Thursday, February 16, 2017

Living a Fuller Life in "Second Life"

Tom Boellstorff, an anthropology professor at the University of California at Irvine (one of my graduate schools), has written a book, COMING OF AGE IN SECOND LIFE, about his experiences doing fieldwork in the virtual world of Second Life. Here's a summary on Goodreads:


He has discovered that people with disabilities such as Parkinson's disease can enjoy full mobility in Second Life and do things impossible for them in their physical bodies:

Parkinson's in Virtual Reality

He resists the conventional assumption that what happens in a VR environment isn't "real." In an article in the UCI alumni magazine, he's quoted as saying, "Even in our physical world, not everything we do is real. And not everything we do online is unreal." For instance, we can lose, gain, or spend real money online. If we learn a language online, we're still learning. Emotions aroused by virtual experiences are genuine emotions. In the NEUROSCIENCE NEWS article linked above, Boellstorff says, "Virtual worlds are online places of culture that impact life in the physical world."

In Second Life, an architect and clothing designer who can no longer create their arts in the material world can do so virtually. Fran, an 88-year-old woman with Parkinson's, dances and practices tai chi online. She maintains that her "friends in Second Life are just as real as friends in real life." Amazingly, she found that her physical strength actually improved as a result of her activities in Second Life. Some scientists credit this phenomenon to mirror neurons, while others are dubious of this explanation, but Fran does seem to have derived concrete benefits from immersing herself in her avatar's experiences. Jadyn, who loved hiking but can't do it in the physical world anymore, created a virtual equivalent of Yosemite in Second Life. Boellstorff designed an island called Ethnographia, where visitors "use art and building tools to work through their difficulties." As he explains it, "Instead of writing about your experience, you can build your own experience."

As far as visual realism is concerned, avatars still fall into the Uncanny Valley, however. They look like dolls or, at best, obvious CGI characters, rather than live people. You can view a sample by Googling "Second Life avatar images." But no doubt this limitation will be overcome in time.

Living inside a virtual world is a frequent motif in science fiction. I can imagine a future in which severely disabled people might choose to spend most of their time in Second Life or a next-generation equivalent. If the technology improves enough, some people might even "move into" the virtual world permanently (with the care and upkeep of their bodies provided for, of course).

The current plot thread on the TV series MARVEL'S AGENTS OF SHIELD features a similar virtual environment built by the antagonist, called the Framework, so advanced that it feels in every way like the real world. The antagonist has captured a SHIELD member, placed her in a permanent coma, and imprisoned her mind in the Framework, where (according to him) she's perfectly happy. He has also lured one of SHIELD's potential allies to his side by promising her a life within the virtual world as an alternative to her terminal illness. The SHIELD genius who created the prototype of the Framework as a safe combat training environment agonizes over his unintended role in the villain's acts. Another character agrees with him, declaring, "The line between scientist and mad scientist is paper thin." While that statement runs counter to the optimistic, science-positive worldview of classic SF, the importance of anticipating consequences remains valid, and every new technology has both good and bad uses. Second Life may function as an "escape from reality" for some people but a portal to a more fulfilling life for others.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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