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.

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