The Second Coming of … Life

The enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject.

– Walter Benjamin

Art matters. Whether new schools of painting or filmmaking, or the invention of new media itself, both static and moving images change the way humans have seen the world.

Yet times have changed from the photography, motion pictures, and reproducible art that impressed viewers in the 1930s, and today the computer is king. It wasn’t, however, until the release of Linden Labs’ Second Life (2003) – an Internet-based virtual world program in which users (“Residents”) can do almost anything they can do in real life – that I began to think seriously about how computer software could change human perception.

Princeton, meanwhile, has also been quick on the uptake. Recently, the Educational Technologies Center has begun to experiment with Second Life as a means to supplement Blackboard and Almagest and improve learning at Princeton. I was interested in Second Life and its relation to art. So I sat down one day with Janet Temos ’82, GS ’01, the Director of the ETC who is also trained as an architectural historian, to talk about the prospects for Second Life at Princeton and its effect on art.

TN: When you graduated from Princeton in 1982, how did administration for courses work? IfSecond Life is going to be a new way for students to “do” Princeton, what was the analogue then, to what you hope Second Life will become?

JT: Well, there were some people then playing Dungeons and Dragons. That was pretty much it. The only people using computers were in Computer Science. Everybody else, you had a typewriter, and you had your white-out, and it was a horrible process. I was a terrible typist, and it was marked off against you if you had white-out on your page, and it was a thriving industry of female typists around Princeton.

TN: From the typewriter to this. How does one communicate in Second Life?

JT: There’s various ways to communicate here. Many people just type, because they don’t want to reveal their voice. Privacy is a major issue here. It’s actually illegal, it’s a service violation if you reveal to anyone else in the game, anything that isn’t revealed in their profile. So I can see mine by clicking on me; if there were another person, I could click on them and see theirs. There used to be a reputation system here, too, where you rank people according to their trustworthiness?

TN: With the trustworthiness, how did that work?

JT: Well, mostly it was friends rating friends, or people rating themselves, but it used to be on your skill as a builder, the level of help you gave to other people … you know, it was pretty much how nice you were. You could rate people positively or negatively. And there was a small charge for doing it. It was pretty much a friend networking thing. So they decided it wasn’t worth it and they got rid of it.

TN: And so within Persis’ [Ms. Temos’ avatar] profile, what’s the level of information about her?

JT: Very little. You can look at the groups I belong to and probably have a fair idea of where I work, because I belong to “Princeton Academic Services,” “Princeton Alumni in Second Life,” “Princeton Campus Community,” “Princeton Guest,” “Princeton Build Team,” and I also have this Cornell membership here, so I would assume that anyone who looks at this would assume I have something to do with higher education.

TN: And what’s this here about “First Life?”

JT: Some people reveal exactly who they are, so it’s a place for a real photo. Most people there just say something like, “it’s a secret,” or “don’t go there.” The best one I’ve ever seen said, “my real life doesn’t have an off button, it’s not pretty, don’t go there.” But again, it depends why you’re here. There’s no reason why I don’t have my personal information here. It’s just that, like the cobbler’s children, I never got around to filling out my profile.

TN: Right.

JT: And I work with some people who don’t reveal their information, so I thought, you know…

TN: But it’s punishable, you said, or, it was, or is punishable to say more about yourself than is revealed in your profile?

JT: You can say more about yourself, but if I would confide it to you in this world, you wouldn’t be allowed to tell somebody else that. That would be just between us. People confide in each other, you build trust, you form friendships. But for many people, this is a self-exploration tool and they don’t really want themselves revealed.

TN: Right…

JT: And, you know, we’re working on role-playing right now for — I can show you in a minute – the Japanese Department would like to make role-playing so that the students can assume different personae, because one thing they find very difficult to grasp is the forms of polite address, you know, if you are younger, how you address an older person, or if you are a subordinate, how you address your superior. So we’re making eight different avatars of different age and social statuses in a business setting so that people can practice the gestures and the forms of speech. I believe that will be an interesting project. And so that’s one way I think that the thing this is made for can be exploited.

TN: I take it with many of the artists and architects who are displaying work – they’re anonymous? I take it they view this as an alternate way to make their work known?

JT: Well, some of them, actually most of them, are artists in real life, and some of them make a very sharp distinction between that and this. So, this artist, even though he tells you who he is on his profile, is in here as a small Japanese woman, although he’s a strapping, big, American guy. And, you know, you refer to him as “her” when you meet “her” here, because she is a she, and that’s who she is. And he says, “I can’t use voice, because my voice doesn’t match who I really am here.” And he doesn’t make any secret about who he really is.

TN: Any examples of interesting architecture?

JT: Over here at MIT, this is a consensus-building thing. So the idea is, there’s a speaker who stands here at the podium, and avatars move to the left if they agree, to the right if they don’t, and as they do, this big line drawn down the middle of the area will slide to the right to show the mean opinion.

TN: What other universities do this well?

JT: Ohio has a particularly good art presence. They have an artist-in-residence who’s been hired to do art in Second Life. They have a red-brick campus, and they have done that quite well. This one here is a very literal representation of their campus, down to the classroom campus, which is something I didn’t bother to do. I don’t want people to sit in classrooms on their computer when they can sit in classrooms on campus. So, I assume this here, for example, is a real building. There’s no other reason to build in this brick style in Second Life. And they have this art exhibition in here, which is really quite nice.

TN: This is Ohio’s artist-in-residence?

JT: He has his real paintings around the perimeter of the exhibit, and he has these panels that you can physically walk through, which is a good way to get around, since avatars are clutzy. But it tells personal narratives – so here’s a photograph he’s used in his work of art, with some narrative about this woman’s story. And some of these are pretty horrific stories, and I realize that as you walk through this identity, you feel like you’re wearing her for a second. I think this is a good use of Second Life. This is real-life art, that hangs in a real-life gallery, but you can’t do things exactly like this, for real.

TN: When you said, ‘no one would build in this style’ – what’s the popular architectural style inSecond Life?

JT: Well, there’s an interesting group called “Not Possible in Real Life.” They’re always pushing the envelope. Like, “why do we need to recreate something we can do quite well in the real world?” This one artist here, I don’t believe he’s an architect in real life, but he has a knack for pushing this interface to its maximum. So, here’s an art gallery. Could you build that? Sure, if you had really gifted contractors. But I was really impressed by this. You come in through a low opening, and there’s a huge atrium. And here’s the Second Life recreation of “The Art of Science” exhibition in the Friend Center and some of the Putnam Collection. And because avatars know how to use their camera, the picture frames are all the way up to the top of the atrium. And people fly up to them or use their camera. You can click on the picture to see more about the work of art, who made it, and where to find out more about it. This is how stores work, too.

TN: What else?

JT: Others are doing “Wiki-architecture,” where a few skilled builders get together and spontaneously collaborate on an architectural composition. There’s someone doing experiments in what he refers to as reflexive architecture, where as you walk through a space, it responds to you. The more people in the room, the room gets bigger. You’re standing on something, the longer you stand on it, it gets higher.

TN: The voting thing was like this, too.

JT: Exactly. So, you know, I was talking to someone yesterday, and the guy whose team developed the voting floor said, “if you’re in a room with a guy giving a lecture, would they vote like this?” And the answer is “no”, because the social pressure is so great. But somehow here, that removed that level of inhibition, because you’re one degree away, and people are in the mood to be experimental, to be forthcoming with their opinions.

TN: What is there beyond architecture?

JT: People are very hungry for serious content here. There’s a lot of talk about the things that go on here, and of course the sexual aspect is something the press has picked up on. There’s a list published every day of the most active places in Second Life. Number One is stores and Number Two is ballroom dancing. So, people have a lot of fun doing these things.

TN: So, I imagine this works like the finger gestures, right? You program yourself to do the waltz or rumba?

JT: Couples’ dances have two different things that the partners both occupy and the thing synchronizes the two together. There’s also individual dances that you can wear, so, let’s say you’re in a place playing rock, you can just dance alone. There’s a variety of ways to do it. There are simple tools, fairly inexpensive, and most clubs have something you can click on and it will animate your character to dance. So if you go to a nightclub, typically there will be a central place where you can click, and everyone there is doing the same dance, which is kind of Stepford Wives-y.

TN: So, what is the place of the traditional lecture here? Do professors use this to change their courses?

JT: No. I don’t see it replacing anything that happens in the classroom here, because we do it so much better in person, but I do see it, instead of just filming these [web media] things and having people look at it online, there’s no reason why we couldn’t have the live event going on here, and also in here. That’s quite easy to do.

TN: So, for example, you would have a professor in McCosh 50, and you would have her avatar in the game, too?

JT: You don’t need to have an avatar, because you can actually screen his physical presence to one of these big screens [in the Second Life world]. So, you can have an avatar if you like, but you don’t need to. You can have the image of the professor screened up to an auditorium in Second Life.

TN: Any final thoughts on Second Life at Princeton?

JT: I like it, you know, because of the grassroots nature. And that’s really the way I see it developing into a platform here, because it extends the notion of social software in a way that makes everyone into a creator. Because the Lindens provide this stuff out here that looks like grass, which is … disk space, all this is, is disk space. And every other thing in here, somebody has made, that’s the way the whole world is. Every thing here is created by a Resident. The Lindens just provide the grass.

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