitude to “build”, model and forge resources — possibly in an environment where relative shortage of resources is involved, like to cope with constraints like prims or square meters — and build from scratch new resources, either “real” (object building, palaces, landscapes or continent terraforming), or “conceptual” (scripting, art, music) or community building (nights, disco, roleplaying, etc), interpersonal relationships (wedding, virtual sex, affects, friendship, drama), and even when doing illegal and malevolent activities (griefing, stealing, copybotting), describe as many are using virtual worlds to improve something we can name “craft” i.e. the knowledge of the craftsman but also the science of the expert who succeed in model the world, other people or tools to build and take to life projects.
It’s not a chance that many virtual worlds have often the suffix -craft like Minecraft, or World Of Warcraft, and others. Craftsman creativity can be also implemented in a more subtle creation like the “modding” task, which is the art of modify a standard object to make it personalized by own taste and needs, with variations, tricks, cheats. Some of the moddings are just esthetic, but they are improving the world to make it richer, personal and at last hugely rewarding. There is something divine, like pretending to be Gods building the world from scratch, as we will see in a moment.
Coming of Age in SecondLife; the book
Recently I wrote a lot about “virtual culture”, starting from the SL history, its geography, railroads, highways, sea routes and many other built in SL or in OpenSim (or other virtual worlds).
Somebody hearing what I was doing and my researches (Virtual Christine author of the interesting blog http://virtualchristine.com/ while interviewing me for a post related to Craft, asked me “but you surely know about Tom Boelstorff books“? If you don’t know them you should read because he really has deep insights in this. Now I admit that sometimes I’m a bit touchy: when somebody says “you must read X or Y” I feel a bit stung in my amateur touchiness. But this time the aim was good: she didn’t want to find my holes, but to offer me new bigger horizons (thing I really appreciate). I got curious and I read in English (19 € for electronic version) the book “Coming of Age in SecondLife”, published in 2007, and I’m going to get the new one “Ethnography and Virtual Worlds“, you see when I really like something and it is worth I’m willing to spend money.
I also did get in touch with Tom, by email and even in SecondLife (you can find him as Tom Bukowsky), he really welcomed me and answered very quickly really interested by the fact that his books were interesting for somebody outside the standard scholar world. He is an anthropologist at California University in Irvine, expert in anthropology of sexuality, globality and virtual worlds http://faculty.sites.uci.edu/boellstorff/.
This English book http://press.princeton.edu/titles/8647.html had been a real discovery and it is so huge I can’t summarize in this short post. But some chapters are so beautiful and express in a clear, simple and effective concepts that are new and original (at least to me). For instance when he was describing Prometheus myth and why it is so connected with virtual worlds and the very concept of “humanity” in its deepest and anthropological meaning. This is what I’m trying to spread. Prometheus tale is also fascinating and interesting and is a “fairy tale” that almost anybody know in short (from vague school memories), but nobody knows the real meaning. It’s not Tom alone, but many scholars (philosophers and anthropologists) who give the meaning of fire = technè .
Now to tell it short (you can find the long version here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prometheus this myth is telling the history of two Titan brothers Prometheus and Epimetheus (these names can be translated to “The man who thinks before” and “The man who thinks after”) in the era before the existence of men and animals. Zeus decided to prize them for having being allied with the gods in the war against the other Titans. So they got the privilege to forge the humans (Prometheus’ task) and the animals (Epimetheus task) which were created by the gods, having being provided with a set of “gifts” they should distribute among their entrusted species.
Epimetheus forgets to wait for the brother – he thinks after acting – and exhausts all the “qualities”, leaving Prometheus wih no qualities to give to humans which then remain without qualities. Having nothing, Prometheus decides to steal the “fire” from the gods and give it to the humans.
As often happens fire is a metaphore to mean the creation gift, or the technè or as we were speaking before the famous craft which you now understand is the real essence of the humans.
Empirical Technè Vs Static Science Knowledge
It’s very worthy to note how Tom Boelstorff is comparing Technè – meant as the ability to create and so as an incomplete and imperfect art which then leads to evolution and progress, with the Knowledge (epistheme) meant as a static science. Craftsman possesses the gift of “crafting” which is the innate ability to create, but his ability is the fruit of an incompleteness and at least at beginning is ignorance. Thus the craftsman is not already “learnt” but builds his crafting knowledge through his own creations, a step after the other with a trial and error methodology. And this is the primordial cause pushing him not to remain brute and thus discriminating from the animals (in a not yet religious point of view).
You can observe in this a real similitude with the crowds of “new craftsmen”, self-learnt amateur people who thrive outside institutional channels in virtual worlds and because of this scorned by official experts, who are professionals in standard life.
Man, the Virtual Being
Prometheus myth shows clearly what was in the opinion of the ancients the main human quality: to be able to forge the Nature building from available shapeless resources more and more articulated and complex artifacts, ranging from houses to jewels, to social constructions (religion, politics, etc). Modern anthropolists apparently are sharing this definition of the Man.
Tom in his book say that is really from this feature of “incompleteness” that the Man is brought to exercise the “technè” which brings actual (directly observable) what is only potential in Nature. This separation from available resources (in nuce) and what they can become when forged and modelled by the man is the same definition we find in the adjectives “virtual” and “actual“. Virtual is in English an adjective showing something that is still not, looks like an idea but must be modeled to become “actual” thanks to the active action of the humans. A piece of marble IS a virtual statue. Just a few sculpture geniuses succeeded in exercise their art (craft) modeling the marble in such a way to reveal perfect and marvelous statues.
Summarising the same concept of “virtual” is intrinsic in our mind and is an innate faculty for the human being to set the boundaries netween virtual and actual. Virtual is not the same as unreal and neither we can define different degrees of reality. Vir-tual comes from latin word vir we know being associated with the inner essence of the man (like virtus, viril etc).
Other meanings for “virtuality” are associated to something looking like that their are representing. An intercontinental phone call is perfectly virtual: the voice we are hearing is NOT clearly emitted by the person to whom we are talking to, but is being artificially generated by a loudspeaker which is clearly different from the speaking person. Nobody in these days can confuse the mouth of beloved with the phone while having a love conversation, and yet nowadays the degree of “reality” of a phone call is well understood. It is interesting to note that the boundary between reality and artificial (or depending from the point of views, technological) is constantly moving. We are considering non-technologic and “natural” what was existing when we were in our childhood, technological and artificial what had been developed after. This is why different generations have communication problems. For a contemporary elder a telephone is perfectly “natural”, but if we were in late 1800 telephone was a strange “monster”.
The need for Virtuality
One of the most interesting thesis of this approach is that human beings need virtuality, they are designed this way and all turning on imagination allows them to trigger their creativity in manipulating objects and creating complex structures to lure them perhaps in a state of addiction, but this is because that is the true essence of the humanity.
It’s not unthinkable that many are “addicted” of virtual worlds because they feel fulfilled in these places finding exactly that happiness and the true possess of their own lives often negated in real life.
This doesn’t mean that virtual worlds are just gym exrecises or games being an end unto themselves. like telephone or email are currently an integral part of our world, even for who decided to isolate in the middle of a forest, in the future it is likely that the 3D aspect typical of these world will become an integral and essential part of everyday life.
Talking about Virtual Cultures in SL or OpenSim
To talk on and about the ways virtuality can be useful to us, or some meetings on History, Geograpy and shared sessions for virtual trips are in my intentions something we can try to organize in SL or in OpenSim in next months. If anybody is interested, please email me using firstname.lastname@example.org.