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.