Second Life

The Story Box: Second Life & Magic

The new CEO of Linden Labs will have no shortage of advice, but I’ve been struck with the notion recently that in all my thinking about content theft, lag and crashes, 3D cameras and other gizmos, that I’ve found myself saying one too many times “now, practically speaking”, which is a watch word for adult talk and serious nodding and probably the writing of a memo. I owe it to a good friend, who manages to keep me honest and in touch with some deeper vibration (and to whom I owe an apology for not writing back – this blog is only a pale stand in), who sent me down a few trails I hadn’t explored before, bringing me to a speech by Philip Dick in 1978 and this quote which struck me like a thunder bolt:

So I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing. It is my job to create universes, as the basis of one novel after another. And I have to build them in such a way that they do not fall apart two days later. Or at least that is what my editors hope. However, I will reveal a secret to you: I like to build universes which do fall apart. I like to see them come unglued, and I like to see how the characters in the novels cope with this problem. I have a secret love of chaos. There should be more of it.

Do not believe—and I am dead serious when I say this—do not assume that order and stability are always good, in a society or in a universe. The old, the ossified, must always give way to new life and the birth of new things. Before the new things can be born the old must perish. This is a dangerous realization, because it tells us that we must eventually part with much of what is familiar to us. And that hurts. But that is part of the script of life. Unless we can psychologically accommodate change, we ourselves begin to die, inwardly. What I am saying is that objects, customs, habits, and ways of life must perish so that the authentic human being can live. And it is the authentic human being who matters most, the viable, elastic organism which can bounce back, absorb, and deal with the new.

Why You Can Be an Augmented Immersionist
Recently, Rheta Shan grouped me in with the augmentationists, and I confess I felt hurt, not because I don’t believe that augmentation is a valid pursuit in SL, and not because I feel a need to establish my street cred as an immersionist, but because I realize how unclear I’ve been. And yet…and yet I’ve struggled to find the words, returning to the same topics again and again.

First, to make it clear, and Rheta picked this up: to me, Second Life is not a separate world. The world is filled with many separate locations. There may in fact be many realities within the world. And within that world of separate locations and realities there is Second Life. Because it exists in that one wider world, you can not just escape to it, because I can guarantee you that no matter how hard you try, you can not just leave your avatar there, its aspirations and hopes, its friends and loves, its experiences and dreams….you can’t just log off and shut all that down. You can delete your account, you can try to forget, but even if you leave, and even if you forget, you will have left traces of yourself behind.

This becomes most evident when there is death in a virtual world. I posted on the death of Dummie Beck months ago, and yet the page is often still visited, and there have been posts long after his passing. In thinking about this, I found unexpected meaning in his death, and in the response of the community, writing:

I believe that one of the powers of virtual worlds is that it gives us a new toolkit of creative expression. Through this toolkit we might find new strength, community, and archetypes. The fluidity of identity, the shuttling of meaning back-and-forth between our real and virtual selves, and the ways we learn and communicate all create a fertile ground for new discoveries.

But it still leaves the question, and maybe it’s at the root of what the new CEO of Linden will need to answer: when we come to Second Life, why do we stay? Because Rheta’s right: as a social platform it’s left wanting, the ability to create really great content is limited (though not impossible), and although you can create environments that are ‘game-like’ it’s hard to create real games.

But when I look at Second Life I don’t see a game, and I don’t see a role-playing environment, and I don’t see an e-commerce engine (although to some degree it is all of these) – I see the possibilities for stories. And in these possibilities I am attracted to how Second Life may be a new camp fire around which we weary hunters gather, scratching pictures in the sand with our primitive tools and telling each other of the days we’ve had, and the adventures ahead.

I’m not interested, frankly, in ‘killer apps’. The killer app has already arrived, and it slipped in when we weren’t looking, hidden in digital cameras, and mash-ups of music, and mySpace, and then finally given its purest expression in Second Life. And the killer app is the awakening drum beat of a new community of tales, and perhaps more profoundly, what those tales will be about.

So I like to think about how Second Life is the purest expression of this, and then think about how our tools for storytelling can be improved, whether it’s in the awe-inspiring efforts tirelessly highlighted by Bettina Tizzy, the latest device for controlling our avatars, or the extrapolation of story-telling tools such as photographs into environments like Photosynth.

Forgotten Magic
“….to lend a purer sense to the words of the tribe…” (Stephane Mallarme, “The Tomb of Edgar Allan Poe”)

I arrived at Philip Dick’s speech by way of Kevin Kelly, who wrote:

A major theme of this present century will be the pursuit of our collective identity. We are on a search for who we are. What does it mean to be a human? Can there be more than one kind of human? In fact, what exactly is a human?

We get to play with answers to these questions online. In Second Life, or in chat rooms, we can chose who we want to be, our gender, our genetics, even our species. Technologies gives us the means to switch genders, inhabit new forms, modify our own bodies.

At the same moment, we have the rise of hyper-realities. These are simulations so complex, convincing, and coherent that they have their own reality force. A fake so good, it is sold and bought as a fabulous fake. A Disneyland so enticing, that it spawns its own “fakes.” There must be something there to fake. Or Photoshopped images so obviously unreal that they have their own reality. Synthetic materials more desirable than natural ones. Originals inferior to their reproductions. Who cares what is real and what is memorex?

These hyper-realities launch questions such as whether a assault in virtual space counts as an actual violent assault or mere virtual assault. How much of our real lives is mental? How much of reality is a consensual hallucination? Where do our minds end and outside begin? What if it — everything outside of us — is all mind?

The faster and greater our lives become mediated — the more time we spend communicating through technology — the more urgent this question of “what is real” becomes. How do we tell the difference, if any, between realities and simulations? How do these redefine humans?

These are the emerging and profound questions of our time. They arise because issues of trust spur the question of who is it we are trusting. Avatar or machine? Code or the code Gods themselves? They arise because issues of identity emerge when we fall in love with an avatar and discover that the person behind the persona is of a different gender. They bubble up from the strange loop – the delegating of some holograph of ourselves into a virtual, persistent space, which is really a shard of a larger image, the real and virtual in a recursive cycle, taking place in what will become recursive environments holding our recursive selves, with mirrored worlds and mixed realities and our own world overlaid with the virtual.

But what strikes me is that these questions really aren’t so new – that in our rush to question the technology and its implications, we forget that we’ve been gathered around the camp fire before, and that we used to believe in magic, and we used to know what it was like to wonder whether we were appeasing or angering the ancient spirits, and that it was only through stories that we could craft our feeble response on those dark nights.

In his Massey Lecture, Alberto Manguel reminds us that in Anglo-Saxon the word for poet was maker,and that:

Makers shape things into being, granting them their intrinsic identity. Still in a corner of their workshops and yet drifting with the currents of the rest of humanity, makers reflect back the world in its constant ruptures and changes, and mirror themselves in the unstable shapes of our societies, becoming what the Nicaraguan poet Ruben Dario called “celestial lightning rods” by asking over and over again “Who are we?” and by offering the ghosts of an answer in the words of the question itself.

The Spinning Prim and the Homestead
In these new stories there is room for the spinning prim, and there’s room for the house on the beach.

There’s room for the quiet steady pace of Caledon and its genteel citizens, and there’s room for the dark urban shadows of Midian City or the City of Lost Angels. The communities of shop keepers, the people saving up from camping to rent their first little plot of land…all of these are important stories. Because when we gather round to talk to each other, first we need to sort out what happened in the day, and that’s what people are doing….imagining variations of their real lives, or ones that they’d like to have…talking and chatting, mingling and copulating, driving the car they’ll never be able to afford otherwise or getting a makeover that catapults them to movie star good looks.

And then there’s the spinning prims – the path finders, the ones who construct whimsical avatars or forests that glow, and sure, the date sims…Greenies and the Carnival of Doom.

Terrabytes of new artefacts, littering the land, or cluttering up inventory, but these are the new words…language that isn’t constricted to one mother tongue and that transcends sculpture or architecture because in it there’s a wider community’s search for meaning. Much of it will get discarded along the way, some of it will just be little tests of the technology to see where it could carry us, and then somewhere on an island somewhere is a Robbie Dingo making the next Starry Night, or there’s coder sorting out openspimes…there’s a new language being created bit by bit, and through this new language expression will be found to help us grapple with the wave of change that’s evident not just in Second Life, but in the wider world:

* In a world where collaboration is easier, more accessible, and global, how does the nature of work change? If the nature of work changes, what is the nature of the company?
* When we’re able to express ourselves, interact with each other, and widen the tools for doing so (the expressive avatar, 3D cameras) through a persistent virtual environment, where will “me” begin and end? How much of “me” is defined by my individuality and how much by my tribe?
* When the trickle continues to turn into a flood and virtual property is ubiquitous and (nearly) free, what does it mean to be a craftsperson or designer? What is higher up the hierarchy of needs when it comes to what we can create? How high can we go?

The Poetry of Place
Manguel quoted Gerald Manley Hopkins:

I am soft sift
In an hourglass – at the wall
Fast, but mined with a motion, a drift…

We hold fast to a social identity that we believe lends us a name and a face, but equally fast we move from one definition of a society to another, alternating again and again that presumed identity. Like characters in a story that keeps changing, we find ourselves playing roles that others appear to have invented for us, in plots whose roots and consequences escape us. .Even when declaring allegiance to one place, we seem to be always moving away from it, toward a nostalgic image of what we believe that place once was or might one day be….and yet, partly because of our nomad nature and partly due to fluctuations of history, our geography is less grounded in a physical than in a phantom landscape. Home is always an imaginary place.

He beckons us to stories which, he says “can offer consolation for suffering and words to name our experience. Stories can tell us who we are and what are these hourglasses through which we sift, and suggest ways of imagining a future that, without calling for comfortable happy endings, may offer us ways of remaining alive, together, on this much-abused earth.”

We’re here to tell stories. They don’t have to be complicated or represent a “killer app”. Sometimes a wonderful story is as simple as someone making their first picture frame from prims. Or sitting and watching the sunset over Svarga with someone we love. And we’re here to listen, and watch, and feel a bit of awe sometimes, and to keep an eye out for new ways to tell a tale.


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