Applications and Tools, Uncategorized

Come Inside, I’d Like to Show You Something (redux)

This is a post that I wrote when I first started this blog. I was reminded of it because of the discussions I’ve been having with my aunt about avatar identity. I won’t share the entire stream of that conversation, but it touched upon issues of spirituality. As she wrote:

“When community as we have known it (the picket fence variety you refer to) disappears, as it largely has, then we need to create the new tribe. And that is, in part, what avatars do. They create a community based on the intrinsic need to connect to the tribe. But I think that for some people (yourself included) that this stage is not enough

Maybe the biggest task ahead for the avatar world is the “spiritual” one. What higher purpose can the avatar serve? ( And I know that you understand that I am not speaking here about conventional religion and morality.) As such, virtual worlds have, as you say, great potential. Part of the challenge will be to assuage the critics who see it simply as escapism and another way to make a buck.”

And I thought I’d re-post the following partly by way of response, and partly because it seems like a nice parting thought on my way to the lake and a week ahead in which I’ll only be able to post sporadically.

September 27, 2007

My mind can’t stay still for long so you can standby for the next comment or random rant if you prefer. We’ll be talking about branding and technology again in the morning.

But if you’d like, let’s talk about fears for a second, and hope.

Come inside, for a minute, I’d like to show you something.


This is where I went to camp as a kid. I remember summers as being spent on lakes.

It isn’t true because more often than not I was playing kick the can with friends on a suburban street, or exploring the ravines down near the highway, or at my grandparents wandering their back woods picking blueberries.

But camp is my metaphor. I remember a sunset, much like the one above. I remember the sounds from the distant mess hall, or the nearby cabins. And I remember being alone on the dock looking up at the sky and feeling awe, wonder, peace and a feeling that I was truly alone.

I stopped looking at the sky for a long time in my life. Cities will do that, and other things will too. We carve our way through life. We claw, learn, experience, act with passion like there’s electricity in our limbs. We win, lose, struggle to make ends meet. Maybe we lose again. And maybe we start to accumulate a few too many losses that the good things lose their meaning.

And one day we either stop listening or something calls out to us that brings us to our senses again.

I’ve been one of the lucky ones. Something reminded me of the dock, the sky, and those feelings of awe and wonder. And that feeling of being alone.

We Arrive Alone
People go to the movies and share a screen and a coffee after and this is being out in the world, experiencing people and sensations. Others join a book club. Or they hang out in a club. Or they go for coffee and talk about friends, a teacher they hate or love, a new flame, or whatever star’s checked herself into rehab.

And some people end up with a screen between them instead of in front of them. And other people don’t understand what it all means.

We arrive in Second Life, in virtual worlds, alone. Second Life is that, a second life. It’s an artificial construct and it has a set of tools, rules, engines and code. It has sub-societies and social norms. And yet we arrive in it alone and our life begins again, our second life, because we’re like kids – trying to read the signs, trying to figure out how to act, how to find our niche and place in society, and we gravitate to where we can make a mark, to friends with things in common, to relationships where we can explore the nature of ourselves and our desires, our hopes and fears, our interests and our hates.

I can never remember which of them said that the unexamined life is not worth living, but the Greeks were onto something. And I’m in a program that requires me to look at myself honestly and to be honest with other people.

Those who come to Second Life and leave are often, I’ve seen, the ones who don’t have the capacity for self reflection. After they’ve exhausted the novelty of 3D sex they leave. As much as they might want it, SL doesn’t seem to give a lot of allowance for being a simple chat client either – relationships become deeper perhaps because they have more visual cues and seem more “real”.

So we discover, in Second Life, that we start to learn, to feel, to react, to grow. We need to reflect on ourselves and others, on our reactions and how we portray ourselves. Some of us decide to keep a singular focus – on a fetish, a community, a hobby, a set of tools, and the ‘platform’ accommodates us.

And some of us, many of us in my experience, start to integrate what we’ve learned and felt in SL in our “real lives”, often for the better, sometimes with all the negative consequences that self-reflection and discovery can bring.

Explaining Why We’re Here
A friend, a brother really, who I love dearly found himself explaining, rationalizing , the time he spent in Second Life. My heart went out to him, because although SL can create dependence issues, although it can not only give an escape from reality it can also lead to reality avoidance, it’s sort of painful that he needs to explain it. But it’s early days and he’s going through what I did, and what others tell me they went through before.

I wonder what the difference is between watching a screen – a television, a movie, with someone else, versus having a screen between you and a community of people?

There are always issues of balance but those issues are everywhere in life. If we go out to bars every night, if we eat too much, if we work too hard, we become unbalanced. If we spend all of our time in front of a computer screen we become unbalanced and we forget to look at the stars.

But what is it that other people judge? Well, first, they judge what they don’t understand.

I didn’t understand – I didn’t even know what SL was when I signed up. I had never heard about it in the news and never read about it on the Web. But if I was hearing about it now I imagine I’d picture a wild west of bank scams and “sex gen” lawsuits, of child porn and a clamp down on rampant casinos – hardly the images that I associate with my own experience of SL.

And so first they don’t understand, and maybe they’ve heard those rumours, and maybe some of the rumours are true. But then again, maybe someone at the local pub’s a jerk and will harass you in a drunken stupor, and will probably be there when you go back next Friday night. Or maybe a telemarketer will con you for a subscription you don’t need. Or maybe someone will rifle through your recycling and steal your identity.

All I know is my own experience of SL and what some others have told me and what I’ve seen. And it’s is the same one that attracted me in the first place, which was the tag line on their Web site:

“Your World. Your Imagination.”

But that’s a tough thing to explain to people. First, it’s hard to explain what a “world” is that doesn’t ‘really’ exist. And second, not everyone gravitates so easily to acts of imagination. And third, it’s sometimes hard to grapple with the fact that SL itself is really just an early prototype of what’s possible – a glorious experiment that can easily go awry, with warning signs shouting at us from every grief attack or service outage.

But often there’s deeper fear. It’s a fear that technology will isolate us. A fear that there won’t be any more kids playing kick the can on a summer night. Technology will eventually leave the streets empty because our kids will be behind closed doors levelling up in WoW with their friends from Japan or Korea. People don’t want to be left alone. People want to be needed, to belong, to feel that their friends won’t be lost to a ‘game’.

But if loneliness, isolation, loss of community – if these are symptoms of the modern age, of a loss of spirit, then how are we going to get ourselves out of this one? Surely there are multiple paths to a smaller more connected world. And surely tools that help us to create with each other might be some small part of a bigger picture?

Be a Creator
The poet, jurist and theologian Rumi wrote:

We must become ignorant
Of all we’ve been taught,
And be, instead, bewildered.

Run from what’s profitable and comfortable
If you drink those liqueurs, you’ll spill
The spring waters of your real life.

Forget safety.
Live where you fear to live.
Destroy your reputation.
Be notorious.

I have tried prudent planning
Long enough, from now
On, I’ll live mad.

I like to write, read, there’s little that means more to me than the pages of a book, the tactile feeling, the sense of endurance of the ink.

To a lot of people, virtual worlds are new ways of telling stories. They allow us to co-create. And there have been very few instances when humanity has been given the tools to co-create in such an expansive, cross-border, “real” way.

When I hear about the Linden policy debates and when I think about them myself, I’m forced to conclude that the balance that needs to be achieved is a way to finance a shared creative commons in a way that respects and protects the act of creation without making it subservient to the need to fund it and make it available to a wide audience (a “safe” space). I’m not sure that SL will be the platform for a creative commons in the long run, but it sure offers an early glimpse.

I am convinced that virtual worlds give us a new common, visual and collaborative language. And because I also believe that creativity is a spiritual gift, I believe that this collaborative language, if handled right, has the potential for tremendous good. And like my brother’s friends, it also has the potential to attract criticism, fear, resentment, and a lack of understanding.

The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote that “man lives by images, for only images can set verbs in motion again….Images challenge us. Indeed, images are more challenging than ideas.”

It is through images, through the imagination, that we can feed hope, for there is “an innate optimism in all works of imagination.” Through the imagination we become transported:

“…outside the immediate world to a world that bears the mark of infinity. Isn’t imagination alone able to enlarge indefinitely the images of immensity? It takes us to the space of elsewhere.”

We arrive in our lives alone. We rotate in and out of each other’s orbits, and still the planet of ourselves spins off elsewhere. We share a dance, we sit on a beach and talk, we make love, we struggle to find our place, we wear different masks and play different roles, we learn, we grow, we fail.

And then, still, we are alone, and the sky is above, and the gravity that pulls these planets of ourselves hums with its unknowable intentions. And we see those intentions sometimes. And we feel that togetherness with something that we only really know in those times on the dock.

“There is a river of creativity running through all things, all relationships, all beings, all corners and centers of the universe. We are here to join it, to get wet, to jump in, to ride these rapids, wild and sacred as they be.” (M. Fox)


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