Deep Thoughts, Second Life

Humanizing Second Life

My brain hurts this week.

Actually, it hurts most weeks, but this week it’s something like an ice cream headache – the Second Life Community Convention was all yummy goodness but you eat it all all up so fast and you’re left with, hmmm…an almost pleasurable lightning bolt throb.

Who could resist, really – on the main track with the keynotes you had M showing his photo album, and Pip talking about how we’re on the prairies which is about to become Manhattan, and Ray Kurzweil promising immortality, and Tom Hale showing off a new viewer, mesh imports, media-on-a-prim, all kinds of tasty stuff – a giant ice cream cone with sprinkles.

So I came out of San Francisco and posted about Linden Lab’s plans and how it will propel them towards – well, towards a liquidity event most likely. A sale, an IPO (less probable), a merger. And I still think that’s true. I don’t think Linden Lab as it exists today will be here in 2011. It will have been swallowed up into….well, into something else. We’ll have to wait and see. In fact, I have this really weird feeling that it will happen even sooner – as in ‘nearly imminent’ but that’s just that ice cream headache tingle I suppose.

Now at the end of my “Second Life is taking over social media” post I also said that there were some other perspectives on their march towards mass acceptance and a sudden boom in enterprise use and a co-opting of the very idea of what it means to be on the Web – in fact, I propose, and still do, that the Lab is managing to do something that others outside maybe the mobile industry can’t do, which is to provide an alternative to the Web itself (yet tightly interlinked with it and, if course, using all that cable).

And I was trying to find a way to talk about it. The “on the other hand” stuff. Because my line is always pretty much the same, especially when I bump up against those people who don’t own cell phones or who believe that Facebook is like rock music – the end of our youth, of culture, of society itself. And the line is this: technology holds both promise and peril and we have an obligation as thoughtful people to recognize both, your fear of technology should be balanced with another view of what it can do, just as my embrace of technology is tempered by fear of its misuse.

Second Life and Humanizing Technology
So I had this idea – that Second Life as a brand, well, isn’t one. It has the potential to be one but it needs a strong vision. Philip Rosedale commented on my post on this a while back and then was kind enough to come up and talk to me when he saw my name badge at SLCC and sort of confirm this idea that maybe somehow Second Life can be about humanizing our experience of technology.

As I posted:

“So maybe there’s something in that “Second Life” thing…it’s life, only better. It’s technology, only it doesn’t FEEL like technology. It’s being able to do cool stuff with code but not knowing that you’re coding. I’m not sure.”

So where we stand a few weeks later is a sort of uber-view of technology as seen through the new Second Life Web site, and as seen in having Kurzweil present at SLCC, and as seen in how M and Pip kept warning us: “stuff is going to change and you may not like it but it will all be good”….because, well, growth is good, technology is good, and we’ll all be able to upload our brains one day.

Off the Beaten Track
There was another side to the Second Life Community Convention as well. After the shiny stuff that was presented each morning (aside from Kurzweil who phoned in his keynote and then read from the dust jacket of his book) there was the alternate reality.

There were great discussions, and roll-up-your-sleeve sessions, and there was meeting amazing people. Armi said it best:

“But when the avatar is standing right in front of you, bridging that impossibly wide digital gap is as easy as reaching out with your hands. And so we did it, over and over again. We did it with handshakes, arm touches, kisses and especially hugs. Men and women, women and women and even men and men. Hugs so long and tight they were the most intense experience. The touch, always the touch, as if it would never occur again. ”

But on the other hand, there was the very odd experience of hearing Int’Libber talk about the value of griefers and how he puts them to good productive use in his organization. And there was MarketTruths talking about how the average pay for work in Second Life is in the 2 figures – as in 90 cents an hour or something insane. And there was the lack of response by Linden Lab to ideas for how to improve the music business in Second Life, about which Grace had a thoughtful post.

A Place Called Home
See – as much as the road map is going to give us new tools for creation, and new ways to connect with one another, one of the things that makes it work is the mixture of chaos and cultural mix-ups, change and, one would hope, stability where it matters, like in being able to stay logged on.

Against this background we have the Second Life Web site. Which is gorgeous, and usable, and fairly functional (the map thing, which I loved when I saw it at SLCC doesn’t work for me but maybe they’ve fixed it).

But I have a question. Do you notice anything funny about these images:
Second Life Web site

Second Life Web site

Yeah, I’m sure you spotted it: everyone is, well, human.

Real Life Only Better
See, the thing about the new Web site, as beautiful as it is, as compelling, as usable, as great as the dashboard might be: it may make the technology more human, but in so doing it makes it far less humanizing.

I don’t remember what the home page looked like when I first logged on to Second Life. I remember it was confusing. I remember orientation was awful, especially for someone used to games, and I couldn’t help wondering why everything looked so, well, crappy.

And maybe I’m getting nostalgic or something, but that was part of the appeal. It was like a puzzle to unlock and it was the kind of puzzle that only 1 in 5 ever solved (the rest just logged off and never came back) but the reward was the very chaos that is Second Life.

The other thing I remember in those first weeks of exploration wasn’t the world itself, but the people. And the people didn’t always LOOK like people. They looked like furries or kids or dragons or the Kool Aid man.

Now, Second Life has been cleaned up and repackaged and while I’m sure it’s well-intentioned – don’t scare someone off with photos of Gor or blue foxes….I also feel like Second Life 2.0 is setting itself up to establish a new cultural norm in which what is not possible in real life is waaaay less important than creating a version of real life instead – one that is shiny, and looks beautiful, and is filled with beautiful people, and which seems to focus on buying a house and dancing and definitely, definitely shopping.

Is this what we mean by humanizing technology – creating a new ideal for what it means to be virtually human which simply lifts off of all the beauty myths and commerce myths and….well….all the crap we have to put up with in real life?

Because on the one hand, it’s great that we can have alternate realities in which to explore and meet people and be creative. And on the other hand, if those alternative realities start to mimic the real world’s cultural norms then maybe we’re not actually learning anything new, we’re just relocating reality.


speak up

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site.

Subscribe to these comments.

*Required Fields

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.