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Second Life Exploration

November 20, 2010
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I’ve been meaning to write an exploration on the subject of virtual realities for quite some time and have just not done it until now. I could claim the hectic nature of my life (3 jobs, two teenagers, 5 cats) but I’ve written other things in the interim which leads me to suspect an unconscious motive to not write on this subject. One of my prior students voiced something like what has always bothered me about Second Life: it seems not sophisticated enough to be a serious gaming environment nor sufficiently scholarly to merit LIS attention (WOW players find SL downright laughable; one of my students was embarrassed by the prominent place an SL event notice occupied on the SJSU SLIS homepage). SL was the object of a joke at the recent Voices That Matter web design conference I attended in June of 2010; the joke was, “remember when we all thought this was the future of the Internet?” (speaker flashes a screenshot of a typical SL scene). It got a big laugh from all the cool people who design and work with the bleeding edge of the web’s visual presentation. So how can something so clunky and unprofessional draw so much scholarly interest in the LIS field and beyond? That’s what I intend to explore.

First we need to look at me. Why do I always have so much fun when I’m there? Partially it’s the ability to fly, and partially it’s the absolute unreality of it, and finally I’m a contrarian; I’ve never been cool and don’t care for things that trade on cool. In fact, the hipper a thing is the more it’s likely to turn me off; hence all things Cupertino leave me cold and all things geek catch my eye. That covers me as a person playing like a child in a digital sandbox, but what about the graduate instructor of LIBR 240? That guy has a serious agenda: all information should be available at the public library; hence all digital information should be available in the giant public library known as the Internet. I (he) means all information—everything the government does, all files it holds, all records it creates, everything. But what about state secrets? IMHO the state has none, only the transient holders of office have secrets; there is no place in a free and open society for the concept of private state business (this would mean the end of CIA, NSA, FBI, TSA, DHS etc). Not that any of this is going to happen, but it’s my ideological lodestone and guides my views on all matters. How this relates to SL is simple, (non)accessibility for the disabled is an easily observed aspect of how we present free and open information to ourselves; we usually limit the presentation to those who are like us: able to see, move a mouse, hear sound and perceive motion. This scope leaves many people out of the picture.

SL teaches via doing (the best kind of learning) and what it teaches is that we are largely unconscious of our own biases concerning information consumption. Supposedly there’s a 2 hour threshold for SL users to overcome the “awkwardness” of the interface; if you can last longer than that you’ll become a savvy user. Two hours doesn’t seem like a long time, but imagine not being able to use your legs or arms or any of your body below the sternum for two hours. A friend of mine in Brasil recently suffered an aortic dissection and is now paralyzed from mid-chest down. Learning to walk, talk, fly, sit, stand and generally exist in SL is like being temporarily paralyzed. Unlike my friend, the SL user can rapidly develop new skills (my friend’s goal is to get into a wheelchair and out of his bed); forgot to add that the lack of blood to his brain caused partial blindness. Talking to him blows my mind because I don’t know that I could be as upbeat and goal-centered. I’m not trying to equate the experience of an able-bodied person stumbling through a fake digital world with the misery and toil of a disabled person; what I’m aiming at is awareness and understanding of what’s going on right now in the realm of digital representation for any user/consumer of information. People like my friend (with more or less severe obstacles) are the driving force behind the development of virtual realities to help them interact with others on an even playing field. When we realize that the world as we know it is merely electric signals hopping across circuits in our brain, then we get a glimmer of the idea that all conscious existence is an information gathering exercise. When Toy Story 3 came out my whole family made a big event out of it and paid extra to see the 3D version on a really big screen; it was worth it in so many ways but the main thing I took away was how I was immersed in that animated world. It was clear that at some point we would be able to go to a movie the way Piccard and Data went into the holodeck on Star Trek: The Next Generation. I didn’t see Avatar, but many reported the same amazing immersion. You can bet your last dollar that at some point we will all be able to don a headset and “be” in a virtual world. At first this world will be a one-way street (content delivered the way a movie is watched only from inside the movie world) but sooner or later participants will be able to interact in this “place” the same way they interact in the “real” world. After that the imagination is the only limit to what can and eventually will happen.

That last statement is only partially true; one of the things I find most interesting is the new discoveries coming out of fMRI (functional MRI which can see into a person’s head and watch the brain at work). The long and the short of this research so far is that we have a better understanding of the information science behind the activities of the mind. Turns out the brain receives a meager amount of input from the senses and what it doesn’t receive it makes up; and what it makes up is most of what we “perceive” as the world around us. Let me repeat that: the bandwidth of our five senses does not allow us to receive enough data to build the world in which we think we live. This explains a lot of things: “found” memory, false memories, alien abduction, stereotypes, racism, prejudice, the collective unconscious, and I’m sure a whole lot more. The partial lie I mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph is that when we can live in a world completely of our own design whilst simultaneously existing in the physical world we will become something else entirely and that is beyond the scope of imagination. What if I were able to exist in the world as it “really” is and not just as my mind decides to render as a reasonable facsimile thereof? Given that the strange loop binds us all, it might be interesting to experience the world from someone else’s feed. Even though this is now the stuff of science fiction, it won’t be long until it becomes reality; my friend in Brasil would have no qualms or philosophical debates about a “virtual reality” reality; he’d live his whole life there until such a time as dead brain tissue can be regenerated.

To loop back to Second Life—maybe the reason SL puts some people off is that it makes the user be aware of the flimsiness of all perception? I’m not saying reality isn’t real because we are trapped in the confines of our skulls; just the opposite. Reality is so important/real that we should want to interact with it in the most robust fashion we can achieve. If I know there’s a person on the other side of the planet and would like to visit them I’d have to fly in a plane and if I can’t do that I can jump into a virtual reality and have more than a telephone call. SL is a way to extend social interaction where none was possible, nothing more and certainly nothing less.

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