Uncertain principles

Regular readers of this blog may wonder why I seldom make any mention of people I have met during my journeys around the Second Life archipelago. This is partly due to there just not being many other residents about, but I do go to busy places from time to time, and there are interesting stories to be told about the things that go on there.

What’s been holding me back are some ethical concerns; principally worries about privacy and deception.

To what extent can the Second Life grid be considered a public space? Do residents have any reasonable expectation of privacy as they go about their business? Even if you accept that your avatar’s actions may be observed by whoever happens to be around, would you be comfortable with the idea that what you do and say may be recorded, and relayed to the world in a manner over which you have no control?

It reminds of a movie that I’ve mentioned before: 1985’s “Perfect”, with John Travolta and Jamie Lee Curtis. It’s not a great film, it’s not even a good film, but it does sort of illustrate the point I’m making. Here’s the plot, as I remember (with spoilers, in case you haven’t got round to seeing it yet). Travolta plays a writer who has been commissioned by Rolling Stone magazine to do an expose of the LA gym scene, with the slant that “gyms are the new singles bars”. He starts going to this one place, where the quirky clientele take him to their hearts, convinced he is going to reveal to the world the humanity behind the gym-bunny stereotype. He repays their faith by penning a hatchet piece that portrays them all as sex-addicted losers, but along the way he has fallen for aerobics-instructor-with-a-dark-secret Curtis, under whose influence he revises his article to introduce a more sympathetic tone. His editor prints the original version however, exposing the essentially harmless health-freaks to nationwide ridicule. Travolta makes up for it somehow, I can’t recall how, and ends up with Curtis, but the bit-players’ humiliation is not assuaged.

Times have changed since the 80’s of course, and you could argue that, in our reality-entertainment-soaked age, everyone knows, or should know, that life is a performance, with potentially the whole world as an audience if you’re lucky, or unlucky, depending how you look at it. If you choose to create a new identity on the grid then you are implicitly accepting that your alter ego will be open to public scrutiny.

Anyway, privacy concerns can be dealt with on a technical level, by the anonymisation that is built in to Second Life , which I could enhance by never mentioning names or places, and keeping descriptions vague, though that would lessen the verisimilitude a bit.

Nevertheless I still feel a bit uncomfortable with the concept of appropriating others’ experience for my art (if that’s not too pretentious), though I guess it’s what storytellers have been doing since the first raconteur related the amusing tale of Ug and the sabre-tooth tiger. What anonymisation doesn’t deal with is the fact that it is largely impossible to be a passive observer in Second Life; to see what is really going on you have to be part of the action, and that raises the second ethical concern that I mentioned: deception.

I know that the concept of the neutral observer has been out of fashion since the days of Schrödinger and his cat, and practically every feature you read in a magazine these days is written by a would-be successor to Hunter S. Thompson, but the level of duplicity possible in SL completely blurs the distinction between reporting a story and creating it. Inducing someone to invest emotional energy in an interaction that is based on dishonesty – about my identity, and about my motivation – feels a bit exploitative, but the alternative – admitting up front that I’m only interested in meeting people so that I can blog about it – would, I suspect, make me a virtual pariah.

Does any of this really matter? It’s not like this project is a piece of serious research – it would never get past any reputable ethics committee – and I doubt anyone’s feelings will be terribly hurt if they happen to recognise themselves in my ramblings, in the unlikely event that they stumble across them. Maybe I can justify stretching my principles a little, so long as the end product is worth reading.

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