Blog Post

Technologies of Selfishness

(x-posted messily from my blog, Aporia and lightly edited for sex, drugs & rock'n'roll - you can find the uncut version there)


Have the new tools we've made turned us selfish?

Or, have new online technologies just piled on top of a fifty-year trend of suburban housing, cars, home entertainment and a thousand other things which we've built to shape us into throw-'em-to-the-wolves Tea Partiers?

While it's probably the latter, it's interesting to see how, across online spaces, recent technological innovations are reinforcing our tendencies to isolate, and to treat each other as disposable commodities.

Mel Yeuxdoux posted a comment here yesterday that completely shifted the way I think about my research into online communities (and how a lot of other more advanced researchers should, too): she suggested that the decline of, call it communitas, among prim breast wearers was a consequence of the technology becoming easier to use, and people thus not needing to enter into a user community to find answers to problems.

I immediately thought of Betty Hayes and Jim Gee's work with Sims 2 fans, where the impulse to find and join a community was driven by the personal need to find answers to technical questions - and which then led into a gift culture, friendships, and true community.

It's a story older than Usenet, but I just hadn't seen how central that mechanic of turning to the group for their technical knowledge underlay online community formation - and how it's been undone by reference materials, "easy to use" software, achievement systems for learning basic skills, and advances in AI that have enabled NPCs to replace other humans in questing groups in games.

Four years ago I came to the study of online communities with  head full of utopian techno-libertarianism, thinking we were building the world(s) of Robert Nozick (Anarchy, State and Utopia) and Ken Macleod (The Star Fraction, its novelization, basically) while transcending gender binaries and sweeping away the dead husk of The State.

One of the first things Second Life gave me was as solid a proof of the failure of anarcho-capitalism as 1990s Somalia was of unlimited gun ownership. SL didn't evolve into cute little micro-states (the CDS and Al Andalus being almost the sole exceptions), but rather into, well, Phoenix: an endless plain of McMansions governed by homeowner associations controlled by property development corporations, as a response to an anarchy of pranking frat boys rather than the heirs of Kropotkin.

Since then In SL, the 3-year experiment in ecumenism, Al Andalus, is dying: the last Muslims left long ago for their own walled gardens, leaving only a smattering of NPR-listening, nonprofit-managing do-gooders to talk to each other (I still keep my office there).

Star Wars: The Old Republic will be launching this fall with AI companions that can replace other humans, because, shaped by WoW's Dungeon Finder, which encourages using people as means to get loot, we've come to hate other players. Multi-player shooters are the big thing - if your tastes run to Hobbes Online and teenage boys aping advanced Tourette's Syndrome.

Offline, the return of feudal distributions of wealth, zero-sum thinking and trickle-down oppression hardly need to be mentioned. Offline and online co-construct each other, and the lessons from each are increasingly "I don't need other people" and "they suck anyway."

As David Brin perceptively wrote, these trends mark a return to species norms, and an end to both the Enlightenment and the US postwar experience of egalitarianism and prosperity.

While the breakdown of association among prim breast users in Second Life may be an odd canary in the coal mine, it clearly is a symptom of how we're using technology to increase our social isolation.

What's interesting is, the idealistic techcno-libertarianism of the 1990s wasn't wrong in its assessment of the affordances of the technology of the time, just predictively wrong (reinforcing Agent Smith's assertion in The Matrix that 1999 was the pinnacle of human civilization).

Early(ish) internet technologies were perhaps "inherently democratic" in Langdon Winner's sense: they determinatively generated democratic political processes and groupings. If you had a technology question, it was easier and more effective to turn to a community of users than to find a printed reference work. If you had a question about fandom, asking a group of people online was about your only recourse.Video games were hard, and while cheat guides and walkthroughs existed, finding peers was at least as easy and effective a means of learning.

And once there, there were friendly people who shared your non-mainstream interests, and a recognized path of apprenticeship to mastery that would enable you to both learn and contribute in turn: that's what Betty and Jim document in their book on The Sims.

But then, back then we were all noobs. In Second Life in 2005 the gap between someone shaping their first wooden cube and a top designer was a matter of a few months' practice, at best. In WoW, everyone was learning Molten Core at around the same time.

Now, these platforms have accumulated six, eight years of experience, and any noob is starting at the bottom of a vast mountain of accumulated knowledge and practice, and it's nearly unscalable. Newcomers are expected to have examined and mastered the theorycrafting sites and walkthrough videos, being a competent apprentice is regarded with contempt.

And, conversely, with all those resources available, a newcomer doesn't really need the community for apprenticeship: solitary study can replace it more efficiently. So then what is the community good for?

In WoW, the answer is, exploitation for loot for personal gain. In SL, well, light socializing and sex. None of this was inevitable, none of it technologically determined.

Sometime, I'm going to build out a case for a War on Fun, beginning around 2007, fueled by corporate and state interests in total information awareness, coupled with global economic changes, that have put us into a 1930s-like spiral of militant autarky at the personal and state levels alike.

Despite my dissertation committee's strong encouragement to find some sort of positive message to present, Magic 8-Ball keeps saying, "we're screwed."

But that may be overly deterministic....


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