My beef with virtuality

I think my well-known resistance to the idea of Second Life and other environments of its ilk comes down to the curious costlessness of so many choices made there.

Dig this big crux: in virtual environments, use doesn’t happen – not in the everyday sense of wear and tear we know so well from the real world. You and twenty of your closest friends can congregate in a house, and not degrade it in the slightest. Nobody spills wine on the carpet, nobody has an unnoticed smear of pigeon shit on the back of their trouser leg, nobody stands uncomfortably close to you.

This (feature? bug?) of such environments strikes me as a refusal to engage with everything problematic and intractable about actuality, and that’s why I continue to regard them as fundamentally adolescent. They’re like the world, with all the potentially uncomfortable parts smoothed over. Difficulty is life.

8 responses to “My beef with virtuality”

  1. nicolas says :

    Laurie Anderson used to state that Virtual Reality wouldn’t look real until designers learned to put dirt into it (less antiseptic)

  2. Matt Biddulph says :

    Although it’s worth considering an interesting paper from Nick Yee and co: The Unbearable Likeness of Being Digital: The Persistence of Nonverbal Social Norms in Online Virtual Environments. It posits a ‘body language’ of avatars that is subconsciously derived from physical social norms of personal space and etiquette.

  3. speedbird says :

    Yeah, Matt, I’ve seen that, and find it simultaneously fascinating, unsurprising and perversely encouraging. (Believe it or not, it was namechecked in a piece about urban proxemics that sat atop the NYT Style section the other day.)

    But body language, of course, isn’t just about how we stand in relation to each other – it’s also about the postures we take up in relation to space, and to properties like gravity that define our experience of space. I’ll feel some headway is being made the first time I see someone slouching against a wall in SL.

  4. nicolas says :

    Also worth to read on that topic:
    Jeffrey, P., & G. Mark (1998). Constructing social spaces in virtual environments: A study of navigation and interaction. In K. Höök, A. Munro & D. Benyon (eds.), Workshop on Personalised and Social Navigation in Information Space, pp. 24-38. Stockholm: Swedish Institute of Computer Science.

  5. gen says :

    I’m not sure what the “real” difference is between SL and any other “virtual” environment online. If you have “costlessness” issues with SL, why don’t you have the same issues with mailing lists, bulletin boards/forums, blogs, etc.?

    It’s clear that youth the world over, are very facile with virtual environments whether they are in Lineage/Warcraft/SecondLife on the PC, Final Fantasy on the Playstation, etc. Why ignore these trends?

  6. speedbird says :

    Well, I tend not to be upset about those things because mailing lists don’t represent themselves spatially, because blogs don’t (generally) use abstracted representations of the body to express interaction, and so on. They’re not in competition for resources with actuality in the way we can already see spatially-oriented virtualities competing.

    Virtualities, what is more, because they are always utterly owned and controlled by some party, are never open to contestation the way actuality is – the way the use of even private or otherwise regulated space IRL can be bodily challenged.

    You can’t do that in Warcraft, for example, because its designers have written the local rules of physical reality in such a way as to forbid it, and even if you’re personally a gifted hacker somehow able to circumvent that architecture of control, you’re still subject to the owner arbitrarily shutting the server down. It’s not a commons as we’ve understood that term in the entire history of our philosophy or jurisprudence, and yet these environments are increasingly the sites of activities and behaviors that we’ve tended to accord the greatest respect for in law and custom.

    Just as the shopping mall supplanted the town square in the 1970s and 80s, so now I think we see a variety of virtualities supplanting any real environment whatsoever, and on “grounds” still more inimical to expression, solidarity and political action.

    I also think that the environments and even bodies that people are handed in something like Warcraft or Final Fantasy – to say nothing of the modalities for conflict resolution – really problematically reify values that I’m not comfortable with. (Do people probe and play with these givens? Of course they do…but they’re still doing so within a larger grid of limits on possibility that have been imposed by a designer.)

    I wouldn’t say I’m ignoring the emergence of such virtualities, so much as not rushing to uncritically embrace them, and I’m both interested and amused to see the kind of pushback I get when I question their logic or wisdom even a little bit.

  7. chung says :

    so then isn’t this, the ultimate expression of freedom, actually a critique of freedom?

    being completely free to do absolutely everything means ultimately being free to do absolutely nothing, it’s the tyranny of freedom.

  8. rishi says :

    I’m not really sure what you’re getting at, chung. Which is “the ultimate freedom”?

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