Friday, February 25, 2011

Questions for Rod Humble from the Educators

VWER Meeting Feb. 17, 2011
Location: Virtual Worlds Roundtable

Recently I posed four questions that I will send to Rod Humble, Linden Lab's CEO. I then put the issue to members of the Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable at our weekly meeting in Second Life. Here are some of the questions, edited for parallel structure and brevity. You can read the entire transcript of our meeting, including additional questions, here.
  • Is he having fun yet? (Birdie Newcomb)
  • Will he be able to make it to a future meeting? (Grizzla Pixelmaid)
  • What is Linden Lab doing to make support more useful and reliable? (Hour Destiny)
  • Are the recent rate changes and loss of Concierge support, etc. a path/process leading LL into mobile/social networking community areas? (Gwenette Writer)
  • Is it true that there is only one database for all inventory? (Hour Destiny)
  • Will Linden Lab resume work on interoperability with OpenSim grids? (Gwenette Writer and Ignatius Onomatopoeia)
  • How effective does he find the search in finding events? (Profdan Netizen)
  • When can we expect the advertising focus and promotion to STOP being all about escaping real life and finding love and focus more attention on some of the more serious endeavors like education, research, and activism? (Olivia Hotshot)
  • If 40 or 60$ a month for a full sim (= server partition) is a sustainable price on open sim grids, wouldn't there be a little room sooner or later for LL to lower theirs? (Xon Emoto)
Got a polite question for Mr. Humble, about education in SL, that you'd like me to add? Post it in comments!  Keep in mind that several questions I did not include were excellent, but since they focus on Linden Lab's past decisions, some VWER members concluded that he'd likely not answer them.

And we want a short list!  So have at it.

Under a Virtual Moon: Spring Break

Location: Second Life
I missed the Saturday morning circle with the United Healers, the Sunday morning discussion with Anam Turas and the Tuesday evening healing. I had a few first life commitments that got in the way. A really good excuse, yes?

It was, anyway, a quiet pagan week in SL. No Rising Moon meetings nor any Esbats, major or minor. I had hoped to focus on the pagan music concerts held Wednesday mornings at the Blue Moon Tavern on Gaia Rising but no one was there. The Wednesday evening United Healers "All Things Spiritual" discussion also did not happen. So, I went for a motorcycle ride with my buddy Nick.

Below is a shot of us on NIck's sim-wide sky track with motorcycle rezzer. My first choice was the pink cycle (above). After a few laps, Nick insisted that I ride a "real" bike. I have no idea of the model name but it has a serious chrome attitude.

Which doesn't matter, because I suck at driving no matter what the vehicle. I can't even make a flying carpet fly right. Nick made two laps around the track in the time it took me to make one. When I finally got up to speed on the chrome attitude, I plowed through the only loophole in the barrier and drove off into space.
The chrome attitude.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Mixing Fact and Fancy in The House of Usher

Roderick & Standing Stone
Location: Usher Graveyard

In building the simulation for Fall 2011 and my group of students in the English course "Invented Worlds," I decided that I'd use both Poe's story and the history of North Yorkshire as templates to expand the House of Usher tale.

After all, Poe's own works are full of intertextuality.

Playing off my knowledge of North Yorkshire, from a prolonged stay in 2009, I have begun adding local color.

I only wish that the village of Ravenscar, near Dracula-haunted Whitby, had that name in 1847, when we decided to set our simulation. That date lets us bring onto the scene a few new anesthetics that might explain Madeline Usher's malady.

Or might not. One goal of the simulation, as in a good Poe tale, is to keep characters guessing at motives and forces at work behind the scenes--human and, perhaps, supernatural. When, in setting out free content, I discovered several standing stones, I had a new subplot not available to us in the Second Life simulation, where the House was everything and any grounds beyond it were merely suppositions. Thus students may run across this letter to Roderick in the course of their visit:

My Dear Lord Usher,

I really do think that you have been overwrought by the decline in Madeline's health. It would be terrible to fall prey to ancient superstitions about the righteous souls who pulled down the heathen stone ring to build the Usher graveyard.

The stones are, of course, of great antiquity and any cultists who may have celebrated dark rites in their precinct have long vanished before the light of true wisdom and the power of our Lord and Redeemer, Jesus Christ.

I have, however, endeavoured to look through our parish records, as you requested. The stones, it seems, were somewhat dispersed as early as the 15th century, and during the time of the Godly Protectorate your ancestor Mandrake Usher, who had fought alongside Cromwell, was noted by my predecessor as "scattering to the four winds the bits of Satanic filth and other such from the grounds of the ancestral castle."

Thus we have an answer. At some time in the early 17th century, any remaining ring of stones was taken down, and rightly so, by your family.

I remain, Sir, your humble and obedient servant,

Giles Rammage, Minister, St. Stephen's Chapel, Robin Hood's Bay

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

VWER Grid: A New Start For Educators

VWER Grid Meeting, Feb. 22, 20...
Location: VWER Grid

AJ Kelton worked very hard to get 15 of us onto the new grid, hosted by Reaction Grid, to hear guest speakers John "Pathfinder" Lester and Jokay Wollongong.  The transcript will be a lively one.

We broke our old record of attendees, and the grid proved stable for "native" accounts and Hypergrid visitors.

This is looking more and more like the future for educators. For those who call OpenSim a desert, I'd add "I think we have an oasis."

And for those who claim the avatars and gear don't match SL, I'd say "give it time. A lot of clever folks are building and sharing their content, just as we do at our K-12 schools, colleges, and universities."

With Jokaydia Grid ramping up past 80 sims now, with over 1000 educators involved, more oases are on the horizon, not mirages. 

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Hamlet, AOL, Facebook, and SL

Location: New World Notes

It must be a slow news-day for fake worlds, or I'd have something fresh to say. Yet I was caught by the change in tone in Hamlet Au's reporting at New World Notes. He's long been viewed as an SL advocate, even after his gig reporting on the Blue Mars virtual world (now in the process of withering into something like IMVU for mobile devices). Now Hamlet is claiming that SL must change fast or fade away.

For a few years, my colleague at VWER, AJ Kelton, has been calling SL the virtual-worlds equivalent of AOL , in its older incarnation as a wall-garden network. AOL remade itself into a starting point for viewing the rest of the Internet, something Linden Lab began with some early interoperability experiments but gave up.

Hamlet is correct, in a reply to a comment, that the comparison is fair:

"The comparison isn't in the services each company provides. The comparison is with their main revenue streams -- both of them are out of date and cannot be replenished."

I've written this at NWN and I'll say it here; if Linden Lab wants a new revenue stream, they need to renew work on interoperability...and more than teleporting to or from the Hypergrid as "Ruth." LL could use its clout to devise licensing for IP so it can deliver Marketplace content to other grids and make the Linden Dollar the default intergrid currency.

That would bring in some revenue from the OpenSim universe. I've a hundred bucks worth of shopping I'd have done for my simulation in Jokaydia Grid, and I bet others would spend that much and more, all with revenues going to LL from commissions.

It's sad to see the best known virtual world miss this opportunity. I'm seeing it clearly in SL for my own use. I will soon pay my annual fee for Premium, but as for tier, I'm happy with my free 512 square-meter sandbox. Now my serious work goes on in OpenSim, where costs are far lower.  Anything I want to import from that side I can build there and import to SL for a measly 10L fee. But some content will be beyond my ability or the time I'd allot to learn more. So I'd just as soon pay some Linden Dollars to the Marketplace to have the content delivered to Jokaydia Grid.

As for other ways to bring in more money? New accounts would help, but I disagree with Hamlet's push for Facebook integration. I recently was dragged, kicking and screaming, to Facebook by my student employees, and I've set up a modest profile so I can manage one of our campus' corporate FB accounts.  I just don't see what the fuss is over, by the way. FB is clunky in its interface (no support I could find for HTML tags, for instance) and the page layout is boring.  I'm sure that templates exist, or that I'm missing some bigger point.

Facebook does a great job of connecting real people. Second Life enables immersion in something one cannot do in real life or even immersion as someone else. 

SL and FB are oil and water. So whatever direction the Lindens choose for their product to escape AOL's irrelevant role in the modern Internet, Facebook is not what I'd choose.

Update 2/22/11:

Nice reply to Hamlet's post by Ananda: c'mon, LL, this could be your goldmine!

I still hope for the day when SL is not such a walled garden, where LL is a central certification and clearinghouse for avatars that can roam (with their stuff!) from place to place in the 3D version of the Web. Perhaps getting a "certified hypergrid identity" or "certified hypergrid host" could provide a new revenue source? LL's biggest asset is not so much the land, but the community network effect and, frankly, the built-up inventories. If LL can find a way to certify alternate land hosts as trustworthy (i.e. you can trust them to host content and assets with privacy and not immediately turn around and resell them) and to provide a content or avatar registry service, so copybot items are automatically flagged, and avatars are free to use duly purchased and licensed content on other grids, something like that might be a better way to go than to depend on continuing to host land in what seems like the most inefficient, inflexible manner possible.

Friday, February 18, 2011

A Look Ahead: Virtual Worlds in Aerospace & Defense

Virtual Worlds educators Roundtable 3 Feb 2011 
Location: VWER Meeting

image courtesy of Sheila Webber's flickr photostream

Back on Feb. 3, were pleased to host two Greg Moxness & Charles O’Connell, technologists from a major US defense contractor, who spoke at some length about their predictions for virtual worlds entering the mainstream. They were not speaking in their role of company employees, but they spoke knowledgeably about how technological advances might reshape 3D immersive environments.

I'll summarize some of their points below. You can read the entire transcript here.
  • Charles, on convincing coworkers of the value of virtual worlds, “Seed the young with ideas, soon become the decision makers or at least influencers–took about 4 years.”
  • Charles on developments to come “not sure military or defense is leading in this case. [Advances] more from commercial spaces, gaming and entertainment.”
  • Greg, on near-term advances: “the whole idea of gesture recognition and 3d worlds this could be this year or next”
  • Greg suspects we’ll see “full body haptics,” and Charles notes “Haptics–likely to be involved because it has such high value. [It's] never all or nothing. 2D and 3D will exist together….documents and spreadsheets along with 3D objects”
  • Greg on neural interfaces like those in Gibson’s Neuromancer: “[M]aybe a step too far. . .maybe 20-30 years but will the human become less and will the machines evolve?” Charles: “a key thing that might happen, if it can be done noninvasively, something outside the body that can monitor brain waves, nerve impulses.” (Iggy’s note to any student readers: from Anderson’s novel Feed, that is the early version of the Feed interface).
  • Greg agreed with the following remark by Charles, about the relative merits of 2D and 3D environments for training: “3D has immense possibilities, not an either/or question. Use 2D when better suited, or good enough. 3D [is for] experimentation or experiencing things not possible for some reason in RL.”
  • Greg on an advantage of virtual worlds, the need online for something approximating face-to-face contact. Charles notes his belief that “relationships are much stronger in VW.”
  • Charles also came out in favor of transparency in avatar identities (if not appearance) noting, “Treat people with respect, it’s a real place. One life, not two. It’s probably best to be yourself when dealing with others in VW.”
I look forward to their returning to the Roundtable in 2012.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Nevermore and the Hypergrid

Location: Usher Burial Ground

Madeline Usher gets laid to rest in the family crypt, a Medieval location, instead of the more modern graveyard because her brother Roderick fears grave-robbers.

The reader of "The Fall of The House of Usher" gets robbed of something else: the chance to have Poe write about a burial ground. On the other hand, it gave me free play to design the first of the buildings, a structure I pattern after columbariums I've seen in old cemeteries such as Richmond's Hollywood.

Instead of ashes, however, the structure will hold a hypergate so visitors to the grid can appear in just the right spooky locale.  I hope the results are Poesque enough. Now I need to figure out how to embed the codes and get the gate working.

Roderick will figure it out, with lots of help from Jokay.

Hat-tip to V, of TGIB, for the free portal

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Mr. Humble, the Interviews, and Educators

Location: Blog-Crawls

It's gratifying to see that Rod Humble, Linden Lab's new CEO, has stepped up to talk to several bloggers about his goals and hopes for Second Life. Here are a few interviews I've found:
At this week's Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable, I'm going to focus our Open Forum discussion on a few issues: what would educators most like to know about Humble's plans? What issues pertaining to virtual-worlds education would they most like him to address during his first year?

My questions to Rod Humble:
  • How do you feel about renewing work on interoperability with OpenSim grids?
  • Could you clarify Linden Lab's vision for educational use of its grid?
  • How likely are some sort of out-of-world backups similar to those in much of OpenSim?
  • Would you come to a VWER meeting? 
Educators, what would you like to ask the CEO?

    Monday, February 14, 2011

    Do My Students Need a 3D Web?

    Raph Koster and old UO headline, Sony Online Entertainment, San Diego 
    Location: Certainty

    image credit: Raph Koster, of Ultima Online, Metaplace, and more, via Cory Doctorow's Flickr Photstream

    "No," seems to be the uniform answer. The reasons say a great deal about the directions in which virtual worlds may not evolve. I put the question of "why haven't we gotten something like Gibson's immersive Matrix?" to my first-year seminar class.

    I'll paraphrase the answers the came back:
    • Immersive engagement is best saved for when it is worth the extra work / software / time
    • Students prefer easy applications done "on the fly." In other words, they don't need an avatar to check the weather or send a short text to a friend or a relative
    • The less hardware needed, the better. Any rig like Case's would be tedious to use and hard to carry. An iPhone or similar fits into a pocket.
    Would my students use a 3D experience? The answers here are complex. Yes, this group argued, for immersive gaming.  I don't know that current levels of virtual-world technology, with so much user-generated content, will ever enable that level of immersion. At best, they might make work for a class more fun.

    We should look to other types of game-environments if we want something akin to Simstim or Case's rig. As I'll report soon, two technologists from a major defense contractor who spoke to VWER recently argued exactly that.

    Will those emergent forms of 3D engagement replace our 2D Web? If my students are correct, no. It would, however, open worlds for gaming and for meetings, an ironic realization of Castronova's thesis that work and play will merge in the decades ahead. 

    Friday, February 11, 2011

    Rude Folks in a Virtual World: Two Solutions

    Location: Finished grading for week & shaking a dry Martini

    Inspired by a lovely gent who really endeared himself to the Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable yesterday. I give you, gentle readers, two philosophies of moderation when a problem arises.
    VWER good cop
    Option One:
    The "Ladylike & California-Cool Olivia Method"

    VWER bad cop

    Option Two: 
    The "East-Coast Special"

    Wednesday, February 9, 2011

    A Visceral & Negative Reaction to Virtual Worlds

    Location: Pondering

    Reading Hamlet Au's interview with Rod Humble, Linden Lab's new CEO, coincided with an event in class that merits some prognostication.

    I've long called for a new name for the product, but I fear that Linden Lab and other VW makers face more of a challenge than that.

    Mr. Humble will need to figure out a way to earn the trust of more Millennials, if that's a demographic LL wants. I encountered a visceral, rather angry reaction from a small group of 18-22 year olds today after one student simply asked "what is this Second Life thing you research?"

    A short, non-evangelical reply of mine followed, explaining what I've done in SL and now am doing in OpenSim. I noted how embodiment leads to more participation at meetings than does a teleconference, and I explained how a literary simulation in a virtual world expands the notion of reading to a different sort of participation.

    A heated but interesting discussion followed, mostly about how the avatar masked a person behind it and could lead to increased mistrust. Something about having an avatar mask and another name pushes so many buttons in my "typical" group of bright, careerist students (one exception, a blogger/gamer in the class).

    Paraphrased reactions:
    • Our generation wants transparency
    • How do you know the person behind the avatar is who they say they are?
    • This will *never* fly in a business setting, especially if someone comes to a meeting wearing a set of wings or a raccoon head
    • Even a setting like Protosphere, with business-only avatars (I got a quick screenshot) is not serious enough and could lead to mistrust.
    Etc. etc.  I could argue that they'd change their minds after a few weeks using a virtual world, but the class is not even remotely related to the topic.

    I get this negative reaction in every class that hears about virtual worlds. I hear similar stories from colleagues at different sorts of schools.

    Maybe we educators are wrong about these spaces. They'll have to be photo-realistic and connected to real-life identity, even more surely than a Facebook profile, for them to reach widespread adoption. For Gen-Xers, however, that sounds too boring to contemplate. We were used to identity being in flux.

    It might help if young people learned to relax and have fun again. And that is not only the voice of a grumpy geezer, but a voice that inverts the usual "you young folks need to work harder!"

    Yet I've never seen a more serious generation of students, in 25 years of teaching, than these. And they are sheltered. That worries me, because even with complete transparency and apparent knowledge of others, you can be cheated and abused.

    Sad to say, but they'll just have to discover that without a virtual world.

    Update 2/10/11: Students e-mailing to say how much they enjoyed the debate: good sign of more to come.  Also fixed spelling of "Visceral."  I had "Viscereal": strong cereal, indeed, these debates.

    Tuesday, February 8, 2011

    Communications Self-Analysis: A Blogger's Day

    Location: Doing That Blog Thing

    My students in the first-year seminar are spending one day tracking how they use a form of collaborative communications technology: something like Facebook, texting, telephony, or even...blogs. I told that that "fair is fair, so I'll track one of my days, too." The interesting aspect of this post is that I don't know what I'll find. How much time do I spend reading and writing blogs?

    This is not me by any stretch. I'm reminded of the American version of The Office, where boss Michael Scott tries his best to be relevant. And he fails.

    Yes, sometimes blogging does seem like a massive waste of time, doesn't it? Yet the technology also offers students an easy-to-master way to create multimedia projects.  It's a shift I'd argue that faculty must make in higher education, in order to remain relevant (or merely employed) in a time when state employees, including faculty, will increasingly be called to task to justify their work. I doubt that those of us working for private institutions will fare better, if we get a reputation for not using the literacy tools that are common beyond the gates of our cloistered campuses.

    So how does someone who blogs spend the day? Here's my timeline for a day when I have some free time.
    • 8 am: checked the following virtual-world blogs: New World Notes, Dwell on It, and (non-guilty lowbrow pleasure) The Alphaville Herald.  No comments made.
    • 815 am: Checked my blog list here at Blogspot's dashboard. Read Dio's new post at The Ephemeral Frontier. I noted that she uses the term "meatspace" to describe the real-life profession of a boat-builder in virtual worlds. More echoes of Gibson.  Left two short comments for her. Read a much-deserved pan for the awful "Spider Man" musical at the NY Times. Left a sneer of my own about how stupid popular entertainment has gotten. It seems that many stories at the Times are merging with their blogs. Will there even be a difference in a few years? Blog-review done by 8:30 and I began this post. Time for my daily writing for me (not on a blog) and then, off to work!
    • 11:00 am: While riding the bus, I finish reading an article in Cees Nooteboom's wonderful anthology about travel, Nomad's Hotel. How on earth could Nooteboom do that in a blog? I decide he could not. He is such a talented and subtle writer. I hope he wins a Nobel Prize before he leaves this world.
    • 1:30 pm: After checking e-mail (and answering some blog-related questions from class!) I return to student blogs after a couple of days' absence. The rewrites of the first semi-formal project look promising, and I find myself reading all the other posts, since the students expect an estimate of participation grades.
    • 2:00 pm: I avoid the temptation of posting a comment to New World Notes, since I don't think I have the facts straight on a copyright issue from the early 1980s and don't want to look misinformed. Back to student blogs!
    • 5:30 pm: Getting ready for a night class, I could not resist leaving another remark at New World Notes.
    What have I learned from tracking a day of blogging? The technology has kept me in a web of contacts, be they students, writers of other blogs, or readers who comment here. That was not easily possible for a writer before this technology blossomed.

    I'm mindful now of Hannah Arendt's quotation, “For excellence, the presence of others is always required.” My work as a blogger or teacher is not necessarily excellent, but working with and in response to others has sharpened my skills and blunted any delusions--deserved or not--of excellence.

    These technologies should put the lie to anyone who claims that writers work in garrets these days.

    Under a Virtual Moon: Healing Energy Circle

    The double healing circle at Clear Bear Ridge
    Location: Clear Bear Ridge, Gaia Rising, Second Life
    I've mentioned tangentially the weekly healing circle on Gaia Rising. Today I am going to take the time and space to focus on the Tuesday evening ritual.

    The circle is led by Enchantress Sao, who was the primary reason I joined the Anam Turas group, why I stay in the group, and continue to visit Gaia Rising.

    Enchantress is an open, welcoming, accepting spirit who recreated the earth she loves across four sims. While other flashier locations have dropped off my list, I continue to visit those sims. And I've learned much about compassion while observing E as she welcomes all and sundry avatars.

    During ritual, simply by varying her intonation she makes the healing ritual other worldly, lifting it to a metaphysical plane. It is the subtext in her voice that makes ordinary words magical. I have experienced her speech as dramatic or emotional, but she can also speak softly and create the same effect. She's my example of an accomplished pagan priestess.

    The healing ritual is generic pagan, a montage of practices. The quarter elements, spirits, sun, moon, and ancestors are called. Then the name of each person needing healing is read along with a customized healing request. Participants respond in voice or chat. Afterwards, the elementals and gods that were called are released.

    Dress is informal. You're invited to dance, sing, drum, chant and play an instrument. Or you can sit quietly on a cushion and observe. The next circle is tonight at 7 PM SLT. All are welcome.
    Deadeye Foggarty and Enchantress Sao on Imbolc at the Main Ritual Circle

    Monday, February 7, 2011

    Battlestar Galactica in Second Life: Fair Use Permitted

    Hearbreaker's New CO
    Location: Viper Cockpit (I wish)

    hat tip to Hiro Pendragon, for announcing this on the SLED list

    image credit: Syr Villota's Flickr Photostream

    Some firms understand that an enthusiastic group of customers can extend their brand, if those customers are permitted to play with intellectual property.

    That's the case today with NBC/Universal, who had previously sought cease-and-desist orders against Battlestar Galactica roleplayers in Second Life. Now, according to the story in ArchVirtual, fans can again share BSP materials for non-commercial use.  I wish the company had done so earlier. A few Galactica-themed sims have now closed.

    There's a long-standing precedent for letting fans just be fans and play: Paramount long permitted Star Trek fans to create derivative works. With the board game Star Fleet Battles, an old chestnut that is still around (I gamed it 30 years ago!) Paramount even granted permission for a commercial product based upon elements in the original Star Trek series.

    One could easily argue that these fans kept the ST franchise alive long after the cancellation of the original series. Now that BSG's run on TV has ended, for a time in any case, perhaps that franchise too will continue to thrive through the work of fans.

    I do hope that Frank Herbert's estate and others who have slapped around fan communities might actually talk to those fans, before crying havoc and letting slip the dogs of law.

    Friday, February 4, 2011

    Linden Lab Embraces SL Romance

    Location: Averting My Eyes

    Second Life's rep as a place for online hanky-panky was the butt (ahem) of many jokes during the media-hype era of 2006-7. At that time, the Lab often played it down, then moved overtly adult content to its own continent.

    I thought that the move to Zindra was wise at the time, and it's essential now that minors are in-world, but I always wondered why the Lab dodged the "hook up" scene that is so much a part of their world.

    It was with some satisfaction that while logging on to the Lab's web site, I spotted an advert for "When Strangers Click," an HBO documentary.

    You can visit the site and watch Clip # 4, where a fellow chats about the romance that blossomed in SL. It all looks rather innocent, two avatars dancing and kissing under a perfect night sky in a garden where no one need stoop to pull any weeds.

    Perhaps Linden Lab wanted to promote this as a counterargument to all of the stories of more visceral encounters in their world? The sappy romantic music had me laughing, and I can imagine my chuckles swelling to howls of merriment when my students stumble upon the clip.

    At the same time, and for the first time in a long time, I see the Lab making a savvy marketing move. They know their core audience is not educators like me or the hard-core gamers of my weekly "Nerd Night" crew. It's not even my fellow-travelers, SL's wonderfully creative artistic community.

    Increasingly LL's bread-and-butter customers are roleplayers and fashionistas and those seeking romance.  These folks want toys and experiences. And to thrive, the world needs new blood. So why not sell your platform's core strength?

    Get out the Barry White.

    Could we expect more of same from the Lindens' new CEO?

    Thursday, February 3, 2011

    Anti-Neuromancer: Norman Rockwell's Comeback

    Location: Waiting for my apple pie

    image credit: public-domain image from Wikipedia

    The BBC carries this story today about the "curious resurgence" of Norman Rockwell's artwork.

    Disclaimer: Rockwell is a guilty pleasure for me. I love the man's gentle sense of humor.  But back to the Gibsonian connection: there's not a thing curious at all about the renewed interest in Rockwell's art.

    In a present that looks so difficult, and a future that appears bleak if you ask most any SF writer, why not return to an invented world that was a pastiche of actual pre-Counterculture events but framed so that it looked typical?

    Rockwell does grate on me at times. In none of his works do I see my Arabic-speaking grandmother and my dad, both hungry enough in the early 1930s to rely on an urban waste-spot for picking dandelion greens. I don't see dad's daily onion sandwich (to his death, he really hated onions).

    But I have to put aside my Cybperpunk preference for dark visions and say, "many folks need this stuff and I enjoy it, too."

    Or are such delusions dangerous?  As a Peak Oiler who thinks the current downturn is a symptom of longer-term hardships to come, and that technology will not solve but merely mitigate the worst effects of oil depletion and climate change, I wonder if visions of a past-that-never-really-was don't lull us into thinking we could somehow remake it.

    Or perhaps we can still enjoy Rockwell for what the work is: comforting eye candy. Perhaps it is a brand of eye-candy with something more substantial inside. I find hope in a statement made by David Kamp, quoted in the Beeb's story:

    "To go back to Rockwell's vision of the more community-based, and modest, American Dream has the appeal it might not have held five or six years ago."

    That would be welcome news after a time with bloated Hummers with single-digit fuel economy and outsized, land-gobbling McMansions defined US life.

    Rockwell's vision might have been middlebrow and whitebread, but it was modest.  That's not been a signature trait in our self-invention of American identity for a while. Like thrift and economy, it may make a comeback.

    I believe that identity is invented, in real life as well as in virtual worlds, so Rockwell's return offers some hope.

    Have a look at the online gallery at The Norman Rockwell Museum and see how his work moves you.

    Wednesday, February 2, 2011

    Neuromancer Thoughts: Both More and Less Than People

    Hangars Liquides
    Location: Scarlet Tiers of The Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority

    Image credit: "Hangars Liquides" by Ka Rasmuson at Flickr

    Finishing Neuromancer for perhaps the fifth or sixth time, I am still stuck with a question that I put to my class earlier today:

    What would motivate you to merge with a machine? To put in a neural  implant so you could interface with data as surely as Case?

    Gibson projected doing that with electrodes glued to our scalps, something that seems as quaint to me today as all of his mentions of magnetic tape in what may be the year 2030.  We won't need electrodes if we ever do develop a brain-hardware interface: we know a great deal more today about neuroscience than we did in 1984. Over at New World Notes, Wagner James Au occasionally reports on interfaces that permit the blind or paralyzed to manipulate data.  In a silly way, his recent post on a novel use of Xbox Kinect shows that the drive to merge meat and mind online hasn't abated.

    I suspect we will make the technological, neurological, and moral leap one day to do far more. On a bad day, when I'm very tired, I think "well, I'm glad I won't live that long." On better days, I hope to try something like that, if only as a "tourist."

    On the other hand, there's a danger with any sufficiently advanced technology: it might make us think we are gods who work magic. That's the dark corollary of the third of Clarke's Laws for you.

    I don't know if my students, many of them having had their heads spun round by this important and very confusing book, understand that this novel reaches for a big theme. Gibson wants us to ponder a few things it seems:
    • What is "human"? 
    • What do we lose as we gain power through cybernetic prostheses?
    • Would we take the chance to become immortal if we could? Would we dare NOT take it?
    Near the end of the novel, Case refuses Neuromancer's offer of immortality, a space where Linda Lee still lives, or thinks she lives, in what amounts to an event horizon inside the AI's self.

    We may all live to know if such an offer awaits us. Before writing this post, I never realized that Arthur C. Clarke postulated three laws. The second is worth noting here:

    "The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible."

    Gibson's fiction, always venturing past those limits, will retain its cultural significance as the rest of us follow in his wake.