Two Dangerous Lessons from Second Life

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(I’m still working on Part Two of my response to critics — specifically a defence of polyamorism as an essential component of effective Model Intentional Communities. Coming soon, I promise — Dave)

I want to confess two things I’ve learned about myself — things I’m not particularly proud of — from my time in Second Life. I suspect I’m not alone in these two sad admissions, and I even wonder if they are precisely what makes Second Life so appealing, and keeps so many addicted to it:

1. We judge people, and assess their ‘lovability’, by their appearance: “In Second Life, everyone is young and beautiful.” Those of us who are neither of these things in ‘Real’ Life have the opportunity in Second Life to:

  1. appeal to others who would probably, if they met us in ‘Real’ Life, not give us the time of day, let alone their hearts, and
  2. discover and love beautiful, attractive people, the people of our idealistic dreams.

No matter if it’s a two-way illusion.

Or maybe it isn’t an illusion at all. Stephen Downes has argued that ‘Real’ Life is no more real, no less an illusion, no less a construct of our minds and imaginations, no less an invention, than any dream, any Second or Third Life we may choose to ‘live’ in. Whether or not you buy Stephen’s argument, the sad reality is that we do assess and ‘value’ people on their looks. ‘We’ want to love who we want to love, and ‘we’ want to fuck who we want to fuck. Our bodies decide this, and fairness and rationality have nothing to do with it.

It’s insane that we should want to spend time with, and love, shallow young pretty airheads, instead of brilliant, sensitive, wise, articulate, informed, self-knowledgeable people, but we can’t help ourselves.

In Second Life we can have both. Everyone in Second Life appears lovable, aesthetically and erotically. So from the safety of our lovely avatars we can afford, and have a platform, to put our hearts and minds out there, completely, nakedly, and be accepted for who ‘we’ truly ‘are’.

2. We are attracted to those who offer mystery, passion, attention and appreciation, even when that is unhealthy, insincere, needy or manipulative:

These qualities feed our curiosity, or desire to ‘fill in’ and complete, our egos and self-doubts, and our need to love and be loved and wanted and needed. It’s the chase, the Game. In Second Life everyone is enigmatic.

We are all looking for people who complement us, who offer us what we want and lack and who let us offer what they want and lack. That is our social nature. When people give us attention and appreciation they are almost impossible to resist. No matter if that is mature and genuine, or childish, greedy and needy. Or false and cynical or psychopathically contrived to seduce us.

When it’s needy or manipulative it can get really ugly. It can lead to bizarre and co-dependent relationships that are sick, depraved, horrifically and endlessly painful. It can exhaust us, consume us and all our time.

We also love to be charmed. People who burn bright, who entertain and tease and lure us with their cleverness or brashness are irresistible. But often like magicians what they offer is illusion, and illusion is hard to sustain. Once you know the tricks they become tedious, the magic wears off, and the magician must, for their sake and ours, find new people to seduce with their sleight.

And, equally, we love mystery. One of the astonishing qualities of Second Life is its ability to make perfectly ordinary people who live mundane and (yes I know I’m being harsh and judgemental) rather superficial lives appear mysterious, profound and enigmatic.

It does this through the use of text rather than voice-to-voice communications (in Second Life you can use either though most people prefer to stick to text, with the excuse of conserving bandwidth, but in most cases I think really to create this mystery, and to allow more time to think and be clever). We all love to ‘fill in’ spaces, and it has astonished me when I’ve read and reread the ‘scripts’ of Second Life conversations (you can choose to save all your conversations automatically) how much I have ‘filled in’ those spaces to make the person I am speaking with exactly as I would want them to be, rather than who they really are.

And I am sure they are doing precisely the same thing, ‘inventing’ me to be exactly who they want me to be.

As long as this is done as a form of creative entertainment, as exercise for the imagination, it’s wonderful (and totally addictive). But I suspect in many cases we are creating in these other people impossible fictions, making them out to be what no human could ever possibly be, and then loving them, these creations of our own imaginations, hopelessly, unreasonably, dangerously.

We do this in ‘Real’ Life too, I think. We never really know the people we think we know and love (and until Vulcan mind melds become possible, we never will). We love who we imagine people to be, and that can create terrible problems when, as the relationship matures, they are revealed to be something very different from who we imagined.

That’s enough from me on this. These are half-formed, scary thoughts, and I just wanted to get them out there. What do you think?

Category: Human Nature
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14 Responses to Two Dangerous Lessons from Second Life

  1. David Parkinson says:

    Frankly, SL scares the crap out of me — although about 100% of what I know about it comes from you. It feels like just another way of abdicating our responsibility to the world around us, another way of losing interest in miracles not generated by human activity, another way to mistake finger for moon. I find it fascinating that you spend so much time and creative energy there (and this is not a veiled rebuke, but an honest observation) — that makes me feel as though there may be more to it than my gut reaction would suggest, but I can’t figure out what that X Factor is from your descriptions. Sounds like a chatroom with graphics.I spent 2007 retreating from the unhealthy simulacrum of films, TV, & video. The older I get, the more I feel deep down that many of our problems are exacerbated by the unending barrage of predetermined sensory representations, primarily visual ones. We’ve fooled ourselves into believing that our illusions are more real than the stage on which we deploy them. And that really scares me. I think we need to get away from that, in our individual lives, and as a society, if we’re going to start building better ways of living.Well, there’s nothing very original in that: it’s the standard anti-SL position, I’m sure.Happy solstice!–David

  2. Meryn Stol says:

    I think that once you know how much visual impressions affect your judgement, you’re in the position to consciously work on that. You don’t have to see it as fixed. Part of the cause may be innate, but certainly a big part is cultural. You obviously have to free yourself from the cultural part, but it may be in your best interest to fight any natural tendency that may be left over. There’s no need to follow your instincts. They may not help you.Sometimes I dream of a world where people are communicating in total darkness – just communicating, one brain to another. Our brains want connection, our senses are primarily needed for interacting with the physical world, e.g. moving around, doing physical work. Ofcourse, we currently need our eyes to see, and ears to hear, but communication doesn’t have to be limited to that.I think Second life is unhealthy because it focuses on the visual (and thus materialistic) far too much. The mystery can just as easily be achieved through text-only communication.I hope that one day we learn to judge each other’s faces solely by their emotional expression, and each other’s bodies by their signs of *current* health, not arbitrary genetic factors or things caused by physical accidents or earlier illness.I think one of the best part the internet has brought us is the ability to communicate without an avatar. For me, SL brings a totally unneeded (and distracting) portion of real life back. Give me “spiritual” communication anytime.

  3. Nathan Shepperd says:

    I think David and Meryn above have some good points, and they have covered some things I might say.Aside from that, I still think you are doing something valuable by putting yourself into the experience and learning from it, admitting to the dangers and not getting overcome by them.I certainly agree it’s very difficult to get out of the habit of being attracted to physically attractive people, but as you get older you realise what is going on and it’s possible to see where your feelings are likely to make a fool out of you. Maybe SL just combines the pretty avatars with the known tendency of confidence increasing with anonymity on the internet to turn into an intoxication.Perhaps I’m just repeating what you’ve already said Dave, but that’s only because what you’re saying is very perceptive!

  4. Siona says:

    I’d echo David’s comment above. What I find most offputting about Second Life, though, is less the potential sociological repercussions, but the blunt fact that I love my animal body, and I love my physicality, and I like sharing that, via touch and presence and sensation, with others. (And no, I’m not a polyamorist. Sensualist would be more accurate.) Isn’t beauty also subjective? I so frequently find what is real and genuine so much more beautiful than what is fake or superficial. To me, depth is beautiful. Character is beautiful. Plastic surgery and vanity and a too-great concern with surface characteristics is not. I’m far more prone to feeling attracted to someone with a certain depth of presence than someone who looks conventionally appealing. I find depth erotic. Second Life, with its necessary attention to visual appearances over touch or the (to my mind) critical presence involve in limbic resonance, leaves me a bit cold.I think, Dave (Pollard), this time, that what you wrote about in point two applies absolutely to the world in general. But to me this makes sense. Human beings are inherently mysterious–I consider myself ridiculous introspective, but even so I hardly know who I am and surprise myself every day–so why wouldn’t we be attracted to this? And people who feel comfortable enough with themselves to be passionate about something… well, there’s something in that that speaks to authenticity. Attention and appreciation? Who doesn’t want to feel *seen* and known and recognized? But I’m rambling. All that was just to say that these are hallmarks of a genuine, authentic individual. Of course we’d find these traits attractive. I just trust that everyone has the potential to embody them: everyone is potentially mysterious; everyone has a passion to discover; everyone can be attentive and appreciative. There’s no need to escape into SL to find this. :)

  5. If reality is itself quite illusory, why would anyone want to create a virtual reality within it in the first place?Thats like illusion to the power of illusion, that must be totally fake!!Personally i think we have enough problems with this “real” world itself…Happy that the delusion is giving way.

  6. Michelle says:

    Hi Dave. I can see your thinking. I’ve thought about it myself on occasion. Truth be told, some of the relationships I’ve formed over the years online have indeed been based inside an illusion of sorts that I create from the filling in of the gaps between words on the screen and my own imagination. It seems that *I* assume so much more than I ever thought I did about people.Second Life is more than a mere chatroom. It’s neither reality but nor does it pretend its reality. It’s appeal lies in its visual and aural strength for sure. A very wise friend of mine by the name of Vlad Spears once said It’s a modern tool, a rich extension of your identity rather than simple-minded entertainment. It’s a part of Real Life. If you have it going on out here, you’ll have it going on in there. The past two weeks for me have been cathartic and healing inside Second Life. There is a pile of shit a small mountain high in my “Real” Life which has been difficult to contain both physically and emotionally. More objective types might suggest that my “wasting” time inside Second Life is perhaps creating some of that Real Life chaos! Yes! That might be true…the ironing pile is growing for sure! But…. inside of me, where my spirit dwells, where the synapses of my brain churn with the chemicals of love and hope, SL has afforded me the balance I needed to survive this present crisis. I was and am calmer and “happier” than if I’d not been able to swan about inside my “pretty” avatar speaking to dear friends and being my true self.There’s a tacit agreement among the devotees of SL too. We ALL know that the avatar is merely representative of the real life person behind it. Like children who play, adults get to play around with their outward persona in clothing and form. It’s not a big deal really in the final analysis…the avatar is the “game” part of Second life. Only stupid people fail to remember the “rule”…”Take no one else seriously until you know them..but be expected to be taken very seriously yourself”. Integrity in Second life is not so much aesthetic as conversational. You learn pretty quickly through text OR voice which people are being up front and which ones are not! There’s nothing really to be frightened of in Second Life. It is a you make it. For me right now, its my counsellors chair, the place I go when I need to be among people who love and care about me even though they’ve never met me in the flesh.Que sera sera

  7. Jon Husband says:

    I was wondering, when you mentioned to me at KMWorld your fascination …As long as this is done as a form of creative entertainment, as exercise for the imagination, it’s wonderful (and totally addictive). But I suspect in many cases we are creating in these other people impossible fictions, making them out to be what no human could ever possibly be, and then loving them, these creations of our own imaginations, hopelessly, unreasonably, dangerously.We do this in ‘Real’ Life too, I thinkYup. But ‘real life’ often corrects things for us … unfortunately, all too often that corrections helps breed cynicism.

  8. deb says:

    I think SL is a double-edged sword. I agree with David that society needs to get away from “the unending barrage of predetermined sensory representations, primarily visual ones”. I also think SL counters ethnocentrism, primarily through “chat”. From CNNMoney dated Dec21-07, “…usage has shifted dramatically outside the United States. Today 75 percent of users are international…” and “Now over 100 colleges and universities are holding classes inside Second Life.” I am encouraged by these stats.I started out deliberately making my avatar look plain and plump. My shaved head raised eyebrows, and I often got picked on by the bullies or ignored. But those who did approach me for conversation had an open curiousity about my style choices. I continue playing with visual oddities as a social experiment, but gravitate towards fashion acceptance and beauty solely as a means to explore SL without attracting attention due to being “different”. It’s difficult to find fashionable “tame” clothing. Most shops are pimping sex items. My choice is to avoid avatar sex because I see it as a huge waste of my valuable time… and possibly yet another addictive yet empty pasttime.I retreated from unhealthy films, TV and video years ago. In SL, however, we get to write the script and/or choose our destinations. There are so many reasons people try this forum out. Some of the simply curious soon get bored. Some, surely, waste huge amounts of time seeing and being seen. But many of us view SL as a place to promote peace and problem solve with peoples all over our troubled planet. SL appears to me as a hotbed of creative thinking. I think the power of change lies with the groups and group leaders. Prime example: “Climate Change Experts Stage Talks at Second Life” (ref the Bali conferences in RL and Etopia EcoVillage in SL)Meryn states “…once you know how much visual impressions affect your judgement, you’re in the position to consciously work on that.” Maybe. I think it takes more than being aware. Various forms of brain-washing can be pretty subtle. There is an SL group trying to limit billboards and ads inworld. I’m for that!!I’m concerned there will be many who remain unaware of the strength of visual impressions. I noticed my dreams changed (I fly more) and I feel more creative. I attribute this to the wonderful artwork in SL. I tend to avoid the concrete jungles. Without the scenery, SL would be just another chat room. I find it stimulating that there is a gray area between RL and SL. It helps me remember on a daily basis that “reality” is flexible. True nature eventually shines through all the costumes. The playing field has been leveled (relatively speaking).. so we can proceed to get down to the business of problem solving. It’s not ALL fashion and beauty in SL. Check out Calleta’s Hobo Railroad Infohub.

  9. Dave Pollard says:

    Michelle Paradis (blocked by 404 messages by Radio Userland’s server writes:Hmmm

  10. deb says:

    I’m with you all the way, Dave, except for your last sentence which inversely implies that those who do not diddle around with avatar bodies are somehow lacking sensuality. It’s the “…for those of us who love…” part. I’m focused on semantics, but I think it’s an important point. The poorly worded sentence labels non-sexual SL-ers as not loving “our animal body and our physicality”. I’m sure you didn’t mean it quite the way it came out.I’m a fairly new reader here and wanted to touch briefly on the polyamorous subject. I just read an article written by a women who believes in polyamory but doesn’t practice it. Her first couple of paragraphs touch on a point I believe to be true…which is: First things first. Until women achieve equality, polyamory is no better (and perhaps no worse) than monogamy. She says: “Being open to the fuck, as all polyamorous women are supposed to be, is men

  11. The new reader raises an important point about polyamory. SL allows one to experiment with impunity but the actual model is one that is inherently more difficult for women to follow. The sexual act for a woman is far more risk intensive, requires far more trust, than it does for the male. Size and strength differentials, intensity and awareness/sensitivity levels of the male partner, all make it very easy for a woman to be hurt in the sex act. Further, there are different cultural and biological imperatives for women in sexual acts. I am not sure a model requiring one to ignore one’s ‘wiring’ regarding attraction is optimal- although all models ought to be based upon reason. If polyamory is key to communication, then wouldn’t it require each participant to be bisexual, again overcoming ‘wiring’ in attraction and goals for intimacy? Equality in polyamory (versus polygamy) indicates that the males in the group are intimate with one another too, an honest check and balance for even handedness and investment in the group without competition. Dave, have you experimented in SL with homoerotic relationships? How does this figure in your emerging model?

  12. mattbg says:

    I agree with you. But you’ve also pretty much described Internet dating :)

  13. ursi says:

    Well, I ventured into SL one evening after reading about it on this blog. After a few hours meandering around and being hit on my some young SL dude, I freaked out and left. Why? Well, as the SL dude started grabbing me, er …I mean, my avatar or whatever she’s called in SL, I had an immediate vision of some creep that I would not give the time of day to in real life. And then I remembered my own real life condition and started laughing. Time out. Back to reality!

  14. Quinterra says:

    First of all, I agree with you on a lot of things, Dave. I remember you wrote not to long ago that loving someone else seems to be just as much self-love. We can only love what we understand and know, therefore, I think it makes sense that we try to “invent” each other.Also, Stephen Downes is right. While studying Buddhism, I came to realize a basic truth that I actually always knew: what is real is just as much illusion, and what is illusion is just as much real.Human nature can be a kind of sick and twisted thing, but, like anything, moderation is what keeps it healthy.Secondly, I have to disagree with you on being attracted to “pretty airheads”. I’ve always been attracted to older and weird people with good personalities, even if they weren’t that cute. Honestly, I can’t stand pretty airheads or handsome, cocky guys. They make me sick.

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