Sunday, 23 March 2008

A somewhat cynical but very realistic defence of Second Life

Likely you have heard about the how disabled individuals have been able to form social networks in Second Life. IT companies that don't make any money always need the story of why they are good ideas despite not yet returning any profit. Yahoo for several years had Flickr. When investors wondered at how Yahoo could continue to fail so terribly in the face of Google the standard response from Yahoo was “look we can't be so bad, we have Flickr.” Linden Lab's referencing the disabled people who can socially interact on Second Life sometimes comes off on the same level. In the face of a culture that is deeply negative about people electing to form their social relationships in a virtual reality Second Life points to marginal users as a defence.

I would argue that in the case of Linden Labs and Yahoo these defences were both wrong, but for very different reasons.

Flickr did not indicate anything different about Yahoo, in fact Yahoo intervention in Flickr just established even further the key problem Flickr had: it was to central and too indifferent to users. Google just sat back and let the web make itself while Yahoo seemed to have the need to establish its order on the web. They continued to pursue developing a structure over a search long after the web got to big to be categorised in any meaningful way. The result was not only business failure and an inevitable take over by Microsoft but also a series of political humiliations with Yahoo dragged before Congress and attacked and Flickr establishing the German speaking world with the usage rights of minors.

Linden Labs defence is also wrong. It is not the case that a few people are finding a positive social interaction that they could not without the Second Life tool, but in fact that the vast majority of users are avoiding the negatives of life. Disabled people are not marginalised solely because of this physical impairments. The reason disabled people need something like Second Life is because our society isolates them. In Second Life they can assume social positions free of disability.

In the same way millions of ordinary people are assigned lives that offer little joy or hope. Not the kind of terror suffering we see in Tibet, Africa or North Korea. I am talking about the Culture of Narcissism as described by Christopher Lasch, a growing number of people who can not feel satisfied with their prosperous lots in life.

Certainly I know that we are all suppose to not hide from our problems and face them, but really that is not the way our culture works. But lets be honest, how often do we work through problems? And how many of our problems are beyond working through like broken marriages, kids who won't listen, husband who cheat on wives, dying parents, changing economic conditions. The average person is stuck in a series of mutations that they can't really even understand never less master.

There is the option of psychoanalysis, but who has the money and time to try something that is known to almost never work? Religion offers an outlet, but how many times are people in need of escape from problems exploited by religions who have other purposes. I would argue that the entire GOP is now run by people who get their power from white conservatives who can not understand where their lives are going.

Second Life offers people who find themselves stuck a place to hide. It is a psychologically negative as a potter club. If someone seems to be playing it obsessive the issue is not with Second Life (frankly its not that interesting) but with the conditions in their lives the require they change context. I would suspect that hundreds if not thousands of people are holding it together in Second Life. That they are holding marriages, relations with children, and jobs going only because they have the ability to protect themselves from abusive, hostile and negative elements in life by going to Second Life.

I would suspect that research will find that people who stop playing Second Life during difficult periods in their lives because they think it is distracting them from the real problem will experience greater difficulty.

This is not to say the hiding from life in Second Life is a positive thing, its just trying to be more realistic about what life is like and about how limited the individuals ability to impact or improve their lives. If someone has a partner who is dying of cancer or a parent who is developing mental illness there is not much hope for improvement. Our consumer society is a bit sick in thinking that every situation can be made great: in reality most can't and every life narrative ends the same sad way. Life is hard and sad. Most people regret their decisions and look to their children or grandchildren to somehow live to meet promises they failed to reach. But the reality is these children will live to regret most of their lives as well.

The is also what gives life its dignity, the fact we soldier on in the face of difficulties. But its a great deal of ask of people and I often wonder if this dignity is just a rationalisation for the fact we suffer so. Perhaps a future of painless virtual life in computers floating endlessly in space, a life of cocktail parties and flying machines and endless sex is the way to go.

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