Sunday, March 18, 2007

Visiting Second Life

I’m not sure what to make of the Second Life phenomenon. On the one hand, I like the idea of having this virtual environment where participants can create a separate reality.

It’s actually a lot of fun – a game of make-believe of sorts. The opportunities for meeting people – real people, not just computer-generated entities – are everywhere, and make for interesting insights into human nature – or at least into the nature of the humans who participate in these 3-D virtual environments such as Second Life.

There are, I think, also some interesting opportunities for educational institutions to deliver programs and courses having to do with communications and design, especially for the purpose of delivering distance learning content. There are a number of colleges and universities that have set up shop in SL, as it’s called, and the listservs that deal with education in SL are filled with research proposals and commentaries that indicate the enthusiasm with which some educators and students are embracing the SL environment and opportunities.

I too see opportunities for delivering education in SL, to the point where I have formed a small group of like-minded people at the college to act as a project exploration group, and we have applied for a small research grant.

And yet. There is something – unsettling – about the phenomenon. On the one hand the technology is making it possible for people who have difficulties interacting with others for reason of distance or disability to interact with others in this delightful, highly interactive and constantly growing environment. On the other hand, life is SL is a lot easier than life in the real world (RL). Unpleasant environments or people can be changed or avoided; everybody is young and healthy, the environment can be made beautiful, predictable and safe; the cost of living is very small, nobody breathes or eats or has to be concerned with unpleasant bodily functions; people are never too hot or too cold. It is, in other words, a kind of virtual utopia.

Carlos Castaneda might recognize it, and so might Timothy Leary: SL is RL on acid – or grass. What would Aldous Huxley make of, I wonder?

SL is opening the doors of perception, as Huxley called it, to both heaven and hell. Like any mind-altering drug, SL is both beneficial and dangerous – it depends on how it’s used. SL can facilitate communication and entertain and educate. It can also become intensely addictive, and I fear that we will soon hear of people sitting in their decaying apartments, locked into Second Life – Matrix-like - while their real world crumbles around them.

More later…
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