I recently learned about the online service Second Life.
This must be one of the most bizarre things I have encountered online.
For those of you unfamiliar with this service, Second Life is essentially a complex 3D digital environment where you can create your own completely customizable avatar, and by avatar I don’t mean an icon, but a fully realized 3D digital body. Currently there are approximately 30,000 “residents” of Second Life from every corner of the world. Once you have developed your avatar, you receive a weekly allowance of Linden Dollars (the virtual currency) to buy items that other users have made either through coding or using built-in tools. With an advanced account you can even purchase land (including islands) that once you own you can modify and alter (again either with codes or built-in tools). You can build your own businesses to sell services to other users, rent out space or if your land becomes a popular place to hang out you can even earn a cash incentive based off of your traffic.
If this just sounds like an interactive Sims, trust me it is different. The entire environment is developed and controlled by its residents. There are user run banks and even in-game classes taught by residents on how to develop in Second Life. In fact, users have written games that your avatars can participate in: from RPGs to first-person shooters.
In short, Second Life appears to be exactly what it says it is: a service that allows you to live out an alternate identity in a user controlled and constantly changing world, where the limits of what are possible are only determined by the interest of the participants. It has even hosted virtual booksignings from authors like Cory Doctorow.
The geek in me is amazed at the level of technical complexity involved in Second Life, and impressed with the concept of an evolving digital environment directed by its residents. However, on another level it makes me a little sad, because it seems to be indicative of how technology while increasing our ability to network with users around the world, it is simultaneously causing us to withdraw from the real world around us.
This influence of technology on our interactions has actually spawned a lot of research and development to try to encourage face-to-face interaction. An example would be software designed to introduce and encourage conversation between patrons in wifi cafes, which you can read about here. For the truly tech obsessed you can even use software to keep track of how good a friend you are, which I gather will remind you via a graphical display on your computer to talk and get together with your real-life friends. It is fascinating that the isolation our love of the digital experience imposes on us is so pronounced that scientists are actually seeking a solution to the problem based on software. The conclusion seems to be that the only way to draw us out of our digital funk is to trick us out by getting us to associate those “real” interactions with our favorite toy: the computer.
It is an awkward problem we are facing right now in our culture. I sincerely hope that as we leap forward with the possibilities that technology offers us that we will remember that the wonders of the people around us are always necessary, and that they will never be obsolete.