If you were wondering why Mac Tonnies’ latest Loving The Alien column is a little late, here’s the answer — it turns out he’s been lurking in Second Life. What might the fluid nature of identity in the metaverse mean for our posthuman successors?
Among the many time-sinks I’ve discovered since acquiring an up-to-date computer is Second Life, a Snow Crash-like “metaverse” where users can mingle in exotic settings while sporting infinitely customizable avatars. The effects are arresting; the experience itself is unsettlingly narcotic – at least once you’ve oriented yourself and gotten used to the digital etiquette that pervades SL’s various realms.
I‘ve always had a hardwired affinity for science fiction, and I suppose a craving for a plausible virtual reality universe comes with the territory. But while SL succeeds on several technical levels, its vision of a digital alternative to the rigors of mundane reality is conspicuously drab. Perhaps it’s the uniformly soulless look that haunts the faces of its avatars, or the structural rot that befalls once-promising scenery that’s been neglected in favor of greener pixilated pastures. As escapism, SL has yet to triumph over the written page.
Not that SL is wholly without charm or promise. It possesses an agreeably anarchic flavor and its locales — many flaunting ersatz cultures culled from fashion, history and science fiction novels — betray an endearing alliance of geekdom. Endlessly fetishistic, venturing forth in SL is a bit like stumbling across a mall from the future of Blade Runner: an infestation of capitalistic frenzy so pronounced the billboards often ooze more personality than the inhabitants themselves. Much of SL’s real-estate mirrors the progression of a lucid dream; upon returning to reality, you may find yourself waxing philosophical at inconvenient moments.
As in the real world, one can own land and property in SL. Indeed, SL’s sprawl is littered with beaches and theme-parks and dance clubs, all aspiring to something very close to the laws of physics while simultaneously attempting to defy them. (This architectural trope, although far from universal, is perhaps the most rewarding aspect of logging into SL; it’s probably no coincidence that the most interesting people I “met” were actively engaged in creating new tourist magnets — a process that resembles alchemy more than terrestrial construction.)
Many Second Lifers are busily engaged in outfitting virtual homes with illusory décor. Although they don’t speak of it, they seem more than willing to suspend disbelief in favor of recognizing that their world, like the Web itself, is rooted in William Gibson’s seminal notion of an electronically encoded consensual hallucination.
Transhumanists have praised SL’s plasticity. Indeed, its very lawlessness might prove valuable as we marshal our resources in an attempt to transcend ourselves. But there’s a certain nihilism at play in SL, a reckless voyeurism that may be the virtual world’s undoing.
If humans eventually rise to the challenge of crafting mechanical bodies, we might expect to see the impersonal dynamic of SL reiterated in “meatspace.” With identity itself rendered disposable, our successors might find themselves propelled into a Sisyphusian quest to absolve themselves from consequence.
There seems to be little real consensus, for example, regarding whether an avatar is a person or merely an extremity. Certainly we can’t have it both ways – yet the inherent schizophrenia that governs SL (and other VR platforms) suggests that we incorporate essential components of both “real” and “virtual.” The consequences might be trivial enough now, but a posthuman society is liable to view them as nothing less than defining.
So go, wander SL’s streets. Talk with the natives. Maybe, as you wait for your destination to finish materializing on your monitor, you’ll feel something stirring in the gulf between worlds. An alchemical awakening, perhaps — or maybe just the first pangs of boredom.
Mac Tonnies is an author/essayist whose futuristic fiction and speculative essays have appeared in many print and online publications. He’s the author of Illumined Black, a collection of science fiction short-stories, and After the Martian Apocalypse (Paraview Pocket Books, 2004). Mac maintains Posthuman Blues, a widely read blog devoted to emerging technologies and paranormal phenomena, and is a member of the Society for Planetary SETI Research. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where he writes, reads and surfs the Net. He is currently at work on a new book.
[Loving the Alien column header image credited to RedMonkeyVirus]