The Organ with No Body – Towards Virtual Worlds (Part 3)

Towards Virtual Worlds

Since about 2007, it has been widely observed that, after a vibrant ‘hype-cycle’ and excitable growth, the virtual world Second Life entered a short decline followed by a period of stagnation. Announced dead by various ‘techno-pundits’ more times than anyone cares to recall, the world persists, not necessarily growing, but still courting a good deal of interest from both those alien to its fascination and a significant user base of extremely committed residents. Whether or not Second Life succeeds – and it is only through a complete misunderstanding and the encroachment of ‘real world’ tendencies and business interests that it shouldn’t – I suspect the model it has left us will remain a significant one in the future of digital culture. Second Life is a multi-dimensional, deeply immersive art medium that is more complex in what it allows its artists and participants in terms of depth experience than any pen or paint or even cinema and sound. What follows will be a series of thoughts regarding this environment.

Decline and the Problem of Uptake

The problem of Second Life’s uptake has been based on a misunderstanding of the medium as well as a disparate between the organisation of social consciousness and the medium. These two facts are inter-related as to misunderstand the medium will be to come looking for the wrong things. The disparate between the desires of social consciousness and the Second Life medium can be evidenced by the popularity of social media, apps and social network sites; Second Life’s subsequent attempts to engage with social media perhaps constitutes the misunderstanding of Second Life itself as it tries to compete in an alien media environment.

A more comprehensive example of just how widely misunderstood Second Life has been might be shown through looking at the way businesses such as Colgate attempted to apply themselves to the environment. There is an excellent analysis here of the Colgate campaign wherein most of everything the analyst says about Second Life and the campaign is completely wrong. Some notable examples:

“Second Life is a social network”

“In some ways, FB (Facebook) is more virtual than SL (Second Life)”

Second Life is NOT a social network and the idea of it being more real than Facebook just couldn’t be more incorrect. Moreover, the analysis uses strange phrases such as ‘place’, ‘presence’ and ‘channel’ etc., words that imply a real world, a ‘from the exterior’ analysis of a medium which is fundamentally interior. The application of real world marketing techniques too – a goody bag with a smile animation, product posters etc. – all profoundly inadequate to what Second Life fundamentally is. The very idea that ‘the smile’ is equivalent in Second Life to ‘the widget’ or app in Facebook is precisely the application of a real world logic (or a 2D virtual logic where the real acts as a third dimension) to a world that has nothing to do with the real world except insofar as it makes, and should aim to make, ‘the real world’ its own background.

So what is Second Life?

Describing television, McLuhan writes:

“Exactly the same impulse sends the indoor spaces and furniture out into the patios in an attempt to experience the outside as inside.

The TV viewer is in just that role at all times. He is submarine. He is bombarded by atoms that reveal the outside as inside in an endless adventure amidst blurred images and mysterious contours.” (McLuhan, Understanding Media,p. 435)

If TV is to have experienced the outside from inside, the virtual world, as it stands at present, is to experience the inside from inside, ‘inside’ here not just meaning ‘from inside one’s own room’, but also an experience within one’s own mind that negates the room. The virtual world is the extension of one’s nervous system out into some confused and nebulous elsewhere, or not ‘out into’, but perhaps ‘as part of’. The body is suspended (and forget Stelarc here – the mind and body have never been so distinct) and consciousness extends out into a different kind of materiality – a digital materiality made up of other imaginations, a collective, reactive dream and rolling out of the subconscious/unconscious. Colgate failed here too in several ways, not least in that the product would remind the Second Life user both of their real and mundane life – cleaning teeth and supermarkets – but also of their own body in real space and time, precisely that which should vanish in immersive experience.

Distinction between Second Life, the Social Network and the Computer Game

Second Life is not a social network. If Second Life may be seen as ‘the inside viewed from the inside’, a point of absolute density and implosion relative to one’s removal from the real world, the Social Network may perhaps be seen as its Event Horizon – the outer fringe of the black hole of virtuality and unconsciousness. The Social Network is expansive, pushing the virtual into the real; the virtual world is implosive, turning away from the real and moving deeper into inner-space.

The promise of the social network is to virtualize and hyper-realize oneself in the real. It is the imagined promise that one’s real life can be an iconic life, super-connected and beyond its mundane limits as it projects itself onto a global screen. Second Life, the virtual world, does not offer the promise of real-world excess – what it offers however, is this world of excess unbridled. Where with the social network, the T-super-ego (telematic super-ego 😉 )[1] plays itself out impossibly and brutally in the real world – on-screen trying to live off-screen; with Second Life, the T-super-ego and unconscious draw themselves out in far greater detail and in far more tangible terms ‘in-screen’, or better still, ‘in-dream’. You do not see ‘a person’ in Second Life, you see ‘the dream of a person in relation to your own dreams’, and it is the purpose of Second Life content, of the Second Life build to enmesh with this dream; hence one should not speak of ‘presence’ and ‘place’ in isolation, but rather ask how ‘presence’ and ‘place’ combine – what presence does for place and place does for presence as part of a total and encompassing interactive subconscious environment. The very notion of an external company trying to attract customers into something they are outside of is to some extent at odds with this medium – the creation of the platform might be better understood from within the platform, as part of the platform.

Nor is SecondLife a computer game, though it may be used to design such. From a virtual perspective, the computer game lacks in a similar way to how the social network lacks – it is generally unyielding to the effects of your desires and the virtual-self/hyper-self is consequently limited, stymied, condemned to be real. With the computer game, the dreamer has long since left the game having pre-built into it most of your options and choices. Even with the best free-roam environments, there is little scope for the player to interact with the environment and less scope for the environment to respond outside what the game designer has allowed. Second Life, populated by real people building real extensions of their own dreams and feelings, allows a participation which is less predictable and infinitely more responsive to each participant.

The Conclusion

The modern self, in stubborn revolt against the ‘reality principle’, tends towards a virtual self or dream self[2]. The present condition of this self is to quiver hopelessly, pulled between this virtuality on screen and the real – here there is a sort of Event Horizon beyond which is the complete abandonment of the real. Given this precarious suspension, the Social Network and the app take off; however, at the limit of this experience is the virtual world itself. Regardless of its social hubs, its clubs, the bands that put on gigs, the real meaning behind Second Life is the negation of the real in the interests of the virtual. The successful ‘Event’ in Second Life must take this into account – it is not enough to just watch pixelated Bono; better would be a wider experience that usurped the pixelated Bono as well – Bono made part of a more complete interactive event[3]. The Second Life medium is an artistic, dream-based medium ideal for the organ without a body – the nervous system extended into a territory that negates and disavows its bodily senses. In the next part, I’ll consider the aesthetics of this virtuality, potentially deeper in its relations with the unconscious and the nerves than any book or cinema screen.

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4.0

Notes:

[1] Telematic Super-Ego: Distortion of Freud’s idealized self, religiosity, spiritual values, conscience etc. With Freud, the super-ego is established through assimilating a linear authority in the form of the father and above that, culture. The telematic super-ego becomes an ideal self of textural and contradictory socio-moral messages, a mingling of impulse, excess, style and contradictory authority.

[2] This isn’t as horrifying as it sounds, at least not from the perspective of creativity and boredom. A complete discovery, mapping and categorization of the real has left the world empty as a frontier for imagination. Instead, the imagination turns to virtualizing the real (through consumerism, tourism, advertising, the social network etc.) or exploring virtuality and the unconscious itself. The latter is unexplored as it is yet unmade and its feedback effects into the real are certainly as yet to be experienced.

[3] This can already be seen to have taken place in real world music events. The band no longer serves as the centre of an event, but rather the event is the spectator themselves – how they use ‘the band’ or ‘musician’ in their own screen life to reflect their own virtual identity, on YouTube or Facebook for example.

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