In the beginning, there was a word, and it was an expletive

When I first created my Second Life account, more than a year ago, I felt like there was no intelligent life around at all. In a MMORPG, this is not a problem, there’s always something else to chew on. Obviously, not in Second Life, and back then, my machine couldn’t really handle it, so I logged off, never to return.

This year, I was explicitly invited back to spend a short time with someone. And it was such a special time, that I stayed around, anticipating more, trying to get adjusted, trying to adjust the world to me. That dream isn’t likely to happen now, but I’m still here, roaming across the grid, messing with things, and scaring people.

But I suppose it really started with the Second Life 5th birthday exibition, because that was the first thing I actually wanted to write about.

Obviously, the fact that I was roaming about there alone, and now it’s closed and gone, made the whole experience a touch bitter, but that’s not something to write in a journal about. At least I came back loaded with souvenirs that took a day to sort. It’s something else.

A memorable exibit consisting almost entirely of screenshots taken by a girl in a pink beret, who’s name I forgot, as usual, was completely about the friends she found, dripping with her affirmations that they weren’t illusory. As if a world existing through bits, bytes, packets and polygons isn’t real enough, as if she needed to convince herself. And that was the point when I really wanted to find those responsible of convincing her otherwise and whack them over the head with a textbook.

I’m going to tell you something now that won’t sit well with some, but it will be something you cannot logically disprove, because it’s true, not just true to someone, but true in the scientific sense of the word. And let’s start by defining what the word “real” really means.

The word “real” means, strictly speaking, “something that actually exists”. However, everyday usage in modern world is usually taken to mean “something that is physical”, a result of a naive materialistic point of view that dominates linguistic usage. It is very obvious that, say, Spiderman is “not real”, meaning that no individual named Peter Parker that also has an ability to secrete a glue-like substance from his wrists exists, and so people affirming the existance of such an individual can be safely assumed to be deluded. However, once you cross the thin boundary between fiction and social reality, things are nowhere that clear-cut.

If we only take “real” to mean “material”, many things that everyone depends in their lives on will turn out to be not real. For example, let’s take a social relationship of friendship in general, ignoring Second Life completely for the moment. What material components does it really have? A friendship is a way of thinking about a certain other individual, and as such can be mutual, one-sided, mixed with other emotions, but few will argue that it is “real”, because it can result — notice, can result, not is by itself — in material events, objects and actions. Like all other emotions, it exists as neural impulses in the brain and configurations of synapses, and despite all the efforts of neurophysiology, it requires heavy equipment and deep study to ascertain it’s material components in this manner. Essentially it is imperceptible directly by anyone else, other than the person who experiences it — everyone else can only see it’s consequences in actions taken by that person, and, by comparing them to their own experiences, assumes the friendship to actually exist.

But friendship is only one of the milder social relationships. Things like your bank account, which is surely “real”, since mishandling it may make your day or break your life, only exist in paperwork, which can be changed, or often, only as a record in a database, frequently maintained far less reliably and diligently than you expect. Such an objectively fragile thing as a bank account can nevetheless move mountains, sometimes literally — but not all by itself, through the actions of people who manipulate the material world as motivated by the power of money. And falling in love happens with just words, and can happen to two blind quadriplegics who can’t even touch each other.

This brings us to the notion that among the things that are “real”, there is a large subclass of things that are “real” but not perceptibly “material”, and a friendship is more real than a magnetic field even when it’s far less material. As long as even one person accepts something as “real”, it influences their actions and therefore becomes real for everybody else. This is all really textbook, look up “Thomas theorem” in Wikipedia.

What the textbooks glaze over though, mostly because they were written before Internet became prominent, is that these real things occur through communication far more often than they occur through action that results in a direct change in the material world. You can wire money by pressing a few buttons, and save a life. You can deny a resource by saying a word and doom that life.

And someone else can do it to you.

Now, what makes Second Life any different? It is, as is commonly agreed, a “virtual world”, a system that behaves similarly to a “real” one. But as I have described above, the social reality directly experienced by everyone outside Second Life, and outside any computer-mediated communication system in general, is not substantially different. Just what makes a virtual world online different from the virtual world that exists in the minds of people, in a bank database, in a set of government paperwork? Because that latter virtual world, world of friendships and betrayals and drama and relationships, knowledge and rumor, truth and falsehood, money and credit, status and hopes, is what really constitutes ‘real’ for people. Atoms and fields are comparatively far less significant.

There’s difference in the form. Many differences in it, actually. In the physical space, hugging someone is cheap and in virtual space it often costs money, in the physical space being someone else is often too hard, expensive, and bad for your health, while in a virtual space it is available at a click of a button. But there is no difference in substance. Form colors it and makes some things easier and other things harder, but that’s it, one social reality is not fundamentally different from any other social reality. There is nothing inherently different between them that makes one more real than the other, and whether they result in actions that translate into the material world is only the choice of the participants, in either case. It’s just that one is bigger and older, and has a bit more weight. Just as you can pretend to be someone else in Second Life, the same is achievable in social life outside it — pick yourself a new name, mess around with government paperwork, find new friends, and you have a new identity. Getting yourself a new face is harder and more painful than getting yourself a new set of clothes, but you can achieve remarkable results just by changing your clothes. Were these friends real?

Oh yes they were, and if they’re good friends, they still are, regardless of the space you use to interact. This is no more a game than the one you see in your office, in your classroom, on the street and when out partying. No more and no less. Whoever said that “That which is real doesn’t stop existing once you stop believing in it.” was simply wrong. Some things do disappear when you stop believing in them. And some of these things are the most real things at all, things that change your life and turn the world around, create and destroy nations and move armies, make people die for them with a happy smile and create miracles.

It wasn’t physical. It wasn’t material. Now look into yourself and tell me, does it mean it was any less real? Wherever the line between reality and illusion really lies, it’s somewhere else.

Grow the bloody hell up, humanity.

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2 thoughts on “In the beginning, there was a word, and it was an expletive

  1. I think the world is about to grow up. I use social interaction via computer networks since 1986, but nothing has such a revolutionary changing aspect like Second Life. Was I limited before to the atomic world to form friendships, my closest friends from Second Life live in Scotland, USA, the Netherlands and Serbia – the woman I love lives in Great Britain. People I respect and trust live in Canada, the United States, Norway, Malaysia, France and – recently – Russia. Social interaction with them bridge geographical and national boundaries, and make me feel not alone with my problems, and my struggle with life.
    The visual component, die “virtual physical” component SL adds takes it one level further compared to discussion groups, forums or even livechat/groupchat. Discussiong smething in groupchat is one thing, but actually SEEING a self-chosen representation of that person, seeing them DO things, move, work – seing them LIVE their virtual lives is a completely new experience. It’s breathtaking to think how all this will look like in 5, in 10 years, and how it will change the world.

    And Rika, “scaring people” takes two – one to scare – and one to GET scared. I’m not willing to be the one to GET scared.

  2. Yes, SL is one step further, but only one step in a long road as old as social reality towards building a world where people matter more.

    Hopefully we’re actually getting there eventually.

    …and I am pretty sure I scared enough people other than you to merit saying that. 🙂

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