Unlearning Design to Build the Virtual: An Exploration on The Lasting Effects of Colonialism in Design and User Experience Research
Time of Publication : 15:21 - 26/08/21
Below are excerpts from a conversation I had with John about his dissertation. The full text is linked at the end of the article.
Maria Dragoi: Tell me a little bit about your dissertation. You studied design at Brighton University, what lead you to the digital?
John Reis: I wanted to explore the process of extracting artefacts from hyper-specific virtual experiences, and see what the process of bringing them into the physical world would look like. Could they be made tangible?
There’s something very interesting about blurring the line between the virtual and physical. The goal of the culture vault (my project proposal which will be featured in another article to come) is to stop the cultural erasure of virtual spaces.
What happens to an item when it’s taken out of its context? I realised that most of the things we can do in digital anthropology parallel a very colonial system of exploration. It’s like when western cultures were trying to understand communities that were outside the Eurocentric metropole. I realised that if we’re trying to understand virtual worlds and make people empathise with a culture, we have to make sure to approach the process from an angle that doesn’t colonise the internet.
It’s important to not paint virtual communities as a novelty, I don’t want people who study them to see them as if they’re gazing at something “foreign”. I found that oftentimes instead of using their privilege to give a platform to something, people commodify it, make it into an attraction.
This was why I didn’t go through with making a physical version of the museum as I originally intended. I realised it would strip away from the function of the project, essentially saying that I can only give value to the virtual world by making it tangible.
M: It would become voyeuristic.
J: I also wanted to explore how we use our senses in digital spaces. The digital is a completely uncharted territory of empathy. How do memories of virtual things work? What are they stored in if not our senses?
M: The whole history of western rational philosophy has been rooted in categorisation through sensory observation. We have to shift how we understand value.
J: We suffer the limit of our own experience. I would see virtual experiences as stored in my brain the same way dreams are. Theres a lack of linearity. The virtual world, like a dream, has no physical experience linked to its creation of a reality.
Non linearity allows you start exploring versions of reality that are not bound by the systems already in place in the ‘real’ world.
There’s a Minecraft server, 2b2t, which is fully anarchic. As a case study it confirms that virtual worlds are not cursed to be mirror of the physical. It lets people explore themselves in environments with different kinds of rules.
Utility bias needs to be unlearned.
I think there’s a concept of indulgence made possible by the digital, an unchartedness. I also found that the demographic engaging in these communities can be unexpected. There’s some games like Second Life (which allows its users to rebuild themselves in a virtual world) that have unexpectedly old user bases, like 30-50 years old. Tom Boellstorff speaks about it really well in his book 'Coming of Age in Second Life'.
There’s a safety of identity online, and I want to ask how that translates to the physical world. Can we reach it by using our digital experiences to create rules that don’t yet exist in 'reality'?
I’m also interested in the idea of virtual relationships and how they force us to re-evaluate the idea of proximity. Online, the understanding of distance is completely different. I’m starting to think about binary distance versus metric distance.
All these new concepts and spaces will lead to the creation of new forms of consciousness, the digital makes possible the idea of developing multiple versions of the self .
M: I guess the digital provides a system which allows you to hold and understand multiplicities more easily, it’s like a diversification of the self.
J: Yeah, and then there’s the question of whether this fragmenting of consciousness leads to enrichment. What happens when there’s a detachment from the meat? What’s the impact of the loss of the body - both for ourselves and for the process of studying and understanding the virtual. An online experience is always one of role-play, it’s a filtering of the self.
Being able to understand and explore all these concepts requires a process of ‘unlearning’, and that’s what I’m exploring in my dissertation.
M: You submitted a really interesting project proposal alongside your dissertation, which I want to talk about more in a future article, but can you speak about it briefly? I’m really interested to hear your take on NFTs as a potential solution to the commodification of digital spaces.
J: Yeah, NFTs get a bad rap, especially when they're used in the ‘crypto-bro’ way. For me though, they offer a way for the communities whose experiences are used to retain agency.
NFTs can allow us to rethink the idea of ownership, while simultaneously protecting members of vulnerable communities from the vicious consumerist systems we operate in. They could offer a potential way to avoid tokenism and commodification, while simultaneously offering a proof of ‘thingness’, which is needed because although we need to re-evaluate the link between worth and physicality, we can’t be naïve about the systems we make a living in.
(More on this to follow in a future post)
John’s dissertation is linked below: