Saturday, February 03, 2007

An expenses claim for virtual sexual enlightenment

Jenny Diski has a great piece on the Second Life phenomenon at the LRB. Here are the first two paragraphs, just to show you why you'd better go and read the whole thing:

Most religions suggest that we get at least one other go at being. Christianity offers an afterlife, Judaism suggests an altogether better existence once the Messiah arrives, while Hinduism and other Eastern religions try to deal with samsara, the terrible burden of having to do life over and over again until you get it right. But I don’t think any of them offer much help with the alarming notion of multiple worlds, which quantum theorists have arithmeticked to prove entirely possible. As far as I can understand it, Many Worlds Theory proposes that there are n zillion worlds like this one but marginally different, operating in parallel to the only world in which we think we exist. There you’re wearing pink kitten heels not Hush Puppies, there you had sausage for breakfast not muesli, there it so happened that you took a left turn not a right one and became a fashionistic, carnivoracious arch-criminal instead of the peace-negotiating, vegan, style wasteland you are in this world. We might each be living out all our possible lives, through all the variations of what we could possibly say or do, in an infinite number of worlds where everyone else is living out their variations, each at some weird angle to this one that my sorry, innumerate and spatially challenged brain is unable to comprehend. If this sounds like hell on earths to you then you probably haven’t signed up for Second Life.

Second Life is a virtual online world that exists on a vast computer somewhere in California. It has a detailed landscape, a mainland, many islands and more than one million simulated inhabitants whose actual bodies are distributed around every part of the physical world. It’s called a game though there is no goal and no end point at which a clear winner emerges and takes the prize. In this it is no different from real life (RL, as it’s referred to in SL). And it’s free up to a point, which is the entrance price of real life, though just like the here and now, if you want to own any part of the world in Second Life, you need money to buy it. There are of course differences between RL and SL. You have to opt in to SL, which is a degree of volition you don’t get in reality. This does give it a certain negative charm: at least there is one possible life to which you can just say no. It also has the edge on the real thing (for me, at least, as an ├╝ber-indolent person), because being a virtual world, you don’t have to go out to get to it. I used to weep envious buckets watching whatshisname in Close Encounters of the Third Kind being taken off-world to the absolutely not here anymore by those delightful doe-eyed creatures, and Second Life seemed to offer a way of doing this without the hassle of the striving, making mountains out of mashed potato, quest thing. So I signed up.

Further thoughts:

1. I want to write essays like this! (I always have an especially strong impulse to make new things when my writing time's locked in for months to come on finishing long-term ongoing projects, no surprises there...)

2. The kitten heels and sausage bit is surely an exaggeration for rhetorical effect. I very often invoke the "alternate-universe self" concept to explain things about my life and my choices, so that you might think of yourself "oh, in the next universe over to this one [I was just reflecting on this yesterday] my time would be much more evenly split between books, movies, plays and music, but in this one I am pathologically obsessed with books at the expense of the other art forms for which I feel a strong affinity" or "oh, several universes over that guy would be my nice boyfriend, but not in this one" (and you use the "immediately proximate" versus "several universes over" distinction to explain how strongly or weakly you feel an affinity for the path not taken). In no alternate universe (well, this is just me in particular, I cannot speak for Jenny Diski of course!) would I be wearing kitten heels or eating sausage for breakfast. But in the next universe over, I might be wearing black cowboy boots almost every day; and in another next universe (or perhaps even the same one) I might have oatmeal for breakfast instead of yogurt, or (well, this is farfetched, some flavors are just so clearly superior to others, and not all are sold everywhere) eating a Banana Nut Clif Bar instead of a Crunchy Peanut Butter one...

3. This is related to the "lost twin" notion. It is my longstanding belief that if I was reunited with a lost twin, the strange and sort of horrifying part of it wouldn't be the broad similarities but rather the minute ones: the uncanny feeling of looking at someone who, say, puts on their eyeliner in the exact same way. This is just to say that it is possible that my alternate-universe selves are almost all excessive-book-reading Dansko-clog-wearing later-in-life-exercise-obsessed maniacs. It would be exciting if my alternate-universe self did not have a stress fracture and was training for an Ironman race, I must say that while I find it unlikely that I would ever do an Ironman I will be very disappointed with myself if I have not done a half-Ironman by, say, age 40, I think that gives me plenty of time to train and learn how to do it....

4. Which is in turn related to the "clone" notion. I often feel that I am doing two or sometimes even three different person's work, but it is an interesting test of priorities to think about what you'd do if you could hive off a clone or two and start delegating. One reason I know I must be a professor for the rest of my life is that when I am most busy at work and just desperately wishing for time to write, I would send the clone to write and keep doing the teaching and admin stuff myself!


  1. One reason I know I must be a professor for the rest of my life is that when I am most busy at work and just desperately wishing for time to write, I would send the clone to write and keep doing the teaching and admin stuff myself!

    No way! You lie, surely? I can kind of buy that you'd rather teach, but admin! Surely not?

  2. I haven't explained myself well! It's not a question of RATHER--I would always rather be writing, of course (or say reading and writing), even though I am very fond of teaching also & the two make a good combination--just a question of where you feel your main responsibility lies! Or alternately whether you trust it will be carried out as you wish if you leave it to someone else!

  3. It's a fun article. But personally I learn more about the game when checking out the SL news sites. I don't play, but I think they are interesting. The "I'm a tourist who won't ever get sucked in by this game, and here's why" -type stories are less interesting than the "I'm completely obsessed with living inside this game" -type stories. Her foray into the game is filled with fairly obvious observations.

    And I disagree with your second point -- that is, if we're actually talking about an infinite amount of alternate universes. And even if we aren't, change a few details from your childhood and your feet may very well be squished inside kitty heels right now. I suppose that's all moot, though, since the game is clearly directed toward living out "the next one over."

  4. On a serious level, I am sure you are right (messageboards sound interesting, I am ignorant of the whole phenomenon I must confess). On a more frivolous one, though, it is impossible for me to imagine that any contiguous genetically similar or identical self could EVER do such a thing as wear kitten heels! Really inconceivable...

  5. Yeah, I'm not so good at doing the message board thing -- too tedious for me, and I stink at following through on threads, being a "community member."

    I find the most interesting sources for SL news to be the blogs and papers.
    There's the Second Life Herald:

    And the insanely interesting New World Notes:

    And there's the Reuters page:

    Here's the story from NWM that first got me interested in following this stuff: Catholic Mass happening every morning in SL

    Jenny's story is great for people who only sorta know about SL. And her ideas help import some engaged-objectivity (which I suppose is a stupid way of saying "ethnographic observations") onto the phenomenon. But the information is so easily accessible, and so abundant, that I don't think an article, especially from an outsider, can possibly come close to covering the depth and functions and levels of engagement of the game (they're quite phenomenal -- read NWM for a bit to see for yourself).

    Also, I think she should have dipped into the LRB funds and had her way with a prostitute. That's one of the weirder things in the game. And it would have been really funny/freaky to read. (Stores sell the animations/graphics for moves, so you can purchase your sexual repertoire.)

  6. fascinating post and interesting dialogue about it. my brain is feeling squeezed from contemplating it all. my main question at the risk of revealing great ignorance is: what are kitten heels???

  7. J, of course you might eat sausage for breakfast in another world- you're British!