Preternatural Greenies

This article, written by our occasional arts correspondent Olivia, was posted well over a year ago, but it still gets a steady flow of hits, mainly from people searching Google for some combination of “Second”, “Life” and “Greenies”.

Most of the Rezzable sims reviewed in Olivia’s piece disappeared from the main SL grid last year, and have since taken up residence on Open Sim, but the Greenies Home hung in there, still drawing in the crowds with its whimsical charm.

But now an era is drawing to a close as the loveable little aliens prepare to blast off for pastures new. Is this an omen? There are many stories of animals mysteriously sensing impending natural disasters, such as these reports from Sri Lanka of the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. Perhaps our diminutive green friends have forseen the coming apocalypse, and are getting out while their Linden dollars are still worth something.

I too shall be disappearing, but only temporarily, as I venture out of the range of 3G and WiFi for a summer break. I’ll be back in a few weeks, to find out if Second Life is still around for me to write about.

World Cup predictions

I know it’s cheating to make predictions after the tournament has started, and I’ll admit that if I had written this last week I would probably have tipped Spain a bit more strongly, but here’s my forecast anyhow:

  1. Brazil
  2. Germany
  3. Argentina
  4. Italy

I’m not really going out on a limb I guess, but class tends to come good at this level.

Again, last week I would have said England would go out in the quarter-finals, but, having watched them toil to draw with the USA, I seriously doubt they will make it out of the group.

Bloody Sunday

I marched on more than a few Bloody Sunday commemoration parades back in the day, when the war in Ireland was still very active. I remember how angry we were on those occasions, but for most of us it was a political rage rather than anger born out of personal experience, and as such it faded as the political situation changed and the grievances that had driven the protests were largely resolved.

Even so, Bloody Sunday was always a nagging memory, an injustice that wouldn’t fade away. The Saville Inquiry had dragged on for over a decade, but it has finally delivered confirmation of what we had always said; the killings on that day were an unjustifiable act of state terror.

Twenty years ago this result might have felt like a victory, but now, for me, it just seems like a piece of history. It’s good that the truth has come out of course, and important for the families of those who died, but it has happened much too late to make any difference to how the conflict unfolded.

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.

Linden layoffs

Meanwhile, back in the virtual world, the news is rather downbeat too. As you will know by now, if you are interested in these things (as you must be if you are reading this), Linden Lab laid off around 100 employees this week, a third of their workforce, closing down their outlying offices and winding up the enterprise division.

I’m not one of those bloggers who affects to be on personal terms with the Lindens, so the list of redundancies means nothing to me, but apparently among the casualties are a VP, and various key staff in the technical, sales and marketing departments. The official spin is that the new configuration will allow the company to focus on its key objectives, but it’s hard to see such a level of cutbacks as anything other than a sign of corporate distress.

The response of the Second Life community to this news has been characteristically solipsistic, with a memorial garden set up where residents can show their grief for the fallen, since obviously our pain is the main story here. I suspect that the now-jobless Linden staffers may have appreciated a little practical solidarity more than such virtual gestures. I’m feeling a bit guilty that I never actually got round (so far at least) to organising a Second Life Communist Party, instead of just talking about it. We could have staged some sort of in-world protest, and our San Francisco comrades could have picketed the Lab’s offices or something. I hope the Lab’s remaining employees have seen the writing on the wall, and are getting themselves unionised.

What does this mean for the future of Second Life? The optimistic view is that the Lab is realigning itself with its core market, content to be a successful niche player rather than being hell-bent on expansion. My more pessimistic take is that the cuts are the desperate actions of a management that has no plan other than preparing the company for sale.

I’ve always been doubtful that the current Lab management knew what they were doing, and I think the ideal long-term outcome would involve M Linden turning the whole operation over to the residents, and letting us run it as a cooperative. I suspect though that he would rather see it fail than flirt with such a progressive ideal, and I’m not sure that many residents would be up for life as virtual communists either.

Time will tell I guess, but right now the $70 or so I paid for my last annual subscription is looking like one of my less smart investments.

Gaza Flotilla

I wrote this piece about a week ago, but I hesitated to post it, since its serious nature is out of keeping with the generally frivolous tone of this blog. I vaguely know a couple of people who were on board the Gaza flotilla though, and I figured that if they were willing to risk a bullet in the head, the least I could do was to show a little solidarity.

Since I’m coming to this late there’s probably no point in repeating the case for ending the Gaza blockade (even the US administration has come out against it) or going over the Israeli assault on the flotilla (you can read eyewitness accounts here and here, and watch unedited video here). Anyone who hasn’t thought about how the incident illuminates the nature of the Israeli state can read an insightful essay on the subject here.

The internet is supposed to have made it harder for the powerful to get away with outrages like this, by democratising the flow of information. That’s true to some extent, but it’s also the case that, thanks to the speed of modern communication, the old saying “‘A lie is halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on” has never been more accurate. What’s even more disheartening is that the multiplicity of news sources doesn’t seem to have broadened minds – instead of seeing things from another point of view, people just shop around until they find a newsfeed that confirms their existing prejudices.

I guess I am as susceptible to this as anyone, though I do try to take in more than just Indymedia and the Weekly Worker. I tend to get my information via Google News, which usually links to a fair spectrum of opinion, though of course I must consciously and unconsciously select what I click on.

Looking in my browser history for the last few days I see the BBC, The Guardian, The Times, The Telegraph, The Independent, The Herald, The Scotsman, Salon, The LA Times, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, The Houston Chronicle, Al Jazeera, Xinhua, AP, Reuters, AFP and the CBC. Now, Al Jazeera and Xinhua aside, I would characterise those outlets as largely conservative, western, mainstream media, which in theory should counterbalance my habitual far-left outlook, but in this case, none of the facts reported by any of these sources would seriously undermine the argument that Israel is guilty of an unjustified act of aggression.

Facts don’t always carry the day though, and exposure to information that challenges one’s existing opinions doesn’t necessarily change one’s mind. If anything the evidence suggests that it does just the opposite.

So maybe this post is a waste of time, since anyone who disagrees with the view that the Israeli state is out of control is unlikely to change their ideas after reading what I think. Still, I can hope that what I’ve written and linked to may go a little way towards convincing at least a few people to think about opposing the Gaza blockade, and supporting a just peace for Palestine.

Explosive talent

I can’t mention Blue Velvet without noting that Dennis Hopper, who fully inhabited the role of Frank Booth in that movie, passed away this week.

Hopper was a complex character, and was evidently not much fun to be around in the 70’s, but it’s difficult not to have some respect for the guy who directed Easy Rider, and was hard enough to round off a lecture to film students by blowing himself up.

That gum you like is going to come back in style

I don’t look at the TV much these days, and I very rarely find myself following an episodic drama series. The last time I even partially got into a show was when I caught most of the first season of The Wire, which I quite liked, but the effort of committing myself to regular appointments with the box was too much, and I never made it past the first episode of season two.

I was thinking about this the other day when I read an article at the AV Club which considered the cultural impact of David Lynch’s cult 90’s series Twin Peaks. It reminded me not just of how slavishly I had followed that programme, but of the way that even left-field shows like Lynch‘s unsettling masterpiece could attract mass audiences at that time.

Compared with today it was both easier and harder for a show to be a big hit back then; easier because there was less competition for the audience’s attention – the UK had only four terrestrial channels to choose from, satellite and cable were niche products, and there was no internet – and harder because there was no way to see things other than by sitting down in front of the TV at a set time – no DVD box-sets, no Tivo, and no internet TV. We did have VHS recorders I guess, though the elderly model I had at the time was much too unreliable to trust with an unmissable event like that week’s Twin Peaks.

I had been a big David Lynch fan since I saw Eraserhead late one night on TV, and I’ve liked everything he’s done since (even Dune), especially Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive (the latter is in the running for my favourite film of all time), so it was always likely I was going to be a Twin Peaks devotee, but what confirmed my addiction was the community that grew up around the show on campus. I was already hanging out with most of what became the Twin Peaks crowd, but we certainly bonded that little bit more over long evenings of coffee and cherry pie (actually, “coffee” and “cherry pie”) discussing our various theories of what the story was about. I’d like to say that we still get together every year to reminisce, but, with a couple of exceptions, I haven’t talked to any of those people in the best part of twenty years. Probably best to leave the memories undisturbed.

Anyway, the point that I’m meandering towards is that often what sticks with you about a cultural experience is not so much the event itself, but more the social connections that surrounded it. What’s changed since my Twin Peaks days is that, thanks to the wonder of the interwebs, it’s no longer necessary to be geographically co-located with your fellow fanatics to feel part of a community.

Certainly my experience over the last three years has been that, while it was the virtual eye-candy that initially pulled me into Second Life, what’s kept me around is the narrative that unfolds in the relationships between residents, played out partly in-world, but mostly in the SL blogosphere.

I don’t want to overstate the profundity of the SL storyline – it’s more potboiler than classic literature – but it’s diverting, harmless, and, best of all, it creates a pleasing illusion of interactivity. I can tell myself that I am involved in writing this tale, in my own small way, and that makes me just committed enough to stick with it through the many, many dull patches.

There’s an interesting paper by Wanenchak in the latest edition of Game Studies entitled Tags, Threads, and Frames: Toward a Synthesis of Interaction Ritual and Livejournal Roleplaying. It’s well worth reading in its entirety, but the part pertinent to this discussion is the brief review of Goffman‘s frame analysis as it applies to a collaborative online narrative:

… frames allow players to engage with the gameworld in such a way that their narrative construction and interactions become sensible to themselves and to each other.

What I find most fascinating about the Second Life narrative (and what I think gives it a claim to being a unique cultural phenomenon) is the fact that the frames that people are using are often unclear, shifting and overlapping. To put it in different terms, although they are operating in the same “gameworld”, which includes not just the SL grid but also the associated blogs, tweets and what have you, people are engaged with often wildly differing levels of immersion.

The effect of this is, more often than not, to render the meta-story unintelligible, but occasionally it all comes together to produce an instant of dream-like clarity that makes the whole project seem worthwhile. I would give some examples of this, but I suspect that, like real dreams, the beauty of these moments is highly subjective, and that any description I attempted would sound hopelessly prosaic.

Which brings us back to David Lynch. What I think he does better than any other director is capture the fractured reality of dreams and nightmares, in a way that is at once unsettling and beguiling. Sometimes – just sometimes – being part of the world of Second Life is like living in Twin Peaks.