Your Skeleton – on the Internet

Just came across this funny cartoon over at De Re Antropologica. It was created by Madéleine Flores, who likes to “draw and eat ice cream. But not at the same time.” Flores’ original drawing “In the Year 3012” is here.

Anthropology has a long tradition of demonstrating just how much what we do – our daily activities – shapes how our skeletons look, and I thought the cartoon was a really clever twist on it. Sue Sheridan’s Byzantine St. Stephens work on medieval monks shows how hours and hours of praying literally altered the skeletons of these men. Think knee caps!

The cartoon is not so far off in how inactivity isn’t good for us – recent research has shown that sitting more than three hours a day can take off more than two years of people’s lives in the United States. And to put those two together, an 18-year old in Taiwan did just keel over after playing Diablo III straight for 40 hours.

While an autopsy is yet to be carried out, authorities suspect “that long hours in a sedentary position created cardiovascular problems”, which would ultimately have led to his death.

So why are people so involved in the Internet? Well, Savage Minds recently posted a review of a ground-breaking ethnography of World of Warcraft entitled My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft. Written by Bonnie Nardi, this book is “the best ethnography of World of Warcraft out there. And that’s not likely to change soon” according to Rex at Savage Minds.

What I find particularly interesting is Nardi’s use of activity theory, which one might also have used to work with those monks to understand why they prayed so many hours. Here is Rex’s summary:

Then [scholars] realized that what people wanted to use technology for was affected by the form that technology itself took. Nardi was one of the people who took this insight and developed ‘activity theory’, a generalized approach which made action rather than the actors the center of its approach… Nardi’s lodestar is Vygotsky, and activity theory.. is scientific in its study of action, but it not in a sterile way. Frankly, its a very impressive way to think about the world.

Nardi’s main claim in her book is that activity theory, expanded by a reading of Dewey’s aesthetic theory, can make sense of what it means to play WoW… Nardi takes this up and argues that playing WoW can be an aesthetic experience — absorbing, pleasurable, and fun. It’s sort of an account of flow tied to a description of human flourishing.

Bonnie Nardi has a co-authored book just out on Activity Theory in Human-Centered Informatics if you are interested in learning more about a research approach whose main premise is that “human activity [be] understood as purposeful, mediated, and transformative interaction between human beings and the world.”

How I wish some of that had made it into a recent pop sci piece on “Internet addiction” on The Atlantic. I won’t even bother with the link, it’s that bad, but Steve Silberman and I had a good discussion of why it was bad science and bad writing on Twitter. You can find that whole discussion of dopamine=pleasure=addiction=business here.

Want more insight into the addicted brains of those young folk lazing around in bed all day? I refer you to Greg’s post, Is Facebook rotting our children’s brains?

I think that a legitimate interest in the possible effects of significant technological change in our daily lives can inadvertently dovetail seamlessly into a ‘kids these days’ curmudgeonly sense of generational degeneration, which is hardly new. That is, we have to be careful when we look at the research as it’s easy to annex our popular understandings of generational dynamics, even frustrations with our own children, students, and other young people, into a snowballing sense that everything’s going to hell.

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Your Skeleton – on the Internet by Neuroanthropology, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

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5 Responses to Your Skeleton – on the Internet

  1. Good stuff! I’m reminded of a Tim Ingold quote–it’s quite an endnote chase to pull this one out, but I’ve always liked it:

    The bones of the skeleton can grow and take shape only within a body that is active in the world; hence one can define the “normal” skeleton only in relation to “normal” activities. Why should the notched kneecap that comes from prolonged squatting be regarded as abnormal when, for the great majority of the human population, this is the usual position of rest? It is only perceived by us as an abnormality since, having been brought up in a society in which it is usual to sit on chairs, we find having to squat for any length of time acutely stressful. There can, then, be no such thing as the standard form of the human skeleton. (Ingold 2000, Perception of the Environment:434)

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  4. daniel.lende says:

    Just came across this interesting book, Threat Talk: The Comparative Politics of Internet Addiction by Mary Manjikian. It compares US and China, and has the following blurb:

    “Mary Manjikian compellingly argues that both ‘risk’ and ‘disease’ are ideas which are understood differently at different historic periods and in different cultures. Her culturalist approach claims that the internet is neither inherently helpful, nor inherently threatening. Rather, its role and the dangers it poses may be understood differently by different societies”

    Link: http://www.ashgate.com/default.aspx?page=637&calctitle=1&pageSubject=419&sort=pubdate&forthcoming=1&pagecount=2&title_id=11213&edition_id=14686&lang=cy-GB

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