There is a lot of talk about Second Life and the freedom of expression that it guarantees to its users. But is this ‘freedom’ such or, on the contrary, it undergoes the social-economical bonds that rule the conscience of contemporary man? Is Second Life a virtual multiverse of free subjectivity or is it the nth simulacrum of the will to standardize that belongs to the globalized society? The author tries to give an answer, showing the path to a truly ‘free’ cyberspace not ruled by marketing strategies of multinationals.|
Second Life: utopia of the second millennium or new globalized shopping center?
by A. D'Alonzo
© copyright by Esonet.it – Esonet.com
I think that nowadays it is not so much a matter of claiming to be positivist, but rather to acknowledge that cyberspace and virtual reality will make the future (if not present) environment of human experiences. Personally I went through a long stage where I saw technology as a monster to avoid or delay, perhaps escaping into oriental philosophies and the initiatory ramparts of ‘Tradition'. Nevertheless, if technology is a destiny as an in fieri essence of man, if cyberspace is only a superfoetation of technology as elaboration of the anthropological behavior lacking of instincts or powerful biological organs, if in the natural inferiority of the homo sapiens we must grasp the embryonic code of contemporary technocentrism, if club and fire are prototypes of machines and computers, if this volens nolens is our world, the environment that comes-towards-us , then it is quite impossible to hypothesize a scenario not dominated by super-modernity and techno-sciences. Technology is the destiny of the globalized world; it concerns the West as well as the East. The perception of a traditional Orient far away from contemporary individualism is anachronistic. Countries such as India and China , once upon a time depositary of ‘Tradition', materially poor but spiritually rich, reveal their aspect of new economical powers able to manage industrial empires or to compete on the global market against the western world with competitive prices. We have to face ‘Cindia' – word invented by Rampini – which will determine the future social-economical status of the globalized world; far from looking at the Orient to find the ‘Tradition', like most exponents of the ‘traditional' thought still think nowadays!
The Esonet “lighthouse” in SL
Nevertheless, Asian markets as well are affected by the serious American economic crisis caused by subprime loans and by the pit in the USA money funds, which might trigger a serious worldwide recession (at this moment the Bank of China might be recording a loss of over two billion dollars). Global problems must be faced with global solutions; there is no point in trying to find local solutions to problems triggered by globalization. It is intolerable to think that ninety percent of total wealth is still today in the hands of the one percent of the inhabitants of the planet. If the rich West will not be able to re-distribute resources and basic commodities, it will be difficult to avoid the gloom Spenglerian forecast of decay and decline. This huge stumbling block that is super-modern world cracks the dome of our certainties. It is not possible to escape or to look back without the risk of being run over and crushed. It is particularly true for a gerontocratic country like Italy , afflicted by political-institutional ‘mucilage' and completely unable of a true structural renewal. This is the time – as Bauman writes – of ‘liquid' fear, which surrounds everything and deviously escapes any identification detached from xenophobic and mixophobic projections. The fear of a ghost-enemy – the clandestine immigrant or ethnic mixture in metropolises – becomes a weapon for the preservation of political power that tries to direct on a scapegoat the anxiety derived from the destruction of welfare. The quest for security and personal safety is the stratagem used by local governments to direct the ‘liquid' fears of citizens on extra-communitarian immigrants (where the prefix ‘extra' recalls the ‘ Other' , opposed to ‘ Us ' in the safe bastions of communitarian identity). The capitalization of fear is a resource of dummy-governments ruled by the forces of globalization which, through the scapegoats are exonerated from responding on the true reasons for collective uncertainty: ‘flexibility', economic deregulation , loss of social security cushions. In this context created by turbo-capitalism and where techno-sciences end up assuming the role of battering ram for the globalizing forces, it doesn't make much sense to uncritically escape in a golden past that can't return.
It is necessary – to say it with Evola's words – to ‘ride the tiger', to transform danger into a resource and to turn the ‘poison' into ‘food'. In this sense the analyses of the School of Frankfurt and of Umberto Galimberti – although punctual, rigorous and irreproachable – present an aporetic background. Certainly techno-science is an instrument for standardizing procedures of the Apparatus, it is a kind of ‘Trojan Horse' of nihilism; but somehow we need to escape the self-referential and annihilating horizon. In any case we must try and destroy the constituted order of our horizon from the inside , as deconstructionism teaches us. The vicious circle must be broken by an epistemological fracture intrinsic to aporia; if the horizon is omni-pervasive the reaction must come from inside , not outside . We must find the escape route inside the vision of the dominating world, ‘riding the tiger' and looking for safety inside the tunnel of shared reality. In other words, as Heidegger thinks, technology is an accomplishment but it is also a ‘new' beginning. I think it's inevitable to think that the super-modern man – who doesn't want to surrender to the Unique Thought – must find his ‘new' beginning inside the dominating episteme.
In this space I will mainly deal with Second Life (SL from now on). This expression indicates the Linden Scripting Language , an online 3D digital world shared by virtual residents (‘avatars'). The program – originally called Linden World – has been created and launched by Philip Rosedale in June 2003. SL is a digital multiverse that allows to transform ‘mental images in a reality made of pixels (1) ' , a representation of the world in the form of individual and collective virtual projections. It is individual because in order to move inside SL it is necessary to create an ‘avatar', a virtual identity that originates from the ideal projection of the Ego that can decide to keep human features, to take theriomorphic connotations or to change sexual gender. Of course the ‘avatar' represents how the subject has chosen to appear and to relate in the cyberspace, the identity which he would like to have in the real world. As A. Stasiuk says, the contemporary desire to change identity is a survival of the mythologem of salvation or redemption (2): the aspiration to a ‘new' beginning, uncontaminated and innocent, not yet corrupted by the dross of mundane becoming, which doesn't articulate itself as an ultra-temporal eon or in a re-found paradise, but remains available for the hic et nunc of a mouse click. In Indian philosophies the Avatar is the form used by the Brahman – the ‘objective' spirit of the universe (related to Atman , the ‘subjective' spirit of the universe) – to descend in the world of manifestation. In SL through the ‘avatar' the subject descends in the virtual world and shows the identity he wishes to assume in the cyberspace; very often this identity is radically antithetical to the one he has in the ‘real' world. It is common, then, that a shy person takes the avatar of an aggressive vampire or a dull girl becomes a seducing avatar with explosive and charming features. But in order to enrich the avatar with new clothes or gadgets, to give it some kind of originality or refinement, one must invest in its image. Since the operations for the ‘DIY' creation of the avatar are limited – the ‘basic' subscription only allows to access a limited range of types – in order to invest on the virtual image one must buy the necessary accessories paying them in Linden Dollars, SL's currency (300 L$ = 1 Euro). If in order to socialize with other avatars one must have a particularly well-groomed aspect and buy original clothes paying them in L$, what is the difference between this and the consumerist dynamics of the ‘real' world? In SL the accessories to buy are not only related to the avatar's look; they include land on which to build villas or castles. To buy an island prices can go up to 5,000 US dollars, but in general one can buy a ‘premium' subscription (9.95 US dollars) and buy land spending from 5 US dollars for 512 sqm to 195 US dollars for 65.536 sqm monthly. Of course to make new friends in SL it is necessary, as well as a sophisticated look, a suitable context to impress:
‘ Proceeding in your virtual life, ask yourselves this question: Where do I want to invite this people, in a castle, a villa, an office or a shack? For many people there is a point where these things stop being toys and become instruments for their online interaction. It is the plot of an online life that for them has the same functions of the offline part of their life. (3) '.
But if this is the scenario, one must wonder what is the difference between SL and the real – ‘offline' – world dominated by profit and logics of market. Where is the ‘freedom' and ‘happiness' promised by SL if the virtual universe is nothing but a faithful reproduction of the daily life dominated by real capitalism? In SL we can even find big land owners, realtors and speculators, such as the ‘businesswoman' Anshe Chung, whose yearly earnings are valued at around 150,000 US dollars. Who doesn't have great financial resources can earn money by gambling, sitting on a kind of ‘camp chair' and earning 3 L$ every fifteen minutes, looking for a kind of tree that gives away L$, called ‘money tree' (which at present works with avatars with less than a month permanence in SL), dealing business or finding a virtual employment. Those who join a premium subscription receive a weekly wage of 400 L$; if they are not enough (and they are not) one has to find a virtual job as responsible for a camping area, patron, bodyguard, salesman, event organizer, stripper, or escort:
‘Let's clear the way of possible misunderstandings: it is highly unlikely that your expenses on SL can be covered completely by the ‘free money' that you can get. As they say, ‘greed begets greed' and it is foreseeable that sooner or later you will be seduced by some object that costs some thousands of Linden dollars. To gather such amount of money by patiently saving on your salary is delirious; at that point the only possibility is to use your real wallet to buy the necessary Linden dollars (4) '.
As you can see, SL reproduces the globalized world in full. One can't rise above the others with virtual work only, the ‘tree' of L$ and the ‘camp chair' are sporadic and marginal choices; to have fun in the virtual universe it is necessary to use real capital. The possibility to invent a second life is not so much about the social-relational and economical processes – since SL is still a world that undergoes the same laws of profit and market – but rather the personal identity; it consists of having a vampire or Egyptian divinity look rather than the ordinary aspect suitable for a dull morning at the office. In other words, SL is more similar to a fancy dress party than to an inter-subjective revolution; also considering that – apart from the Italian society – in the democratic and civilized world transgender and queer-theory are not a problem any more. SL is a new universe (multiverse) ruled by the same principles as advanced and ‘liquid' capitalism, more similar to a globalized shopping center than to a new utopia. If SL wants to propose itself as the ‘ new world free from the usual bonds we are used to and that gives power to individuals (5) ' , then it must detach from the many multinationals, big companies and hotel trades such as Toyota, Adidas, 20 th Century Fox, Starwood Hotel, etc., who use it to launch their marketing platforms. I think that if the stakes are not only turnover and marketing, if SL wants to be ‘a new world free from bonds' must take on another project, refer to other goals. In order to create a ‘new free world' it is necessary to try and change the attitude; praxis is nothing without theory and action without thought leads to ghettoization and standardizing homologation, like it happened to many counter-cultural laboratories in the Sixties and Seventies. SL is like a baby with a lot of potentials and room for improvement; it can become the prototype of an alternative social system to use in a ‘regulating' role for the real world. But to do this, business must be left out.
1) Cf. Second Life, la guida ufficiale , la biblioteca di Repubblica e l'Espresso, ( Second Life, the official guide, Repubblica and L'Espresso library, Note of Translator) , Rome, 2007.
2) Cf. Z. Bauman, Modus Vivendi. Hell and Utopia of the liquid world.
3) Cf. Second Life, the official guide, op. cit.
4) Cf. Id.
5) Cf. Id.
Special thanks also to my friend Angela, she designed and built the Esonet lighthouse in the "Second Life" world - The Esonet.com Webmaster