Nietzsche work if you can get it

Browsing through the blogosphere tonight I came across this post on philosophical inquiry in Second Life, which at once interested and infuriated me.

I was mildly intrigued by Professor Luciano Floridi’s proposal to spend two years on the grid looking at the question of “The Construction of Personal Identities Online”. I’m not sure that this research is quite as groundbreaking as the professor thinks, since it’s been pretty well covered in the sociological and psychological literature over the past 15 years; even I can waffle semi-authoritatively on the topic for an hour or so. (Floridi rather ambitiously claims to be the first philosopher to seriously consider Second Life, an assertion that has provoked an amusing spat with the rather better-known Peter Ludlow, another pretender to that title, in the comments section of the post). Still, a highly trained thinker like Floridi is bound to come up with some new perspectives on the metaverse, and I’ll follow his project with interest.

I was initially rather peeved when I read that Floridi had been given a grant of £165 000 to realise his plans, thinking that I would have done it for half that, but £165K is about what I would earn in two years doing my current job, and I guess he’ll have to pay for a couple of research assistants, and probably some other expenses too, so isn’t actually that great a deal. Still, I’m a bit jealous. I knew I should have paid more attention when my research tutor was telling me how to write grant applications.

3 Responses to Nietzsche work if you can get it

  1. Thank you for your interest in the project. I wonder whether I may clarify a few points.

    1) I would like to stress that the research is about personal identities online (PIO), not about Second Life. We (the postodoc I will appoint and myself) will research how far/well philosophical theories of personal identity can be used to understand/interpret the development of personal identities online (PIO).

    2) It is not a psychological, anthropological, or sociological project. This does not make it unique, or the first, or anything like “I’m the only philosopher to do it” sort of project.
    “Floridi rather ambitiously claims to be the first philosopher to seriously consider Second Life”. No, please, I do not claim that, and if I did (or rather, if I gave the impression that I did, or was interpreted as if I did), it was a mistake, do not misudnerstand me. I have no childish interest in making claims about being the first, the second or the last. As President of the International Association for Philosophy and Computing (http://www.ia-cap.org) I’m well aware of the growing lierature on the topic. Besides the standard, over-inflated claims that are common currency in any media communication, this project is going to be far less exciting for the sensationalist-minded reader, but, (it is to be hoped) deeper and more interesting for anyone keen on understanding, philosophically, some of the phenomena related to PIO.
    Anyone curious to see what I mean, may wish to browse the following article:
    The Ontological Interpretation of Informational Privacy, Ethics and Information Technology. 2005, 7.4, 185 – 200.
    http://www.philosophyofinformation.net/publications/pdf/toioip.pdf

    3) It is true, however, that the funding of the project signals a serious interest, from academia and from the most traditional quarters in philosophy, in a phenomenon, PIO, which so far has been seen, by more conservative philosophers, as too “fringe” to deserve serious analysis, let alone public spending. Trust me, you should see how much resistance and reluctance there is among philosophers of mind, for example, to appreciate the fact that the AHRC decision to support the project is rather bold.

    4) AHRC grants are the most competitive awards in the UK for any arts and humanities project, not least because any research in this huge field competes for only half a dozen places and we are talking about anything that includes theatre, literature, history, philosophy, classics, archaeology, foreign languages, education, etc.. The project has been funded by a so-called “speculative” track, because of the higher than usual risk of failure.

    5) The grant will barely cover the costs of the two year project (it is called full economic costing, you need to pay with it everything you potentially use, even your electricity, all the way up to the pension and health scheme for the postdoc). Apart from the postdoc, it includes some funding for two workshops, where international experts in the area will be able to interact.

    Final comment: it is a bit ironic to find oneself defending the value of this project against the conservatives (who believe it is not classic enough, too new, too flaky, a lower priority with respect to more main-stream projects etc.) and against the non-conservatives (who of course think it’s all old stuff, been there done that, so much yesterday, when did you weak up? and so forth).

  2. secondlifeshrink says:

    Hi Professor Floridi, thanks for responding to what were really just some throwaway comments.

    I’m sorry that my post sounded a bit dismissive of your project. I’m reasonably familiar with the psychological and sociological literature on PIO, but not at all with the philosophical take on the subject, so I have no idea how novel your work is going to be, but since, as you point out, it’s incredibly hard to get any sort of funding in this field, I’m guessing that the fact that you have secured a grant indicates that it’s going to be heavyweight stuff. It’s always good to see the topic getting some new and serious academic attention – it makes those of us interested in it from other disciplines feel a bit less eccentric.

    What amused me about the comments on the original post was not your actually quite modest and perfectly reasonable opinion that something new would come out of your work, but Peter Ludlow’s completely over-the-top reaction to it.

    Something I have found in my experience of Second Life is that, amongst those who stick around for any length of time (who are very much in the minority), there seems to be a subset of hard-core users who have a tendency to idealise their online experience to a significant extent. Mostly this takes the form of over-valuing virtual relationships at an individual level, but some take things a step further and load all sorts of meaning onto the concept of the metaverse itself, seeing in it the possibility of some sort of New Society, a Virtual Republic, which is a projection that the shaky framework of Second Life really can’t bear. These people get remarkably angry at anything that threatens their ideal – typically the Lindens’ attempts to extract more money from their user base, or some other corporate outrage – and blog about it ad nauseam. That post that Peter links to, in which he rails against some hapless PR firm, is a case in point. My favourite line is “if the discourse of cyberculture offends your delicate ears, then just keep the fuck away thank you very much” – this from a 52-year old philosophy professor, sounding like a teenager whose mother has just trespassed in his bedroom.

    The study I would like to do would involve tracking down a few hundred of these people, recording their personal histories, studying their environment, giving them a full battery of personality tests, and trying to figure out why they invest so much in their online lives. My clinical interest in this area is in computer/gaming/internet addiction, and I think there’s probably a big crossover between the angry metaverse warriors and the net addicts, so there would be a practical spin-off. Now if I could just find the time (between hours spent blogging and SL-ing) to write up the proposal…

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