Wednesday, March 5, 2008


It's hard to say what to think. Because so many things are touched upon, and very little is said. So while Brian Dipert wants thoughts, i can only give impressions, since it isn't clear exactly what he is saying. Other than perhaps he thinks that second life is over-hyped. I think his piece is the kind of knee jerk terror of virtual reality that I read too much of, poorly argued and reading for all the world like a text in favor of prohibition of alcohol because so many people drink too much.

So let me get at what I think is the core of the problem:

Human beings, like many if not all creatures, seem to have a natural compulsion to intoxicate themselves in striving to escape the un-pleasurable aspects of real life and instead flee (albeit temporarily) to a seemingly 'better' alternative. We cling to what feels good, and we push away what feels bad...not realizing, as we do so, that this grasping and aversion is at the root of our suffering...but I digress. Yes, I'm taking you down a blue pill/red pill Matrix scenario here.

People are already fleeing to virtual worlds, even in their imperfect states, and in spite of the fact that, as is the case with chat rooms, USENET groups, and other artifacts of cyberspace, most if not all cyber-worlds seem to rapidly degrade to anarchistic real world look-alikes. Heck, some scholars hypothesize that there's a statistically significant possibility that we already exist in a virtual world (yep, Matrix again). Why wouldn't people flee to them more often, and more people flee to them, as they become more compelling over time and technology evolution?

The first problem is that I don't think anyone could make a strong case about "all creatures." Maybe some creatures are capable of creating imaginary spaces that are compelling enough to retreat into, and many intelligent creatures play and dream. But all? Hmmm. Not last I checked animal psychology. Androids may dream of electric sheep, but fish just swim and eat.

Now, about fleeing into a "better" alternative. I'm not sure that this holds water. If we have the capability to construct a virtuality, then there must be reasons for that capability. Perhaps not the uses we have put it to, but we have it because the sum and total of the interactions with the world, left behind... us. So the argument that we are "fleeing" a real world for an inferior one is lacking. Now it could be argued, and later the author does argue, that the virtual worlds we are making fall short of utility, and criticism, even harsh criticism, is definitely in order. But the project of creating virtual selves, has been going on as long as people could carve bits of rock and bone into forms, and in words since people created prose. The first time a king erected a rock to his own name, and described events as he thinks they should have gone... well, he created a virtual self.

So while people may "flee" to virtual selves, the reason for fleeing isn't necessarily merely escapism. In fact, I'd argue that second life is largely not created by escapism, even if many people populating it are there for escape. Nor would evolution permit such a large drain on energy as mere escapism.

I could spin out several stories about how this happened by evolutionary means, but the most compelling is the simplest one, and it involves the nature of play. Many creatures play and dream. Mammals, in fact, are great players and dreamers. Playful is almost a characteristic of mammals. Why is this? The real world is dangerous. Not everything that can be tried out, is a good idea to try out in real time with limbs on the line. Also, the real world moves quickly, which means that it can take time to learn the lessons of a particular encounter. Playing and dreaming fit together. A dream puts the world in some kind of order, and play goes through it without so much risk.

This means that the value of Second Life, as a dream and play scape, is not in solving some specific problem, but in the nature as a dream and play space to work through problems that are too dangerous to be allowed to run in the real world in real time. As if designed, second life has managed in a few years to prove the necessity of banking laws and escrow accounts....

But what I'm focusing on here is the wholesale disconnection-from-reality of a society that's already well along that path. Believe me, this is not a future prediction that I'm particularly fond of. But nonetheless, I can't deny its high likelihood of coming to pass. Shades of Huxley's soma...

Yes, the 'real world" that place where people are burning more fossil fuels than we can dig up, and putting more carbon into the air than can be soaked up by the bio-system, and fighting a war over Weapons of Mass Destruction which were a figment of some White House PR flack's imagination. Ummm that real world? I'm going to argue that quit the contrary, that people who are seeking happiness in virtuality, rather than in driving to McDonald's to eat a grease bomb that will increase their chances of a real heat attack that will take up real people's time and real medical technology... You get where I am going with this.

Happiness is always virtual. If we are going to survive this period of time we are going to need to learn how to be happy using much less in the way of resources, and creating much less of an impact. If that means crating projects, this is no different than writing novels, or painting deities on ceilings, or writing tragedies to be performed at religious festivals. There's no such thing as "the real world," because we aren't given the omniscient perception that would enable us to experience it an sich in an unmediated manner.

So this prediction of doom, as people go to virtual worlds rings as false to me as hand wringing over Wikipedia not being written by a small gorup of people who get paychecks. The Great Encyclopedia Britannica lent itself to A fraud by a man who ought to have known better. But it is to Charles Van Doren that the last line belongs to:

Some of you read with me 40 years ago a portion of Aristotle's Ethics, a selection of passages that describe his idea of happiness. You may not remember too well. I remember better, because, despite the abrupt caesura in my academic career that occurred in 1959, I have gone on teaching the humanities almost continually to students of all kinds and ages. In case you don't remember, then, I remind you that according to Aristotle happiness is not a feeling or sensation but instead is the quality of a whole life. The emphasis is on "whole," a life from beginning to end. Especially the end. The last part, the part you're now approaching, was for Aristotle the most important for happiness. It makes sense, doesn't it?

The question is life taken as a whole. People have retreated into chess, alcohol, religion, sex. But out of these retreats have come many great works of art and ideas, which are later able to order the world. We are here, not because out there will someday be here, but as much because here will one day be out there.


  1. Lillie,

    I won't pretend to know lots of people or SL in general enough to state why a lot of us uses significant amounts of time being online. Certainly the lagging GUI is not the main reason, when I have a look at my friends playing WoW, I sometimes wonder what is wrong with this world.... Never mind, you cant build in WoW:-)

    And thats the core: In SL, I can express and experiment with parts of life I cant get into in RL. Although I am generally happy with my career in IT, I sometimes wish I had become an architect instead. Or a professional photographer.

    In SL, I get an outlet for these creative sides of myselves. I can draw and build my fantasy gallery, and exhibit my best shots. And get the pleasing satisfaction when polite people complements me:-)

    Is this fleeing the real world? No, its an extension. But yes, sometimes it is. The truth is always complex.

    Of course, stating that I am in SL to build is like saying I read Playboy because of the interesting articles. There are of course more to it; the meetings of the virtual bodies and the real minds are powerful emotional addictives. Certainly care is needed. But I guess that this sort of article, written by someone who has not been online for a year, is something the world could live well without.

  2. I've noticed that a cottage industry has grown up decrying relationships in Second Life. Perhaps because the RL ones are... not doing the job?

  3. "Happiness is always virtual."

    Wonderful words, and a balm for the soul after a week of bigotry and pettiness throughout the blogosphere against those who value the integrity of the digital realm.

    We must be effecting radical change to have frightened so many people so badly!

  4. I think Soph we are radicals in that we have deep roots. Human beings have always been virtual beings. What we are fighting is an attempt to create concreate fanatsy, that some how because people see it in the analog world that the activities that produce it are sustainable and workable.

    I don't think the evidence backs up the concrete fantasy very well, and instead is on our side: that the realms of thought, dream, imagination, creation and symbol are as much a part of the sustainable, and therefore real, society, as the world of "bricks and mortar."

  5. I get what you are getting at..., not however, with the clarity and intelligence of other pieces you/they have written. Your defense betrays the inadequacy that drove you there. By itself, SL has a superb beauty, but you betray it with meaningless defensive semantics.
    While we may 'sci-fi' imagine the complete movement of humanity into SL, the fact is science, Mr. Lillie, that all our perceptions and learning occurs in RL, and many of us that are inadequate due to dysfunction, which can only be treated RL, can find joy and relief bypassing to a pure state. Whereas dysfunction in SL is pure dysfunction, and dangerous.

  6. I am always amused by people who practice psycho-therapy by the internet, and then talk about facts, which they completely lack.

    Our perceptions occur in the material world, but then SL occurs there too, and RL as well. But RL is not the material world, and many of the "facts" of rl are virtual. A bank balance can cause stress, heart attacks, suicide, hunger, divorce and heart ache. Yet it is a completely "virtual" rl fact.

    Before making bombastic charges, at least have your epistemology and ontology in order.

  7. If you like, 'material world' is both SL and RL, but RL is SL, whereas SL is only an aspect of RL.

    My friend, why would you limit chat when SL is only a chat? Did you miss my thought that it is a superb thought-provoking, as well as, chemistry inducing chat, primarily because the power of visual playacting is so new on this level. My point to you was that you were overly-defensive and doing harm.

    Participation or not, SL is like going to church or being in a community in RL, and it is not OL, -the Only Life.

  8. Once againyou make a mistake inbasic logic. SL is not a subset or aspect of RL, RL and SL are both subsets of the same thing. They have different features. Right now, for all but a tiny fraction of the world, their rl is more important tahn any of their digital lives, but this is not true for many people. For millions of people, their digital existence is more important than their existence as a "real" person. By which I think you mean a physical body attached to a birth certificate and waht was once called a paper trial.

    RL and SL are both virtual constructs, what we call RL simply has them so embedded in experience and culture that we don't notice them most of the time. As you didn't notice them in your first tirade on this tread.

    If I am defensive it is because your thinking is confused, you are overly attached to particular illusions over others, and you confuse the construction we call "real life" with what is real.

    Many people do that, and assume that as long as their real life is going well, that "reality" must also be going well, for them and for others. This illusion is the cause of much suffering.

  9. Yes, it's funny but Lillie is sure I am talking only to Lillie, whereas your thoughts about SL are provoking me to use this thread because you answer it to me but do not say anything here. If you would only become visible then Lillie might see what you are saying about God and the religious life. If you will agree, I will submit your thoughts.