Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Message of the Second Life Medium

I'm a big fan of the late Marshall McLuhan, the visionary author, academic and rock-star-famous intellectual. Although the majority of his work was written in the 1960's, everything I've read so far is still dead-on relevant to our time. In fact, I put him way ahead of the current crop of techno-culture gurus.

I've been wrestling a long time with his idea that, "The Medium is The Message." At first, it seemed pretty preposterous. The ideas presented in this post would be identical no matter whether transmitted through an email message or print publication, right?

What I eventually realized was that "The Message" doesn't refer to the string of words that sit in a wrapper (like the sound of a tree falling in a forest with no one to hear.) Instead, it's the web of thoughts, images and emotions that recipients experience. And the medium's impact on our consciousness is more powerful than any particular message because "The Message of The Medium" is repeated every time we're exposed to the form.

We are immersed in the pervasive mediums of our age like fish in water and barely notice their powerful impact upon our perception. For instance, how does spending hours a day on Twitter, Plurk or Second Life modify our consciousness?

What are the messages of the Second Life medium? One is: "Identity is fluid." I now suspect that the powerful identity-shifting experiences many humans have within Second Life are not just due to inherent qualities of being an avatar in a 3D environment. It seems to me that there are quite a few identity-related design decisions implemented in Second Life that could have just as easily gone the other way, such as:
  • the necessity to go by a name other than one's human identity;
  • no cost to create multiple alt avatars;
  • the ability to freely change genders and species at will;
  • the ability to easily shift POV and even separate camera from avatar;
  • the focus on text vs. voice which hides RL gender and accent; and
  • the absence of a requisite goal-oriented game
It's likely there are quite a few more that I've missed. I'd appreciate it if you'd post any that come to mind in the comments section.

That's all for now. I'm still slowly making my way through figuring out the promised Primates post and have just about decided to do it in comic form.


Chestnut Rau said...

I wonder if having multiple days in SL within a single calendar day does something to our perception of time.

Anonymous said...

As always, you have massaged our minds for the better! And btw, the book title is so often misread ... The Medium Is the Massage ... it's important to point it out but certainly doesn't harm your reasoning.

Botgirl Questi said...

Chestnut - That's a really interesting question! Seems like something that could be easily tested. :)

Pay - Thanks! I wasn't referring to the book you cited (whose title is a pun.) Here's an example of the phrase as I cited it.

Finally, I want to add that my take on this is a jazz riff inspired by McLuhan's concept, and is not an accurate picture of his own explanations related to the phrase.

Anonymous said...

it seems as if the message of all these social media 'games' (including twitter, facebook, et al) is actually the self, fluid, permeable and porous. extrapolating backwards...then do you think that the SELF (imaginary or created or guarded) is a media form?

Botgirl Questi said...

chaos - I think that our experience of identity is influenced by many factors, including the media. As to what the SELF actually is, I lean towards the notion that it is empty of independent existence.

Anonymous said...

re. SELF. i'd say that depends on who you ask...gurdjieff and jung are both quite clear on the existence of a real SELF however it is obscured by successive layers of personality accretions. so what happens when these layers are externalized in our electronic media?