Second Life – Geek’s Playboy Mansion?

I managed to find a short-wave radio on Friday, which has changed my life instantly because in the mornings, with a lot of fiddling I can pick up the BBC World Service. It’s strange to suddenly have the real world booming inside my little shack after nearly two weeks of living in what seems a sealed-off world, where a nuclear war could be erupting in the Korean peninsula and I would be quite happily oblivious, lost in a 19th century novel and talking to the goats. But they make rubbish conversation.

The World Service is probably the best thing that the British FCO fund, and I have a special affection for it because my routine in England, if I wasn’t out, would be to listen to music until 1am and then switch over to the World Service and get the news for a little while. It operates on a GMT schedule, so at 7am here I can still listen to the 1am bulletin, and it’s as if my two extremely different lives are now united by the same dulcet broadcast.

On Sunday morning they served up some religious programming, and my attention was caught by a feature on the introduction and evolution of religion in Second Life. For those of you unfamiliar, Second Life is essentially a new world that you can inhabit online. You register, create an avatar to represent you, and you’re off. Because its over the internet, other users also inhabit the same world, so you can see their avatar and interact with them (through typing on the keyboard). There are vast lands to explore, lands which you can ‘buy’ and build on, people to meet, and you can basically do anything. It’s like another life.

And it’s becoming very popular, up to 1.5 million users now, according to the report, up from only about 10,000 a few years ago. A ‘first life’ economy has emerged, with an estimated GDP of $64 million, as people pay real US Dollars to buy land and property in Second Life from other users. Big money too, thousands of dollars, which they wouldn’t do if there wasn’t a profit available. General interest in it is growing, and companies are beginning to investigate marketing and promotion activities. Last summer the BBC broadcast some of their radio output ‘within’ Second Life, so you could send your avatar to go and listen to Keane or whatever, German tabloid Das Bild is going to start publishing in it, and Reuters have recently appointed a correspondent to cover developments. To give a better picture, the Wikipedia entry for Second Life is here, a recent Guardian article here, and the Economist’s take is here.

If I was an ambitious anthropologist, I would be getting my arse in to Second Life now quicker than you can say geek. When I was working with the ippr’s Digital Media and Society team earlier this spring, I read a few articles about it, but on principle I’ve gone to the homepage and no further. I want to experience, learn and do as much as possible in the real world, not one hidden inside a computer network, so the idea of spending time interacting with imaginary people in an imaginary environment online when I could be outside in the natural one is an anathema to me.

The issue that doesn’t seem to come up very often is that the vast majority of Second Life users, ‘Second Lifers’ are white, well-educated, well paid media and technology-enthusiasts/professionals living in the West – who in my opinion must be either too busy and boring to go out and get a real life, or too sensible and boring to take drugs and at least derive some small pleasures from their current one. On the plus side, it keeps them off the streets, but essentially, if it’s mostly used by a Web 2.0 elite, Second Life doesn’t reflect life at all.

I used to be a huge fan of the ‘Red Dwarf series, which were first shown as a sitcom on the BBC in the late 1980s and then the 1990s, but were originally even better books. It’s a sci-fi comedy, featuring Craig Lister, the last human being in the universe, marooned on the ship ‘Red Dwarf’ three million miles in to deep space with only three other absurd characters for company. Lister is a filthy unemployable yet good-hearted drunk from Liverpool, and on the one hand it’s an extremely silly, extremely funny chronicle of their adventures, and yet also quite an interesting exposition of what it is to be human. The three other characters all represent aspects of the human psyche, so between the four of them you get mankind in our hideous glory, with added scallyness.

Because it’s nominally sci-fi, they can get involved in ridiculous stories, and in one of the most celebrated episodes they find a virtual reality video game called Better Than Life. You plug it in to your head and the idea is that you can live out all your wildest fantasies, as if they’re completely real. For Lister, it’s great, but when Rimmer, the character who embodies all of human anger, neuroses and disillusionment enters the game he promptly crashes it.

So listening to the story on religion in Second Life this morning with different Californian hippies talking about how great their virtual island was where they could teach people to meditate, instantly made me think of Better Than Life – and made me wonder where the Rimmer is in all of this. If Second Life really is a virtual world, does it have virtual poverty as well as riches, does it have corruption and destitution and violence? It might have fast emerging religions, but does it have political ideologies and political groups campaigning for them? And do people fight for their beliefs, even if it ruins the harmony for other people?

Can you encounter avatars who are total wankers, instead of yet another person who wants to hold hands and loves Joni Mitchell? If it’s only inhabited by rich Western technology enthusiasts, is it a virtual world or just a geek’s Playboy Mansion? Does it have a Bangladesh, basically, to complement its Silicon Valley / Shoreditch utopia? And if not, why not? And when will it? That’s what I’d like to know.

As I made clear, I’ve deliberately never been in to Second Life, so if anyone wants to put me in my place and tell me where I’m wrong, that’s what the comments box is for:


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