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Oil and Water do Mix: Social Science meets Engineering towards a transdisciplinary perspective on Cyberworlds

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Oil and Water do Mix: Social Science meets Engineering towards a transdisciplinary perspective on Cyberworlds
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   ATTENTION The following manuscript is an English translation of the peer reviewed paper titled : “ El Aceite y el Agua si se mezclan: Transdisciplinariedad en el estudio de los Mundos Virtuales”. The srcinal version is in Spanish and the translation was done by myself. The reference of the published version is as follows: Salazar, Javier (2007). El Aceite y el Agua si se mezclan: Transdisciplinariedad en el estudio de los Mundos Virtuales.  In: Uribe, Bernardo (ed) "Mundos Virtuales: Edicion Multimedia". Universidad Nacional de Colombia. Colombia.  Oil and Water do Mix: Social Science meets Engineering towards a transdisciplinary perspective on Cyberworlds Javier Salazar, MSc. Tohoku Gakuin University . Human Informatics Division  salazarjavier@gmail.com Abstract The study of Cyberworlds and their design is now a well established field in Computer Science &  Engineering. In parallel, within the Social Sciences there is also a growing corpus of research regarding the subjective, psychological, social and cultural aspects of Cyberworlds such as: human cognition as a base for A.I., social systems modeling and complexity,  social networks and group formation, virtual identity, cybereconomy and cyberculture; among others. In this  paper, I present a brief layered overview of these themes with the aim of providing the reader with an introduction of how Cyberworlds can be studied through a transdisciplinary perspective in which both Social Science and Engineering can coexist towards an holistic understanding. 1. Introduction. Two years ago, when I attended the Cyberworlds 2004 Conference in Tokyo Japan, my main research interests have already gravitated towards Virtual Worlds, specifically towards the wide arrange of complex social phenomena that happened within them. However, since my academic background is related to Social Psychology and Cultural Anthropology, the Cyberworld 2004 Conference presented a different set of topics from the ones, I have been accustomed to studying in my field: server architectures, A.I.  programming, modeling and rendering methods for 3D character creation, cryptographic security systems; among many others. Surprisingly, all of these themes -although distant from my own area of expertise were yet so obviously intrinsically related to my own research topics that it would have been a grave omission on my part to overlook them. When studying social phenomena within cyberworlds, the researcher should always consider the implemented design features, technical hardware and software aspects of the given Virtual Environment. This is because these will ultimately shape the sociocultural formations that will emerge in the said cyberworld. This is the main reason why I tried to absorb as much knowledge as I could from the Cyberworlds 2004 conference, and it actually paid back: my current PhD thesis involves simulating a model constructed upon studying Social Identity (re)production patterns as seen in multi user web games and in which, both Social Science research methods (such as Ethnography) and Computer Science & Engineering procedures (such as multi agent complex systems modeling and agent A.I  programming), would be fused into one sole research  project – a research idea that was at least partially inspired by my attendance to Cyberworlds 2004. These kind of “soft-science-meets-hard-science”  possibilities are precisely what this paper intends to address. Historically, the relationship between Social Sciences and Engineering disciplines has been analogue to the old adage we all learned in school: oil and water don’t mix . In metaphoric terms, just as we were taught that oil has a “long-range hydrophobic force”, which causes oil surfaces to attract one another when in water [1], academic circles seem to respond to a similar principle. For instance, engineering conferences only attract engineers, not social scientists and vice versa. Equally, in most universities Humanities or Social Science Departments are usually  both physically and disciplinary (and even sometimes ideologically) separated; etc. Understandably, soft sciences and hard sciences study different spectrums of human reality; therefore a certain degree of distance is inevitable. However, there are also many intersection  points between both types of sciences and in fact, “Interdisciplinarity” has a long tradition in Science[2]. There are even some disciplines already considered “Interdisciplinary” due to the transversal nature of their objects of study, such as Cognitive Science, Evolutionary Psychology and Environmental Engineering; among others. Nevertheless, having said this, “Interdisciplinarity” still means just a “semblance” of fusion between disciplines because it implies bringing together different disciplines to address complex questions; while maintaining clear   boundaries between the involved disciplines. Using metaphoric language again, this situation is similar to the emulsions we can produce by shaking oil & water hard enough. Just as it happens when we shake an Italian salad dressing, the emulsion would give a “semblance” of mixture for a little while until the oily ingredient eventually separates and gets deposited at the bottom. The same happens with an interdisciplinary debate. For instance, an epidemiologist and a political scientist could both give an impression on the AIDS  pandemic, but at the end, we may still have two different and separated opinions. One probably would  be centered on virology and projects for researching a cure, while the other might be rather concerned with  public health policy implementation. In this paper, I intend to go one step ahead of “Interdisciplinarity” and propose an alternate “Transdisciplinary” perspective on cyberworlds. Instead of laying one discipline along side another for examining cyberworlds as an “interdisciplinary” approach would do; “Transdisciplinarity” is much more of a juxtaposition of disciplines, in which there is a clear transgression of boundaries between them[3]. In practical terms, an “interdisciplinary” research would normally call upon researchers coming from different disciplines to analyze the problems in question. This is made according to their own compartmentalized theories and methods; whilst a “transdisciplinary” oriented researcher would go  beyond its own discipline and attempt to grasp at least, a basic understanding of the relevant language, theories and methods of another fairly distant discipline in order to achieve an holistic understanding of the  problem at hand. Surprisingly enough, this somewhat utopian fusion of soft sciences and hard sciences; as difficult as it may sound, is actually achievable. Consider for instance, that recent discoveries on the interaction between degassed water and oil have demonstrated that after centuries of believing otherwise, there is now undisputable proof that oil and water can  mix 1  Therefore, if after years of being taught that the aforementioned widely accepted idea that “ oil and water don’t mix”,  it turns out that actually oil and water do mix , why cant the same happen with the common notion that “Social Science and Engineering can’t be fused”? This is precisely the premise on which this paper is based, as its main purpose is to call upon the need of a paradigmatic shift, regarding the study of 1 In 2003, experiments done by chemist Richard Pashley at the Australian National University have demonstrated that when you remove the minute quantities of oxygen and nitrogen that naturally occur in water, oil will mix spontaneously and even stay that way indefinitely. The breakthrough discovery have elicited research on new types of drugs and appliances. For more on this topic see [1] cyberworlds. In order to fulfill this objective, I will first give a brief explanation of the social properties of cyberworlds and the need for computer scientists & engineers to asses them as “social worlds”. Then, I will attempt to provide an analytical framework on which the mentioned transdiciplinary perspective could be achieved. 2. Cyberworlds as Social Worlds. Cyberworlds are computer moderated, persistent environments[4] created on cyberspaces as computational spaces either intentionally or spontaneously, with or without design [5]. One of the main characteristics of some kinds of cyberworlds (such as web based multiplayer games, virtual meeting spaces like virtual malls or e-business trade environments, etc) is that through them multiple individuals may interact simultaneously. These kinds of cyberworlds clearly draw upon the basic human need of interacting with others. Thus one of the mayor reasons why people participate in them is because these environments usually enable and enhance the individual’s sociability. However, not all cyberworlds are about enabling interactions among flesh and blood human beings, some of them are just simulations of interacting agents within a virtual environment. Even in these cases, cyberworlds still exhibit a social property: the agents themselves ( their appearance and/or A.I programmed  behavior ) are frequently the result of modeling certain aspects of real life or imagined human beings. Therefore, believable agents are ideally those that successfully mimic –at least to a certain degree- realistic social behavior. Moreover, not only the humans and agents that inhabit cyberworlds exhibit social properties, but also the virtual environments are frequently modeled as mirrors of real world environments [5, 6]; the same environments on which we humans live in society. Thus, cyberworlds have almost always an implicit social nature either because the designers or developers embed in them social properties or the individuals that inhabit them are already carriers of sociability [7,10,11]. Therefore, when designing, discussing and developing cyberworlds, computer scientists and engineers usually think in analogue terms as of how, for instance, policy makers would also think; where a : “what would happen if I embed this or that GUI for user to user communication?” is analogue to a “ what would happen if City Hall passes a bill that restricts mobile telephony in certain areas of the city?”. Indeed, “engineers transform themselves into sociologists, moralists or political scientists at precisely those  moments when they are the most caught up in technical questions”[9] specially because most technical features that a cyberworld might portray could ultimately influence the social landscape of the subsequent virtual world. Under this context, the following analytic framework intends to provide a layered array of some of the key psychological, social, cultural, political and economical aspects to take into consideration when designing, discussing and developing cyberworlds. 3. Levels of Analysis for a Transdisciplinary Study of Cyberworlds. When attempting to address cyberworlds through a transdisciplinary perspective, one of the first problems that arise is to give answers to the following questions: Which elements are relevant to which disciplines? With regards to which of all the available differentiated aspects of cyberworlds are they related?. This is a  problem of levels of analysis and in order to tackle it is necessary to compromise with a set of arranged analytical categories that would help the researcher on organizing and allocating the key relevant issues to be studied. I will use a self tailored adaptation of Hakken’s “Leveled Program for Cyberspace Research” [10] as an analytical framework on which the next sections of this paper will be based upon ( Table 1). Table 1. Levels of Analysis for a Transdisciplinary Study of Cyberworlds. Entities Levels Cyberworld Inhabitants (Agents & Users) Cyberworld Environment Ontological Essential characteristics of  Agents & Users, etc Essential Characteristics of the Virtual Environment Identitary User Identity and Agent Self  Awareness, etc The environmental variables available for self identification, etc Microsocial Dyad relationships amongst users & agents, human interaction patterns and A.I. interaction programming. Mesosocial Group formation and Social Network Emergence, etc Social properties of the environment,; User to User, User to Agent, and  Agent to Agent Interaction interfaces, etc Macrosocial Real World modeling, Cybercultural Formations, National and Transnational relationship and exchanges among users, Impact of Cyberworlds on the real world, etc Political Economic The political economic structures that Cyberworlds produce and reproduce and by which they are constrained, etc When studying cyberworlds and their design, a researcher should not necessarily try to address each and every one of the topics shown in Table 1. The analytical power of this framework resides in the fact that each cell of the matrix can be approached by both Computer Science disciplines and Social Science disciplines . Therefore, since the key analytic issues it  portrays can be of relevance by the involved differing disciplines, it presents an alternative on how to allocate intersection points between Soft Science and Hard Science in regards of cyberworld research. In the following pages, I will explain separately each of these levels of analysis as well as a case example that would hopefully illustrate the complex interrelationships that intertwine them. However, since it is likely that the readers of this paper mainly come from Computer Science & Engineering backgrounds, I will try to focus the discussion on identifying  some  of the key subjective, psychological, social, cultural,  political and economical questions involved in cyberworld study, as a means for stimulating a true transdisciplinary interest in said readers. 3.1. The Ontological Level . The world “ontology” usually refers to the essential characteristics, definitions and components of a given object. Regarding cyberworlds, there are two essential entities that comprise them, which are its Inhabitants (users and agents) and the Environment ( which includes the computational space per se, cyberworld objects as well as the hardware and software aspects on which the cyberworld is built upon). Definition questions of these entities (i.e. “what is an agent?”, “what is a cyberworld?”) pertain to this level of analysis, as well as the determination of the essential characteristics of these entities. In this sense, discussions related to the properties or characteristics of cyberworld programming languages, software tools, hardware platforms, etc., all refer to the ontology of the virtual environment. From a social science point of view, as it was already explained earlier, cyberworlds are essentially conceptualized usually as “social spaces” that just happen to be allocated on computational spaces. This means that  players act within the cyberworld in a “as if” of the  place where we humans normally inhabit. Accordingly, users attribute social significance to the digital space where they socialize with others, effectively shaping the social landscape that constitutes the very essence or social fabric of the cyberworld. [7, 11]. Regarding the ontological status of agents, Cognitive Science already has a long tradition as serving as the basis for agent programming, a field also commonly known as Artificial Life. Frequently, agents in cyberworlds are ontologically defined according to the set of goals, competencies and roles they have within the cyberworld. For an extensive account of the kind of essential social qualities agents can mimic, see Iglesias & Luengo [12] and Gilbert & Troitzsch [13]  3.2. The Identitary Level. The Identitary level is related with the subjective/psychological aspects of the users and the identities they assume inside Cyberworlds, as well as with self awareness programming on Agents and the environmental characteristics that both users and agents can take from the cyberworld whilst becoming a  part of it. Social Science research regarding the subjective and identitary aspects of user tend to revolve around the “Virtual Identity” phenomenon.   Virtual Identity is generally conceived as the Identity that an individual assumes in cyberspace. Turkle [7] is known as one of the first researchers to conduct an in depth study on virtual identities and along with other researchers such as Suler [15], it is now agreed that when a user connects online, it assumes an online personae. The term “personae” comes from the latin phonetic “per/sonare” and in ancient Greek civilizations, it referred to a “mask” the actors wore while playing the different roles in theater drama plays. In this sense, the “online persona” is a kind of “mask” that the user uses when he connects to the cyberworld. It can assume the form of a “nickname”, a “login”, an “avatar”, “character” or a “toon” that represents the users in the virtual environment. Subjective, conscious and unconscious psychological content is then projected into the online persona and it is this virtual self that relates with the virtual others. Turkle’s study is prolific on different examples on how people project  psychological content in their online personas: they serve both to explore personal unknown aspects of themselves, which could lead to achieving healthier self integration, reenact neurotic aspects of themselves or just simply discover aspects of the self they were not aware of; among many other cases. The possibilities are limitless when it comes to Virtual Identity, people can be what they want to be, both in healthy ways or in disruptive ways. This is why it is important for cyberworld designers to understand the basics of Virtual Identity – a comprehension of the myriad of ways on how the properties of a virtual environment can both transfigure and/or reaffirm the users’  personalities and identities could help in the understanding of their behaviours and act in consequence. Regarding agents, what in the Cognitive Science and Artificial Life fields is known as amenability (an agent property that consist on a degree of self awareness of its own condition as an agent and involves the ability to adapt behavior to the environment, self monitoring of goal achievement, learning, operating over the environment; among others), constitutes a good example of how agents can  be analyzed through the identitary level. Questions regarding the extension and limits of the agents’ amenability, as well as its implications within the goals and uses of the cyberworld constitute obvious intersections between traditional Social Science themes of human agency inside social environments and Computer Science’s agent programming inside cyberworlds. The virtual environment also has a direct influence on how users perceive themselves within the cyberworld and how agents would learn to adapt to it. From a Social Science perspective, users will tend to identify with elements of the virtual environment that are congruent with their own personalities or that have an appealing attraction. Users are who they are and  behave as they behave in cyberworlds in accordance with the environment’s features, regulations and constraints [15]. Thus, the user’s identity is in a constant dialectic relationship with the cyberworld. For example, Klastrup & Tosca [16] present an interesting analysis of how the narrative aspects of certain cyberworlds not only are directly related with the kinds of experiences users have in them, but also of how concepts in content planning and storytelling can  become useful tools for cyberworld design. What all this means is that for a transdisciplinary oriented computer scientist, Literary Theory inspired content creation and the understanding of basic psychological concepts could help to address questions such as: How to make this cyberworld appealing to the users? Which environmental variables I should consider as triggering devices for user-agent engagement? 3.3. The Microsocial Level.   On this level of analysis, the main concern is the study of the interactions amongst users and/or agents and the social interfaces that are built in the cyberworld for this purpose. In regard to agents, again Cognitive Science is known to be a useful discipline for understanding how sociability should be embedded on the agents’ interaction patterns. This implies mimicking how humans tend to establish dialogic relationships, dyads and triads of social interaction, etc. The same applies when considering user entities,  because users will try to reproduce real world interaction patterns within the cyberworld. When developing cyberworlds the designer should be very careful to build within it social interfaces that will facilitate and not truncate these patterns. In fact, this is  probably one of the aspects that has received the highest degree of attention when it comes to studying
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