[iDC] RE: An Inconvenient Youth and Second Life

Steven Shaviro shaviro at shaviro.com
Sat Feb 24 22:45:11 EST 2007

I suppose I should introduce myself, as I have been lurking on this list 
for a while, but this is the first time I have written anything. I teach 
in the English Department at Wayne State University in Detroit; I've 
written about (among other things) network culture, though I tend more 
towards a fairly abstract "theoretical" approach rather than a hands-on 
one, and my points of reference tend to be dystopian science fiction 
novels more than, say, the actual experiences of net acREtivists.

This past week, I gave a brief-talk-plus-demonstration at my University, 
to an audience much of which was librarians, about the educational 
potentials of Second Life. I painted a picture that was not untrue, but 
that perhaps was rosier than is fully justified. As the real-life 
audience in an auditorium watched it all on a big screen, I conducted a 
lively but quite short discussion with a bunch of folks within Second 
Life about how new media were changing both what was being studied and 
learned, and how it was being studied and learned. People in both the RL 
audience and the virtual audience seemed to like it; though in the 
former case this was probably more due to the wow! factor than to 
anything I (or anybody else) actually said (or typed).

I only bring this up by way of approaching Trebor's question:
> Do these virtual worlds merely provide an inconvenient youth with a valve to live their fantasies of social change (elsewhere), or do they, in some measurable way, fertilize politics in the world beyond the screen?   
I think that we are reaching the point where people can do pretty much 
any of the things they do in their "first lives" in virtual worlds like 
Second Life as well. This is not to say that the two are the same, of 
course; there are obvious and vast differences (e.g., people in 
different physical locations can engage in real-time interaction in 
Second Life, and have the sensation of a sort of shared 3D space -- 
though it's cartoony, it still gives a certain feeling of 'thereness' 
that other media, even more naturalistic ones like two-way video chat, 
fail to do; on the other hand, and just as obviously, a conversation in 
Second Life is likely to consist mostly of one-liners, rather than the 
extended essayistic reflection we can indulge in on a mailing list like 
this one; not to mention that the anonymity, combined with the ability 
to simulate actions that you could never do in "real life" contribute to 
a kind of puerile and feverish fantasy atmosphere).

But still, overall, Second Life is connected enough to "first life," and 
mirrors it closely enough in all sorts of ways, that we can pretty much 
do "there" the same sorts of things -- especially collaborative, social 
things -- that we do "here." The virtual libraries in Second Life, for 
instance, are quite interesting and might even, at some point, become 
truly useful (though of course, a lot less people use them than use the 
SL sex clubs or combat simulations). Some of the artist exhibitions in 
Second Life, as well as some of the spaces which are themselves, in 
effect, art works, are quite good and worth exploring.

As for politics: a protest against the Iraq war in Second Life is little 
more than an empty symbolic gesture; but one might cynically argue, 
especially given the tendency of the media to ignore them, that 
real-world protests against the war , however many people they draw, are 
at this point little more than empty symbolic gestures either.

On the other hand, I don't think that one could find any equivalent in 
Second Life of political organizing that takes place in "first life": if 
only because the people in Second Life are a fairly narrow, 
self-selected and affluent, group.

But beyond this, the thing that really gets me about Second Life, and 
that seems to me to be the most important thing one can say about it, is 
how *commodified* the whole experience is, and how SL is dominated by 
notions of creativity, coolness, entrepreneurship, and so on... all of 
which relate fundamentally to advertising and commerce and making money. 
It seems to me that Second Life, and other MMOs (massively multiplayer 
online worlds or games) need to be understood in the terms of political 
economy (of an at least quasi-marxist sort) before they can be made 
sense of in any other way. And that, in this sense, they are little 
different from any other aspect of what has variously been called the 
society of the spectacle, the network society, or the new world order of 
neoliberal globalization.

Yes, the new media are many-to-many instead of one-to-many like the mass 
media that dominated most of the twentieth century; but I fear that the 
call or incitement to participate, to get involved, to be creative, 
largely means that we are being asked to be entrepreneurs of ourselves, 
and thus work ever harder to facilitate our own exploitation.

I am being rather hyperbolic, perhaps. But if anyone is interested, I've 
put online a recent essay of mine in which I address these points in 
(hopefully) less of an off-the-cuff manner:



Steven Shaviro   shaviro at shaviro.com

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