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A Virtual World of Future Discovery

A Virtual World of Future Discovery

Originally published by RiAus on 9 April 2015.

Anthropology isn’t the study of ants (believe me, I’m asked about ants often). It is the study of people or culture. There is a much larger, more complex and heavily debated definition, but that is it in simplest terms. Anthropology literally translates to the study of man (anthrop meaning man and ology meaning study of).

Human culture isn’t stagnant. It is fluid by nature. It doesn’t stay the same and it is constantly changing, allowing large groups of people to adapt to a world that has never stayed the same. A great example of this is how rites of sexuality amongst the Sambia have changed in Papua New Guinea with the occurrence of HIV / AIDS. It’s this very fact that means studies in anthropology have to constantly change, new areas are always being discovered, while at the same time, older areas (such as tribal life outside the influence of white man) are becoming extinct.

One such area that has only gained momentum in the last 20 years is studies of the online world. Gone are the days when an anthropologist must go and live in a far away, primitive country with a bunch of people (often referred to as savages by famous anthropologists such as Malinowski) who don’t even speak the same language. Anthropologists can now conduct an entire study from the comfort of their own homes and computer chairs!

It’s still a fairly new area of study, but those who delve into the virtual and electronic world are paving the way and becoming hard-core academics and respected in their own right. These researchers have questioned how we construct our identities, both online and off, and how our presence online helps to create a cultural and social identity offline. It also makes us question how we draw the line between private and public space and knowledge.

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Ever been to Comic-Con? It’s a great (and very visual) example of how online role-playing and worlds have crossed over into our physical realities. It might seem minor, but this simple act and dress has a gigantic impact on the way someone fits into and lives their life in the greater public. It changes how they create their ‘cultural identity’. It also highlights the way we create spaces. Once, before the virtual world went viral in the 90s, dressing up and role-playing were limited to more private areas in a person’s life, but now we have weekends every year when you can’t turn around and not see someone dressed as a Trekky, Whovian or any one of a thousand Doctor Whos.

Facebook and Twitter have only helped to blur the line between ‘private’ and ‘public’ space and knowledge. Twenty years ago, having a friend tell you what they were eating EVERY SECOND of the day would have been gross, weird and a little creepy. There’s a good chance that it also would have ended your friendship. Now, it is totally acceptable to post this to hundreds of followers, many who aren’t even friends. The frustrations and joys of being constantly connected have bought total strangers into our homes and lives, all at the push of a button. And it’s taken us into theirs. Most people wouldn’t let every man and his dog into their lounge room, but we’ll still welcome them into the intimacies of our lives through social media. We’ve changed a culture that twenty years ago treated homes as a secret and private space to a mass of Facebook posts and tweets that let everyone know where we are, what we’re doing and who we’re with. And it’s considered completely normal.

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The explosion of virtual realities, online worlds and social media in the last few decades has led to an explosion of studies, questions and an entirely new branch of anthropology to be created. If you type “anthropology social media” into Google Scholar, 1,030,000 hits come up. If you limit this search to stuff published in the last 15 years, over half are left. In a branch of science that has been around for as long as people, that is a lot of very recent studies.

Science, any science constantly changes. Being asked what you’re going to be doing in five years when you are a scientist (especially a research scientist) can be a little far fetched. It is estimated that 2 out of 3 students at school now are going to be employed in a job that doesn’t even exist yet! That is a LOT of new jobs and fields. Creating an entirely new branch and field within anthropology based on online worlds and virtual realities is just one of a million ways that our fast-paced world is creating more careers of the future.

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