[iDC] Just Say Adorno

Julian Dibbell julian.dibbell at gmail.com
Fri Nov 20 03:34:48 UTC 2009

Nice points about culture, Martin, to which I would add a tweak and/or
nitpick or two:

As the only person on this list (I'm pretty sure) who has both pulled
a full 12-hour shift in a Chinese gold farm *and* reached level 80 on
his own World of Warcraft character, I may be overinvested in getting
all the competing nuances just right. However: While it's true that
China's gold farm workers generally refer to themselves as
"professional gamers" or the like, I think it bears noting that the
gaming terms "farmer" and "gold farmer" long predate the racialization
-- and indeed the commercialization -- of the phenomenon. In MMOs like
World of Warcraft and Ultima Online, players have long referred to the
most instrumentalized forms of play, in which we perform repetitive,
dull tasks over and over for the purpose of acquiring resources useful
in other, more amusing arenas of the game, as farming. We all do it
from time to time, and we'll frankly say that we are farming when we
do it. Moreover, the first references to "gold farms" per se denoted
massive workforces of player-bots, programmed by profit-seeking
*Western* players to do their farming for them. To look for a lurking
Orientalism in the term itself, therefore, is I think to fall into one
of the tangles that awaits anyone brave enough to take culture
seriously: There are a lot of cultures out there, and it's not always
easy to tell which ones are the most relevant to your analysis. In
this case, while I recognize the depth and force of our cultural
tropes around East and West, I think gamer culture's trump them.

On the other hand, to second and third Ayhan and David, "Mechanical
Turk" is about as culturally loaded as culturally loaded terms get.
Ayhan's paper on the Orientalist history of automata and artificial
intelligence really was wonderful and deserves your attention. I
wanted only to bring to the attention of you both another key concept
that not only rounds out Ayhan's discussion but brings this whole
exchange full circle: John Searle's notion of the Chinese room, which
began life as a thought experiment meant to answer Alan Turing's own
(more) famous thought experiment about AI but lives on as a more
pragmatic reality in Amazon's human-powered "artificial artificial
intelligence." It's curious enough that the connection between the two
is never noted in discussions of either. What's equally striking in
both is the reliance on notions of the mysterious Eastern Other as
essential to bridging the gap between the human and the machine -- in
Searle's case his reflexive selection of the Chinese language as
naturally the most inscrutable, unknowable of linguistic
subjectivities. That this may all also be linked up to the figure of
the Chinese gold farmer is a thought I've explored in this here paper
right here:

The Chinese Game Room: Play, Productivity, and Computing at Their Limits

I'm feeling sort of stupid now that I didn't see the connection to the
Mechanical Turk before I wrote that paper, but there you go. Culture
is a labyrinth like that.

On Wed, Nov 18, 2009 at 4:45 PM, Martin Roberts <RobertsM at newschool.edu> wrote:
> Once again, many thanks to Trebor for making this happen - Stuart Brand would be proud of you! Below are a few comments, intended as a somewhat devil's advocate account of what I saw as some of the aporias of the event, which was otherwise deeply thought-provoking, intellectually challenging, and, inevitably, Fun.
> What I found most immediately striking was the reluctance of most presenters - including, myself, I must acknowledge - to stray beyond the comfort zone of certain theoretical platforms, most obviously Marxism. While many of the issues relating to digital labor explored at the conference are transnational in nature, the theoretical frameworks deployed to analyze them remained centered on European and Anglo-American models, in spite of the growing availability of translated work by Latin American, South Asian, and East Asian media theorists.
> I was also troubled by the programmatic nature of certain statements, notably Christian Fuchs' call for a communist internet - as if one could somehow magically conjure it into existence merely by calling for it; as if it was something we all wanted - or should want - anyway. While such models seem overly normative, I'm interested in the emergent possibilities of the internet as a space for anarchist practices and organized resistance to capitalism. Unfortunately, anarchism - whether as an explanatory model or a political ideal - was entirely eclipsed by Marxist orthodoxy, in spite of the evident continuities between historical anarchist communities and contemporary piracy networks, both in terms of ideology and social organization. Siva Vaidhyanathan's works Copyrights and Copywrongs and The Anarchist in the Library explicitly characterize the contemporary struggle over digital property as one between anarchists and oligarchs, yet the role the internet has played as a medium for anarchist communities, and of anarchism itself as an alternative model to relations of capitalist production, were not explored. (If this sounds utopian to communists, to paraphrase Brecht, I would ask those who see it as such to explain why it is utopian.)
> A second concern was the apparent displacement - once again - of the cultural by political-economic perspectives, at least at the panels I attended. While the cultural was a phantom presence at most of these, from references to Chinese gold "farmers" (a term which the young men in question repudiate) to Amazon's Mechanical "Turk," it remained incidental, and the cultural politics of such terms, and the Orientalist mythologies inscribed and reproduced in some of them, remained unexamined. (I wonder, for example, what my Turkish media-theorist friend Aras Ozgun might have to say about Amazon's "Mechanical Turk.") While I do understand that the focus of the conference was primarily on (im)material political economies, the assumption that the cultural is merely a superstructural epiphenomenon of these is - or so I thought - by now an antiquated notion.
> In the latter context, a particular concern of mine has been the Japanization of the discourse on digital media, perhaps best exemplified in the Mac vs. PC commercial in which the two male protagonists encounter a mini-skirted Japanese "digital camera," with which the Mac, predictably, is magically able to communicate in fluent Japanese. Ludicrous as the ad is, it exemplifies the pervasiveness of gendered techno-Orientalist cultural mythologies in Western media, equally apparent in the cult of "Zen" on productivity blogs and the fetishization of Japanese culture by influential Western business "gurus" such as Gar Reynolds. But perhaps this is another paper (or conference).
> --------
> Martin Roberts
> Assistant Professor of Media Studies
> Eugene Lang College / BA Program in Liberal Arts
> The New School
> 66 West 12th Street
> New York, NY 10011
> 212.229.5119
> robertsm at newschool.edu
> http://www.newschool.edu/lang/faculty.aspx?id=1738
> --------
> Martin Roberts
> Assistant Professor of Media and Cultural Studies
> Bachelors Program in Liberal Arts / Eugene Lang College
> The New School
> 66 West 12th Street
> New York, NY 10011
> 212.229.5119 (voice)
> 212.229.2588 (fax)
> robertsm at newschool.edu
> http://www.newschool.edu
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Julian Dibbell
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