How Second Life Impacts Our First Life…

After having written so much about Second Life during my recent exchanges with Beth Coleman and Clay Shirky, I swore to myself that I would not write about this virtual world for a bit and let reality catch up with some of my theories. No such luck. I recently heard from digital theorist

Trebor Scholtz suggesting that there had been some interesting responses to the Shirkey-Coleman-Jenkins exchanges over at the iDC (Institute for Distributed Creativity) mailing list. Scholtz asked politely if I might weigh in on some of their arguments (always a dangerous thing since I am not on the list and not fully following their conversations) and clarify my position. I asked if I could cross-post my response here on the blog.

The question which Scholtz posed to me was deceptively simple:

My main question to Jenkins and all of you concerns the relationship between this virtual world and “first life.” Do these virtual worlds merely provide an inconvenient youth with a

valve to live their fantasies of social change (elsewhere), or do they, in some measurable way, fertilize politics in the world beyond the screen?

The last several decades of observation of the digital world teaches us that the digital world is never totally disconnected from the real world. Even when we go onto the digital world to “escape” reality, we end up engaging with symbolic representations which we read in relation to reality. We learn things about our first lives by stepping into a Second or parallel life which allows us to suspend certain rules, break out of certain roles, and see the world from a fresh perspective. More often, though, there are a complex set of social ties, economic practices, political debates, etc. which almost always connects what’s taking place online to what’s going on in our lives off line.

Here, for example, is a link to the webcast of a session of the 2005 Games, Learning, and Society conference at Madison, Wisconsin. (Check out the session called Brace for Impact: How User Creation Changes Everything). It was one of the first places that I heard extensively about the kinds of educational uses of Second Life. One of the stories there which caught my imagination dealt with the ways people were using this environment to help sufferers of autism and Asperger’s syndrome to rehearse social skills and overcome anxieties that can be crippling in real world social interactions. (They call their island, Brigadoon). Those who are undergoing therapy in Brigadoon are able to interact through Second Life for several reasons, as I understand it: first, because it creates a buffer between the people lowering the stress of social interaction; second, because it reduces the range of social signals through the cartoonishness of the avatar, helping them to learn to watch for certain signs and filter out others. Ideally, participants then return with these new social skills and apply them to their interactions in their First Lives. But even if that is not possible for all of those involved, they have had a chance to interact meaningfully with other human beings — even if through a mediating representation.

For me, Brigadoon offers both a demonstration of the value of having a Second Life that operates in parallel to your First Life and as a metaphor to think about the ways we can try things out, learn to think and act in new ways in virtual worlds of all kinds, and then carry those skills back with us to our everyday reality.

In some cases, the Second Life opens up experiences that would not be possible within the constraints of the real world. My former student and friend, John Campbell, wrote a book, Getting It On Online: Cyberspace, Gay Male Identity, and Embodied Identity . His research primarily centered on much earlier forms of chatroom technologies rather than Second Life per se, but much of what he found there is still very relevant to our present conversation. One of the things I took away from Campbell’s book was the idea that these chartrooms played important functions for queers who lived in small towns or in conservative regions of the country where there were little or no chances to socialize with others who shared their sexual preferences. Entering into a virtual world (even one as simple as the early chat rooms) allowed them to begin to explore aspects of their sexual identity that they could not yet act upon in their First Lives. Through this process, they developed the self confidence necessary to come out to their friends and family, they felt some connection to the realm of queer activism, and they made a range of other life-changing choices. I wanted to bring this into the conversation because I see from time to time academic theorists who want to dismiss the kinds of sexual experimentation that occurs in Second Life as interactive porn. Such language shows a limited understanding of what such spaces can and often do mean to the people who participate in these sexual subcultures in virtual worlds.


Those who have read my blog know how much I respect the work that Barry Joseph is doing through his Global Kids organization in Teen Second Life. Joseph has a strong commitment to using the virtual world to educate and empower young people and redirect them towards dealing with problems in the real world. Consider, for example, their recent collaboration with the U.S.Holocaust Memorial Museum to make images of the genocide occurring in Darfur visible to young visitors to Teen Second Life. The Museum was already projecting these photographs onto its own facade in the real world. The Global Kids group worked to showcase these same images within the virtual world, in the process learning more about real world suffering, and using Second Life as a platform to educate their contemporaries about a world problem that might otherwise have escaped their attention. By all reports, this was a transformative experience for the teens involved, resulting in them putting greater energy into trying to change the real world. Perhaps, Barry, who is a regular reader of this blog, will share more about his experiences.

How far might we push this? Consider the case of Kristofer Jovkovski, one of the readers of this blog, who wrote me recently to describe his proposal to construct a Virtual Macedonia through Second Life. Jovkovski’s argument appeared in a Macedonia Arts and Culture magazine, Art Republica:

Macedonia is country of spiritual and profound people, having its culture originating from a deep tradition and culture. However, by implanting extremely materialistic culture and values that even the most developed capitalistic countries are revising and varying, the country is gradually losing its spirit.

Radical virtualization of reality would turn us back to our own natural needs. That would be the final, strongest slap in our own face, as radical immersion into the cyberspace would produce the opposite effect, at the same time, along the immersion path, would make us integrate, instead of enforce, the democratic and open values of the medium, process which would finally lead to reconciliation between the spiritual (i.e. cyberspace) and material world

It is essential to make space for the young people to create their individual and collective reality….

Macedonian government would accredit Virtual Macedonia as a legal state extension in the cyberspace and would give rise to virtual institutions and legal rights to the citizens, thus recognizing the first virtual sovereign state act that would make precedence in the international politics and instant popularity. Promotion of the first virtual state would incite knowledge and information revolution, changing the face of Macedonia. Everybody willing to embody themselves with a virtual identity, or Avatar, would have rights and possibility to create, own and trade virtual objects, thus empowering himself. Virtual Macedonia would be introduced to the older Macedonians in a nostalgic manner that would evoke ideological enthusiasm from their youth. Young people would, of course, be riding enthusiastic energy wave of even greater intensity.

Virtualization of reality would help us relive traumatic politization and transformation of everyday life. Experiences from the virtual reality would affect our real reality. We could help ourselves, and maybe most important, by taking more proactive part in creation of their own reality, young people could break the karma of cynicism and pessimism of elders.

Virtual Macedonia could be practical model of virtual state with its own territorial sovereignty, functional economy and community rights and regulations, opened to the world….

He has not yet tried to build a Virtual Macedonia. I don’t want to get into this specific politics of the Macedonia situation but I was moved by this vision of how a virtual nation might revitalize a real one (which is in any case in the process of trying to reinvent itself after a complex history of struggles over national identity).

Might we imagine, for example, the construction of virtual homelands within Second Life that brought together disaporic communities and helped to cement their cultural and political ties to their mother countries? Might this result in new kinds of political alliances and affiliations that straddle between the real and virtual world? Could we use a similar structure to create a common space for interaction between groups which have very little face to face contact in the real world, even groups who have a history of conflicts over geographic space?

All of these examples work because Second Life does not perfectly mirror the reality of our First Lives, yet we could point to countless other more mundane and everyday ways that Second Life and other multiverses can and are being used to facilitate meetings in real world organizations, including those which result in all kinds of real world political effects.

That said, as Steven Shaviro notes on the iDC discussion list, there are some limits to the kinds of politics that can be conducted through Second Life at the present time:

Overall, Second Life is connected enough to “first life,” and mirrors it closely enough in all sorts of ways, that we can pretty much do “there” the same sorts of things — especially collaborative, social things — that we do “here.”…

A protest against the Iraq war in Second Life is little more than an empty symbolic gesture; but one might cynically argue, especially given the tendency of the media to ignore them, that

real-world protests against the war , however many people they draw, are at this point little more than empty symbolic gestures either.

On the other hand, I don’t think that one could find any equivalent in Second Life of political organizing that takes place in “first life”: if only because the people in Second Life are a fairly narrow, self-selected and affluent, group.

This goes back to the debate we’ve been having here about whether Second Life participants constitute a niche or an elite. Either way, the inhabitants of Second Life certainly are not a representative cross section of the society as a whole and there are many people who are excluded through technological or economic barriers to being able to participate in this world. These factors limit the political uses that can be made of SL: they make it hard for us to insure that a diversity of opinions are represented through the kinds of political deliberations that occur here; they makes it easy for participants to ignore some real world constraints on political participation, starting with the challenges of overcoming the digital divide and the participation gap; they make it hard to insure the visibility of online political actions within mainstream media.

That said, I don’t think we can discount the political and personal impact that these online experiences may have on the residents of SL. We simply need a broader range of models for what a virtual politics might look like and need to understand what claims are being made when we debate the political impact of these virtual worlds.

Another list participant, Charlie Geer, goes a lot further in dismissing the value of Second Life. He takes issue with my claim that the participatory culture represented on SL is worth defending. Here’s part of what he wrote:

It would seem to me obvious that trying to make some sense of and find ways of mitigating the violence and injustice in the complex world and culture we already necessarily inhabit, not least bodily, is far more pressing and considerably more worth defending than any supposed capacity to ‘design and inhabit our own worlds and construct our own culture’. This seems to me to be at best a license for mass solipsism and at worse something like the kind of thinking that undergirds much totalitarianism, as well as an evasion of our responsibilities to the world as we find it. Such a fantasy seems to be at play in both the relentless construction and assertion of identity’, a drive that militates against proper social solidarity, and thus plays into the hands of those sustaining the status quo, as well as the fantasy entertained by the Bush

government that the Middle East can just be redesigned as if in some video game

Apart from anything culture is not something that can simply be constructed. It is something we are thrown into and which we can only at best try to negotiate our relationship

with. Culture necessarily involves other people and prior existing structures. Has Jenkins considered what it would mean if everyone felt free to ‘construct their own culture’. Even if

such a thing were possible, it is certainly not desirable, especially if we have any hope to produce a properly participatory culture.

Frankly as far as I am concerned SL is really just a kind of cultural pornography, and is to the real business of culture what masturbating is to sex with another person. I like

masturbation as much as the next man, or indeed woman, but I don’t make the error of mistaking for something it isn’t. Apart from anything else it lacks precisely the element

that sex has, that of involving a proper, embodied, responsibility to someone else and to the potential consequences of the act itself.

There are lots of misperceptions embedded in these comments. To start with, I was not suggesting that we should be concerned with SL to the exclusion of concern with the real world. But I do see the struggle to preserve participatory culture as a fundamental political struggle in the same way that the right to privacy or the efforts to defend free speech are foundational to any other kind of political change. We are at an important crossroads as a society: on the one hand, we have new tools and social structures emerging that allow a broader segment of the population than ever before to participate in the core debates of our time. These tools have enormous potential to be used for creative and civic purposes. On the other hand, we are seeing all kinds of struggles to suppress our rights to deploy these new tools and social structures. Even as we are seeing a real promise of expanding free speech, we are seeing real threats to free speech from both corporate and governmental sources. We should be working to broaden access to the technologies and to the skills and education needed to become a full participant rather than having to defend the new communication infrastructure against various threats from government and business.

Gere understands what’s going on in Second Life primarily in individualistic rather than collaborative terms. It would indeed be meaningless to describe a world where everyone constructs their own culture. Culture by definition is shared. But it is not absurd to imagine a world where everyone contributes to the construction of their culture. It is not absurd to imagine different projects in SL as representing alternative models for how our culture might work. Indeed, the virtual world allows us not only to propose models but to test them by inviting others inside and letting them consider what it might feel like to live in this other kind of social institutions. I think of what goes on there as a kind of embodied theory. And I think what is interesting is that these are intersubjective models that are indeed being taking up and tested by communities large and small.

In each of the examples I cited above, participants are learning how to work together with others through the creation of a shared virtual reality. We certainly need to spend more time exploring how we can connect what happens in these worlds back to our everyday lives but that doesn’t mean that what occurs in a symbolic space is devoid of a real world social and political context.

Often, real world institutions and practices constrain our ability to act upon the world by impoverishing our ability to imagine viable alternatives. This is at the heart of much of the writing in cultural studies on ideology and hegemony. SL offers us a way to construct alternative models of the world and then step inside them and experience what it might feel like to live in a different social order. I think there are some very real possibilities there for political transformation.

Comments

  1. Clay McGovern says:

    It seems to me that part of what I consider the problem with these discussions of Second Life is the result of the unfortunate name of the system and preconceived notions this name brings to the party. “Second Life” implies a stark dualism between some “First Life” (a term I see often in these discussions) and this somehow “less real” life in an online “world.” I think much of this discussion depends on this false dualism. I don’t see any reason to consider Second Life any less “real” than say a phone call. I understand that there are points being made about the medium in particular as a mediating barrier, or as contributing something interesting to the societies and cultures that result from participation in Second Life. But the comments that hinge on some difference in kind with respect to social relationships inside Second Life ring false to my ears. I see no “less real” world here.

    I find it interesting, Henry, that one of the examples you point to, the Asperger’s syndrome and Autism social experiments, has more to do with what most participants would call failings of the medium than with the medium itself. In other words the technological failings of the medium making the visual and experiential stimuli oversimplified are the very things that many participants hope to remove in future versions of this and other online “worlds.” This I think is telling. If some future technology (ala the Star Trek Holodeck) removes these technical failings (mediation artifacts) much of the current discussion would be rendered irrelevant.

    I guess my point is that arguments related to the “virtualness” of Second Life, related to this false dualism of real versus “virtual” world, especially when we are talking about social, political, or cultural issues, seem to me to be without force.

  2. Prokofy Neva says:

    Henry, I have to say, I’m really, really, REALLY tired of this hackneyed, overused, and really now pointless meme about “SL is useful to first life because it once had a display that helped people understand schizophrenia”. Or “SL is useful to first life because it once had a sim called Brigadoon that doesn’t even function anymore that helped patients with health problems adapt.”

    It was good the first month; it was good the third year; now that SL is four years old, we need more examples, more thinking, deeper conceptualizing, and an end to this endless perception of Second Life’s value as only a giant Gimp for gimps. I’m sorry, but maybe if I put it that way really harshly, people will start thinking about how ridiculous this is, condensing their entire argumentation about the values of SL-RL in this very very tired and worn-out meme.

    What have they done *lately*???? And what about the rest of the people of the world who aren’t disabled and don’t have health issues and aren’t suffering from Asbergers’ syndrome? Do they get to play, too?

    It’s good SL has been a home and a haven and a tremendous outpouring for creativity for Asperbergers’ patients. And now what? Can it be justified for others? Should it be?

    I’ve been thinking hard about the uses and misuses of SL, and I think one of the things it really really amplifies for the Western man is his obsession with the concept of every activity being “therapeutic”. That’s how you get the grotesque and immoral argument that ageplay on SL, simulating child rape, is “therapeutic” for those who suffered abuse as children.

    So…what are the non-therapeutic uses of SL? Well, lots of businesses claim to do seminar, training, and prototyping there, but it’s mainly holding seminars with their own staff who are working on…SL builds! Or seminars about the new media and its potentials itself. When this takes off beyond the “about itself” conversation we’ll get to see.

    I’m convinced SL *does* have uses and is profoundly transformative. But it’s also destructive. The technology may be too volatile and unpredictable at this point to make good use of it always. It really needs to be studied truthfully, without any big lies about social media always being good merely because it’s social media and connecting everybody.

    There are tales and stories people tell themselves about leftwing organizing in SL, too, but we can’t tell if their anti-war demonstration was seen or heard — and we’re in a climate where even a RL demo with 100,000 isn’t enough to make change.

    When you endlessly tap people’s creativity and convince them always to be creating fantastic things, do you have only good? This is what I think about.

    The problem with political participation isn’t even the digital divide — that is definitely not the issue. The problem is more about a vast cultural divide between the kind of people who think up theories like “the digital divide” to indulge themselves in “let’s help the third world” fantasies, and people who are either in the third world, or who provide the third world globalization with their consumerism.

    You have way more a wealth and diversity of classes and nations in SL than leftists are prepared to admit. Politics generally means “leftist politics” and not “politics for everybody,” not any kind of multi-partisanal conversation.

    What they mean to say by a comment about the limits of political action is that they can’t get the broad masses to care about, or listen, or obey them. They’re disconnected and out of touch with people’s real lives as much in SL as they are in FL. They repeat all the same memes and cliches and received wisdoms about America or the modern marketplace or the tired cliches of warmed-over 19th century pastoral Marxism that they do in FL, and with no more success.

    Before you can tackle thing like “Iraq” or “violence in the world,” start with the violence right in SL — the hugely widespread cult of BDSM, and the ease with which the liberal mind not only accepts this, but calls it a free and willing “lifestyle” to be protected at all costs, even if it invades the public civic space. Does that not disturb you and other thoughtful persons?

    And more broadly, you can’t fix the problems of the world by doctrinaire ideologies that some hope to use SL to “put over” on other people. It would be better, as I’ve argued on the Herald, if people would use the international medium of SL to come to grips with the fact that they need a whole different kind of peace movement now, not the usual facile “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” pap, but more authentic engagement with the real clash of civilizations which cannot be denied and which is only amplified in SL — but then perhaps in ways which might be more adequately and safely addressed than in SL.

    There’s a lot more shared culture in SL than you’re prepared to admit. It’s just not *your” culture. The shared culture of masses of black and Hispanic Americans who enjoy householding and clubbing and forming families doesn’t even count as culture for the predominantly white educated bicoastal geek class.

  3. Barry Joseph says:

    Henry, Thank you for carrying on this important conversation. I’d be happy to share a few thoughts and anecdotes below, in no particular order:

    a) Often left out of the discussion of Second Life is an awareness that the teen grid – a separate 13-17 version of Second Life – is not a section of Second Life. It is not the toddler section of an amusement park. The easiest way to understand Teen Second Life is to imagine that, a decade ago, instead of a mixed-aged Internet, there were two versions: one for adults and one for teens. Each had the same tools but created very different Internets. Teen Second Life is similar – it is a DIFFERENT Second Life.

    Why is that relevant to this discussion? Because it means that Teen Second Life, with now over 50,000 global residents, is most likely the largest teen run community in the world, perhaps in history. Teens own their own “islands”. On these islands, they own their own malls. Other teens rent space and run their own stores in these malls. Other teens created objects that are sold in these stores. Other teens do other activities to generate money to buy things in these stores. Etc. And this is simply if one looks at TSL as a teen-run economy. The teen residents are also land barons, community activists and more.

    So when we ask the questions about Second Life crossing over to the first life, and we are talking about teens, the very environment itself – a youth-led community – is in and of itself a safe place for youth to experiment with taking leadership in their lives in ways they could not imagine offline. This is true both around specific skills, such as running a profitable business, as it is about general skills – e.g. I have witnessed youth taking from Second Life a sense of agency that they are empowered to shape the world around them (in the real world, this is conceptual; in Second Life, it is actual).

    b) In regards to the Darfur Photos on the virtual Holocaust Museum on Global Kids Island. What we did was put up a teen grid version of the museum, and then put up a screen showing, on demand, the video of the opening ceremony. One teen then “donated” a video he made in his high school class to educate teens about Darfur. We added it to the screening area – on one side you could watch the official video and on the other side the teen video. At least, that would be our perspective. The interesting thing here is that for a teen visiting, they are both “official”, as Global Kids curated it. A second team asked if he could build something. We said, sure! He ended up building a giant Hitler holding the world in his hand. He apparently misunderstood both the focus on Darfur, and the how to depict the evils of the Holocaust. After further discussion, he build a globe to float above the screens with an arrow pointing at Darfur, so teens would know where it was located. What interests me here is that the “official” material from the U.S. Holocaust Museum was met, by a least a number of youth, by an impulse to add to and respond to the material, which, within TSL, was easy for them to do. Participatory culture.

    Here is a blog entry from one teen who viewed it.

    Oh, and Mia Farrow came and spoke on the issue as well.

    c) Henry wrote, “One of the stories there which caught my imagination dealt with the ways people were using this environment to help sufferers of autism and Asperger’s syndrome to rehearse social skills and overcome anxieties that can be crippling in real world social interactions” and Prokovy asked for more. Well, here is one anecdote.

    Katharine is a very active teen in TSL. She is a brilliant programmer and, amongst other things, created The Tslemporium, and online store that sells teen-made objects to teens in the teen grid. She works with us all the time, donating her time towards projects. For example, when Cory from Linden Lab asked us to create a survey of TSL residents, Katharine created an in-world tool that would not only ask teens to take the survey and give them a stipend when completed, but ran the back-end database that collected the answers, the email system to email me the responses, a number of web-pages to show me such thing as the number of responses, etc. We received 400 completed surveys in 3 days.

    Anyway, Katharine has Asperger’s. In person, she is mute. In Second Life, she is more conversant that any teen that I know, and more grammatically correct. Her avatar is the generic one she first received when she logged in, as she does not care about what she looks like. Her life offline is very depressing, she reports on her blog, but in Second Life she owns a private island with TSL friends, expresses herself through her self-initiated programming projects that better the community, and has created a strong bond with other youth in Global Kids programs in TSL.

    d) This semester we have begin to rely on the in-world resources of TSL – namely, the expertise and generosity of spirit within the residents – to have them co-teach our in-person after school program here in NYC. For example, one teen in England, Storm, curates our gaming island. We asked him to put together different games from different genres for use by our after school l gaming program, Playing 4 Keeps. Once curated, he met us in-world during the program, and, acting as tour guide, took my students from game to game, explaining the rules, and helping to make sure everything ran smoothly. The fact that I could never have done what he did – leave GK island to find games and bring them to our own island – is a separate, albeit interesting, issue. What I wanted to mention here was the affect it must have had on him, a teenager in England, to be teaching a program for teens in Brooklyn, NY. What did Second Life afford him in his leadership development. He later wrote me, “I loved teaching you.”

    e) Btw, we recently posted the transcript from Henry’s first visit into Teen Second Life, in preparations for his lecture/dance party, in which a teen from Mexico encountered Henry, recognized him, and gave him a tour.

  4. Florence Gallez says:

    I think that the ‘Virtual Macedonia in Second Life’ project here described, and more generally the virtual structures for practicing political actions that Pr. Jenkins defines in this post, would be a perfect exercise to apply to Russia – more precisely, Russian society, much of which has only the mostly state-owned media as its only source of information and as a result is little- or misinformed and does not engage in free and open debate on issues that matter. Such debate and the collaborative action made possible by these participatory models are, I believe, sorely needed in that country [and I would assume in other similarly repressive regimes].

    The depth of people’s social and political apathy was palpable, once again, during the regional parliamentary elections on March 11, which gave Kremlin supporters a hefty majority and squeezed out its most outspoken opponents. Save for two small streets demonstrations, the elections took place without an ounce of protest from the electorate. Essentially, people seem to lack the capacity for imagining a different reality and by extension, the belief in their ability to change it.

    However, the Kremlin’s iron grip on the traditional media has driven many independent thinkers to virtual spaces to escape oversight and Russians are the second largest group on LiveJournal.com, with their blogs featuring political debates and advertisements for opposition protests.

    But just last week President Vladimir Putin decreed the creation of an agency to regulate the media and the internet. To many this is a further attempt by the Kremlin to suppress free expression, but more alarmingly, it is one of its first concrete steps to control online media, until now relatively free.

    This is why I think that experimenting with more complex virtual worlds such as SL and engage with them more actively to discuss and practice political democracy – while the Russian authorities have not yet figured out how to control them:) – seems to me a very tempting option…

    An interesting point I found in this post, as well as in Convergence Culture’s ‘Photoshop for Democracy’ chapter [p. 208] is the examination of the individualistic and collective experiences of these virtual worlds. For Charlie Geer it seems that a stress on individual identity makes healthy social solidarity impossible, while ‘Photoshop for Democracy’ speaks of the need for ‘a shift from the individualized conception of the informed citizen toward the collaborative concept of a monitorial citizen.’

    While I agree with the latter idea, I would argue that in Russia’s case, there is a need to develop ‘both’ people’ sense of identity and social responsibility in order to create among them a functioning participatory culture. Years of Communist rule have left their marks on a healthy sense of individualism, which I believe forms the basis of mature collaboration.

    It may be that in some Western countries we have gone too far in focusing on the self. But Russia’s case shows that perhaps we need different models of these virtual participatory spaces depending on the users’ background… In any case, I quite like Kristofer Jovkovski’s encompassing idea that ‘It is essential to make space for the young people to create their individual ‘and’ collective reality,’ which I think is more appropriate for Russian participants of online words.

    And now if I can add a word to the debate on SL’s ‘reality’ or lack of it: I quite agree with Clay McGovern, who doesn’t see SL as less ‘real’ than our ‘first’ life. There is a man behind the machine, and even behind the most outlandish avatar there is a human being of flesh and blood. I believe we do take with us into SL our human likes, dislikes, needs and concerns, and thus inject into that second world a heavy dose of the reality of our first. As for that ‘first’ life, we can also be on shaky grounds there too. After all, as Bertolt Brecht said, “You never know who you are talking to.” :)

    Florence Gallez

    [Moscow-based journalist]

  5. Prokofy Neva says:

    Barry,

    I’ll bet I’m not the only one who finds it faintly creepy what you’re describing — a group of doting adults circled around a confused teenager in Second Life who builds a giant Hitler with the world in his hands.

    Did everybody just um…dote…on this one?! Did anybody say, “You know, Hitler was a mass murderer? And trying to aggrandize him in this fashion is not only a slam on the memory of his victims, but a failure to grasp what the Holocaust is both as a historical phenomenon and a larger spiritual phenomenon of our time, that continues to replicate in places like Darfur?”

    The process by which he removed the Hitler — if he did so and understood what it meant to do so — is opaque. Why must we be celebrating participatory culture as merely a constantly emerging judgement-free happening kinda thing?

    Is it ok just to build big Hitler statues all the time and then wait for other people to react and “participate” too?

    Doesn’t any *teaching* go on? Or is it one big free-for-all where we’re supposed to just watch all the little darlings “emerge” with all their “participatory media” to regurgitate whatever memes, brands, Internet crack-pot ideas and stupid pet tricks they might come up with?

    You also completely misunderstood my “wanting more” than these endlessly redundant, recursive, and very limited examples of the Aspberger’s patients who find meaning in Second Life. It’s really starting to get silly the way every time someone tries to get up a serious discussion about how SL can be applied to RL or how the two can relate meaningful, and all anyone can come up with is the same hagiographic legend about the Aspberger’s patient.

    It’s good; but it’s a minority of people; it’s an exoticism. If THAT is your argument for “the uses of SL and the application of SL to RL” it is a very sad example. Because it shows merely that someone with a certain set of psychological or physical conditions can shun real life and find a kind of similitude in SL.

    That’s not an argumentation for the use of SL; if that’s all you can come up with for a justification of SL (and that’s all anybody ever does seem to come up with, and it’s nuts!), then we should all become Aspberger’s patients. Or we should all realize that Second Life *turns us into* Aspberger’s patients. Or…something.

    No, that’s not what I mean at all. I mean really life-changing occurrences. Real applications. I don’t mean Mia Farrow — that’s good, but she drops in, she leaves, it’s a news headline, and the people in Darfur go on dying.

    Where’s the effort to…get those who are concerned about Darfur in Europe and North America, let’s say, to find their teenage counterparts — or adult counterparts — in China, Russia, and Qatar, three countries on the Security Council with vested interests in Sudan, who tactitly or actively support the Sudanese government — to individually, start thinking about what their country could be doing to change its policy and to start acting on it?

    Of course as we know from the news and from Florence’s post, the possibilities for Russians to take civic action even on their own country’s problems is increasingly limited or even punished, let alone other people’s countries. But these things are interconnected in deeper ways that SL could presumably help us find.

    Florence, this post of yours is really quite a dramatic statement:

    >For Charlie Geer it seems that a stress on individual identity makes healthy social solidarity impossible, while ‘Photoshop for Democracy’ speaks of the need for ‘a shift from the individualized conception of the informed citizen toward the collaborative concept of a monitorial citizen.’

    While I agree with the latter idea, I would argue that in Russia’s case, there is a need to develop ‘both’ people’ sense of identity and social responsibility in order to create among them a functioning participatory culture. Years of Communist rule have left their marks on a healthy sense of individualism, which I believe forms the basis of mature collaboration.

    What I see happening with this is really the folly of the West. Someone like Charlie Greer apparently has no conception of the horrors of Stalinism and communism in general; the realities of Russia or China are opaque to him. He has no feeling “in his skin” for the ways in which collectivism was used to destroy humanity, not leverage it for greater things.

    That appalling ignorance — or worse, willful ideological boosterism — one finds all over in the disciples of the new media and the old theoriests behind it like Howard Rheingold are really very ominous. We can see this is Jaron Lanier’s “Digital Maoism” essay — but there should be a thousand such essays and there aren’t.

    You cannot have collaboration without robust individuals — and individual who don’t merely develop an overweening and arrogant sense of “Spontaneous Me” all over the Internet but who are conscious that they are in a neighbourhood where there is an expectation to behave with civility.

    So often under the new collectivism is hiding the old Bolshevism and “democratic centralism,” like on Wikipedia. Under the guise of being crowd-sourced and crowd-corrected and “for the people,” projects just acquire a small cabal of people who close it off and avoid accountability precisely because they can be anonymous. In shirking the concept of an editorial board or a “kollegiya” the new collectivists “stomp on trolls” and “put out flame wars” and “prevent griefing” by merely forcing their memes. It would be better if they developed an open and accountable editorial policy and filtered by it, then to play the game of openness and then secretly undermine it by “the core group”.

    With SORM, the Russian government can put an end to any online thing in a heartbeat. The question is whether they will be more subtle in co-opting some of the opinion leaders on Live Journal and such and creating a pseudo-community to try to undermine the genuine ones. That would be in their style from past experience.