Deep Thoughts, Second Life, Virtual World Platforms

The Web, Drifting into View

It’s “Time to Take the Internet Seriously” according to a thought-provoking grab bag of insights by David Gelernter on the Edge. And I couldn’t help reading it in the context of my belief that virtual worlds had been staking a new claim for what our digital lives could be like, that worlds like Second Life were prototyping new models for how we might interact, be, imagine, and express our online culture – open ended, imagination driven, clunky tools as ’social media’ but rich sources for storytelling or connection.

Second Life as a story box….but Second Life as an island where we could sit and find context in the raging river of real-time, always on, constantly poked, algorithmic, data scraping wider Web.

Consider a few of Gelernter’s calls to action and ideas, and then go read it yourself, and extrapolate your view of the Web’s future with what you’ve learned in a virtual world:

9. Because your information will live in the Cloud and only make quick visits to your personal machines, all your machines will share the same information automatically; a new machine will be useful the instant you switch it on; a lost or stolen machine won’t matter — the information it contains will evaporate instantly. The Cloud will take care that your information is safely encrypted, distributed and secure.

Second Life IS the Cloud and it WAS the Cloud when it was first built. Log in from any computer, anywhere and your applications are the same, your inventory is the same (if it isn’t borked) and your personal desktop, the avatar, is the same. The information space around you may have changed because in this cloud the world is always on. This Cloud did more – and embedded commerce and IP rights within a SHARED space – there is no other Cloud in the world where the rights to the content in that Cloud can be defined at such a granular level, where the space itself can still be shared, and yet where we (mostly) have individual protections, privacy and control over our identity.

11. The Internet will never create a new economy based on voluntary instead of paid work — but it can help create the best economy in history, where new markets (a free market in education, for example) change the world….The net will never become a mind, but can help us change our ways of thinking and change, for the better, is the spirit of the age. This moment is also dangerous: virtual universities are good but virtual nations, for example, are not. Virtual nations — whose members can live anywhere, united by the Internet — threaten to shatter mankind like glass into razor-sharp fragments that draw blood. We know what virtual nations can be like: Al Qaeda is one of the first.

Second Life DID create a new economy, new markets, and it did so on the basis of changing our way of thinking.

25. If we think of time as orthogonal to space, a stream-based, time-based Cybersphere is the traditional Internet flipped on its side in digital space-time. The traditional web-shaped Internet consists (in effect) of many flat panels chaotically connected. Instead of flat sites, where information is arranged in space, we want deep sites that are slices of time. When we look at such a site onscreen, it’s natural to imagine the past extending into (or beyond) the screen, and the future extending forward in front of the screen; the future flows towards the screen, into the screen and then deeper into the space beyond the screen.

Isn’t this Second Life? Doesn’t the future extend in front of us? Doesn’t our ability to move through information space reflect our ability to parse the future, be inside it, watch it change shape and flow around us, in real time, with other people PRESENT??? Where else on the Web can you literally walk forward into a future that’s being crafted and created as we move through it? And where else can you do so where other people share the space with you and may be altering it and changing it as we walk?

Shared Media, so far, is bringing the flat screen into an information space that’s far richer than any other modality for traversing data. When Shared Media moves beyond the flat screen and untaps the ability for the landscape to be a living, breathing thing it may perform what it COULD perform – which is a deeper value than being able to surf more flat screens but with an avatar in between.

23. The Internet’s future is not Web 2.0 or 200.0 but the post-Web, where time instead of space is the organizing principle — instead of many stained-glass windows, instead of information laid out in space, like vegetables at a market — the Net will be many streams of information flowing through time. The Cybersphere as a whole equals every stream in the Internet blended together: the whole world telling its own story. (But the world’s own story is full of private information — and so, unfortunately, no human being is allowed to hear it.)

Second Life is, already, one of the largest collaborative story telling tools in the world today. A prim IS information. The more we side bar data and Web-ify it, the more we lose the value of the prim itself, its power as an information atom, and its ability to be assembled with other atoms to create richer meaning than a Wiki, a blog, or a MySpace page.

29. Nowness is one of the most important cultural phenomena of the modern age: the western world’s attention shifted gradually from the deep but narrow domain of one family or village and its history to the (broader but shallower) domains of the larger community, the nation, the world. The cult of celebrity, the importance of opinion polls, the decline in the teaching and learning of history, the uniformity of opinions and attitudes in academia and other educated elites — they are all part of one phenomenon. Nowness ignores all other moments but this. In the ultimate Internet culture, flooded in nowness like a piazza flooded in sea water, drenched in a tropical downpour of nowness, everyone talks alike, dresses alike, thinks alike.

Second Life is nowness without uniformity. Second Life is presence without the lumbering pressure of the algorithm, of homogeneity. Nowness is spiritual and ennobling, but only when our presence in time is our presence in our own truth. If our nowness is presence in the uniformity of Facebook we’re only one cog in an algorithm, our domain of expression of our personal “now” is narrowed, confined, lessened.

Our humanity is based on how messy, how expressive, how chaotic our nows can be – because our truths don’t neatly fit into the category of “it’s complicated”.

31. But — the Internet could be the most powerful device ever invented for understanding the past, and the texture of time. Once we understand the inherent bias in an instrument, we can correct it. The Internet has a large bias in favor of now. Using lifestreams (which arrange information in time instead of space), historians can assemble, argue about and gradually refine timelines of historical fact. Such timelines are not history, but they are the raw material of history. They will be bitterly debated and disputed — but it will be easy to compare two different versions (and the evidence that supports them) side-by-side. Images, videos and text will accumulate around such streams. Eventually they will become shared cultural monuments in the Cybersphere.

Second Life is time made visible, history made concrete. A building, a texture, my library of photos of long-forgotten sims aren’t CONTENT, they’re shared histories, and they’re organic, growing, changing, collaborated upon – you add your prim to mine, a bunch of role-players leave a house underneath my office building in the ocean, and your family home on the beach is now a castle.

Second Life solved the problem of creating cultural monuments in a way that addresses the impermeability of history in the first place – it’s not about preserving Svarga or some beautiful sim, it’s about the fact that it can disappear in the first place. Its disappearance is as important as the fact that it existed.

Elsewhere on the Web, we never forget and Google has archived what you bought for your mother’s birthday. But in Second Life, our shared cultural history is present and we can all change it, add to it, grow it, remove it, explode it. The fact that it’s impermanent is what makes it unique – our cultural memories are what we carry around inside and the stories we share, it’s not because we can memorialize them on Flickr.

33. Anyone who has ever looked through a telescope at the moon close-up has seen it drift out of sight as the earth slowly spins. In the future, the Cybersphere will drift too: if you have investigated one topic long enough for your attention to grow slack and your mind to wander, the Net will respond by letting itself drift slowly into new topics, new domain: not ones with obvious connections to the topic you’ve been studying; new topics that have deep emotional connections to the previous ones, connections that will no doubt make sense only to you.

Doesn’t that sound like the Second Life you know? Not the one where you shop for new virtual shoes from your iPhone but the one where Web-based commerce is more of a pointer to in-world sources than the source itself, the one where you wander around, shopping, understanding, checking out a new build, talking to the Brazilian who’s having trouble attaching her prim hair?

Ever log in and forget in an hour why you came in the first place? You drifted. You wandered. You got lost in a conversation whose purpose you forgot.

There aren’t obvious connections and the algorithm of search is insufficient for the true reality of the world, and socially connecting me to 200 people whose names I don’t know in Avatars United doesn’t mean I’ve connected with more people, it means that rather than me drifting into view people have collected me like a baseball card, I’m a Facebook profile now, when what I prefer is to slip into the back of a dance club and listen to the conversation wander and float.

1. No moment in technology history has ever been more exciting or dangerous than now. The Internet is like a new computer running a flashy, exciting demo. We have been entranced by this demo for fifteen years. But now it is time to get to work, and make the Internet do what we want it to.

What do YOU want the Web to do? What if the Web was more like Second Life? And what happens if, instead, Second Life becomes more like the Web?


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