The Atomic and The Digital World

Sophrosyne Stenvaag Profile picture on BloggerSophrosyne Stenvaag has recently written some of her thoughts on crossing the barrier between the atomic and the digital world, and as any good Extropian and Immersionist, her point is that we should not mix issues of the real (atomic) world with the virtual (digital) world. She argues that it doesn’t make any sense, for instance, to campaign for human rights in a RL country inside the virtual space of, say, the Second Life® world. In her own words:

If you see SL, or any digital world, as its own place, importing a social problem or a political issue is downright rude: it’s like going on vacation to a foreign country and arguing the benefits of your political candidate or party back home. It’s rude, and it’s imperialistic – it’s implicitly saying that your community’s politics are more important than those of the ones you’re visiting.

Her argument extends further to explain that things like governance (or self-governance) in SL are flawed if we use “real” models, since a new medium will require new forms of organisation, and although SL is a prime candidate for “role-playing” existing governance models, it shouldn’t be taken for more than that. SL allows for better, different tools to deal with governance issues, and we should not be stuck with primitive, atomic-world solutions when tackling this issue in SL. 

One foot on each side of the chasm

I’ve started to reply to Soph’s one article in a comment, but soon this grew quite over my intended short statement — and it’s also kind of rude to swamp other people’s blogs with too long comments, so I reworded my comment into an appropriate article.

So, according to Soph, it seems it’s time for Linden Lab to change their mission statement, then: “To connect everyone to an online world that improves the human condition.” According to her article, this is not only irrealistic (bordering on impossible), but, more to the point, it’s plain stupid, since it’s a waste of time.

Well, I do understand Soph’s point, of course, and since I’m following a thin thread between immersionism (the reason I joined SL in the first place) and augmentationism (my RL income comes almost exclusively — about 90% — from work done in SL), I’m sort of having one foot on each side of the thin barrier. For instance, I don’t do voice meetings (except very, very reluctantly) or interviews about my RL company (I’ll forward them to my augmentationist colleagues in my company, who are always glad to talk on the phone) — but I’m happy to do text-based interviews and/or email interviews, so long as I’m quoted as “Gwyneth Llewelyn”. Marilyn Monroe also refused to be quoted as Norma Jeane Mortenson in the press for the same reason. Most journalists refuse to grant me that status, of course 🙂

But on the other hand, my RL work in SL is for RL companies, who use SL as a tool, mostly for communication, training, and some promotion. In any case, they’re pursuing their own (RL) business in a virtual way. For them, a virtual world presence in SL is the same as a web page — or an email address. Early email addresses were all weird nicknames, and these are still popular, although not as they were in the 1990s. But people tended to accept a weird nickname as an email address on a business card and use it regularly without a second thought. After all, a phone number is weird, too: a random sequence of digits that represents a person. A weird nickname at least has some of the owner’s personality embedded into it. Of course, a 3D avatar with a personalised shape, skin, styling, clothing, hair, and accessories is quite a lot more than just a nickname, and it reflects (even if subconsciously) much more of the owner’s personality than just a few alphanumeric characters that we call “an email address”.

Obviously one can argue saying “ah, but that’s using SL as a communication tool — a typical augmentist argument — so that’s ok”, in the sense that if you just look at SL as a “tool to improve the human condition”, it’s fine to use it in any way it pleases you best and furthers your goals more. But SL is (or can be) much more: it’s its own environment, its own world, with its own society, its own issues and problems, which are separate from the atomic world — if you are just willing to see them that way (and definitely there is a huge number of people doing so: from real estate managers, community builders, to content producers and event hosters, all of which would have been impossible without SL, and that effectively only exist thanks to the immersive environment they’re in that behaves “just like a country”).

Cross-promotion between the atomic and digital worlds is just communication

There is, however, an issue that I can’t understand about Soph’s stance on cross-promotion between the real world and the virtual one, and I hope I can make the issue clearer by giving a few examples. After all, promotion of the Darfur cause is not done in Sudan: but (mostly) on the western world, quite away from the source of conflict, in surgically clean exhibition rooms set up in the comfort of western civilisation — and it’s there where funds are raised. Images are also shown on TV or on magazines: video and pictures extracted from the real horror, but sanitised for the consumption of a public that cannot ever feel or smell the situation at a refugee camp, and has to imagine the horror of the situation (from the viewpoint of someone living in a comfortably warm house sitting in front of a TV with friends and family) just based on the information provided. And these certainly drive people to do charity work — continents and oceans removed from the real source of conflict and with little connection to the “reality” (in the atomic sense) of what actually goes on. Distance, cultural differences, and physical horror are never fully conveyed through the media, through exhibits, or any other medium used to recreate the reality of the suffering of millions of people. That never prevented people to feel emotionally attached to an issue that does not happen in their “atomic neighbourhood” — and react accordingly. In a sense, the whole “interface” that is placed between a real issue affecting suffering people in a distant place is, by itself, a non-atomic ‘barrier’ (since it’s conveyed by media — most of it digital in these days, but even if it weren’t, they would be typewritten characters on a piece of paper — not emotions or feelings experienced in direct contact with an “atomic” situation). The “barrier” provided by the way non-atomic communication (in the sense that we’re not physically present in the place where things actually happen, namely, people suffering) naturally will induce a certain degree of detachment.

However, we’re so used to it that the “detachment” does not prevent us from emotionally involve ourselves with an issue. We don’t think of a “communication barrier” that makes us to look at the media as being “a different world” that should look at itself in isolation from the atomic world. And it’s unfair to classify the media as “being part of the atomic world” — the telephone network in the 1890s was as much “cyberspace” to the people living in the Victorian era, as a virtual world is for us today. Virtual worlds — cyberspace — are just richer today, but the issues remain the same: when someone called across the Atlantic over the phone in the early 1900s, where were they physically talking to each other? Cyberspace is the space where people get together using non-geography-limited (ie. non-atomic) communication. We can of course know that in a phone call someone is physically (atomically) sitting in an office in London, and the other one in New York; but the conversation is happening in neither place and in both at the same time. Still, people phone each other all the time and they don’t use the phone network as a virtual world of its own. At least, not any more. It’s not that the cyberspace — the phone network; the Internet after it; virtual worlds today — doesn’t have its own issues, and that the cyberspace by itself isn’t used to promote and discuss these very issues. Obviously, as “cyberspace” becomes integrated into the fullness of human experience, it becomes its own focus of discussion and handling issues. Most of us never experienced a time where people phoned each other and discussed how wonderful it is that to “call” someone doesn’t involve travelling physically to miles away (this was the original meaning of “to call”); but many definitely remember a time where Internet advocates met on IRC and USENET and discussed the Internet on the Internet itself. Now we might discuss the Internet… in Second Life. But that doesn’t mean that we’re discarding immersionism in the 2D Internet and embrace Second Life as a more immersive technology to discuss “legacy” cyberspace systems.

I would claim that what happens is a different process. We “absorb” technology into our society; and issues that are exclusively discussed inside a particular communication technology (using that same technology to do the discussions) become part of our society’s issues, too. The “barrier” between the issue raised by the medium, the medium itself, and the society fades as time goes by. Not even 15 years ago, newspapers scorned webzines and blogs, seeing them as “distinct”, and not worth of interest for a newspaper reporting on the atomic world — blogs and e-zines were for the digital world; newspapers for the atomic one. How quickly this changed! Now we have atom-based newspapers discussing Internet-related issues; and digital e-zines reporting on the atomic world.

The relatively recent experience in Second Life (just 5 years at most, for the oldest residents) leads us to the impression — like someone just recently come to a brand new Web-based Internet in, say, 1992 or 1993 — that it is its own environment, hermetically closed from the world — digital or atomic — where we actually live and breathe. But immersionism is not really schizophrenically isolating our experiences inside the virtual world from the rest of our (atomic and digital) non-SL experience. Certainly that can be seen as an extreme case — but it will be short-lived, as all previous experiences with brand new cyberspaces have shown. Rather, immersionism points out that issues in a virtual world are as important as the ones in an atom-based world. Meaning that they’re not to be scorned; they’re not to be ignored; they’re not “minor issues” or “second-rate issues”. Rather, they’re new issues which we (as a society and a species) have to tackle (pure augmentationists will of course refuse to give them any value; just like newspapers in the 1990s would be very, very reluctant to discuss things that affected the Internet-created cyberspace, like “digital identity”, or “spam”). Promoting the discussion around these issues is not “worthless” and not even “marginally important”. The issues exist, and they require to be addressed. Augmentationists can postpone the discussion — after all, that’s what happened in the past — but ultimately they will have, at some point, to deal with them.

Children get taught on school how to use the World-Wide Web and search Wikipedia for information — while the Internet in 1995 was the “spawn of evil” that had to be left out of the classroom. Ultimately, however, Internet advocates won their battle. But the reverse, of course, is also true. The early Internet mostly concerned itself with its own issues. The issues of the non-Internet world were deemed irrelevant, or unworthy of attention. Early Internet adopters were not interested in getting information about wars, famine, or social issues — these were to be dealt with by the traditional media. That, of course, quickly changed: today, the Internet continues to have its own issues, of course (you just need to browse Slashdot or the technical session of Digg to get a glimpse of Internet-only issues, affecting hundreds of thousands of Internet users, but with zero relevance to the non-Internet, physical, atomic world), but the Internet is certainly used as a major carrier of information related to the atomic world as well.

I hope I have made my point: in the 21st century, we cannot afford to shut off a part of what ultimately is the human experience of our day and age. It encompasses far more than just our neighbourhood — which was what a Middle Ages peasant would ultimately worry about. We are not only globally connected, but also digitally, and we create new worlds without connection to the atomic one. But the human experience is not just a fragmented shard of the whole — it encompasses all. And as time goes by, we will get more and more people addressing these issues.

CC BY 4.0 The Atomic and The Digital World by Gwyneth Llewelyn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

About Gwyneth Llewelyn

I'm just a virtual girl in a virtual world...

  • Jen Shikami

    Just read all 3 pages. Interesting post. I agree with you on almost all points… so much of these debates about immer/aug will be moot later. Just a question of how it goes to actually get there. Even then, in The Future, there will be a lot of range of people interesting in privacy vs. integration with RL…

    I think the question of whether digital issues will be considered important will be self-solving — as digital worlds become more important to more people, then of course it will be considered important to them. Just like digital privacy is important to a set of people now.

    Miraculously I can’t think of a super-long comment to swamp your blog with beyond this, so I’ll just leave it at that!

  • Hi Gwin,

    I think I agree more with you than with Soph here. The line between digital and physical worlds will blur and disappear as technology makes virtual reality more real and physical reality more virtual.

    I must say, and some people here will not like it, that I see no fundamental difference between SL, email, IM, videoconferencing, phone or snailmail. They are all useful communication tools that help us do more things and faster. Some are, of course, way more efficient than others for specific applications.

  • This was a great piece and clearly shows the intelligent thought being put to the questions we face.

    Coming first to SL out of curiosity, I too soon began to derive “real” income from atomic world companies. And my relationships with a number of the people I met became more than just SL relationships, meaning we use real world names.

    Yet as I continued to do consulting there is a great deal of hesitation on the part of others with a different view of SL. If they do not identify themselves and I can not reach them outside of Second Life, doing work for them was not possible for me. I had been burnt by one such relationship and so am now understandably am hesitant.

    Yet I’m on the board of a charity that has a SL presence and one of my questions is what is our mission here and how is it different than our mission in the physical world? How is it changed by the fact that it’s perceived by some as being less personal while others would claim that it’s even more personal – or with totally different personas or aspects of our selves?

    Thanks for the thought provoking piece. And for providing a forum for talking about this sort of question.

  • Hi Gwyn! Thank you for engaging so thoughtfully and comprehensively with the issues that I raised!

    I agree with just about everything you say on your second and third pages, but I have to disagree in part with your depiction of my own views.

    Your analysis of how a society comes to integrate a new technology into itself is terrific, and it’s an apt depiction of how digital worlds will come to be generally used in the coming decade.

    But your analysis presupposes a unitary culture, and overlooks a key difference between digital worlds and the other technologies you address.

    What separates SL (and in time other worlds) from the telephone, the automobile, from currency, is that it establishes *place* and *embodiment*. The telephone, the automobile, did not create new social, economic and political *places,* but rather erased the barriers between them.

    I think the analogy between SL and the opening of a new physical place for settlement – Antarctica, say, or a space station – is a strong one. They are all new places for living in, beginning as blank vessels to be filled with culture.

    Now, there are two approaches to entering into such a space. One is to import all the culture – the laws, the economic relations, the fashions, the architecture, the sexual customs – of the society people came from, and just extend the old culture into the new space, absorbing the new space as part of the old.

    That’s called colonialism.

    The other approach is to try new things, to create a synthetic culture taking into account local circumstances, consciously choosing the best among available alternatives, tried and untried, and creating a new place apart from the parent society.

    That’s called settlement, and it has two great values. It can offer a better life to the people who settle, by replacing ineffective, unpleasant or downright evil traditions with newer, better systems. Its other value is as an example to those living under the old order, an existence proof that better ways are possible.

    Whether synthetic worlds will be colonies or settlements is a question still very much up in the air, though the colonialists tend to be louder (myself excepted!) and to get most of the press.

    I’m a digital nationalist, an anti-colonialist, but by no means a separatist: I see the “magic circle” as potentially a national border, one which allows a vast amount of free exchange of goods, ideas and people, but does provide some level of protection for the development of a national culture and institutions which may diverge from the dominant political consensus.

    I hope that experiments with economic and political systems can thrive in SL, face tests in use, and evolve naturally, without being IMF’d out of existence by that dominant political consensus.

    I think that’s a goal we both share.

  • Hm. I can’t say that I agree that Second Life is some wonderful magical other-world that deserves to be kept completely separate. If nothing else, it’s all running on real-world (or, as you might prefer, atomic-world) servers that use real-world electricity that generate real-world bills.

    So I have to agree the barrier is wishful thinking, at best, and yet not wholly impractical. There are already such things existent, after all. BDSM parties. Historical re-enactment. Live-action roleplayers. All of these are situations which say, “within these bounds, the rules are different”… and that’s cool.

    If you want a place where you can be your ‘secondary’ and not deal with your ‘primary’ and all the rest of the extropian jargon, get yer own simulator and post the rules. No different in general principle than running a nudist colony… but kindly don’t ask that anyone else follow your lead elsewhere. I keep a modicum of seperation between meatspace and virtual, but I’m more or less the same person in both; the only difference is I have a touch more freedom of self-expression in a virtual world.

  • Susan, I’m flattered that you considered my article worth reading… thanks for the kind words!

    Soph, if we did learn something from recent history, is that human experiences (extending to society and politics) are contagious. In the currently wired world — covering around a third of this planet’s overall population, which is amazing to say the least — ideas and concepts spread like wildfire and they are almost impossible to contain (even China is dropping their firewalls!).

    Although I understand your point between “colonialism” and “settlement”, I think that we’re past an age where the concept still applies. The digital era makes everything smoothly uniform, as concepts spill over all barriers — distance, culture, national borders. It’s unavoidable, like so many autocratic RL governments have found out. The more connected a population is, the more it is exposed to all different kinds of ideas. If you wish, you can call it a “cultural colonialism” of a sorts, in the sense that everyone who is online gets affected by it.

    We can still artificially raise barriers, like the RIAA still tries, but ultimately these will all fail. Thus, as time goes by, the clear division of what “colonialism” and “settlement” is will definitely blend and merge — and specially so on virtual worlds, which are inhabited by human beings who are used to live in the digital age.

    Just look at what the major influences were on Second Life when it started: it absorbed the leftist culture of the young Internet, used by the early adopters — the “share everything” and “information ought to be free” attitude, and the “I wish recognition, not payment” reward methodology. Not many years afterwards, Second Life was immediately “infected” by the second wave of Internet adopters (the mainstream pragmatists): rampant capitalism. Both were attitudes developed outside virtual worlds, but quickly adopted and implemented in Second Life; of course, having a far larger number of people, the second wave was predominant. But we’re certainly living in a Second Life which is the result of a “colonised” environment that adopted the prevalent attitudes in the digital era. They were even little changed; things like spam and scams became commonplace in SL as they are on the Internet. Not surprisingly, “mature content” also has a similar degree of adoption in SL (about a fifth of all content is mature) as it has on the Internet.

    I would be very surprised that we will consistently encounter “a synthetic culture taking into account local circumstances, consciously choosing the best among available alternatives, tried and untried, and creating a new place apart from the parent society”. In fact, what is happening is rather the contrary: the “parent society” (our planet, Earth) influences directly what the culture looks like, with just a few exceptions here and there (which obviously also exist in the physical world: we still have pockets of counter-culture on Earth, and these will not disappear). I’m hardly shocked: after all, the people are the same. We don’t leave our brains out of the door when we log in to SL. Well, at least most of us don’t 🙂

    However, that doesn’t mean that the emerging culture in SL is an exact copy of the one in the “parent society”. Just like democracy in Europe changed subtly when it was “adopted” in the US — but both kinds are still democracies! — several things will be slightly changed inside virtual worlds. A good example is something as simple as the basis of enforcement: in the physical world, we can die violently, so governments enact a monopoly on violence (this basically means that acting violently on your own is illegal). But avatars don’t die. Instead, they own land. Thus, enforcement in SL is done not by violence, but by withholding the rights to land. Nevertheless, a democracy based on land will be fundamentally similar than one based on the monopoly of violence. Both will allow people (“citizens”) to self-rule themselves through electing members of government via a popular vote, and apply laws that affect their common lives. Just the method of enforcement will be different.

    This naturally will extend to almost all areas of human culture and society inside a synthetic, digital world. We have SL-specific art inside SL, too, but that does not mean we have gotten rid of art critics: they do exist and fullfill the same role as in the atomic world. We learn and teach SL-related skills just like in the atomic world we learn about acountancy or computer software or common law. We gravitate towards personalities; we lobby for things we deem important; we assert our intellectual property rights, but instead of filing our creations with a Trademark Office or the RIAA, we just click on checkboxes to disallow transfer. And we even pay taxes! (it’s just called “tier” 😉 )

    I’m afraid I have to side with Aliasi on this. We can, indeed, isolate ourselves from the “mainstream SL culture” and create our own pocket of utopia, and refuse to be “contaminated” by either our parent society or even by the mainstream SL culture. This happens all the time, and there are quite a lot of examples of those (proportionally speaking, far more than in the atomic world). But ultimately these will be tiny exceptions in the vast ocean of what virtual worlds are going to be.

    What I also believe is that there will be “cross-contamination”. Things done well in SL (or any other digital, synthetic world) will influence the atomic world in a slight degree. I take an example which is dear to Linden Lab: education/training and in-world meetings (including seminars, workshops, presentations…). SL residents, in both cases, have successfully demonstrated that things like “physical presence” (e.g. face-to-face discussion in the physical world) are of little importance — even less in SL than, say, on the Web (and eBay and Amazon certainly are the best examples on how the lack of a physical presence does not affect commerce in any way!). Just right now we’re experimenting with new tools and methods that allow marketeers to do consumer profiling in ways that are simply not possible in the physical world (inside SL, you don’t only know how many people visited your location — you know their names, too!). Good or bad, virtual worlds will allow a certain degree of experimentation which will also transform the atomic world — whether right now people accept that or not. But in 1900 nobody would imagine that City Halls would be regulating car traffic in the future or force architecture to take into account the need to park cars on streets and garages. Or that homes would be redesigned to allow some space for the family to watch TV together.

    I’m quite sceptical myself that virtual worlds will really show us that “alternative” ways of building societies are possible. These will be swallowed up, as always, by the mainstream, which is ruthless and unforgiving. The best I can hope for is that a few good ideas escape back to the physical world, and, through these few good examples, fullfill Linden Lab’s mission of “improving human condition through virtual worlds”.

    It’s a bold aim, but I gather that the impact will be larger than we all might think. After all, nobody predicted how quick the change was once 2 billion human beings had access to computers, and 3 billions have mobile phones in their purses (or pockets). There was a change. We just absorbed it into our mainstream culture and never thought twice about it any more.

    Unless we change the way humans think and react to other humans, exploring virtual worlds will just be like exploring anything else where humans have gone: after settlement will come contamination by the mainstream. I cannot think that virtual worlds are “safe” from that contamination, although I certainly think that new ideas that will shape our society — blending the virtual and the physical so that there is no real difference between both — will definitely pop up and grow more than we currently believe.