[iDC] SL: solipsism or social action?

Joshua Levy joshualev at gmail.com
Wed Feb 28 22:29:19 EST 2007

Thanks all for your insightful and thankfully skeptical takes on Second 
Life!  While SL should never be intended to replace real life (some 
people actually criticize it for try to do so) people are finding that 
it offers us empathic e
xperiences previously only found when people occupy the same physical 

Scott Kildall hit on what I've been trying to articulate for a while -- 
that SL "offers re-spatialization of activity and a feeling of 
presentness... unique experiences that make people laugh and form deeper 
bonds -- this is where Second Life can excel."  This ability to help 
people have deeper experiences that mimic physical closeness gives us 
the opportunity to connect in unforeseen ways.  The first time I went 
into SL I had an experience that I think others of have had -- I 
couldn't stop laughing.  I wanted a new shirt and asked the first avatar 
I found to help me find one, and she did.  The naturalness of the 
interaction, the embodied nature of it, the seeming closeness -- it all 
felt so /weird.

/In response to Trebor's question about "inconvenient youth" and whether 
or not this fantasy world can "fertilize politics" in the real world, 
Brian Holmes reminds us that art in general often creates fantasies that 
enable us to "suss out all the connections to or disjunctions from the 
rest of lived experience."  Fantasies have always served a purpose as 
spaces in which we can look out real life from a distance, or model life 
as we'd like to live it. 

Andreas Schiffler points out the frustrating reality of it all -- SL 
requires so much bandwidth and CPU as to make it completely impractical 
for the kind of daylong use we associate with IM.  He says that "if we 
are looking at it as a medium to disseminate information, the 
shortcomings outweigh the benefits," but I wonder if we aren't misguided 
to think of it as a "medium to disseminate information," which suggests 
a mass medium; many users already understand the true value of SL is in 
the quality of interactions it enables among small groups, not in its 
ability (or inability) to help people spread a message far and wide. 

I've noticed that whenever I try to tell someone about my work in SL 
their thoughts quickly turn to money.  "People are making money there, 
aren't they?" they always ask.  Steven Shaviro extends this capitalistic 
obsession to networked media and the explosion of "user-generated 
content."  "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."  That's assuming that entrepreneurship equals 
exploitation, of course...

A few people brought up the fact that SL environments are often 
simulacra of real-world environments.  Many of our computer interfaces 
also suffer from this lack of transcending their origins; it's struck me 
as strange that, for example, among the tools in Final Cut Pro are a 
"razor" and "reels."  As Josephine Dorado points out, the real fun 
happens when real life imitates SL.  I agree; like Josephine, I too want 
to fly and wear high-heel boots all the time! (Maybe not all the time...)

But Charlie Gere gets to the point; let's quote him a bit here:

"It would seem to me obvious that trying to make some sense of and find 
ways of mitigating the violence and unjustice in the complex world and 
culture we already necessarily inhabit, not least bodily, is far more 
pressing and considerably more worth defending than any supposed 
capacity to 'design and inhabit our on worlds and construct our own 
culture'. This seems to me to be at best a license for mass solipsism 
and at worse something like the kind of thinking that undergirds much 
totalitarianism, as well as an evasion of our responsibilities to the 
world as we find it."

Patrick Lichty is interested in the phenomenology of SL, as am I: the 
unique /experience /you get in SL that, while possibly solipsistic, 
gives us the chance to experience our world from a distance.   But take 
Gere's critique that the real world contains problems far more pressing 
and dangerous than anything that could be happening in SL.  Is there a 
place for this kind of mass solipsism -- can it connect it us to the 
pressing issues of our time -- or by laboring over building an island 
with orcas and moose living in the same space, or worrying about what 
shirt our avatar is wearing, or bombing a Reebok store and vandalizing 
John Edwards' SL space, are we evading our responsibility to fix a 
seriously broken world?


Joshua Levy
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