Saturday, 13 September 2014

The continuation of division

How Second Life and everything else internet has failed us – or we have failed it.

Those of us old enough, wise enough or, essentially, unhinged enough to have seen between the cracks of this big brick wall we call ‘society’ will likely long ago have worked out that there’s no such thing as the new product that will make everything better; nor will there ever be.  The next new iPhone, we’ve realised, will not cure the world of ill and it won’t do a single thing for an individual that even the most ardent of Apple fanbois would select to look back upon fondly in his very last moment of life.  Likewise the next Xbox and the next PlayStation and whatever it is that Nintendo does next.  Likewise, in all probability, the Oculus Rift.  Likewise Second Life 2.

All of these next-big-thing bandwagons, we’ve realised, are essentially just the dressed-up treadmill of capitalism, the soap opera gift-wrap to the requirement that we endlessly buy things in order to keep everything (and everyone) working.  This is no big revelation anymore.  Even the machinery of capitalism itself no longer tries to conceal it from us; there is no need.  It turns out that most of us are no more turned off from buying things when the inner guts of consumerism are exposed than we are from eating bacon when we learn it comes from pigs.

How we love looking forward to our next big tech, just the same.  The rumours.  The anticipation.  The debates.  The reviews.  That we know (in the same way that know the Earth orbits the sun and not the other way round) that this is all just an endless loop and that this time next year it’ll be something else we’re looking forward to diminishes our enjoyment of it not one jot.  I’m not being cynical here: I enjoy it all as much as the next moderately IT-informed human being.  And I’m not saying either that no things created are transformational, just that they’re not really transformational enough.

The computer, for example, has been transformational; I still marvel at word processing.  The Internet has been transformational and I still marvel at email and the speed with which I can pull information from the web on just about any topic in a matter of seconds.  Perhaps the most transformational thing of all about the Internet, however, is the communication it opens up with other people.  It was inconceivable when I was growing up in the seventies and eighties that we would in the not-to-distant future be able to speak with people all over the world for as long as we wanted and for free – let alone video chat with them.  Even throughout most of the nineties this seemed unlikely.  Today, it is more-or-less taken for granted.

Second Life, in its admittedly rather clunky fashion – although I have no doubt this will be improved upon in its next incarnation – takes this one step further: In SL, we can actually do things alongside people who are hundreds or even thousands of miles away from us.  We can create together.  We can perform together.  We can watch things together.  We can shop together.  We can just sit together if we want to in a café or a living room or a town square or an open field and talk.  It is astonishing the boundaries that the metaverse enables us to transcend.

In theory.

If I could travel back in time to make a visit to my teenaged self and describe to him the world’s technology today, I wonder what he would say?  Let’s suppose I arrived in early November 1983 when, unbeknownst to most of us at the time, the world came within a button’s press of World War III.  Nuclear annihilation was something I thought about a great deal in those days and it sobers me to think that there are in all likelihood a great many parallel universes in which Soviet nerve did not hold out and the world really did end that week.  On 7 November 1983, Uptown Girl by Billy Joel was at number one in the UK music charts (incidentally, the first seven inch single I ever bought) and Islands in the stream by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton topped the US Billboard Hot 100.  In the news, a bomb was exploded by a terrorist group at the United States Senate (no-one was killed).  It was a Monday.  I would likely have spent the evening playing on my ZX Spectrum computer.  Can you remember what you were doing that day?

In truth, right then I was only just becoming aware of the nuclear threat and the likelihood is I was far more preoccupied with what was happening in Doctor Who than I was with world affairs (after all, the twentieth anniversary special, The Five Doctors, was just a couple of weeks away).  If the button had been pushed, I would likely not have understood what was going on (not that I would have had all that much time to digest it), which is probably how it should be for a twelve year old boy.  Even so, if a forty-something me from the future had turned up to talk about the internet and things like Second Life, I like to think that I would have worked out pretty quickly that a consequence of all that incredible communication potential had to be that people were finally managing to get along together.  Well, wouldn’t it?

But, in 2014, despite all these transformational advances well beyond the scope of what most of us who were around 30 years ago could have dreamed of, we’re still about as far away from that dream, it seems, as perhaps we’ve ever been.  As nationalism sweeps across Europe (the rise of the UK Independence Party in the UK is only one example of this), as Russia takes what many feel to be the first of many calculated steps to come in rebuilding the former Soviet Union, as the US is slowly torn in two by increasing political polarisation, as Islamic State – arguably the love-child of the Blair-Bush legacy – bring unspeakable brutality to the middle east, I’m waiting for the moment when people on big stages start asking the question, Why?  How has it come to this?  How have we not yet moved on from here?  Why have we not made some sort of progress when we have all this incredible technology?

It’s too easy to blame just the politicians.  As an inclusive humanist, I have long been waiting for the world leader who has the courage to explicitly make decisions based on the world’s interests rather than “this country’s interests” (whatever that country might be), but I’m not so naïve as to believe that such a person wouldn’t be voted out of power at the very next chance his or her electorate got.  It’s too easy to blame the people of the press, who sicken me on a weekly basis with their seeming quest to make us angrier and angrier and angrier; it is us, at the end of the day, who buy their newspapers and sustain this.  It’s too easy to blame parents.  It’s too easy to blame schools.  It’s too easy to blame capitalism.  It is all of these things together – and more – and the whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts.

And yet, it’s really not so complicated.  All we have to do – all of us – is be better at empathising with others and exercising compassion.  That’s it.  That’s all we have to do.  Pretty much every single disagreement I’ve ever been witness to has involved one or both sides being unable to understand how the other is thinking and feeling. 

In recent months, I’ve become excited in my anticipation of yet another potentially transformational moment to be brought about by technology.  Over the last couple of decades, our knowledge of planets beyond the solar system has exploded: as of 1 September 2014, we know of over 1,800 worlds, with new ones being discovered at an astonishing rate.  We have the Keplar telescope to thank for much of this, a $500m NASA spacecraft that enables astronomers to identify planets when they move between us and their native star.  Like so many NASA missions, its operational life has already far exceeded its planned life expectancy and the data being returned has enabled estimates on the number of potentially life-supporting worlds in our galaxy (calculated from the percentage of solar systems which have planets of a certain size orbiting their sun at a distance which would expose them to a comparable amount of solar radiation to Earth – it turns out this is about 20%); currently, this number is thought to be in the billions.  This analysis has become increasingly refined and new techniques are being devised which will allow analysis of the atmospheres of these planets.  One such technique will enable astronomers to detect the presence of chemicals known not to exist naturally in the universe.  When the day comes that a world with these chemicals in its atmosphere is identified, we will have discovered proof of intelligent life on another planet.  There is a growing confidence amongst scientists that we will have this proof within the next twenty years.

Perhaps this discovery will be the catalyst that changes human thinking from ‘me’ to ‘us’.  For many years – perhaps decades; perhaps centuries – we won’t know anything about these civilisations other than that they exist.  We won’t be able to communicate with them (the distance will be far too great); we won’t know what the people of these planets look like or what they eat or how their homes are or what their art is like: we will only know that they are there.  We will only know that we are not all that there is any more.  We will only know that all of us on this planet are one thing – human – and that there are now other beings we know of who are not this thing.  We might finally start to identify with the people we previously hated.

And yet it’s so terribly lazy to pin all one’s hopes to a magic solution from a far-away place; as a writer, I can’t help but feel I’m just hoping for a deus ex machine to pop out of thin air and rescue us all, and that I should be shamed for the very thought by having my pencils taken away.  And even if it happens, it might in any case turn out to be no more transformational a moment in the long term than was the release of the Nintendo Wii; humans are incredibly wedded to their prejudices.

But something has to happen if we’re going to survive.  We can’t just continue with our them-and-us mindsets indefinitely and expect things to all work out somehow.  Every single time we call someone a jerk or take sides or add to the polarisation of a debate; every time we make it harder for people to rethink their positions and meet us (or others) in the middle ground, every time we collude with the idea that one side is right and the other is wrong, we only end up digging ourselves deeper and deeper and deeper.  It isn’t easy, but neither is it complicated.  I don’t really know how Second Life could help us build some of these bridges, but I still believe that it has the potential.  It’s not going to be a menu option, however, or a HUD you can buy on the Marketplace.  All SL can do is provide the opportunity. 

Whilst I’ve been writing this article, the former Northern Ireland First Minister Ian Paisley has passed away.  Dr Paisley was a big man who, for many years, placed himself in an entrenched position over the future of Northern Ireland.  His later decision to fight for peace and share power with his former bitter enemies was a turning point for the Northern Ireland peace process and the key moment for which he is being celebrated now in the media.  Peace is never without pain, and Northern Ireland remains a stark example of this.  But peace is peace, and we have to fight for it.  If we don’t, the eventual alternative will be so much worse than whatever wounds we have right now. 

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