Saturday, December 16, 2006

A New Paradigm... Or a New Platform?

Last night my friend expressed a thought that is at once obvious and revelatory- our generation (the notorious x'ers) is the first to encounter video games, watch movies at home, and use the Internet. We were born into a historical crossroads that will likely have reverberations for centuries. No doubt one could make a similar case for almost any generational cohort of the recent past, but it's interesting to think about what impact these new phenomena have had, and will have on us.

What do these activities have in common? They are all interactive forms of media exchange. Of course choosing when to watch a specific movie is a low-level interaction. No matter how involved we get in the viewing, we can never effect the outcome of the story. We can however (with the click of a remote) fast forward, rewind and pause... and therefore personalize our experience. Playing videogames can be quite a bit more engaging, as we project ourselves into the screen and control the actions of a protagonist. Our ability to change the events occurring onscreen is limited only by the innate structure and rules programmed by the game's developers. The Internet drastically increases our interactivity, and even presents the real possibility of emergent behavior... the composite of millions of specific interactions between users with local agendas. Entire systems are created, sometimes with only limited intentionality. It is possible to project our identities through a virtual space. This concept would make very little sense to generations in the recent past... but we take it for granted. It is our birthright.

To get an idea of what I'm talking about, you need only observe the behavior of a single player among the millions that engage with the online world surrounding the internet game, World of Warcraft. This is an evolution of the fantasy role-playing games that were introduced through the classic chestnut, Dungeons and Dragons. The participant creates a character and marches through a world of sorcery, monsters, and medieval guilds... building the identity and powers of his/her creation. The options for engaging with the environments of these games has expanded exponentially since the paper-based Dungeons and Dragons. In World of Warcraft, there is no single plotline to negotiate... rather the characters themselves generate infinite possibilities. Players compete or cooperate with others throughout the "real world", connected by their computers. It's not turn-based, like the primitive role-playing games (and the even more primitive boardgames our ancestors played)... everything happens simultaneously. It all takes place in "real-time" online.

Meanwhile it can all be quite addictive. I have known adult friends to play for hours without noting the passage of "real-time". Their identities in the game become just as real (while playing) as their actual surroundings and interactions with people outside of the game. As if to illustrate the extreme edge of this identity projection... there has grown an online trade of game items on ebay (the online auction site). If you don't want to spend hundreds of hours searching for a unique item in the World of Warcraft itself, you can instead purchase that item with real money from someone who has put in the effort to locate them. Forward thinking entrepreneurs have taken advantage of this urge to take shortcuts in becoming more powerful... one businessman has set up a computer center in Mexico, where he employs cheap labor to comb the online game in shifts, 24-7. These workers get paid in Mexican pesos (which in itself is a form of "virtual" wealth) to find items of great value in World of Warcraft, which are then sold online for American dollars.

It gets even more surreal with the online platform called Second Life. As its developers explain, it is "a 3D online digital world imagined, created and owned by its residents". Inspired by the Neal Stephenson sci-fi novel Snow Crash, Second Life exists as a community on a group of servers owned by San Francisco-based company Linden Labs. It currently has 2 million "residents", that are represented by online identities referred to as "avatars". Rent is currently $9.95/month. "The grid" (the name given to the virtual world) has its own virtual economy based on "Linden Dollars", of which users are provided a monthly stipend. With this currency, residents can buy land and start businesses to increase their wealth. Activities within the world are limited only by the imaginations of its inhabitants. Musicians have uploaded songs for others to enjoy...and there are virtual concerts performed by nationally-known artists (like Suzanne Vega). Businesses operating in Second Life have incorporated in both "the grid" and the outside (real) world. Of course, moral turpitude extends to "the grid". Pornography and scam artists are among the blights of Second Life.

With the increased immersion of people into these virtual worlds, one wonders what the impact will be in the one we are all forced to live in. Will these technologies serve as laboratories of imagination where the inventive can test new applications for use in the "real world"? Will most use it to form new communities... and will these relationships extend outside of the virtual space? Or is this merely another platform with which to exchange information?

In a generational sense, I wonder whether all of this technological advancement won't contribute to an increased sense of dissociation. Although it's been extremely exciting, this isn't the most stable or promising time period in modern history. We face threats from political conflict, religious intolerance, global climate change, and resource depletion. It's tempting to disengage from these problems and seek a withdrawal into escapism. By projecting our identity into interactive media and virtual worlds, we run the risk of losing touch with the realities that surround us and the problems that must be confronted for our continued development as a society. Our embrace of these new possibilities could serve as an empowerment or a distraction. Will we be clear or grounded enough to know the difference?


Blogger Rob Park said...

Consistent with your presentation of emergence theory, "we" can not shape the form to come. As an Individual I seek to engage in reality. The Internet allows for reality to be defined by more perspectives than ever before. That is exciting.

What is scary is that the Internet can also allow for greater disassociation. The fantasy of a construct that is connected to reality only in a indirect way.

Bush was lived in a fantasy when he said the Iraqis would welcome us. The reality is deaths of thousands and unending chaos.

The Internet can be used to verify reality or create a fantasy. I believe this is in agreement with your blog.

Then again all human constructs seem to be based in fantasy. Was socialism based on reality? Is democracy based in reality? I guess time will tell.

4:24 PM  
Blogger George said...

As you just said, there is no more separation between the two worlds. They merged together and are becoming more and more a united entity.

I don't see any problem with this. It is just a new form of organization, a new form of interaction that has its place in the current context. It is not necessarily healthy nor harmful, not good or bad. So, in this sense I would say there is nothing to fear.

If it is something that provides some improvement to society, it will grow with positive feedback (as it seems to be happening). If it is not, negative feedback will cope with it.



8:19 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

I agree with the both of you that there are a host of potential benefits from the application of this technology. I was merely pointing out one possible effect I can see it having on people.

I certainly would NOT rather have been born at a time when this technology didn't exist. We ultimately choose if and how we engage with it.

7:51 PM  

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