The third post in this series, The truth and change, is split in two, 3a and 3b. They provide different outcomes for the multi-part essay on change and the future that I began a month ago. It wasn’t how I planned the posts, nor are these the only two ways things can work out. They are, instead, the unintended surprises at the end of a long chain of lateral thinking that has also suggested a set of follow-up postings down the line. It’s always nice to pile up things to do.
From Life on Mars to Linden
Avatars are nothing new to the human species, from the caves of Lascaux to the virtual worlds of Second Life and other large web-based games. These (brave?) new worlds carry out the same primeval urge that led people to create paintings of their daily lives 35,000 years ago. What began in the caves has become a massive wall written on by millions of people, together, sharing a world that they have imagined out of the very world in which they live.
One of the interesting things about the virtual world is that it does create a “place” that didn’t exist before, uncovering new spaces in life that are hidden beneath the physical dimensions we take for granted. In the world of Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs, or MMOs) such as Second Life, people leave their organic beings and create virtual selves, societies, and places in cyberspace. These worlds are a social version of the extra-dimensional physics of string theory, “brane worlds,” and high energy model building that physicist Lisa Randall has written and spoken about. In MMOs, we are building new worlds in very small spaces inside the world of everyday experience.
The key thing about these virtual dimensions is their connectivity to real life, which engenders much greater imaginative potential than the escape to the “silver screen” that left the sad girl in David Bowie’s song wondering if there was “Life on Mars.” Ours is now a world of both cultural production and absolute reflexivity, in which the virtual world is like a magnifying mirror we hold to our organic lives.
In a fascinating example of this reflexivity, organic journalist Marcia Stepanek reports on Second Life journalist Draxtor Despres, who himself reports on the goings-on of the organic world for the people of Second Life. Their dialogue is like an 8-track tape, or a Möbius Strip in which one side is organic, the other side virtual, both surfaces effortlessly sliding into each other when they are attached in just the right way.
Stepanek has also profiled the work of Douglas Gayeton, a multimedia artist who “creates immersive story experiences for virtual worlds and social networks.” Gayeton’s documentary, “Molotov Alva and His Search for the Creator: A Second Life Odyssey,” was the first documentary produced entirely in Second Life. For a while it was the highest rated video on YouTube. It’s been picked up by HBO and begins to make clear how “real” the virtual world really is.
Already, the virtual economy is derived from, reflects, and ultimately contributes to the organic economy. In July of 2009, Second Life creator Philip Linden spoke to BOSL (Best of Second Life) Blog about how Linden Labs is creating various supports for crossover services involving both businesses and educators, who will use the SL platform to provide services in real life. Within SL, “Linden Dollars” are the basis of a vast economy of virtual goods that can be converted, ultimately, into organic dollars.
The virtual world embraces an entire crossover economy. Hermione Watanabe is a “virtual wealth coach” whose blog provides advice and information on the SL economy and how to grow income there and in the organic world. Perhaps the most compelling confirmation of the virtual world’s “real” existence is that the Federal Government is thinking about how to tax virtual economic activity.
The crossover continues in the amateur machinima that is becoming an art form of its own, sprawling across YouTube, Vimeo, and other video networking sites. Aenea Nori’s SL video for Kafka Dinzeo’s remix of Lily Allen’s “Littlest Things” brilliantly takes us through the wormholes that connect virtual dimensions to the organic and back again.
LauraMW12345 created an organic-virtual mix in which “Second Life Meets Real Life,” in which the green screen existed in SL and the “real world” had to be inserted as fictional background for the avatars. The video is set over the DNA remix of “Tom’s Diner,” which was one of the early, pioneering events in remix history, on the borders of different dimensions of musical creation and imagination.
This sliding between organic and virtual lives has inevitably encompassed the most ubiquitous and equalizing of human emotions: sex (and its correlate emotions). Love is in the virtual air, as people in Second Life and other MMOs mix, mingle, fall for each other, become married (virtually, but quite really), pledge love, cheat, cry, break up, and try again. For a while, people started to create real-world-like porn magazines on-line (in Second Life, Slustler was a phenomenon in 2005-07), but these have been displaced by other virtual services and games that better fit the medium, such as Red Light Center (which creates a very real organic economy for itself as well) and SL meeting places and adult parties.
Eventually, however, we come back to the connection between the virtual and organic worlds. They cannot function without each other. “If This is Second Life Why Is My Heart Breaking In Real Life?” is a machinima video created by Kirk Lancaster and Sandra Holyoke that explores the crossover of desire and heartache. The relationships we create in other dimensions reverberate in the organic world and behind them all lie one, beating, very organic heart.
The future, it seems, is not out there in the world, some place distant in either time or space. It’s in our minds, already, right now, and available for our scrutiny. This isn’t the future I imagined as a youth, or even when I began writing these postings. In this future, much of the world is simply brought to life from our own minds with the help of technologies that enable millions of minds to communicate in tandem, synced together to build a world that is every bit as real as the organic world even as it vanishes before us to live in our minds.
This brings me back to the Shetland Islands of the late 1940s, where Erving Goffman gathered observations and data for his book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. It was published in 1959 and became a classic of American sociology; it’s still widely read and has never been thought out-of-date.
Immersing himself in the world of the Shetland Islanders, Goffmann looked at their everyday interactions through the lens of drama – people were actors in their own plays, as well as each other’s audiences. “All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare famously said, and Goffmann set out to prove it. People work hard to create settings and situations in which they can enact a specific, intentional script. They have certain behaviors for their audience, as well as an array of backstage behaviors.
Goffman’s point of view was revolutionary at the time and cemented the foundation of a whole school of social thought. We construct our own worlds in the same way that we construct plays and dramas. The representational activity that started in places like Lascaux and ends up in MMOs is pretty much the same. The attractiveness of gaming and MMOs is clear: it’s what we already do in regular life, only in the MMO we get a greater degree of control over what we hide backstage.
This begs a question. Is the change we experience with this technology really anything more than a change in the venue (now virtual, created) for the same old desires we’ve always had? A vanity of vanities in which there’s nothing new under the sun except for the bottles that are filled with old wine? Does the virtual world of love and sex and desire change any of the fundamental emotions or relationships that constitute what it means to be human? When and where does the virtual world go beyond reflections and extrapolations of the organic?
When is the virtual world for-itself?
Notes and Credits
The opening photo is from the Flikr site of rikomatic. The photo shows a house for sale in Second Life, where participants engage in an extensive economy that has several dimensions – purely virtual, combined virtual and organic, and mainly oriented toward organic profit. In Second Life, people create their own houses by using virtual money (Linden dollars) to purchase land and materials in the virtual world.
Aenea Nori’s machinima for the “Littlest Things (remix)” carries us through many layers of time and space. I would have embedded the video in the blog for people to see, except that WordPress (the free version, anyway) isn’t communicating with Vimeo. You should go to her site, however, and check out her video work. There is no recent activity on the Vimeo site or on her blog (the last activity is September 2008), but perhaps she’ll be back.
Lily Allen uses a lot of mixing, overdubbing, and sampling to build her songs, which are themselves an aural hypertext calling forth a multitude of associations and images. “Littlest Things” recalls Cat Stevens’ “Wild World,” morphing time across 35 years of cultural production. Listening to Allen’s work is stimulating – and now Aenea Nori and Kafka Dinzeo transport the music and associated images into another world altogether, sliding along a “brane” between the virtual and organic worlds.
Regina Lynn has written in Wired about the growth of the virtual sex world found in MMOs all over the web, some of which are lucrative businesses. WebMD posted a balanced article on the advantages of cybersex and “teledildonics,” which include a safe place to try out new ideas (both in terms of disease and in terms of emotional control), as well as the problems – it can become addictive and affect real-life relationships. The article quotes Regina Lynn, who brings the issue down to earth: “Does your partner know, and does your partner consent? Lying is cheating.” Over at True/Slant, Todd Essig writes about the cutting edge developments in the world of cyber sex – now, cyber-touch with lasers across world’s distances.
Taunt is a blog devoted to SL economics and SL sex life. SL and other MMOs feature escort services and erotic parties to cater to every taste, including many that are all but impossible to enact in organic life. “Second life guys can have it all, as long as they’re willing to pay,” according to Elle Kirshner, a Second Life designer and voiceover artist for Kirk Lancaster’s SL video, “Second Life Man.”
Overall, sex is actually the cutting edge of machinima and virtual reality. Why? Because it’s what we want so much in real life that our urges push the limits of technology so that we can pursue desire in every possible corner of existence, from dreams to waking life to virtual reality.