Beyond the Bits and Bytes

In my previous post I commented largely in general terms on how potent Second Life can be as far as its potential for blurring the perimeter separating real and virtual life among users, due to how engrossing the program is. It’s just a gut feeling that I have at this point, given my fledgling status in the Second Life environment. However, I think that in light of such a profound observation and its potential implications, that there is cause to ask a few basic but serious questions about the program and its creators.

I don’t think I am misguided in giving this issue such a degree of consideration. Just a few quick examples to try to help bolster my hypothesis that Second Life, an adult online “community,” is evolving into something much larger than simply a highly popular 3D entertainment platform:

  • There recently was a convention held on Second Life in New York City, attended by a New York Times journalist, law students, and virtual reality theorists, among others, to address the current state as well as the future of Second Life, complete with panel discussions, breakout sessions, demos, presentations and the like.
  • Also, Second Life, owned by San Francisco-based Linden Lab, even trades its play money for real U.S. dollars, meaning users can go online and buy X amount of Linden bucks for X amount of U.S. currency so that their SL avatars can purchase virtual goods, services and material objects in the metaworld.
  • And according to some results from an informal poll conducted by one of the premier SL blogs, overseas users’ perceptions of Americans have been influenced — supposedly in a mostly positive way — by their interaction with U.S. citizens in Second Life. The New World Notes blog also mentions an article in the Washington Post that addresses how online games and virtual worlds can mold global perceptions and alter political climates.

“Internet-based computer games, in which players create characters in a virtual world and interact to solve problems or win battles, are branching out from fantasy into serious social issues,” the Oct. 16 Washington Post article states.

There also are some academics taking a serious look at the role of virtual games in global diplomacy, including how it relates to perceptions of the U.S. abroad.

At any rate, I like what I see so far in Second Life, including how individuality and creative expression within the framework of the program seem to be encouraged and embraced. I also enthusiastically applaud the openness with regard to sexuality and the SL environment’s emphasis on physicality.

But there are still some real basic questions floating around in my mind at this point with regard to Second Life and its so-called residents. First and foremost is, Exactly how many SL users even comprehend what is going on in their virtual habitats? The corporate spin on SL characterizes users of the program as de facto citizens, namely “residents,” which is interesting because according to my observations so far, many or most of these users should be labeled merely as “consumers.”

Most residents of Second Life who I have witnessed in action are merely floating and fumbling around the program’s digital terrain, perhaps struggling to get a grasp on what is going on around them, much like the situation I currently find myself in. The only difference is I am pondering questions such as, What sort of philosophical ideals and tenets drive the program and its chief creators? What sort of political and social beliefs and values are held by Linden Lab’s corporate brass?

Being a so-called citizen or an effective member of a “society” implies having at least a basic understanding of how your environment functions, including the powers and systems that exist beyond the bits and bytes.

Even in a virtual context, if enough users work to understand their simulated surroundings, they are empowering themselves and are hence becoming more equipped to bring about change in their digital domains and even beyond. Yeah, it’s only a computer program, but it’s a computer program that can wield significant cultural sway, not to mention its capacity to influence the conceptual and practical directions of the virtual worlds of tomorrow, which I intend to be around to enjoy.

– Noche Kandora

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