Mar 18, 2012

Allegory of the Prim

In which Plato predicts the circumstances of #SecondLife


I was recently asked in the Virtual Education Journal the very poignant question “Why are you here?” – as in,  why is it that I am in virtual worlds in general, and Second Life. My answer was not the common one (as usual), but included the precursor to a bigger story which I’ll summarize here.




It’s not a cave, exactly… but I’m sure there’s a cave on this island somewhere.



When I was a teenager, I had my first introduction to virtual worlds just as they were starting to make a name for themselves. This was back in the days when the Internet was defined by things like AOL, Prodigy and Compuserve. It was a strange existence by comparison to the flat and bulky experience of the BBS and Online Service, and it really captured my imagination. Here we were, not just existing with a couple of degrees of separation, but in a three dimensional space in real time!


What I learned in those early years was that virtual worlds can bring a lot of good into this world, but just as simply it is also a double edged sword. It can bring a lot of grief and heartache into the world as well. I’ve seen, from an early age, that virtual worlds can be so enticing as a fantasy that it can wreck a very real marriage and make a lot of people very miserable, and I’ve also seen the other side where it can bring people together and they get married for real or simply bring a lot of joy.


It’s really a double edged sword depending on how you approach it with your intentions.


The reason I am in virtual worlds is because I choose to believe that technology can make people’s lives truly and meaningfully better, and not just a shallow or short term experience. The premise of virtual worlds offers a compelling second life, where we can find the things that we think we are missing in our real lives. Whether this is love, laughter, friendship or something else – it is a shred of what we can have for real if only we let it.


But therein is the ultimate question, and it is summed up very nicely by an age old philosophical premise by Plato in The Allegory of the Cave. Who knew that a philosopher so long ago could explain the predicament we’re in today with virtual worlds?


Once you read the Allegory of the Cave, you may not immediately get the correlation between that and virtual worlds, but if you were to replace the cave with Second Life, the shadows with Prims, you’d quickly see it is a perfect explanation.


After all, there are people outside that cave who aren’t in Second Life, and their attitude about Second Life is echoed by the population inside all the time; They don’t spend any time in here, so they just don’t get us. This is the sort of response I expect from people in the cave with the shadows about  the people on the outside – for instance Linden Lab and the employees. And just as compelling and interesting to me are the attitudes and responses from people on the outside looking in – where they say “I don’t get these people. So caught up in a pixel fantasy when none of it is real.”


As a Virtual Environment SME (Subject Matter Expert) I’m in a really odd position, and have been most of my professional life. In order to understand what goes on in a virtual world I have to be immersed in them. But it’s a weird feeling, like I’m a double agent or something.


I’m not immersed entirely in virtual environments – by nature I can’t be. From both sides of the fence, I have no choice but to see both the outside looking in and the inside looking out. This, by the nature of the Allegory of the Cave means that I will quite often be scorned by the people inside the cave, and even worse, scorned by the people outside of that cave as well. But often I am praised by both sides as well, depending entirely on what I’m saying and to whom.


I’m like a mid-point of perception in all of this. I see your side, and I see the side of those on the outside looking in. I try incredibly hard to reconcile the middle ground – because (and this is going to sound odd) I actually give a damn about the people in virtual worlds, and I know that (in the right context) you are the future of the real world if you are ready to step up to that role.


Not in the sort of way we’re used to in virtual worlds – not in just a roleplay sort of way. I see a lot of people using virtual environments and it’s just the cave and shadows. It’s an illusionary escape, and in short bursts it is fine but that depends entirely on the context you’re going into them with. After all, it is no more honest or sincere if you did the same things in real life – for instance with dating or romance. I see a lot of married women in Second Life looking for relationships – and that bothers me. Not that I give a damn about whatever choices they made to get there, but instead what I see is the situation that got them to that point and continues to be the reason they are at that point. The shadows aren’t going to do anything other than be a shadow.


It’s a sociology thing, and it is a part of what I do. I’m hard wired not to see the result but the reasons as well. The illusion to me is only there as a smoke screen for a total picture, and suspension of disbelief is not an option. It can’t be an option to me, because I know you can be so much more than the illusion.


You mean the world to me, both virtual and real. I know you can be better, and take what you learn in this virtual world, and apply it to make a better real world. It all start with you, and how you choose to make your virtual world, and also (more importantly) how you choose your intentions going in and coming out.


A mirror is only a reflection of ourselves, but not a perfect reflection.So, too we have the same situation with virtual worlds. It is the opposite of our real lives, and a projection of the things we want, desire, and wish to be. When you balance the two, instead of choosing one or the other, you’ll find a motivation to be better in both worlds, and that they can be interchangeable if you are willing to raise your standards and offer honest intentions.


This is our world, both real and virtual. We’ve made the virtual world what we want it to be, and now we know what we want our real world to be as well. The problem is, it’s not as easy in the real world… we can’t just move a slider and be what we want. In the real world, perfect is hard – that’s why it’s the thing we all strive for (and often miss) – to be better. In the virtual world it’s a mirror situation, because perfection is implied and imperfection is what many people strive for.


In the end it’s really just about authenticity.


For the good of the virtual world and for the good of the real world – I believe you can be better.


Some day soon, I hope that I’m not the only one asking the following question:


It’s not a matter of where you go and what you do in virtual worlds with each other. It’s about where you go and what you do from there with each other that truly counts.


So when I say “There is no sex in Second Life, only pornographic prose in essay form” – you’re either in the cave insisting otherwise and that it has deeper meaning, or you’re on the outside looking in and agreeing with me. That’s the Allegory of the Prim. I wasn’t looking for anyone to agree or disagree when I said it, I was waiting to see if anyone understood the premise of why I said it. I already knew there would be people who disagreed wholeheartedly and would tell me the shadows mean more, and that there would be people who would agree with what I had said.


It was never an either/or statement. It means only this:


Do you believe in the shadows, or do you believe in more? Can the shadows lead you to more if you let it? Will you settle for only the shadows, or are you strong enough to demand more of the people you interact with – virtually or otherwise?


I know the answer already. I’m just waiting for the people I care most about to wake up from their dream and be more.


That’s the funny thing about dreams… they stay dreams until you make them a reality. But it’s never going to happen until you’re brave enough to step from the shadows.