Sunday, December 9, 2007

voice virgin no more!

Risking digital life & limb with my proximity to the cleaver weilding demonic turkey (back left) that patrols Calletta's Hobo Camp,I finally got myself set up for voice chat in SL with an inexpensive $20 headset with microphone. Here you see me engaged in a voice-chat conversation. The reception was reasonably clear, and it was interesting hearing the voices of the other avatars in my head.

As I've noted in past entries, a key element of spoken word is the unique autograph of embodiment that shapes the soundwaves according to the specific anatomy of the speaker. So, using voice-chat in SL gives avatars a stronger connection to their creators and the specific vocal qualities of each gives greater depth to the character of the avatar. This is but one effect of the resonance of sound.

The only problem with voice-chat is that there is yet no record of the conversation like there is with typed text, no way of recording all the voices in SL dialog.

Thought I thought that voice-chat would make it easier for me to communicate in SL, I still seem to retain a kind of shyness, perhaps more so because my voice is so personal. An unexpected experience!

Another interesting aspect of voice-chat is that avatar voices often carry further than their immediate proximity making it easy to eavesdrop on conversations...
so even loose digital lips might sink digital ships!

A few postings ago, I visited the USC Annenberg conference where "chat" was the main topic of discussion.
During this event major speakers used voice chat while volunteers like Iggy helped to moderate discussion and questions from attendees via type-chat.

In this web page about the discussion,"Chat History from Virtual Worlds" we can see that no voice-chat recording was made, but it makes sense to get voice set up and working smoothly with clear sound before we start recording it. I have tried to record my voice-chat sessions via Mac's GarageBand, but it only picked up my voice. Though I could still hear other avatars, their voices did not record.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Turkey Turns the Tables!

I just thought it fair warning, in these days before Thanksgiving, to let y'all know that there is a demonic turkey in SL at the Hobo Camp and he's fixin' to turn the tables on us and serve up some tasty human avatar for dinner. Check out the glowing demon eyes.
And be sure to note that cleaver he's swinging in his left wing?
(hmmm...why the left wing? must be a right wing conspiracy!)

The bird floats creepily about a foot above the ground, moving randomly and suddenly turning without warning to head off in another direction.

Maybe this bird is a victim of Pappy's telling what's in that ol' still he has!
I think that the mad turkey is a "bot" - an automatic avatar. I'm not sure what the rules are for creating and unleashing these in SL, but the bird makes me want to learn how to script my own SL robots!

Stay tuned!

Sunday, November 4, 2007

USC Conference: SL in Education

Recently Beeble briefly attended an 'in-world' SL conference sponsored by Educause and led by the Lindens at the Annenburg Arena at USC: "Hot Topics Discussion on Virtual Worlds". Iggy was helping out at the conference as over 100 professional educators met to discuss ways to use SL in education and to question the Lindens about upcoming possibilities. Since the moderators were going to be the only ones using voice, Iggy's job was to coach attendees how to engage without voice to prevent acoustic overload.

Though the invitations that were sent out suggested professional dress for avatars, there were many strange creatures in the arena, not the least of which was Pathfinder Linden complete with spiky black wings and a tall green hat.

To grab for my few seconds of celebrity, I bumbled up on stage to stand behind Iggy
for a snapshot, and not long after he heard someone asking about the unauthorized avatar on the stage - good thing I wasn't in my original 'fuzzy' outfit!

(the tan man is super-suave digi-celebrity Ignatius Onomatopoea - I'm the pale dork behind him)

Friday, October 19, 2007

Imperfection in Second Life

In past postings, I've discussed my avatar friend Pappy Enoch who looks like a black bearded pot-bellied hillbilly in overalls who communicates in what I call a 'bastardized hillbilly dialect' (as if there were an 'official' hillbilly language). Though he looks scary, and though he recently broke out of jail in Tombstone, Pappy is actually quite a southern gentleman and he has attracted a small following.

I've been fascinated and mystified by Pappy's popularity. Pappy's place on Richmond Island looks like an un-mown junk yard with a still, an outhouse and an old truck up on blocks, and as such it seems to run counter to most SL landscapes that are generally clean and orderly. (does a word like 'clean' even apply?) The same seems to be true for most avatars - people generally go for the slick look of 'perfection' even if their costume is bizarre.

My theory is that for most folks, SL is a place to achieve a 'perfection' that we cannot achieve in real life, so we try to design the body image or surroundings that reflect our sense of the ideal, or at least an identity we'd like to try out for a 'test-drive.' Aside from being a vague and variously defined term, 'perfection' is a state that may not be as desirable as we believe - it may not be a worthy goal.

Zamyatin's novel We is an excellent and fascinating exploration of the notion of perfection and other attempts at precise measurement and the world he portrays of individual perfection and uniformity via totally calculated control is at once boring and horrific. So my point about Pappy is that perhaps his minor celebrity is precisely because of his imperfection, not in spite of it.

It may be that, when given the chance to design and interact with the ideal, we find it insufficient and boring and we long for that which lacks such uniformity and transcendence, if unconsciously. It may be that the 'imperfections' we subdue, cover and resist are actually embodied sites of power, delight and wisdom.

The value of imperfect embodiment is explored in Denis Danvers' sci-fi novels The Circuit of Heaven and End of Days as future humans dump their bodies for a chance at immortality and eternal youth inside a digital reproduction of the real world called "the Bin." One of the more chilling scenes in the novel is of the train-carloads of these dumped bodies pulling into the mass incinerators built to dispose of the disparaged flesh. Eventually the perfection and predictability of these realms wears on the residents and they begin to long for their bodies back...

Today I met an SL resident named "Lota" whose avatar was so bulbous that others were asking her if she was pregnant. (what would it mean to be pregnant in SL?) But no, Lota isn't pregnant, she's just FAT - another deliberately designed 'imperfect' avatar.

(this picture doesn't do justice to her wondrously pendulous belly)
Though Lota doesn't have the fans that Pappy does, it was clear that she did have a level of celebrity judging by the comments and interaction of surrounding avatars. The imperfection of the situation was also emphasized by someone 'farting' regularly during our conversation. I never asked, but I don't think it was Lota. Fortunately it was the sound of farting only since SL lacks olfactory cues - so far. (but would we want to add smell? and is farting a kind of griefing?)

So, hats off to Lota and Pappy for leading the revolution of imperfection and thereby celebrating our brilliant and uncontrollable embodiment!

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Educational Gaming graduate study

During my research into the educational possibilities of Second Life, I came across a blog entry about a graduate course by Bernie Dodge of San Deigo State University called "Exploratory Learning Through Simulation and Games" and he generously invited me into their discussion.

On their class website there are not only links to Second Life resources and commentary, there are materials for exploring and discussing 'low-tech' board games, game theory and world-building or 'scripting' tutorials. The course blog discusses current corporate applications of SL as well as featuring educational projects in other universites.

One thing is for sure - we're beginning to recover from the false notions that gaming is not a serious intellectual pursuit or that fun is not a central component to effective learning.

Thanks to Dr. Dodge & the grad students of SDSU for letting me join in your conversation!

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Our Research Team

Though I took a summer hiatus, SL exploration this fall promises to be more expansive and interesting with the addition of some new researchers from UR's Summer Scholars Program who have agreed to explore Teen SL and post their dispatches to our research blog.

Intrepid SL blogger, networker and digital guide Ignatius Onomatopoeia will be checking in from time to time to see our progress. If you haven't seen it already, be sure to check out his "In a Strange Land" blog: to get a survey of some of the creative activity going on in Second Life.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Coffee in Cyberia on the Keweenaw

(*note about my use of first person: my earlier intentions to clarify and separate digital identity as Beeble from my organic identity as an academic explorer have become too cumbersome to lower case "i" to represent Beeble and my upper case "I" to represent my flesh have not been consistently applied, so from here on I'll use only the traditional capitalized "I" leaving readers to negotiate them)

It's been a while since my last posting, and even with my dismissals of the 'reality' of digital realms like Second Life, I've found myself feeling a bit guilty that I haven't been in more frequently, visiting established friends and making new ones. What can I say? I like my first life quite a bit!
Right now I am vacationing on the Keweenaw Peninsula, a small 'thumb' of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan that juts out into the middle of Lake Superior. Anyone who has sweltered through the suffocating hot & humid summers in Richmond will understand why I escape to the cooler climes of the UP. Though they have their hotter days (mid 80's to 90 max) most of the time, the weather here is breezy, sunny and in the mid 70's - a delightful contrast!

Above you can see the location of the peninsula and a typical view Lake Superior.

I'm writing from Cyberia Cafe in Houghton, Michigan run by Steve, and I have to say it's a connected coffee lounge! Though I can't seem to run Second Life on their PC's I hope to interest Steve in taking Cyberia into SL as well so past customers can check in and say hi in some visible form, from anywhere in the world.

I learned about Cyberia when I came up for the 2005 Computers InWriting Intensive Classrooms conference (CIWIC) at Michigan Tech hosted by Cynthia Selfe who now teaches at Ohio State University. In the interdisciplinary field of composition and computers, Selfe is a respected researcher who has advanced our understanding of digital tools, their application to teaching and their impact on us. If she has the time, perhaps Beeble will have to interview her about the pedagogical potential of SL.

I'm heading out on the peninsula for some camping in real life, complete with the soothing rhythms of Superior and the scintillating scents of the vast forests on the peninsula - but I'll be back to report and continue my explorations of SL.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Pappy's cousin LuciferLee

They wouldn't let me in the club in my earthy condition, but I was able to get a picture of Pappy's coustin, the Rev. LuciferLee Enoch, as he was practicing on the piano.

It was a classical piece, Bach I believe, but I was surprised to see him play such a peaceful tune after the fire-breathing sermons I've heard him give!

He's Pappy Enoch's cousin and so a member of the Hellbilly community but since the Rev. went to Bible College he lack's Pappy's distinctive backwoods dialect - though a bit of grit slips through now and again!

When I learned he was a Reverend, I was sure he'd think I was some kind of Swamp Demon and try to banish me or exorcize my muck-n-moss, but instead he greeted me like a brother with a big squishy hug.

Now, I'm not an expert on theology but Rev. Enoch says that most church folk got it all wrong, and that Lucifer is the brother of Jesus, not his nemesis! It sounds crazy, I know, but etymologically "lucifer" means "light bringer" or "shining one" and Jesus is called the "light of the world" and was sometimes described as emitting light....hmmmm. Who knows?
Maybe the Devil isn't the bad guy after all?

According to the Rev. Lucifer taught Jesus how to do the wine thing and that Jesus' priorities were evident in his first miracle where he created a huge 30 gallon jug of good wine for a party.

That's one preacher that makes even my muddy mind work overtime!

Sunday, July 8, 2007

It came from the pit!

IS "Beeble Earth" really a 'new look' or is it a clever cover for some kind of mucky swamp-thing?

Things have been getting mighty wierd around Pappy's place lately...

Rumor has it that it came from the pit of Pappy Enoch's outhouse and is now out to "git" him!

It may be something that spontaneously generated when ol' Pap dumped a bad batch of moonshine down the hole...ah, the perils of unplanned experiments...

Some say that Pappy can just shoot him with his double-barrel shotgun, but we all know what happens when bullets hit that which comes from the pit! (it's worse than when 'it' hits the fan)

And as for advances in outhouse technology, the only one I ever used that had absolutely no smell and no flies was a raised outhouse at earthaven ecovillage.
The outhouse they built were a few steps above ground and rather than using a collecting pit, waste is collected above ground in an open-air cage. Combined with scoops of sawdust or bunches of straw, the waste dries and composts with the added material and leaves a dry, odorless material that can be buried or used as fertilizer for plants not meant for food.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Language as technology: voice versus text

Normally I try to avoid advertising for companies, but the Lindens and other creator-residents of Second Life have contributed SO MUCH for free, I think they deserve an exception - and besides, I'm not advertising for their headsets so much as referencing their announcement to begin a conversation about what bringing voice to SL might mean.

Though we don't know for sure when humans first started using spoken language, some estimates are between 40,000 and 250,000 years ago - but there is no way to know for sure without written records! Of course, written records don't always lead to definitive answers either, but at least they provide an artifact to examine and debate. The origins of language may be obscure, but language and particularly the differences between spoken and written expression are more relevant than ever in the digital age.

Second Life began as an image & text-based format where participants type messages to one another's avatars. The conversation appears on the screen and can be logged for future reference. When an avatar is communicating, its hands come up as if it were typing, thus providing a visual cue and the familiar sound of the clacking keyboard adds a sonic cue for participants. Conversational coordination, just like in verbal exchange, is often tricky and related responses rarely follow immediately.

Just as in email and text messaging, some SL residents textual communications are abbreviated or accentuated with emoticons or other semiotic adaptations. And, just as in email and text messaging we never really know for sure who is on the other keyboard - it is *always* an act of faith. Anyone with sufficient technical skill can represent themselves as anyone else and only a close reading by an intimate friend would be likely to detect such deception.

Oral communication on the other hand is more difficult to fake, particularly since human hearing is quite adept at detecting subtleties of sound. Voice recognition has been one of the advantages of spoken communications over electronic media, and could provide certain identification since the pattern of our vocal expression is as singular as our finger print. Though fingerprinting or dactyloscopy has been around since the 19th Century, the science of biometrics is booming in our timid, terrified post 9/11 world. From entry gates at the local gym to forensic analysis, biometric technologies are being widely deployed for identity detection.

Thought I'm not certain whether the voice choice in SL will relay our spoken expression with accuracy and an identical voice print via spectrographic analysis, simply introducing the option of vocal verbal communcation will be a fascinating change offering many opportunities for intriguing intellectual discussion.

VUI (voice user interface) design and ASR (automated speech recognition) may combine to provide an accurate and unique transmission or rendition of our spoken communications such that we will no longer have to make that "leap of faith" that has become our default response when communicating via typed text. Further, if SL includes the option of an audio log as it does for text communications a heightened level of security or certainty may be possible.

While this is appealing, and perhaps an answer to the prayers of the most frightened, like all policing technologies, it may have an ugly underside. Since the human brain has had the longest "imprinting" with spoken language and most of us learned how to speak before we learned how to write, our oral composition skills are so automatic that we hardly notice them. Because of this, most of us speak freely and spontaneously, and sometimes to our great regret. What would a world be like that recorded every word we ever spoke?

I trust the Lindens more than I'd trust the government, so I doubt that Second Life will devolve into such an invasive policing technology, but the introduction of voice communications will certainly revolutionize this new exciting realm.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Beeble's NEW LOOK: "Beeble Earth"

To continue the emphasis on Nature and embodiment, Beeble has a new look called "Beeble Earth" - a mix of topsoil and hanging moss. Beeble Raccoon is still with us, but taking a much needed vacation: he's exhausted from all the teasing he got for being a furry!

I plan to continue my interviews and hope my new look won't be as much of a distraction as a six-foot raccoon. I suppose I could choose a more "normal" look, but why do that when it's so easy to make up something new and change it from time to time?

One of the SL residents Beeble Raccoon interviewed is Kyo Runo, an 18 year old woman from the UK who changed her avatar image constantly as I struggled to keep up with her. Her inventory of looks and skill at change-on-the-fly changes was amazing to watch - not to mention embarrassing for an avatar who still has trouble moving digitally!

Beeble may never become so adept, but it looks like there will be new looks to come!

Monday, June 25, 2007

Second Life for teaching?

I continue to explore the pedagogical possibilities of SL, and though I've just begun, I have found several interesting and useful sites. I'll give a brief overview in this entry and return to focus in greater detail on specific sites in following entries.

My colleague Ignatius Onomatopoea has been exploring SL educational possibilities as well, from movie making to SL libraries specifically designed for teachers, and he discusses some of this in his Ric
hmond Times Dispatch blog "In a Strange Land." Educators interested in how these technologies can be used would do well to keep up with Iggy's blog. The wide variety of the postings on Iggy's blog also demonstrate possible uses for teaching, from interviews to character design & development to learning how to script objects.

I've accompanied Iggy on interviews of SL educators like Milosun Czervik, a professor at Virginia Tech University who raised money in Second Life for the victims of their recent shooting. Czervik has also generously populated the ICT Library in Second Life with lots of free materials for teachers who want to use SL for teaching.

One of my first interviews was with Tonny Halderman, an SL designer who also teaches at 'The Business Centre - Horsens Business School'
in Denmark. One of his islands "Danish Visions" includes a windfarm and what he calls a "learning object" meant to help train those who assemble the precision-made Nissen gearbox cooling mechanisms for wind turbines in real life.

On his other island "Media Learning" as he discussed creating appropriate "learning spaces" for specific needs, he took me to a promontory overlooking an ocean complete with relaxing rhythmic waves whose calming litany was woven with the sounds of birds and breeze.

Of course, olfactory cues are absent, but even if the Linden's found a way to digitally duplicate scent, would it be the same as a smell naturally emitted from a biological object?
(yesterday on the James River, I noticed the slightly sweet smell of the rocks I had noticed in the mountains)

Even so, though only two senses were engaged, the sense of relaxation was surprising.

Tonny noted that this particular spot might be an effective space to balance high-intensity discussions or as inspiration for more meditative and reflective work.

Who knows? Maybe SL has the potential to become a new space for the mediation of conflict without the enhanced emotion that accompanies the experience of your opponent's embodied presence.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Brave New Worldz

Huxley would have been fascinated by Second Life, but I'm not sure whether he spend much time there - or maybe he would, but this time he would 'write' Brave New World with SL avatars! I suppose that would have to be a collaborative project, one of the many new possibilities in this realm: the participatory novel with people from all over the world creating avatars for Bernard & Lenina, the Savage and Mustapha Mond.

I've been working on a hypertext of Brave New World, and now I can display its homepage in SL and visitors can link to it and browse - an exciting pedagogical application of this new frontier.

Huxley's novel is now more relevant than ever with advances in genetic engineering, psychiatric drugs and the naturalization of constant consumer conditioning - though his world did not sit under the threat of nuclear war.

Though the phrase "brave new world" was not originally meant as an automatically positive statement, the word 'brave' at the time Shakespeare used it in "The Tempest" meant not only courage, but also showy and both seem to apply to Second Life - and this world is just beginning to unfold....

Friday, May 18, 2007

hillbilly in cyberspace?

Pappy's 'camp' on UR Island -

One of the most interesting characters i've run into in SL seems to have set up his hillbilly camp on UR island. Pappy Enoch is a tall, mean-looking, pot-bellied guy with shaggy black hair and beard in "seasoned" overalls. Though he looks mean, he's actually quite friendly and seems to have accidentally collected some fans.
If you have a Second Life avatar, you can visit Pappy's camp.

What makes Pappy unique in SL is that he is an "imperfect" character, one that includes many traits that we "wise moderns" have rejected as inferior or incorrect. For example, Pappy speaks in a kind of dialect, he seems to invent it rather than mimic an currently used dialect - not 'correct' but nevertheless communicative and engaging for others.

Pappy has a junk-strewn, overgrown area on UR Island where he has an old dog named Dixie Moonshine and he's a friendly guy in spite of his menacing, paunchy exterior (and that smell).
Recently Pappy had a contest to name the dog, and quite a few folks submitted ideas - in hillbilly!

It may be that Pappy's popularity is an indication of homogenization in SL and our human thirst for diversity and "imperfection". Or it cold be that Pappy represents an older set of values more focused on self-reliance, basic hospitality & civility and celebration of life.
(hence the moonshine still)

Or perhaps people are just having fun catching on to Pappy's playful hillbillisms...and PLAY is the key here. Pappy was clearly created for playful purposes and this seems to be a big part of his appeal. In fancypants academic terms this is the realm of the "ludic" from latin 'ludere' or to play - spontaneous, joyful creativity.
NOT purposeless, NOT a waste of time, but a key ingredient to intellectual growth and learning - not to mention pleasure!

Another interesting side to Pappy is his echoes of the Foxfire books that captured the fading 'low-tech' ways of mountain people in Georgia. These books contain techniques for self-reliance and independence that most of us have already lost, but which are likely to be damn handy in the future.

You didn't think the supply of electricity was going to be endless did you? That's what we hope, but it's not very likely. Between unchecked Enronian corruption to the serious changes in the weather that we're experiencing, it seems a bit naive for us to assume an uninterrupted, affordable flow.

Pappy and folks like him (those few left) will do just fine with their hillbilly ways, but what about the most techno-laden of us?
As was demonstrated recently in a 'blackberry blackout' many of us are quite vulnerable and useless without our techno-toys.

Doesn't sound like evolution to me.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

connection in SL

Though i've been a clear fan of biological embodiment, i have to admit that the two avatars i interviewed in Second Life remain on my mind - primarily because i've been too busy to get back in touch even though both Tonny & Faith tried.

So, this entry is about my awakening to the strength of a digitally made connection of friendship and a public apology to my two friends Tonny & Faith whom i've snubbed so rudely - i'm sorry. Thanks for taking the time to help me.

This is a whole new world that, without replacing the richness of our biological matrix, can be a new space where humans get along in new ways, perhaps evolving someday into a whole new form of social organization that augments rather than replaces embodied, face-to-face interaction.

boomerang book

If you've read these few posts, you'll know that their scarcity is due partly to my disinterest in digital life, but in a fascinating technological irony, the 500-year old technology of the BOOK boomeranged me right back into SL with renewed enthusiasm. (so is that book a traitor to its specific medium?) The book that betrayed the others is second life: the official guide.

Yesterday i, uh, my creator...
(Beeble speaking here of his biological maker, one of many (i's) eyes)
or should i say I? - Beeble has tried to distinguish himself with the lower-case first-person. This identity stuff is endless...of course playing with identity didn't start in Second Life, nor
with the book, but waaay back in shamanic history, identity shift was/is a regular practice.

So, nothing shamanic or anything, but i will be Beeble, and I will be his creator.
(and perhaps this "I' should be expressed in bold italics, for emphatic embodiment - 'emphatic' deriving from 'to show' or 'to appear')

got that?

(yesterday, I attended a UR Learning 2007 teaching & technology conference, and my colleague, known as Ignatius Onomatopoeia in SL, was showing his hilarious but informative video of his SL explorations so far. I'll try to get a link to it. It's worth seeing just for the scenes of him dancing in a gorilla suit!

And so the question arises, arose during the demonstration, what's the academic value? How do we apply this in the classroom? indeed! I'm sure the same questions were asked of the BOOK once too!

The keynote speaker for the mini-conference was Dr. Phil Long of MIT's Office of Educational Innovation and Technology - I like the order of those words because it places the priority on education, not technology and it leads with educators. In his talk, he inadvertently affirmed educational and design principles that were articulated by transcendentalists like Emerson and Peabody and utopians like Fourier and in more modern novels like Gilman's Herland, Skinner's Walden Two, Callenbach's Ecotopia or Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time.

Modern studies are confirming what our elders knew: learning behaviors, patterns and spaces should have some freedom to form their natural shape based on student interest and engagement. Learning should involve the body and real-world experiments. Learning should be diverse in content and approach, and face-to-face human interaction is an essential part of the process of learning.

The specific educational/intellecutal value of SL is primarily its invitation to creativity and "world building" as Iggy puts it. One thing many teachers have noticed of students is the waning of creative thinking and SL has many tools to spark this. Beyond that however is the intellectual value of critical discussion of this world as it evolves, as we are changed by it as we create it. Old forms of social interaction are morphing, mutating into something doubt both good and bad.

SL can facilitate inter-cultural exchange as can be experienced with Iggy's new hillbilly friend "Pappy Enoch" known for his famous cry: Wee Doggies!
OR it can be a bit more sober like the Student Symposium work on display at the UR Tower.

Using SL in class, Teachers would be free to create any kind of classroom, demonstration, image, multimedia exhibit, tour, interactive space...whatever they wanted and could afford, but it can be used for free.

The Basic membership is free and you can play for years if you're not digitally materialistic (oxymoronic?) but with a Premium membership, for only a few dollars you can have access to tremendously powerful digital creation tools. And if your school won't support your work by buying real estate or building an island, you can always meet at public spaces with your students or tour the vastness of Second Life - more than likely there will be a group, exhibit or place that matches with your particular discipline. )

so, to boomerang full circle, beware the book!
(it ain't going anywhere, but there's no tellin' where one'll point you)

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


Today, i was demonstrating the possibilities of SL to a friend by teleporting to a university campus. When i got there, it was fairly crowded, with a few conversations going on in my vicinity.

All of a sudden the air was filled with what looked like large posters with a very ugly image: an anime female who had suffered horrible genital mutilation. The few posters soon turned to a storm of posters as I tried to ask those around me (one an "officer") what was going on.

Nobody bothered to respond to me, but clearly everyone was aware of the ugly, violent images floating all around us. Then, just as suddenly, they all disappeared. My first assumption was that they had been detected and deleted by SL programmers. Upon further reflection, I considered that it might be a virus that runs for a determined length of time and then stops.

Whatever it was, it was UGLY - why would someone make something like that?
Erotica and pornography are not so troubling, but animated snuff? YUK!

Who has time to make that kind of crap?

After the flurry of posters was over, i realized i should have taken a picture, but then who'd want to see it? i suppose this was my first taste of sabotage in SecondLife...too bad it was so misogynist and politically pointless.

initial interviewing

My first interviews were spontaneous meetings, and therefore somewhat brief and disorganized but good experience nevertheless. When i saw the word "Designer" in the name bubble over Tonny Halderman, i asked a few questions to determine if he was a fashion designer in Real Life or a designer of Second Life. Tonny turned out to be an SL designer who looked like a 20-something blue-eyed, blond young man in SL. Our conversation was short and i was distracted by my attempts to capture the text somehow, but Tonny was the first SL avatar to suggest that Beeble's look might elicit student teasing - but he did not say anything specific about being a furry!

My second chance interview was just before a presentation for my Faith Broek was a svelte, blonde young woman with a flashing halo. She had only been in SL for two weeks and was far more deft than I was. I tried to follow her, sometimes walking, sometimes flying, but often got lost or fell into a pit or the ocean - she had to teleport me several times.

When i asked if her name "Faith Broek" was a pun, she asked "what's a pun?"
At this, i thought that either she was not a native English speaker, or she was very young.
After complimenting my look and giving me a beer, Faith revealed that she was a 16 year old English girl - so can i be arrested for accepting a digital beer from a minor? i hope not, but these days it's hard to tell with all the hysteria over "protecting children" - i doubt Faith considers herself a "child" but that doesn't mean there isn't a whole army of social workers and protection programs who cash in on this inappropriate and inaccurate label.

After falling into numerous pits and bodies of water, having to be teleported to recover from my disorientation, i told Faith i had to go to class and asked if she'd be interested in
making a short appearance. She agreed, and I left for class.

I had transported myself to what I thought was a university, but which was crowded with avatars having a blizzard of decidedly un-scholarly conversations. When Faith arrived, we chatted a bit for the class before she judged the location too crowded and asked if we could teleport elsewhere for less distraction. She was able to teleport, but i was not. It may have been the traffic on the university server, or some other glitch, but I was stuck on the crowded, confusing, cacaphonous concourse.

The image to the right was taken during a moment of rest in my bumbling attempt to follow Faith.

(can't you smell the fire and hear it crackle?)

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Beauvoir continued...

When Beauvoir writes that "the body is not a thing, it is a situation" i am reminded of the "situated knower" of feminist epistemology discussed by scholars like Nancy Tuana and Sandra Harding.

In this approach to knowledge, the "situation" of the person perceiving an event (the knower) becomes part of our critical assessment of his level of objectivity. An individual's age, gender, race, socioeconomic status, education and health are but a few influences on perception of the 'objective' world. Though we should have gotten this message from discoveries in Quantum Physics, the myth of an absolute/fixed/final objectivity is morphing into a more honest and rational approach to knowledge that recognizes the influence of individual circumstances on perception.

Tuana has called this "strong objectivity" - an approach to knowledge that recognizes the point of view/situation/influences on any particular statement of truth. Perhaps one of the most important aspects of this epistemology is its emphasis on the body and the impact of embodiment on our perception. Though my explorations of Second Life have been limited so far, i'm sure i'll be exploring many interesting places, but the knowledge i gain will be disembodied, or to be more precise, will only really involve what i can gain from my eyes, the manipulation of my avatar and my written interactions with other avatars - a very limited 'experience' indeed.

But here in Real Life (IRL), just sitting in my chair, slightly tilted back, in a room with crazy red floral wallpaper, bookshelves, a sleeping dog and a window looking out on a gray spring day, every sense of my body is engaged and gathering a huge amount of very fine information, mostly without my conscious direction or effort - a flowing sensory cornucopia.

Now THAT's what I call living!

Monday, April 16, 2007

Beauvoir, Embodiment & Animality

Iggy, my fellow explorer & seasoned SL blogger sent me this interesting quote:

“Nevertheless it will be said that if the body is not a thing, it is a

situation, as viewed in the perspective I am adopting--that of
Heidegger, Sartre, and Merlau-Ponty; it is the instrument of our grasp upon this world, a limiting factor for our projects.” - Simone de Beauvoir

In our excitement about technology and the nifty technotoys we create, we often forget "the instrument of our grasp upon this world" - the human sensorium, our embodiment. Though Beauvoir seems to focus on the limitations of the body, her definition of the body as
"a situation" seems to remind us of its mediation of our experience.

Perhaps it might be more fruitful for us to maximize our familiarity and facility with the instrument of our bodies before we discard them for "better" machine replacements.

Recently i came across an essay by Aldous Huxley where he explains D. H. Lawrence's
defense of animality, or perhaps of an evolved conception of humanity:

“What Lawrence was crusading for was the admission by the conscious spirit of the right of the body and the instincts, not merely to be a begrudged existence, but to an equal honor with itself. Man is an animal that thinks. To be a first-rate human being, a man must be both a first-rate animal and a first-rate thinker. (And, incidentally, he cannot be a first-rate thinker, at any rate about human affairs, unless he is also a first-rate animal.)”

Aldous Huxley “To the Puritan All Things Are Impure”

Sunday, April 1, 2007

the challenges of disembodiment

i was recently interviewed by my UR colleague Ignatius Onomatopoea for his Second Life Blog "In A Strange Land" for the Richmond Times Dispatch, and though half the interview involved me falling into the ocean, stumbling around and sitting in Iggy's lap we exchanged some good conversation. i was experiencing all the accidental bumblings of someone just getting used to digital disembodiment. In RL, i practically never stumble around, fall into the ocean or sit in Iggy's lap!
(and i have to confess that i've been *so* engaged with my RL and my bio-embodiment, i haven't been spending the SL time necessary to evolve beyond my avatar's awkward adolesence)

So, once I settled on a spot that was at least within typing/talking distance, Iggy and I had an enjoyable conversation - my longest in SL so far, and ce
rtainly the most coherent. Iggy set me at ease by removing his head to reveal the blinding white putty-man head beneath. Fortunately for me, he softened the glare and the contrast by putting his shades back on.

Here's what he looked like before he removed his head:

The characteristic "air-typing" motions of SL avatars is an interesting aspect of communication here and I am wondering what changes will come when the Lindens offer voice capability. During the interview, our cadence of synchronously typed & read conversation was an odd one, often resulting in Iggy asking a question while I was typing an unrelated comment, making me appear inattentive. Because we have no established protocol (or maybe SL does? have to check...) for effective SL keyboarded conversation we haven't learned how to work out this awkard cadence.

Of course, all my considerations of conversational cadence evaporated when, to set me at ease, Iggy removed his head revealing the bright white generic 'putty-head' beneath. i had accidentally discovered earlier during my encounter with the trick party hat - Iggy was like a bleached-out member of the Blue Man Group!
Fortunately, he donned some shades that lessened the glare a bit, and
this made him a more appealing interviewer.
(note the ocean into which i fell behind us)

During our conversation, Iggy asks about the potential future of SL...what is it becoming, what can it become?
I was reminded of UCLA English professor N. Katharine Hayles whose August 2006 Critical Inquiry essay "Traumas of Code" suggests that computer code is quickly becoming analogous to the human
"code is the unconscious of language...
Since large programs - say, Microsoft Word- are written by many programmers, and portions of the code are recycled from one version to the next, no living person understands the programs in their totality. (italics mine)." (137)

The words we see on a computer screen, or in a digital document, are the result of a dense web of sub-codes that is beyond the comprehension of most capable computer users. And now that machines are writing the code, it is not only beyond our ken, it is no longer fully human expression. What might be the vast density of the SL unconscious?

I think what I appreciate most about Hayles' work is that she evokes a vision of the 'cyborg' that does not automatically denigrate, dismiss or replace the body but rather celebrates its primacy as a self-augmenting biological entity. Citing Nigel Thrift's perspective that "cognition as something that, far from being limited to the neo-cortex, occurs throughout the body and stretches beyond body boundaries into the environment." Hayles develops this idea by noting that this embodied cognition can be extended or 'augmented' (Englebart) by humans "enrolling objects into their extended cognitive systems"
(139), something we've been doing this ever since the inventions of fire and language. This view situates our bodies at the center of importance as our primary tools for knowledge - not our machines.

This is the more theoretical aspect of my choice of the animal avatar - guess you can tell i'm the "T-head" in this collaboration.
(that's "Theory head" wise guy!)

But, Iggy's chief concern about SL is in regard to our students who are increasingly interacting in digital spaces rather than face to face on Facebook, cell phones, email or other medium. Where will this lead us as a social species? Our observations are preliminary, but we both agree that students seem to lose some of their face-to-face (f2f) social skills and as a result find digital interaction more comfortable.

Of course, that could just be our mutually apocalyptic perspective - the fact remains that, outside of academics, the big draws of the college experience still involve altering brain chemistry and pursuing intimate physical contact with appealing partners - and many of our students haven't even heard of Second Life.


Monday, March 26, 2007

life and death in digital space

I've been learning about SL with my pal Ignatius Onomatopoea who now has his own 'real world' blog called "In A Strange Land" where his avatar goes by the name "Joe Essid". Wait a minute...which is the avatar and which is the original?

I visited Ignatius' blog and posted a question about whether Baudrillard's death had been simulated...or if he had created an avatar in SL before he died, could/would it live on in cyberspace?

This reminds me of the 1998 Dennis Danvers novel Circuit of Heaven where the invention of a vast silicon storage location called "the bin" began a trend of people 'downloading' themselves (memories, personality) into the bin and then sending their the trainload to the crematorium. And this digital mania is not far from some of the hopes & claims of the digital hypesters so ready to disparage and dump the body.

In the bin, life is clean, smooth, safe, sanitary and eternal....the bin replicates itself, so there are multiple copies of you out there...but eventually people begin to miss having a body, they long for the chaos of biology, the joys and pains of embodiment. Eventually the limits of the program become evident and the inhabitants of the bin miss the unlimited potentialities of the bodies they cremated.

Some miss embodiment so much that they choose to download into other people's bodies who are just coming into the bin! What would you call that?!
It wouldn't be exactly trans-gender...but I guess it could be! Trans...organism?

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

merci Jean Baudrillard!

The post-modern French philosopher and social theorist Jean Baudrillard died recently on March 6, 2007 but his ideas continue to be most relevant to our digital culture in general, and Second Life in particular.

One of the few skills I've learned so far in SL is the simple creation of a sphere that can be programmed to say a phrase when an avatar comes nearby, then offer another phrase if touched. I created two objects I called 'blather balls' or 'curiosity generators' that I programmed to ask "Is this reality?" and then "Where is Jean Baudrillard?" I was hoping that I could find a way to invite him into Second Life to discuss his theory of ''hyperreality".

Though I'd read snippets of Baudrillard's philosophy in grad school, my most memorable early encounter was in the indy film The Snowflake Crusade
directed by Megan Holley. This fabulous first film is shot in Richmond, VA and centers on the identity struggles of Clive Barclay, the clone of a childless Nobel scientist whose accomplishment and judgment loom over Clive. While watching a bar-full of people enchanted by a TV show about clones called "Scion Hearted", Clive berates them for wasting their lives on a show that is essentially about a series of simulacra or a collection of copies with no original noting that Baudrillard would be "laughing hyperreal tears of delirious joy" that would duplicate and reduplicate endlessly until we were drowning in simulation with no clear hold on reality.

Though Baudrillard is most recently known for a connection to The Matrix, he has commented that the film misunderstands his theory, though it shows a shot of his classic text Simulacra and Simulations hollowed out to hide pirated software containing recorded scenes from other people's experiences - a dense web of simulations.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Beeble's Identity Crisis

Oh where to start? First, and perhaps most relevant, is my identity as an academic who is exploring SL for research and pedagogical purposes. Since this is the primary motivation for my interaction here, at least i have one stable point of reference (i think).

In my doctoral studies, i've been fascinated by the hype of the cybervangelists who endlessly extol the virtues of digital existence and disparage physicality, referring to our biological lives as "the meat world." My own preference and perspective is that, while digitality is fun & can teach us, BIOLOGY is our unrecognized power and ultimate reality. None of this fantastic technology would even exist (much less persist) if it weren't for the biology that created and maintains it.

Since i feel such a strong connection to the cycles of my body and Nature, when creating my avatar i chose the closest thing to a dog that I could find. Dogs seem to me a good representation of earthiness (they give birth anywhere, lick themselves, smell each other) not so much a prescription for behavior i recommend. i look a bit more cartoon-like than i was hoping, but then everybody does here.

I suppose the word "avatar" is an oddly apt term since it derives from Hindu mythology and refers to the descent of a god into the material world. But the term is also completely inappropriate since, in terms of technology, WE are the gods and when we make an avatar we DE-materialize ourselves in a way. Or perhaps an avatar is simply a technologically enhanced version of the childhood friend....or spirit guide.

My friend Ignatius Onomatopoea has been teasing me that i'm a 'furry' or a 'fuzzy' but my purpose in maintaining this particular look is purposeful both for the expression of our connection to the Earth and an invitation to reflect upon and discuss the nexus of image and identity. For example, when Iggy was creating himself, he wished to represent himself as close to his biology as possible but the program didn't have options for gray hair or baldness!

What might this imply? Remember the rejection of biology and the horror of aging present in Brave New World? Does some of the cyber-hype and particularly the disparagement of the body reveal a similarly neurotic fear of aging and death?

Is it possible to arrive at a place in the mind where THE BODY IS NOT THE ENEMY or the traitor to OUR EGOS but rather the wise teacher born from millions of years of field testing and development? i think so. This is my personal goal.

My SL identity crisis is dawning not because of my loss of faith in my body, but because of the connotations of the image i have chosen! From Iggy's teasing, to a chance interview with an SL Designer, to conversations with a veteran gamer, i have learned that the 'fuzzy' or 'furry' is a category of avatar that existed before SL and which is associated with sensuality, particularly 'kinky' sex - whatever that means! How can you have sex without a body?

So, what do i do? Surrender my avatar because of digital prejudice? But is it prejudice or a self-designation by the players? By choosing it i tapped correctly into the embodied sensual that i want to emphasize without understanding its previous and wider connotations.

In some way, this confusion is perfect. Beeble is here to explore & learn, but also to remind and to celebrate the world of the flesh, of embodied experience so he would definitely NOT identify with avatars who find satisfaction in any kind cyber-sex which is not and can never be true sex at all. It's just like my take on cyber-rape: there has to be physical proximity and contact for the term to have any useful meaning - for me at least. Y'all can go play with your keyboards if you like.

These associations, biases or readings' of my avatar, or of the basic ICON behind it will prove to be an interesting filter in my attempts to interview people in SL.

more to come....

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

reality and the hyperreal

One of the things i've figured out how to do is 'make'
objects that greet avatars and then follow up with some other kind of message or statement. Ever since i've been in SL, i've been thinking about Jean Baudrillard the French post-modern theorist/philosopher most famous for his book Simulacra and Simulations that explores the nature of reality in a world full of copies or simulacra.

So, i decided to make what i first called a "blather ball" but which i've come to re-name a "curiosity generator." It's basically a sphere of tie-dye colors that is supposed to ask "Is this reality?" when it appears and then "Where is Jean Baudrillard?" when it is 'touched' by an avatar.

My idea was to drop them throughout SL in the hopes that Baudrillard might actually show up - or at least an avatar that claims to be him...ultimately we cannot know for certain who is on the keyboard, but the avatar and name give us a confidence that we do.

So, why Baudrillard? If you've taken a peak at that excerpt from Simulacra it seems that Second Life instantiates many of his observations about the nature of reality in the context of a typhoon of we lose touch with 'reality' when we make so many copies of it? How or why does the copy become more authoritative than the original?

What is reality anyway? If you check the Oxford English Dictionary, you'll note that the first definition of "real" has to do with money, the second with power connecting 'royal' with 'real'....and it isn't until the third definition that "real" refers to the everyday world of physical objects.

In some way "reality" is defined by those with money and power...the worldview of 'royalty' (money & power) shapes and literally defines us and our world.

But then again, Blake might remind us that these are only "mind forg'd manacles" which we are free to escape - if we have the will.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

losing my head

One of the interesting things that new technologies offer us is a nearly unlimited set of choices, customizations, or options for the visual (and often aural) enhancement of our interface and it is easy to get lost in a wilderness of digital enhancements.

For example, while waiting to observe students from a composition class as they created their first SL avatars, i began to 'edit my own appearance' and accidentally LOST Beeble's animal head! In an effort to don a 'party hat' that I found in my inventory, Beeble's head just popped off and landed on the ground.

i still am not sure how this happened, but i was amused to discover that beneath Beeble's head was the basic 'human' featured head that is part of the basic avatar model. Surely there are some rich metaphorical reflections possible here, especially with my foregrounded emphasis on human biology and animality. Is my sense of animality actually part of my core being, or is it like a hat or head that
I 'put on' as in SL?

This makes me think of my current studies of the Don Juan story and how his seductive character is often portrayed as an irresistible force of Nature - the drive of desire. This question brings up the question of his moral responsibility and engages with some of our oldest discussions about what it means to be human and where we are located in the matrix of Nature.

Participation in SL can also lead to discussions about man and Nature, what constitutes human identity and what is significance we experience when we are in personal physical proximity as opposed to distant digital interaction.

In a way, this discussion goes back about 5000 years to the invention of writing. Though Socrates was suspicious of writing technology, preferring to rely on the older technology of the spoken word but if it weren't for Plato's writing, the oral traditions of Socrates might not have survived. Reflection on his response and on the varying values and deficits of each technology (spoken vs. written) can be a very fruitful exercise potentially enhancing our understanding of and appreciation for each technology.

So too, it can be fruitful for us to reflect on these amazing new digital technologies and the ways they enhance our lives as well as the ways in which they are insufficient and sometimes even destructive.

An ongoing and critical engagement with our technologies not only promises new and more useful insights about their best uses, it is essential to maintaining our mastery of our tools and preventing their mastery of us.

As Emerson noted in the midst of the Industrial Revolution:

"Man Thinking must not be subdued by his instruments."

Monday, February 12, 2007

digital dangers

As we've been getting know SL with our students in classes, some students are coming back with stories of harassment by other avatars.
One student agreed to be 'teleported' to another location when asked by another avatar and the student ended up getting stuck in an S&M club from which she couldn't escape because her avatar was not "authorized" to open the door!

This and other odd encounters (check the SL Police Blotter) have prompted some worthwhile discussion about digital safety issues and what sort of 'protections' and guidelines students should have for this new realm.

Though I have heard of "rape in cyberspace" and I fully acknowledge that some (too many?) men are aggressive, obnoxious pigs, I am not fully convinced that rape is the correct term, or that there are any serious dangers online that can be equated to events in the physical world or what SL & other cybernauts call "RL" for Real Life.

I know this may raise the dander of my feminist friends, but I think that a lack of physical contact is a central consideration here. Perhaps it is a sign of our belief in the digital world and its reality that we are so willing to *equate* what happens online (essentially without our body, and totally without direct physical contact) with what happens in RL.

To say that what someone does to a digital image is the same as doing it to the person who created the image seems an unwarranted conflation of RL & SL. Would ex-lovers then be guilty of assault if they defaced a picture of their ex and then sent it to them? Harassment maybe, but surely not assault. No matter how much we might like to claim so, the digital is *not* the same as the physical world and it never will be.

Nevertheless, digital dangers do exist and caution is certainly warranted - ultimately we cannot know for sure who is at the other keyboard and our belief in their identity is purely an act of faith. With recent evidence of increases in State surveillance, as well as net stalking and identity theft, we should all be well aware that *no* electronic medium is completely private.

Unless a person reveals personal information or foolishly agrees to meet a complete stranger simply based on an avatar and some writing, there is little real danger in cyberspace.

At least that's my reading right here, right now. I'll let you know if I've changed my mind after I get trapped in some digital dive!

Sunday, February 11, 2007

local prostitution

It seems that our university house in SL is located between a casino and a strip club. Naturally, I had to peek into the strip club...
Though I didn't see anything I would call "explicit" the walls were covered with images, some of which suggested avatar eroticism (if such a thing is even possible) but most of the spaces on the wall were open for advertising - the most widespread and perhaps the most damaging prostitution of all.

I've toured our house and watched a short video with Al Gore, but I haven't attended or planned any educational activities there yet. If I do, I think I'll want to use the upstairs classroom with all the pillows on the floor!

As long as it took me to learn how to move the throne into position, Beeble was bushed when I was done!

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

my Second Life

Well, I finally completed my first draft of my avatar Beeble Baxter and I've explored a bit of Second Life but I still have much to learn! If you're new to Second Life (or SL for short) you're probably only slightly less confused than I am. Let me explain what I know...

It's not technically a 'game' because there is no set goal or fixed rules of 'play' but there are rules in Second Life. I guess it's like a huge chunk of cyberspace where we can wander around to see what others are doing and have made. For example, I'm cheifly interested in SL for educational purposes and MIT, Harvard and other schools are already teaching classes here.

The best news is that it's FREE for basic interaction and for those who would like to enhance their SL with 'digital enhancements' there is a wide array of items that can be bought with real money (US dollars) and kept in your avatar file.

Check it out and see what you don't have to make a commitment or enter any personal information. You'll meet people from all over the world who are trying this out and communicating with one another. In fact, I just read that Sweden is opening a 'virtual embassy' in Second Life!!

More later....