Material, Physical and Symbolic Culture, An Evolutionary Perspective
One of the terms you learn in the study of societies in a scientific mode is "material culture." It is an elusive notion, because we never have a good grasp of all of the physical artifacts that a society makes and uses, there usually being either too little or too much to go on, and equally we have no true understanding of precisely what the word culture means.
This being said, the concept is useful because physical objects both imply, and are used to enact a culture. That's why, despite books worth of caveats about the word culture, and a good deal of argument as to what the idea means, it crops up again in sociology, archeology and anthropology. Why is easy to see. If fishing hooks are dug up, that implies something about the people wholeft them behind. If thread is found, it can be examined for how it was made, and where the materials for the thread came from. Material culture becomes more powerful when we have an assemblage of artifacts.
Physical culture generally means the role of the body in culture, for example sports, fitness, and the nature of shaping the body. In Second Life, the two are the same, our physical culture is a material culture.
Material culture interweaves with what is called symbolic culture, but that difference is artificial and should be rejected. it is not clear what is the difference between material and symbolic culture. For example, if some future anthropologist digs up a vault of dollars... material or symbolic culture? A computer? Physical, material or symbolic? Instead we should see these things as part of a single concept, which plays out in various forms. I've invoked the concept of an analog avatar before, and I do so again here: a physical body is a physical object which is shaped by the needs, desires and dreams of the individual inhabiting it, in accordance with a negotiation of desire, possibility and society.
Material culture is not particularly a marxian idea, though certain rigid kinds of the idea are associated with various marxian or marxist schools of thought. I am going to underline here that I am not taking that approach, but instead I'm going to take a holistic approach. By this it is meant that objective material needs do not drive cultural realities to the degree or extent that it is often supposed, but instead there is an interaction between material needs in an objective sense, and material needs in a social , or inter-subjective sense, as well as material needs in a personal sense.
This is not a softening of rigor, instead, it is taking the evolutionary stance that needs must serve personal, objective and group needs. A group must be fit both as a group, in its functioning as a group, and the individuals must have some ability to pursue fitness. A breeding group must compete for resources against its whole ecology, it must function as a breeding group without negative traits capsizing the fitness of the group, and individuals must be able to acquire resources and reproduce to pass on their contribution to variation.
From this viewpoint, while material needs such as obtaining enough calories are important, so too is the ability of group members to communicate, compete and cooperate. While group dynamics are important, individuals must be able to function as cognitive beings. Symbols which organize are not in a separate category for those who use them. While we may scoff at religious symbols, very often these were the best means available to determine planting times, directions, and the accommodation with dietary realities.
Material Culture in Second Life
In the first part of this essay there was a comparison between second life and Ming Dynasty artistic culture. The reason for this was the clear break with the previous material culture in a way which implies that there is a new stability, which allows a greater range and exuberance and range to physical and material culture.
This shift, comprised of a number of parts, is sufficiently large that we shold think of the present state of second life as, more or less, the 2.0 version of the platform. It is as far removed from the early days of second life as second life is removed from many previous platforms. The shift in material culture on Second Life, and not the peculiarities of numbering of particular pieces of software, is what should guide people's thinking about the nature of our experience.
This is also not to say that the platform has solved many of the deep endemic problems which is motivating Zero Linden to architect an open grid. Indeed that open grid and its emergence are part of what puts Second Life in a 2.0 mode.
Second Life has sex beds for a reason, that sex beds carry a premium price for the best ones, and are ubiquitously cheap at the low end, tells us something about the culture on second life. It however, can tell you too much or too little. the very fact that only a small number of people can afford the top sex beds, at least to own them, is an indication that weighs against the implication of the existence of sex beds in the first place. One says that people do it, the other says that it is still a rarified taste to some extent. Both tell you something about the culture associated with the physical.
But much of Second Life Physical culture is not defined by the high end world of textures, sculpties, maya made animations and sophisticated builds. Much of second life is "slugly." Much of the second life physical is a barter/gift/theft/subsistence culture, with an economy which is based on soft currencies. Consider a roleplaying game, it's currency is experience points. Or Tiny Empires, with its ranks. This is a different physical culture, and we can see that different physical culture by the HUDs and other means by which people keep track of these soft currencies.
What is dramatically changing in Second Life, and will change even more dramatically when the rest of the pieces are in place, is the general physical culture of second life, not just the top of the hard currency physical culture. The changes are centered around what seem like specific changes. The least celebrated, but most obvious, is an increasing level of sophistication with textures.
Then there are actual improvements in the platform, already here is sculpties, as well as the proliferation of huge prims. Then there is the rolling out of Havok 4. Finally, happening, farther away, but moving rapidly: opening the grid and mono. Taken together these are pushing a new physical culture into second life, and are being adopted by a new second life culture.
We have to realize that the nature of material culture in Second Life. It might seem to be all symbolic culture, but this is incorrect. Instead there are four distinct categories of material interaction in second life.
The first is the creation of virtual objects for the purpose of interacting with the self. This should not be under-estimated, the creation of a digital avatar is done generally alone, and must first pass the test of the individual creating it.
The second is for interacting with individuals who are present and known to the individual, to make effect while the player is observing the scene, and interactive with it.
The third is to have an effect on individuals not present, either in world or out.
The fourth is to have an effect on processes that are not controlled by people, bots for example.
These layers of material culture in Second Life are enacted by the same means. To argue that material culture in second life has reached, or is reaching, a V2.0 stage, is to argue that each of these spheres of activity has been unalterably changed by the new material culture of second life.