I have been reading posts in the blogosphere about the new system for integrated voice in Second Life. As I thought, comments are split in two main camps: those who think the new option is a good thing, and those who are afraid that it will change the nature of Second Life as they know it.
The two camps have been labeled respectively “Augmentationists” and “Immersionists”. Immersionists are those who want to live a parallel Second Life completely separated by their Real Life (RL), while augmentists are those who want to use Second Life as a means to enhance their RL. Many (but by no means all) immersionists are men playing women or older people playing younger people - of course they are not going to use voice because it would reveal information about their RL identity that they prefer to keep secret in SL. On the other hand most augmentationists, besides using voice, openly disclose their RL identities. For example, I have my RL websites in my SL profile.
A good definition is here: ”The first-generation SL residents were interested in Second Life as an “alternate reality”, one that is disconnected from “real life” but bears some resemblance to it. In this alternate reality you would be able to be whomever you wanted to be - and requests for revealing your real life data are considered rude… A later generation, the “augmentationists”, have a different point of view. They look at Second Life as an extension of real life - a tool, a platform, a communication medium, the 2nd generation World-Wide Web in 3D. For them, anonymity is as silly as faking your voice on a phone call; just because you’re a “phone number” you’re not a different person”.
Of course saying that all immersionists are men playing women would be reductive and wrong. On the contrary many immersionists have serious arguments against voice in Second Life. By this I mean that, though I still don’t agree with them, I think their arguments deserve serious consideration.
In the article Voice and the Crisis of RL identity in SL, the author says: ”One thing that is of extreme concern recently is that Linden Lab appears to be pushing Second Life into being more of an augmentationist realm than a immersionist one, or so it seems… People came to SL for a very specific reason… to have fun… to play… to be something they couldn’t be or to role play…. or to let something out that has always been hidden, to become something new. Where does voice leave all of this… you must remember that 99.99999999% of all of the major content creators in SL are IMMERSIONISTS…. this means that they are not into making their SL a reflection of their RL”, and denounces what (s)he sees as a trend to turn Second Life into “Real Life 2.0”.
I support that idea that everyone should be free to live her Second Life, AND her Real Life, as she wants to live it. So, though I use voice in SL routinely, I do not have anything against immersionists refusing to use it and support their freedom of choice. At the same time, of course I protect _my_ freedom of choice and resist immersionists trying to tell _me_ how I should live _my_ SL (or RL). The point is, I _am_ into making my SL a reflection of my RL - and want the freedom to use all options that permit doing so.
Unfortunately, immersionists have a very valid point when they argue that, with voice and more augmentationist options becoming available (such as the possibility to paste a realtime webcam feed onto an avatar face and body, that may well become available in one or two years), most users of Second Life will become augmantationists and this will effectively discriminate against immersionists and push them into a second class role. They will be able to join immersionist communities where voice and webcam feeds are banned, but will be effectively cut from interacting with most other users.
I understand this argument but it does not seem such a big deal to me. It seems a reasonable assumption that role players prefer to hang with other role players in SL anyway. In a few years, new users of the Metaverse will probably be unable to understand what this debate was about. They will not understand how someone can consider having _more options_ as a bad thing. Everyone can have multiple avatars, say one for role playing and one for social networking, business and learning under her or his RL identity. Those who want to use a single avatar can install voice masking software coupled to the microphone input.
To me, Life 2.0 means augmenting virtual reality with physical reality and vice versa. It means being able to have meaningful interactions with people on the other side of the planet, with an overall communication bandwidth equivalent to face to face contact. We are now taking the first steps in this direction, and this is something good.
I believe those who say NO to voice and “Real Life 2.0”, most of them first-generation residents interested in Second Life as an “alternate reality”, are simply stuck with a preconceived notion of Second Life as _only_ a role playing game for immersionists and are unable (or unwilling) to adapt to this quite radical “change of the nature of the game”. They conceive their (and others’) Second Life only within the narrow area defined by their early role playing experiences, and resist change - even if nothing is going to change for them personally if they don’t want to. But I think having more options to choose is always a good thing, and restricting the freedom of others to choose their options without harming anyone is always a bad thing.
It has been said that virtual worlds like Second Life are dynamic laboratories to shed light on social and economic behavior. In fact, the debate over voice and the intrusion of RL in SL reminds me of another debate which is beginning to take shape, over much more important scientific, social and political issues related to human enhancement. Also Transhumanists talk of augmenting real life, but in much more radical terms. We want to merge biology with technology and eliminate disease, suffering, aging and death. Yes, death. Our generation may be among the last mortal generations, and by the end of the century our children may live in the Metaverse as disembodied software beings. Let’s call this Life 3.0: escaping the prison of the flesh and moving on.
This will be a _very_ radical change of the nature of the game, and of course there will be those who will prefer to stay in the old comfortable game instead of embracing change and moving on. They will conceive their (and others’) life only within the narrow area defined by the experiences of earlier generations, and resist change - even if nothing is going to change for them personally if they don’t want to. I am sure that nobody will force them to upgrade to Life 3.0, and there will be “immersionist” communities for persons who choose to remain immersed in human biology and its limitations. However, knowing that a large part of the human species has moved on beyond biology, and there is a new game going on in which they don’t participate, is bound to have some mental impact on those who choose to stay behind, and create very significant social and political problems to solve. The coming debate on human enhancement is very important as it will permit analysing problems and devising solutions. I think these problems can and will be solved, and after a few decades people will probably be unable to understand what the debate was about.
Giulio Prisco is a writer, technology expert, futurist and transhumanist. A former manager in European science and technology centers, he writes and speaks on a wide range of topics, including science, information technology, emerging technologies, virtual worlds, space exploration and future studies. He serves as President of the Italian Transhumanist Association.
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