Monday, 10 December 2012

The End Is Nigh

Here's my December column for AVENUE magazine.  Photography this month is by Natasja Schumann.

December 2012 marks the last of the possible predicted dates that I’m aware of for The End Of The World. By the time you read this, in fact – depending on whether or not AVENUE makes it to press on time – the event will be either just a few days away (December 21, I’m led to understand) or happened sometime last week. In the latter case, I will assume your leisurely article reading behaviour to imply that the world did not, in fact, end – hurrah! (Unless, of course, it did end and your radioactive, disease-ridden, post-apocalyptic corpse-in-waiting is spending its last few moments of life reading words laid down in a happier time; in which case, sorry about my attempts at clever sarcasm, I expect I look like a bit of an idiot now).

I can’t recall if this date is meant to be the planetary alignment thing or the sudden appearance of Planet X or CERN creating a home-made black hole. Whichever of these it is, I’m hoping that – should the worst turn out to be true – we Brits will have enough moments remaining with which to crack a few dry jokes about the irony of it all. Something linking Armageddon to our Olympic success and/or lifted spirits in 2012. That’ll teach us to be at peace with our post-colonial identity! Better still would be if the Definite End came with at least a week’s notice – enough time for the topic to make its way into the current affairs comedy panels and satire broadcasts on the telly.

Of course, just as landing is a more positively experienced event to those of us with a fear of flying, the upside of a belief that the world is about to end must be the nice surprise you get if it doesn’t. Whilst I do understand that one might look a bit of a Charlie under such circumstances – particularly if you spent your time nagging friends and relatives about their post-apocalyptic preparations (anyone who, accordingly, labelled themselves a ‘PAP Buddy’ may hang their head in shame that little bit longer) – it strikes me that this is the kind of thing it’s generally pretty nice to be wrong about, not to mention it’s unlikely anyone will hold it against you.

Or will they? What if you persuaded your friend to sell his house to raise funds for your enlightened leafleting campaign or to just to have that final, month-long orgy of sex, drugs and alcohol. (Personally, if I knew with a certainly that the world was about to end, there’s a £250,000 working replica of the 1960s Batmobile with my name on it that I’d be asking my mother to remortage her house for; might as well have a bit of fun whilst there’s still time left to have it in.) What then, when the dust settles – or rather, doesn’t – and the inconsiderately still existing bank requires its debt to be paid? What about the people you convinced to sever their life-long emotional attachment to, well, life, who threw themselves off a picturesque cliff rather than wait to be witness to the planet being crunched down into something smaller than a pea by the black hole those smug scientists so laughingly assured us “would never happen”?

In fairness, with The End Of The World just a handful of weeks away at the time of writing, I’m not currently aware of any mass preparatory suicides or partying like-it’s-1999 going on, so it seems reasonable to assume that the majority of people have decided their investment in life to be sufficiently big that they’ll hang around come the end of December to see what happens rather than do anything rash right now. Which is good. And no, by the way: the metaphor I’m constructing here is not about global warming being a myth we’ll all look back on in years to come with egg well and truly dripping from our faces; if that should all turn out to be a red herring, we’ll still be better off for all the improvements in renewable energies because coal and oil are finite and will run out one day.

The metaphor I’m constructing is, of course, about Second Life®. A lot has been said over the last twelve months about its imminent demise; we’ve all been told to pack what we can from our inventories and make like refugees to the new worlds of InWorldz and OpenSim. Private land is disappearing from SL faster than Mitt Romney can pack his binders full of women, we hear. Linden itself is raiding its own wine cellar and putting its assets into every last idea it can conceive of, blithely ignoring that long-established commercial principle that companies who refuse to diversify as their product ages are certain to achieve success and longevity. “The (virtual) End Is Nigh!” the blogosphere is crying, “Save yourselves!”

And yet, on those occasions when I dip back into SL, it’s still there. It’s still working. My friends list shows many of my friends still online (sorry for not saying hi, by the way). And, meanwhile, it looks more stunning than I ever remember it looking when I was a regular user. Mesh, it seems, has really started to make an impact: not only do individual items look amazing, but their lower prim count (sorry to use such ancient terminology, but expecting an old-timer like me to adopt new units of measurement at this stage is a bit like me expecting my mother to start using metric) means they are plentiful and the virtual world looks more pleasantly packed with detail than it’s ever looked before. Meanwhile, I’ve been to InWorldz a few times too. It would be true to say that there are aspects of InWorldz that I find impressive; beyond the vague nostalgia it evokes for my early years in SL, however, its visual appeal is not one of them. As for OSGrid, I have to confess that I aborted my plans on creating an account there when the home page of its website informed me that in this, the future of the metaverse, there were currently less than a hundred users online.

I do believe – as I wrote two months ago in this column – that the future of the metaverse is bigger than SL; OpenSim might well be part of this (I can’t deny that the idea of being able to create my own sim on my own computer is appealing). This isn’t at all my attempt to produce my own counter-argument. It’s just that I can’t quite avoid the feeling that there’s an awful lot of cutting off of noses to spite faces going on right now. SL is more gorgeous than it’s ever been – a place we would have drooled over just a couple of years ago – and yet our anger appears to be driving us away. We are denying ourselves enjoyment of a beautiful place and the experience of beautiful moments. All because we feel hard done by.

And my End Of The World metaphor breaks down in a crucial place with respect to SL: enough people jumping over cliffs won’t actually bring about the end of the world in RL. But it will in SL.

Apart from The End Of The World, December also plays host to that annual occasion of Christmas, a season which – as I wrote last year – I enjoy very much in its pixel implementation. I’ve not been a regular in SL for quite a while now, but, as the season approaches, I find myself looking forward to exploring it inworld once again. Christmas was the first season I experienced in SL and I recall very vividly its pre-mesh, pre-sculpty realisation. I can only imagine what the creative minds and talents of the SL community will do with it six years later in 2012. Just writing this paragraph is building my anticipation.

The UK illusionist and hypnotist Derren Brown recently hosted a two-part TV programme in which he convinced a volunteer that the world had ended in order to get him to appreciate the life he already had. In the publicity for his show, Brown talked about the secret of happiness as desiring the things that you already have, a reference to the current studies in psychology that link emotional wellbeing to gratitude. I am grateful to SL, and I’m grateful that it’s still around and looking better than it’s ever looked before. I know it probably won’t last. I know there are issues with the way in which it’s been managed. But, ultimately, I’m more grateful that it exists than angry that it’s not better. If I had never before experienced it and got introduced to it for the first time on Christmas day, I would find it an overwhelmingly wonderful Christmas present.

So I’m going to continue to enjoy Second Life whilst I can. To those of you who secretly wish that it would die so that your declarations of its demise can be retrospectively ratified: be careful what you wish for; you might just get it.

Have a good End Of The World if it happens. And have a peaceful Christmas if it doesn’t.

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