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.

Governance in the digital world

So we come at last to virtual governance opposed to real governance. It’s undeniable that as civilisation advances, and technology allow us things that were impossible generations before, and — globally — people are more educated, have more access to knowledge and are able to make more richer decisions (beyond their immediate needs), society should adopt different forms of governance. It doesn’t mean that we are always pushed to develop new and more models just because we can. Some things work well for Humankind since it became self-aware — a silly example: we always wear clothes (at least in the temperate regions) no matter what our society looks like. However, fashion (and technology!) dictates the change on fabric, colours, or styles. But we haven’t abandoned clothing!

Similarly, representative democracy was invented 2700 years ago, and it is still a good idea for the current societies. However, the ancient Greeks definitely had a different model for democracy: it mostly encompassed only literate males from a certain class in society. The rest was excluded and deemed worthless to participate in self-governance, because (they argued) of a lack of knowledge, interest, or available time. This naturally has changed in the 21st century — at least on the western world, almost everybody knows how to read and write, almost everybody has gone through a decade of education in a school, and almost everybody has a TV (or at least a similar vehicle of information). This means that everybody is quite able to possess an opinion, and cast a vote based on that opinion — and that’s why we have democracies with universal suffrage for all its citizens.

But there is certainly more. These days, you can not only remotely attend sessions at your country’s Parliament (either via TV or even Internet-based video streaming), but you can get transcripts of past (or even current!) sessions. The amount of data available to any of us is the same as to our representatives. We do have indeed equal opportunities to make decisions concerning our own society as have our country’s elected representatives. This was simply not true a generation ago — at the very least, to attend a parliamentary meeting, you’d have to travel to the capital and spend a lot of your personal time to attend the meetings and keep up to date with all that went on. You could do it — you had the choice — but it was hardly easy for everybody to do that, if not straight-out impossible. The current level of technology, however, eliminated all that. Information is, as Bill Gates would say, literally at our fingertips — and it’s the same information our representatives have… and we can watch the proceedings live on TV. Naturally, this will mean that at some point things will have to change: people will very likely start demanding that the representative members are logged in to the Internet (or a virtual world!) and get instant feedback from their electors — in real time. Instead of waiting for letters to arrive by the mail (or even emails!), they might open IRC channels (or meeting rooms in SL) while a session is under way, and chat with common citizens and ask their opinion: “Guys, you’ve elected me, and you’re listening to what the opposition is saying; what should I do? What would you recommend?”

This is the kind of model of participative democracy that can actually be pretty well done inside Second Life. Yes, one can call it role-playing, or just playing (remember, though, that playing is what young mammals do to learn skills useful for their later life!… we can’t avoid “playing”, it’s part of our genetic heritage). However, for me, it’s just redefining and testing new models of governance, and see how well they work. A few things actually become very quickly apparent: even in SL, a moderately-sized community will work better if it uses a model of representative democracy instead of direct democracy (try it out on your own for a few years, and you’ll see what I mean). In real life, we have no way to experiment with those models and come to any valid conclusion (unless, of course, you’re willing to go over to Switzerland for a few decades, apply for citizenship, and live under a direct democracy for a while). In Second Life, however, this is quickly figured out — specially if there are high enough stakes, that is, people’s money or virtual land is at stake, thus people require a commitment that affects their lives (atomic or digital; it’s irrelevant, so long as it does, indeed, affect them).

So, it can be used to study, after running an ‘experiment’ for a few years, how people react and think; how some models do not work in practice when subjected to the harsh test of “reality” (people start dropping out of projects, or figure out that losing money & virtual land at some point far outweights the cost of remaining inside a flawed community). But the issue of “instant information” and “being as informed as your representatives” naturally will push people to devise a slightly different model of representative democracy, which is quite unlike what we have in the real world, and far more removed from Athenian democracy, of course.

But does that affect, in any way, the real world? You bet it does! The media definitely influence the way government works; but even the most Ludditean commentator will grudgingly admit that these days blogs also wield political power, although they’re outside the sphere of influence of the “traditional” media (which, at every day, becomes less “traditional” anyway). Bloggers change the world, too. They affect it by their opinions. They can indeed also help to save Darfur by requesting donations on their pages. And all these work; I forget which US politician claimed to have received more Internet-based donations than from any other source.

Sure, the Web and the Internet are things that we are actually very familiar with. But it’s also interesting to see that the Internet-as-cyberspace community will demand something in return. If you do a donation through a website set up by a political candidate, you also expect them to promote the Internet as well. If the politician refuses (or forgets) to do that, they won’t get any more money the next time, and will be flagged by the whole blogosphere as an “opportunist”. Now we find all of this perfectly reasonable — we expect politicians that use and abuse the Internet to give something in return for the support coming from their Internet fans — but try to explain this to an audience in 1994 and you would be laughed at.

Second Life is just a way richer environment than, say, a 2D web page with comments signed by nicknames like “asdf019876”. The richness of the environment brings completely new and unsuspected issues into play. Second Life, in that regard, having things like an economy, allowing anyone equal opportunities to become both a content producer and consumer, and allowing full personalisation of our own digital self and our envrionment, brings an overwhelmingly new set of question and issues that required to be addressed.

Let’s try with a simple example. Internet advocates in the 1990s strongly demanded that an email was considered a valid document, and that an attachment could be used instead of a photocopy of a document in any situation requiring. This was considered completely insane. People would never trust a document created in digital format (so easy to change) although they happily would accept a photocopy (also easy to change — but remember that our parents would be unable to use a photocopy or fax as a valid document in their youth!). These days, I just log to the website of my country’s revenue service and print out a PDF to show the police that I have paid all taxes for my car. It takes seconds. It’s printed on a normal printer. It’s easy and legally accepted — and my Government encourages that actively (less queues, less time wasted…), as do western governments all around the world.

But Second Life does raises quite a new set of issues. I wish to conduct business under my avatar name, and I also wish my avatar name to be granted legal recognition in any document I sign — digitally or in ink — anywhere in the world. A notecard sent with the Creator tag set to “Gwyneth Llewelyn” should be as legally binding, in any court of law, as a piece of paper with an ink-based signature (in fact, the former is way more safe and far less prone to forgery…). It ought to be irrelevant if I commit to a business deal by (paper-based) letter, a phone call, an email, or a notecard (or even IM) — and this requires, politically, that some laws definitely change, at least in some countries (in common law systems all it takes is for a successful lawyer to establish in court the legitimacy of a SL notecard as a valid contract). These and several issues are still laughing matter in 2008. Rather a lot of metaverse development companies that I know, who have been in the business for quite a long time, providing virtual presences for their corporate customers to do training, promotion, and virtual meetings, are quite reluctant to enter a business deal if they’re unable to meet with the client in-the-flesh or at least call them on the phone — which seems not so much backwards, but actually highly ironic (if they don’t believe their own sales pitch, how do they expect to succeed as a business creating virtual environments for businesses?). Nevertheless, they’re the first to accept email-based contracts, NDAs, or invoices — and the latter get paid through digital means (PayPal, bank transfers, automatic plastic card debits), not cash.

Now all of those — and probably quite a whole lot of new ones — are serious issues, truly related to “living in a virtual environment”, that were never asked before (at least not outside academia), and definitely not experienced every day in our lives (both online or offline). They are, in fact, quite similar to the early issues about using the Internet for “serious business” in the 1990s, or using the phone for “serious business” in the 1920s, or sending telegrams to replace the “serious business” of writing letters in the 1860s — and, of course, with each technological innovation, you can go back centuries and even millenia, perhaps to the point in time where “cash” was invented as an alternative to barter, and the implications it had on the first civilisations that coined money and started to use it.

Obviously, I’m totally in favour of discussing — or even pushing! — those issues ahead and make them part of the whole promotional efforts of virtual worlds like Second Life. These are certainly things that need to be addressed. They are unique to virtual worlds, and the digital “way of life” (which does certainly exist and is not just wishful thinking by a selected few researchers hidden in a lab somewhere in an obscure university campus) would not be possible without those issues to be addressed and, like so many issues before them, answered by our societies and our governments. So I’m not shrugging them off and think they’re irrelevant. Rather the total opposite: my experience in the past years, for instance, shows me that a potential client that refuses to meet in SL to discuss a business arrangement — but insists on meetings in the flesh, paper contracts signed in ink, phone calls, and other things that we associate with the “atomic” world — will almost always give up on SL. They haven’t made the required leap to understand that the digital life has its own rules, issues, and demands — but they have to absorb these first in order to broaden their experience to encompass the digital as well.

On the other hand, a true augmentationist will always argue that these issues are not relevant — “business (or personal relations) has been conducted in the flesh since the dawn of time, so why should it be different in 2008?” Here I have to side with Soph. We’re not in the Middle Ages or any other historical period. We don’t build Gothic cathedrals any more. Things have changed — in a sense, as our societies advance civilisationally, they become more abstract (“written words” carry as much weight as a person physically saying them; “money” being probably the second abstraction that ever appeared to “represent” the potential of ownership of goods and services; a “signature”, representing a person’s will to agree to a contract, has followed pretty closely)— and “living in the 21st century” will require a change as new abstractions are introduced (ownership of virtual land and virtual goods; the avatar as a person’s signature). How massive that change is, we’re only barely imagining; but we have a glimpse of the future by trying to imagine how people lived in 1980 without email or a mobile phone (although they certainly had cars and computers!). We can go back three decades by visiting a seriously undeveloped country (even so it’ll very likely have some mobile phone coverage…) and try to catch up on our emails, try to buy something with a plastic card, or keep in touch with friends and family with a mobile phone. It quickly dawns on us how strange the world was just a generation ago — but it certainly was a technological society as well, one that allowed people like William Gibson or Bruce Sterling to imagine a future extrapolated from what they experienced in “their” atomic world.

Breaking the barrier

Unlike my own thoughts a few years ago — when I postulated that augmentists, being the vast majority, would ultimately shape the virtual world — I’m now much less reluctant to accept my own words on that. I forgot to take into account how technology — disruptive technology — really does change a society. But unlike Soph, who prefers to separate both sides of the barrier, I claim that this barrier is “wishful thinking”: it does not really exist, it’s just a convenient way of labelling things and put them into different boxes. But these “boxes” aren’t really there. The next generation — living in the 2030s — will find articles like this one, or Soph’s own, completely irrelevant, nonsensical, and even childish. They will have the same attitude as someone laughing at a Star Trek movie, pointing out how ridiculous their communication tools are (“we’ll never have something like that!”) or how impossible the “magic wand” used by Star Trek doctors to scan a patient is (“medical science will never be able to do remote sensing of humans!”). Then someone will just show them their video-enabled mobile phone or explain how they were scanned by a gynaecologist and their ecography “wand” that certainly allows “remote” viewing of a patient’s body. And suddenly people will be silent as they realise that what was science-fiction in the 1970s is actually done much better (and cheaper) with the tools and devices we’ve got in 2008.

Technology’s way of shaping society — even with disruptive technology — works very strangely. I’ve been recently reading Agatha Christie‘s autobiography, which is written in the late 1950s about the late Victorian and the Edwardian eras, from the point of view of a very open mind who has a very critical (but open minded) way of analysing those eras. She describes how people resisted trams that became public transportation “everywhere”; and how the “automobile” was seen as a fashion statement, a fad, something for the rich to enjoy, but expected to disappear quickly as the fad died out; or how airplanes were something akin to a circus event — very cool to watch and dream about, but never thought to become a means of transportation (or as a war weapon!). In a few years, however, it became clear that these new technologies would slowly replace existing ones (public mass transportation, the personal car, or the airplane were certainly all very disruptive technologies). In a decade or two, they simply changed the way societies work everywhere. It was faster than even the optimists thought it could happen, but slower to gain universal acceptance — from the point of view of those embracing these technologies! — than they dreamed it would be. In 1911, only the very bold (says Christie) would dare to pay a few pounds to jump on an airplane and get a thrilling ride — akin to what we would do today to, say, go on a sub-orbital flight — but nobody would seriously believe that in the 1930s airplanes would replace ships as the major way for passengers to travel across different continents — and in the 1950s it became affordable and universal even to the lower-middle classes (today, between some cities at least, going by plane, even after 9/11, is as cheap or sometimes cheaper than taking a train or a bus…).

So when we take a stopwatch and freeze a moment in time, and look at what kind of technologies we have (specially the potentially disruptive ones!…) we might have mixed feelings about them. On one hand, early adopters will dream about a world that has fully absorbed and integrated one of those technologies — and they will promote them to the utmost, but will see little acceptance. On the other hand, we can push the time freeze a decade before — where the technology was immature and just used in a research lab or as a “fad” for the privileged few — and see how little hope there was to have it universally accepted. Switch the slider to a decade in the future, and universal acceptance might not be there, but the potential for it becomes real. Put it two decades in the future, and it becomes ubiquitous and widespread, a novelty that gets used by everybody (like, say, iPods today; or the Sony Walkman in the late 1980s). Add another two or three decades, and you can’t even notice the technology is there, people simple regard it as making part of their environment, surroundings, and society (like computers or mobile phones today). The transition is, however, smooth and quite impossible to perceive if you just advance the slider a second (or a day; or a year) at a time.

When I set up my own first blog in 1993 (which wasn’t called a “blog” those days; we just called it a “homepage”) I thought that only a very small group of people ever would do the same, and we felt some “bonding” with the few others (nevertheless, we were talking about dozens of thousands of people, possibly more) that did the same — and thought the same way about “homepages”. We discussed, in a very closely-knit group, what issues related to these: how people would abuse links to external pictures in order to sidestep their own server’s bandwidth restrictions, or how certain HTML tags were pointless and should be banished. In 1995, it was clear that major companies and organisations would very likely have their homepages, too, but we expected it to be as little widespread as, say, having mainframes in your organisation. By 1997 it became apparent that almost every company in the world would have their own website. In 2008, it’s 6-year-old-kids that publish their blogs, often encouraged by their own teachers at grammar school, or their parents at home, who barely know what’s inside their computers, but certainly have email addresses, chat nicknames, and blogs of their own. In 2020 they’ll probably all have avatars (who knows, on their iPhones…), and will think these are as part of their lives as is owning a fridge, a car, a TV, or a computer. The issues we discuss today on how to blend the digital world with the atomic one will be pretty alien to our future selves in 2020. The digital and atomic world will already have merged and blended together. In 2008, we can still afford to say things like “what happens in SL, stays in SL”, but this will sound very strange in 2028 when you log in to a virtual world by activating your neuronal implants to make a “call” to your 70-year-old-grandmother while walking on the street or travelling in the subway — she’ll be using her lovely dragon avatar, and you’d be using a shiny metal robot, but you know very well who your grandmother is, and she’ll chat about trivia and do small talk about issues both digital and atomic (“oh, I loved to attend that poet’s reading on the InterGrid yesterday, and by the way, when you come to visit me, please bring some more flour and I’ll bake you an old-fashioned cake”). They won’t be writing essays on “immersionism vs. augmentism”, because they all will be both, and that issue, for them, will be pretty much irrelevant.

So I think we should enjoy this artificial barrier while we can. I believe I broke it in 2006 when it was clear that doing business in SL would require me to pay taxes and explain to accountants what kind of work my company was doing. Perhaps a bit surprising to me, they simply nodded patiently and looked at it as “another business model” — as “crazy” as any other. I understood that what was “madness” (or perhaps “eccentricity”) about the whole concept was just my way of thinking that “things in SL should stay in SL”. By puncturing the barrier I saw how thin it was, and a few years later, I believe that the barrier only exists… well, if you believe it does. But it’s simply not there; it’s inside ourselves, if we wish to raise it and force ourselves (and our friends and acquaintances) to respect it.

Conclusion

After all, Linden Lab’s mission statement might prove to have a lot of forethought placed into it. They’ve abandoned the “virtual country” statement about Second Life, and just wish to see their technology to be employed to “improve human condition”. As the use of virtual worlds increase, new issues have to be dealt with that previously were unheard of or unthinkable. The rights of an individual to be represented by an avatar will have, at some point, to be incorporated in every country’s legal system under the same provisions that made an email a document as valid as a paper-and-ink one. Immersionist activists will be at the forefront of the defenders of these new rights, and rightfully claim attention to the new issues that will need to be addressed as our current societies, still unsuspecting, are getting transformed and changed by the use of virtual worlds. The digital world will naturally be the best and most far-reaching environment to promote and debate those issues; answers will very likely come from users of this technology (and not from the outside), as these are the ones better prepared to formulate the questions, and very likely the ones more prone to provide guidance to find some answers. However, like any other disruptive technology used in the past, the “rest of the atomic world” will naturally start to use the digital world to address their issues as well. Very likely, in 1911, “Aviators Clubs” would discuss, among themselves, the impact that affordable flying would bring to their societies, but nobody outside those restricted clubs would take them seriously, and they didn’t expect to be understood by the “outsiders”; nowadays, human rights activists will take an airplane to travel to their workshops and seminars — and so will (most) of their audiences.

Immersionists are certainly better prepared to deal with the issues arising from a widespread use of virtual worlds — since they can clearly see that there are new issues, and they correctly identify them as being important — unlike augmentationists, who feel the discussion to be irrelevant. As the barrier between both fades away, however, both will live in an expanded society that encompasses both the digital and the atomic world — and both will be changed (utterly, and, dramatically so) by the impact of the digital world in our daily lives. I don’t think there is no way back, and there is also no way to disregard the issues arising in the digital world: they will be addressed and incorporated as part of our species’ technological and civilisational achievements.

So, yes, I guess I’m a post-immersionist now 🙂 and I should write a manifesto on post-immersionism one of these days…

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