I awoke in Second Life two years ago into a climate a virtual revolution. At its center was the Independent State of Extropia, a hotbed of intellectual ferver, utopian idealism and walk-your-talk activism. At that time, the leading voice in the Immersionist movement was Extropia co-founder Sophrosyne Stenvaag. Although the details of her story are unique, I believe the rise and fall of her virtual life reflects a common trajectory.
Soph was one of the rare individuals in any world living a life dedicated to the actualization of her highest ideals. While today we trade lukewarm snarkiness about the Mainland's remaking through the post-adult retro-suburbanism of Linden Homes, in the summer of 2007 Sophrosyne railed with outrage at the mere idea of a conventional-looking structure in Second Life. She expressed the intimate interbeing of the Virtual World and the Digital Person when she wrote:
Building some Newport Beach condo, or a mall that looks like, well, a mall - is forcing the atomic world into a place it's not meant to fit. It's a little rape of our world's autonomy, selfhood, uniqueness.
This admittedly radical perspective stemmed from the premise that Digital People are the rightful indigenous natives of the virtual world because they are a genuinely emergent form of sentient life, rather than mere augmentations of human identifies. In a January '08 blog post she wrote,Treating us - whether we call ourselves Digital Persons, Artificial Persons, whatever, or just any of the people in our world - as masks for an atomic world person - well, that's exactly the same kind of thing. It's griefing, it's a profound violation of our selfhood in our world.
I'm not someone playing a role, or manipulating an avatar like a chesspiece or a mask I speak from behind. I'm not anything but what I seem to be.At the dawn of 2008, Sophrosyne was at the forefront of both the personal and professional expression of virtual identity. In the public domain, she was the chief promoter and facilitator of a wide-ranging series of Extropian conferences and salons featuring notable scientists, religious leaders, business people and artists. Behind the scenes in her private life, Soph and her polyamourous quad family group pushed the boundaries of loving committed relationship. A year and a half later, Sophrosyne and two out of her three family members had left Second Life (you can read her swan song here) and posts stopped appearing on the Extropia blog.
I've seen this cycle in the lives of many avatars who endeavored to create full lives as Digital People. It seems the average lifespan between awakening and virtual seppuku is 9 to 18 months. The exceptions are mostly those whose physical lives do not require a great deal of time and creative energy. In essence they choose to make Second Life the primary life. Of course some or all of the departed may have reincarnated into new avatars and/or sneak back once in a while. But I suspect that in those cases, the new lives are shadows of their former selves.
Perhaps the moral of the story is not that the ideal of the Digital Person is dead, but merely that the life expectancy of the virtual species is very short. Or that the flowering of virtual identity may be destined to fall back into the biological ground from which it was born. The mystery continues.
For now, I leave you with this video memorial to the the golden days of the Independent State of Extropia in Second Life. Although the backing track is Jim Carroll's "People Who Died", many of the avatars pictured in this video are still living. What died is the Extropian dream. (Images used in this video were borrowed from many people's publicly searchable Flickr photos.)