Virtual Potential: Second Life As A Transhumanist Meetinghouse

Preliminary impressions on Second Life and its potential to further H+ interaction

On Friday, November 17 2006, I attended my first virtual board meeting on Uvvy Island—online world Second Life’s pixel-borne home to the World Tranhumanist Association.

Along with several other members of the WTA-SL, I (or rather, my avatar) sat in a brightly-patterned room that looked like a cross between a fancy office suite and the inside of a video game.  Prior to sitting, I wondered briefly if there would be enough chairs for all in attendance—but when I finally did sit in the one vacant chair, I noticed that another empty chair had materialized around a small central table.  This was slightly disconcerting due to the sudden horizontal shift it imposed on my perspective (as my chair flicked sideways to make space for the new empty seat), however, I adjusted almost immediately once I realized what had happened and settled down to business. 

As far as my own involvement in Second Life goes, I initially signed up out of sheer curiosity—in short, I wanted to see what it was all about.  I initially just played about with avatar customization, but soon found myself wondering about what sort of presence groups pertaining to my particular interests (such as transhumanism) might have in this virtual realm.  Soon, I found myself teleporting to Uvvy Island, where I was initially blocked by what looked like a strip of red-lettered tape indicating the area as restricted.  I can’t recall how long I stood there, occasionally typing inane things like, “Hello?” before someone (an avatar bearing the name “Giulio Perhaps") approached my position.  We exchanged greetings and I identified myself as someone likely on some of the same mailing lists as Uvvy members, and was granted access inside.

To make a long story short, I’ve been occasionally popping in and out of Second Life (and Uvvy Island) ever since.  I definitely see potential in this particular medium, though it is important to acknowledge that Second Life is not the Internet—not Google, not a set of primary sources, and not a scientific journal or database or library.  It is not a place where people go (or where people should go) with the primary purpose of obtaining facts.  Rather, Second Life is an experimental creative space, a primitive holodeck, an art gallery, and a highly flexible meeting space.  In terms of applicability to transhumanism, Second Life can provide a means for people to interact in real-time, discussing strategy and sharing ideas and memes regardless of physical geographical separation. 

But returning to the topic of last Friday’s board meeting—I was impressed with the professionalism and organizational rigor demonstrated by the other board members in attendance.  I got a definite sense of dedication as well as enthusiasm, as well as a clear impression that Second Life need not be an escapist’s playground.  Much of what was discussed at Friday’s meeting had to do with planning for the future—specifically, discussing events and the logistical and practical issues associated with such events.  The idea of using SL as a forum for speakers discussing H+ relevant themes and topics is one I think has considerable potential. 

One aspect of this “keynote speaker” idea that I am personally concerned with is that of accessibility; part of my involvement in transhumanism overlaps with my views on disability rights, and I think that transhumanists need to take an active role in creating a maximally inclusive community.  If possible, presentations given in Second Life should be available in both text and audio format—and interaction in the context of these presentations should allow any participant to use either voice or text chat.  One thing that occasionally concerns me is the fact that many humans seem to prefer voice-based communication, and while the Internet has for years been a haven for those who prefer (and are more facile with) text-based communicatiion, this has in part been due to technological and bandwidth limitations.  I would not want Second Life to turn into an audio-only realm in which some members of the Deaf and autistic communities (not to mention people who simply don’t like to talk!) would be excluded by default.  With modern text-to-speech and speech-to-text translation tools available, the goal should be to enable every person who wants to take part in a Second Life interaction space to be able to transmit and receive information in the manner that they prefer; I can easily imagine, for instance, a person communicating through typing to someone who prefers audio, with software acting as the “middleman” (allowing both the sender and the receiver to share ideas effectively).

So, in short, this Second Life thing has tremendous potential.  However, on the semi-negative side, it is quite hardware-intensive (every time I log in I immediately start daydreaming about buying a new motherboard and an updated graphics card), and frankly somewhat “buggy” (I once spent about 20 minutes stuck in the sky with no hair and a transparent torso before getting fed up and deciding to log off).  And of course, there is always (with these sorts of things) the danger of getting overly enamored with the world-in-there to the point where you forget that in the world-out-there, we still lack such things as reliable life-extension technology.  If you find yourself trying to adjust the length of your real-life shirt sleeves by clicking your mouse, you’ve either passed into the Textile Singularity or you ought to think about switching off the monitor for a while. 

Overall, though, I’m looking forward to using Second Life in mild moderation and seeing where it takes itself, and transhumanism along with it.  The way I see it, spending an hour or two a week meeting with fellow H+ in this new virtual space is nothing short of a win-win situation.

Posted by AnneC on 2006/11/21 •

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