Saturday, December 22, 2007

How an unalienated IYan Writer got his avatar

An explanation * IYan recounts the days of yore * joy in a small black box * joy in a big beige box * the cycle of communication and content * finishing words

First, some background. My last few days in Second Life were a blast, re-enchanting me with the virtual worlds and their denizens. I've been moved by a musical immersion spectacle and a shining example of a community having fun and at the same time helping those in need. I made a watermellon-colored pony eat snow and got it rubbed in the face by his Linden allies. But I have also had more than my share of RL discussions on the theme of "Technology and how it alienates us", which always frustrate me. That is why I wanted to write a post about all the great things technology brings us - but the introduction turned out to be a story in itself. To rez two prims with one click, consider this also a reply to the 8 Things Meme - I got tagged by Sophrosyne last week.

The 70s *shudder*

It's confession time: I'm old. Not Rolling Stones old, but old enough to remember a world of analogue pulse-dialing telephones with electrical buzzers, where the closest thing to a computer was my father's HP calculator with glowing red digits. It could be coaxed into simulating a lunar lander by simple expedient of tapping in program commands for a few hours. The save feature wasn't there, of course, and I never managed to actually land the thing without crashing, but that didn't stop me from inputting the commands over and over again.

Archaeological specimens from the Electronic stone age

Things got better, though. First, the home computing revolution hit our living room with a space-agey Sinclair ZX Spectrum (many a geek gets misty-eyed when thinking about this black plastic box with its rubber keys). As we lived in a then-communist then-state, the herald of the future arrived to our house hidden in a trunk of a German friend of the family, who smuggled it across the border. Years of fun ensued, from typing in 30K long programs (which always had an obscure error or two in them) and playing A LOT of games, to purchasing pirated cassettes and attending programming classes. To this day, the command POKE 23609,255 is etched into my memory.

Bronze age fossils

With the advent of the late 80s, the PC revolution arrived - again mostly in car trunks or under the seats. Before I could call a PC my own, I would sometimes persuade my mother to let me come to work, play games on their computer and read and read about DOS and PCs. I was probably the only person in the world to have written an extremely complex branching .BAT (DOS command batch) file before I even had a PC. I wrote it down in a notebook, and, of course, never actually used it. When I finally had one, BASIC gave way to Turbo Pascal (and my masterpiece, a half finished space invaders game with a single enemy ship) and Chuckie Egg to Leisure Suit Larry and Defender of the crown. However, it was a purchase of a single computer component that shaped most of my later life and fundamentally changed the way I used my computer and interacted with others. It was, of course, the modem.

Iron age fossil and a simple signaling device

The first few nights after I installed the modem were spent dialing Bulletin Board Systems near and far. I would fill out the questionnaires, required to get an account (new user Qs came with the BBS software and were almost never changed or checked by system administrators or SysOps), download shareware and freeware games (most all sucked), but the thing that fascinated me the most were the message boards. I discovered a thriving community - and I wanted to be a part of it. I set up my own BBS and ran it for a few years, moderated groups, joined FidoNet (2:380/110) and had a great time debating and arguing on-line and getting together periodically for a beer fest.

Fragment of an ancient transmission

A year or two later, I managed to procure a VAX/VMS username that allowed me to use the DECNET via X.29 to connect to a (supposedly) US Army outdial modem (they were located in practically every state and unsecured) to dial local USA BBS-es, use Gopher and QSD chat. The pattern emerged: after a new communication tech became available, I would first use it for content. Yes, porn too. Downloading, however, soon got boring and I would seek out others in the new medium. I would then cheerfully proceed to argue with them and explain that they simply haven't got a clue, but hey, it still counts as communication :)

After the arrival of Internet, SLIP and Mosaic, the sky was the limit. The personal homepage phenomenon arrived, with everybody and his dog having a Geocities home page. I believe you know the rest of the internet story, so I will not bore you with details.


Each new method of communication would bring a wealth of new content. Each time, I would dive into new content - but, time after time, the need for companionship would drag me back from the solitary Download zone. It was the same with Second Life: the first few months, I wandered around the sims, going Oooh and Aaah and rarely speaking to people. Now, talking to people is what I do most and like best - and I rely on other persistant wanderers to tell me about really special stuff they've found.

So what about this alienation, then? The alienation, caused by technology, is and was real. However, television and radio were the technologies that alienated us the most. We were passive receptacles of content, created and selected by others. But this state is not natural to us: all humans strive to change and affect the environment - that is the very definition of human (and, unfortunately, our greatest failure, as the sad state of Earth testifies). As soon as technology that promised to connect us to others was available, we grasped it with both hands, pulled and haven't let go since. And the level of alienation keeps dropping - for example, you can be alienated on a web forum, but must try hard (trolling ain't easy!). However, that is practically impossible in virtual worlds.

Second Life is not about shopping, company builds or even content, created for and freely given to community. No, it's not even about prim hair, girls. No, not wings, either, Soph ;) It is about PEOPLE. You can be disliked, but you are never alone.


Faerie said...

Well, I agree SL is all about socialising, and the number of avatars logged in at anytime means you are never alone in world, but that doesn't mean SL isn't often a lonely place to be.

IYan Writer said...

Hi Faerie!

It can be, especially on a deserted company build - but companionship is always just a mouse click away in Second Life. A lot of people wish that it would be so easy in RL..

PS: Love the mermaid avatar :)

Fleep said...

Nice trip down memory lane, made me feel old! I'm a BBS refugee too and I jotted down some thoughts about my transition to SL and Web 2.0 from previous technologies that also focuses on the social aspects, but it was especially interesting to read about your experiences in a country were the technology was less accessible.

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