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.