Saturday, 25 June 2011

Happy Birthday Second Life

Audioboo  Listen to Huck reading this post

The significance of SL's eight birthday must surely be that we're now closer to the tenth birthday than the fifth. Last year, it would have been reasonable to look at the 'value added,' two years on from five, rather than get distracted too much by the monolith that is ten lurking on the other side of the visible horizon. But, with the passing of 'eight years old,' ten is now in sight and we can avert our gaze no longer. True, we might need a sturdy set of binoculars to spot it at this distance, but it's unmistakably there – a tiny little blob on the skyline, waiting for us with its smug arms folded and a fat cigar wedged between its grinning teeth.

Is there any point in speculating on the question, 'What will SL be like in two years' time?' Probably not. Personally, I think it likely it won't be a great deal different than it is today. This is not to detract from such developments as mesh, depth of field and shadows – and whatever two or three new enhancements are delivered by then (I'm counting on avatar physics being extended to male genitalia, myself) – these are all well and good, and I'm sure we'll all have much fun ignoring them completely whilst we continue to crucify Linden for its viewer strategy. But will my hours per evening spent in front of the computer feel qualitatively different then from the hours I spent back in 2007? I doubt it very much. If graphical complexity mattered that much to me, I'd have thrown my sculpted prim oar in years ago and gone and bought myself an X-Box.

Not that I'm saying it doesn't matter, of course. It matters a great deal, particularly to many of the newcomers to SL, who imagine it to be, I suppose, the peacetime equivalent of Call of Duty; a world where the dust of virtual warfare might well be settled, but you could still write your name in it with your finger if you chose to do so. The fact that every last texture in SL has to be downloaded from a distant server, rather than springing majestically into high definition action from the nearby cosiness of a hard drive, tends rather to be lost on gaming veterans and offers little compensation for the wheezy, delayed arrival of a brick texture that was not only late but had to sit down for a rest and a restorative cup of tea when it got here. And therein lies the problem: no advances in mesh or lighting or bouncy body parts can possibly lure to our world any person expecting the full-on graphic immediacy of modern 3D gaming. It's not Linden's fault that internet and server speeds aren't yet up to the standard required of such an experience, but this truth will be neither apparent nor of interest to the newcomer who drops by one day because they've “always been meaning to find out what this Second Life thing is all about” and ends up concluding that it “doesn't seem to work very well.”

Because the thing that would actually make SL feel different would be if more people were using it. By which I mean enough people that the words 'second life' no longer carry with them that conditioned response involving a badly concealed smirk and an almost irrepressible desire on my part to use the physical intervention of my fist with which to effect its removal. Accompanied, I hasten to add, by the slightly hysterically shrieked question, “If your real life is so fucking wonderful, why exactly do you piss away so much of it in front of the TV?” That's what really irritates me. If Barack Obama wanted to dress me down for a life less meaningfully lived then that would be fair play, but how exactly is a TV diet of 'Ugly Betty,' 'X Factor' and Channel Four's 'Embarrassing bodies' a safe platform from which to launch judgements upon the quality of my social interactions?

These, then, are the two elements of SL which probably won't have changed by June 2013: the non-users' bafflement over its appeal and our own general reluctance to defend it in any manner that roughly approximates 'assertive'. Whatever new embellishments come along between now and then, life inworld for most of us will be as much the guilty pleasure of a secret cigarette as it was when we first looked past the technological limitations and realised there was something to this virtual world. The visible hooks just aren't apparent to the rest of the human population: they weren't then; they're not now and they won't be in two years time. Unless...

Unless something unexpected happens. Because unexpected developments are how internet evolution occurs. These random mutations, these out-of-the-blue fluctuations in mainstream attentiveness are the stumbling, slightly drunken footsteps that have come to characterise the online 'march' of progress. If the right match is struck in the right place at the right time; if the right SL something manages to catch the interest of the general public, then it'll suddenly be big. It could be a YouTube video that just happens to use metaverse graphics. It could be a song that just happens to be about virtual relationships. It could be a novel that just happens to be set in SL.

Let's suppose its the latter. In fact, let's suppose it's one of my novels. Here's my plan: if you want SL to make it big in the future – and you do want SL to make it big in the future, don't you? - do your bit and buy my novels today.  More importantly, buy extra copies to give to all your friends, not forgetting to prefix the giving of these generous gifts with the phrase, “I thought you might like a copy of that book that everyone's been talking about.”

You're welcome, Second Life. Many Happy Returns.

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