Second Life Revisited
In the Surging Dynamics of This Emerging, Largely Amoral Virtual World, a Civil Society Seem Very Hard to Achieve
Half a year ago, „Second Life" (SL) was known only to a few computer buffs and online communities as a novel, three-dimensional virtual world mirroring real life.
The last week of February, it was the cover story of the respected German weekly Der Spiegel.
In between, the membership of Second Life has grown from a couple of thousand to nearly three million, a romping ground for companies like BMW, Adidas and Wells Fargo producing its first (real life) SL millionaires.
Reuters has established a branch within the virtual world and assigned one reporter to be Second Life‘s first news agent [see The Vienna Review Oct. 2006]. Architectural firms use the virtual world to meet with clients and discuss in-SL models, payments can be made in SL „Linden Dollars," which convert back into US dollars at a rate of L$ 270 to one.
An explanation for why the numbers grew so quickly can be found in the combining nature of SL. Virtual worlds, such as the quite successful „World of Warcraft" are no novelty to the internet. When the word spread that SL is attempting to merge real and virtual life on a completely new level, desire spread amongst the techies like bushfire.
With its explosive growth, Second Life has begun to look more and more like a developing country: Without functioning infrastructure and regulatory institutions, it has encountered some of the same governance problems that have held back the transition economies of Central Europe.
But it does have the people. Techies and curious web surfers inhabited the virtual space on so called islands: Little pieces of real estate available for a couple of hundred Linden dollars.
These independent „gamers" created virtual counterparts, or avatars, in every imaginable size and form.
These avatars were soon breaching the boundaries of normal human appearance, creating „furries" and „shapes" as well.
To the original business environment, have been added a range of ordinary daily activities, colorful terrain, and increasingly an entire civlisation.
This has resulted in the most unique and versatile online community to date. The architecture, free of the shackles of gravity, erupts out of the virtual ground in forms never seen before; Some popular spots are disconnected from conventional time and space, like the mass-mall „Midnight City", where users are free to choose the conditions that best suit their purchases of clothing, consumer electronics or expensive jewellery.
Everything there can be bought for your in-game avatar or for you in real life – the money deducted from your credit card and your (real) new sneakers shipped to your (real life) home from the Adidas store nearest you.
The wealthier SL inhabitants retire to „Paradise Island," a terrain completely enclosed by a glass dome shielding expensive gadgets from burglars. And yes, robbery is an issue in Second Life, and with no police around SLifers are forced to design their own methods of defence .
However, the merging of real and virtual activity concerns some scientists, who claim that a loss of touch with reality and growing isolation are imminent threats.
SL not only facilitates every day activities, it makes several of them obsolete, and psychologist are more concerned with the social skills the users will never develop in the virtual world, in her book „Life on the Screen," Dr. Sherry Turkle, Ph.D. of MIT argues that the constant use of Multi-User Dimensions (MUDs) allows people to develop different personas.
As with the text-based MUDs of the mid-1990s, college students can be living up to three different lives in separate MUDs, all while doing schoolwork. The students claimed it was a way to „shut off" their own lives for a while and become part of another reality, one that Turkle claims could present a psychological problems.
But other concerns over SL are more primitive, as the most popular "virtual services" relate to sex or games of chance. Due to SL’s laissez faire policy, both of these have become as unrestricted as everything else in this world without physical borders.
Linden Labs, SL designers, distance themselves from moral or ethical judgements, yet sometimes it is questionable where to draw the line between intervention that hinders development, and intervention that prevents wrong-doing.
For example, is it justifiable to allow virtual sex between a human and animal avatar? Or an avatar representing a child?
High stakes poker games and virtual prostitution are carried out in dark, self-designed backrooms, and the fact that real money is added to the equation opens a vast number of legal issues for which governments have no answers.
Similar to the dawning of other civilisations, in Second Life anarchy reigns over law – only this time the intention is to leave it at that.
As "a service provider" it "does not control various aspects of the service." Users interact online and can alter the service environment on a real-time basis and Linden Lab is hesitant to regulate the content of communications.
In the surging dynamics of this emerging virtual world, it is difficult to predict the future. Clues, however, are available by flipping through the "AvaStar," SL’s first weekly newspaper, filled with breaking news, travel guides and "people" of the month, every now and then you will find a reference to "RL," real life.
In a recent issue, in the "agony-uncle" section, "Dear Randi," an SL inhabitant writes in for advice. It might be the closest and most personal account of the problems of a Second Life, or how deeply this has already invaded some real life homes:
„Dear Randi: I entered SL as an „escape valve" and have a pretty complicated in-world life. I have two alts, one a gruff, middle-aged man and the other a stylish, classy young lady. My man has a steady girl while my lady also prefers women. My RL wife has known I am in SL and hasn‘t been interested in the particulars, but now she has learned more about what I do and isn‘t happy. What should I do? – R.O."