Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Failing to find Utopia, is Second Life's falter really a problem with our own imaginations?

Failing to find Utopia, is Second Life's falter really a problem with our own imaginations?

Summary: Our present society and mass media make us good at imagining and desiring new things, but discourages us imaging and desiring new forms of social engagement and social life. This is the way consumer Capitalism stays in power. The result of this in Second Life is that people are very good at creating wonderful things and places, but we struggle to image what to do with them.

There is no question that Second Life is full of wonderful things. As with Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr; SL's Web 2.o technology has shown that crowd sourcing will produce the ultimate content engine. Crowds of people will produce larger masses of content than any organised corporation ever could on the web. I can't really even imagine any single company using a plan and hired team to create something so varied and wonderful. The future belongs to the crowd of users who are also producers.

And yet Second Life is mostly empty.

I think there is no question of the quantity or production or even the quality. Some amazing SIMs have been executed and I am endlessly impressed by things I find. In fact the quantity and quality of Second Life production keeps me coming back to explore more.

I think what is missing is something I would call a lack of Social Imagination. We simply can not imagine the cultures or social life to go along with these amazing places. We build wonders and end up in endless boring meetings, tied up in debates, or banning and deleting each other. People flood to drama and virtual relationships because its all they can imagine.

I have been reading Jameson's amazing book Archaeologies of the Future. Jameson looks at the relationship between our concept of Science Fiction and our idea of Utopia. When we write Science Fiction often we are using our ability to image a Utopia or a Non-Utopia, and when we read Science Fiction our imagination about what is possible is being formed.

For example if we read a great deal of William Gibson we could become cynical about the possibilities of producing better society or culture, and might image the future will be more of the same, just faster. Gibson's imagined world is amazing, but it is governed by the same laws of Capitalism that our world is.

On the other hand if we read the Culture novels of Iain M Banks we can imagine a kind of Utopia, actually built on anarchist-communist ideas. Onc of the joys of reading a book like Look to Windward is that as long as we are in the novel we can imagine a Culture that works better than our current world. When Banks writes that "Money is Poverty" he allows us to imagine a world radically different than what we live in today. We can actually start to think about donig things differently.

Jameson's argues, among other things, that our current "post-modern" society has waged a kind of war on Utopian thinking. Many more of us have read the Gibson story than the Banks story. We don't really believe that our current lot can be changed any.

We as a culture are taught, again and again, in movies, in school, in books that it is not only impossible to transform social relations but we can't even imagine different social relationships.

Image if the Founding Fathers of the United States were this limit, if like today they just assumed the status quo was a kind of "End of History"?

I think this is the key problem with Virtual Worlds like Second Life. People can build things, they know how to work the technology, but they have not been given the skills to build more wonderful and open cultures that could flourish in a place like Second Life.

Look at the importance of RP especially Gor in Second Life, or go to the Jazz clubs or beach parties. People are acting out scenes from movies, books, or TV shows. The mass production of culture forms our shared imagination and in Second Life this formed imagination structures what kinds of cultures are produced.

But the message in popular culture for the last 30 years has been that imaging something better is impossible. Cynicism is the cancer of our mental age. In a society where it is impossible to break the control of a few businesses and banks this is probably a good survival mechanism.

But our shared inability to imagine better social arrangements is the primary problem. People can build amazing spaces because our culture of CGI gives us the skills to imagine wonderful objects. We can easily desire new objects and SL is full of things. But we are never shown how to desire new patterns of social relationships, and we are trained from youth to not desire new forms of society.

Rober1236 Jua the Cyber Trekker of Second Life


Tinsel Silvera said...

When I first read about Second Life prior to joining I envisioned a Utopia where everyone could be who they wanted to be and not be hindered by their real life baggage. Once I joined I realized that yes, you could be whoever or whatever you wanted to be but most people unfortunately brought their real life baggage in-world with them anyway. Second Life could be so much better if people would just check their baggage at the login screen. As for Second Life being empty, I'm not sure what you mean by that. Considering that there are 32,000 sims and only about 64,000 residents online at any one time, if you see more than two people in one sim, then there are going to be some empty sims elsewhere. Same thing as my home being empty during the daytime when I am at work. And also dealing with all the time zones around the world, not everyone can be on at one time. "the quantity and quality of Second Life production keeps me coming back to explore more." Well said and I agree 100%.

Lalo Telling said...

I understand the premise of your summary. In passing, I will remind your other readers of something that you are probably aware: the utopia/dystopia conversation in science fiction (and elsewhere) is a great deal older than 30 years.

H.G. Well's first version of When the Sleeper Wakes was published in 1899; his most famous socialist utopia, The Shape of Things to Come, (popularized by the film Things to Come) was published in 1930. Iain M. Banks' foray into anarcho-communism was predated by Ursula K. LeGuin's The Dispossessed (1974).

On the other side, tales of dystopia -- warning us of the dangers of idealistic (and ideological) totalitarianism and the tyranny of the majority -- are at least as old as Huxley's Brave New World (1932) and Orwell's 1984 (published in 1949).

Tinsel Silvera, in his comment above, has already explained the "physical" absence of people in Second Life. I believe the absence of alternative societies is just as easily explained by the simple fact that we do not live there.

As engaging and immersive as Second Life can be, it is a place to visit, to admire, to be entertained in (and/or to provide entertainment for others). It is significant that you invoked roleplay, because the creation of any "society" in SL, whether alternative or mainstream, requires even more suspension of disbelief than immersion in a novel.

We cannot live in a novel. Eventually, the book must be closed and the fantasy set aside to deal with the mundane details of physical existence. We cannot live in SL, either; eventually, we must log out and resume our daily struggle between the social ideals of fairness to all and the inertia of consumerism.

In all, I would suggest that the absence of societal experimentation in Second Life is not due to real-world indoctrination against alternative possibilities. Rather, it is that the vast majority of people who log in to SL are not roleplayers, and do not feel the necessity, let alone the urge, to impose a plot upon the setting.

I further suggest that, instead of lamenting the lack of alternative societies founded by others, you gather like-minded avatars and begin your own roleplayed experiment.

Robert Hooker said...

Well Lalo thank you for taking the time to comment.

I have my own community around me in Second Life. The post was a more general response to global issues I see with SL. I was aiming more for a sociological overview.

Personally I find role play a bit limiting. I am thinking about writing something a bit more personal, an manifesto of being in Second Life, but I had to go to a client site today and there is this really good movie the wife and I are watching so it will have to wait.

Again thank you and Tinsel very much for taking the time to comment.

Robert Hooker said...


I have explored all the major land masses of SL and many of the archipelago of islands. I generally find a few spots will be concentrated with maybe a half dozen to a dozen people but most SIMs are ghost towns.

I have a lot of SL contacts so there is always someone on line for me to chat with, but the user population is really nothing compared to say the Facebook or Flicr community.

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