Navigating the Metaverse

Mac Tonnies @ 14-08-2008

Mac Tonnies - Loving the AlienIf 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?

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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.

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MacMugshot 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]

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11 Responses to “Navigating the Metaverse”

  1. Khannea Suntzu says:

    See you at Extropia and SL-Transhumanists one of these days. Extropia hosts events every saturday, and they are above the average.

  2. Paul Raven says:

    The Wastelands is always good for a laugh, too – Fight Night every Saturday! 😉

  3. JustinP says:

    Metaverse-based pyramid schemes as a postmodern alchemy, creating value from thin air? I like it.

  4. Paul Raven says:

    Ponzi-tastic! 😉 Though to be fair, there’s a great deal of honest business in SL. It’s a shame that the people doing it never make as much money as the less scrupulous.

  5. Khannea Suntzu says:

    Making money in SL *is* all about good ideas. I never invested much effort in the whole SL content creation business, as I have severe ADHD and I can’t focus for long on *anything* but I did strike oil twice with a very simple idea – both made me probably in the order of a thousand euro, in about a year. I sold several articles of my product per day for nearly a year. If you have the skills and the originality one could make a living from doing this. The market IS getting saturated however – many people doing the same trick to death.

    My fascination is watching how the HELL this is evolving, I mean people just don’t appreciate how revolutionary weird this whole SL IP is. It can go the way of the dodo fast, especially with rising energy prices, but it can also become a multibillion dollar business over time.

    We should know how the cookie baked by about 2015.

  6. Mack John says:

    Bit late, aren’t you? Everyone’s leaving SL these days…

  7. Paul Raven says:

    The concurrency figures would suggest otherwise, Mack. There don’t appear to be anywhere near as many new sign-ups, but there’s no shortage of regular users.

  8. harass-total says:

    real virtuality? that’s been around for a while… um?

    anyways… how much his trans-humanism affected by market change?

    posthuman… post society? surely, humanity defines society… thus entering into alien abstraction = clouds and grass are alien lifeforms… how do they communicate?

    and how would “they/supposedly us” view SL (humanity well tagged, of course)… probably as we view cave paintings and Cro-Magnon hairdressers?!

    SL: a more thorough discourse…

    at what cost the planet (yeah, that olde whiner)

    Bruce Sterling once spoke of VR… “wonderful, yeah! now hit ’em with a baseball bat” – uberquote,,,

    How many people have access to SL? perhaps, the laws of economy decide.

  9. m1k3y says:

    About once a year I get re-motivated to log in and wander around.. I never feel compelled to return though..

  10. 0uterj0in says:

    Absolving ourselves of consequence might be a hazard of recognizing our own simulated existence.

  11. Edward T. Babinski says:

    I’m looking for a SL TRAVEL AGENT, someone who can lay out a travel plan so I can see the sights, as it were. Can you purchase a seat on a tourbus for instance that makes stops throughout SL so you can get out and stretch your virtual legs with some other curious newbie visitors, and have someone next to you whom you can chat with as you both gaze for the first time on new beauties and wonders there?