Tuesday, December 05, 2006

second life, cont'd

What I said about the last war still holds true: while there's nothing new about war itself, or about the flimsy pretenses the modern ones have been based upon, it is new when the games they use to train the bombers are so realistic that the trainees can lose track of when they're training and when they're dropping bombs. I feel the same way about Second Life, though I've never visited it. The mere fact that it is so close to reality in so many ways makes it an important development, even if it is still seen as a game by many people.

So I've been challenged, in a way, to prove that it's not just like a glorified video game, for people who are missing something, or unable to achieve something, in their first life, basically a hideout for losers. I think that even the geekiest video games can teach us some skills at a relatively low cost, most notably computer skills, and so have some virtue, but it's become a sore point in our house, where three hours a day of killing/chatting doesn't seem to be enough for the gamers or even to compare to what some other teens are doing, etc., and on our end appears to be taking people directly out of "first world" where we could at least experience their gaming withdrawal and otherwise cheerful demeanor, or involve them in our fantasy of good times that involve fresh air or perhaps exercise.

So I'll make my case for Second Life quickly and then try to prove it gradually, or rather, let time prove it for me. I'm sure there will be competition for SL soon enough, but the point is the same: the development of online virtual worlds will have profound consequences on life as we know it, especially on education, human self-awareness and perception, and we should pay attention quickly. I'll start with the things that interest me most.

First, I agree with Eric Rice: "You can call it a video game, which is true and false at the same time. You can call it a virtual world, which is more accurate, yet socially, a new concept." The fact is, we don't know what will happen here; just because it's being treated like a game by many shows only that that's what many need most immediately. When we get a handle on other needs that can be met here, it will take over other functions as well.

Online education, for example, has been most held back by a single factor: that the single student operating alone at the computer loses out on the learning environment that other traditional students enjoy. Where is the camaraderie, the community of people learning together? The student center or college bar neighborhood? The environment was always considered one of the high points of college; learning hasn't been the same without it, for the online denizens, even if you could chat with your professor at a prescribed time online. But now online education doesn't have to be without that environment. You want to go to college at night? You can actually go there, online, and stop after class to visit with other students, etc. Once people get in the habit, staying in dorms might lose its appeal. The geographical necessity of changing towns (in Iowa, for example, having to move to one of about 20-30 towns) will certainly be gone- to what effect?

Obscure languages are hampered by lack of geographical space where they are not muscled out by larger languages that people have to learn anyway. The new world does not really have a geography as such, so its dialects are driven by online communities that share needs and activities- for that reason, I'm sure new languages will spring up if they haven't already. But how about saving a few old ones? Those who are interested don't have to be driven apart by geographical barriers caused by diaspora. Quick- before it's too late- let's make online venues for Scots Gaelic, Yiddish, and Arawak! I'm one of a minority who would do this just for its own sake. More likely, people will do this for other reasons, or will at least be assumed to have ulterior motives, even if they're like me. You want privacy? Some folks may be looking into these languages just to get some...reminds me a little of the Navajo code-jumpers, who found that knowing a language with its own complete vocabulary was an unexpectedly valuable commodity in an unusual situation.

Finally, and I'm running out of time here, just remember this mantra: in the future bandwidth won't be an issue...these days, even with relatively new computers, we have to wait a while for the gamers to get off the computer before we can get on just to do routine stuff. But we're still living in the caveman era. My children will probably have different avatars for different functions- and be able to jump in and out of them. Nothing I've predicted is really radical- it's pretty much on the next horizon. If you'd like to ruminate about what could happen, look at what already is, and imagine how it will be when anyone can go there at little cost or effort. Briefly here are some other fields that I think will be radically changed fairly quickly, though I can't explain exactly how, at least not yet. Music; intentional communities; our understanding of altering perception through altering environments; and, our understanding of human behavior in large anonymous groups, or even small ones. The concept of "gender", I believe, has already been turned on its ear; just because no one has studied the change (for more than a year)- doesn't make it any less profound. What happens when people can routinely choose their gender? Slip in and out of them like slippers? I have no idea. But I can assure you- it's more than just a game.



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