Archives for category: Anthropology


I’ve been greatly enjoying a read through “The Best American Science Writing: 2009” and there’s a bit of research in Atul Gawande’s piece “The Itch” from The New Yorker (featured in the compendium) that got me thinking about the debate about virtual worlds vs. real ones. I’ve come to the conclusion that not much separates the two, though of course we like to make a big deal about how some folks are disappearing into a computer-created world, and how this is such a terrible thing.

It certainly SEEMS awful that some people would prefer a world other than the one that’s outside. In the wake of the reports of the people who are ‘depressed’ that Avatar’s Pandora (the planet on which all the gorgeous CG action occurs in the film) doesn’t exist, my environmentalist friends have shaken their collective head, pointing out that there’s a pretty beautiful world right outside if you’d just step away from the computer screen or exit the movie theatre. But Pandora is just the latest in a long line of created worlds.

Pandora has existed in James Cameron’s head since he was a kid, and he’s been working on the Avatar project for 15 years, obsessed enough (and powerful enough) to create a version of it that millions of people will see. Cameron’s longtime producer, Jon Landeau, told Wired that the project is “..not just a movie. It’s a world,” and purposefully so. Now I might be biased, having invented an imaginary world as a child (with a similar – but, ahem- much more creative name- mine was called Poentica) but the fact is that Pandora existed wholly formed and in great detail in Cameron’s head, just as my imaginary world existed in mine, and other virtual worlds have filled minds from Star Wars to Buffy and even before TV existed (Greek myths anyone?).

So made-up worlds have always been with us, but the reason I’m going to argue for the virtual is not because we have a history of otherworlds. It’s because the so-called real world isn’t as real as we think. Which means that maybe our virtual worlds, from Pandora to Second Life, and whatever comes next are just as important as this one, or could be.
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My chatroom friend, Jerry James Stone (@JerryJamesStone) who I knew online for months before I met up with him in SanFran.

All day, most days, I work alone. I’m not breaking any stereotypes when I reveal I’m a blogger who spends half my day in pajamas, hair up, sipping green tea as I clickety-clack away on my trusty Macbook with a cat in my lap. I think it’s the best work I can think of, yet often my friends who work in more conventional settings marvel when I tell them I work from home, without any human contact (Terrell, my chatty yoga-loving postman, is sometimes my only real-world conversation partner for several days at a stretch). Yet I don’t feel alone.

Inside my mind, I feel as if I work with a coterie of some the most intelligent, forward-thinking, passionate and creative people I have ever (not) met. Because all day, most days, I’m exchanging information, opinion, frustrations (mostly professional, but sometimes personal), gossip, and ideas with people who do what I do. They are based in Florida, London, New York City, Maine, Colorado, San Francisco, South Africa, India, Los Angeles, and places in between. They have families, they are single; they live in tipis, off-grid, in City centers, suburbs, exurbs and even a yurt atop a lava field (OK, that’s me as I take writing sojourn in Hawaii).

And while it’s always interesting hearing about the weather, or local politics where they live, mostly it doesn’t matter. When I indulge in my favorite addiction (after coffee), travel, I’m always rooted by this dynamic group of colleagues online. We don’t work at the same company, and most of them I haven’t met. Yet I know this crew in enough depth that I cannot categorize them as anything less than friends.

And it so happens that because I get around the world, I have had a chance, over the years, to meet up with some of these amazing folks, and it’s been a consistently similar experience every time. A bit of a shock at first (nobody is ever the way you picture them, even if you’ve scrolled through 100 snapshots of them on Facebook), and then the comfort and sublimity that comes with being in the presence of a person who you really, genuinely like. Because you’re already friends. After marvelling at an unexpected accent, or surprising height (why are all my blogger friends so tall?) the conversation becomes one between intimates, friends. I’ve even felt comfortable enough to eat from their plates, (admittedly, a terrible habit but indicative of my ease).

So it’s always a bit frustrating to me to read about how the virtual world is pulling us apart, separating us from each other, or otherwise destroying the fabric of humanity bit by byte.

I don’t buy it. Because people have been making and keeping, or ignoring, and destroying friendships, family relationships and romances in various and sundry spectacular and terribly ordinary ways since the beginning of time. Just because we have new tools to do it with to doesn’t mean it’s happening more often, just that we now have options (breaking up via text, email, voicemail, letter or in person- any way you go it sucks, no?).

The upshot is that this means there are new ways to make friends too, and keep them, fresh venues in which to telegraph your love to your beloved, or your lust to your lover. Virtual palazzos to air your frustrations, your opinions, and to share your voice, even if your face is an avatar, and not your skin and bones mug.

The future involves us all working, playing (cavorting? there’s a fun thought), creating, communicating through devices and in virtual spaces. So what if they’re not ‘real’? As we know, reality is just a construct (more on this in an upcoming post), and so is the online world. What makes one more or less ‘real’ than the other? There are people, communities, and cultures in each space, art, sublime and ridiculous, conflict, collaboration, love and hate. And a lot of words. Sound familiar?

Additional communication spaces simply provide additional ways to be human, but does not mean the eradication of our humanness. If anything, it’s an expansion, because now we have more places in which to be who we are, to expand beyond our physical constraints and be a more fully expressive version of ourselves. And we get to meet people we otherwise never would have met. And what is aliveness about if not reaching our hand across a pathway, or a chatroom, and saying “Nice to meet you?” (Well, perhaps the latter is more like a smiley emoticon and a “Hey, what’s up?”)

Oh, and I just realized in writing this, that I must amend the title of this post. While some of my best friendships are virtual, the friends are real.


I wake up slowly, but once my eyes are open, the first thing I do is roll over, pick up my iPhone (which serves as my alarm clock) and check my email. Then I check my Facebook page, then the most recent and most emailed New York Times stories. It’s a cozy time, wrapped as I am in various layers of down comforter and three cats with enough fur for six. And my iPhone.

Then I finally get out of bed to answer my bladder’s insistent call.

As a blogger, being online is my life, and I’m lucky enough to say that I love my work. The art and craft of writing feeds my creative needs, the immediacy of instant publishing rewards my New York family’s legacy of impatience, and the myriad form and freedom of expression of digital mediums satisfies my inner anarchist (she hates rules even more than getting to bed early).

But ferreting about in the back of my mind is a concern, one shared by most of the people I know who spend their days tied to the hive mind of the Internet; Am I addicted to the Web? It’s not the physical tech that I’m attached to; my phone is just a hunk of plastic and metal; this I know. No, the thing that has crept on digital feet into my life from just-waking until I doze again is Information.

I’m not alone. In some families, limits must be set concerning laptop/phone/game use. How is that not an invasion? I relate to the NYTimes reflection: “Technology has shaken up plenty of life’s routines, but for many people it has completely altered the once predictable rituals at the start of the day,” you’ve got to take a second look at what substance could possibly be so appealing that it would change ingrained habits and concerns. It’s certainly changed mine, and in just under a year. Fast-acting, addictive, and (arguably) isolating- sounds like a drug to me.

Has the desire for ever new Information invaded our lives?

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