[iDC] SL and relation to the real

Joshua Levy josh at personaldemocracy.com
Tue Mar 6 20:59:00 EST 2007

I had a minor breakthrough last night.  Some of the more experienced SL 
folks here are going to laugh at me for this -- but I realized that you 
can do so many more things with the camera than I realized  (the camera 
is your POV in Second Life).  It can be manipulated as you go about your 
business there, panning left to right, moving up and down, and zooming 
in and out.   Previously I'd only zoomed in and out, struggling to focus 
in on other avatars' faces, or -- because I'm recording this for a short 
film -- to position my own avatar in visually interesting ways, 
including actually looking at my own face.  Anyway, I felt a bit 
schmucky about it because I realized I should have known how to do this 
all along.

After I finished flogging myself I investigated Camp Darfur in SL.  It's 
changed a lot since I've last been there, though the lack of other 
avatars is the same.  Before it was pretty empty, with information 
scattered here and there and a few banners publichzing the atrocity.  
Now, there are flames leaping out at you as you arrive, posters 
describing the tragedy and images of refugees all over the place, and 
ominous-looking, giant blue helmets (the UN, get it?) strewn about.  
It's a pretty chaotic place, though this chaos doesn't suggest man-made 
terror as much as a lack of design and forethought.

I was struck by the same incongruities that got me interested in SL in 
the first place, the simple problem of confronting real issues in an 
unreal space.  It sounds mundane and obvious when describing it, yet the 
feelings evoked by seeing my avatar -- or being my avatar -- standing in 
front of a large image of a Darfurian child, dirty and alone and crying, 
were complex and new.  The child in the image was approximately the same 
size as my avatar.  The two images existed in the same space, and were 
both representations of real people, yet my avatar was a digitized 
version of myself, and the image of the child was simply an image of the 
child.   There were no other avatars around so I couldn't experience the 
thrill of social life in SL, and this fact heightened the starkness of 
the image.  As I walked around I inadvertently created more of these 
tableaus.  In one, my avatar looked at a poster with mostly words on 
it.  As the camera panned around to the left side of the avatar  its 
profile took up the foreground of the shot.  In the background appeared 
an image of a woman from Darfur.  In the distance were virtual huts with 
more information inside them and other tiny images.  The image 
privileged my virtual face and relegated someone's real, distraught face 
to the background. 

Gazing upon this image made me think of what many people on this list 
have referred to, that Second Life is the province of an educated elite 
and as such is given a disproportionate amount of importance with many 
tragic aspects of real life taking a back seat.  More than anything 
else, it felt perverted that I should be in Second Life looking at those 
images taken of real women and children while my avatar and I practiced 
camera moves.

Yet there was something else going on; I was moved to stop and think 
about these things rather than see an image like that and pass it by 
without noticing, which is more typical.  In her book Regarding the Pain 
of Others, Susan Sontag takes a sort of potshot at her earlier self, 
arguing that images in themselves might not have the power to evoke 
universal empathy and action; an image of a dead Palestinian boy evokes 
one reaction for a militant Palestinian and quite another for a militant 
Israeli.  It's partly about the context in which we view these images.  
Nevertheless, while viewing these images of Darfurian refuges taken 
quite profoundly out of context I was able to see the awfulness like 
never before, and with my new agility with the camera I was able to 
create even starker images. 

I realized after a bit that for me, the crux of the SL problem is its 
evocation of and relationship to real life, it's place within real life, 
and it's role, for better or for worse, as a reflection of real life 
(witness the recent vandalism that plagued John Edwards' space and 
various corporate outlets).  Has anyone else been to Camp Darfur or a 
similar space, and how did you react?

Joshua Levy

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