March 04, 2010

The Simple Life

So here's the issue I have with the internet. I sit in front of my laptop, immobile, apart from my eyes flickering around the screen and my fingers tapping the keyboard. Instantly, I am able to vote for a Student Union president, I can join a Facebook group, registering my wish to save the local bus and I can comment on an article on solar panels on theguardian.co.uk. It is all so easy and requires the minimum amount of social interaction.

In this vein, in Second Life, I can - if I have enough Lindendollars - create my own family, without enduring the complications and trials of pregnancy. Neither do I have to find a partner, or research methods of artificial insemination. The single-parent family finds salvation in Second Life.

Without the morning sickness, the heaviness of a child weighing me down or the inability to imbibe alcohol, one could question whether this clinical, convenient way to reproduce constitutes any experience akin to a real pregnancy in the slightest. Senses dulled, I walked around Second Life, my avatar rubbing her inflated belly, waiting for a child to emerge and make my life become whole. I doubt he or she will complete my life, indeed if it did, I would have reason to question the point of my existence.

Now this would be taken as a given, were it not for some technophiles believing that you can solve real life problems with Second Life solutions. After not very much ‘net surfing, I found a journal article recommending ‘online immersive therapeutic environments’ to solve certain mental illnesses, such as anxiety disorders. ‘Imagine a world’, it said, when ‘after a number of face-to-face sessions with a therapist, the patient can use his personal avatar to explore a virtual environment, such as a virtual pub in which he can ask the barman for a drink.’ (http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/technology_and_culture/v049/49.2.berger.html#f1)

Forgive me, however I fail to see how someone who has problems interacting with people can benefit from a solution that takes social contact out of the equation. Taking the physical away and making into the virtual has uncomfortable connotations. This is because it makes everything so incontestably and undeniably easy. If you have an anxiety disorder, why bother stepping out of your front door and interacting with thousands of daunting humans if you can mingle with a party of computer-programmed avatars? Why tolerate the inconveniences of pregnancy when you can buy a ‘tummy talker’ which will simulate the whole experience for you?

The dulling of human relations via the internet makes it more difficult to interact with the real world around us. As popular as it is to join a Facebook groups, it is now harder than ever to get real people to turn up in the flesh and take part in political action. Three years ago, Second Life hosted a ‘violent virtual attack’ (using exploding pig grenades) against the virtual political offices there of the extremist French presidential candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen. (http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/technology_and_culture/v049/49.2.berger.html#f5) Not only does this questionable notion of ‘violence’ make us redefine what exactly the term means, it brings the whole issue of political actors’ identity into question.

These so-called political activists were different to your average protester in that they had anonymity. This was questionable because we were unable to blame any particular group for its actions. Not only this, but acts like this set an alarming precedent for future political activities. For if the average Joe Bloggs can use Second Life, then why not politicians? Studies have shown that people like and are influenced more by those who mimic their gestures. In 2005, some undergraduates were asked to wear a virtual-reality helmet to watch someone argue for an unpopular real-life proposal that students carry an ID card at all times. When the virtual talking head mimicked the viewer's own head movements (as recorded and relayed by the helmet), the student responded more favourably to questions about the policy. (http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/317/5842/1343) In the future, politicians could devise particular equations to work out, in the virtual world, how to make their avatars act in order to work out how best to garner public support.

Would this be the definitive realisation of true democracy? Or would it be, well…a bit creepy?

Second Life makes it easier for us to interact socially and politically, but it is limited to a certain universe and separates us from the real thing. It does have a particular physical effect however. It is not immediately obvious to us what the impact Second Life has on the environment. However, running an avatar in Second Life uses more electricity than a live person in Brazil. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/feb/28/can-i-be-green-and-use-the-internet) Our alienation from ‘the real thing’ makes it more difficult to act in a physical collective space, because we begin to realise that real life problems are actually a lot harder than moving our cursers around a screen.

My experience of pregnancy was not one I was entirely comfortable with. Its immediacy and ease totally removed me from what I expect is a far more difficult and complex process. Reducing human activity down to an effortless movement on our mouse-mats distances us from real life and devalues the importance of interacting with the actual world around us.


November 01, 2009

Notes From a Small Laptop

Identity tourism? Sounds great, I thought. With three weeks of term gone I needed a holiday. Grabbing my suitcase full of excitement for some escapism, I hit the link to create my own avatar and waved goodbye to First Life.

First off, I had to fill in boxes defining who I was and who I wanted to be on my identity vacation. Nakamura points out how 'race is not an option which must be chosen' (Nakamura, 2007) yet gender is a box that has to be ticked eather way and can' be changed. Indeed, race in Second Life can be interchangeable by changing skin tone, eye shape, nose shape and so on, which would be nearly impossible to do in real life. This could impact on how we feel about our identity. The implication in Second Life is that we are more defined by our gender than our race as gender is fixed and race is not. Does an Afro Caribbean female feel more strongly a woman or more strongly someone who is black? I feel more strongly female than I do white, however I live in a country that is 90% white. I expect I might feel differently if I was living in a different country

Then I had to choose the first and last name for Second Life 'me'. It would stick with my avatar for the rest of their life; what a responsibility! I felt like my parents did when they first looked at me when I was just born and thought to themselves, should we call her? Heather? Or Thistle? Luckily for my avatar, I did not have such a partiality for wild shrubs, but I considered the name for quite a long time. I did not want a common name for my character; I wanted to stand out in my new world. It was interesting what that said about what I thought were positive and negative characteristics for identity in real life. To want to be different, slightly offbeat in a world which increasingly wants us to become a passive homogenous glob is increasingly becoming more difficult. Anyway, back on the name. 'Mavis' is a name which hasn't been heard in a while, I thought. Lets bring it back. Dismayed that the autocratic KGB-like forces of Second Life had restricted my options of a second name to some ludicrous choices, I decided on the short and simple 'Rae'. Easy to remember. I wonder how many other children's names have been chosen due to those criteria.

Good morning Mavis Rae. I was thrown into a place called Practice Island to run through my first tentative steps in Second Life. Walking, talking. Fine, good. Flying? It appeared a bizarre addition to Mavis's capabilities. Oh well, she was a bizarre creature herself since I had picked a persona with a ridiculous rainbow hat which I was unable to take off for the life of me. After a morning of running around in aimless circles, I found the search button. Using this I was able to type in any place I wanted to be and be instantly 'teleported' there. Within an instant I could be in Knightsbridge or New York. A shop with free stuff? Just type 'free' into the search bar! Hang out with vampires if you want to, or visit a haunted mansion.

This had implications that I felt had connections to modern culture. Is this not the monstrous offspring of globalisation, an expected conclusion of the merger of seven continents into one? We can lunch in Germany and have dinner in England if we want to. I could just as easily talk over the internet to someone in Hong Kong as someone in the room next to me. Living in the culture we live in, one expects instant access to anywhere in the world, time and space do not matter. David Holms talks about the 'compression of the world' (Holms 2001 3) and the 'enlargement of the sphere of normatively binding relationships between people as well as global interdependence' (ibid, 3). This culture is reflected in Second Life. The barrier of space does not exist. Indeed, one of the differences between my real life and Second Life identity was that Mavis's had nothing to do with where she was born. She belonged to the global village of cyberspace.

Mavis felt a little bit lost amongst so many new people so she did not try her hand at conversation quite yet. Instead, I took her to a marina where we stumbled across two other people meeting for the first time. Foregoing real life decorum, I stood quietly eavesdropping on their conversation. I wanted to understand why people used Second Life and why some people even forewent their real life for it. The woman introduced herself as a 'SAHM'. Never having heard this term of identification before, I was relieved when she explained it meant a 'Stay At Home Mom'. Sometimes, she said, she felt like a slave. This was her place, an escape where she was not defined by what she could do for her family. The man was a musician and played gigs on Second Life. He had regular fans that would see him perform. It was interesting to see how different both of their motivations were to play the game. Is it cheating on your family to inhabit an entirely different world on occasion? Some people I talked to thought so.

In any case, it had been an interesting introduction to Second Life. As a holiday, it wasn't for me. However it had thrown up exciting new questions and ideas which will be interesting to explore further in the future.


Holms, D, Virtual Globalisation: Virtual Spaces, Tourist Spaces (London, 2001)

Nakamura, L, “Race in/for Cyberspace: Identity Tourism and Racial Passing on the Internet.”, 2007, http://www.humanities.uci.edu/mposter/syllabi/readings/nakamura.html, 1/11/09


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