Wednesday, February 01, 2006


"Like any place in Reality, the Street is subject to development. Developers … can build buildings, parks, signs, as well as things that do not exist in Reality, such as vast hovering overhead light shows and special neighborhoods where the rules of three-dimensional spacetime are ignored." -- Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash

You know how, in the new Battlestar Galactica series, the dwindling remnant of fugitive humanity has to use archaic equipment and analog, non-networked computers because if they use anything higher-tech the robotic Cylons will take over everything and kill everybody? I only just this week realized I was in a similar situation. While I was splitting my electronic life between a brainless ’97-vintage iMac and a six-year-old ThinkPad with more mental problems than a comp. lit. undergrad, I was safe from the life-commandeering viral escapism of online communities; when I picked up a computer built this millennium and downloaded Second Life, I opened myself to trouble.

It’s a kind of trouble I’ve been in before. Back in the early nineties (dates get hazy; it was a magical time), while living in a dismal walkup with a bitter Dr. Who fan, I got into text-based virtual-reality communities – think Infocom text adventures with everything written, programmed and shared by individual users. It near drove me crazy; I even had an online girlfriend, a real cutie from Hawaii. Second Life, with its total user control and customization, its everything created by everyone, its uninhibited masquerade-ball parody of human society, is the same old trap… with graphics.

At first, I thought I could avoid the leghold. When you first hop on (grab the download from, you poor suckers), the world of SL seems corny where it doesn’t seem boring: vast uninhabited ghost-town expanses of virtual architecture in various states of completion/abandonment, broken up by ugly-ass porno/fetish malls, casinos and sex-dance clubs. Gaudy, jumbled, tasteless, quivering with frantic erotic play-acting, obsessed with (virtual) money, status and appearance. I laughed.

But I knew there was something substantial underneath all that – many writers I respect take SL quite seriously – so I resolved to try. To participate. A bad idea, looking back, but (I told myself) professionally honest; how can I write about online communities and such if I don’t slide back my “sleeve length” control and apply a “dirt” texture to my polygonal hands? So, I decided upon a trade: in my second life I would be a custom bookbinder, creating virtual boutique chapbooks for SL’s artists, essayists, photographers and poets. Easy enough; I found a guy who makes and sells virtual printing presses.

But how to get the money – the “Lindens”, as SL’s currency is known? Without a paid account or credit card, I couldn’t just swap Lauriers for Lindens. I’d have to find a patron… beg, basically. It was tough going until one night, after some Weird Science-style monkeying with the avatar-creation controls, I stepped out into the world in female form.

Trouble. Trouble times. A five-foot-nothing cherub of a girl in an impeccably fitted earthy tweed suit who smokes with a filter (I didn’t change outfits from my previous “neo-Edwardian Dandy” look), walks and talks like a guy (I kept the male animation set, too) and looks like she’s going places? People like her and want to involve her in things. What a magical spell! It’s textbook salesmanship; put an easy-to-look-at face on the front end of your operation and you’re halfway to the bank.

Of course, I’ve creeped myself right out. Ever have a crush on yourself? To laugh the edge off, I created a whole wardrobe of other skins, like "Fat Hoser"– a totally unwelcome presence. The reactions he gets remind me that the first fun I ever had in SL was when a buddy took over my keyboard and typed “WHO FARTED” in a swanky disco.

So, here I am… barely meeting Maslow’s Heirarchy of needs through my real-world career, deliberately precipitating an identity crisis, apprenticing as a bookbinder in a videogame. I bet this’ll work out great!

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