The Atomic and The Digital 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.


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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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.