[iDC] Just Say Adorno

Julian Dibbell julian.dibbell at gmail.com
Wed Nov 25 20:08:35 UTC 2009


Ah, yes, Jin Ge! He of course was how I got to those gold farms in the
first place. They were the same ones he filmed in his documentary
(alas unfinished, but available in bits and pieces on his website[1]),
and he was incredibly generous not only in sharing access to them but
with his time and expertise, joining me on my visits and interpreting
throughout. Interestingly, though, our interactions on those visits
were precisely a case in point of the kinds of intercultural layerings
I mentioned in my last message. Jin Ge was born and raised in
Shanghai, but he's not a gamer and wasn't as versed in the intricacies
of World of Warcraft as I and the gold-farm workers were, so there
were a number of curiously triangulated moments where he'd be
struggling to translate some WoW-related phrase or concept and I would
suggest an educated guess, see it confirmed by our interviewee, and
then proceed to translate its context-specific meanings and
implications back to my translator!

Which isn't to say I didn't learn a lot from Jin Ge's interviews with
the hostile American players you mention. But again, I think it helps
to keep the whole range of relevant cultural contexts in mind. In his
essay "Yi-Shan-Guan,"[2] games researcher Nick Yee, for instance, does
a nice job of connecting WoW player attitudes to the absolutely
relevant history of U.S. anti-Chinese sentiment, particularly the
tropes of "extermination," "vermin," and so forth that met Chinese
immigrant workers during and after the 19th-century California gold
rush and get echoed in player-made videos of gold-farmer killing
parties[3]. But unless you know more about how the game works than any
non-player should be asked to, I think it's easy to be taken in by the
bravado of these player vigilantes and conclude that their in-game
violence is anything more than symbolic. They in fact know better than
anyone that "ganking" a gold farmer's character only passingly
disrupts his work and isn't even game-mechanically possible except on
the minority of WoW servers where nonconsensual player-versus-player
killing is permitted. As for the gold-farm workers I talked to about
this, their complaints about the gankings framed them not as material
threats to their livelihood but as personal insults to their status in
the game. They saw themselves as fellow players and wanted to be
accepted, and treated, as such. (And for this reason, at least, most
were fortunate they didn't speak English: Minutes into my own farming
shift, my character was "spat on" by a Western player using the
text-generating /spit command and further treated to a series of
floridly abusive free-form "whisper" messages. Yay.)

All of which, again, is just to highlight the importance of reading
culture -- and cultures -- from as close to the perspective of their
inhabitants as you can get.


[1] http://chinesegoldfarmers.com/
[2] http://www.nickyee.com/daedalus/archives/001493.php
[3] See, e.g., "Chinese Farmer Extermination":

On Sun, Nov 22, 2009 at 3:53 PM, Ayhan <ayhana at gmail.com> wrote:
> Dear iDC'ers,
> Here is my essay in progress, I apologize for the delay:
> http://bit.ly/60SzaL
> Julian,
> I think Searle's chinese room is a very interesting connection to the
> mechanical turk and in general the project/labyrinth of artificial
> intelligence, I will definitely look into that.
> On your first point, my fellow grad student Jin Ge's documentary Gold
> Farmers which brought this phenomenon to our attention, highlights a
> different aspect of gamer culture and the attitudes toward Chinese gold
> farmers. There has been mob attacks formed against the chinese gold farmers
> on the game platform blaming them ruining "the magic circle," a term coined
> by Huizinga in order to descibe the ideal space/time created within the game
> environment. In Jin Ge's documentary, a radio host based in the US who leads
> the mob in the game, describes their attacks in a chillingly cold-hearted
> way. Of course racially motivated violence in World of Warcraft is almost
> naturalized and but this time the creatures that are being attacked are real
> people whose livelihood depends on their virtual existence in the game. It
> is hard to know if the gold farmers' actual race and ethnicity play a role
> in these attacks but it would be safe to say that the motivation to play the
> game i.e. labor or play is often associated with the corresponding groups'
> race and ethnicity.
> Ayhan Aytes
> Ph.D. Candidate
> University of California San Diego
> Department of Communication
> On Thu, Nov 19, 2009 at 7:34 PM, Julian Dibbell <julian.dibbell at gmail.com>
> wrote:
>> 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
>> http://www.juliandibbell.com/articles/the-chinese-game-room/
>> 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
>> > _______________________________________________
>> > iDC -- mailing list of the Institute for Distributed Creativity
>> > (distributedcreativity.org)
>> > iDC at mailman.thing.net
>> > https://mailman.thing.net/mailman/listinfo/idc
>> >
>> > List Archive:
>> > http://mailman.thing.net/pipermail/idc/
>> >
>> > iDC Photo Stream:
>> > http://www.flickr.com/photos/tags/idcnetwork/
>> >
>> > RSS feed:
>> > http://rss.gmane.org/gmane.culture.media.idc
>> >
>> > iDC Chat on Facebook:
>> > http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=2457237647
>> >
>> > Share relevant URLs on Del.icio.us by adding the tag iDCref
>> >
>> --
>> Julian Dibbell
>> www.juliandibbell.com
>> +1.574.286.7406
>> @juliandibbell (Twitter)
>> juliandibbell (Skype)
>> _______________________________________________
>> iDC -- mailing list of the Institute for Distributed Creativity
>> (distributedcreativity.org)
>> iDC at mailman.thing.net
>> https://mailman.thing.net/mailman/listinfo/idc
>> List Archive:
>> http://mailman.thing.net/pipermail/idc/
>> iDC Photo Stream:
>> http://www.flickr.com/photos/tags/idcnetwork/
>> RSS feed:
>> http://rss.gmane.org/gmane.culture.media.idc
>> iDC Chat on Facebook:
>> http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=2457237647
>> Share relevant URLs on Del.icio.us by adding the tag iDCref

Julian Dibbell
@juliandibbell (Twitter)
juliandibbell (Skype)

More information about the iDC mailing list