Technological Reinvention and a Utopia Built on Lies

We live in an era that lends itself readily to deception.

Throughout history people have always been able to start afresh. Before closed-circuit cameras, telephones, and vast volumes of stared personal data, simply moving to another town where your name and history were unknown would suffice. Whether a Don Draper type seeking to create his own version of the Horatio Alger myth or a George Wickham seeking to escape a bad reputation, re-inventing one’s identity by moving away was a common theme.

I’ve always suspected that part of the allure of the Empire was the very real possibility of being able to invent a new identity for oneself. Once imperialism was in full swing, it was usually better to be somewhere other than Britain. The discoveries of America, South Africa and Oceania began a mass exodus to the settlement colonies that has never quite ceased or been reversed. Going to India (if one managed not to die of disease, get mauled by a tiger, or be torched in an uprising) caused a marked increase in standard of living. Why struggle to earn a living as a lawyer or public servant in rainy England when you could be an imperial hero in the Niger delta? Why be a middle-class woman running a full house with the help of only one servant when you could be a memsahib with 15 servants to wash your feet, prepare your food, look after your children, and fan you all day long?

What’s different about today is that the Internet allows us to exist both in the “real world” as we are generally perceived and to create an idealistic version of ourselves online at the same time – what amounts to two entirely different identities being lived simultaneously. No longer does one have to cut ties completely. It is inventing oneself anew on a scale unprecedented.

I find Second Life a fascinating social study into what life would be like if created from nothing, without the boundaries of reality. In the past, even if one moved and started again, s/he was still subject to the inexorable dimensions of life: basic appearance, gender, education, and the need to conform to existing societal norms in order to survive. From the little exposure I’ve had to Second Life, this is not the case: women re-invent themselves as leaders of misogynistic sex slave operations; law-abiding citizens create serial killer alter egos; human users are not bound even by species, and become flying animal-machine hybrids.

Is it a harmless outlet for real life desires, and one that can prevent their release in reality? Or is it dangerous, habit-forming behaviour? Once your online persona gets a taste of the money and power to be gained from being a drug kingpin, what is to stop you attempting to live the very same lifestyle in reality?

But it’s also fascinating on a broader level because, from what I’ve seen, the vast majority of Second Life personas are attractive – and when you’re creating your own reality, why not be? It’s interesting to see what a society could be like when created by many individuals of, presumably, above-average intelligence all looking and behaving as they would ideally want to, working in any profession they choose to, and living outside of the boundaries of reality. No wonder it has grown exponentially in the past 5 years.

It’s like a technological Utopia, free of all of tyranny, repression, discrimnation, and conformity. It’s what people hoped the Internet would be waaaaaay back in the late 1990s. I wonder what problems exist in Second Life that do not exist in the real world. What real-world problems do exist? Are there custodians? Are there movie stars? Does Second Life even work like that? And is it really free of discrimination and enforced conformity, or are the social norms it creates just as binding as those AFK*? When there is no real money, is there any point in being wealthy? When there is no evolutionary imperative to reproduce, why bother to be attractive?

*That’s computer geek for “away from keyboard.”

So it’s time for full disclosure: I’ve not used Second Life myself (but the CSI: NY episode about it was phenomenal). Has anybody else? What was your experience? Is it better than reality? And do you think interpersonal interactions lose their authenticity and therefore some of their potency when there’s a technological mediator (i.e. a computer) between them?

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