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....