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It doesn’t look like much, at least not from the outside. A pair of double doors on a quiet San Francisco street leading into a converted warehouse. The low morning sun casts shadows across the street, accentuating the edges of the surrounding buildings and making everything look sharper, more real. Once inside the double doors, though, reality effectively ceases to exist. Here there is no death, no disease, no pain, no gravity and no sex – or not as we know it. Here you can be anyone you want to be. Nine years ago a brown-haired, bug-eyed, boundlessly enthusiastic man in his late twenties called Philip Rosedale founded a website called Second Life. The principle behind it was simple enough. Using the latest technology, people would be able to enter a virtual world. There, they could create a new identity for themselves – an avatar. If they wanted to change sex, that was fine. If they wanted to have two heads and a tail and give themselves a silly name like Aurora Lunarsea, that was fine too. There were no limits, except the limits of users’ imaginations, and next to no rules.

 

Back in the early days, there were just a few hundred residents. Like pioneers in the Old West, they erected their homesteads, huddled round their virtual campfires – and waited to see whether anyone else would turn up. They didn’t have to wait long. Over the horizon in ever-increasing hordes came the flawless, the freakish and the airborne. Now there are around 10 million subscribers to Second Life, all of them sloughing off their old identities and turning cartwheels in two-dimensional space.Second Life may not actually be real – it may not actually exist in any tangible sense – but that doesn’t stop a lot of people from taking it very seriously. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have campaign offices here. So, too, does their fellow Democrat hopeful, John Edwards, whose HQ was splattered with virtual turds by protesters the other day.Companies such as Sony, Ikea, Coca-Cola, BMW, Reebok and Peugeot also have offices in Second Life. The Maldives and the Swedes have an embassy – but there’s also an Elven embassy catering to any passing Elves with visa problems. You can go to virtual meetings at IBM, test-drive cars, or practise cutting people up in a virtual autopsy. If it’s news you’re after, Reuters has a bureau in Second Life. So does Sky News, which occupies an exact digital recreation of its London headquarters, right down to the pictures of its newsreaders on the walls. As for the more culturally minded, they can go to concerts – Suzanne Vega recently played live ‘in-world’, as did the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.

Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of the action – sometimes for questing, futuristic motives, but often for all-too familiar real world ones. Second Life isn’t just a new world, it’s a new economy too. It has its own currency, the Linden dollar – you get 275 Linden dollars to one US dollar – with around $360 million a year currently being exchanged in Second Life.

Last year, Ailin Graef, a Chinese woman based in Germany, became the first Second Life millionaire. She made a million US dollars in two years by developing virtual real estate; this from an initial investment of $10. Anshe Chung (her virtual personality) is just one of an ever-increasing number of property developers selling virtual plots of land along with fully furnished virtual houses. These come in a variety of architectural styles, from chalets to castles. Unfortunately for Ms Chung, her Second Life press conference to announce her achievement was disrupted by a swarm of flying penises.

However, this is just the start. There are people out there – comparatively sane people too – who genuinely believe that in a few years the virtual economy of Second Life could be on a par with that of the real world. But Rosedale goes further. As far as he’s concerned, virtual reality will eventually take over from the real thing. ‘We are in competition with the real world,’ he has said. ‘We are competing to create a better place for your mind to live… the futurist in me says that the real world will become like a museum very soon. It doesn’t mean that we won’t go to places like New York or London – it’s just they will be like museums where we’ve carefully preserved the memories of what they were like before.’

Whoah! Now just ease up there. This is unreality we’re talking about, for God’s sake; it doesn’t exist. And yet ever-increasing numbers of us, it seems, want to go through the double-doors of Second Life, leave reality behind and become someone else. Earlier this year Gartner Inc, a British research company, predicted that 80 per cent of internet users would have virtual identities by 2011. In other words, at this rate there’ll soon be more virtual people out there than real ones.

Something very weird – and disquieting – is happening. However harmless this might appear to be, it’s hard not to see the rise of Second Life as part of a general disenchantment with reality, and with identity, too. You don’t like your life? Get another one. Or at least pretend you’ve got another one. Meanwhile authenticity – with all its attendant responsibilities – slides further and further into the background.

But as people are increasingly discovering, the virtual world has a nasty habit of bleeding into the real one. According to the Wall Street Journal, an increasing number of marriages are coming under threat from virtual relationships. In this respect, it’s just like life on the outside. Second Life avatars meet one another, chat one another up and, if the chemistry clicks, start dating – avatars used to communicate via the user’s keyboard, but for the past few months they’ve been able to talk using voice technology.

In Phoenix, Arizona, Ric Hooegestraat became so fond of the tall, slim redhead that he met in Second Life that he recently asked her to become his virtual wife. Of course, the person behind the tall, slim redhead might actually be a beery slob slumped over his keyboard just a mile or two away, but Ric wasn’t bothered. This, though, didn’t go down at all well with his real wife, Sue. ‘It’s devastating,’ she says. ‘You try to talk to someone or bring them a drink and they’ll be having sex with a cartoon.’

Sex with a cartoon? But how? And, perhaps more importantly, why? In terms of how, with some difficulty is the answer, but like everything else in Second Life it’s possible at a price.When a new subscriber signs up – it’s free to join – they create an avatar for themselves. First you and your avatar blunder around something called Orientation Island where you learn how not to walk into walls, how to fly – it’s a cinch – and how to make gestures. All these movements are controlled from your keyboard.New avatars come complete with a standard-issue set of clothes and a standard-issue haircut. If you want anything more fancy, you have to pay for it. Avatars also start out sexless, but, here again, they don’t have to stay that way. There are thousands of virtual shops in Second Life offering everything from designer clothes to virtual dope to giant penises. You can have a weeny one, if you want, although there aren’t many takers. Of course, there’s nothing to stop you having both: a daywear model and something more voluminous for the evening. Don’t like your standard-issue skin? Then buy a new one, plus some fancy nipples to go with it.

Thus, if they’re kitted out properly, avatars can go through the motions of humping one another. In terms of eroticism, this ranks a very poor second to watching tortoises mate – it looks as if one avatar is trying to give the other a fireman’s lift, but never quite getting there.

Rosedale sits back in his jeans and untucked shirt and watches this with – almost – unbridled delight. Once, not so long ago, he was just another Californian computer nut with a visionary gleam in his eye. Now he is a fully fledged corporate darling, one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in America. Last year his boyish features could also be seen beaming from the cover of Newsweek. He admits that he’s been stunned by the speed with which Second Life has taken off. ‘I always felt very confident in the idea. But I didn’t foresee how quickly people would embrace it.’

As far as he is concerned, Second Life is like a mental version of space exploration. ‘As a boy I would build cardboard rockets in my parents’ basement. I’d sit inside my rocket, look up at the sky and think about going into space. For me, computers have the same liberating potential. I always thought, from the very beginning, that you should be able to use computers to imagine and simulate a place that frees us from all the problems that we have with reality. If you could make that work,’ he says, giving an extra-big grin, ‘it would be very, very cool.’

Throughout the early 1990s, all this was just a vacant lot in Rosedale’s imagination, but then all at once everything was possible. ‘Around 1998 you suddenly had a huge advance in computer technology, particularly in computer graphics, and you had broadband.’ Put the two together, shake in some infinite space, and Second Life was born.

Plainly, Second Life throws up a number of questions about what is real and what isn’t. ‘When we started out we had a lot of discussions about this,’ says Rosedale. ‘I mean, what exactly is real?’

Well, this wall here is real.

‘Why?’

Because if you bang your head against it, you will hurt yourself – and pain is one way of telling whether something is real.

‘Pain?’ says Rosedale, looking puzzled. ‘Hmm, the idea that it would hurt you is very insightful and interesting. But what we decided was that this wall is real because we can change it. What we tried to do with Second Life was to create a digital world in which the atoms of this world are things that we can alter. This would make our world real in the same way that the real world is real.’You can quibble with the logic of this, but not with the results. In this new world, Rosedale was both its creator and its overlord. Perhaps inevitably, people have suggested that Second Life is not dissimilar to a cult, with its evangelistic zeal, its conferring of new identities and its slightly paranoid air of secrecy. They won’t, for instance, allow anyone to photograph the inside of their San Francisco HQ, Linden Lab, although having been there, I can only assume this is because they don’t want people to see how unremarkable it is.For a company that prides itself on being at the forefront of technological research, Linden Lab is a determinedly retro, rough-hewn sort of place that looks as if it was put together out of old railway sleepers. There, 40 or so people in check shirts – most of them engineers – sit beneath improving slogans that ask questions like, ‘Is this good for the company?’, as they peer into computer screens.

Meanwhile the 15,000 internet servers that power Second Life churn ceaselessly in the background. Perhaps the strangest thing about the place is how many of the employees – the women in particular – walk in exactly the same jerky, bouncy way as avatars do.

Other critics believe that Second Life peddles the dangerous illusion that people can change anything they want about themselves. But Rosedale, whose eyeballs actually gleam with bliss as he’s talking about Second Life, believes it can be a colossal force for good.

‘Actually, I think that there’s a great deal that people can change in their real lives and Second Life encourages them to do that. Someone can acquire a modicum of social skills and become less shy in Second Life, or they can learn how to become an entrepreneur without risking too much money. Now, at the same time, I can’t say that someone someday might not throw themselves off a building because they think they can fly like their avatar, but I think the benefits will far outweigh the negatives. It allows people of all races to communicate with one another in a way that is bound to bring down barriers and create greater understanding.’

Yet for all Rosedale’s optimism, there’s no doubt that Second Life is no longer the electronic Eden it once was. Trouble has crept into the garden. With the expansion of the virtual world has come a surge of virtual terrorism. In 2004, Second Life had its own 9/11 with a carefully executed – if visually pretty feeble – recreation of the attack on the Twin Towers. This signalled the start of a whole series of attacks, known as ‘griefings’. It’s one of the many oddities of Second Life that this most intensely human word is used to mean something else altogether in a world where there’s no death, and therefore no grief.

These griefings can involve anything from daubing obscenities on virtual houses, to racist abuse, to bigger, more elaborate stunts. A group known as the Second Life Liberation Army now regularly disrupts meetings with virtual bombings – they’re campaigning, quite seriously it seems, for avatars to have votes, claiming that Second Life is a dictatorship. And then there’s other, more traditional stuff. Two years ago, a 27-year-old electrical engineer known as Cynewulf from Michigan was crucified in Second Life: his avatar spent seven days nailed to a cross. Afterwards Cynewulf described the experience as being ‘surprisingly agonising’.

As the griefings have mounted, so have attempts to deal with them. There are now a number of private armies in Second Life which offer protection against having your property vandalised – the problem here is that the private armies are suspected of being the worst vandals.

Extortion is also on the rise. Anshe Chung is one of a number of in-world property developers who complain that people have tried to intimidate her into selling virtual land. Persistent offenders are banned from Second Life, although not surprisingly they often log straight on again under another pseudonym.

There’s also a weekly ‘police blotter’ naming and shaming offenders – one resident was warned recently for wearing a giant penis in a Parental Guidance area. Then, in December 2005, Rosedale – or rather his avatar, Philip Linden – announced that, in future, hardline griefers would be reported to the FBI: ‘These attacks result in substantial real-world economic harm, and Linden Lab intends to protect its interests using all legal means.’

Yet none of this will affect Second Life’s relentless growth – in physical terms it can carry on expanding indefinitely, as long as there are enough internet servers to accommodate it. Nor is it likely to harm its potential for generating real money: Second Life’s economy is currently growing at between 10 and 15 per cent a month.

Justin Bovington, who runs Rivers Run Red, Europe’s leading virtual advertising agency, says: ‘When we started out in 2003, a lot of people thought we were mad. But this year alone, we’ve had 25 major product launches in-world for companies like Adidas and Diageo. What’s really interesting is that now people are treating Second Life as a real location. At the same time more and more businesses are holding conferences in Second Life; not only do they save a fortune, but it also cuts back on their carbon emissions. Suddenly the potential has gone into the stratosphere.’

It will come as no surprise to learn that lawyers are among those scenting lucrative pickings in-world. In September, a Second Lifer named Kevin Alderman filed a suit against another resident known as Vokov Catteneo over something called the SexGen bed which Alderman claims to have invented. The SexGen bed is a device which animates avatars, enabling them to perform ‘more than 150 [mercifully unspecified] sex acts’. Alderman alleges that Catteneo is selling a pirated version of his bed for a knock-down price. Last month, another outraged resident sued Second Life for – he claims – taking away ‘land’ that he had bought.

Does Rosedale ever feel that his creation is being ruined by all-too-human interlopers? After all, isn’t it a bit like the Puritan fathers landing on virgin territory and then finding that this New World is turning into something as corrupt and venal as the world they left behind?

For once Rosedale’s grin fades and he looks a bit glum. ‘I think that analogy is quite apt. On the other hand, though, ultimately the freedom of an individual user of Second Life is the most important thing here.’

Morally, Second Life may be becoming a familiar mess, but in technological terms, as Rosedale eagerly points out, they’re barely out of the blocks. ‘If you look at the film Toy Story, that was made 10 years ago, and now you can do the same sort of graphics on a $200 computer. That’s how fast things are changing. And if anything the pace is going to pick up.’

This is likely to be good news for Second Life residents. Despite its giant leaps forward, the site’s graphics still look as if they’ve been lifted off the cover of a 1970s prog-rock album. It’s also bedevilled with glitches. Recently, I – or rather my avatar – was wandering round Second Life in his semi-coordinated way when his trousers vanished. He kept on going, apparently unconcerned, but it was a tricky moment for both of us.

But this is nothing compared with the difficulties faced by several people who bought extra-large penises for around 300 Linden dollars a throw; they complained that their new penises fell off their avatars whenever they touched anything. Too much of this sort of thing and you could easily get a complex.

In his book Second Lives: A Journey Through Virtual Worlds, the British writer Tim Guest describes going to a virtual wedding in Second Life. Because of the number of guests, the server nearly crashed. In order to reduce the number of objects that the server had to handle, the bride asked everyone to remove their hair. After an in-world concert earlier this year by a chamber ensemble from Cleveland, one unimpressed critic reported that it was ‘like listening to the radio and watching a puppet show – and the puppet show is not synched to the radio.’

Rosedale insists that these are merely teething troubles and that soon they’ll be left far behind as we sweep ever onwards towards – what exactly? Where will the grown-up version of Rosedale’s cardboard rocket take him, and us?

‘I really believe that we haven’t seen anything yet. I also think that many of the things we do now in the real world we will stop doing. Like the way we communicate. I mean, here we are: two of us sitting in a room together. If I want to write something on a board, I have to get up and do it. But in Second Life I don’t have to get up; I can do anything I want. If I go to a concert in Second Life, I can study the audience in far more detail than I ever could with the naked eye. All this is going to make a big difference to lots of things.’

‘For instance,’ he says airily. ‘I can imagine London becoming, from a business collaboration context, irrelevant in the next 15 years.’

You can?

‘Oh sure. Now I can’t tell you exactly how these things are going to happen – not yet.’ He pauses. Then out comes the grin again, and the eyeballs. ‘But all I can say is that the effect will be highly tumultuous.’

In the street outside, the sun is still beating down from a cloudless sky, the buildings are exactly where they were before. Except that now everything looks somehow flimsy and insubstantial. As if it could all be whisked away with one finger-swipe on a keyboard and replaced with something more changeable, more efficient, more painless.

Second Life alternatives for kids, gods and estate agents by Marianna Walker

Activeworlds A commercial platform offering you the chance to create your own world. No cash transactions yet available. www.activeworlds.com

HiPiHi This China-produced and Chinese-language creation provides Home, a Myspace-meets-blog community which you can access from your mobile, and World, a vista of interaction and adventure very similar to Second Life (to which China has no portal). Animation is spectacular, but HiPiHi has been criticised for being all show and no substance. www.hipihi.com

Club Penguin Disney owns this popular, protected virtual world, designed for six- to 14-year-olds. Customise the virtual penguin ‘you’, and waddle around chatting, playing games and earning virtual coins. Membership fees make Club Penguin a ‘haven’ from advertising. You can join free, but only paying members can buy penguin accessories or decorate their igloo. www.clubpenguin.com

Areae Rumoured to be combining Web 2.0 (Myspace, YouTube and such) with Web 3.0 (‘immersive environments’ such as Second Life). The website is clothed in secrecy but Areae is confident that future innovations ‘will change how virtual worlds are made.’ www.areae.net

Entropia Universe Mine, trade, chat and fight mythic beasts on ‘the untamed planet’ of Calypso.This realm of mingling and monsters has a fully functional currency, the PED, which can be converted back into real world funds.

The ‘Universe’, formerly Project Entropia, had a 2006 turnover of $360 million. www.entropiauniverse.com

Kaneva Kaneva Promotes unity between your true and virtual identities. You can upload real footage onto a virtual TV in your virtual apartment, and share your real videos with your virtual friends. Revolutionary stuff, if you can get your head round it. www.kaneva.com

Outback Online Work is in progress on this virtual world, where you can ‘chat with friends, play games, destroy planets, listen to music’: all the things that make up an average day. Outback promises the quality of Second Life on multiple ‘worlds’, and plans to provide access from consoles as well as PCs. www.outbackonline.com

Sims Online The community version of the best-selling game. Smooth-running, but limited. Users must choose from a catalogue of objects and materials. Financial transactions end with your monthly subscription fee, and your creative influence can’t extend far beyond the fence you selected to encircle your own home. www.ea.com/official/thesims/thesimsonline

Weblo The only thing to do here is try to make it big in virtual real estate. Real commerce in pretend things. www.weblo.com

Virtual Object System This Interreality project is still under construction, but is already attracting attention for its innovative software: VOS will apparently break new frontiers of virtual communication and capacity. According to one reviewer, if they go for venture capital funding ‘they could crush everything else’. www.interreality.org

There Designed for teenagers, There allows you to upload your own designs, and earn ‘Therebucks’. Maintaining a scrupulous, customisable ‘profanity filter’, staff provide tips on staying safe in the real and virtual worlds, and censor everything from language to clothing, to make sure nothing inappropriate goes on. www.there.com

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