Cargo cult consciousness

There was once a time when I was a regular reader of the Second Life Herald, but these days I look at it only rarely. Founded by noted metaverse pioneer Peter Ludlow, aka Urizenus Sklar, the Herald, with its mission statement “to record, observe and study the legal, social and economic implications of life in the virtual world” promises some serious commentary on Second Life culture, a window into what is going on in the minds of the grid’s most interesting residents.

In reality the Herald is a strange brew; part superficial yet impenetrable gossip, part breathless exposé . I have never been able to decide if one is meant to take it seriously, or if it is in fact some sort of elaborate joke, a parody of our shallow, celebrity-obsessed culture and insatiably sensationalist media.

The overall impression, for me anyhow, is rather exclusive; to extend William Gibson’s high-school simile, it’s like the class newspaper edited by the popular kids; the geeks, dweebs and other losers can look but only dream about joining in. Just like any non-virtual celebrity-gossip publication in fact, but with one crucial difference; while real-life celebs, at least on the A-list, are objectively attractive, and their lifestyles glamorous, their Second Life counterparts are generally not much more aesthetically pleasing than the average avatar, and the accounts of their activities are seldom other than dull. The element that gives an edge to our culture’s worship of its secular idols – aspirational envy – is missing, and in its absence there is nothing to hold the reader’s attention.

For me the Herald is a good example of cargo cult culture; the idea that, by reproducing the form of a real-life phenomenon in the virtual universe, one can appropriate its significance. This theme seems to underlie a lot of what goes on in Second Life, and its essential fallacy is why life on the grid so often seems unfulfilling.

I think that it is mistake to see the potential of the metaverse as lying in the ability to mould a more perfect version of the real world. What is created by such an effort is but a shadow of reality; instead of emerging into the sunlight we retreat further into the cave. The real promise is contained in the possibility of experiencing something that augments our perception of reality rather than trying to reproduce elements of it. I don’t know if that is going on somewhere on the grid, and I’m not sure that I would be able to recognise it if it was, let alone articulate its meaning.

The problem is that everyone who comes to SL, myself included, brings with them the baggage of conscious and unconscious expectation. I am self-aware enough to know that in visiting the grid, and especially in writing about it in this blog, I am chasing after something that is missing in my real life. Put like that it sounds a bit dysfunctional, but I think that for most people a little wish-fulfillment is a healthy thing, and reflecting on experience in Second Life can provide useful insight into what is going on in one’s life outside the metaverse. Perhaps if Freud were living now he would ditch the interpretation of dreams in favour of avatar analysis as a royal road to the unconscious. It is of course possible to overdo this, and use one’s virtual life as a way of hiding from, rather than illuminating, the problems of real life. This desire to evade harsh reality is certainly one of the factors underlying internet addiction, or indeed any sort of addiction, but even for the non-addicted majority of SL residents, in whose number I count myself, there is a downside to the escapism – by using SL as a way of relieving my frustration with the limitations of my current existence I am locking myself into a real-world paradigm, and thus missing out on the what the grid really has to offer. If I was perfectly happy with my life I could perhaps approach SL with an open mind and experience its full potential, but then if I was perfectly happy with my life I wouldn’t be wasting hours sitting in front of a computer screen.

It’s the Second Life paradox; the people who will visit regularly do so because they are, more or less consciously, trying to fill some gap in their lives; as a consequence of this they are the least likely to be able to make the most of the opportunities SL affords. Meanwhile the people whose lives are fully realised, the very ones who would be best suited to exploring the possibilities of this new virtual world, will never feel the need to come anywhere near it.

2 Responses to Cargo cult consciousness

  1. I have a vague recollection that somewhere I wrote something about the nature of the Herald, more specifically I suppose to try and explain why I continue to contribute to it!

    My perspective is that on one level, the Herald is an ersatz tabloid that can go from running an article on what the quarterly figures released by Linden Lba reveal about the underlying health of the company, to excrutiatingly self-absorbed peices written by someone whose only interest is… well, themself!

    Most of my pieces are intended to be satirical in that they are based on a truth but then play with that truth, usually in an attempt to mcok someone or something. There is certainly an air of anti-Linden at the Herald so stories that are sympathetic to Linden Lab operations tend to be less frequent. But then again, the role of the press is to have no friends and to be critical of the establishment i.e. Linden Lab.

    Pixeleen Mistral once told me that she and Peter Ludlow see the Herald as an agent of dialog, not simply a provider of information. A “good story” is one that results in lots of comments. This may not jibe with the notion of a “well-written” story, which may have all the features that are demanded of a “real” piece of literature but that provokes no comment.

    Furthermore, there is no pretence at “objective journalism” but much more of a slant toward “Gonzo journalism,” with the subjectivity of the writer being very much in evidence. The folks writing for the Herald are usually aware of the subjective nature of a typical Herald report – as are the readers!

    Reading the comments is, for me, much more instructive than reading the articles. As you point out, it seems from how people react to what gets covered in the Herald that the “more perfect version of the real world” is, indeed, simply a vision. The affect and behavior of folks in Second Life turn out to be little different from real life. To some extent, the anonymity of a virtual existence makes people behave WORSE than real life, because they can! The Herald comments are full of trash talking, personl attacks, vicious abuse, and plain lies. It’s as if the virtual world lets loose the Id and allows it to slouch wickedly toward Gomorrah.

    Another fascinating feature of Second Like that you see in Herald posts is the way in which people attach so much affect to their virtual existence. And they may not even be conscious of this! Whenever Linden Lab make a change or a decision, people begin wailing and gnashing their virtual teeth, as if they have been personally ignored or cut out of the decision-making process. Yet in fact, Linded Lab, as a business, have NO OBLIGATION to involve any SL resident in a decision. We/they are just customers, that’s all.

    But of course, that’s NOT all. SL residents, especially those who scream “that’s the last straw,” are so emotionally tied to their virtual selves that they cannot leave, cannot change, cannot even see how involved they are. If SL shut down tomorrow for ever, they would be distraught.

    Sorry for rambling on! I like you blog so this one caught my attention 😉

  2. secondlifeshrink says:

    Hi Siggy,

    I’m a fan of your blog too. I think you get the balance between enthusiasm and scepticism just about right.

    I have a more bipolar relationship with Second Life – I go through spells of feeling positive about the possibilities the virtual world, but always lurking just below the surface of my consciousness is the knowledge that there’s a whole idealisation/transference thing going on, and eventually I can’t ignore that any more, and I abruptly switch into being negative about the metaverse, which of course is itself just displacement of my feelings of dissatisfaction with my own inability to get my act together enough to pursue my goals in the real world.

    I’ve got enough awareness of all this that I can use SL (and this blog) as an adaptive (I think) way of harmlessly venting my frustrations, but I’ve got a feeling that there are more than a few residents who are experiencing the same thing without being conscious of it, which I think explains why some people seem to get so angry with the Lindens, who can act as a convenient lightning-conductor for their disgruntlement. Is this a bad thing? I guess it’s better than more traditional ways of dealing with such feelings, like getting drunk and beating up your spouse, but you can see how people can end up wasting time chasing after something in the virtual world that they should be looking for in their real lives.

    Also, I’m not sure that the comment section of blogs is the best place to go for reasoned discussion. Obviously there are people like yourself who contribute considered thoughts, but the nature of the internet, with its premium on instant response, militates against this. Add in, as you identified, the disinhibiting effect of anonymity, and you are bound to get more heat than light.

    Still, I’ll keep on reading the Alphaville Herald, as it is now (again), for your pieces, if nothing else…

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