No man is an island
May 25, 2009 3 Comments
A curious tale has been rippling across the surface of the Second Life blogosphere over the last few weeks; to some it is an awful tragedy, to others a monstrous hoax, but ultimately perhaps it serves best as an opportunity to reflect on the essentially solipsistic nature of life in the metaverse.
The facts, such as they are, concern Rheta Shan, a well-known name around the grid, well-known enough at least that even a semi-engaged observer like me had heard of her. I had come across her essay “The World Philip Made” last year, when I was trying to work out whether I was an immersionist or an augmentationist; it was often cited as an important contribution to that debate. I subsequently discovered that she was also celebrated for her coding skills, producing an award-winning alternative SL viewer, and she seems to have been well thought of by those who had regular contact with her.
Rheta stopped logging on to SL at the end of March; nothing was heard of her until mid-May, when a post on her blog, apparently authored by a friend, conveyed the news that Valérie, as she was known in real life, had been killed in a road accident a few weeks previously.
Such events, while undoubtedly tragic for the close associates of those involved, are sadly inevitable; if we take the population of regular SL users to be about one million, and assume that they are mostly aged 16-29 and living in developed countries, then we can expect around 700 deaths every year, or about 2 each day.
The announcement of Rheta’s death triggered a variety of responses; on the one hand there were heartfelt tributes from those who knew her, and more than a few who had never encountered her but were moved by the story; but there was also some scepticism, articulated most clearly in Prokofy Neva’s “Open Letter to Rheta Shan“, wherein, in his inimitable style, SL’s premier contrarian accuses Rheta not only of being alive, but of not being a woman, on the somewhat flimsy grounds that “women don’t code viewers like the one that [won the] contest”.
These reactions, of sympathy and hostility, may seem to be diametrically opposed, but they share a common thread; they are not concerned with the reality of Valérie’s life and death, but rather use “Rheta” as a screen upon which can be projected the preoccupations of the writer. For Thdast Schwarzman, Rheta’s SL partner, it is the opportunity to experience the intensity of love and loss, for Prok it is the chance to burnish his reputation as a controversial free-thinker, for the others it may be a more or less conscious desire to be part of something that appears to have an emotional depth not often encountered in day-to-day life, on or off the grid. For me, Valérie/Rheta is just a convenient peg that I can hang this post on, though in my defence I would say that I am aware enough of what is going on to feel some degree of guilt about it.
Ultimately all our relationships are exploitative in this way; even in real life we don’t truly interact with other people, but only with our internalised representations of them. Everyone you know is just an object in your private world, an actor in a drama that has meaning just for you, with a character that may or may not correspond to what they would see as their “real” selves. Second Life throws this process into sharp relief; however much we want to believe there is a living world out there in the ether, nearly everything of psychological significance happens on our own side of the screen. When someone from that world disappears we mourn; but what we are really mourning is the loss of the part of ourselves that was projected on to the departed. It’s not so obvious in the real world, but it is true nevertheless; in the final analysis all grief is despair at our own mortality. John Donne was right when he warned us to never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.
[Update: read this clarification.]