Chestnut Rau in a tweet from yesterday
I met Chestut Rau in 2008 at a party in Extropia. At the time, Extropia was home to a community of utopian Immersionists striving to live virtual lives that were as full and authentic as those in the atomic world. Second Life was experienced not only as a platform for entertainment and exploration, but as a self-sufficient environment providing the digital equivalent of atomic world culture, community, loving relationships and achievement. Here's how Chestnut described her first year:
I listened to amazing music, danced all night, experienced art installations that brought tears to my eyes. I blogged, photographed, and built things -- all activities I could not have imagined a year ago. I developed friendships that feed my soul, met people who’s creativity has left me breathless and encountered other people who’s ability to stir up drama and conflict everywhere they go has left me speechless. I explored parts of the RL me I never knew existed and touched on other parts of me I have been unable to delve into for a variety of reasons. Its hackneyed for sure but I lived. I laughed. I loved.
Today, only a handful of people from that social circle are still active in Second Life. Many of them disappeared from the grid. Others have drastically cut back their level and frequency of participation. The utopian Immersionist movement has disappeared.
I've been looking for a new horizonSo how did Chestnut and the rest of us fall from unbridled enthusiasm to virtual ennui in the span of a few years? I can't speak for everyone, but I think it boils down to the limits of immersionism and simulation.
But all I see is Extropia burning
The dream of the Transhuman Grail has vanished
Merlin is a Meeroo
Camelot is Disneyland
I am adrift
From my blog post of June 9, 2011
The limits of immersionism.
Most of the active Second Lifers I knew in 2008 adhered to a fairly radical immersionist philosophy. They not only kept their wallet name identities hidden from other virtual worlders, but also kept their avatar identities secret from atomic world friends, families and colleagues. Active immersionists routinely spent 20, 30 or even 40+ hours per week in Second Life. It took that much time to make the virtual world come alive, nurture relationships, and establish community through ongoing participation in musical, artistic, charitable and social events. These bigger-than-life virtual identities were almost totally divorced from their human counterparts' relationships and activities.
Ultimately, such double lives proved to be more than most of us could handle. Atomic world jobs and relationships suffered due to lack of time, attention and sleep. Virtual world relationships and commitment were eventually undermined by conflicts with atomic world obligations. The bright flame of that greatest generation of digital people was fueled by candles burning at both ends. It was only a matter of time before they burned out.
The limits of simulation.
Chestnut's description of her first year in Second Life is a great depiction of honeymoon consciousness. Everything is fresh and new. You see life in new ways, discovering inspiring insights into your own human potential. There is often drama, as latent psychological issues emerge in the intensity of reawakened emotional capacity.
But no matter how intense an attraction, all honeymoons eventually end. The initial flame of rapturous attraction fades. Negative aspects that were hidden in the glare of infatuation come to light. And people start to figure out whether there is enough substance to justify the hard work required to build a deep long term relationship. Digital simulation at this time and for the foreseeable future can offer only a pale shadow of the deep complexity and interdependence of the physical world.
I think that I shall never seeThe pioneers of Extropia pushed the limits of what is possible in virtual life. We expanded the envelope of human potential and experienced ourselves in new ways. Many of us tapped into creative potential that had never been actualized through our physical world experience. But we ultimately bumped up hard against the limits of the virtual world. And the pain of our disillusionment was caused by the depth of our investment in an idealistic illusion.
A poem lovely as a tree.
from Trees by Joyce Kilmer
I love virtual worlds for what they offer that is NPIRL (not possible in real life). But virtual worlds at this time can't provide an adequate substitute for most of what the physical world has to offer. Like the old commercial said, "Long distance is the next best thing to being there, " but there is an enormous chasm between what is best and its virtual stand-in.
So I think that the solution is to appreciate the virtual world both for what it is, and for what it is not; to integrate our virtual and physical lives so that they are synergistic rather than antagonistic; and to accept that our passion for any pursuit will ebb and flow over time. And that's okay.