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Get a (Second) Life?

by Thomas de Zengotita

What is Second Life? First of all, it is not a game—no score, no winner, no goals. It is a multi-user website, an indefinitely expandable digital environment in which people from the real world embody themselves as “avatars”* and become residents of a virtual world they themselves are constructing.

An avatar template is provided by Second Life when you first register. Humanoid in appearance, it is subject to modification at your hands. You can be either sex, be clothed in various ways, and have a whole spectrum of physical attributes—size, age, weight, hairstyle, and color. Shapes of heads, ears, eyes, noses, and chins can be modified incrementally, so you can construct a recognizable facsimile of your actual self for your second life. If you want to. On the other hand, you can embody yourself as a facsimile of your mother or Mick Jagger. Or a giant walking bird. Or a metallic android.

In Second Life, the old saw that best expresses our postmodern sense of personal entitlement—“Be what you want to be”—is realized. There are more than eight million registered residents as of this writing (up from one million in October 2006). One extrapolation projects twenty-five million by mid-March 2008.

In a word, this is huge.

But why? What’s the appeal? To answer that, we have to put Second Life in context. It is part of the “virtual revolution” that has come to dominate the culture in recent years. Remember the old industrial age scenario for revolution, the one in which workers were to organize against capitalists for control of the means of production? That didn’t work out as planned—but conditions have changed. The new economy isn’t about mines and factories. It’s a “soft” economy—it’s about presentations and representations, depictions and performances. In this new realm, where a show of some kind is always the commodity, the “means of production” have fallen into the hands of the people. It isn’t only up to the movie studios or TV networks anymore. Anyone can have a cell phone with a camera, a digital video recorder, a Blackberry, an iPod, and of course, a personal computer with applications that can do almost anything—make movies, burn CDs, broadcast live by webcam.

The result? An information age scenario that pits spectators against celebrities—a virtual revolution, a struggle over the only scarce resource that matters in this media-saturated society: attention.

Reality television is only the most obvious manifestation. Spectators are rising up wherever venues promise to give them some of the attention that celebrities once monopolized. MySpace, YouTube—the very names tell the tale. When Time magazine named “you” person of the year in 2006, it was acknowledging the virtual revolutionaries on behalf of beleaguered mass media platforms everywhere.

Narcissus never had it so good—and in Second Life it’s even better. When you enter that virtual world, by way of your custom-made avatar, the ways in which you can be the center of everything multiply indefinitely. It’s a plasmic wonderland, saturated with that dreamy anime aesthetic—only now you aren’t just watching; you are in the middle of it. You can wander around at will, socialize with anyone, buy and sell property, have sex, organize political movements, create landscapes and buildings, make and sell clothes, art, music, films. You can join a church, enter therapy, go to college. A Harvard professor has an avatar through which he teaches classes to student avatars. IBM avatars hold research and development sessions in virtual conference rooms. MTV offers a Second Life version of its hit show Laguna Beach. You can go there and hang with the gang.

You can also teleport yourself instantaneously to anywhere in the world. Oh, and you can fly. Just press “page up”—and soar away. As the architect for Wired magazine’s offices in Second Life put it, by way of explaining his radical design: “Why let Newtonian physics get in the way?” Divine powers these, and now they’re yours.

But the most significant of all these powers is subtler than flying: Once you’ve mastered the keyboard, the physical dimension of your situation in the real world recedes to the horizon of your consciousness. You are only barely aware of it. You fuse with your avatar. You become the agent on the screen.

But, of course, you are still at your computer, presiding over everything. Thanks to the very nature of an avatar, that is, you get to perform and you get to watch at the same time. Spectator and star—the essential roles of a mediated society—are merged. Some new synaptic closure is attained; some new kind of human gratification emerges. With the whole sweep of history in view, we could even say that a novel form of existence has been realized.

But it’s the climax of a long, long story. When science and its applications developed in the Renaissance, the implicit goal of modernity was established. People set out to refashion nature—and themselves—in accordance with their own designs. That meant they were putting themselves in competition with God, the original Maker, however pious their conscious intentions might have been. At the same time, political and educational reforms were promising ordinary people self-government, a kind of centrality that had once belonged to monarchs. In just a few centuries, whole continents of wilderness, vast populations of native peoples, were transformed by this modern enterprise.

When Nietzsche declared that “God is dead,” he was hailing (and lamenting) the triumph of modernity. At the same time, he announced the arrival of the ubermensch, “the one who makes himself.”

But Nietzsche was thinking about Newton and Goethe and Napoleon. He had nothing but contempt for democracy, for middle-class masses immersed in average lives. He never dreamed that modern technologies would one day confer world-making and self-making power on everyman—on you.

Viewed from this perspective, Second Life appears as an especially potent exemplar of the virtual revolution in general—and as a culmination of the modern project as a whole. For this is an extension of that project into spaces much more pliable than the real world of atoms and molecules and Newtonian physics could ever be. In virtual spaces, people really are the gods.

But in the long run, will that just mean that people have a whole new way to escape? Or a whole new way to transcend? Or both?

No one can know. This technology is just beginning. We are the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, Alexander Graham Bell squawking into a tin can. Right now, a lot of mindless internet things happen in Second Life, of course—endless dancing and fashion and virtual sex. But serious experiments are under way as well, and the big question is: As these virtual worlds for virtual beings evolve, how much will our understanding of what it means to be human have to change?

* Avatar: Hindu Myth: the descent of a deity to the earth in an incarnate form.

- Oxford English Dictionary


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This article is from
Ecology, Politics, and Consciousness


October–December 2007