Esoteric immersionism

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.

We go to conferences and talk about SL and get laughed at. We talk about it with friends and they shake our heads — or get worried that we’ve just joined a fanatic cult. In fact, here is where the sudden insight from my friend comes into play. The point is, we can’t understand why similarly intelligent and open-minded people simply don’t “get” Second Life, while they waste away their precious employers’ time microblogging on Twitter and Facebook. We’re stumped at how few of our RL friends and familiars actually get into SL and develop a strong relationship with SL like we do. And this has always baffled us. We shrug it away saying that “the interface is too hard” or “they had a bad first experience by bumping into a griefer” or something similar, and ask Linden Lab to do something about it (which, slowly, they do — like getting rid of traffic bots).

But this is not quite what it takes to get more and more people to join SL.

No, the real reasons might be way more difficult to explain. Here is one thought: people that are in SL share a specific mindset that drives them to come back to the immersive environment. Either you have that mindset, and you wish to get involved more deeply in SL, or you can, at best, become a “tourist” — dropping in now and then but not commit to SL as a focus for your life (not, as so many media journalists wrongly report, as an alternative to your life — escapism definitely exists, but it’s not the main reason for being in SL).

You might notice that you could replace “SL” with some religious descriptions. And you wouldn’t be very far off — in fact, the whole issue is not “any” kind of “religion” (or cult), but rather a quite different type: one that deals with rationalising, with analysing, with logical reasoning, with passion, but also with a secret, hidden meaning (or knowledge) that is almost impossible to impart to outsiders. Putting into other words, Second Life shares quite a lot of attributes of esoteric religions.

Now you definitely will not wish to see SL, one of the most impressive technological achievements of our rational and logical world, to be compared with “religion” 🙂 So I should be more careful about my meaning — and, by doing so, you’ll almost immediately be part of one of two groups. The first group, by far the largest one, will reject the comparison and say “no way”! That’s exactly where I’m aiming at: esoterism is definitely not for everybody, and you’ve made my point: thank you very much! A few of you, however, might have the proper mindset and studied esoterism at some point in their lives: for them, this will all make sense to you. Thank you as well 🙂

To you esoterists out there, you can now safely skip over the rest of the article; you’re already familiar with the concepts… you’ll be a very small minority, however, so I’ll have to tackle the rest of the world with my ramblings 🙂

It’s highly likely that among the remaining readers, about 80% will be atheists, and 20% or so will be mildly involved with some sort of spiritual guidance in your lives. Surprisingly, among both groups, the atheists — specially the ones that are both open-minded and very skeptical — will probably remain until the very end. The media commonly portrays esoterism as strange, obscure cults, related to complex symbology and weird rituals, mostly for complete lunatics, serial killers, or anyone with serious psychological problems. It is the very stuff of blockbuster movies and best-sellers. Weirdness exists, and it sells well, but nobody in their right minds would really take it seriously.

(You might have noticed I’m not talking about Second Life any longer! See how I have used similar words though?)

Esoterism, however, can be explained in a very simplistic manner: it’s one of many possible spiritual paths leading to a (personal) goal which always involves compassion to all fellow human beings (note that the “all” is fundamental here — there can’t be any discrimination). This path will reveal that we all have the innate ability to do so — i.e. it’s inside our nature to be fundamentally altruistic and compassionate, but our minds are clouded by all sorts of emotions and dependencies on aspects of the material world. The esoteric path will make you realise this and get you in touch with your inner, pure self (think about self-improvement). Depending on the tradition, the path can be either mystical (“sudden revelation”) or purely intellectual (which in the Western world is named “the occult way”, something that has such a pejorative, negative meaning these days that I prefer to avoid it — just remember that “occult” means “hidden” and that’s what is meant here). While “sudden revelation” might be out of the question for most of Humanity, the intellectual path — meaning mostly putting the methods to the test of reason, seeing what makes sense and what doesn’t, following logical arguments to the conclusion — takes usually much longer, but is sometimes easier to follow.

Also, depending on the culture, the notion of “God” is optional. Esoteric Christianism, of course, has the concept of a “God” and the notion of a special path for good Christians to follow to achieve the goal of universal compassion quickly. Esoteric Buddhism, by contrast, rejects the notion of “God” (in the sense of “Creator”) as being unnecessary and contradictory. Whatever the tradition, some things are common to all esoteric traditions (and some have often used an analogy: we’re all climbing the same mountain; but there are many paths leading to the top, a few easier than others, depending on your own choosing; but at the top, we all meet, and the clear vision embracing the horizon is the same for all).

First, it’s a personal path. There are no “rules” that apply to all human beings, since by definition, every human being is different: the path is individual, and you have to pick your own. You can get a set of guidelines, but you have to thoroughly analyse them to see if they make sense to you. Just because someone claims they make sense, you should never, ever accept the guidelines for granted — if they don’t make any sense for you, you should avoid them.

Secondly — and this naturally follows from the above — the means for completing the path are inside yourself, and yourself only. For Christians, the end of the path might be called “salvation”; for Buddhists, it’s usually called Enlightenment; whatever the name, whatever the goal, the point is that nobody can grant it to you (no, not even a “God” can do that for you). Other people (or Gods, or spirits, or whatever your tradition mandates as “helpers”) can guide you, teach you, coach you, help you out, but it’s your own effort that brings you through the path to reach a goal. It cannot be otherwise; all esoteric traditions are very strong supporters of free will, and if you had to rely on anyone else to “grant” you the ultimate goal, you’d have no free will whatsoever. Also, you would be dependent on the benevolence of others to find your own way — their “benevolence” only extends as far as showing you a (possible) way, but it’s up to you to figure out where it leads or if it makes sense following it. The only confidence you have is that others have followed similar paths, and they have reached their goals; and many told us what they did to do so. But it’s always up to you to find out if it works for you or not.

Thirdly, whatever the details of the final goal are described, they always rely on the notion that the meaning of life is ultimately become more happy by being compassionate to others and help them out. Depending on the tradition, this notion of an utopian ideal of a Brotherhood of Man can be more colourful or less (i.e. it’s good enough if we get more people to be nice, we don’t need to worry or get frustrated if we can get everybody to be nice!), and have more or less fancy descriptions of what it means (which you will accept or not, based on your own reasoning), but the point is that is accomplishable.

Fourthly, however, it’s quite clear that this will not work for everybody, simply because the vast majority is not interested (even if they have the necessary abilities and skills — mostly intellectual — to follow the reasoning through and see what makes sense or not). Realising that we all have the potential to follow a path, but that only a very few have the will to follow it, has made all esoteric traditions very careful about their teachings. They use symbols and strange words to hide the meanings. They almost always rely on oral tradition — masters teaching students. Students are asked to refrain from “showing off” but be alert to help others to find a path if they ask for genuine help. Learning is very hard, and we humans are impatient: we want immediate results, and esoteric traditions don’t give immediate answers, but just decades of hard study and work on your self until you start seeing a few glimpses of a change. There is no “magic”: changing your own self to become a better human being is not accomplished in minutes, hours, or during a weekend workshop. If that’s what you’re after, you can simply get a “happy pill” (or drink yourself senseless 🙂 ) for immediate effects. Sadly, none of these will work forever, but just temporary…

So the whole point of esoteric traditions with their images and symbols is really to “hide” the teachings from the eyes of someone who happens upon them without having the right mindset or being prepared to understand them. The notion of a “hidden meaning” is present in all religious texts; except for Christianity, which has severed all ties with esoterism, formally and brutally, in the 6th century AD, all other texts have an exoteric (i.e. literal) reading and an esoteric one. Purely esoteric texts exist, but they look like gibberish to someone who is not prepared to read them. This is deliberate — you’re supposed to have people out there willing to explain the meanings and help you out first, until you’re able to reason properly and see what makes sense to you or not.

Enough about religion! How does this apply to Second Life?

Well, ironically, I hope that you see there are a lot of parallels, sometimes, scaringly so. No matter how well you describe Second Life and explain very thoroughly how it works and what it’s used for — and the social interconnection between fellow human beings is usually very high on the list — most people (and by that I mean almost 99% of them) will simply “not get” it. The problem is not yours, or your lack of persuasive argumentation, or that SL’s interface is too hard to learn. It’s simply because of the nature of SL, which runs against most people’s minds, making them reject it (like most people in the world will naturally reject any kind of esoteric teaching as pure gibberish). And the rejection is extreme.

Some people go a bit further: they might become “tourists” and visit SL after all. They might even join a few live music parties. But at some point, something will happen. Thanks to our avatarisation, sooner or later, you’ll have to face your own notion of “self”. When that happens, most people will feel uncomfortable with the thought. Many residents simply wave it away as irrelevant and can successfully ignore the issue. Most, however, at some point, will have to deal with the issue — at least, you’ll start thinking “how do other people really look like? How do I look like to them?”. When that happens, you start to develop bonds with your avatar — like, for instance, go on a shopping spree to personalise it. You might wave it away as simply something trivial and materialistic. But think again. How many people would pay, say, US$25 a month to buy templates and icons for their MySpace or Facebook page?

Certainly a few.

Nevertheless, the vast majority would find that concept utterly ridiculous. A Facebook page is, well, just a page — there is no self-identification with it. It’s “your page” — something you own or create — but not “yourself”.

SL avatars, however, are quite different. A few, of course, will be seen by their creators as pure art — they’re just a manifestation of their talent and creativity. But, surprisingly, you’ll notice that the vast majority will go from the stage of “this is my avatar” to “this is me”. Augmentationists, for instance, will find it ludicrous to claim that the avatar is anything else but “yourself” (ie. not a mental projection of your fears and hopes in a virtual world ruled by pseudonymity). But they will still dress the avatar in smart clothes for a business meeting. Most will just say “it’s what I would wear iRL for meetings, so that’s what I wear in SL too”. They will dismiss the issue as irrelevant or unimportant, just point to social norms and conducts, respect to others, etc. Also, a few might claim that they “dress in business clothes” to separate themselves from “the other loonies out there, who are escapists, and dream of being dragons or robots — I’m a rational human being and don’t need that kind of escapism, I’m here to do serious business”.

Oh yes of course. But why should “serious business” equate with representing your avatar with a business suit instead of a blue, winged dragon? That only happens if you have to put the word SELF into the equation. And that’s what actually happens, even if you seriously deny it: you identify your self with your avatar and they are one and the same. By doing so, the next step follows: you connect with other human beings. And you understand that what you do and what you say becomes your reputation — the way other residents react to you, positively or negatively. While admittedly a few are eager to get a bad reputation in SL, most of us will strive — even if not conscious of doing so — for getting accepted, for “fitting in”, for establishing good, solid, fulfilling relationships with others.

I’m pretty sure that the majority of SL residents don’t really think about all this, they just do it “naturally so”. However, even if they think little of the process, there is always this tiny issue lurking beneath everything: “this is me in a virtual world; I wish to be accepted, and to accept others; I thus have to behave accordingly”. We might not recite that as a mantra every time we log in to SL, but it’s how we subconsciously think. So, we have no option but to confront ourselves with our own selves (sorry for the redundancy), even if we’re not making a big fuss out of it.

Well. Now try to explain that to an audience of skeptical, anti-SLers. It simply will get you an audience raising collectively their eyebrows.

Tell it to an audience of “veteran” SLers (by that I mean anyone who has been around for enough time to feel involved with it, i.e. has passed the “tourist stage”) and… there will be less eyebrow-raising. Many will still reject it. Some will say, “oh, well, I just buy business suits in SL, it’s not as if I’m reasoning about my ego… it’s just the way it feels better, nothing else, no need to rationalise it to any extremes”. But… they will not utterly reject the idea. The audience of non-SLers will think you’re crazy; the audience of veteran residents will probably dismiss the idea for themselves, but agree that for many, this might be the case (failing to realise that they’re also subject to the same rules). It won’t be a complete lunacy, just a thought they’ve never had before, or had but gave little relevance to it.

Similarly, when you extrapolate from that — starting with the self, continuing towards relationships — things will make the rift between non-SLers and SLers larger and larger. The notion of meaningful relationships in SL (personal, business, or others) will become more and more stranger. Even most residents are often obsessed by the excess of pseudonymity; others, by contrast, wish even more. But for “outsiders”, the whole point is… well, esoteric. It’s outside their sphere of conceptions. It simply does not make any sense at all. And anyone claiming it does make sense — if only you take some time to experience SL for enough time — is a complete lunatic and really in need of psychiatric help.

If you finally reach the point stated on LL’s mission — to create a technology that improves human condition — then you’ll see the ambulance with the guys in white coats arriving to take you away. Simply put, that’s so outside the normal human experience outside SL that people think you are a very dangerous person (to yourself first, but to others too!) and so totally out of touch with the real world that you need to be put away, for your own good.

That’s why conferences with a large number of SL residents in attendance are usually a big success, but one where the majority of the audience has never logged in to SL before is rarely able to pass the message along. Sure, one or two will try it and even immediately “get” it. But that’s the best you can hope.

But there are even more parallels. Remember your first steps in SL as a newbie. People came to voluntarily give you their help. They gave you notecards with tips. They offered you some freebies, and sometimes even some money. They told you what you can do in SL. They explained to you the code of conduct. They further explained you how to form meaningful relationships. Some went shopping with you, or took you to some parties, or discussions, or merely nice places to visit. In a way, they tried very hard to show you what SL has to offer to you. But, ultimately, it will all depend on your mindset and attitude. The vast majority of all users will go through all these steps, and just leave, half-scared, half-furious for wasting so much time, and tell all their friends “these guys are all insane!” A handful, however, will understand the whole thing — but they will also understand something important: there is not a set path (no rules in SL) and you have to travel it on your own, and make SL into what’s important to you, not what others tell you it’s for. Realising that is very very hard, and definitely won’t happen to everybody. And, again, it’s not about the difficult interface, the lousy search engine, or the lag. Residents that have “fit in” are aware of all these issues, but they’re merely an annoyance — it’s the same thing as saying that it’s terrible to be ill in RL or having to pay taxes, but that doesn’t mean that people commit suicide all the time just because of that. We accept them as “facts of life” (of course, if we’re non-conformists about it, we might get engaged politically against those so-called “facts of life”; but most people will accept it as part of being in this community of fellow human beings). Non-SLers will, at best, become good, faithfully returning “tourists” if the interface is easier (or the lag disappears), but it won’t make them Residents with a capital R. For that, insight and a different mindset is necessary.

Does this mean that LL shouldn’t make any further improvements to SL? By all means, no, not at all. An easier-to-use SL will attract more “tourists”, and since the number of those that remain Residents is always small, the more “tourists” are at least willing to visit, the better. Many people have forfeited SL in 2004 or 2005 because they had impossibly underpowered computers or quickly tired of the many grid blackouts back then, and thus gave SL away — only to return now in 2009, with a brand new computer, a good broadband connection, a much better grid infrastructure in place, and suddenly realise what SL is all about. This happens all the time. Most, of course, will never return after a first bad experience. Improving the experience is thus quite important, as well as having more and more reference works (studies, both academic and business) explaining what SL is being used for. This will make SL more widely available, even though the vast majority will never “get it”.

Similarly, most esoteric traditions in RL have tried to make themselves more widely available as well — even though charlatans outnumber by far the few available real teachers. Not because they wish to gather more “faithful converts” (esoterism dismisses the whole notion of “faith”, as in “completely and utterly ‘believing’ in what a so-called ‘authority’ says”, since it runs contrary to any path of self-improvement — you need to believe in yourself only), but because they simply wish to make themselves more known to eventual, potential human beings out there, who do have the right mindset, but had no opportunity thus far to find a teacher. SL should be promoted in the same way: reaching out to the furthest corners of the world, not because “everybody will benefit for being in SL”, but because the number of people that will is so small that they ought to get the opportunity to know about SL and join it.

This might also be the reason why LL doesn’t do any mass-market advertising. It runs contrary to the whole idea. Word of mouth (which in esoterism is known as “oral transmission of teachings”) is the only way to successfully reach someone with the right mindset to join SL.

So is SL a religion after all, and not a virtual world? You tell me 🙂 I’m definitely not the right person to talk about it, anyway…

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