SECOND LIVES by Tim Guest (Hutchinson £12.99 351 pp.)
reviewed by Roz Kaveney
There is a place where I have a different name, am slightly taller and a lot slimmer and have a mane of scarlet hair. I am not gregarious there, and hardly ever speak to anyone except in the most perfunctory of ways - I go there when bored to walk in the greenwoods someone has designed, or occasionally to wander around an art exhibit if I stumble across one, or to fly endlessly above blue-grey seas, or to walk the half-made hills and valleys beneath those seas. It is a place of peace for me, accessible for twenty minutes or three hours, by pressing enter a few times on my keyboard. Yet it never persuades me that it is real, because its pine forests have no smell and the ambient sound of crickets and birdsong is clearly canned, even if I opt for the sound track provided rather than accompanying it with Vivaldi.
Other people use Second Life, one of the more interesting virtual worlds frequented in the West, for far more active pursuits, pursuing careers as architects or whores, wearing the skins of zombies and furry animals and great winged beasts. Some use it for terrorism or crime - Tim Guest, in his excellent journalistic study of virtual realities, spends time with a cyberDon who arranges for his enemies to be deleted from the system, and with 'bombers'whose endlessly self- duplicating pieces of data close down whole sections of the world at a time. One aspect of being human is to find ways of taking any technology and making it a means of being a nuisance to other people.
This capacity for mischief that can become something far worse in those virtual worlds whose sole purposes are conflict and the self-advancement of players from solitary hunter to warlord or universal ruler. In Korea, where the game Lineage is particularly popular - and making inroads as a pastime in China, whose government would rather people played more patriotic games -, players have starved themselves in order to go on playing, or killed each other when cash sales of virtual swords have been fraudulent. When we pursue possibilities, we are as likely to find ourselves dealing with our demons as with our better angels.
And yet, virtual worlds give the profoundly disabled a chance to interact with other people on a basis of equality, not just chattering in text, but frowning and flirting and walking away. Some of the landscapes hobbyists build as settings for their virtual homes, stripclubs and shopping malls are works of art in their own digital right. As with all interactions on line, most people most of the time cultivate elaborate courtesies and charming ways of constructing intimacy. These imaginary plces are not utopias, but, much of the time, they are at the very least the equivalent of favourite bars.
Guest makes his exploration of these realms very much a personal document of what all of this stuff means to him. He went into gaming as an alienated urban male without much money and found it an occasional solace for a life that was off track. As a child, he grew up in religious communes and recognizes in many of the people he talks to about their virtual lives the urge towards utopia that drew his mother to mysticism and self-subjugation to gurus. The fact that those players of Second Life who end up recruited into the game's vast structure of managers and arbitrators are given a pendant to wear, inscribed with the game's logo, is a point on which he does not build more than is justified, but a man who grew up around cultists is going to recognize certain patterns.
When Guest talks to these Lindens - Second Life's bureaucrats are, interestingly, rechristened with a corporate online name - he finds them charming, intense and often overfascinated with technological possibility. Right now, virtualities are limited by the level of digital animation possible on most people's bandwidth, and restricted to sound over headphones and vision on a flat screen. One day, quite soon, there will be headsets that make immersion on the visual environment far more total - though problematic for those who cannot touchtype until dictation programmes improve. Further, some of the Lindens look forward to entering the dream as pure data; like many extropians, they share the mystic's dream of leaving the flesh, but in order to become more fully integrated with matter, rather than otherwise.
Guest is concerned by this - seeing it as fundamentally inhumane - but has his own utopian agenda, itself open to some real questioning. If we travel in cyberspace, he argues, we will reduce the carbon footprint of our travels in the real world; virtuality makes possible close contact with faraway friends without leaving the room. Even if the person we meet online is a sixtyfoot dragon, whose gender differs from the flesh in a room on the other side of the world, friendship can be maintained without getting on a jet and burning up the planet's resources.
it is possible to have an active online life and still be sceptical about some aspects of this - many of my closest online friends are people I have met, in Real Life as they say, and when one of the extended circle died, people travelled in the flesh to her funeral and trudged up the Sussex downs to her grave. No matter how intense the qualia provided by some future helmet, I cannot believe that they will ever provide the sheer power and boneaching pain of that day. A rock concert viewed in Second Life may be more intense than one viewed on television, but it is still not the same thing as sitting on hard seats, smelling sweat and hot dogs and feeling the throb of amplifiers in one's bones.
Guest also ignores the electricity needed to run computers, and the rare earths mined in Third World countries in order to build the chips that make it possible for them to function. There are all sorts of ways in which online communication within and without virtualities is attractive, but environmental virtue is not plausibly one of them. Still, he provides a useful account of how these technologies are evolving from mere games to parts of a lifestyle. There are dark places online - Guest shows us how the US armed forces use virtuality to train people not only how to enter a dangerous room, but also to kill, without hesitation, those puppets you find within - but there are also places where you can learn life-saving skills or show off your paintings as well as places where you can learn how to be a Jedi Knight out of 'Star Wars.'
Learning the skill sets involved in courtesies to people whose hand one will probably never shake and whose real face one will never see, is an expertise, after all, with broader applications than those which apply in the game or the virtuality. The spreading of these skills and the habit of easy empathy that they represent is a competence cascade whose eventual consequences we cannot quantify, but which should certainly be weighed against the darker side of people's second lives.
Apart from that,Jerry Falwell has gone to his reward and Paul Wolfowitz has discovered that there are limits to what you can get away with. They say Wolfowitz is personally charming and generous; they say Falwell could be kind. Consider however their effect on the world and remember two quotations.
Jesus said of false prophets 'By their fruits shall ye know them'. Falwell spread hatred and a cult of stupidity; he was the prophet of a god that it would be immoral to worship. Wolfowitz promoted a disastrous war.
As to their personal qualities, Motley said in his history of the Dutch Republics - and damn it I cannot find the quotation on line - about Philip the Second of Spain something like 'Some domestic virtues he may have possessed, but if so, it was because it is not given to humanity to attain perfection even in iniquity'.