One of the most intriguing parts of our final seminar, for me, was our brief discussion of the virtual platform Second Life before we dove into the internet of value. Although it’s heyday was in 2007, Second Life still has 600,000 regular users according to the article “The Digital Ruins of a Forgotten Future” that was published by the Atlantic this month (thanks Hannah for recommending it in class!) . The article describes how the platform serves as an escape for many people, and offered the examples of a parent of children with serious developmental disorders and a woman diagnosed with multiple sclerosis who both use the platform to live free from their limitations and obligations for some time. The article also described how Second Life could serve as a chance to pursue one’s unfulfilled dreams. For Jonas Tancred, who was interviewed for the article, that meant becoming a musician. He performed concerts in the platform in front of raving audiences (while in real life he played in his kitchen on a guitar plugged into his laptop) and grew so popular that eventually he was offered a real-life record deal in New York City. Not only that, but he met a woman on Second Life after one of his concerts who he would eventually be the mother of his child.
This blurring of the lines virtual and the physical world reminded me of the science fiction book Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. In the book, the physical world is in a state of despair and chaos due to an energy crisis, and the only escape is the virtual reality game/society called the OASIS. The OASIS is more immersive than Second Life, and is described as being accessible via a visor and haptic gloves. Wealthy players could even purchase entire haptic bodysuits to feel fully engaged in the virtual world. Although Second Life is of course not nearly as widespread nor as technologically advanced as the OASIS in the novel, I was intrigued to see that the fantastical ideas in a book I read just recently have in fact been played with for over a decade.
Though I can see many merits of a virtual world as an opportunity to escape the binds of prejudice, responsibility, poverty, and to interact with people from all across the world, I worry that it is also a way to evade the challenges that we face in the real world. Indeed, in Ready Player One, the world is in ruins, and the protagonist lives in a trailer park (the trailers are precariously stacked on top of each other because it is so overpopulated) that is riddled with violence. The world is past saving, and all the people can do is log into the OASIS to escape it for a while.
Although Second Life was admittedly never widespread and currently has but 600,000 players, the Atlantic article argues that the desire to create a curated, ideal version of oneself has just been played out on social media platforms life Facebook and Instagram instead. People may feel more comfortable because they are not creating a fully fabricated avatar, but the fundamental will to escape real life remains the same. There are many problems with having a hand-picked online persona in my opinion, as I described in my last post. In addition, though, it would be devastating and even apocalyptic to see people dive too far into the virtual world, so discouraged by the real world that they abandon any efforts to address its issues.