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.