Esoteric immersionism

Esoteric
For years, residents have been incredibly worried about the way Second Life® has been viewed by the media: a place for freaks to come out and escape from the harsh reality of so-called “real life”. Escapism, and its step brother, sex, was what made the news — and from there, drama ensued, and drama sold papers (or TV spots, or blog pages), which in turn got more advertisers, so, that’s all we got.

Second Life continues to be hard to understand or explain, and will remain so, even though the announced “Lite” viewer will come out by the end of this year. The reasons for that are a bit more subtle than I, in my ingenuity, thought.

Strangely enough, the real reason for the hard adoption rate came to me just recently, after a chat with a friend, who is not exactly a newcomer to SL, but has been a rather “passive” user, logging in once or twice in order to do her work. Only in the past few weeks has she been in touch with the reality of SL: its inhabitants, its culture, its relationships. We both study esoteric philosophies, and she suddenly had this insight why Second Life is so hard to “get”: it’s not only because it’s hard to use the interface — but it’s quite hard to understand the whole scope of what you can do in SL (or why you should do it in SL).

For us residents, this comes to us naturally. We have read about social networking, and SL is about people — so it’s obvious for us that this is one major use for SL. Grace McDunnough cleverly pinpoints the “killer application” for SL: forging weak ties and maintaining them very active. M Linden might be still a bit confused about the best use for SL might be, but we have to forgive him his newbieness — in a couple of years, he’ll have a clearer picture. Nevertheless, bringing people together (either for meetings and conferences or educational purposes, like M Linden likes to say; or for creative and cultural reasons, like so many others have written about) is one major focus for SL.

But this is not easy to explain to outsiders.

Philip Linden liked to compare Second Life to a “country”. Although this metaphor has been a bit out of fashion (we prefer to call it a “3D social networking platform” these days), there is a good reason for remaining faithful to the “country” concept: when you start logging in to Second Life, you can have three fundamental approaches. You can come in as a closed-mind tourist. And you just see SL as a tourist trap and want quickly to go away. This is what happens to at least 90% of the people: this is a country they have no interest to visit again. The second group becomes a regular tourist: they drop in, now and then, attached to some intriguing aspects of SL that don’t exist elsewhere. But they don’t bond, they don’t get attached; like a short vacation to an exotic country, you get fascinated by the sights and the people, but you don’t wish to live there full time.

The last group — the tiniest minority of all registered users of Second Life — have a completely different mindset. They view their actions and their goals in Second Life just like “emigrating to another country”. It’s a country similar enough to their own origin, in the sense that the major activity is getting together with similarly-minded people (or, for some, a nice environment where you can be on your own and be creative without being bothered) and share an environment that is shaped solely by our minds and imagination. Once this process of adapting to the social environment of Second Life takes place, we become patriotic (the more acceptable label is evangelical): we love our country and wish everybody to be part of it, since what is so wonderful for us should definitely be great for anyone else, if they only bothered to log in and visit. So we become enthusiasts. We write comments on each other’s blogs. We create whole social networks on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, LinkedIn, YouTube, and, like any other country-based organisation, we stick together even if we’re off-world. We shape the SLogosphere around us — as a country with 15 million inhabitants, we’re large enough (among, say, the 70 largest countries of the world or so) to develop our own culture, which goes beyond the immersive experience of Second Life. We’re business people, we’re artists, we’re philosophers, and we routinely get in touch with people with similar interests, who have at least one thing in common: they, like ourselves, are good Second Life patriots.

And we fail to understand why the rest of the world doesn’t follow us.

About Gwyneth Llewelyn

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

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  • Nice post. I also like this notion of SL as a country. I explain SL to people who are not familiar with it more as a communication or a network tool, because talking about is as a country would seem weird to most people. For myself however I consider it more and more as a place which is important to my life, like a city or a country can be important to one’s life.

  • I agree, Roland, look like complete weirdos if we say those kinds of things in public 🙂

    I should add just a comment to the text. Although the comparison with religious thought came naturally — and is purposefully meant to be provocative 🙂 — I’m not proselytising in any way. In fact, the whole notion of proselytism is obnoxious to all esoteric traditions, and doesn’t make any sense whatsoever: people cannot be “converted” to esoteric traditions, they either have the proper mindset to be willing to understand it, or they haven’t, and it’s worthless “pushing” the ideas to them.

    Similarly, I think that the same happens with Second Life. Mass-marketing and massively advertising SL to the mainstream makes little sense, as most people will never really grasp the concept. The best we can get with that is more tourists — if we can get a lighter SL client, less lag, and a much better “first 15 minutes experience”.

  • Anonymous

    This is insitefull. I’ve never thought about it like this. I love SL because it is my country. What a simple concept and very apt.
    I think of it as a place through the wormhole around another star.
    I have to agree, we need a better first 15 minutes. My friend who I lured to the dark side came back after his first visit and said he didn’t know what to do until some girl befriended him, took him around, dressed him up, had a good time and now he has connections and he got it. I see him inworld often. The emotional involvement with his avi changed his surroundings into a real space vs. a scene in a game.
    I am scared of a lite viewer, I don’t want to lose all those extra tools buried in the presant viewer. But I’m a nerd.

  • Great post Gwyn. I guess I am what you call a “regular tourist”: someone who spend a lot of time in a place, but remain a citizen of another place. It is not that I don’t get immersionism. Rather, I find so much added value in strongly linking the activities of my SL selves with those of my RL self that I would lose a lot if I were to separate them. I have two main avatars: Giulio Perhaps (who is getting a new look as we speak, how I wish I could do the same for my RL self), and Eschatoon Magic, plus many rarely used alts. Some of my alts are completely pseudonymous, but I don’t have time to use them much.

    Concerning spirituality and religion: some readers may not be aware that there is a group of Cosmic Engineers in SL (see cosmeng.org), some of whom are interested in a transhumanist-flavored interpretation of spirituality (or a spiritually-flavored interpretation of transhumanism) who meet regularly in Second Life. Our esteemed friend Extropia is, of course, part of the group. We have now a dedicated island in Second Life, Transvision Nexus, and look forward to welcoming all old and new friends, and all visitors.

  • Thanks for the comment 🙂 I should state, by the way, that although I definitely enjoy talking to Transhumanists and discussing their ideas, I’m not a Transhumanist myself. Transhumanism is like a religion without spirituality; I personally favour the reverse approach 🙂 But their approach to an unfailing belief in technology as a way for making human life more bearable (now) and transcendence (in the near future) is definitely one I don’t discard — at least the first part, since it’s clear that we, as a human species, are far better off with all the technological advances!

    Nevertheless, I should be posting an intriguing suggestion soon which should show clearly the way my own ideas run contrary to Transhumanist beliefs… I’ve let Extie chew on this for a couple of weeks in order to see what flaws she sees in the argumentation. It’s a Great Unifying Theory (not mine; I cannot claim any credit for it; it’s actually a very very old theory) which will sadly turn down any chances for transcendence through Transhumanism (at least, through the technological aspect of Transhumanism).

    This will definitely not mean that I won’t publish any more of Extie’s lovely essays here! Rather the contrary: I expect to post more and more, as she produces them. She does a quite thorough job of dissecting concepts that fascinate me, like her theories of self, which are some of her best work.

  • Well, I would rather define [my personal interpretation of] transhumanism as spirituality without religion (your “reverse approach”): spirituality in a natural universe without any faith in the supernatural (which is what is often implied by “religion”).

    I definitely look forward to reading your ideas on these matters, how about organizing a presentation/debate in SL? I would hazard a guess that we will find out that our ideas are not mutually exclusive.

  • Extropia DaSilva

    ‘Transhumanism is like a religion without spirituality.’

    Why, then, did Ray Kurzweil call his book ‘The Age Of Spiritual Machines?’. I think it is more accurate to say that transhumanists prefer means of transendence that are scientifically falsifiable in principle. The Dalai Lama commented, “the systematic training of the mind- the cultivation of happiness, the genuine inner-transformation by deliberately selecting and and focusing on positive mental states and challenging negative mental states-is possible because of the very structure and function of the brain”. Neuroscience backs him up, since brain scans of Tibettan Buddhists practicing meditation show activity in the prefrontal cortex that is far in excess of what one would see in ‘normal’ research subjects. On this issue at least, the Dalai Lama is not spouting mumbo-jumbo; he is offering genuinely useful techniques for improving the mind.

    On the subject of why SL is not as popular as some might hope, I think it still suffers from a superficial resemblance to videogames. In my experience it is not uncommon for someone to say ‘there was not enough action’ as a reason why they quit. I believe the reason why large numbers of people are turned away is the same explanation for why a tiny minority get so hooked: SL has no point. What I mean is, it has no structured goals like a typical MMOG. Instead, goals may emerge as a result of interactions with the various communities that have formed inworld. But there is no guarantee as to when this may happen. When it does, you feel much more like a part of those communities and of SL itself. You know your place and functions in that society. But until that happens you just wander around without much clue as to what you are supposed to be doing.

    About augmenationists: Maybe I am just lucky, but I have never met one of these legendary augmentationists who insist on knowing my ‘real name’, age, sex, credit card number etc etc before they will even speak to me. Instead, just about everyone adopts the position that, since it is a subjective POV, one cannot really say my opinions on ‘self’ and how it relates to my avatar are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. All that can be said is that it makes sense to me, but is not necessarily a useful way of thinking for someone else. Most people who claim not to see any distinction between their ‘self’ and their avatar are happy to accept that I see things differently. OK, we might debate about it but I like to think neither party would force their POV on the other. SL is big and complex enough to support many such viewpoints and, in my experience, it does just that.

    As Gwyn is obviously aware, the famous essay on this issue is ‘Immersionism Versus Augmentationism’. I wonder if the debate surrounding that essay would have been different if, instead of ‘versus’, it had been called ‘Immersionism AND Augmentationism’. That would have implied these were two philosophical systems at work in SL, but which were not necessarily in competition with each other. I dunno, maybe it would have completely altered the way we approach the two viewpoints?

    Extropia DaSilva- wait until you see how she links a preference for Coca-Cola with mind uploading and digital doubles…

  • I started writing a story some years ago based on some ‘out of this world’ personal experiences… and then SL clarified somethings for me: AVATAR most commonly refers to the deliberate descent of the soul into the individualized manifestation in lower realms of existence for special purposes – Descent into a sentient being while remaining awake to the greater reality; While remembering ‘home’.

    Countless numbers of avatars descend and advent into our Universe. Some avatars are believed to be souls blessed with certain abilities. They were known by the ancient ones as the Keepers of Memories.

    Are we simply copying nature, descending into a 3D world as avatars?

    Just a thought 🙂

  • A very good point, Avatara! I used to do some classes about religion — not tied to an particular one — and the comparison of the duality between your RL self (what Extropia names “primary”) and your avatar (“secondary”) is clearly comparable to the notion of “the avatar as a manifestation of a deity”, which exists on our material plane of existence and elsewhere. Indeed, the name “avatar” was well chosen 🙂

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  • Khannea

    You are correct – and those who adopted it have the “greener pastures gene”.

    Let me explain that. Why do people live near the pole circle? Which human in their right mind doesn’t get up and leave when living in a hard place? Yet for some reason people do not leave a hard place, stick to it and venerate it, with vague arguments such as “my parents and grandparents died here, I cant betray their legacy”.
    I say, thats all rationalization – in reality a large percentage of humans have a pioneer gene. As soon as they hear abut gold in them hills, they get up and leave. I even dare suggest there is an overlap between predisposition towards ADHD, anomie disorders (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/26587/anomie) and nomadism (As this study http://www.slate.com/id/2193472/ suggests) and adoption of alternative realities.

    This has contributed to the success of humanity spreading everywhere – but there is also a flip side. Sedentary humans – the kind that take great pleasure in watching Big Brother and Stars Skating in Circles) HATE the restless. Yes, I said “the restless” and I said “HATE”. Why do citizens loathe gypsies, jews, bedoeins? I say it is because the sedentary desire to enforce a memetic status quo. They want fundamentals to stay the same. They cannot have the underlying rules of existence to shift or evolve. As such they actively persecute the nomadic, or will go as far as kill them. Don’t tell me you haven’t felt this at one time.

    Second Life is not a new religion – it is the first stirrings of a fundamental change, and I would *love* to see an analysis that makes more plausible than I can make plausible, what precise qualities Second Life has that triggers the racism gene of sedentary humans?

  • Transhumanism is a religion that is based on /disenchantment/ with traditional spirituality. As many people I know IRL swear I am spiritual, as there are who insist I am spiritually barren – my conclusion is I have transcended spirituality and have evolved into transhumanism. Smug? Maybe! – but do bear in mind I believe most transhumanists don’t have a clue how bad it will get actually transmorphing into something posthuman – It may in fact be deeply traumatic.

    Spirituality is supposed to be existentially soothing. I do not thing a consistent pathway towards posthumanism will actually be very soothing. It may actually even be ‘postextistential’ . In that case – the bhudists were right all along.

  • What an interesting concept! I do agree that spirituality is supposed to be existentially soothing and I guess I never saw this angle of transhumanism before. In fact, I have been teasing with Extie for a while about the common points between esoteric religions and transhumanism — both sides would agree that transcending humanity is the focus here, and while esoteric religions are very keen in pointing out that the means to do so is within our own selves and within our own abilities (i.e. there is no need of “external agents” or “magic”), transhumanism relies on technological advance. That’s fine — esoterists would claim that the ultimate goal of transcending humanity is easier if you just rely on mind advance (more precisely, changing the mindset), they’re also the first to say that this path is not available to all (meaning mostly that the ability to really change your own mind is not easy and not possible for most human beings). Transhumanism is more “democratic” in that regard: changing one’s mindset, catapulting it into post-humanism, is just a mouse-click away (so to speak).

    Interesting, however, to consider that although the process may be universally available one day, it might be a painful and traumatic process. Esoterism, on the other hand, is all about ending suffering 🙂

  • Even though I *try* to maintain an anti-teleological stance (“..no fate but the one we make for ourselves..”) this way of thinking remains compelling. One of my foibles is regarding earth and transhumanism is aspects of a birth, or a germination. The earth is a seed and its darkening and shriveling just before sprouting – and this is intended to be in some cosmic cycle. Consciously I do not want to believe in that because I think humanity faces some dire consequences if we don’t rationally decide – the era where we can rely on faith *in any way* is about over, we are losing the cutesy puppy factor.

    Spiritualism .. what is it? It is a sense of the supernatural, essentialism. Thats what we call “ietsism” in the netherlands – somethingism. Most religious people here are ietsists – they vaguely believe in some benevolent, *soothing* reality, a sort of cosmic pharmacist offering, antidepressants, tranquillizers and pain relief. The whole spiritual metaphor consequently follows the zeitgeist in which it inhabits – in plutocratic or authoritorian eras you had to “plead’ the higher realities, just as you had to plead a king or wealthy benefactor. In scientic/industrial time spiritualism became something of an alchemical process where you could cleverly “harvest” the benefits of the higher through sound science. In modern times the relationship of people with “the spiritual” is chillingly like a consumer walking in a convenience store, handing out his “karmic credit card” and taking home a number of spiritual benefits. See I miraculously found the watch I lost 3 years ago, it must work.

    It will be extremely painful for a lot of people to exorcise this reliance. It is like a grieving process, where a child has to accept the fact that her parents are dead and now she is fundamentally alone and uncared for. The new spirituality must be a recognition where we say, we did this, that and that, and that got us where we are, and we should be neither smug or proud about it, it’s just a recognition of what is, and what can be. In essence we won’t feel so inadequately anymore that we somehow need to transposition metaphysical authority (judgement, shame, veneration, aspiration, hope, reward, punishment, shock, awe) into a transcendant tribal authority but it comes into focus and transpositions as a sharp image on ourselves.

    Mind you, this can still be a metaphysical worldview – in becoming transhuman we don’t need to be disenchanted with hopes and dreams – but we become the actors instead of the reactors. Where in the old days we were mostly sick, weak and pathetic day workers standing half exhausted, traumatized and terrified by the potato fields as the gods duked it out in thundering storm clouds, and the knights barreled across the fields jousting on armored horses – and we were spectators largely groveling before our materialistic and paternalistic betters. In the new future we “log in”, take up our purple set mjolnirs and excaliburs, the ones we deserved to get after grinding endlessly in Stratholme, and incarnate as gods, albeit very minor ones. What, you thought Thor became the Ubermensch he is without some serious grindage?

    I have often said – I simply adore religion. It is very persistent LARP. But the time is near to recognize that jesus, mohammed, allah are all just NPCs.

  • I also liked the sound of all those ‘As’, but I specifically chose it as my SL name in reference to my comment above – Thanks Gwyn 🙂

    Recently I made my memoires blog public – quite a feat given it is a definite act of wearing my heart on my sleeve. SL has helped me come to terms with much of the innefable I’ve experienced in life, particularly my coming to terms with what it means to me in particular.

    Please feel free to have a read at http://soulgate.blogspot.com/search?updated-max=2008-03-31T21%3A21%3A00%2B11%3A00&max-results=6, starting at the bottom (from the oldest post).

    Feedback is more than welcome 🙂

  • I remember when i first heard about second life a year ago. I learned about it while watching a Law and Order episode where they used something like second life as an example. I guess Linden Labs didn’t want the real one used. That led to a quick search on the internet and there it was. Then and now I think its the coolest thing.