Sunday, April 22, 2012

Please Step Away From Reality With Your Hands Up

 I recently made several visits to Second Life, a virtual reality accessible by anyone with a newer computer and good connectivity.

You can be almost anything in SL (Second Life), although if you choose a human avatar  (shape your "self" wears while in Second Life) it requires a certain effort to become shorter, older, fatter, or uglier.

 I won't go into all the details of signing in, choosing an avatar, etc. There is plenty of information about that on the web already. I have to say I really enjoyed my visits, after I got past the stumbling around stage, but I have been wondering whether being able to go to a different reality wearing a different body and interacting with other people who are also wearing different bodies is a positive or a negative thing.
Trying on a free avatar from Caledon Visitor Center
On the positive side, most of SL has been constructed by the residents, and in their avatars and surroundings they display a wonderful creativity.  You can visit virtual representations of real locations like the Eiffel Tower, or view a fantasy world from the back of a dragon. Unlike a boxed video game, where your avatar is limited to the script, most of the people/things you meet with in SL have a real human behind them. Most of them were friendly and quite willing to help a "newb".

I loved being able to fly, and teleport, and change my appearance (body, skin, clothing) . It was, in some way, an escape from "First Life" or real reality. Still,  I found places where people that share my interests also hung out, like "Guthries" - a virtual music venue honoring the music of Woody Guthrie. There is also a virtual Callahan's Place.  I don't get out a lot to meet people in real life, so I'm sure if I hung around Second Life long enough I could find friends.

Yes, but how to know they are telling the truth? Does it matter? And am I showing a false face by wearing a body and a face that isn't mine? Someone in Second Life wrote something to the effect that "I get around Second Life with the assumption that anything anyone says is a lie." I know there are women playing men, men playing women, and most of all, ordinary people playing the extraordinary. Moves and gestures are limited, so it is hard to read body language.

What about the salacious part of Second Life? Unfortunately, there seem to be a lot of people who prefer the seamier side of SL: the fact that you are able to view and/or anonymously participate in "virtual sex".  Peter May's book Virtually Dead describes a lot of what goes on in some of the adult areas in detail if you want to read about it rather than go there "in persona".

I admit I did not understand the lure of having "virtual sex" until I was reading one of Frederick Buechner's sermon's "Faith" in which he writes "I think...there is that in all of us which remains uncivilized, religionless, subhuman and which hungers for...the license to be subhuman not just  sexually but any other way that appeals to us..."

Being a bit prurient is human nature, but watching is perhaps not as bad as participating.To me when a married woman has virtual sex with and "marries" a man not her husband in Second Life (as described in the documentary Life 2.0) that is just plain being unfaithful.

Why "unfaithful"? Because there is, in some sense, a link between First Life and Second Life. What you do in virtual reality is an extension of your true self.

Perhaps a reverse example from my own life. We recently went to see the Dalai Lama, but we got a better view of the stage from the big screens in the center of the auditorium. So we watched the big screens most of the time rather than looking towards the stage. Was that more real than watching the event on t.v.?

If watching an event on t.v. is "like being there" I can see where there can be a problem in "virtual reality" with many people reporting that they have trouble differentiating between the "me" who is in Second Life from the "me" who has to wash the dishes in First Life. Real Life can suffer if you get too immersed in any virtual reality.

 I remember a Red Dwarf Episode "Better than Life" in which the crew becomes immersed in a virtual reality game to the point where their physical bodies would have died if the game hadn't been unplugged.

An anthropologist, Tom Boellstorff, has written Coming of Age in Second life -- An Anthropologist Explores The Virtually Human. He writes at length about the social implications of virtual reality. I haven't read the book yet, but some of the book reviews were especially thought-provoking.

As for me, I have not yet reached a conclusion about whether participating in a virtual reality is a good thing or a bad thing. I guess I will have to do more research. After I do the dishes.
One of my avatars
Later Note: I have decided that the fact that everyone in real life can take on any appearance they want is a good thing. That way, everyone is on a level playing field. I continue to explore.

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