Monday, May 31, 2010

Third Rock Grid: VWER Visit

Location: Out and About in Third Rock Grid

Big thanks to Margaret Dashwood (3RG; Margaret Michalski in SL) for organizing a successful outing to this OpenSim grid. Nearly 30 of us attended, including several 3RG residents who just dropped in, after seeing a crowd form.

According to Margaret, this sort of close community (I met one of the grid organizers, who helped orient newcomers) typifies 3RG.

I found the world to be among the most stable of the OpenSim worlds I've visited, and for the first time ever, I was able to port content I created between worlds. This way, Iggy Strangeland has his namesake's virtual sunglasses made in Reaction Grid. I had some problems resizing worn prims, but that's not a fatal flaw and I'm sure OpenSim worlds will solve this problem.

Importing an Object

We had a good chat with our group, though several participants did crash. We then toured some of the builds that Margaret has done in Third Rock Grid, and I was pleased to see how it offers megaprims and free uploads: features appealing to educators and not possible in Second Life.

The only problem with Third Rock Grid is that I keep calling it "Third Stone Grid," because I spent more time with Jimi Hendrix than I did with the sitcom (or any TV, for that matter).

I've posted our chat transcript with a few other photos.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Neo-Luddism & Virtual Worlds

Outside Platos Cave
Location: In a World and its Shadows

Okay, mine is an odd combination: organic gardening, beekeeping, environmental activism, resisting technology just because it's new, Peak Oil...and virtual worlds. I get asked a lot why my avatar's First Life tab includes the statement that I'm a Neo-Luddite.

It's been a while since I dedicated an entire post to why I use Second Life, a technology so often derided as an escape from "the real."

That I question "the real" is another matter, though it's worth using Edward Castronova's preferred adjective, "synthetic," to elucidate why I feel that American malls, chain-stores, theme-parks, even gentrified inner cities I love are as "synthetic" as anything in Second Life or its ilk.

I've used Second Life and, lately, OpenSim because of their creative potential. Embodied and immersive communication tools like these enable really amazing educational simulations, facilitate meeting in a manner more satisfying to me than video conferences, and they make entertainment interactive. That's a great step up from passive entertainment such as broadcast and cable TV, which I abandoned in 1979. I still watch DVDs, sometimes. When I do so, I watch content on my time and at my pace. That's not what broadcast or cable TV promise. So if I wish--as I'm now doing--to take 10 years to watch every episode of The Sopranos, it's fine. "Deal with it, HBO," as Tony's crew might say.

So What is Neo-Luddism?

For a "Neo" Luddite, as I understand the term, a crucial test for acceptance is whether a technology encourages environmentally and socially benign use.

Thus, to me anyway and despite what Wikipedia says on the topic, Neo-Luddism is not "Back to the Pleistocene!", a motto of parts of the Earth First! movement in the 1980s. I left EF! precisely because of their hard-line stance against technology: leaders like Dave Foreman wanted to be rid of our technological lifestyles, in part so manly men like Dave could go into the wilderness with strong women. A thinker like James Howard Kunstler better fits my middle-aged perspective that technology, even harmful technologies like coal-powered electricity, provide great comfort and convenience. At the same time, these technologies both "bite back" and provide diminishing returns. That means that although Dominion VA Power does not raise fees that often, getting the coal to power my house involves ever riskier gambles with the human and environmental health. The same for oil, which is very much in the news now.

Though I split with the radical fringe of the ecology movement, my Kunstlerian suspicion of every "new and improved" gadget remained. For Amish communities, as Howard Rheingold discovered during a sojourn without his gadgets, the community evaluates it by a standard that an Amish man gave to Rheingold: "We're also concerned about what kind of person you become when you use it."

While I'm not ready to shave my mustache and trade in the F-150 for a buggy, I prefer the reality of the pastoral--a balanced approach to farming and living in the time of Peak Oil--to a gadget-filled, ever-connected life or, for that matter, to dragging a club and maybe my knuckles. And using the Internet is a way, relatively speaking, to reduce resource consumption in a time of increasing constraints.

How Do Neo-Luddites Doubt Virtual Worlds?

What I've just written provides my positive opinion of virtual worlds. At times, however, I grow concerned that virtual worlds fail some of my tests for appropriate technology. First, they rob us of time in the natural world as surely as television, or even books. Yet their interactive nature makes them even more appealing than those media, as surely as a blog like this or other online communication seems more seductive than talking over the back fence with my neighbor.

That seductiveness, figurative and even literal, is what bothers me. As Hamlet Au's informal survey reveals, a simple majority of respondents feel that infidelity is more likely in SL than in other online forms of engagement. Even if we don't shag online with another avatar, how much time do we spend at the expense of our first lives?

Second, enormous stocks of fossil fuels are burned to power the servers that cast the virtual shadows of our world of matter. What is the trade-off for Internet use in terms of how much energy we save with paper-minimal communication and reduced travel?

Where's the cost/benefit analysis?

My Neo-Luddite Response

Academics like me might be tempted to follow not the lead of Dave Foreman, but that of Sven Birkerts, author of the compelling jeremiad The Gutenberg Elegies, to "just refuse it." Birkerts, in fact, refused to use computers of any sort, though I do believe that he now types his work on a word processor and has participated in online debates about his ideas. But Birkerts' conclusion is no more my sort of Neo-Luddite than was Dave Foreman's. Though Birkerts might, for all I know, be an organic gardener and backpacker, he's also the sort of academic curmudgeon whose connection to nature appears more intellectual than visceral.

For all I know.

In fact, though poet and farmer Wendell Berry does not use computers or the Internet, I find more sympathy with his approach than with Birkerts' Ivy-covered-wall or Foreman's club-and-cavewoman brands of Neo-Luddism.

This is why I waited five years for a need to evolve in my life before I purchased an iPod. I have yet to yield to smartphone, iPad, or GPS. What is the need, and what will those technologies do to me?

For now, virtual worlds make sense to me as a way to connect to distant colleagues and build things. At the moment when they take too much of my time from my goal of retiring to be a small farmer and "sideline" beekeeper in a Community Supported Agriculture program, I'll be done.

And as you might guess, I don't play Farmville. I'd rather come to live it.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Kunstlerism of the Week: Famine?

Location: Farmer's Market

In his latest post, James Howard Kunstler, fresh from a meeting of New Urbanists in Atlanta, takes aim not merely at the doomed sprawl that is Atlanta but also what Peak Oil will mean for all of us:

Among other things, the most forward-looking leaders in the New Urbanist movement now recognize that we have to reorganize the landscape for local food production, because industrial agriculture will be one of the prime victims of our oil predicament. The successful places in the future will be places that have a meaningful relationship with growing food close to home. The crisis in agriculture is looming right now -- with world grain reserves at their lowest level ever recorded in modern times -- and when it really does hit, the harvestmen of famine and death will be in the front ranks of it.

Kunstler puts his apocalyptic spin on this story, but he's right about the effect if not the magnitude. It's time to support your local grower, or become one yourself, while we have enough margin in energy markets to learn how to do so.

Read the rest of "Out of Darkness" for more information. And, to reference a post I made last week, step out of Plato's Cave into the light.

Uncle D Story Quest a Finalist for Linden Prize

Marty & Jenaia
Location: Linden Lab Blog

I'm really pleased to see that Marty, Jena, and Lorelei have made the final 10 for the prize.

Have a peek at the project, with handy links to its features, at this link.

I covered the project late last year, and the creators were interviewed by Pathfinder Linden before he got the boot from Linden Lab, um, before his job position was eliminated.

Good luck to our finalists!

Friday, May 21, 2010

FCVW Wakeup Call from Tony O'Driscoll and Edward Castronova

While there was much at the Federal Consortium of Virtual Worlds conference (May 12-13, Washington DC) that would catch the educators' eye, and much that wouldn't, two things of note: Edward Castronova's* keynote lecture advocated Studying Beehives, not Bees - which was an excellent way to move us into a structural discussion of virtual worlds instead of analyzing the latest lawsuit or scandal. (*small fangirl swoon)

Castronova's work with Arden and Greenland were both on display - here's a bit of description from Arden (

And Tony O'Driscoll's point, beautifully illustrated with a visit to the Lost Colony in Roanoke NC, that the chair-desk-room structure of educational environments is easily and quickly identified by even young children, no matter if you're in the 16th century or the 21st ( It is time for us to look at this, and to look at the tools we have on hand, and see how we can offer students new ways to learn, and new places to learn in.

The metrics O'Driscoll in particular showed in his presentation is that learning happens in virtual spaces - and further study from Castronova's model will help bear that out and show us new ways to grow as educators. So even though this wasn't an education conference per se, I say, let the learning happen where you find it - and learn from this - the tools are there... and they are becoming more interesting every day.

I for one was glad to hear these two in person. Big hat tip to Chimera Cosmos and Jennette Forager for luring me there and making the stay so pleasant.

Here's the tweetstream from the conference, because O'Driscoll and Castronova? Just the tip of the iceberg.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

If Princeton Left Second Life and No One Were Around...

Location: Staring at Empty Second Life Map

How big a noise would it make?

Not a big one, it seems. Ener Hax, in a post dated May 1, notes offhandedly that Princeton has abandoned Second Life. I completely missed this announcement. I could find nothing at Princeton's site or at their daily student paper's site, either. I then wrote to the campus administrator in charge of the project. As of today, I've not received a reply.

While I strongly disagree with the claim posed by Hax's title, "Second Life: A Distraction for Universities," Ener grabs eyeballs with it, and then the article qualifies the claim nicely. This, Ener, is what you get when a Rhetorician has a look at your prose :)

2007: A Lot of Promise at Virtual Princeton

I did a little poking around and found an article in the Daily Princetonian's archive. Note the plans:

Second Life user Josh Shulman '11 said the University should use the technology to make its academic offerings accessible to a wider audience, as well as to bring international speakers to campus via the Web.

"Princeton should be thinking about holding courses and special seminars from all over, where students can sit in their dorms and watch," he said.

Shortly after, another article noted how nearly no one had been using the virtual campus.

What Happened?

Princeton, like many schools with presences in SL, began to replicate the brick-and-mortar campus and include spaces for the sorts of lectures Shulman mentions. Apparently, this sort of engagement never occurred often enough to sustain the efforts. I'd contend that this reflects a larger problem I've seen with schools that have a visible "brand" in the national market: while some I.T. folks got aboard the SL train, the inability to provide faculty with incentives to master a difficult user interface and plan lessons stymied any growth among the best-known schools.

Second, replicating a campus and setting up lecture halls make little sense in a world where we can fly and where a lecture can be streamed to the flat Web. Virtual worlds are places for simulations and immersion, not recapitulation and passivity.

Some cool ideas appear in the Daily Princetonian's 2007 story, such as allowing incoming students to explore the virtual grounds and use that experience in their "room pick." The idea was, however, instantly doomed. First, too many prims would be needed to replicate all of Princeton and, second, many incoming students had not reached the age of 18 and could not create SL accounts.

As a result, the often-reported "empty virtual campus" stories began to circulate about places like Princeton. I did tour Princeton's grounds in SL once, and sure enough there wasn't another avatar on the map. Richmond's own campus island is usually empty, unless we are running a simulation at Usher or someone is building. A few avatars meet there from time to time in my office. That's not an unreasonable investment of our monthly tier to Linden Lab, but it's not bustling. That said, we have a vision for the virtual space we rent. Many other schools did not.

What Should Have Happened Instead

I found Poid Mahovlich's YouTube video about "Diversity" a really impressive build on Princeton's land, through a post at Get Architects' site. Poid, heavily involved in designing and promoting Burning Life each year, understands the potential for these sorts of spaces.

The "Diversity" build captures what's not possible in real life, and it's what not enough colleges, during the hyperbole era for SL, tried.

It would be nice to think that we might get a second crack at it. But these are, fiscally, very different times from 2006-7.

Whiter Virtual Campuses?

Many schools, in love with the technology and hearing the hyperbole about SL, seemed to have decided to stick a toe in the virtual water, in the same manner that many corporations did in 2006-2007. And now, like those firms (GM, Scion, American Apparel) I wonder if Princeton's departure signals the start of an academic exodus from SL?

If so, the departure may not be total. One irony of Princeton's failure is that community colleges and other small schools account for much of the innovation within SL. These schools, without the tenure system and its valorizing of juried work published in established venues, and where great undergraduate teaching often occurs as a mission of its own rather than as an ancillary to research, can take inexpensive risks that may yield high rewards.

If you want to see what was in virtual Princeton, I recommend Aleister Kronos' post from 2007, "A Peek into Princeton." I just hope that the build was archived by a creator. It's a shame to see such buildings just "poof" on us. In 2007, Hamlet Au rated it #6 in his roundup of 10 best art installations in SL.

Any readers have links to stories about the Princeton decision?

Update 22 May: Thanks to Peter Miller for alerting me to this post by primperfect. Princeton had hosted several "voids" for notable art, but:

The reason for the removal , given by Persis Trilling, sim owner and Princeton University representative in real life, is a simple one.

“Because of the new pricing structure announced by Linden Labs, Princeton is unable to sustain its current void islands. The new pricing takes effect in January.”

It seems that the voids were the beginning of the end at Princeton in December 2008, and they were the compelling part of Princeton's in-world presence. The rest of the campus, where not much happened, followed in April of this year.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Shadows on the Wall: Plato's Cave in Second Life

Platos Cave
Location: Chained to rock

Special thanks to Cathy Anderson, of the SLED mailing list, for alerting us to this build

Jack Green Musselman and Jason Rosenblum had a vision to simulate Plato's idea that the Real is invisible to us. We are removed from the essence of things, like prisoners chained to rocks and made to look at shadows cast by hidden puppeteers.

Where better place for that than in Second Life? Thanks to St. Edwards University, the cave has a home. Teleport to it with this link:

From the note card provided at the entrance:

Just Imagine... You and your friends and family and fellow citizens have spent your entire life chained together with your heads facing front and your eyes watching an inner cave wall. Unknown to you there are real people and animals behind you near the opening of the cave, near a fire, and they alone are free to cast shadows over your heads onto that inner cave wall. Your entire life is spent inside the cave thinking the shadows before you were, in fact, all there was to see and know. However, one day you escape from your chains and leave the cave.

On your way out you cannot believe that there was a fire used to cast shadows. But you do get out and then you really can’t believe what you see. At first your eyes are blinded by the sun but then you come to see the real world is so much more robust, more detailed and more beautiful than you ever imagined inside the cave. Now that you know how things really are you feel you must tell your family and friends and fellow citizens. Returning to the cave you try to convince the poor souls who remain that they’ve lived a lie in the shadows their whole lives, but of course they don’t believe you... Then, reflect on these questions...
  • Could you ever go back and live in the cave? Why or why not?
  • Why won't the others believe you if you try to convince them of the truth?
  • In what ways might Plato's allegory be relevant to life in today's society?
  • In what ways might Plato's allegory apply to your own life's experience?
I've spent my entire adult life obsessed with such questions, which is one reason I stopped watching television, stopped supporting chain-stores, turned my back on suburbia, and began to resist the assumption that technology can solve every problem.

Convincing others of these concepts, let alone that we live lives of illusion and temporary comfort, has proven difficult when the shadows are so seductive.
Outside Platos Cave

Yet the pedagogy of the Cave is likewise compelling. Will it inspire a few more prisoners to break their chains?

Read about the creators' vision for it, and how students reacted, at

Monday, May 17, 2010

Standing Corrected About Linden Lab's Support For the Arts

Burning Life 08--last day

Location: In front of big plate of crow

Top-hat tip to Viv Trafalgar, who alerted me to this old but vital news item

Image: Burning Life 2008, closing day

I don't follow developments in Second Life as readily as many of my more connected colleagues who stay better plugged into various forms of communication, so I missed the Feb. 23 announcement of the Linden Endowment for the Arts.

The initiative makes me qualify the angry words I've sounded, from time to time, about the Lindens pissing on the creative classes while they cultivate suburban lifestylers. Could there be room for a virtual gallery district as well as virtual cul-de-sac burbs in SL? It seems so, and Linden Lab follows a clear precedent: corporations have long supported the arts.

Of course, there are some in SL's resident base who are terminally indignant. They will see this initiative as something akin to arbitrary promotion for selected artists. To you I say: wait to see what happens.

From my perspective, it's high time that Linden Lab reaffirmed the role artists have played in fulfilling Philip Rosedale's vision of a place where one could revel in self-expression and, given the low overhead costs, make a bit of spending money doing so. Of particular interest to me, as with the Svarga revival, is that the Lab understands the best immersive work merits archiving in some form, so future SLers can experience it.

If the Linden Endowment goes to those making subpar work or only to those who toady to the Lab, the discontent from others in the community will be long and prolonged.

And I'll report it right here. Meanwhile, this has me looking forward to Burning Life 2010!

Update May 19: Reading Prokofy Neva's post on this issue, especially Desmond Shang's comments about how it will affect sim-owners who have rented space to artists, complicates what I posted here.

Let's hope that we don't come to see those artists outside the 70-sim arts cluster treated as second-rate or those inside pressured to create content that meets LL's standards. Again, it will be a wait-and-see game, since the decision has been made.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Legal Jungle for Virtual Worlds? An Expert Speaks

Roundtable May 3 , 2010
Location: Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable

VWER recently hosted Stephen Wu, known as Legal Writer in Second Life and a partner in the Silicon Valley law firm Cooke Kobrick & Wu LLP.

Wu explained that his "practice includes intellectual property and commercial litigation. My IP cases include trade secret, trademark, and copyright cases."

This meeting provided an excellent opportunity to quiz an attorney about some of the most vexing legal issues, and Wu told his that his opinions were "offered for informational purposes only and is not legal advice. Please consult an attorney if you have questions about your specific situation." That said, we were excited to glimpse the frontiers of jurisprudence that Wu and his colleagues confront in courtrooms.

Legal Problems in a New World

It's a difficult moment for them, since as Wu stated "I have seen the legal profession have trouble grappling with technology issues such as electronic discovery and digital evidence. Rapid and dramatic changes in technology may, in future decades, become overwhelming for the profession."

SL's international clientele makes legal matters even more complex. Wu noted that "Some countries may have laws making some contract terms written by U.S. companies unenforceable. In addition, businesses may need to comply with foreign privacy laws."

Among concerns for lawmakers, Wu pointed out that "For instance, governments are worried about money laundering in VWs."

I've often been curious about this issue. How on earth could a virtual currency be tracked across multiple transactions, then split between several avatars and then cashed out? In a time when we cannot keep track of stock derivatives for what happened with the Greek debt, I doubt that we'll ever track and control these new forms of income.

IP & Copyright

Several participants wished to know if greater content protection might be provided by Linden Lab. Wu felt it would be difficult, and if Linden [Lab] was unwilling to implement a system like that, you may need to find a different VW that is willing to offer that kind of protection. In other words, you may have to vote with your feet."

Regarding the Eros LLC case against Linden Lab (one of several, such as Evans et. al vs. Linden Lab and Fahy v. Linden Lab, that Tateru Nino has reported in her posts at Massively), Wu opined that Stroker Serpentine had previously brought suit against those copying his creations. In such cases "There is a section in the Copyright Act, which may be useful here." He continued "However, if there is not a contract it is difficult to prove." Finally, he qualified this statement as mere opinion and not legal advice, a good thing for an attorney to do in such a charged environment where legal precedent may not apply.

Terms of Service

As for complaints about Linden Terms of Service being excessively restrictive or altered post-facto for those who signed in under an earlier contract (what I and some wags and cynics might term a bait-and-switch tactic):

"One thing to be aware of is that Linden can restrict what you can do by contract, but there are limits to what Linden can do. If their terms of service place unreasonable conditions on use and the TOS terms are seen as unfair, it is more difficult for Linden to enforce restrictive terms.The restrictions may be challenged as unfair or deceptive trade practices."

Regarding the new third-party viewer policy, host AJ Brooks asked, "The user of the 3rd party viewer is not actually 'at fault' in any way in this policy then?"

Wu replied "Yes, that is what I am seeing at the moment. This policy could have been a lot stronger in terms of restricting non-creators from exporting objects." He added, regarding an export feature, "but if the Lindens' own software permitted non-creators to export objects, while third party viewers could not, then there might be an issue under competition (antitrust) law if that was a critical feature for users. It may also rise to the level of an unfair or deceptive trade practice."

This could make for some good television:

New Linden Lab Spokesman?

In other words, the Eros LLC case could be only the start of a much longer series of legal battles for Linden Lab. You can read the entire transcript of our meeting here.

PS to William Shatner: that is a derivative work and no infringement is intended. And if it ticks you off, come lay a beating on me. I have always wanted to get my butt kicked by Captain Kirk.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

May Road Trip: "Wholesome" is the Defining Word in Willowdale

Willowdale cruise, 1

Car: 1959 Caddy

Music: "Kind of Blue" by Miles Davis
Era: 1950s-1965 (I reckon)

The road trip this month took me to Old Willowdale, a sim that seeks to capture the lost innocence of childhood and an idealized version of community that, depending on one's upbringing, might have been real life suburbia or a small US town before The Vietnam War. As a writer who often comments on how contemporary suburbia, atomized into carefully marketed "communities" and car-dependent, is doomed by the advent of Peak Oil, I kept finding myself smiling with pleasure at this innocent place. If Willowdale were a real place, it would, in fact, be sustainable during an oil crisis.

I was also struck by the wave of familiarity as I toured the area. It seemed very close to my sepia-toned memories of Cary Street in Richmond, in the 1960s when it was a working class neighborhood. Some of my neighbors never left a 10-block area because everything one needed could be found there.
Willowdale Cruise, 2
In Willowdale, as in my old 'hood, there are children, lots of them in fact. I admit some trepidation when encountering child avatars, but on arrival at the sim, the rules for visitors and residents of the region set boundaries that are very clear:

The defining word for Willowdale is "wholesome". Families here are healthy and functional. If it would fit into an episode of Leave it to Beaver, it's fine here. Kids can and will misbehave, even up to and including fistfights on the playground, but that's about the limit. Drugs and guns are not part of Willowdale. Neither are sex, sexual conversations, revealing clothes, etc., especially when there are children around.

In fact, anyone "whose visible groups, picks, or other profile info are largely sexual in nature" can be banned from the region. Profiles are public, and Willowdale, like my RL neighborhood, enforced a code that anything illegal or immoral would not be permitted in public. Only after white flight from my neighborhood in the early 70s, and decay of the retail district, did those rules change.

Naturally, being me, I looked for contradictions in the virtual space. They were hard to find! I suppose an ad, in a shop on the main street, for a training bra for teenage female avatars might qualify, but it seemed a lot tamer than 50 other things I could find in moments in any mainland sim, even PG ones.
Gave me pause @ Willowdale

I drove Willowdale's streets at a quiet time of day, when only a few folks were about. I did find Pyro Paragorn.

We talked for a while, both in-character (me as a tourist) and out of character, about the place. Pyro roleplays a lot in SL, including the Tombstone Western sim I've visited on several occasions (and no paragon of virtue, Tombstone!).

Iggy: tell me why [Willowdale]'s so nice
Pyro shrugs "It's just a great place to hang out with your family and there's alot to do here"

Willowdale includes a movie theater, games for adults and children, hiking, even Sunday school. After this meeting, as Pyro recommended I sent a few questions about Old Willowdale to Kya Muircastle, who roleplays a child at the sim. She is on the town council as well.

Iggy: What inspired Willowdale and what keeps it going?

Kya: Well, I'm fascinated by the ability to be someone different here! There's a fairly large community of child avatars in SL, but at least when Willowdale came into being, what I saw missing was a place where we could really explore the experience of being a kid, growing up in a world that's designed by and for adults. So I set out to make some places that's friendly to role-playing as children and families, but also feels authentic and real.

That's been a loose goal, though. What really keeps Willowdale going now is the sense of community. We all know each other, and enjoy seeing each other on a regular basis and sharing our lives.

Iggy: Nostalgia seems a big factor. What else brings folks here?

Kya: I hope that a lot of what brings people here is the creative things we do. We strive to do things that no one else does in SL. I've really enjoyed when we do a theater program, so in a sense, we're role-playing as people acting in a play! We have a sunday school in our church, which is also role-playing in the best sense, in that we're finding something that some part of ourselves can be involved in. Another thing that often draws people is when Soki reads books in the library (using voice chat), and we get together for games.

Iggy: How often do you have to deal with griefers?

Kya: There's griefing, and then there's griefing! We don't often see the all-out griefer that's just here to crash the sim or harrass people. But we do see people who want to do things without any regard for the well-being of the community. It's not an overwhelming problem, though. We tend to be quick to ban people and move on.

Iggy: What do you hope residents will take into RL from a setting like this?

Kya: I don't honestly know. We're just here to have fun, and build interesting relationships with other people. Everyone's coming from such a vastly different place, and I think it would be pretentious of me to say what they ought to get out of it.

Kya might be too modest to speculate, but I, of course, never hesitate to do so. Old Willowdale made me see the entire family role-playing scene in a new light. I know that, in appropriate settings, I probably won't have the negative reaction I once did to child avatars. I doubt that I'll return any time as an 8-year-old Iggy; every school day was a misery to me. I recovered nicely, however; high school was a delight and college even better.

The allure of being a child again must be strong, however, for many adults, as must be the roleplay of being a parent. We don't often read William Wordsworth's poetry these days, as I did in college, but after some hunting I tracked down his "Intimations of Immortality" online.

Perhaps like the poet and those of us distanced from childhood or raising children, Willowdale's residents through Second Life "Can in a moment travel thither, / And see the Children sport upon the shore," once again.
Willowdale panorama
The price we pay growing up, and the toll time takes upon us, were with me during my road trip. In a time of rage and illogic and uncertainty in the offline world, it felt good to be somewhere wholesome.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Kunstlerism of the Week: Stock Market Surreality

Location: Kunstler's Web Site

I've been thinking of a longer post here about why I call myself a neo-luddite, even though I enjoy virtual worlds. Here's a teaser as to my philosophy, courtesy of one of my major influences:

Once upon a time, the stock market was a place where people with capital went to look for productive activity to invest in -- say, a company devoted to making soap flakes, an underpants factory. Now the market is a robot combat arena where algorithms battle for supremacy of the feedback loops. Thursday's still-baffling fifteen-minute "crash" was an excellent demonstration of the diminishing returns of technology.

I find Kunstler's attitude toward technology quite similar to my own. Namely, we both share a neo-luddite's interest in sustainable and local technologies and embrace the Internet to communicate in the dying era of print news and rising era of slanted political news (Fox is nothing new, readers; it's a return to 1840s journalism). Second, Kunstler and I both know that, over time, the promises of most technologies are mingled with their problems and provide what he calls "diminishing returns." For those who use social networking and other new forms of communication, the diminishing seems to happen when we run out of time to pack in one more application.

Like the stock market and the world economy, that I believe will crash into a deeper recession on or after the advent of permanent oil depletion (or Peak Oil) I think we will see the limits of what sort of experience virtual worlds will provide. I have my doubts that photo-realistic and fully interactive worlds are coming soon, if at all, unless we figure out very energy efficient ways to power server clusters in a time of national energy shortages and forced rationing that will come with Peak Oil. I may be wrong on the technical hurdles for photo-realism in VWs, but even if these worlds do appear, will consumers begin to regard them as illusory as whatever underlies "value" on the stock market?

Or was Jean Baudrillard right, and consumers prefer the hyperreal to the quotidian, and embrace a better-than-reality simulation of something? Disney Land's Main Street over a real main street?

Meanwhile, the shell-game on the financial markets continues. We should all be paying attention and holding our leaders accountable. Our real lives and virtual diversions won't endure a big Crash very long.

Read the rest of Kunstler's reaction of the European bailout at "And Chicks for Free?"

Sunday, May 9, 2010

College Commencement: A Virtual World Ends

University of Richmond Commencement 4/11/08

Location: Robins Center Floor

Creative Commons licensed image courtesy of Reznicek at Flickr

The names have been read, and 800+ graduates have walked across the stage. For the last time in their lives, even in the age of constant connectivity, some of these kids see good friends for the final time.

A world just ended. And it happens every single Mother's Day at my school.

This year, baton in hand, I served as a Commencement Marshal, and it provided a far better way to pass the three hours than sitting up in the faculty section behind the party on the podium. I was able to shake hands with many graduates I have known for four years, as they left the podium with their newly minted diplomas.

They have lived in what our students refer to as "The Bubble" of our private university, a breathtaking place of Collegiate Gothic buildings set on manicured grounds. These students know how good they've had it, and they also know--as every graduate does--that Commencement marks a milestone we always recall.

Among the graduates are the first who had Second Life avatars in my classes. I'm not sure they'll ever log into SL again, or, of more interest to me, if they see how invented the entire rituals of Commencement and indeed college life to be. My hope is that a brush with a synthetic environment online helps them see the invented nature of the world on the typist's side of the screen, too, once they have hung the diploma on the wall. My hope is that they'll see, from stock market valuations to personal fame, so much is invented and transient.

I know, I know: that's the old English major speaking. "My name is Ozymandias. . . " but that very reality argues more strongly than ever that we all get some liberal arts experience. It can (and should) humble us.

Elements of the distant past persist, however, better than did the statue in Shelley's poem. With Commencement, we ladle on rituals whose origins in the universities of the Middle Ages are lost to us. The Marshals' batons, while useful as pointers as we line students up, bear no resemblance to what must have once been, in less civil times, real clubs to keep crowds in line.

Today, I can report we had perfect order, with no beachballs, fog horns, or lit cigars as the students walked.

Was it only yesterday I made such a walk? Well, it was 27 years of yesterdays. Singing the alma mater, even for a school that is not the one that changed me forever, intellectually (thank you for that, UVA and your faculty) was touching. Then the walk back to my office, where the next academic year already shows signs of commencing, was quiet and lovely. The golden moments right after Commencement, when I leave the huge building and stroll past the parents and students taking photos, have always been my favorites. Today the past seemed to be watching, and for a moment, I was an undergraduate again at a different school, taking a last stroll as a student across the grounds in Charlottesville.

The campus breathed an enormous sign of relief, and the silent quads between the dorms were as wistful as an abandoned city from Antiquity. I had the strong sense that whatever show we faculty and students put on for four years, whatever virtual community we created on that set, the set would outlive us all.

There's no deep message in this post except to watch the cycles of things and accept change. One lesson for me from spending time in virtual worlds has been to see how much of our brick-and-mortar world is constructed of elements we only half understand. Some survive our passing.

Look for them.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Brand Confusion at Linden Lab?

Location: Linden Lab Web Site

As I consider the range of ads that Linden Lab has run lately, I wonder exactly what type of user the Lab wants. Hamlet Au has championed growing SL's population by making boundaries more transparency between real-life and avatar identities. He's done so in a number of posts (here's the latest one) about linking social-networking sites to avatars.

I'm not opposed to that idea, though I like the notion of letting SL residents opt out of such conflation of realities. At the same time, I wonder if Linden Lab has thought through the rhetorical implications of a few of their advertisements.

Consider these images:These white heterosexual couples are moving into their Linden-supplied dream homes or finding "a place to love," a term used in a few places by the Lab. If these handsome folks are not married to each other in real life, they are at least ready to hook up in their second ones and perhaps have kids, as in this one that Linden Lab pulled after catching a lot of grief about the appearance of a virtual child.
Fake Kid Included

Except for the last one, these images lend credence to the portrayal of SL as a meat-market, one that James Howard Kunstler used in his recent podcast about virtual experiences vs. real ones.

And at the video Linden Lab links under "about Second Life" you will see token tinies and furries and robots only in the closing scene. The black male avatar is carefully depicted as a business man in suit and toting a briefcase: Obama with the nuclear "football," perhaps?

I do not wish to suggest Linden Lab engages in any form of racism. In fact, I wish their Community Standards could be enforced in real life. But images say a lot about who they want to attract. Luckily, here's an exception to the current rule:

She's a lovely woman in both real and Second life. This campaign, one that includes at least one image of a person becoming a nonhuman avatar, seems to match what Hamlet is calling for at New World Notes.

It's not unusual for a company to appeal to two very different sorts of users; General Motors does not use the same appeals when selling an Impala, a GM pickup, and a Corvette. But GM is selling us products based upon an established brand identity in the marketplace. Linden Lab provides a service that most folks I know have never considered necessary to their lives, even if they have heard of a "virtual world." Despite my Peak Oil beliefs, I'd challenge you to find many Americans who don't know what GM is, let alone argue that the automobile is not necessary to how most of us live.

Linden Lab has to figure out what its place in the social-networking / gaming world is: GM could, for a while anyway, afford to be something different to everyone. A small firm like LL needs focus, and I'm not seeing that in their current advertisements.

Second Life® and Linden Lab® are trademarks or registered trademarks of Linden Research, Inc. All rights reserved. No infringement is intended. Satire is another matter.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Kunslterlism of the Week: Raccoons with Breasts?

Location: Kunstlercast site

Kunstler riffed on Second Life last week, in his weekly podcast, recalling SL as a place "where you adopt the persona of a raccoon with big tits and go around trying to make dates with people. It's funny how it all resolves itself into a lot of social maneuvering, basically for sex. It's so dumb. We're such monkeys when everything is said and done."

I laughed with recognition. We've all run into such SLers. Kunstler's vitriol also reminds us of what mainstream media and students of the generation I teach find so bizarre and, often, repellent, about virtual worlds and MMORPGs.

At the same time, Kunstler makes a more cogent point when he says:

"We've got to stop kidding ourselves that virtual life is as good as real life."

Here, I tend to agree. Virtual worlds enhance and extend, and they enable contacts that would be nigh impossible in the tangible world. They don't much as the transhumanists would wish. One trip into my garden this morning, to set out some basil seedlings and draw water from my rain-barrels, reminded me of what I miss, sitting in a chair and typing.

Surf to the Kunstlercast at and point to podcast #108: The Virtual Realm vs. The Authentic. Decide for yourself how much time we should be spending in irreal spaces, be they online paradises or the doomed consumerist landscapes of our hellish suburban strips.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Reaction Grid Update: April 2010

Jokaydia 4/4
Location: Jokaydia in Reaction Grid

Given the extended downtime in Second Life recently, I thought it high time for Iggy Strangeland to visit Reaction Grid for a bit, before his real-life driver dove back into grading final projects.

Note that for both RGURLs (is that what they are called?) the path still includes "SLURL" and "secondlife" so I'll leave it to readers to find the region and locale using whatever best practices they choose.

I began, as I often do, with a visit to Jokay Wollengong's land ( Jokaydia/121/115/23 ) . She's expanded her work in RG and linked a good deal of what I saw to the recent Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education Conference. She's holding two "Unconference" weekends in Reaction Grid, the first at the end of May. Read more here.

Jokay has a large sandbox for visitors who agree to her terms (it's a PG grid, so nothing objectionable may be made). Mega-prims are not objectionable in Reaction Grid, and I captured an interesting picture of some planetary-looking spheres hovering on the horizon.
Jokaydia 2/4

All this was great. I had my graphics pumped up, which might have accounted for the problems I later found: sim-crossings by flying were nearly impossible. After a few attempts, I crashed and crashed hard.

I returned bald and in a garden of sculpted plywood in MellaniuM sim ( MellaniuM/155/118/49 ). The effect was of a builder's sandbox, and it was a curious installation and worth a look.

Plywood Land
Following that very advice, I walked back, on the bottom of the ocean, to Jokaydia. The crossings worked, but it was not an intuitive or immersive way to travel, compared to my easy sim-crossings in my virtual car in Second Life. For my Mac OS client, Jokay's media would not work. I understand there's a Mac plug-in for media. I'll try it soon.

These alternative grids continue to expand. They need to add more functionality, such as as seamless cross-platform support (40% of our last first year class came in with Mac laptops), attachments that stay with you, and grid crossings that work. In time, they will. Right now, the green dots on the grid map are sparse.
Jokaydia 1/4

And by the end of my journey, I did find my (bad) hair. But, hey, free is always good, and there's no chance in hell I'll get too immersed in poor, skinny, pale Iggy Strangeland. He looks way too much like some of my creepier (tip of the hat to my students who love that term) friends from UVA in the early 1980s.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Addiction To Second Life?

Life 2.0 discussion
Location: Mixed Reality Event

Last night, I had the chance to listen as Wagner James Au moderated a panel with Philip Rosedale, Cyn Linden, and Jason Springarn-Koff, director of the documentary Life 2.0. The film screened at Sundance this year, and I'm looking forward to seeing it.

The topic was addiction. My own definition goes as follows.

Over the 3+ years I've been in SL, I have met individuals--never educators, I'd add--who spent enough time in-world to begin degrading their real-life jobs and relationships. That's not a definition from the DSM, but it seemed addictive behavior.

If the individual were making money or creating art, however, I'd make an exception. One of my neighbors draws for hours on end and is beginning to get noticed in the East Coast art scene. He's following his bliss and hearing a muse's call, something that, as a writer, I appreciate.

But I'd be curious to know what other experienced SLers consider the marks of addiction to the virtual world. We joked last night about being addicted to breathing, since we do it so much.

At a certain point, however, many other activities cause harm. What then are the harmful side effects of spending too much time in SL? And how much is too much?


Saturday, May 1, 2010

Hulk Write Blog for Puny Humans

Location: The Incredible Hulk's Diary

Hulk like avatar for skinny kids in 1960s who get beat up by bullies. Geek like Iggy read Hulk and want to be Hulk! Geek like Iggy think comic books like virtual world, place for skinny boys to be big and strong and have girlfriend in spandex suit!

Now Hulk have blog...

Hulk not update blog since 2009. Hulk busy breaking things! Go away, puny humans!