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Tech Q&A

Tom Boellstorff

Describe your latest project.
My latest book project is Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human, officially released June 18, 2008, by Princeton University Press. As an anthropologist who has written two books about Indonesia, I decided to see if the same methods anthropologists use in the physical world could be used to study virtual worlds. What would be the same, and what different? What would need to change, and what wouldn't need to change? Since June 2004, I have conduced ethnographic research in the virtual world, Second Life, using my avatar "Tom Bukowski" and my home and office in Second Life, "Ethnographia." I've learned a lot from this research project, which for me was a great success. One big thing I learned is that virtual worlds can definitely be places of human culture and thus can be studied anthropologically. Another is that virtual worlds build off of many ideas and practices from the physical world, yet transform them in new ways, effecting everything from identity and community to creation and intimacy. A third thing I learned is that one interesting thing virtual worlds can show us is how our physical-world lives have, in a sense, been "virtual" all along.

  1. Coming of Age in Second Life:  An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human "Tom Boellstorff describes Second Life warmly and intelligently, highlighting its issues in a thought-provoking manner that is always backed up with evidence. There's an almost tangible depth to his analysis that makes it really stand out....[A] full-blooded, book-length tour de force." Richard A. Bartle, author of Designing Virtual Worlds
  2. A Coincidence of Desires: Anthropology, Queer Studies, Indonesia
    $8.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

  3. The Gay Archipelago: Sexuality and Nation in Indonesia
    $19.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

What inspires you to sit down and write?
Ideas: putting together ideas and experiences from my life and my research. I love writing (Coming of Age In Second Life is my third book, so you'd hope that I did!). Ideas pop into my head while doing fieldwork, or walking along, in the shower, reading another book — one way or another, they start filling my head and I start writing. I always write the first drafts of everything longhand, with pen and paper, and type it into the computer later. For some reason, the physicality of writing helps me focus, though the computer comes in handy later for editing and polishing the prose to a fine finish.

Have you ever taken the Geek Test? How did you rate?
Only 16%, which is quite remarkable! I hadn't heard of this test until now — the choice of questions is a bit odd, but a lot of fun. I tried not to cheat just to get a higher score.

Chess or video games?
Video games, of course! Though I enjoy chess... In Chapter 2 of Coming of Age in Second Life, I provide five different histories of virtual worlds, and one of these is my own personal history of how I came to do the research. Video games figure prominently in this history. Video games aren't the same thing as virtual worlds, but they really do share a history. In addition, many virtual worlds have a strong gaming component or have games inside them. In the book, I recount — and I still remember — playing the early text-based game Adventure when I was about ten years old, and somehow feeling that something significant, something interesting was happening.

What do you do for relaxation?
Play the piano, weed the flower beds, hang out with friends. Just last year I became Editor-in-Chief of American Anthropologist, the flagship journal of the American Anthropological Association. It's a great honor and very interesting work, but it takes up an unbelievable amount of time. I'm always busy reviewing manuscripts and dealing with the administrative work of keeping a big journal running. Between that, my duties as a professor, and trying to keep two big research projects on track (one in Second Life, the other in Indonesia), the time for relaxation is precious but really useful.

What was your favorite book as a kid?
The Lord of the Rings. I was fascinated with the book and even learned to write Elvish. I majored in linguistics (and music) as an undergraduate at Stanford, so the interest in language showed up there. What's been interesting is to see how Lord of the Rings has played a really important role in the history of virtual worlds (due in no small part to Dungeons & Dragons). As Richard Bartle (a very important figure in the history of virtual worlds himself!) has noted, Lord of the Rings has been "the single most important influence on virtual worlds from fiction....[C]reating a fully realized, make-believe world was shown to be actually possible."

What new technology do you think may actually have the potential for making people's lives better?
Virtual worlds, of course! I know it's a truism, but technologies really do see to be quite neutral in the sense that they can be used for all kinds of good or nefarious purposes. A negative opinion about virtual worlds is still very common. Perhaps that's because the best-known popular culture reference to virtual worlds thus far is The Matrix trilogy, where virtual worlds are used to enslave the human race! But virtual worlds really do have all kinds of amazing things to offer. It all depends on how they are used and governed into the future. So we must be vigilant, as with any technology, but the positive potential is definitely there.

Describe the best museum of science and/or industry you've ever visited and what made it great.
I'm not sure if it's the best, but the most recent such museum I visited was the Computer History Museum in Mountain View (in Silicon Valley). They have a great room that contains all kinds of computers from the past fifty years and even earlier. But for me the really fun part was seeing all of the old personal computers. In high school I was fortunate that my parents got me one of the original Macintosh computers. We're talking 128K RAM, 400K single-sided floppy disks and no hard drive, so the system and finder had to be contained separately on each disk, leaving about 200K for a program like MacWrite or MacPaint, and maybe 2 or 3 documents. But that got me interested in and comfortable with computers in a way that's served me ever sense. I hadn't seen one of those computers in a long, long time, and seeing it at the Computer History Museum really was a treat!

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Tom Boellstorff is associate professor of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of A Coincidence of Desires: Anthropology, Queer Studies, Indonesia and The Gay Archipelago: Sexuality and Nation in Indonesia.

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