CyberAnthropology recognizes that the new 'virtual' communities are no longer defined by geographic or even semiotic (ethnic/religious/linguistic) boundaries. Instead, communities are being constructed in cyberspace on the basis of common affiliative interests, transcending boundaries of class, nation, race, gender, and language. Even as old systems of social organization are imploding, the various 'virtual communities' are growing. (cf. Howard Rheingold.) This parallels the way in which on the global scene civil society is reclaiming social space from both the public and private sectors - how the NGO (nongovernmental organization) is continuing to check the power of the nation-state and the multinational corporation.
In her book, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women , Donna Haraway deals with the curious links between humans, animals, and machines. She notes that at the same time animal language and ethology research is revealing a fundamental kinship between humans and their primate cousins, humans are busy technologically reconstructing themselves to isolate themselves from the 'merely' biological forms of life on the planet. This is an ongoing project, she notes, which goes back to the earliest forms of manipulation of the features of the body, and only continues today with the use of prosthetics, implants, and genetic engineering. The desire to improve upon what nature has 'dealt' the human body goes back to the origins of culture itself.
Many AI researchers (perhaps overtly optimistic ones, like Marvin Minsky) feel it is not very long before an AI passes the Turing Test - perhaps 25 years or so - and can fool a human being into thinking it is also human. One of the definitions in anthropology of what makes people human is the ability to exchange symbolic information with our peers. Also, the ability to transfer knowledge from one generation to the next, which neural networks may soon be able to do. Once machines have this capability as well, are they not fair game for ethnography as well? Should anthropology not prepare for the day when its object of knowledge encompasses siliconware as well as wetware?
Ever since the Enlightenment philosopher LaMettrie, it has been fashionable to think of humans as machines. However, in the industrial age, the machine metaphor to which they appealed was that of the steam-driven, gear-cranking, smoke-belching engine. Today, in our post-McLuhan electronic age, we know that humans do more than just transform fuel (food) into energy (work.) They also absorb and transceive units of information - memes. If genes are the coding for the physical body of the human, then we can think of memes as the 'programming' for the biocomputer we call the brain. The study of the propagation of memes - which is accelerating in our time due to the explosion of the noosphere and the new communications technologies - is called memetics, coined by biologist Richard Dawkins.
Why at this apex point in human history, according to our various socioevolutionary theories, are we rushing once more to embrace the cast-off 'primitive'? Why are "modern primitives" once again reinventing ways to mark, inscribe, and incise the body? Why is it that the fastest-growing areas in cyberspace are MUDs (multi-user dungeons) where people can become wizards and fight dragons? Why is it that some of the heaviest users of the Matrix are neo-pagans, Wiccans, Magickians, and other occultists? Why are "raves" bringing us back to Levy-Bruhl's earliest phase of human consciousness - the participation mystique? How is the Net helping to create a new "oral" culture of folklore? These are some of the questions CyberAnthropology seeks to answer.
In Sherry Turkle's classic work on children relating to computers in education, The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit, she found that one of the things the computer served as was a reflection or mirror of the self. Children ended up describing the things they did using the ways the computer performed. Certainly, the recent applications of the computer, in such areas as artificial life, virtual reality, natural language applications, "fuzzy logic," modelling of chaos theory, and especially cognitive science, have forced us to return to perennial issues of epistemology, identity, and philosophy. The study of consciousness, once a backwater of psychology driven out by no-nonsense behaviorism, is making a serious comeback. Douglas Hofstadter, for example, discusses the peculiar reflexive (recursive) properties of logic in both the computer and the human mind, and the curious contortions to which they lead.
Steve Mizrach (aka Seeker1)