16 May 2012

Virtual Ethics, Pt. 3: Defining Virtual Culture

Defining culture can be a daunting task for any individual. The word itself can conjure up a plethora of meanings and none of them are necessarily incorrect. For the purposes of this research, the accepted definition of culture used will be that which I have learned from my experience in the academic and professional worlds: the complete scope of learned human behavior. This definition is widely encompassing and includes all generally accepted cultures and subcultures as well as those that are a matter of debate. Virtual environments do embody a culture of their own and that culture, the collection of human behaviors learned and/or expressed solely in a particular virtual environment, is both specific to that environment and closely linked to similar virtual cultures.

In tune with my own regard of virtual culture, Boellstorff explains early in his monograph that virtual worlds are “places of human culture realized by computer programs through the internet” (Boellstorff 17). Reworded, virtual culture is simply human culture expressed in a different medium. In effect, virtual worlds are specific environments inhabited by persons and enabled by advanced technology. In this sense, they are not so different from other human environments that required advancements in technology to be habitable, such as those featuring extreme cold or lack of resources. After this view of virtual culture is accepted, the actuality of its existence as an equal and valid expression of human behavior can also be accepted. Likewise, just as one society’s culture should be regarded as separate from others and unique in its own right without being looked upon as inferior, the culture of virtual realities collectively and individually should be regarded no differently.

Culture is often viewed in terms of external expressions of human behavior, such as art, music, crafts, or religious ceremonies. While artistic expression of beliefs and customs surely exist in virtual environments, virtual culture as an extension, variation, or representation of human culture is not limited to merely external features. In his 2011 book on cognitive psychology, David DiSalvo, a writer on science and culture, posits that for role-playing of any kind to be successful, participants must feel empowered to assume a second, often far-removed identity. He states that the “appeal of living, in effect, another life, one that consumes the same cranial spaces as the one that requires breathing air and drinking water, cannot be separated” (DiSalvo 84-85). Furthermore, humans come fully equipped with a brain capable of housing multiple identities, complete with their own cultures of sort. For example, the way one behaves amongst friends and peers is markedly different from the way in which that same individual acts in the presence of parents and grandparents.

The culture of each environment dictates which identity is on display. There is no reason to believe that the virtual identities taken on by an individual should not influence behavior changes in the same fashion. Instead, the existence of a secondary identity in a virtual environment allows the brain to express behaviors that may only be acceptable in such an environment. While this is a separate culture, it is no less real than an actual world culture. While the human brain is an extraordinary organ, the near entirety of its evolution occurred during the millions of years before the invention of virtual technology and, thus, it cannot distinguish between virtual reality and actual reality. To the brain, either reality is as real as the other.

Boellstorff, Tom. 2008. Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

DiSalvo, Daniel. 2011. What Makes the Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books.

11 May 2012

Virtual Ethics, Pt. 2: Coming of Age in Second Life

My research into virtual ethics does not intend to be scoped down to any one virtual environment in particular, but is focused more broadly at human ethics in virtual environments in general. Some of the same issues that have been dealt with at a state or federal level in the U.S. and other countries, such as the right to free speech or assembly, will be assessed in terms of virtual worlds. For example, according to the U.K. newspaper The Telegraph, use of the application Foursquare, which allows users to check in to various locations, has been prohibited in China since 2010 (Beaumont 2010). While no credible explanation for the censorship has been issued, it could be related to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. China’s censorship laws differ greatly from those of other countries, such as Canada, Germany, and the U.S., and could influence the way Chinese and Chinese-American users interact in virtual worlds.

That said, it would be difficult to analyze and criticize virtual environments without experience in them. Commenting on specific communities without a real framework of how those communities operate further complicates research. To put it another way, to study a particular culture one must enter into that culture and engage in active participation. When dealing with virtual environments, it can be logistically simpler and more cost effective to perform such observations.

As with any ethnographic research, complete immersion in the environment under study is required to gain a comprehensive understanding of the subjects. This is no different than studying virtual communities. However, due to the length and scope of the project, little time has been and will be spent in a specific virtual environment. Instead, a deep and intensive review of Tom Boellstorff’s Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human (2008) has been essential in understanding this arena. While Boellstorff’s research was not focused on ethics or legal issues in Second Life, his book describes many of the common interactions between users, through their avatars, and the wide variety of experiences one can have in this particular virtual environment, including interacting with less-than-desirable individuals.

The virtual world Second Life should be of particular interest to anthropologists, policy makers, and law enforcement personnel because of the sharp divide between a solely virtual construct and reality. While some crossover does occur, such as through the virtual assembly of people with a particular actual world interest or virtual political endorsements for actual world candidates, many aspects of the virtual environments remain entirely within themselves. Most Second Life relationships do not have an actual world crossover. The relationships that develop between individuals and groups may never have an actual world component, despite the fact that any two people who interact in a virtual world could live within a relatively close proximity to one another - or as fans of the The Guild may recognize, despite one member's tenacity to show up in the hometown of another player.

Furthermore, virtual selves, represented by avatars, can be representative of a user’s actual world appearance, but do not have to be. Because avatars are not required to be a virtual doppelganger of the user, many users choose avatars of a different sex, ethnicity, body size and shape, or even species. In some instances, users may feel that the avatars are a better representative of their true self. In others, users may just create avatars different from themselves for the sake of being different. In either case, the use of virtual representations of themselves may give some users license to act in ways that are not typical of their actual world selves. They may speak more candidly, perhaps using more racist or otherwise vulgar speech, or behave in a way that is antagonistic. Boellstorff found this exact phenomenon in his research: “the actual world is more characterized by ‘role-playing’ than virtual worlds, where one’s self is open to greater self-fashioning and can be more assertive” (Boellstorff 121). In essence, the guise of anonymity may encourage some users to act unabashedly, boldly, or even unethically.

Part 3, which addresses crossover between virtual and actual world culture, is coming soon. --Randy

10 May 2012

Gender Imagery in Film, Pt. 2

Generally speaking, major motion picture films originating in the U.S. tend to follow a template which varies only slightly based on the genre and intended audience. The template ensures that most American films feature white, middle class, heterosexual relationships and families, and often reference morality through the Christian faith. Even when breaking out of the "White America" template, such as many films aimed at black subcultures, the tendency to mimic the standard middle-class, white, suburban template is present – take, for instance, any of the many Tyler Perry Why Did I… films, only substituting black actors into the same cookie cutter roles. The templates can apply to films of all types and distinctions. There are even Biblical quotations and pseudo-quotations, sprinkled throughout many popular action films – films that have a rather violent nature – such as the presence of the “Our Father” prayer and the mention of Latin words Veritas and Aequitas (truth and justice) in The Boondock Saints[1] or the infamous scene in the 1994 cult classic film Pulp Fiction[2], where Jules Winnfield, played by Samuel L. Jackson, references Ezekiel 25:17, culminating in this gem: “And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you,” [note: writer-director Quentin Tarantino rewrote the verse for the film, thus the line that Jules utters is not an actual Biblical quote]. 

Women and gay (or effeminate) men typically represent frail characters, leaving the stronger hero-types to the macho male stars. Also, women often get cast as supporting characters rather than in a film’s protagonist leading roles, although there may be evidence to the contrary in recent years, or, at the very least, an increase in women as the leading character. In many films, not only are women depicted as minor characters, but at the same time as troublemakers or firebrands, often seducing the male hero away from his intended goal, thus creating the tension required for the film to grasp viewers’ attention. Even Comedian George Carlin commented on the tendency toward violence in male characters, as he wrote, “A long time ago in England a guy named Thomas Culpepper was hanged, beheaded, quartered, and disemboweled. Why do I have the impression women were not involved in these activities?”[3]. Historically, most atrocities have been committed by men – yet it is women who are considered less intelligent, less moral, and more malignant. This emphasis on the role of the woman as the bringer of disorder has strong Christian roots, which can be traced back to the Genesis story of Adam and Eve.

This standardization, this mass production (and subsequent mass consumption), of recycled plot lines is a strong indication of the acceptance of subpar and unoriginal artistic expression. Does this suggest that a viewer would have a discomfort with film that challenges the viewer’s morale standing? If so, is this an indication of a problem with the film, or with the viewer? One would assume that a viewer strong in his convictions would stand unmoved regardless of the message that a film’s images described. Perhaps more influential than the viewer’s morale code is a fear of the unknown – a fear that is ensconced into him as a child, perpetrated by the church, for the purpose of controlling his actions and molding him into the productive, unquestioning member of society that he is. Film, as a social discourse, in its current state, is being used to reinforce the same values that are being presented to the viewer in most, perhaps even all, aspects of life: his dominance as a male, her subordination to the male, his heterosexuality, his role as a provider for his family, her role as homemaker, his and her adherence to the law, his strong work ethic, her strong family ethic, his and her spirituality, his and her morality, etc. As a result, film enforces, or reinforces, existing prejudices and vanities.

The effects of male dominance for centuries may have roots that go back further than the Bible, yet, as today’s western society is primarily a Christian society, it is to the Bible that we must look for evidence. From the New Testament, Ephesians 5:23-24 establishes the husband as the governing body in a marriage, as “the husband is the head of the wife… wives should submit to their husbands in everything,” while 1 Peter 3:7 pronounces women as “the weaker partner.” 1 Corinthians 11:9-10 even states that woman was created for man, and should wear the mark of his authority on her head, read she shall wear her hair long. Women’s actions are also limited by the scriptures, wherein 1 Corinthians 14:34 asserts that women are not allowed to speak in church; 1 Timothy 2:12 subjects women to be silent in usurping a man’s authority and does not allow women to be teachers; 1 Timothy 5:11-15 assumes that any young woman who has been widowed is lustful and thus sinful, turning away to evil; Leviticus 12:1-5 and 15:19-32 regulate the actions of both men and women during the woman’s afterbirth period and monthly periods[4]. These are but a few examples from the Bible of the lessons to be learned about the role that women should play in the social order. These, and other passages, have led many church officials to lead the charge in the control, victimization, and persecution of women for a variety of reasons throughout history. 

In short, the misogynistic basis of many Biblical verses has translated into misogyny in practice. Though today we may learn from the images that we see more than the words we read, particularly words from religious texts, there is a definite connection between the two in relation to imagery. People making films and movies are influenced by the religious and cultural texts of their childhoods. The Bible, in the same way as poetry and creative writing, paints images through words–while we read words on paper, our brain pictures scenes, as if viewing them in person. These "word images," like regular images, can be a vigorous means of conveying a particular position, be it social, political, religious, or otherwise. Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright share the viewpoint that “images can both exert power and act as instruments of power,”[5] and, in reference to the Michel Foucault concept of the Panopticon, they stress that “power is most effective when it is invisible and unverifiable.”[6] What more effective way to exercise power and authority than to infuse words and images of an angry, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent supernatural being, who embodies very male characteristics and who is terribly unfavorable towards woman, into the public psyche?

Today, in a post-civil rights, post-women’s rights, and active gay rights, world, an overwhelming majority still cling to the fear-driven, barbaric concepts of female subordination and restriction as put forth hundreds, or even thousands, of years ago by Bedouin sheep herding tribes. Just as Jews have been persecuted by Christians for centuries as “Christ-killers,” so have women been demoralized and bastardized as the destroyers of paradise. The link between misogyny and homophobia can be contributed to the connection between what is female, what is feminine, and what is effeminate. With so much negativity throughout history against women, it follows that men who are considered to favor femininity and portray feminine qualities, would also be treated disapprovingly. The Apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus (also known as Sirach) states that “any iniquity is small compared to a woman’s iniquity”[7] and that “from a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we all die”[8]

The pattern of creating female characters in art, literature, film, and life that must be saved from themselves or are otherwise the main disseminators of sin, madness, evil, or whatever you may choose to call it, surely has ties to early religious depictions of women. Women who did not subscribe to the accepted socio-religious norm in the late 17th century were often labeled witches, hunted down, and burned alive. Less than one-third of the captured and convicted “witches” at the Salem Witch Trials were men[9]–a disproportionate number, indeed. The emphasis on what is good and what is evil and the need to classify and quantify, caused much more harm and discord than allowing original socio-political dissent to exist. I leave you with the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, who, in relation to the attitude of believing some particular to be inherently evil, wrote, “wherever this conception of good and evil rules, the ruination of individuals, their tribes and races, is near”[10].

[1] The Boondock Saints, dir. Troy Duffy, perf. Willem Defoe, Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus, DVD, Franchise Pictures, 1999.
[2] Pulp Fiction, dir. Quentin Tarantino, perf. Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, John Travolta, and Bruce Willis, DVD, A Band Apart, 1994.
[3] Carlin, George. Napalm & Silly Putty. (New York: Hyperion, 2001), 101.
[4] The HarperCollins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version. San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1989.
[5] Sturken, Marita and Lisa Cartwright, Practices of Looking: an Introduction to Visual Culture, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 93.
[6] Sturken and Cartwright, 99.
[7] HarperCollins. Ecclesiasticus 25:19
[8] HarperCollins. Ecclesiasticus 25:24
[9] Donna M. Campbell, "The Salem Witch Trials," Literary Movements. 21 Mar. 2010. Web. <http://www.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/witch.htm>, 17 Apr. 2010.
[10] Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All-Too-Human, trans. Walter Kaufman (New York: The Modern Library, 1967), 147.

07 May 2012

What Humans Crave

          Individuals are continuously searching for the meaning of life. In essence, what people are looking to discover is: what does it mean to be human? Humans search for meaning, or an identity, to add value to their lives and the world around them. A common response you hear people give when asked what they want to accomplish during their lives is: “I want to be part of something bigger.” What is this something “bigger” and “bigger” than what? This something “bigger,” something “extra” is different to each and every individual, but is consensually aimed at achieving progress, either at a personal or social level. That being said, the humanities scholars, authors, painters, etc., understand this dilemma that people face; the questions regarding meaning, identity and being part of “something bigger” are what the humanities tries to answer. Putting all political views aside, when you read’s Marx’s “Communist Manifesto,” you are so attracted to the words Marx writes because he provides you with a sense of meaning. Hence, when you dream about being that deprived proletariat rising up against the selfish bourgeoisie; you are imagining yourself being part of “something bigger”. Marx is one of several humanities scholars that examined society across many generations.
          You don’t read Aristotle because he spoke of the day to day challenges that the Greeks of his time encountered. You read Aristotle, Plato or Socrates because these philosophers wrote about problems that mankind has come across since the being of time and continue to confront today. The value you obtain from studying the humanities is that when you search for what it means to be a human you are attempting to add meaning to your life and the society around you. When you read the stories of Homer or Shakespeare, you come to understand that the characters of the stories experience the same problems you do in your own life. The humanities teach individuals that mistakes have and will be made, but it’s up to humans to turn earlier errors into future progress.
          The humanities is the history of human thought; where it began, how it’s changed, what it has become. In the past people believed that the answers regarding meaning and identity came from above. However, since the Enlightenment, science rules this realm, having proved to people that facts and empirical data can be used to give people meaning. But has science really provided humans with the meaning of life? Nevertheless, the underlying message seems to get lost in the debate between creation and evolution. What really drives human beings is faith, and this is the value that humanities provide. One has to believe that progress can be accomplished before it actually is achieved. Whether one puts their faith in themselves or other individuals, a higher being or scientific knowledge, one has to believe that goals can be reached first because only then is there a reason to search for meaning; the drive to be part of something “bigger.”

          With that, I want to welcome you to reading "The Philosophy Fools: Unfiltered Observations of a Flawed World," the blog created by my brother Randy and myself. Like my brother told you earlier in his welcome post, although we are writing this blog together, we don't necessarily have the same beliefs or share the same opinions and that's what I'm hoping will make this blog so attractive to our readers. We share our father's gene's, our ruggedly handsome looks and maybe a bit of the same sense of humor (Randy's much more perverted, I think?), but that's about it. My thoughts are still undefined and although I'm starting to piece them together I would like you to understand that my thoughts will be all over the place. The advice or message I attempt to offer may come off as a bit misleading if you try conveying one singular message out of reading my posts collectively. No topic or event will be off-topic, but the majority of my posts, whether they touch on sports, foreign affairs or energy consumption, will try to convey a greater societal message. As a writer I will put my best effort in to writing posts that will be entertaining and/or thought-provoking. As the reader all I ask is that you please clear your mind before reading the posts. Approach every post with a fresh outlook and I promise you that you will not be disappointed with mine or Randy's writings. And always remember: the words on this blog express our opinions, but that doesn't mean that we agree with them.


          Ryan - feel free to shoot me an email anytime at philosophyfool.002@gmail.com

06 May 2012

Virtual Ethics, Pt. 1: The Virtual World

The Virtual World
What makes a person a human is a matter of debate. People of varying religious conviction may argue that to be human is to be one of their god’s most marvelous creations. A geneticist would likely take the view that a specific set of instructions coded into the DNA distinguishes a human from other creatures. Anthropologists can identify with any one or a combination of many stances: the capacity for language; cultural identity; the presence of an ideological perspective; the use of tools; biochemical composition; etc. Regardless of which definition of human is acceptable to different people, many shared characteristics of humans are easy to agree upon. For example, the capacity for verbal and written language is recognized in all human cultures. Another trait that humans share, and one that is arguably tied to language, is the ability to create conscious thoughts - to imagine, if you will. Humans have an incredible capacity for imagination. As a long history of art, music, literature, and similar mediums lays testament to, we can escape the physical world by imagining a different - perhaps better - one.

Danish physicist Neils Bohr is rumored to have commented on the rapidly changing nature of technology, recognizing that advancements in technology grow exponentially as technology advances. In essence, he acknowledged that technology at any point in history will have advanced more in the preceding three decades than as a whole in the previous thousand years. Considering that he lived between 1885 and 1962, this statement is perhaps the understatement of the 20th Century. Since the invention of the personal home computer in the mid-1970s, more than a decade after Bohr’s death, technology has grown at such an exponential rate that policy writers, law makers, and the general consumer public have difficulty keeping up. In less than 30 years, the computer evolved from a large kit with no graphical user interface, put together by the buyer, to packaged deals with command line interfaces to hand-held and extremely portable devices with enormous processing power and advanced graphics. To put it into perspective, today’s cellular telephones have more computing power than any of the primary systems that composed the U.S. space program during the Apollo missions[1]. Mirroring vast improvements in electronic hardware, software developers have pushed the limits of the types of data that computers can take in, process, and render back to the user.

It should come as no surprise then that people use technology as another form of imaginative escapism. Just like books, movies, theater, and other forms of art allow us to ‘escape’ our physical state, or take us out of the moment, technology allows the same through a variety of mechanisms: long-distance written or oral communication; video chats; virtual reality; games; etc. In the last several years, many virtual communities have surfaced which allow people to escape the pressures of the actual world through chat rooms, forums, message boards, social networks, and more encompassing environments, such as Second Life, Active Worlds, and World of Warcraft.

Due to advancements in and the increasing popularity of personal technology, more people are finding themselves involved to some degree in a virtual community. The mere presence of virtual worlds, including social networks, the seemingly constant introduction of new virtual communities, and the continuous upgrades and improvements to those that already exist are evidence of the importance of these domains. As a result, many of the same questions and concerns that interest anthropologists apply to virtual communities.

With that in mind, an examination of human virtual interaction is as telling in terms of moral and ethical interactions as any other human interaction. Thus, I shall conduct an exploration of virtual ethics, broadly scoped, with an emphasis on associated legal customs. In terms of typical human relations, behavior seen as unethical or immoral should have the same effect on an individual whether such behavior is conducted in the actual world or the virtual world. In essence, because any communication between humans is a real interaction, generally accepted ethics should apply.

Part 2 coming shortly. Stay tuned. --Randy 
[1] See http://ed-thelen.org/comp-hist/vs-mit-apollo-guidance.html for Apollo Guidance Computer architecture and specifications.

Gender Imagery in Film, Pt. 1

Several years ago, I took a class in political theory wherein we studied the ramifications of social and political imagery in film, TV, magazines, photography, art, and advertisements. We used the philosophical ideas of Michel Foucault, Walt Whitman, and Friedrich Nietzsche, among others, as a basis for interpreting the images we viewed. As an aside to the course, I'd like to continue critiques of social and political images in a variety of films and post my interprations here. Without pulling any punches early on (in an effort to lay the framework for this entire blog), I will use my first several posts related to this concept to discuss a hotly debated topic: gender imagery in the Bible. I'll use Lars Von Trier's Antichrist as the film in which biblical images are strongly depicted:

It is quite plausible that the Bible has done more harm to women than any other text in history. As an extension, the Bible has also propagated injury to other groups, including minorities and homosexuals. In fact, the god of the Old Testament is arguably the most homophobic, racist, misogynistic and vengeful character in literature as we know it. In his international bestseller, The God Delusion, Dr. Richard Dawkins describes this same character as “jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sado-masochistic, capriciously malevolent bully” [1]. With that perspective in mind, it is no great surprise to read historical accounts of rape, murder, torture, genocide and other atrocities carried out in the name of Christianity (or any other religion, for that matter). Likewise, it carries on into today’s media reports, with the result that many viewers don’t even bat an eye upon hearing reports and seeing video clips of the seemingly endless massacres of men, women, and children in foreign countries – that is, unless the victims are culturally similar to the viewer (e.g, Americans seeing other Americans among the sufferers, Christians seeing other Christians being persecuted, etc.).

The overwhelming amount of acceptance of heinous acts committed in the name of God can likely be directly linked to the advertising of prejudice, fear, destruction and violence present in the Bible, chiefly the Old Testament, and to the promotion of such passages by the various churches in every city of the western world. Gallup Poll data released in 2011 indicates that 3 out of 10 Americans view the Bible as literally the words of God, while 5 in 10 view it as the inspired words of God[2]. However, a national Gallup Poll from 2000 found that the number of Americans who read the Bible on a regular basis is relatively low (59% read on occasion, 37% read regularly, contrasted with 41% who rarely, if ever read the Bible) and the number who engage in Bible study is even lower (14% of Americans claimed to be part of a Bible study group)[3], which indicates that other forms of social discourse are being utilized to teach citizens of the messages in religious texts and contexts. Without the need for statistical research, one can estimate that the percentage of Americans who own a television set and watch movies and television on a regular basic is considerably higher than the number who read the Bible. This being the case, it is to the television and film industry that I shall adjust the focus of this assessment, delving into a particular film later in the analysis, Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, in depth and scrutinizing the industry in general for evidence of religious iconography and imagery that both supports and critiques the Biblical view of the roles of women and men in society.

Part 2 coming shortly. Stay tuned. --Randy
[1] Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. (New York: First Mariner Books, 2008) 51.
[2] Jones, Jeffrey M. "In U.S., 3 in 10 Say They Take the Bible Literally," Gallup, July 8 2011, May 5 2012 http://www.gallup.com/poll/148427/Say-Bible-Literally.aspx
[3] Gallup, Alec and Wendy W. Simmons, “Six in Ten Americans Read Bible at Least Occasionally,” Gallup, October 20 2000, May 6 2012 http://www.gallup.com/poll/2416/Six-Ten-Americans-Read-Bible-Least-Occasionally.aspx

05 May 2012

Hello, World.

This blog is an experimental writing space for deep thinkers; a place to ponder on the absurdities and irregularities of mankind. The two primary authors have very different backgrounds and experiences and will post on unrelated topics.

I cannot speak for the other author, only for myself. Involved deeply in IT security by trade, anthropology and political theory by scholarship, and comedy by heart, I have every intention to discuss a wide range of topics, all of which revolve largely around human interaction. My research is currently focused on cyber security concerns and ethical and legal issues in virtual communities.

For now, I bid you adieu. I hope that any readers of this blog find it interesting, informational, and a place where they can gather ammo for debates of their own. And remember: the words on this blog express our opinions, but that doesn't mean that we agree with them.