Greetings From Second Life!

by J. Tobias Beard

Everything is virtual, wish you were here.

An altered version of this was published in C-VILLE Weekly and In Weekly on 1/8/2008.

Existenz MoviestillsTed: I’m feeling a little disconnected from my real life. I’m kinda losing touch with the texture of it. You know what I mean? I actually think there is an element of psychosis involved here. – From eXistenZ

David Cronenberg’s movie eXistenZ, released in 1999, (the same year as The Matrix), is a movie about a virtual reality video game. The film asks how, if virtual reality looks just like regular reality, can we tell the two apart? eXistenZ does not provide an answer. It does, however, have a lot in common with current virtual reality phenomenon Second Life. Cronenberg’s film tells the story of a cult video game designer (Jennifer Jason Leigh as Allegra Geller) and her eagerly awaited new game, eXistenZ. In the film, people play video games by plugging the game system into their bodies via “bio ports”, and are then fully immersed in the games, which look and feel almost exactly like real life. Weirdness ensues, with games within games, attacks by the “Realist Underground” intent on saving reality, and, inevitably, an inability to tell what is real, and what is not.

Second Life (SL) was also created in 1999 (it opened to the public in 2003) by Linden Labs, a privately held, venture capitalist funded, San Francisco based company currently employing close to 200 people around the world. Second Life is an on-line virtual world. It is a digital space where users interact in real time via digital representations of themselves called Avatars. Second Life, most of its users declare, is not a game (“eXistenZ is not just a game” someone in the movie says). It has no points, they point out, and you can’t win or lose.

People get married in SL, or at least their avatars get married to other people’s avatars, even though some of them are also married in Real Life (RL), to other real people. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal highlighted just such a situation, and claimed that more and more real life marriages are being destroyed by on-line infidelity. The article cited data from a Stanford University study that “40% of men and 53% of women who play online games said their virtual friends were equal to or better than their real-life friends.”

Second Life is a multiple personality disorder writ large. It’s a sci-fi movie come to life. It’s a real mind fuck. Or maybe only a virtual one. I’m not sure.

Schizophrenia, from the Greek roots schizein (σχίζειν, “to split”) and phrēn (φρήν, “mind”), does not mean, as is often believed, a split personality, although that idea certainly holds here. Schizophrenia is, to quote that other psychic disease of our modern age, Wikipedia, “a mental illness characterized by impairments in the perception or expression of reality, most commonly manifesting as auditory hallucinations, paranoid or bizarre delusions or disorganized speech and thinking in the context of significant social or occupational dysfunction.”

All of Second Life is schizophrenic.

By the turn of the Millennium a technology known as Virtual Reality will be in widespread use. It will allow you to enter computer generated artificial worlds as unlimited as the imagination itself. Its creators foresee millions of positive uses – while others fear it as a new form of mind control. – from the 1992 film The Lawnmower Man

I first remember hearing about Virtual Reality in 1991 when I read about the VR games being played at Lollapalooza. Oh, Perry Farrel, what a hip, prescient vision of the future! Kids sat in chairs with big black boxes strapped to their faces, onlookers laughing at them as they swiveled their heads around, staring at swirling lights only they could see, the alternative sounds of Ice-T and Nine Inch Nails blaring in the background.

Virtual Reality as a modern concept goes back to the ‘50s, and the first VR machine was the Sensorama built in 1962 by Morton Heilig. His “Experience Theater” was like a combination Stereopticon and salon hair dryer. The machine had 3-D movies to simulate riding a motorcycle through Brooklyn. It moved along with the film, had stereo sound, and was made to be able to simulate wind and odors. Mmmmm! 1950s Brooklyn! Is that Nathan’s Hotdogs I smell?

The more contemporary “goggles and gloves” concept of VR was created by Jaron Lanier’s company VPL (Virtual Programming Languages) Research in the mid 80s, and it was Jaron who coined the term “Virtual Reality”. The military, of course, had been using a type of virtual reality for decades in Flight Simulators of advancing complexity. Movies and Video games picked up on the idea fairly quickly as well, with computer graphics becoming more and more concerned with realistic effects. By the 1990s, Virtual Reality had become a minor staple of science fiction, and a few big budget movies had begun to throw it in to seem cutting edge.

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Ted: We’re both stumbling around together in this unformed world, whose rules and objectives are largely unknown, seemingly indecipherable or even possibly nonexistent, always on the verge of being killed by forces that we don’t understand.

Allegra: That sounds like my game, all right.

Ted: That sounds like a game that’s not gonna be easy to market.

Allegra: But it’s a game everybody’s already playing. – from eXistenZ

One of the strange things about the internet is how much the technology is being driven by the entertainment. Many of the elements of cyberspace come straight out of the works of people like Philip K. Dick (whose stories formed the basis for Blade Runner and Total Recall) and William Gibson, who coined the term Cyberspace, referring to what he called the “mass consensual hallucination” of computer networks.

Second Life is based on the book Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, published in 1992, in which the characters, represented by digital Avatars, interact in a virtual world called the Metaverse, both terms that Stephenson introduced in the book, along with early versions of Google Earth and Wikipedia. The book is a funny, cool, dystopic vision of a future America where everything is corporate, dominated by skate punk and cyber culture, and people trade in information. The Metaverse functions in the novel as a second world layered on the real one, where people meet and do business, only with the added freedoms afforded by everything being digital. In Snow Crash, the characters have dramatic sword battles and motorcycle chases in the Metaverse, intent on saving the world.

Cool! Does that kind of stuff happen in Second Life?

Not exactly. In SL, people visit nightclubs where their avatars can dance, and they go to coffee shops where their avatars can enjoy some coffee and meet other avatars, to whom they can then say, “Hello, I’m Strenuous Tirebiter! Who are you?”

Second Life is basically a vast, dull video game, but don’t tell that to its participants. To them it is another world, free from the constraints of Real Life where they can be all that they can be, or all that they want to be, or whatever. They can be less awkward, less ugly, even less human. What they can’t seem to be is less horny.

Despite many residents claims to the contrary, there is a lot of sex in Second Life. Off the rack Avatars are genital-less, but many places exist for you to buy a penis, most notably Strokerz Toyz, an SL sex shop operated by Stroker Serpentine, a.k.a. 46-year-old Kevin Alderman. Stroker quit his Real Life contracting job to busy himself with Eros LLC, a company that sells virtual sex apparatus in Second Life. Alderman made history as the first person to sue an avatar when he took Volkov Catteneo to court for stealing the idea for his SexGen 3000, a virtual bed that costs $45 real dollars, and makes your avatar do all kinds of naughty things. I don’t know who won the case, and I don’t care.

Once you’ve got your custom penis (The penis that you’ve always wanted!) there is so much for you to explore, including bestiality, rape, and pedophilia. Wonderland was a recently uncovered area in second life (discovered by a hard hitting, and flying, reporter avatar for the British Sky News) where SL residents could indulge in “age play”: adults using child avatars. The child avatars would then have sex with visiting adult avatars. The British reporter, doing his best Geraldo Rivera imitation, found children of all ages, even toddlers, offering a range of “sick and sordid sexual acts”.

So, if you get tired of pretending to be a fox or playing with the penis you just bought, you can always find a nice clubhouse where you can rape and abuse little kids. The truth is that the freedom Second Life affords has been pushed all the way, pushed out to the dark places that most of us, and most of the people involved in Second Life, do not want to be made aware of. And people will keep on pushing, twisting the malleable world of SL into very scary faces. This has always been the hard thing about true freedom; we may not always like who we really are.

But lets remember that the “children” in question exist only as digital images on a computer screen. The same Sky News report points out that it’s very unlikely that any of the people behind the kiddie porn avatars are real kiddies. It seems like it would be hard to find evidence of child-abuse if there aren’t any actual children. After all, millions of people mow each other down with guns every day in online video games. Are they murders? Does releasing their bloodlust in a virtual world make them more likely to do so in a real one? Sky News quotes Jim Gamble, of the Child Exploitation & Online Protection Agency, a British anti-child-abuse organization, as saying “Virtual crime has real victims.” I would submit that this statement is on shaky ground. Computer crime has real victims, yes, but virtual crime?

In the same article, Zoe Hilton, a policy advisor for UK charity The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, says, “It is not OK to fantasise about this stuff.” Maybe not, but neither is it OK to tell people what they can or can’t think. The same prohibition could be made, after all, against homosexual fantasies, or against praying to a certain god, or not praying at all. Are there any copies of 1984 floating around in Second Life?

After many complaints, Linden Labs removed Wonderland, although a second Sky News investigation found several more places just like it. Second Life, it seems, is just full of weirdoes and deviants; real people pretending to be computer generated animals and having kinky sex with detachable genitals. Or, most twisted of all, somewhere, right now, a live adult human is sitting in a chair, in a house in the real world, watching a fake representation of himself sit in a fake chair, in a fake house in a fake world, watching a real movie on a fake television screen. He may ask his wife to get him a beer, and maybe she will, but I hope she makes his fake wife get her own.

Ted: What was your life like before?

Gas: Before?

Ted: Before it was changed by Allegra Geller.

Gas: I operated a gas station.

Ted: You still operate a gas station, don’t you?

Gas: Only on the most pathetic level of reality. – from eXistenZ

Every article, or blog entry, or random conversation that seeks to praise Second Life does so by constantly spouting two phrases: “Creative Freedom” and “Self Expression”. This, it seems, is the true gift of Virtual Worlds, they allow you to unleash the inner artist dying to get out. Thomas Zengotita, a “cultural philosopher” and author of Mediated: How the Media Shape Your World and the Way You Live in It, goes so far as to say that Second Life users are all Nietzschean ubermenschen. In an article entitled “Get a (Second) Life?” in the awkwardly named What is Enlightenment Magazine, he says that Nietzsche never dreamed “that modern technologies would one day confer world-making and self-making power on everyman – on you.” But exactly what sort of world and self-making is going on in Second Life?

Mostly people in SL seem to be trying to make money. Second Life allows its users to exchange real dollars for virtual dollars (called Lindens), which can then be spent in the virtual world (on, lets remember, virtual things). In November of 2006 it was reported in Business Week, Fortune, and elsewhere, that Second Life had its first real dollar millionaire, Anshe Chung, or Ailin Graef in RL, a “Second Life Rockefeller” as she’s been dubbed. Anshe has made a million real dollars through countless virtual businesses and real estate deals in Second Life.

Second Life is packed with stuff to buy. Self actualizing your avatar with butterfly wings or bigger pecs costs money, and a great deal of Second Life seems to be devoted to shopping malls. In order to be able to begin some of the much-trumpeted world-making (which seems to mean building digital dream houses to shelter your avatar), you need to move up from the free basic membership to the Premium Package, which costs $9.50 (real dollars) a month. This does not, of course, include the cost of all those hours you will need to spend in front of your computer.

There is some question as to how easy it is to make a fortune as a Second Life entrepreneur. A recent article written by financial consultant Randolph Harrison asserts that the economy of second life is nowhere near as strong as Linden Labs claims it is, and goes so far as to call it a Pyramid Scheme. This provoked a lot of online discussion, mostly by people much better versed in economics than I, but the upshot is that Second Life may not be the capitalist utopia it’s hyped up to be.

Another bit of hype involves the continual reporting of Second Life’s rapid growth. The problem, as Clay Shirky, an adjunct professor of New Media at NYU puts it in a recent article on Silicone Valley gossip site valleywag.com, is that Linden Lab’s definition of “resident” skews the picture of how many people are actually using Second Life. The reports of millions of SL Residents may count the total number of SL accounts, that is avatars, not the number of human users (users can, and do, create more than one avatar). In addition, many people create accounts and then only visit SL once, if at all. Linden Labs has never actually stated how they arrive at their numbers, but it is true that the total number of users at any given time falls far short of the stated number of residents.

~~~

Allegra: So how does it feel?

Ted: What?

Allegra: Your real life. The one you came back for.

Ted: It feels completely unreal. – from eXistenZ

Look, obviously Second Life is real, I mean as real as any computer program, TV show, or movie. It is a real thing that exists in the world. If you want to say that it’s not a game, that it’s very important to you, that’s fine. I myself have probably spent way more time absorbed in books than any computer geek has ever spent in cyberspace. Would that literature was some other world – I would step inside gladly and never come back. But unfortunately, no matter what we tell ourselves, no matter what our brain makes us believe, there is only one world, and it has only one way out. It is true that virtual worlds like Second Life may have something to offer those who can’t walk, or who suffer from diseases like Autism or Asperger’s syndrome. But for the rest of us, I can’t see the value. Second Life reminds me of Plato’s Myth of the Cave, where the unenlightened spend their lives staring at shadows of reality dancing on the walls, mistaking the sun’s reflections for the sun itself.

In the Nov. 11, 2007 Los Angeles Times review of Peter Ludlow and Mark Wallace’s new book on Second Life called The Second Life Herald, the authors are quoted as saying that Second Life allows its users to create “a shared culture and narrative that gives everyone a stake in the proceedings.” Think about that statement for a moment. Isn’t that what humankind has been trying, with mixed success, to do since the dawn of time? Putting aside the question of what sort of culture exists in Second Life, and who has the access required to share it, it’s the last part that really bothers me. How much more of “a stake in the proceedings” could anyone want then what we all have right here in the sunlit, palpable, blood-filled here and now?

My problem with Second Life, and all things Cyber, is not the sex, or the shopping, or the silly avatars. I’m fine with all of that. What I don’t like is the proclamation of a shiny, new frontier. We are not really doing anything new online, we’re just finding more complicated ways of doing the same old things. E-mail is a faster letter, chatting and IMing are merely more immediate forms of tin cans and strings. YouTube is an anarchic and sloppy form of television, and blogging is at best just electronic writing, and at worst someone’s diary opened to the world. Second Life is either a video game, or a collective fantasy world, or both. It is the latest electronic Pet Rock to fill the empty slots in our collective schedules. It isn’t the dawn of a brave, new world, because there is nothing brave about a world that is less real. The worst thing about second life is how dreadfully it fails at actual self-expression. The thing about fantasy is, unlike experience, you can’t turn it into growth. The only people getting actualized here are the avatars. In Second Life, nothing can kill you, so nothing can make you stronger.

Chinese Waiter: Hey, tell me the truth… are we still in the game? – from eXistenZ

In the November 15, 2007 issue of Rolling Stone, different celebrities and experts are interviewed concerning The Future. William Gibson, author of the 1984 cyber-punk classic Neuromancer (which, for the record, he wrote on a 1927 era typewriter), lists “ubiquitous computing” as one of the challenges that the future will bring.

“One of the things our grandchildren will find quaintest about us,” Gibson says, “is that we distinguish the digital from the real, the virtual from the real. In the future, that will become literally impossible. The distinction between cyberspace and that which isn’t cyberspace is going to be unimaginable.”

This is exactly what movies like The Lawnmower Man, eXistenZ, Total Recall, and The Matrix are trying to warn us about. What scares us humans to our mortal core about things like robots, cloning, artificial intelligence, and virtual worlds, is that they might cause us to lose track of what is really Real. When Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am,” he placed self-identity at the heart of human existence; lose the self and we cease to exist. This is why we fear drug addiction and too much TV, and also why we shoot up in front of the glowing screen. At the center of all of our addictions lies both a fear of and a desire to escape from our ego, our sum. “Let me suggest that you take a vacation from yourself,” the man at Rekall says to Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall. “If I am not me,” Schwarzenegger says later, “den who da hell am I?”

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