Second Life, First Principles

I read this article on the New York Times web site the other day: Even in a Virtual World, ‘Stuff’ Matters

It's about the virtual world Second Life. That link, by the way, is for the Wikipedia entry for Second Life, which was inspired by the Metaverse in the Neal Stephenson novel Snow Crash. Yeah, that's a lot of links, but I think you'll find them very helpful for understanding what virtual worlds are, what they can do now and more importantly, what they may be capable of doing in the future. Snow Crash, by the way, was an excellent novel, but it's not for everyone; if you don't like science fiction in general and the 1990s cyberpunk genre in particular, it may leave you cold.

As the New York Times' article indicates, human nature is the same even in a virtual world. People want to create things, people want to acquire things, and people want to acquire status as well. I was amused by the academic's lament about this:
“Why can’t we break away from a consumerist, appearance-oriented culture?” said Nick Yee, who has studied the sociology of virtual worlds and recently received a doctorate in communication from Stanford. “What does Second Life say about us, that we trade our consumerist-oriented culture for one that’s even worse?”
The answer is that it says that we are human, and that "consumerist appearance-oriented culture" is our innate human nature. Political systems that try to deny that reality, such as communism, inevitably have to try to suppress it. So far, they haven't been successful in creating a New Soviet Man who has no desire to buy things. They only created an environment where there was nothing to buy in the stores, and a five-year waiting list to buy anything remotely worthwhile (unless you were an apparatchik, of course).

And what is Second Life, anyway? As the Wikipedia entry notes:
While Second Life is sometimes referred to as a game, this description is disputed. It does not have points, scores, winners or losers, levels, an end-strategy, or most of the other characteristics of games, though it can be thought of as a game on a more basic level. It is a semi-structured virtual environment where characters undertake activities for the purpose of personal enjoyment.
In a way, it's kind of like the computer game The Sims, where the player purchases houses and furnishings in order to keep his Sims happy. More expensive items make them happier. In the case of Second Life, though, the experience isn't just about upgrading the costume of your avatar or building and furnishing a virtual house. There are many other things that the virtual world allows, and with human ingenuity and the law of unexpected consequences, it seems highly likely that new applications will arise that were not originally planned. For instance, some universities are offering virtual college classes on islands that they have purchased for that purpose. Virtual concerts and art galleries allow a creative outlet for musicians and artists, and a chance for them to show off their skills in a virtual world in order to sell their music and art in the real world.

The technology still isn't quite up to Stephenson's Metaverse, but that may not be far off. When the time arrives that you can slip on a pair of Virtual Reality goggles that give you 360 degree 3D-vision and stereo sound, then you'll be able to move beyond just watching 3D-graphics on a flat-screen monitor. We won't even go into the possibilities involving virtual adult programming, or the virtual reality devices that will likely go with it. Let's just say that it will be a "killer application," one that when it goes online will make someone as rich as Bill Gates.