Sunday, October 29, 2006

Second Coming

This is the last thing I'm going to write on this subject, I promise...

Today's Observer has a big feature about - yup, you guessed it - Second Life.

Reading it, I got an even greater sense of déjà vu than I did from last weekend's Telegraph feature about Habbo Hotel*.

Trailblazer that I am, I was in Habbo Hotel in 2002 (as briefly documented in this post), and it was as rubbish and full of teenagers going 'asl' and 'lol' as it apparently still is today. In fact, for all I know, I might *still* be in there, gathering virtual dust Miss Havisham-style in my virtual apartment. That would be cool.

But anyway. In 1996, long before I had an avatar and a room in Habbo Hotel, I had an avatar and a room in a place called WorldsAway. Here, just like in Second Life, you had an avatar that you could customise, which wandered around socialising with other people's avatars, earning in-world money, furnishing the in-world apartment that you bought for it, and buying and selling in-world items.

WorldsAway looked like this:

I'm so powerfully reminded of WorldsAway whenever I read the latest gushing article about the 'new' world of Second Life, that I went in search of old media articles to check that WorldsAway really did once exist, and to reassure myself that the current media frenzy is actually a frenzy about something that's been around for more than a decade.

So here we go:

Exhibit A is an article from Wired magazine's June 1996 issue, entitled 'Metaworlds'.

Exhibit B is the cover feature from today's Observer Review section, entitled 'Goodbye, Cruel World...'.

The Wired article makes fascinating reading. Media coverage of information technology is usually so forward-looking, and we take technological developments for granted so quickly, that it's instructive to stop for a second, look back and understand where today's technology came from rather than where it's going.

But assuming that you don't have the time or inclination to read a 13-page article from 10 years ago, here are some things that haven't changed:

1. Snow Crash as Ur-Geschichte
Science fiction often anticipates technological developments, and virtual worlds are no exception. Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash vividly anticipates the dual reality created not just by Second Life, but also by its forebears like WorldsAway:
" keep things straight, I'm going to call [places like Worlds Away] metaworlds. This is partly in homage to Neal Stephenson, whose 1992 novel Snow Crash portrayed a metaworld that's a few technological and cultural notches above what's possible right now: the Metaverse, a virtual world so immersive and detailed it rivals the real one.

In Stephenson's Metaverse, an avatar can look any way you want: 'If you're ugly, you can make your avatar beautiful. If you've just gotten out of bed, your avatar can still be wearing beautiful clothes and professionally applied makeup. You can look like a gorilla or a dragon or a giant talking penis in the Metaverse'."

- Robert Rossney, 'Metaworlds', Wired, June 1996

"Second Life, or something like it, was first imagined by the science-fiction author Neal Stephenson in his 1992 book Snow Crash. His prophecy was uncanny. 'Hiro's avatar is now on the Street, too,' he wrote, 'and if the couples coming off the monorail look over in his direction, they can see him, just as he's seeing them. They could strike up a conversation: Hiro in the U-Stor-It in LA and the four teenagers probably on a couch in a suburb of Chicago, each with their own laptop. But they probably won't talk to each other, any more than they would in Reality ...'."

Tim Adams, 'Goodbye, Cruel World...', The Observer, 29 October 2006

2. Virtual Worlds as Consensual Hallucination
William Gibson came up with the idea of 'cyberspace' as 'a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of operators', way back in 1984 when hardly anyone outside of the Pentagon and MIT had even heard of the internet. The idea of a virtual world as a kind of dream or hallucination shared by many people at once held sway in 1996 just as it does today:
"WorldsAway's long history is a little too evident. It looks cool - the background graphics are in a hallucinatory art nouveau style, sort of Aubrey Beardsley meets William Gibson..."

- Wired, June 1996

"In his forthcoming book From Counterculture to Cyberculture, Fred Turner...traces the ways that the Californian non-conformism of the Sixties helped to create the revolution of the personal computer [...] the individual self, trapped in the human body, 'would finally be free to step outside its fleshy confines, explore its authentic interests, and find others with whom it might achieve communion'. In this reading, computers [...] took over where LSD left off."

- The Observer, October 2006

3. The Value of Virtual Real Estate
It seems that the old 'location, location, location' mantra has always been as true of virtual worlds as it is of the real one:
"There's nothing to do in AlphaWorld [another 1996-era virtual world] but build, and the buildings themselves have no purpose. Nonetheless, the place is crowded with structures - so much so that new users have a hard time finding any space of their own to build. All the land near the metaworld's entry point has already been taken...Worlds Inc. is adding teleporters to outlying undeveloped areas so that new users won't give up before they find a patch of open ground."

- Wired, June 1996

"Each new resident of Second Life is offered a plot of land. Kenny [the journalist's avatar] chooses one on Blacktail Ridge. It is, I have to say, a disappointment: a dark and icy wasteland with a few scattered shacks...Good land has become so rare in Second Life that people are prepared to pay hundreds of real dollars for it."

- The Observer, October 2006

4. Virtual Living as 'The Future'
The technology industry and its media are obsessed with the future, always presenting whatever's happening now as a crude and primitive version of how things will be in some shiny future age. Frothy-mouthed futurologists are forever predicting the day when machines will become sentient (the so-called 'Singularity'), and humans will evolve into World of Warcraft characters.

I think it's terribly sad as it tends to dismiss the past, thus preventing people from properly understanding the history of technology, and it makes us take for granted all the wonderful, bizarre and fascinating things that are actually happening now. But anyway, both of these articles fall into this futurology trap, thus:
"The technology needed to support something like Stephenson's Metaverse is not really that far off. What if we find the combination of avatars, gestures, and persistence compelling enough to make them the standard? What if we all move into these metaworlds, conducting large portions of our lives online? [...] We shouldn't be expecting metaworlds to supplant the real world or fix it. They won't. What they will do, though, is give people something they are ceaselessly searching for: new ways to connect with each other."

- Wired, June 1996
This has actually happened now, but we're still looking to the future:
"A brave-ish new world has recently been created. You can access it on your PC with a password and your credit card. And as soon as you arrive in it, you can easily convince yourself that you are seeing the future - or at least one future - of entertainment and interaction and business."

- The Observer, October 2006

Rah. So, next time the media starts going all gushy about Second Life, remember to roll your eyes sweetly and say 'gosh, how terribly 1996'. But as established virtual citizens of the blogosphere, you would do that anyway, wouldn't you?

* Which isn't available online; I checked.


Del said...

All my grandad could say was "I listened to the radio". All my dad will say is "I watched TV". All I'll be able to say is "I went on the internet". Choose your opiate.

Mangonel said...

Hmm. I found this post

Dear God in heaven, I can't get any further with this comment. Frankly, the next word should be 'intimidating', but I'm too intimidated. Maybe I'll feel more courageous when I have read the Observer article, but as that will only be in two days' time, it will be too late. Phew.

Del, I think the www is rather more poisonous than either radio or TV because it is interactive. It gives the user (oo-er! see what I did then?) SO much more choice, ergo more (and, to push your analogy again, consequently less) control.

But then, after I read Snow Crash, it took all of eight months to dawn on me why the main man was called what he was. And only then because I was telling someone about the book, and said his name aloud. So what do I know.

patroclus said...

Um, yes, sorry, these were really kind of just notes to myself. Also I'm not sure why I felt the need to use the word 'Ur-Geschichte'. Sorry about that. It was just that sort of Sunday afternoon. I don't think it's even the right word.

But on the other hand, the current media obsession with Second Life as something 'new' does irritate me, because graphical online virtual worlds have been around for donkeys' years.

Del - there's a saying that no medium ever replaced the one before it. Your grandad probably went to the cinema and listened to the radio. Your dad went to the cinema, listened to the radio and watched TV. You watched TV, went to the cinema, listened to the radio and went on the internet. Although you might eventually end up doing all those things 'on the internet', whatever that will come to mean.

Mangonel - I'm interested to know why you think the user having more control makes the web more poisonous than TV? I'm all for it, personally, but then I'm a ridiculous technophile. It would be interesting to hear an opposing opinion.

I haven't read Snow Crash for years. Probably had better read it again.

leonie said...

how you don't have a job as a professor of internet/web thingies/technological stuff i will never know.

and "Ur-Geschichte"? do you speak German?

patroclus said...

I sort of vaguely remember German from A-level (and S-level, come to that). But mainly I remember this visiting professor coming to lecture us in my first year at uni, about how there are only so many 'original stories', from which all other stories derive. I'm sure he called these things Ur-Geschichte, but when I looked that up in a German dictionary, it said it means 'pre-history'. Of course that didn't stop me using it in the sense that I wanted it to have.

Actually now I've looked it up, it seems to be the same idea as the Seven Basic Plots. I might have dreamed the Ur-Geschichte thing. Gah. But anyway, Snow Crash is generally held to be *the* literary precedent for anything to do with virtual worlds on the internet.

I do write about web thingies and technological stuff for a living, but brochures rather than academic papers, sadly.

Urban Chick said...

P, clearly you should be with mr chick

i've been reading your post and every so often calling out 'what's snow crash?' and 'who's neal stephenson?' and 'tell me more about second life' and this has seen him more animated than i've seen him all morning

let's face it, i married a geek

and then he tells me about the game people in china are playing to get REAL gold and it's all too freaky...

Tim Footman said...

The essential difference is that WorldsAway was for people who'd read a bit of Gibson and had a vague idea of what meta-anything means.

Second Life is for the riff-raff.

(I think you're right about the Seven Basic Plots, vaguely remember from Angela Carter, etc. I've just sent my manuscript off to the publisher, and he's already told me I've got to have endnotes, not footnotes, so I'm not going to look up the Ur-Geschichte thingy, I'm just going to get drunk.)

patroclus said...

UC: Geeks are the best sort of people. I love geeks, although I'm only a wannabe geek myself.

On a similar note, I read in this month's Wired that some MMORPG gamers are paying people in China and India to play Warcraft etc. for them, so that their characters build up experience points and skills and whatnot without them actually having to spend time in the game themselves. Marx (Karl, not Richard) would have had a field day with MMORPGs.

Tim: Bloody hell, congratulations on finishing the manuscript! If you're using Microsoft and it has a 'convert footnotes to endnotes' feature, don't trust it. It took me *days* to persuade Word that I wanted to restart the footnotes at 1 again for each new section of my dissertation. Bloody Word.

Ooh, a conversation about footnotes. Super.

I'm not sure that WA was just for people who'd read Gibson, but I did have two very surreal moments with it - one when I went on a 'date' with a German bloke inside the game while my actual boyfriend was cooking dinner beside me, and another time (unrelated), when my actual boyfriend got drunk and logged in to the game as me, and made my avatar run amok swearing at people. I think I left (the game and the boyfriend) soon after that.

patroclus said...

Also, tell your publisher that endnotes are rubbish, and footnotes are much better. People hate flicking to endnotes. Plus people are used to instant enlightenment these days, what with hyperlinks to Wikipedia an' all. In fact I confidently predict the imminent demise of endnotes.

Rich said...

Doing meaningless bits of formatting, that make no difference to anyone, yet the publishers insist on? You too could be writing academic papers.

I vote endnotes if they're simply references, footnotes if they contain any text. Not that my vote makes any difference.

Anonymous said...

My sort of comments, footnotes and geeks.
'I love geeks, although I'm only a wannabe geek myself.'
What do you have to do to be a real geek as opposed to a wannabe?

Is it the revenge of those of us who did science degrees and were looked down on by those doing arts degrees as somehow less intellectual.

patroclus said...

Yes realdoc, it is.

*hangs head in shame*

Valerie said...

I've been on the Internet/ARPAnet a ridiculously long time (since 1982 — I was one of the first women on Usenet), and I would have to agree that it's all been done before. When I entered the virtual world of MUDs/MOOs in 1990, I thought, "hey, it's SF come to life!" There were virtual worlds posited before Stephenson, and many types of virtual worlds before Second Life — you might even argue that the early Usenet had characteristics of a virtual world. And of course, as you point out, Second Life is far from even being the first graphical, shared virtual environment.

I do think that polish and marketing can cause a perception that a given entity was "invented here first." Many people credit Apple with inventing the GUI, for example. There's argument about who invented radio and television partially because of this. And who invented the automobile? Not Henry Ford, but a lot of folks think so.

All of which points up the power of gloss and marketing.

And I do run on, don't I. This is because I, myself, lack gloss and marketing...

Smat said...

ooh, so may comments, not enough memory to work out who to reply to. So:
endnotes -BAD
footnotes - GOOD
virtual life won't take over from real life ever - we need eye contact for conversation, for business, for flirting (hands up who has never been caught out flirting with someone online they would never have been attracted to IRL??).
Online is for convenience (shopping, research, circumstances preventing going out and meeting face to face - here I cite the plethora of "mum and baby" sites).
But nothing beats face-to-face in the end.

Tim Footman said...

Well I've always loved footnotes, for the reason Patroclus notes - they're the nearest thing you can get to hypertext on the printed page - and also because two of the main influences on my book (MacDonald's Revolution In The Head and Paul Morley's Words & Music) use them. Rich makes a sound distinction, and they do contain text. (I don't go as far as Morley, and put footnotes on my footnotes though.)

Aparently it's something to do with the production process. I pointed out that in the bad old days of manual typesetting, they could do footnotes, but oh no.

Never mind, eh?

patroclus said...

Ooh, this is my favourite subject ever (virtual vs real worlds, I mean, not footnotes, although they're good too).

Valerie: In my mind I now have you confused with Sherry Turkle. This is a good thing. There have been virtual 'other' worlds posited since the dawn of art surely - through dreams and hallucinations as well as TCP/IP. I always figured that The Matrix was based on Brave New World rather than Neuromancer. Even the idea of the afterlife (getting carried away now) is a bit like a virtual world - meeting up with all your mates on the 'other side', unencumbered by your physical body?

I'll stop now before I start babbling on about shamanic journeys and claiming I can move move move any mountain. No one needs to hear that stuff.

Yes, stuff like TV and radio and the internet and everything in it tends to be composed of bits of different people's inventions, and also lots of things are invented simultaneously in different places, so it's all down to who gets there first with the marketing, as you say. And it's probably no coincidence that the Observer ran a huge feature on SL two weeks after SL signed up a British PR agency.

Smat: That's what the difference between 'real' and 'virtual' means to you personally. I'm not saying that virtual life will take over from real life, but that virtual life is becoming so much a part of real life that the boundaries between the two are breaking down.

Tim: Footnotes on footnotes are great. We're all postmodern now, so we can probably cope better with decentralised texts than we can with traditional modernist linear books.

Blimey, is that the time?

belladona said...

Oooh, I can't believe I missed this! Now everyone has already said what I would have said anyway, *sigh*. I have thought exactly the same on several ocassions when the media has discovered people doing stuff on the internet. How odd of them, says the media. Shame they took all this time to notice. I used to play a game in the early nineties which was based on star wars but was basically an on-line universe. Back then I went on an on-line date with someone while my boyfriend was on the next computer, Patroclus. God knows why now I think of it. He was from Finland.

patroclus said...

Ooh, you went on a date with a Finnish bloke inside a virtual simulacrum* of Star Wars? I think that alone deserves some kind of Baudrillard Prize for the Commendably Postmodern. More stories like this, please!

* Word of the day, it seems.

Valerie said...

I may, in fact, be Sherry Turkle, but I remember that I (snottily) thought of her as a bit of a Johnny-come-lately when she emerged around 1990 with all her MIT Media Lab creds. Though I still have her Wired article by my desk. One intriguing thing that she did was to make sociologic inquiry regarding the Internet academically acceptable. A friend back in 1991 wrote her dissertation about online identity. Another, in 1984, wrote a dissertation (for a Lit!! degree) about online identity and online text-based adventure games, but it was much more questionable then and it took them years to decide to squeak her the Ph.D.

I still find the issues fascinating. Though I don't think I believe in virtual worlds, at base. It's all real. I'm there, whether I'm putting on an act or not — the act is still a piece of me. Wouldn't I (consciously or not!) put out other specific pieces of myself in an in-person encounter? Which one is more real? Just because you can smell my vanilla-flavoured deodorant in one, and, thankfully, not in the other?

DavetheF said...

"As for living, we let the avatars do that for us". of course, it was "servants" in the original, but the sense of lofty withdrawal into one's private world while a manikin sweats it out for us among the quick and the dead has been around since Mount Olympus was the coolest cybernexus in town. I mean. even god sent an avatar to do the job for him (if you believe that stuff, as I don't).

DavetheF said...

Philip Kerr wrote a SF thriller called The Second Angel, about a time when a litre of clean blood fetches more than a million dollars -- sprinkled with copious footnotes. He had obviously overdosed on Google, relatively new at the time, but they were all fascinating. The book (as are his others) is great. The plot is that a guy sets out to rob the clean blood bank(!), in impregnable vaults in a Moon crater, to save his daughter's life.

Kerr also wrote a Wittgensteinian serial killer novel.

charl said...

habbo hotel was cute for its time. second life is just, urgh. and ack. and ptheh.