In 2016 I wrote about the work of Tom Boellstorff and Donna Z Davis (respectively Tom Bukowski and Tredi Felisimo in Second Life). Since 2015 Donna – a strategic communications professor at the University of Oregon specialising in mass media & society, public relations, strategic communication, virtual environments and digital ethnography – and Tom – a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine – have been engaged in a National Science Foundation funded study formally entitled Virtual Worlds, Disability, and New Cultures of the Embodied Self, and more informally referred to as Our Digital Selves.
Their work, which will continue through into 2018, focuses on the experiences of people with disabilities – visible and invisible – who are using immersive virtual spaces to represent themselves, possibly free of the shadow of any disability, engage with others and do things they may not be able to do in the physical world.
The work encompasses many aspects – physical, mental, technical, for example – of occupying both a physical space and a digital environment when living with both visible and invisible disabilities – the benefits that can be enjoyed, together with the potential risks / fears. Some of these aspects, particularly the more positive, are perhaps familiar to us: the power of being defined by who we are as a person, rather than in terms of a disability; the freedom presented by the ability to embody ourselves within an avatar howsoever we like, and so on. Other may not have been fully recognised for the fear they can create; while the “new era” for VR system may well be liberating for the able, it can be a frightening / debilitating threat for some with disabilities.
Given the extent of the study, it obviously crosses the physical / digital divide. There have been experiments and discussions in-world. And there have been real-world interactions between Tom and Donna and those participating in the study.
One of those who has been following the study closely is Draxtor Despres. He has featured Tom’s work in The Drax Files World Makers, and is now engaged in producing a documentary – also entitled Our Digital Selves – about the study, travelling with Donna and Tom to meet some of those participating in the work. While not due for release until early 2018, the first official trailer for the documentary was made public on Tuesday, October 11th, 2017.
“I’m not sure how long the finished piece will be,” Drax informed me in an exclusive one-to-one about the trailer and the film. “I’m aiming for around 40 minutes, but am currently editing an hour-long cut. It’s a massive project. We’ve been travelling across the United States and across the Atlantic meeting with people and interviewing them.”
It’s a massive undertaking; Drax goes on to note that there are around 15 participants in the study who have been involved in the filming, and he has around 3 hours of recording with each. Some of this was necessary simply to get to know people and overcome perfectly natural barriers – shyness, nervousness, and so on – and establish trust; however, it still means there is a lot which needs to be synthesised into a cohesive whole, whilst also doing justice to the stories of all of those volunteering to participate in the film.
Nevertheless, the first public trailer does much to establish the structure of the documentary and present an accessible framework against which the broader story will naturally unfold.
This promises to be one of the most engaging, moving and informative documentaries on virtual living, embodiment and personal expression since, perhaps, Login2Life, and something that should not be missed once available. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with the trailer – and the hope that, subject to feedback from Donna, Tom, Drax and those involved the work, I’ll be able to bring more on the documentary and the study in the run-up to the release of the completed film.