My Hovercraft Is Full of Avatars

A key appeal of Second Life for me has always been the opportunity to meet new people from far-off places. If Second Life can be seen as a sort of the 3D social media platform (and there are, of course, a great many who do see it as such, even if this shortchanges the full power of the place), then it is exponentially the best social media app for meeting people with whom one would otherwise never interact. Where both Twitter and (even more so) Facebook tend to limit one’s acquaintances to those whom one already knows, or with whom one already shares interests, the mechanisms for meeting people in Second Life are so random as to make it almost inevitable that those with whom one interacts will be new and frequently very “different” from oneself.

The Chelsea Hotel

On the roof of the Chelsea Hotel, waiting to be brought a telephone book to sit on

Visiting Second Life’s Virtual Chelsea Hotel sim recently, I met a very personable Russian who approached me in IM, and began a chat.  The conversation was more than a little hard to follow at first, because, as he confided to me, “translation is not foolproof.” I assume he was using an in-world translator, possibly the Google or (more likely) Bing options available through the SL viewer. I don’t have the viewer translator enabled, so I decided that the best way to facilitate our chat was to open Google Translate in a browser, and translate manually there. The result was a conversation that, apparently, was easier for my new Russian friend to follow. From my perspective, however, it was of course awkward and rather alien looking. My chat panel soon looked like this:

[2013/12/24 07:44]  Василий: ты откуда
[2013/12/24 07:44]  Laskya: Я из Канады.
[2013/12/24 07:45]  Василий: ого
[2013/12/24 07:45]  Василий: далеко
[2013/12/24 07:46]  Laskya: Крыша очень приятно.
[2013/12/24 07:46]  Laskya: Есть много русских здесь?
[2013/12/24 07:47]  Василий: да
[2013/12/24 07:47]  Laskya: Это хорошо! У русских есть место они встречают вместе?
[2013/12/24 07:49]  Василий: подожди 1 минуту
[2013/12/24 07:49]  Laskya: конечно
[2013/12/24 07:49]  Василий: hiпощли
[2013/12/24 07:50]  Laskya: Здравствуйте еще раз!
[2013/12/24 07:50]  Василий: хммм пощли
[2013/12/24 07:50]  Василий: идем
[2013/12/24 07:52]  Василий: таких танцев мало в игре
[2013/12/24 07:52]  Laskya: Есть ли хорошие танцы?
[2013/12/24 07:53]  Василий: тебе понравиться )))
[2013/12/24 07:53]  Василий: значит канада ?
[2013/12/24 07:54]  Laskya: Я должен посмотреть, что танцы, как!
[2013/12/24 07:54]  Василий: снег идёт
[2013/12/24 07:55]  Laskya: У нас было очень плохое ледяной шторм в Канаде. И идет снег.


This probably does not mean “Do you want to come back to my place, bouncy-bouncy?” Probably.

Even now, of course, I have no idea what any of this means – what even I was saying – without recourse again to Google Translate. “Speaking” Russian to a native speaker, even more than translating what I was receiving in that language, was an odd experience. I had to take it on faith that what he was “hearing” was more-or-less what I thought I was sending. As to nuances, tone, and so forth . . . well, I have no idea. I was in a position analogous to that of the poor benighted Hungarian in the well-known Monty Python skit:

The communications I was sending to “Vasili” (as I will call him here) were opaque counters, units of meaning that were actually meaningless to me, the communicator. I quite literally didn’t know what I was talking about. And while I assumed (probably safely) that Google Translate was not completely misrepresenting what I was trying to communicate, I had only his responses, which were in turn only accessible to me through the same translation programme that I was using to “speak” — with which to gauge whether or not I was being understood in the way I wished to be understood.

Unless we are speaking one-on-one and face-to-face, our communications with each other are always remediated by some form of technology. That technology may be an old-fashioned telephone, or an even more antediluvian hand-written letter, but we are far more often than not nowadays dependent upon the transparency of the technological medium that we are using to speak to each other. When one considers the sheer number of remediations, most of them technological, involved in translating the communication between “Vasili” and myself, it is a wonder we were able to talk at all. We were two people speaking different languages and from radically different cultures, separated by half the globe, interacting within a digital platform itself hosted thousands of miles from where either of us were, and employing third-party translation software to render each other’s words, not merely into different languages, but even into different alphabets.

What happens to our communications in such a context? It’s not so much that we lose nuance and tone, as that new nuances and tone are added, because these are always present in any communication. An addition wrinkle, when one uses Google Translate, is the fact that this translation programme employs Statistical Machine Translation; the translations it provides are prompted by a computerized survey of human translations to which it has access, in effect meaning that the machine is substituting, mutatis mutandis, words employed by another person in a parallel translation for my own.

Finally, whose words are they? Who, or what, am I letting speak on my behalf? To a large degree, how I represent myself in Second Life is a function of my words. But what of that self-representation if I am only visible through the language of someone — or something — else?

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“Hope Tinged with Fear”: Pho Vinternatt’s “Dreams” (Review)

I love Second Life art; the visual arts are the form for which, I believe, the virtual world platform is best suited, and most easily adapted to produce some really innovative new approaches. I have no formal, and relatively little informal, training in art criticism, but as I’ve always wanted to be an art critic, I’ve decided to role play one here. This is the first of what I hope will be a number of posts on art in Second Life.

In the course of researching my last blog post, I ran across an exhibition by SL content creator, entrepreneur, and artist Pho Vinternatt entitled Dreams. The exhibition has been around since at least the August of 2012, and has been the subject of a few blog posts (here, here, and here for instance) since that time. The exhibit was sufficiently striking that I decided to return to it, and offer this short reflection upon it, and what it may (or may not) have to say about the relationship between Second Life and First Life.

Pho Vinternatt's "Dreams."

Pho Vinternatt’s “Dreams.”

The installation consists of a single large-ish white room, mostly unornamented except for 30 panels that line each of the two longer walls, and a desk at one end. The panels are organized into sets of two, each consisting of one minimalist photograph of an avatar’s face, and accompanying text composed by the photographic subject. The 15 photographs all employ muted colours and a soft focus which contributes to rather than contrasts with the glaring whiteness of their surroundings.  Quiet ambient sound, subtle white “clouds” overhead, and a gentle intermittent rain of small softly-coloured particles contribute to the effect, rather than disturbing it.


The desk and notecard giver.

The notecard that is available on the open book that sits upon an otherwise empty plinth at one end of the room introduces the installation and its central theme:

When I started this project I had no idea that peoples dreams and wishes would be so much scarier, personal and moving than their fears.

I hadn’t realized how little we speak of our dreams, big or small ones, realistic or not, and how seldom we tell them to others.

Our dreams expose us, and opens our wounds and vulnerabilities. We choose our words very carefully when we do speak of them, because they’re frail and precious to us.

All dreams deserve to be spoken of, and they all deserve respect for making us who we are.

In this exhibition you will meet 15 people with very different dreams. Let them share them with you.

The minimalist nature of the artist’s comments reinforce the sense that we are not to expect much in the way of guidance from him; as Pho (who was kind enough to respond to some questions about the installation) told me, “I just wanted a blank canvas to let people get their own experience.” This is a rather suggestive way to put it: the large expanse of whiteness that surrounds the canvasses and accompanying text leaves room for the visitor to fill in the blank space, and encourages us to bring to our experience of the installation our own interpretations and responses. In this sense, perhaps, the exhibit itself is an articulation in small of the central appeal of Second Life, which is a vast digital sandbox, a “blank” virtual space into which we may write ourselves.

It is also, of course, a space upon which the exhibition’s subjects have inscribed themselves, and it is what they have chosen to fill that silence with that most strikes the viewer. To begin with, the texts, each of which describes the “dream” or wish of the subject, are all, without apparent exception, about real life, rather than about Second Life. In this sense, the exhibit seems to document the failure of Second Life to provide an outlet for dreams, wishes, or alternate existences; our subjects have projected themselves into a virtual space where, in theory at least, “dreams can come true,” and yet seem unable to do more than gesture back to their existence in the physical world. Pho, when I asked him whether this was a deliberate approach on his part, told me that it “came naturally” to them.

"Dreams" - Some PanelsThe second surprising element of the texts is the high number of these that articulate not a positive, forward-looking dream, but rather a sense of loss, regret, or pain. A review of the exhibit that appeared in September of 2013 pretty much expresses my own response to this fact, noting that it features “people dreaming of a life where they had taken different forks in the path that lead them to where they are now, so that they dreamed of a different now then the now they have.” The catalogue of lost opportunities and pain is, itself, sometimes painful to read:

“My body and mind is here, but my heart is elsewhere and I wish I was brave enough to let it win.”

“I wish I wasn’t sick anymore, It would change my life tremendously as my quality of life is so poor that I am losing myself, merely existing. My dreams and hopes have faded into a gray place, for to think of them and how unreachable they are just makes me more depressed.”

“My dream is to be free of depression and panic attacks for good.”

“I wish I wouldn’t have to worry about money and work. Live in a nice house and go back to school full time without worry.”

“I wish I could bring my mum back. She motivated me to do things to make her proud. Since she’s gone I find I am just waiting for life to be over so I can either be with her or be nowhere.”

“I wish I could have time reversed on some of the decisions and choices I’ve made. . . . I’m afraid it’s too late to change things now.”

“I’ve wasted these years by coasting along and letting everything go. EVERYTHING, and I would have them back if I could.”

“After battling depression and anxiety for many years, my dream is to be free, at peace and content. To stop hating myself.”

There are a few exceptions to this general rule: one subject expressed the desire for fluency in “every language” so as to be able to connect with everyone, another wishes to create something “which would have a cultural impact on the world,” while a third wants to live a morally meaningful life.

That said, reading through most of these texts was, for me, sometimes difficult: Wordsworth’s “Still, sad music of humanity” is to be found not just in nature. Even some of the more positive texts were coloured by a sense of incompleteness, loss, or, as one subject put it, fear: “It’s easy to see my hope is tinged with fear. I think most hope is in general, we hope, because we’re worried it won’t happen.” Interestingly, Pho told me that this exhibit was created as a counterpart to an earlier one entitled Fears: the tone of many of these deeply personal and intimate confessions suggests that “dreams” and “fears” exist not merely as oppositions, but as complements to each other.

"Dreams" - Some PanelsMy most visceral response to these sometimes heartbreaking texts and images was to want to connect in some way with the speakers, to commiserate, reassure, or maybe just hug them. That, alas, is not possible, for if it is true that the installation provides a blank space, it is not one upon which we can literally write. In that context, my final feeling, born from this sense of frustration, was that this exhibit tends in effect to document our own isolation, and our inability to connect: I can empathize, but I cannot touch. One of the subjects, wishing he had a place to live of his own, dreams that “This would make me less lonley [sic].” And yet, for me (I am busily scribbling on Pho’s blank canvass), this exhibit suggests that loneliness is an unavoidable precondition of being human, and dreams and desire mere placeholders for absence that do nothing more than underline our actual emptiness and isolation.

In some regards, then, this exhibit articulates the failure of dreams; it can, in particular, be read as a testimony to the hollowness of Second Life’s apparent promise. Our virtual world cannot make good our losses. If it is a blank space, it is one that ultimately signifies a blankness in the real lives from which so many of us, apparently, are seeking refuge. It offers us hope, perhaps, but hope “tinged with fear” of what we are, or are in danger of becoming, in real life.

Dreams - An ImageYet, there maybe something more here. At some level, if indirectly and asymmetrically, I have connected with these people, even if they cannot know it. And they, in turn, have been given a space, in this exhibit, and in Second Life, to articulate their loss, and to leave a mark, even if it is only an ephemeral one.

One of the subjects expressed a hope to “deal better with my creativity.” Perhaps, in becoming a part of this exhibit, that is precisely what she has done.

It might ease my own sense of heartbreak if I could believe she had.

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Spies Also Only Dream

“Do you know what love is? I’ll tell you: it is whatever you can still betray.” (John le Carré, The Looking Glass War, 1965)

Watching the response within Second Life to the revelation that the NSA, GCHQ, and possibly other agencies, have been “spying” upon residents within the virtual world, apparently at the suggestion of Linden Lab itself, has been an interesting experience. I’d characterize the general tenor of the reaction as muted.

It has been discussed, of course. The Second Life Forums had a few threads on the subject the day that the news broke, here, and here, and here, but none developed into very much. Overall, Ciaran Laval (in a post that does, however, feature some good discussion about privacy issues and social media) probably sums up the response best when he comments that the “recent fuss about The NSA and GCHQ allegedly spying on Second Life users largely made me go ‘meh.'”

The reaction of Honour McMillan (“duh”) was somewhat similar.  SLUniverse featured a thread that achieved 203 posts before quietly spluttering to an end (by way of contrast, a thread on Ann-Marie Otoole’s auto-vehicles begun a few months earlier garnered 588 posts). New World Notes had three stories, including an Apologia from Hamlet Au for Cory Ondrejka that would do a medieval casuist proud: he’s pretty sure, on reflection, that this was (probably) all done for the good of Second Life, and, really, those of us who love the platform as he does actually owe the former Linden a debt of thanks. Probably the most detailed and interesting response was by Inara Pey, who usefully focused somewhat more on data-mining angle than did most.

I come to this story late in the game myself, and so I don’t feel the need, at this point, to say very much about the privacy and security aspects of these revelations. It’s not that am indifferent to this news; far from it, in fact. But others have already said a great deal about it, and a few have even articulated perspectives not dissimilar to my own. Suffice it to say that I am outraged, and so forth, but that what I actually find most illuminating is the lack of noise from residents. The shelf life of these revelations has apparently expired, and we seem to have established collectively that we simply don’t care that much that the company behind this supposedly “libertarian” platform has no problems at all in cooperating with government spooks. While Microsoft, Google, and others have expressed their discomfort (quite possibly disingenuously) with the NSA’s activities, Linden Lab’s silence on the subject understandably reflects the general attitude of its customers: “Meh.” 

There is, however, another interesting side to this story that I want to explore for a few minutes.

I’d like to ask: what does it actually mean to “spy” on virtual people?

There is, of course, a great deal of humour to be mined from the idea that spies have been checking up on activities in virtual and gaming worlds; as Honour McMillan cracks, “It would be fun, though, to see the files they’ve collected on furries and vampires and Tinies.” Suck jokes implicitly invoke an important question, however. What kind of “intelligence” can really be harvested from a virtual world? 

One assumes that the point of “spying” is to probe beneath surfaces, to “unmask” secrets and hidden threats. Why then would spies consciously choose to conduct operations in the one place where masks and false appearances are not merely the norm, but the actual raison d’être? Why focus efforts on the “Wonderland” side of the Looking Glass, rather than upon the warm carbon-based operators behind the screens and keyboards? It seems a perverse way to arrive at “secrets,” to say the least. And it implies a stronger, more direct identification of avatar with human user than many (and perhaps most) Second Life residents would probably concede. After all, one of the points of Second Life is putatively to “be” what we cannot be in “first life”: there is every chance that that gun-toting, tough-talking survivalist in-world may be run by a mild-mannered middle-class insurance salesman in the “real” world. Disconnected from the real world that is their proper focus, “spies” only dream that they are discovering truths here.

Or perhaps such incongruities are precisely to the point. I don’t know what kind of computerized analytics or psych manuals might be designed to translate the flotsam of Second Life weirdness into facts that might have some reasonable application in the real world, but surely our fantasies and our dreams — our second lives, however divorced from our reality they might be — do say something about us? In some ways, spying upon our avatars can be seen to represent a new and really innovative approach to intelligence-gathering and data mining: it is as though we have offered access to our dreams, to our psyche. And here, perhaps, our NSA and GCHQ spies are in more familiar territory. As the spy novelist John le Carré opined years ago in a 1989 interview originally granted to the Observer, and much cited since,

For decades to come the spy world will continue to be the collective couch where the subconscious of each nation is confessed, where its secret neuroses, paranoias, hatred, and fantasies are whispered to the microphones.

The Whisper Wall

The Whisper Wall. Where pseudonymous avatars can post anonymous intimacies.

Second Life is often such a place; it can sometimes function as a sort of echo-chamber for whispered secrets. We wear our fantasies, and sometimes our fears, on our sleeves here, literally: they are embodied in the mesh clothing we purchase, and in the digitally-rendered avatars we inhabit. We confide them to strangers, in IMs, in chat, or on web sites such as SLsecret and The Whisper Wall. Virtual spies have no need for truth serums and waterboarding: we gladly betray ourselves and others here on a day basis.

And of course, even as we wander through sim after sim wearing our dreams and fantasies for all to see, we are also spying out those of others. McMillan (rightly) ridicules the notion that spies have secretly “infiltrated” Second Life, noting that “It’s not like avatars have to wear a mask to conceal their identity.” Residents, no less than the spies who observe them, are incognito here. But we can also reverse the logic of this statement, for being incognito ourselves empowers us, like spies, to pry into the secrets of our fellow residents.

Ultimate Spy Hud

Almost as creepy as a Facebook feed. Almost.

Sometimes this is played out in a creepily literal way: when I was researching this post, an in-world search turned up no examples of “secret agent role playing” in Second Life, but it posted an enormous number of “hits” for “spy” products for sale that will mine IP addresses and secretly monitor chat streams from a distance. And, of course, for every avatar who posts on sites like SLsecret or The Whisper Wall, there are dozens who flock to read them. Perhaps this is why the grid-wide reaction to the NSA revelations has been so understated: in a world that is already buzzing with digital surveillance (for such, after all, is quite literally what monitoring public chat is), one more ear to the wall makes little difference.

Undoubtedly, our motivations in seeking out this kind of intimate knowledge of our fellow residents springs from rather different motivations than those that bring the spies of the NSA to Second Life. The frisson of voyeurism is probably part of the appeal. So, perhaps, is the illusion of connection that such knowledge might bring: a world inhabited entirely by beings embodied in code can sometimes seem a lonely place. But if it is true that spies can only dream, so it is equally true, in Second Life, that dreamers can, and do, spy.

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Magic Casements and Blurry Mirrors

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toil me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music: – Do I wake or sleep?
(John Keats, “Ode to a Nightgale”)

Faery Lands Forlorn

Second Life: Where faery lands forlorn most often look like the set for a James Cameron film.

The literature and language of virtual worlds in general, and Second Life specifically, are replete with images of imaginative and psychological completion, transcendence, and creation. It’s an idea that is built into the very name of “Second Life,” which offers us (unlike most other forms of social media, especially Facebook) the opportunity to “live again,” and differently. Here we can be whomever we want to be, and do whatever we wish to do; here we have broken the fetters of quotidian existence. “Experience endless surprises and unexpected delights in a world imagined and created by people like you,” the Second Life web site urges.

And, it would seem, many tens or even hundreds of thousands of us do just that.

Inhabiting a world “imagined and created” by our fellow residents, we all become by extension artists and poets. “What’s your story?” the same web site asks us. We are simultaneously the authors and protagonists of our own narratives. Merely creating and customizing an avatar, “remaking ourselves” (often through content that we have actually bought from Second Life merchants), makes us artists. Elif Ayiter, a Turkish academic who has written about this virtual world asks, “Can we talk about ‘Avatar Art,'” and his answer is, yes, yes we can:

Even before entering the metaverse I had an idea that the avatar, in its endless capacity for shape-shifting, could be used as an agent of creative change. It was the avatar that interested me: Not the virtual building, not the virtual artistic activity – at least not in the Real-Life-like sense of the word, manifesting as virtual art shows and installations to be admired at a distance – but the avatar, the central actor of the self-defined ‘game’ itself. (“Avatar Art: The (Re)Creation of ‘Self’“)

For many Second Life residents, then, the virtual world is a canvas upon which to paint, a virtual world of “wonders . . . built from our imagination” as Honour McMillan (in a post that is, admittedly, somewhat tongue-in-cheek) says. It is entirely unsurprising, therefore, that Second Life has attracted so many self-identified or practicing artists (many of them very good). They too recognize that this digital sandbox offers astonishing potential for creativity.

John Keats

It wasn’t TB or The Quarterly Review that finished off Keats. It was the lag.

The idea that art (or “Art”) is all about “the imagination,” “creativity,” and building new worlds that lead us outside of our sublunary one is, of course, actually a reasonably recent idea. Mostly it receives its first tentative expressions in the later 18th-century, and becomes a full-throttled manifesto at the beginning of the 19th. It was the Romantics who started all of this nonsense (well, okay, it’s not necessarily nonsense) about art as a pre-eminently creative enterprise, as an emanation of the imagination of the artistic mind. In such a context, the screens upon which our virtual sandbox unfolds itself are portals to another place that functions as the paintbox of our creative soul, “Charm’d magic casements” onto faery lands forlorn, as Keats might have put it (had Keats owned a 512 parcel with a window overlooking the Elven Realms).

Or, perhaps the computer screen is something else. Maybe what it overlooks is not a New-Found-Land of the imagination, but something more familiar? Take, for instance, this somewhat breathless description by Second Life artist Whiskey Monday:

The computer screen has long been described as a window to the world, and I do believe that’s accurate. But it’s so much more. I can’t even begin to fathom the role this window will have in our future lives, or how integrated we might be with them. By the time I get another degree to try to put words to my ideas, my ideas may be totally out of date. But I feel compelled to do this, and at the very least it’ll be an adventure.

For Monday, the screen is a portal, not to a world of the imagination, but “to the world.” It’s not entirely clear what she means by this, of course, but it suggests something more comprehensive and at the same time more limiting than our mesh-enabled “Charm’d magic casements”: it suggests that we are afforded a view of our world, of which Second Life is but a part.

For there is, of course, an older view of art that argues that it does not provide an escape from or alternative to our everyday lives, our RL, but offers rather an enhanced and clarified insight into it. Art in this view (the view of Plato and Aristotle, and of Shakespeare and Milton) “holds the mirror up to Nature”: it copies the physical world we inhabit, but in such a way as to provide a clarified and enhanced vision of what it has copied so that we can see it more clearly and more whole. So, a literary form such as the novel is “realistic” and represents a world that we can accept as either our own, or one at least that is conceivable, but it uses characters and narratives that teach us things about our own world that we otherwise might never have seen or recognized.

Dystopian Futures

The Future, modeled after a chunk of the Present about 10 minutes from where I live.

Second Life, I have suggested, is most usually conceived of as a place of magical enchantment, an artistic and imaginative escape from “real life.” But it is also, clearly, a mirror of our own, reflecting what is both most beautiful and most ugly about ourselves. Yes, we have breathtaking art. But we also have hideous malls and a consumer culture run amok. We have the ability to reconstruct the past and give virtual form to possible futures in Second Life, yet, when we do, it is almost invariably a dark and violent past and a dystopian future that we imagine. In these ways, perhaps, Second Life does not so much give shape to our dreams as reflect our nightmares.

I want to use this blog to look at Second Life as a mirror that shows us ourselves, “as through a glass, darkly,” in new ways and from new perspectives. “Dark,” in the context of the passage from 1 Corinthians 13:12 from which my blog’s title quotes, means “obscurely” rather than negatively, and I don’t mean to suggest that my posts here will focus exclusively upon “the dark side” of Second Life. But I am interested less in what this virtual world tells us about what we desire, than what it tells us about the failures of our imagination, and our inability to escape from our “real lives.”

But if, every once in a while, I should also sneak a peek through those charm’d magic casements, I hope that you will not judge me too harshly.

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