I am not often invited to chime in on a topic (unless it is SL Y-K-W‘s interface design, for some reason, and I still suspect those who do invite me of pulling my leg — pointing out it is abysmally bad, and getting worse instead of better, hardly makes me an expert after all), and thus I am usually happy to comply, especially when the invitation comes from a friend (yes, Grace, and by the way, you still owe me for risking snow blindness testing Dazzle). But when my friend Rick van der Wal recently invited me to comment on the discussion going on about « immersionism » versus « augmentationism » he had kicked off (or rather : rekindled) on his blog, I have been loath to comment. Particularly loath, I must say, not only because people I admire for their opinions and intelligence butted heads so hard the sparks flew (though I must admit it is a tad intimidating), but mainly because, simply, I don’t get the whole discussion. At all.
Call me stupid.
Well, actually, I prefer to be called other things (chérie, for instance, is veeery nice, though some people make my heart flutter as much when they call me vicieuse — you know who you are), but stupid will do for the time being. Because I must be missing something seeing how heated the debate gets. Which is why I decided to post my misgivings here, and hope for my peers and betters to point out what I have missed. Please be kind.
Always one for delaying the bashing by a display of good research (who said I hated dazzle ?), I’ll start by pointing out that I am indeed aware of the discussion having gone on for quite some time, as well as of its roots in the debate surrounding the advent of voice in the SL Y-K-W client. I have read Henrik Bennetsen’s Augmentation vs Immersion on the SL Y-K-W wiki ; admired Argent Bury’s manifesto, Taking a Stand and Sophrosyne Steenvag’s Open Letter To My Augmentationist Friends for their clearness and radicalness of thought — though I find myself unable, and unwilling to follow these two down the path of styling myself a fully autonomous digital being. I am aware they are considered the ultimate immersionists. I also know many of the bloggers and SL Y-K-W personalities I most admire side with them, to a different degree — Dandellion Kimban, Gwyneth Llewelyn, Grace McDunnough just to name a few… forming a camp, to quote the wiki, pitted against another one of people who, well, do what exactly — regularly use SL Y-K-W without immersing themselves into it in the least ?
I don’t get that.
Yes, yes, I know of Mitch Kapor’s remarks on the Suzanne Vega concert at SLCC ; I understand the notion of convergence between the web, or more broadly, 2D world, and SL Y-K-W. I can see how someone like Hiro Pendragon considers SL Y-K-W a platform for branding himself and his services, much like the many companies who have tried this (and conspicuously failed at it). I regularly read Dusan Writer’s brilliant metaverse blog, and he keeps hammering home his point that SL Y-K-W is not a world separate from the atomic one in any respect ; as does my friend Rick on his (not less brilliant for being mentioned second).
And I still fail to see the point.
Because, as I once commented on Dusan’s blog, SL Y-K-W is all about immersion.
SL Y-K-W doesn’t even begin to make sense otherwise. As a social networking tool, it is laughable. As an education platform, it is, at best, in its infancy. As the next generation of corporate communications, it is utterly inadequate. As a game, it’s ridiculously primitive and unreliable. The same holds true of it as a tool for 3D movie making. Don’t even get me started on physics simulation, 3D design, or collaboration. I’m not surprised Dusan and Rick are constantly on the look out for the « killer application » of virtual worlds. I’m more surprised they don’t see they won’t be one. And that it is not needed.
All right, I’m burning my ships here, so let’s wield the torch and enjoy the pretty flames :
- Second Life You-Know-Where sucks as a social network : in fact, beyond the sheer fact that you can (and will) meet people in-world, it falls short of the mark in every respect. The friends list is so laughably primitive as a contacts management tool it barely is worth mentioning, even when it reveals more than an army of hippos in waiting. No groupings, or folders ; no profile data in it ; notes on the contacts hide in the profiles (anybody actually use that, besides me ?) ; on- / offline notifications are an all or nothing proposal ; no networking capabilities (friends of friends, beyond partnered ones ? forget it !). And the communication : either public chat, or one on one IM. No conference IM without creating a group. Sharing data or media, beyond the profile ? Nope. Publishing some kind of mood ? Nah…Folks, Facebook‘s better at this, LinkedIn‘s better at this, frigging Flickr is better at this, for Pete’s sake, as is any messenger service you care to name ! Small wonder most social networking is, in fact, going on off world, on Twitter, on Flickr, in the blogosphere…
- Second Life You-Know-Where is utterly inadequate as a next generation communication and collaboration platform : unless your requirements end at a space where to listen to somebody, the whole concept is laughable. It does make a decent lecture room, maybe, cutting the requirement for physical presence, but only if you put up with it being incredibly primitive. Powerpoint slides ? Hope you’re really versed in streaming internet media, bud. Plus there’s no privacy whatsoever, barring creation of a private sim. Did I mention there are no facilities for the display, storage and exchange of data, no user management worth the name (I can just picture IBM’s human resources department relaxing when they read they can stop group members planting Linden trees — that must have weighed on their minds like a ton of lead), no collaborative tools whatsoever, no interface to accepted RL standards (group calendar, anyone) ? The future of teleconferencing might be 3D and interactive, but it will sure as heck not be in Second Life, except for those too small or clueless to use professional solutions. This is a testbed, at most.
- Second Life You-Know-Where is a horrible gaming platform : it’s unreliable. Its graphics lag ages behind the standards of today’s 3D games. There’s no support for games logic beyond social convention and painful gadgeteering. Did I mention it’s unreliable ? It bogs down the more people interact. It has a hard limit on the number of people in the same place. As a game, it’s the ugly bastard offspring of more graceful worlds, and I’m not surprised the family does not like us much.
- Second Life You-Know-Where is laughably bad at 3D content creation : 3D movies (machinima) ? Create some animations, upload, notice they are not quite right, re-edit them off-world, re-upload, try to synchronise them with all your actors, get a good frame, get rid of the damn transparencies overlapping in the background, wonder where your actor has gone (the joys of crashing), rejoice at them being back, shoot though you’re not satisfied because it is your window of opportunity (this region will be restarted)… then post process to lip sync, reframe, colorise, score. It merges the pains of RL movie making (getting props, locations, costumes, actors = animations, a crew, and the effort of post processing material outside the original workflow) with the effort of 3D creation. You’d probably be better off getting a HDV cam, or rendering from scratch in something decent, say, Maya or Lightwave. As to 3D creation, the in-world tools lack in so many respects I wouldn’t even know where to begin, and they have no interface whatsoever to off-world content creation tools beyond importing some building blocks (textures, which has gained a bit since sculpties). The physics model is a joke. The whole thing is OK to mod my jewellery, but anything else needs a dedication and enthusiasm entirely unrelated to the capabilities the software offers. Plus updates break things. All the time.Which is not to say I don’t have the uttermost respect for those who actually tackle the daunting task of creation.
Let’s face it : be it for socialites, educators, businesses, gamers, 3D creators, Second Life You-Know-Where is a poor man’s platform at the very best — never the first choice.
And still people use it for all of these, day for day, and much more even. Because they can. Because they are here.
Though they may flock to it for the most diverse reasons, they stay because of one, simple, frightening reality : it’s an immersive experience. It’s the ultimate immersive experience the internet has to offer. Maybe the ultimate immersive experience, period.
Ever looked at a profile because you eye caught a pretty AV, a smart quote on a titler ? Welcome to immersion. Ever grinned in front of your keyboard as a smart reply scrolled on screen ? Welcome to immersion. Ever hopped on a dance ball ? Welcome to immersion. Ever spent money, real money, however ridiculously little the amount might have been, because you thought « I need a nicer skirt / shirt » for a bunch of pixels ? Welcome to immersion.
Yes it’s frightening. You might end up opening your heart to somebody you don’t know d’Eve et d’Adam, feeling unexplainable rapport. You might find yourself getting angry at, or worried about someone you have never met in the body, just because they are not starting a piece of software for days. You might die of shock when you notice your heart beats faster as a blue box announces « so and so is online » ? You might agonise about antagonising people you have never seen on matters that have no impact whatsoever on your atomic life. You might feel your mind split in the middle as you fall in love without ever considering meeting the person you fall in love with.
Sshhhh, it’s all right. You can be afraid.
Nothing in this is new en soi. Online communities predate SL Y-K-W by generations. LambdaMOO. The Well. Even CompuServe for that matter. Emotional involvement with a virtual community has not suddenly popped up with the advent of 3D rendering. SL Y-K-W might very well be « one of the largest communities devoted to the arts of love of any city in imagination or history », as Lillie Yifu once remarked (en passant, as is the wont of her brilliant mind ; I have a nagging suspicion that, when we take stock 20 years hence, people will be wondering how we could miss how close she came to the whole point of the metaversal experience, so much closer anyway than my own feeble attempts, though that will hardly be a matter of records then), and the emotional impact of the virtual environment has been noted by more than one resident before me (pulling a reference out of my notebook at random : Kit Meredith’s Rezbian theory), but people have fallen in love in virtual communities before. Even today, SL Y-K-W is anything but unique, or dominant. Facebook and Habbo Hotel are much larger communities, though the user groups hardly overlap, at least in the second case
So we should stop asking ourselves if there is a fine point to be made between immersion and non-immersion. There is not. Second Life You-Know-Where is an immersive world. The most advanced and most powerful to date, because while it does nothing as well as specialised ones, it does make nearly anything possible. Its power has nothing to do with how much we want to disclose about our RL selves, or how much we care for the impact it might have on society at large. And no, it’s not separate of the atomic world, obviously, but it doesn’t have to be to stand on its own : not anymore than the colonies of his gracious majesty, the King of England, had to be separate of this globe we live on. That hasn’t stopped them getting quite headstrong first, autonomous against the will of his not-so-graceful-anymore majesty a tad later.
As to those not getting the last simile, all I have to say is : losing yourself in a new world is frightening, and I do not grudge people the will to stay out of it. But they will have to live with a simple fact : anybody actually resisting the immersive pull is a tourist, not a resident of the City on the edge of nowhere. That’s quite all right. As I said, the prospect can be frightening. You’re welcome to watch and comment. We value your input. Just don’t sneer at what you don’t want to share, and stop telling us we miss the point.
As to the rest of us, we’re not avantgarde, nor an élite, just people sucked up into things somewhat earlier than others, for a plethora of reasons. We are a heterogeneous, often squabbling lot having taken root in the New World, and we should stop looking at the majority standing outside of the boundaries of it, and start to look out for what we are and want. We have to discuss why we are residents of this world in the first place ; and to ponder what direction we want this world to take — or rather, what institutions we will create to make this debate public, accountable, and democratic, for the matter at hand is not papering over our differences, but realising we have to contribute our dissenting opinions and beliefs into the debate on our future. Democracy is not about the wisdom of masses, nor is it about harmony — it’s just a way to keep tabs on a lot of diverging interests, and make sure development happens without people getting caught under the wheels. We can’t go on being islands on ourselves, but we should not hope for too much common ground either, unless we angle for the lowest possible common denominator. The common ground of any modern society, propaganda aside, is but this : we all live in it, and no one is going to leave, or should be forced to.
It’s time to claim the world Philip made as our own.