Second Life/Boellstorff (2008)/Coming of age in Second Life and coming of age in First Live

By Lionel Scheepmans

Conversation with coming of age in Second Live edit

Life bring to me today a great opportunity. That's to write an essay that can be a conversation and I hope, an exchange, with Tom Boellstorff, a anthropological who has written “Coming of age in second life” [1] a very brilliant and interesting book about “cyber anthropology”. For all the time I could allocate to this academic work, I have therefore taken the decision to focus on this book in the idea of setting it in conversation with my experiences and conviction about what the Author calls “Virtual Worlds”. I founded on this book some times information and ideas which confirm my apprehension, some time choices and ideas which I don't agree with but in the end, it was a great benefit for me. The benefit to realize that if humans are different from animals, it's certainly by the capacity of “virtualizing” the world.

Virtual world and actual world edit

Traditionally, the anthropologist use words to share the result of researches and inquiries and some time just a word can be topic discussion or even disagree. The use of dictionary does't help all the time specially when people have different mother language. But that's the way, and it's an interesting way for an anthropologist because word are created by human and maybe are the first step in the virtualization of the world.

Tom Boellstorff says about his book “Coming of age in second life” that “one goal of this book’s analysis is to argue for a rehabilitation and refinement of “virtual.”(Boellstorff 2008:18). I follow him on this idea but two years after this book was edited, he defines, in a article [2], virtual worlds “as places of human culture realized by computer programs through the Internet, a definition that includes online games but excludes things like email and websites, and thus even social networking sites ” (Boellstorff 2010:126). For me this supra definition of virtual worlds can be a source of confusion. This confusion appears by the same way as we can say human is animal, but we can't say animal is human. I think that a mistake to focus the adjective virtual on the cyberspaces. Lot of things created by humanity are virtual and a danger can rise when people take a virtual thing like for example money for real (in the philosophical sense). “In realizing the vision of virtual worlds, ethnography holds the promise of better understanding how it is that we, all of us, online and offline, are virtually human.” (Boellstorff 2008:249) says the author and maybe that's the job of anthropologist to take care about rising dangers from virtual in human world.

On the chapter one, “Subject and Scope” of Coming of age in second live we can read: “the most important meaning of “virtual” with regard to virtual worlds; “virtual” connotes approaching the actual without arriving there.” (Boellstorff 2008:19). By this way, the polysemic[3] term “virtual” can be considered like the opposite of the term “actual” and this binarism is used in Coming of age in second life like boundary-marker between “online” and “offline”. But if we follow this French definition of the word actual: “Qui se produit, qui existe au moment présent”[4] or this English one: “…actually existing as a thing or occurring in fact; not imagined or supposed…” [5] this formulation doesn't work very well. In the second live case, Tom Bukowski, the avatar of Tom Boellstorff only exists when the computer using by the author is connected with the virtual world. Like explained on the book, when Tom Boellstorff is “offline” Tom Bukowski disappears from second live although the author says “the virtual world persists when individuals turn their computers off.” (Boellstorff 2008:12). That means Tom Bukowski is only actual when Tom Boellstorff is “online” and for Tom Boellstorff like Tom Bukowski things became virtual “offline” even there still actual for the rest of connecting residents. So, this logic show the situation inverse of the proposition of the author. Also, second live never disappears so such the server that contain data exist and stay accessible. In regard of this, is that place virtual or actual ? For a science fiction book there is no doubt, the answer is the book is actual and the story virtual but for what is occurring on the second live server ? The server is actual, well, but what about the story or history that is occurring currently (we say “actuellement” in French), I mean right now during the time when you are reading this word ? Is it not actual ?

One can say, I'm speculating on words, that's right, but words like concepts are tolls in anthropology and it's important, I mean, to talk about most appropriated tolls for an appropriated understanding. I just think than words virtual and actual aren't adequate to indicate a situation inside and outside of second live. The author himself says “Actual” is also imperfect, but I find it the best provisional term and additionally one used fairly often by those in Second Life.” (Boellstorff 2008:21) This imperfection rises again with the fact than, in second live, opposition between virtual and actual don't have sense about time, because time in second live as outside, excepted jet lag is the same. “In virtual worlds, shared virtual place assumes shared actual time.” (Boellstorff 2008:106). This reminds me an experience during one of the first International live role-playing game in Belgium called “Avatar”. In this game people say “time out” when they want to exit the game for talking for example about a misunderstanding about rules, and they say “time in” to return “inside” the game [6]. On this example of “imagined world” that we can qualify “virtual world offline”, time can be virtually stopped for restart the game in the same situation after explanations. The ambiguous binaries virtual-actual thus don't look very helpful in this anthropological field.

But why note use the term “real” like opposite to virtual? A French definition for the world “réel” can be “PHILOS. Qui existe d'une manière autonome, qui n'est pas un produit de la pensée” or “En partic. Qui est dégagé de la subjectivité du sujet.” [7]. In English that can be “ …actually existing as a thing or occurring in fact; not imagined or supposed…”[8] By cons, definition of the word reality can be in French “Manifestation concrète, contenu (d'un processus, d'un événement).”[9] in English “the state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them” [10]. Based on these definitions, second live can be considered like a reality but not real in the French philosophical sense because second live don't exist autonomously, and is a certainly a product of thought. But we can learn on “Coming of age in second life” by reference to many authors like Deleuze, Friedberg, Lévy, Massumi, Virilio than “the virtual is opposed not to the real but to the actual. The virtual is fully real in so far as it is virtual . . . the virtual must be defined as strictly a part of the real object”...

So we are going in circles but maybe there is a way to avoid all ambiguities created by terms virtual, actual, real and so on. This way was approach in the book when the author talks about Huizinga’s metaphor of the “magic circle” and its “limits of time and place” (Boellstorff 2008:22-23). The fourth chapter of the book is named “Place and time” but still rest a question in the end of the book “What happens if we return, even heuristically, to Huizinga’s notion of the magic circle and see virtual worlds as meaningful in themselves? How might porosity and interchange, in what some might see as a paradox, work to shore up notions of discreteness, in Second Life and elsewhere? ” (Boellstorff 2008:242). Also, I agree with the fact than a place like second live isn't a game event resident can play inside but that a fact to that Human behaviours are strongly influenced by time and place. It is not a game but the author of “Coming of age in second live” can became Tom Bukowski when he is connected to Second live server or Professor Boellstorff we he is teaching me “virtual anthropology ”. Mister Tom Boellstorff, Professor Tom Boellstorff and the avatar Tom Bukowski are the same entity and the behaviour of this entity change according to the constraints and resources posed by time and place. In conclusion of this part I would like to say, constraints and resources posed by times and places are more heuristically important than the fact that times and places are virtual, actual or even real.

Episteme and techne edit

“You drag an icon named “green rug” from your inventory window and as if by magic, it materializes in your living room.” (Boellstorff 2008:11). By this sentence extract from the part of the book dedicated to describe the everyday second live a new topic. This topic turn around the word “materializes”. If in this case it's used like an abuse of language that can also rise questions about hardware used to create and contain second live. If the image of the green rug was created by conjunction of knowledge and ideas of a “cyber artisan”, that's truer than this rug can't have existence without material constituted by connected computers because that's a fact ideas need matter for existing. Except in transcendental reflection like Plato's philosophy there isn't idea creation without brain. And in the brain ideas can also instantaneously disappear if there is no memory. One of the biggest power of human is certainly the ability to create idea, what is one of most narcissistic distinction with animals, communicate ideas, what is more or less the condition for culture, and extended memory support, what is maybe the origin of the gap between oral and writing culture in term of domination.

On his book Boellstorff develop an interesting theory around two concepts that are “episteme” and “techne”, drawing upon “a philosophical distinction between knowledge (episteme) and technology or art (techne), examining how virtual selfhood is becoming predicated on the idea that people can craft their life worlds through intentional creativity.” (Boellstorff 2008:25) But this articulation misses two important concepts that I already introduce in the supra paragraph that are idea (different from knowledge) and memory because what this creativity except new ideas and what can became creativity in second live without memory support ? And what is second except a big storage of ideas located inside an interactive place. Of course memory can be encompassed in techne but if it a part of techne, it is a very important part at least with respect to a place like second life. In term of material second live indeed exist inside a big server composed largely of hard drives which is the computer memory. On this hard drives, resident's and company's ideas are stored like with a two letters alphabet on a big electromagnetic book. What is different between the world of second life and a book's world like Lord of the Rings, that's the opportunity to change and grow up the world and by way the story, by bringing and sharing new ideas in continue interaction between all residents. This interaction is only possible on a quickly modifiable and with the use off elaborated computer which translate a binary language in understandable human signs. Create by this way a new world from two alphabetic signs is the fruit of a long technical evolution inside writing cultures. That's techne, and that seams incredible, but the universe itself would be made of a blend of three different particles.

Creationist capitalism edit

The concept of “Creationist capitalism” presented in coming of age in second live is “a mode of capitalism in which labour is understood in terms of creativity, so that production is understood as creation. Techne is the modality this creation takes; self-fulfilment becomes a means of production” (Boellstorff 2008:206) For understand this concept in frame of second live we need to know that "people in Second Life can earn “real” money in the virtual world and retain intellectual property rights over anything they create" (Boellstorff 2008:12). Like says the author, “notions of creationist capitalism that are not unique to virtual worlds [...] Creationist capitalism draws structuring principles from the individualistic ethos of contemporary capitalism”, “Early traces of creationist capitalism can be seen in the Western view that property results from the mixing together of human labour with the products of nature”(Boellstorff 2008:207-208).

For me, it is not surprising that capitalism finds a place and flourish in virtual worlds because capitalism arose from the property and money which are all virtual in nature. The money, for example, created to simplify and secure business transactions in an expanding commercial world, has become today the main means of speculation and manipulation that humans use in a game of power to exploit other humans. For several decades, money is mostly made up of computer data. All these data are virtual values which far exceeds currencies in circulation and probably also the real value of wealth possessed by humans. All this money is created by banks and states with use tools of speculation such as coefficients of cash and leverage loans. During this time, people manipulated by the dogmas of market and employability execute tasks to earn money to live. In this way and in a global network, people find themselves alienated by the need to earn money that will enable them to appropriate resources privatized by somebody else. That is not “actual” capitalism based on “virtual” money ? And When I read sentence like “Techne can obviate episteme. ” (Boellstorff 2008: 58) I'm just thinking about danger like in the “actual” perverse system where people no longer think in terms of real need but in terms of virtual money. This causes a real danger of self-destruction when people in an endless search for money comes to destroy vital resources by polluting for example, atmosphere, water and soil, without thinking that this money is aimed precisely to obtain vital resources that they are destroying.

On sedentary writing culture like western culture the notion of propriety is very strong and in second world like in western world, ideas came intellectual propriety for the first who can fix it on a labelled support protected by copy right even he is not the thinker of the idea. In this case “techne's” rights are stronger than “episteme's”. That can be problematic because propriety and by extension private propriety, can be defined as a set of goods that the owner can deny the use of or access to other people or others living species. But this privatization creates frustration, jealousy and imbalance. That require other people or living species that can afford, to get equivalent goods whereas in most cases, private good are standing by. In the case of manufactured goods, this requires an increasing manufacture and thus an exhaustion of resources that might be useful, today or tomorrow, to other causes as to other people or living species. This concept of property may also give rise to selfish attitudes which derive poverty and indifference toward the poorest. This indifference creates at the heart of our cities as between nations many feelings of hatred and revolt. Yet, it is often by chance than a person became owner of property. This luck is the one to be or born to the right place, at the right time, and to have or receive sufficient physical or mental capacities. Fortunately in cyberspace like somewhere else people are acting conscientiously and the gift economy flourishes with notions like “copyleft” (X) or Wikispace for example.

Back to the first live edit

In conclusion of this work, I would like to say that play with the virtual is maybe safer in cyberspaces than in other places. In informatics this stay reversible when a backup is done not like in the natural spaces. We are living right now a time of ecological and geopolitical crises that appear all around our planet, and I suspect this ability of human to believe on virtual things more than natural things to take a main part in the origin of all these crises. Now, History will tell us what will come out of ideological battles that are determining the future of humanity like for example this battle between that occur today between the gift culture and the creationist capitalism culture.

Notes edit

  1. For people who didn't read it, here is a link to a summary of the book located on the blog of John Postill Senior Lecturer in Media at Sheffield Hallam University and a Fellow of the Digital Anthropology Programme, University College London, accessed January 4, 2006.
  2. This article is accessible on Robert Nideffer site, 08/week_02_game_studies/ludicrousdiscipline.pdf accessed January 4, 2011.
  3. By reference to definitions on the Centre National de Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales websites ( accessed January 4, 2006) for French: Philosophy: “Qui possède, contient toutes les conditions essentielles à son actualisation”. Linguistic: “Qui n'est pas actualisé, qui relève de la langue”. En pratique: Qui existe sans se manifester”. By extension: “Qui est à l'état de simple possibilité ou d'éventualité”. and Oxford Dictionaries in line ( /view/entry/m_en_gb0930170#m_en_gb0930170 accessed January 4, 2006) for English: “almost or nearly as described, but not completely or according to strict definition” and “Computing not physically existing as such but made by software to appear to do so”, (or virtual&first=1&max_to_show=10, accessed by login July 3, 2006) “that is so in essence or effect, although not formally or actually.”
  4. Centre National de Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales, actuel , accessed January 4, 2011.
  5. Oxford English Dictionary, &isWritersAndEditors=true&searchUri=All&q=real&_searchBtn=Search&contentVersion=WORLD , accessed January 4, 2011.
  6. Comment about “time-in” and “time-out” can be found on Rules of Avatar game ( Avatar ASBL 2005: 15) available online by this link: &task=doc_download&gid=92&Itemid=71
  7. From:, accessed January 5, 2011.
  8. From: =true&searchUri=All&q=real&_searchBtn=Search&contentVersion=WORLD, accessed January 5, 2011.
  9. From:, accessed January 5, 2011.
  10. From:, accessed January 5, 2011.

Works sited edit

Avatar ASBL, 2005. Document des Règles de Référence (DRR) 5ème édition, Cellule jeu. Boellstorff Tom. 2006. 2008. “Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human”. Princeton University Press. 2010. “A Typology of Ethnographic Scales for Virtual Worlds”. Human-Computer Interaction Series: “Online Worlds: Convergence of the Real and the Virtual.”, 123-133.