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
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