The Lay of the Last Avatar

So the world didn’t end last week after all, which is a good outcome, I guess, not least because it means that the $80 I spent last month on renewing my Second Life premium membership for another year hasn’t been completely wasted.

It has been almost completely wasted though, since I don’t currently possess a computer capable of running the viewer, and I have no plans to purchase one in the immediate future, which will obviously limit my enjoyment of the service a bit (unless the Lindens get their act together and release some sort of mobile client). I did hesitate a little before handing over the cash, but in the end my sentimental attachment to my virtual land was strong enough to convince me that the relatively modest investment was worthwhile.

Sir Walter Scott, in his narrative poem The Lay of the Last Minstrel, wrote:

Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!

There are a few places I have stayed in the real world that have seemed like home, for a while, but that feeling invariably faded, as time moved on and people and places changed. I have occasionally tried to recapture it, but without success – you can revisit a physical location, but you can never really go back, because the person you used to be exists only in your fading memory.

So I find it comforting to think that there is some corner of a virtual field that will be forever the same, a home for my eternally youthful avatar. I can only hope that there are enough other people who feel the same to keep Linden Lab in business…

We got five years, my brain hurts a lot

Today is the fifth anniversary of the very first post on this blog. To mark this auspicious occasion I had been thinking of collecting our best 100 pieces into an ebook, but then I realised that that might be just a little narcissistic, even for me, so I’ve settled for compiling a (slightly) shorter list of the posts I’ve been most pleased with over the years. They’re in chronological order, to show the development of our style, such as it is. Most are from 2009-2010, which was really our golden age, but every year has had some highlights.

Actually, what’s been my favourite part of writing this blog has been working in all the references to music I like; here’s another one.

2007

Virtual intimacy
This ain’t the Mudd Club
Attack of the Mutant Space Zombies
On the Game Grid
Working for the Linden Dollar
The thousand natural shocks
Elf actualisation

2008

Conduit (not) for sale
Diane …
Reptilia
A foreign country
Bunny worship
Uncertain principles

2009

Modern Romance
The best laid schemes
Nietzsche work if you can get it
Cargo cult consciousness
Greenies may have invaded some time ago, we hear
Et in Arcadia ego
Less than zero
Plunging Necklines
Live from East 3rd Street
Twilight of the Replicants
Ferrisburg, Vermont
Do boys make passes at avatars with glasses?
No man is an island
Flogging a dead zombie
Twixt and between
The killer awoke before dawn
Scenes from the Class Struggle in Second Life
Why we hate and fear the BBC
On being kind not cruel
Liberté, Egalité, Virtualité
Virtual Bakumatsu

2010

You say you want a revolution
Two Galleries
O Superman
The Kid With The Replaceable Head
The Linden Principle
Прощай Woodbury
Digital Death Day
That gum you like is going to come back in style
From Off the Streets of Cleveland
Bastille Day 1989
On the unreliability of memory
Virtual alchemy
Upon the dismal shore of Acheron
Anatomy of a scandal
The rest is silence
The Revolution Will Not Be Twitterised
Cut Away
Red Ties
Reoccurring Dreams
That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore

2011

The Social Network
The wrong move at the right time
The Great Gonzo
The Leopard
The Solution
Spaced Out
Do You Believe in Rapture?
The Physical Impossibility of Running an Art Gallery in Second Life
Subdivisions

2012

Planned obsolescence
I’d work very hard, but I’m lazy

Gil Scott-Heron R.I.P.

More sad news; poet, musician, author and activist Gil Scott-Heron passed away yesterday. I don’t have anything to add to the obituaries that have been in every paper today; I’ll just link to his best-known work, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, and try to do what I can to follow its message.

The Solution

In other news, Hamlet Au at New World Notes has discovered what is wrong with Second Life; it’s the residents. His answer to this problem? We should all get lost, and let the Lindens recruit a better class of customer by befriending people on Facebook.

It puts me in mind of Bertolt Brecht’s famous poem The Solution:

After the uprising of the 17th June
The Secretary of the Writer’s Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

A few months ago I joked that New World Notes was the virtual equivalent of Soviet Weekly – perhaps I was closer to the truth than I knew.

The Revolution Will Not Be Twitterised

4chan seems to have been in the news a lot recently, and the /b/tards have been presented in a rather more sympathetic light than hitherto. I’m used to thinking of 4chan in terms of Lolcats and trolls, a place I’m aware of but would never admit familiarity with, at least in polite company. (Though naturally I’ve always had a soft spot for their war on Scientology). It jars a little then to see the Anonymous masses described as “internet activists” who have apparently developed some sort of social conscience.

The immediate cause of this rehabilitation, around here at least, seems to have been 4chan’s role in tracking down the infamous kitty-binner, a popular move in our pet-loving nation. They followed this up with something more substantial; going after ACS:Law, the UK lawyers notorious for their intimidation of alleged file-sharers. (Ars Technica has an excellent dissection of ACS’s reprehensible shakedown scheme). 4chan’s “Operation Payback” looks like it may put the final nail in the coffin of aggressive copyright enforcement, in the UK anyway, which can only be a good thing for both consumers and content creators, if not for lawyers.

Any romanticisation of the 4chan crowd as mischievous scamps who stand up for the little guy and stick it to the Man is obviously absurd, but it does tie in with a more general idea that the internet, and social media in particular, have levelled the political playing field, and given the ordinary citizen a weapon to wield against the power elites who run the world. One hears this from all sides; Peter Ludlow had an article in the The Nation this month on “Hacktivism”, specifically referencing Wikileaks and 4chan, over at World Affairs they think that Twitter will bring down the Chinese government, and Tea Party organisers laud the power of Facebook.

Perhaps I am just too wedded to old Bolshevik notions of the vanguard party, but I am very sceptical about all of this. While the web may be able to facilitate ad hoc attacks like “Operation Payback”, the sort of sustained campaign that would be needed to really change society requires a central organisation to give operational and, more importantly, political direction to the movement.

Substituting diffuse social media links for a more traditional party structure seems attractive, but I think it may be counterproductive. It might feel like one is part of a collaborative enterprise, but it is more atomised than it looks, and there is little opportunity to develop a collective consciousness. The Twitterverse has no effective memory, and there is no mechanism for a social media movement to learn from its experience. These things – pooling knowledge and experience, remembering mistakes and lessons, passing it all on to new generations – are the functions of a revolutionary party, and I can’t see that there is any way to replicate them virtually.

Internet activism can burn bright, and it has the potential to score transient victories, but I think it lacks the stamina for the long, hard slog that is the struggle to challenge entrenched power. If you want to change the world you have to face the truth:

You will not be able to stay home, brother.
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.

Upon the dismal shore of Acheron

While browsing at the AV Club the other day I came across a review of the film The Dungeon Masters, a documentary following the lives of three devoted D&D and LARP fans. It sounds fairly interesting, though the director’s main theme – “people in control of their fantasy lives aren’t in control of their real ones” – won’t win any prizes for originality.

More intriguing was a link I found in the comment section of the review, leading to this cautionary tale. Who knew that D&D could be so exciting? I played for years, and I never once got invited to join a coven of witches.

Looking around the Chick Publications site reminded me of when I was about 6 or 7. There was an old lady who stood outside the gate of our primary school at break time, handing out similar illustrated tracts. One story sticks in my mind to this day; a young boy has the temerity to question his pastor about the truth of the Bible, and the very next day he is hit by a speeding truck, sent to Hell and tortured by demons, all depicted in graphic detail. I guess she was sincere in her belief that it was necessary to put the fear of eternal damnation into the minds of young children in order to save them from evil doctrines like communism or evolution (not to mention Catholicism, Islam and, of course, homosexuality), but even at that tender age my reaction was to think that her religion was pretty messed up.

I sometimes wonder if this early experience was what put me off religion for life, but if memory serves (which it probably doesn’t) I was a confirmed unbeliever even before that. In fact I can’t remember a time when I ever had any sort of faith, which I’m not sure how to explain. I did grow up in a basically secular household, but my parents weren’t militant atheists or anything, and Christianity was part of the fabric of our community. I repeated the prayers at school assembly, went to church at Easter and Christmas and was generally exposed to the idea that being a Christian was the normal thing to do, but none of it ever clicked with me. In the years that have followed I have learned about many other religions and belief-systems, ancient and modern, but my interest has always been cultural rather than spiritual. I’ve never felt that there was any sort of void in me that yearned to be filled by religion, or that my lack of faith meant I was missing something. Perhaps I just don’t have the religious gene.

(I have been politically active most of my adult life, and pious types have often told me that I am sublimating my religious impulses in radicalism, that The Communist Manifesto is my bible, but I don’t think that’s the case at all. I don’t see politics as a moral issue, but more a technical question of how to efficiently organise society. I certainly don’t think that being a communist makes me a better person than anyone else, and I’m not expecting any eternal reward for my labours).

I don’t really have a point here; I’m just musing nostalgically. I’m definitely not suggesting that all Christians are hate-filled bigots; I’ve known plenty over the years and hardly any have been like Fred Phelps. Indeed one of the saving graces of the Christian faith is the fact that its adherents are mostly content to be fuzzy about the details of doctrine. Even the Pope thinks that non-believers can go to heaven, which, to my mind, seems hard to reconcile with John 14:6, but I guess that resolving such contradictions is what keeps theologians busy. (Personally, I’d probably pass on Paradise; I’ve always thought that the first circle of the Inferno sounded much more interesting). I imagine that the followers of other religions behave in a similar way; none of the Jews, Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists that I know are particularly devout, though I’d have to admit that my deadbeat friends may not be entirely representative examples of their respective faiths.

I used to be more actively anti-religious in my younger days, and I would argue with people about how clearly nonsensical their beliefs were, but with age I have mellowed into a position of liberal secularism; I don’t care what people think or do in their homes and places of worship (or where they build those places of worship), as long as they keep their dogma out of the schoolroom, and don’t try to tell me who I can or cannot marry.

I still think that, on balance, religion is a pernicious influence on society, but no amount of reasoned discourse is going to make it disappear as long as the material conditions that underpin it persist. Everyone knows Marx’s comment about religion being “the opium of the people”, but the full quote is more illuminating:

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.

Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right

If we ever make it to a society that is free of inequality and injustice, the illusion of religion will no longer be necessary, and it will fade into history. We will look upon Christianity and other modern faiths in the same way we regard the pantheons of the Greeks and Romans; interesting cultural phenomena that have no direct significance in our everyday lives. Whether I’ll be around to see that day is another question, but I can always live in hope.

Après le déluge

Having spent rather too much time over the last few days reading all the web has to offer on the subject of the Linden layoffs, I can report that the consensus view is somewhat downbeat. If blogger opinion is at all authoritative (and what reason is there to distrust the gaggle of ill-informed scribblers who make up the SL chatterati?) the future of the grid is grim indeed.

I am inclined to agree with this viewpoint; M Linden may talk of a carefully planned reorganisation, but I’m sure such restructuring would be best carried out by quiet redeployment and natural wastage, especially if, as M claims, there was no financial pressure driving the cuts. Instead we have had a headline-grabbing massacre which has spooked the very customers who M himself has identified as being key to the Lab’s revenue model. I can’t imagine that many people will be making long-term investments in Second Life until the smoke clears and the future of the platform looks more certain.

I find myself looking upon the prospect of Second Life‘s demise with a certain degree of equanimity though. As I have previously expressed, I believe that much of the attraction of metaversal life lies not in the rather mundane virtuality of the grid itself, but in the intellectual space of the community that has grown up around it. Perhaps that community will disperse if and when the world dies, but the years of Second Life‘s existence may just have been long enough to build a critical mass of text and links that will allow the spirit of SL to outlive its physical manifestation. Like the myths of Ancient Greece or the poems of Rimbaud, the Second Life experience will serve as an inspiration for future exploration of the mysteries of human consciousness.

Though probably not. Our attention spans attenuated by the onslaught of ubiquitous media, we’ll likely be blogging and tweeting about the next new shiny thing within minutes of Linden Lab pulling down the shutters. So it’s probably best to enjoy the ride while we can.

Electronic Arcadia

I’m reminded from time to time that a lot of people, even those who have embraced other aspects of Web 2.0 like blogging, find the appeal of Second Life almost incomprehensible. Consider, for example, the opinion of Kimmelin Hull, who after watching a PBS documentary on SL, was moved to comment “THIS IS THE MOST IDIOTIC THING I HAVE EVER HEARD OF”.

In common with many who pour scorn on Second Life, Ms Hull is sceptical of the value of virtual interaction:

In the name of “social interaction” people are spending what I presume to be HOURS in front of their computer screens…ALONE…pretending to interact with other folks … What is so wrong with these people that they have to hide behind a cartoon character in order to gain a little “social interaction?” And how can this form of “social interaction” replace, or even come close to satisfying the germaine need for human interaction that sets us apart from many creatures of the animal world? … In case you didn’t notice people, THERE’S AN AWFULLY BIG WORLD ALL AROUND YOU WITH A LOT OF real PEOPLE IN IT THAT YOU CAN INTERACT WITH!

Despite apparently being an active blogger, Ms Hull appears not to know a great deal about online discourse, since she breaks the First Rule of e-communication: “NO ONE WILL TAKE YOU SERIOUSLY IF YOU POST IN BLOCK CAPITALS”. She also seems to assume that, because she faces no barriers to interacting with real people, things like, say, physical disability, mental health issues or geographical isolation, that no one else could possibly have these problems either, as well as believing that “hid[ing] behind a … character” is something that nobody ever does in face-to-face interaction.

As you can probably tell, I feel that Ms Hull is being a bit hard on us SL enthusiasts. One could be equally disparaging about any minority interest, like train-spotting or quilt making. I have no idea why anyone would find those activities enjoyable, but I’m prepared to accept that they do, and that they are free to get on with it without having to explain themselves to me.

I’ve posted before on how some people tend to over-value their Second Life experience, but it’s possible to under-value it too. Ms Hull asks:

How do you nurture another person in Second Life? How do you give someone a hug that feels like a hug? How do you take joy in the sound of a friend’s laughter in a virtual world? My God, what has this world (this real world) come to that people are feeling the need to escape into a make-believe world for “social interaction?”

Humans have been escaping into fantasy worlds, and finding real meaning in them, since the dawn of time. When we read the works of Homer, or Sophocles, or Virgil, do we not interact with the characters, feel their joy and loss, even though they exist only in our imagination, conjured by the words of long-dead poets? Does this not enhance our real lives rather than diminish them?

It may seem ridiculous to mention Second Life alongside such classic literature, but the important point is that SL and other virtual worlds provide a medium in which human creativity can be expressed. It’s like a massive, non-stop dramatic improvisation. Most of the time the million or so monkeys hammering away at their keyboards produce nothing but gibberish, but occasionally everything will come together to produce a brief moment of beauty.

I’m not usually so vociferous in my defence of Second Life; it’s more common for me to complain about how boring it is. I must be feeling that I need to justify the amount of time I’ve been spending on the grid recently. I would go to a park, sit in the grass and watch the wind blow through the trees, but it’s cold and snowing outside, and the sun is always shining outside my virtual window.

The best laid schemes

I dined tonight on haggis, tatties and neeps, in honour of our national poet, Robert Burns. January 25th, Burns Night, is always well observed here in Scotland, and all around the world, but this year is particularly special, being the 250th anniversary of his birth.

I’m very partial to haggis at any time of the year; when I was a student there was seldom a week that went by in which I did not consume deep-fried haggis with chips at least once. As the years have passed I have come more to resemble Burns’ description of those who love this particular delicacy:

But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread.

so I partake of it less, and usually opt for the boiled version rather than the battered one.

Burns has to some extent been buried in the tartan-hued mythology that passes for our national identity, but the character of the man, and the power of his work, transcend any shortbread-tin cliché. The words of “A Man’s A Man For A’ That”, his ode to equality and internationalism, have justly made Burns a hero to movements for social justice the world over:

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.

On a personal level, I marvel at the way Burns can conjure a profound insight into the human condition from the seemingly mundane events of day-to-day existence. I often find myself reflecting on the truth of this stanza from “To A Mouse”:

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an ‘men
Gang aft agley,
An’lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

Or this one, from “To A Louse”:

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
An’ ev’n devotion!

More than anything though I love Burns’ comic sensibility, his ability to prick the affectations of the pompous and self-righteous, and to lighten the heart of the honest sinner with the sympathetic recognition of human frailty. My favourite amongst Burns’ poems is a toss-up between “Tam O’Shanter” and “Holy Willie’s Prayer” , for I share both Tam’s weakness for earthly pleasures:

O Tam! had’st thou but been sae wise,
As taen thy ain wife Kate’s advice!
She tauld thee weel thou was a skellum,
A blethering, blustering, drunken blellum;
That frae November till October,
Ae market-day thou was na sober;
That ilka melder wi’ the Miller,
Thou sat as lang as thou had siller;
That ev’ry naig was ca’d a shoe on
The Smith and thee gat roarin’ fou on;
That at the Lord’s house, ev’n on Sunday,
Thou drank wi’ Kirkton Jean till Monday,
She prophesied that late or soon,
Thou wad be found, deep drown’d in Doon,
Or catch’d wi’ warlocks in the mirk,
By Alloway’s auld, haunted kirk.

and Willie’s tendency to think well of himself:

I bless and praise Thy matchless might,
When thousands Thou hast left in night,
That I am here afore Thy sight,
For gifts an’ grace
A burning and a shining light
To a’ this place.

and remembering Burns’ verses keeps me on the straight and narrow.

The pith o’ sense an’ pride o’ worth
Are higher rank than a’ that

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