Art and Exploration, Deep Thoughts, Second Life

The Green Light: Philip Rosedale’s Second Life

“(He) believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.”

Flower Tower’ and Spider Sack Meeting Space by Eshi Otawara

I didn’t arrive at these shores expecting a world but that’s what I found. I didn’t arrive expecting that the lack of rules or goals or direction would be the source of dreams.

I remember asking someone: “so what do you DO here” and the response was – “well, what do you WANT to do” as if all of life was possible, and maybe they knew not to mention the impossibilities, it was too much to handle, I was still worried about prim hair and why my avatar didn’t stand the right way, and kept clicking on gestures hoping they held some kind of clue.

Those first trips to some mall somewhere exposed me to the idea of prims – boxes you can click and open and they held stuff inside, but I can’t quite remember when it first occurred to me that the buildings THEMSELVES were made of those boxes, what I do remember is that I was terrified to build anything in public, so I rented some little plot of land somewhere and built a little dock and a gazebo and it took me days to do – I didn’t know there was such a thing as camera controls, so aligning prims was an exercise in walking and flying around trying to see if things were lined up the right way.

I’m not entirely sure how that experience drew me in – or if I was even aware of how intense the focus could become or how deeply satisfying.

I could swear that I felt unused parts of my brain light up. And some day I’m sure it will be proven to be true: those places we go when we’re rezzing prims and being in these spaces reshape our neural patterns somehow…I could feel it not just in that stunned but satisfying fatigue, but in some sort of new emotional response to the world around me. I felt less real in reality, more ethereal, lighter, and, strangely, more at peace.

Something would happen when I’d set out to make a table, say, and there would be this kind of zone, some sort of warp in space and time which would find me deep in the night perfecting a texture face or figuring out some new way to create a chair leg. One thing led to another and I stumbled across clothing templates, which meant I stumbled across Photoshop, and I probably made 100 outfits before moving on to creating my own textures from photos I’d take and then, of course, creating the houses on which the textures could be placed, or the pathway through a sim. Somewhere along the line I decided I wanted to figure out sculpted prims and I took a detour through Maya and ZBrush and 3DS. I did a few animations on a whim.

Those aren’t the things I thought I’d learn. I didn’t learn them for practical reasons, although there was something satisfying when I figured out the whole commerce thing and started selling houses. It was this little reward system, I suppose, and for some time I was making the equivalent of some people’s rent, and it struck me that this combination of creativity and commerce wasn’t like a lot of stuff out there with their vague economies and clunky ways to buy and sell, when they had ways to buy and sell at all.

None of these things were particularly practical. And neither was the world itself.

The Atomic World

Philip Rosedale recently said that “the upper end of how creative as humans we want to be is apparently not found yet. We seem to be almost infinitely creative in our desire to use these virtual systems…to make content.”

Now, I came late to Second Life. I wasn’t there when people would regularly see Philip on the Grid or attend office hours with him or whatever. I didn’t even know who he was until later: I had heard his name, but never really connected the idea that someone, well, MADE this whole thing, that it was scrounged together in a garage almost and that somehow people gravitated to it, and that the ability to actually make and sell stuff was unique.

Instead, I was fascinated by this intersection of people, creativity and, to a far lesser degree, commerce.

And my answer to that fascination was to buy every book I could find on virtual worlds and devour them. The streetcar ride to the office found me lugging around Bartle’s book or going wide-eyed reading Castranova’s first book, which was a revelation, although I ended up spending more nights thinking about State of Play maybe than any of them….it set me off trying to understand the intersection of policy, governance, law and culture, things I’d barely thought about in the real world other than in a sort of vague ‘I’m Canadian and therefore a wishy-washy liberal” kind of way.

It took me time, in other words, to create some kind of mental geography of what this all meant. And time to understand the true power of the prim, and of Philip’s underlying vision, which was to provide tools for creation that were granular, and which could be assembled in ever larger circles of meaning.

This wasn’t just a grass roots community kind of thing existing on a platform: the platform itself WAS the grass roots, it was assembled prim by prim. Creativity itself had been reassembled and a new tool set created that could allow us tell stories atomically, one bit at a time, and to attach cultural meanings to those assemblies – a culture and, I thought, a new way of seeing or being.

I often wonder whether Philip relates to the deeper changes the world facilitates. Reading Malaby’s book on what it was like at Linden Lab a few years ago, he paints a picture of coder culture informed by games, by a sort of geeky fascination with bending code, and then a vaguely confused reaction when those changes actually impacted the users. At points, he paints a picture of Philip as being fascinated with ’shiny new things’.

Now, I’ve only met Philip a few times. And while he has this vision-y far-off look in his eyes, he’s never struck me as arrogant or less than humbled by what has been created inside this world he made. And I can’t help suspecting that he does know – maybe not in the same time horizon as the rest of us, but maybe in the context of singularities or Zen waves or whatever mental model he runs around with.

See, it’s not just the prims or the code or some elegant script that makes a dance floor work really well. It’s the deep pocket inside where creativity mingles with people and with an almost spiritual zone – that space which creates dislocations, and maybe changes a mind or two about how the world should work and what the future could look like, if only we’d keep the faith and not lose our way.

“Second Life not only became a great tool for self-expression and a dream I could modify to my liking, but also a network of great and amazing people who have wholeheartedly accepted me and helped me to restore my sense of self-appreciation and willingness to live which I had misplaced within the darkness of young widowhood.

Many of these people are regularly welcomed into my ‘Real Life’ and will forever be. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that these people are ‘real,’ genuine, and that our bonds go beyond wire.” – Eshi

The Practical People
We’re getting work avatars now. We’ll be talking about platforms and applications more often when Nebraska is launched. We’ll have dress codes, and the Web will be brought into the virtual world and the virtual world will stream to the Web.

It’s time to be practical, I suppose. Philip has other things on his mind. He’s not leaving, but I can’t help thinking that there is one significant voice who will be absent in the debate when they’re talking about mesh imports or whatever: the conversation will focus on channels and product and whether it’s measurable or not.

I have great faith in Mark Kingdon’s ability to scale Second Life and his recognition that enterprise is not the future of the Grid, but rather a component of a platform in which community and casual users are the key to its success and sustainability.

But let’s be honest about this, because we’re increasingly governed by practical people:

“Pragmatic technology buyers will require immersive software to expose and document APIs and provide out-of-box interfaces to enterprise apps, information worker tools, and back-end systems. Pragmatic end users will demand that applications perform as expected and are easy to use, even for the first time. They will shy away from applications that cause frustration. Given these realities, these announcements coming out of the vendor community indicate steady movement in the right direction.”

I mean – you tell me: how exciting does that sound to YOU?

But thank goodness for those practical people: they help keep the lights on in my office, they keep things as orderly as they can.

But in these practical times I can’t help thinking that one by one we’re losing the voices of the visionaries who came here first, who saw that green light which beckoned across the waves: the ones who could stir us not with practicalities but with visions that didn’t quite make sense or were somehow blurry and ill-defined, but deeply compelling nonetheless.

Because if the visionaries move on, if all we’re left with are practicalities and business avatars and dress codes, then those deep and mysterious places may become increasingly hard to find.

Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

And as I sat there, brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out Daisy’s light at the end of his dock. He had come such a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close he could hardly fail to grasp it. But what he did not know was that it was already behind him, somewhere in the vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning ——

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

- The Great Gatsby


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