Grey Skies

I’ve been pretty lax on the blog front of late, which I had been ascribing to simple idleness, but my new theory is that I’m just being slowed down by having to wade through that damn Higgs Field every day.

Anyway, what’s been happening? Spanish flair did win Euro 2012, as I (almost) predicted, though it triumphed over Italian artistry rather than Teutonic efficiency, the Germans having lost their way in the semi-final. For a while after that game it seemed like they might cave in on the Eurobond question too, but no such luck.

In other news, the reading public have twisted a dagger into the heart of aspiring authors everywhere by enthusiastically embracing a volume of reworked Twilight fan-fic, making it the fastest selling paperback ever in the UK, despite it being, by all accounts, very poorly written, not particularly transgressive, and certainly not psychologically sophisticated.

Discouraged by this turn of events I have abandoned my plans to spend the next few months working on my own literary masterpiece, in favour of my usual summer routine of getting stoned in the park (assuming the rain ever stops), with a suitable soundtrack. There may not be many more posts this month…

Reoccurring Dreams

There was a lively debate amongst the commenters at Botgirl’s blog over the last week or so, concerning that perennial preoccupation of the SL intellectual elite, the question of identity in virtual environments.

I must have listened (and occasionally contributed) to this discussion dozens of times in the last three years, but I’m not sure that I’ve ever read anything that was a significant advance on what Sherry Turkle was writing about fifteen years ago.

The particular facet of the issue that we (for of course I couldn’t resist chipping in with my two cents’ worth) focussed on this time around was the significance of choosing to represent oneself in Second Life with an avatar that differs substantially from one’s corporeal incarnation, especially with regard to gender.

How dishonest is this? Moral relativist that I am, my answer to that question is “it depends”; upon a lot of things, but mainly the expectations of the parties to the interaction. In the discussion parallels were drawn with other media, such as written fiction or cinema, with the point being made that no one feels deceived when they discover that, say, Robert De Niro isn’t really a taxi driver. This is true to a degree; for books, plays and movies there are commonly accepted cultural norms that define when it’s OK to make stuff up and when it’s not, and people do feel cheated when the rules are broken.

There is much less consensus regarding online interaction though, and, crucially, in a space like Second Life there is no easy way to communicate the extent to which one is using the platform as a vehicle for personal reinvention, as opposed to expressing one’s everyday self (which of course opens up the question of where one’s “true” identity really lies, or if such a thing even exists).

I’ve noted before that the research evidence suggests that it’s harder than one might think to create a new personality in a virtual world (certainly my avatar is boringly similar to my mortal form, in appearance and character), so in theory it should be possible to get to “know” someone just by interacting with their SL alter-ego. I suspect that there are not many people who could be bothered to put in the work required for this though, and there is always the (mostly unconscious) drive to project one’s internal object-relations on to the virtual relationships, which further muddies the waters.

With all this going on it’s hardly surprising that miscommunication and unhappiness can occur from time to time. I don’t think that there’s much to be done about it; it’s the price we pay for access to the creative possibilities of the medium,  like Cézanne being poisoned by Emerald Green.

Like I said though, none of this is new, or particularly profound, except insofar as it sheds some light on that other topic that has launched a thousand SL blog posts; “Why blog about Second Life?” Why make the same points about the same issues over and over, when we could be turning our minds to something more productive? I can only answer for myself of course, but I think (as, unsurprisingly, I’ve said before) that SL blogging is essentially just another form of role-play, a chance to imagine oneself as a heavyweight intellectual commentator, without all the tiresome business of actually having to think too much about what one writes.

It keeps me amused anyhow. And I get to link to some cool music.

Cut Away

I hadn’t been near a cinema for months, but this weekend I managed to catch two films on the big screen; a belated viewing of summer hit Inception at the multiplex, and a late-night screening of The Social Network, with drinks and friends, at our local arthouse movie theatre.

I’ll review the films themselves in later posts, but for now I’ll just wax nostalgic about how my movie-going habits have changed over the years.

My earliest memories of the medium are of going to the Saturday morning shows at the long-vanished art-deco cinema that once stood on the seedier side of our town centre. It had a vast auditorium, that could sit something like two thousand people, which would be packed full of hyped-up kids, buzzing on the sugar from the bags of cheap sweets on sale in the foyer. We would see a few cartoons, an old serial like Buck Rogers or King of the Rocket Men, and one feature, usually something from The Children’s Film Foundation, which were usually pretty imaginative, or occasionally an old Hollywood action movie; I remember a showing of Kelly’s Heroes that inspired our playground games for weeks afterwards. This was all in the mid-70’s, not long before the rising popularity of Saturday morning kids’ TV more or less killed off the picture shows. I enjoyed staying in on a cold morning and watching the box as much as anybody else, but I did miss the social aspect of the cinema a bit.

In my early teens I would go with friends, or the occasional date, about once a month to see mainstream movies, and towards the end of high school I started to get into independent cinema. It was when I left home to go to University that my cinema addiction really kicked in though; I joined the campus film society, which screened five or six movies each week in term time, and I often skipped classes to catch matinee shows at the arthouse, so I must have been seen well over 500 films during my college years, from just about all genres. Once I started working I had to cut back a bit, but I still caught a film most weekends, and occasionally would go on little binges when I was on holiday.

Sometime over the last decade I seemed to lose the habit; now I’m in the cinema maybe ten times a year. This is partly because I’ll watch a DVD instead of going out on a Saturday, but I think it’s mainly because I have substituted internet addiction for my celluloid fix.

I do have some regrets about this; my imagination seemed to be highly stimulated when I was more immersed in film. I used to do a lot of writing when I was in college, but now this blog is about all I can manage; I haven’t penned any proper fiction for a long while. I think there is something about following a film narrative that particularly exercises the creative faculties, by demanding attention over a relatively long time. I guess reading does this too, but with a book I tend to concentrate in shorter bursts, so it doesn’t have quite the same effect, and when I’m surfing the net I’m rarely on one topic for more than a couple of minutes.

I’m going to try to make it to the cinema at least once a fortnight over the next few months; we’ll see if that revives my dormant Muse. I might even catch something at the drive in.

Anatomy of a scandal

I know that the only thing sadder than blogging or tweeting about an inconsequential internet phenomenon is blogging about people who blog or tweet about an inconsequential internet phenomenon, especially one as five-minutes-ago as “Emeraldgate“, but this is exactly the sort of thing that we live for here at SLS, and I’m hardly going to pass up the chance get all pseudo-intellectual on the topic.

What was it about this issue that elevated it above the usual Second Life drama, and made it the talk of the virtual steamie for a day or two? I think it was down to a combination of the nature of the tale, and the characteristics of the audience.

The story itself was serious enough that people could be bothered commenting, but not so serious that they felt obliged to think much about their comments; the perfect recipe for a froth of instant opinion. The technical level was just right; the average reader understands enough about terms like emkdu and DDOS to grasp that something is amiss, but not enough to really quantify the risks involved, producing a haze of uncertain anxiety. Then there was the Woodbury sub-plot, and the allegations of Linden collusion, which added another layer of conspiracy theories (all that was missing was the JLU). Perhaps most importantly there were enough angles to allow people to use the story as a hook for their characteristic preoccupations; thus Pixeleen was able to reprise her Woodward & Bernstein act, and Prok could roll out another semi-coherent rant about… well, I’m not sure to be honest, the evils of opensource software I think. I of course am free to produce another batch of our trademark psychoanalytical posturing.

For the real secret of the story’s success lies buried in the collective unconscious of the Second Life blogosphere. We are suckers for this sort of paranoia-inducing narrative because it appeals to our narcissism, both on a personal level – how flattering to think that someone has gone to all this bother to track our virtual lives, or that the FBI will chase us for being accessories to cyber-terrorism – and in relation to Second Life itself, which we imagine is as important to the rest of the world as it is to us. The reality of the situation – that no one cares what our avatars get up to, or what our real-life identities are, and that this saga is of no interest to anyone outside of our obscure little garden – is rather less compelling.

Naming this episode “Emeraldgate” only emphasised the preposterousness. Most SL residents are probably too young to remember the Watergate scandal, which involved the President of the United States being forced to resign after being exposed as a crook who had subverted the Constitution, a notable affair by any standard. By contrast, these shenanigans have not, as far as I can tell, caused anyone anything more than mild inconvenience, and are unlikely to be the subject of an Oscar-winning film any time soon.

That said, the story has not been unamusing, and, as a piece of harmless entertainment, it has been quite diverting. Readers may recall that a couple of months ago I made the claim that, occasionally, the Second Life meta-narrative could “[come] together to produce an instant of dream-like clarity that makes the whole project seem worthwhile”. Well, the tale of the Emerald development team’s nefarious activities is just what I was thinking of. Only Second Life, with its unscripted nature and disparate cast, could produce a story like this, and if I were in charge of the Lab’s publicity department I would be using it as an example of the potential of the platform. Something tells me that’s not going to happen though, which is a shame, because without the storytelling element Second Life wouldn’t be half the fun it is.

Creative licence

Facebook, in response to general outrage, has been forced to abandon proposed new terms of service, which would, if you believe the detractors, have allowed the corporation to claim ownership of all material uploaded by users of the service, even those who had deleted their accounts This raises several interesting issues, including how social media blurs the distinction between personal and public space, and the extent to which users of services like Facebook and Twitter can expect to retain control over content they create.

I have always felt that it is prudent to regard the internet as being completely public, and to assume that anything that you put into the system will persist forever, indelibly marked with your digital fingerprints, and accessible to anyone who knows how to look for it. Accordingly I do my best to be discreet, but despite this I often, in retrospect, feel that I have been lulled by the apparent anonymity of the medium into revealing more about myself than I might have intended. There is a certain amount of narcissism involved in such worries; while it is technically possible to, say, link all the Google searches I have done to my IP address, I seriously doubt that anyone is going to bother. Similarly, it seems unlikely that Mark Zuckerberg was really planning to purloin millions of badly-exposed pictures of Facebook users grinning drunkenly during their works’ night out, for some nefarious purpose that only he can imagine; all he wants are your shopping preferences, so that he can sell advertising and convince the venture capitalists that he does have some sort of monetisation strategy. Still, the idea that once you join Facebook you can never leave makes it sound even more creepily cult-like than it did before.

On the face of it Second Life residents don’t have to worry about being creatively expropriated by the Lindens; the terms of service clearly state that copyright in content resides with the originator. As I’ve touched on before though, “creativity” in the metaverse isn’t limited to the production of discrete items. The very act of interacting with others on the grid is in itself a performance, one which can be observed and appropriated. Who, if anyone, “owns” this? You may not have to worry that the Lindens will claim control of your entire virtual life, like Facebook is trying to do, but perhaps you should be concerned that all the imaginative energy that you put into living your second life will end up providing free inspiration for some lurking writer.

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

Almost Famous

This blog has been getting a steady trickle of hits, most of them via Google searches featuring the words “second” and “life” somewhere (like “second life adverse events” or “how to find adult club in second life” – that guy must have been disappointed). Hardly anyone ever leaves a comment, so I’ve no idea what visitors think of the site, but I suspect most of them click away again pretty quickly.

Since it’s clear that there is no way that I’ll make money from Second Life by any means other than writing about it, I’m going to have to do something to improve the stickiness of this column.

Writing stuff that’s vaguely interesting would be a start I guess. I can see two ways that this column might develop an audience.

The first option would be a gonzo-journalism style travelogue, where I dot around the grid like a virtual Hunter S. Thompson, cataloguing the collision between the established order and the emerging counter-culture. The problem is that Second Life hasn’t been around long enough for a dominant culture to develop, so nobody is really pushing the boundaries, because there are no boundaries to push against. I guess I could contrast SL with real life, but my feeling is that SL is more of a complement to the existing social order than a threat to it, so there’s none of the sense of danger that would give the column some edge. It’s possible that I’m underestimating how liberating the SL experience can be for people though, and it might be more revolutionary than I think. There is probably some mileage in exploring that further.

The alternative model for the blog would be a character-based episodic narrative, something like “Tales of the City”. To make that work I’d have to find some sort of vibrant SL social scene and immerse myself in it, and I’m not sure that I have the patience for that, if such communities even exist. I don’t think my writing skills are up to it anyway.

Even if I do build up a readership, there would still be the problem of turning hits into revenue, something that has defeated smarter business brains than mine. Advertising perhaps, or syndication, particularly to non-internet media. Maybe Rolling Stone would bankroll me while I did some in-depth research, like John Travolta in “Perfect”. They printed a big article on Second Life just a few months ago though, and anyway it’s not like I’m Lester Bangs or anything, so maybe not.