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Tag: Second Life

This website was archived on July 20, 2019. It is frozen in time on that date.
Exolymph creator Sonya Mann's active website is Sonya, Supposedly.

The Inconvenience of Being Anything Other Than Human

The following post was contributed by John Ohno. You may know know him as @enkiv2 from the Cyberpunk Futurism chat group or the #botALLY chat group. This dispatch serves as somewhat of a correction to my previous mentions of Second Life — here and here — for which I am grateful.

John provides more hands-on details about the logistics of virtual self-representation. He did want to add this caveat: “I haven’t even been on Second Life since, like, 2012 or 2013, so maybe things have changed. I haven’t been keeping up.” Regardless, his recollection of the process is interesting…

While it’s possible to get non-human avatars in Second Life, doing so is more technically difficult than getting human-shaped ones. Second Life ships with the ability to customize within the range of pretty human-shaped avatars, but all non-human ones are third-party extensions that frequently break when Linden Labs makes upgrades. Ultimately those extensions are fairly expensive and not very customizable, because of the cost to upload meshes.

At normal exchange rates, it costs about a dollar to upload a texture and a dollar to upload a mesh. An interesting avatar might require three or four new textures and a couple of meshes. Most people are unwilling to pay that and equally unwilling make the 3D-modeling effort in the first place. If somebody else does it for you then you end up with a mass-produced avatar that can’t be customized.

You see a similar pattern on the open grid, where there aren’t any actual monetary costs for uploads, so I think the barrier is just effort and lack of customization.

Linden Labs’ business model is designed around exchange with the in-game economy, and the primary method they have for forcing people to participate economically is to charge for uploads of certain types of content. There are a lot of things that you can do in-game without any money. But there are different domains.

Built-in avatar customizations are within the same domain that you’d get in The Sims. You can change your height, breast size, eye size, hair style, nose length, and stuff like that. You can make yourself muscular or skinny. You can change your skin color to any color in the palette. You can wear any built-in or free clothing, or compose your own out of built-in or free textures, of which there are plenty. I used to play as an eight-foot-tall muscular green-skinned guy with red eyes in a leather trench coat, none of which cost me anything.

However, if you want to diverge from the humanoid form, you’re replacing your avatar with an object that isn’t treated as an avatar. Objects can be created in-game for free, but there are resource limits based on the number of “prims” — primitive shapes. When you’re building with prims, you’re stuck with things like spheres and cubes and toruses and pyramids. You can theoretically make anything out of them, but it’s time-consuming and most “sims” (sixty-five square kilometers of land) have an upper limit of a couple hundred prims at a time. If you go over that, prims will disappear or be rejected. So you can’t build something really complex out of prims and wear it unless you expect to be literally the only person or object within sixty-five kilometers.

About ten years after Second Life launched, Linden Labs added a couple mechanisms for getting around prim limits. Both of them involve doing your 3D modeling in some outside program and uploading a file. One is “sculpties”, where you turn a height map into a texture and use it to warp a sphere. The other is “meshes”, where you export a 3D model and import it as a single object, counted separately from prims for resource-usage reasons.

Super-custom avatars are typically made by shrinking or vanishing your human avatar, and then wearing one or more meshes. I’ve seen some cool ones, like Futurama-style heads in jars that float. The head-in-a-jar thing can theoretically be a single mesh and doesn’t require special animations, so that’s fairly cheap — but you need to model somebody’s head. On the other hand, if you want to have a kitten avatar, you’re going to need separate meshes for the legs and tail and upload animations for the walk cycle if you want it to do anything other than glide.

Thank you, John! The takeaway is that supply chains still matter in the virtual world. You can’t design an MMORPG without constraints, and I have to wonder if we’d even enjoy exploring the resultant world if that weren’t true…

Post-Body Identities

Imagine that you can upload your mind into a tiny computer chip. (Or maybe “transport your mind” is a better phrase, since I don’t want to address the gnarliness of a single personality existing in multiple hosts.) Put aside whether this is technically possible — speculating on the topic is useful regardless.

So, your mind is housed in an itsy-bitsy sophisticated machine. That mind-chip can be implanted into anything, right? How about a giraffe’s body? How about a rock? Maybe you want to experience the stillness of a boulder in a mountain stream, like someone on a train whose face isn’t buried in their smartphone.

In this scenario, we have to change our fundamental assumptions about the environment we navigate daily. If every object can be sentient, you must step carefully. You must watch yourself constantly, because you might be watched by someone else. (This is already true to a certain extent, but for the most part other individuals aren’t paying attention to you, especially not without your knowledge.)

I suspect that most people will still want a body. Maybe a more perfect body, with flawless muscles and embedded martial arts knowledge. But they’ll want to represent themselves as humanoid. Look at Second Life — sure, you have furries and aliens and other unhuman creature creations, but they’re outnumbered by hyper-sexed Homo sapiens analogues. (Disclaimer: I’m basing my assumption on Flickr albums of screenshots.) I’ve described this dynamic before:

“What will our avatars look like in a hundred years? Post-gender and post-form, or exactly like the musclebound hunks and bit-titted blondes that titillate today’s Second Life denizens? We mustn’t forget the furries and weaboos, already a significant contingent of any visually oriented social network (which is all of them) (especially 4chan) (maybe they don’t haunt Instagram? idk).”

I still wonder about the world where I can inhabit any container. What will that do to gender? Many of us already acknowledge that a person’s genital configuration does not determine their gender. We have two common phenotypical maps, but people’s brains have claimed many identities beyond “male” and “female”. Bigender, nonbinary, agender, and various other labels. I suspect that most of you reading this accept gender diversity as normal and positive.

I’ve grappled with this personally — I identify very strongly as a woman, but I can’t figure out why. What draws me so strongly to femininity? It must be a tangle of biology, evo-psych, and socialization. In terms of how we treat people, the origin of nonbinary genders is irrelevant, but it’s still an interesting question. I suspect technological advances will help us whittle down the list of potential answers.

This idea was posed by my boyfriend and further inspired by some discussion in the chat group. Also, obligatory tip o’ the hat to Laboria Cuboniks.

Technological Abundance: Interview With Multimedia Artist Torley

I originally discovered Torley through Flickr, where he shares screenshots of ethereal and bizarre scenes from Second Life. He is also a musician and has released projects like Glitch Piano, an album described thus:

“Not long ago, in a parallel universe fairly, fairly close… humans imported a master race of sentient pianos through spacetime portals, using the instruments as labor-beasts and war-weapons. Predictably, these magnificent creatures rebelled and bass’ed civilization, enslaving the masses like the un-self-actualized lowminds they broadly are.

The contained aurelics (sonic artifacts) are historical evidence of such a traumatic time, and oddly, we detected halos of rich emotional spectrum — including loveliness and humorosity — amidst the runes.”

I emailed Torley to request an interview, and he answered my questions at great length. The full text, minus a couple of portions redacted for his privacy, is available as a PDF. The dispatch that you’re currently reading is a sort of “greatest hits” summary, like what I did with Andi McClure’s interview.

During a hard period in his life, Torley read some of the classic cyberpunk novels as balm. Consequently, he…

“wondered if there was a ‘real’ (as real as real can be) place where I could explore some of these ideas. I learned of the cyberpunk city ‘Nexus Prime’ in the Second Life virtual world — almost all content created by its users! — constructed on the aptly-named Gibson region […] As a metaphor that worked on such a practical level, my first avatar was an amplified version of my physical self, then I projected further into the future — and became an incarnation of my time-traveling daughter, who came back to tell me ‘THINGS ARE GOING TO BE OKAY’. […] Eventually, I was hired by Linden Lab (makers of Second Life), which I am immensely grateful for as it changed my first life even further. I continue to work here on all of their products, including Sansar — our next-generation virtual world.”

I asked about the appeal of this genre, and Torley told me:

“I’ve long romanticized big cities with towering skyscrapers, and couriers scurrying in the dark, running past neon signs with some data that was too precarious to simply upload… so it had to be done sneakernet-style. I definitely enjoy the whole audiovisual package, even if it’s the most superficial images of what comes to mind when a cyberpunk trope is mentioned… and as a strain of sci-fi, to quote Gibson, to realize we are living in an unevenly distributed future RIGHT NOW. It’s happening all around us.”

He continued:

“For me, cyberpunk has always meant giving unpopular (minority) ideas a fighting chance. […] it means a resistance to change the system, and augment one’s personal self. Which is what I chose with my life path. […] We each contain that power to alter the operation of the big machine, even if we may be ‘just’ a gear or cog in the works. Megacorps fascinate me, and all the fictional marketing that goes into the worldbuilding process.”

Torley on his own daily habits:

“I enjoy consuming Soylent 2.0 everyday. ‘Revolutionary’ is an adjective not to be applied lightly, but it’s saving me an accumulating amount of time. I always wake up and have a bottle or two to start my day. I’m drinking some as I communicate right now. A few bottles make up the majority of my meals. […] I suppose Soylent is a cyberpunk ethos foodstuff — the target demographics are both diverse and fascinating. Yet we are all human, and time is a teacher that kills all its students. That’s why I think their marketing is clever — they emphasize that Soylent does not outright replace conventional food, but FREES you to choose what meals you want to chew.”

Circling back to Second Life:

“Second Life has been a safe space for me and many others — whether that’s exploring identity, sexuality, racial-cultural constructs, etc. How you perceive SL depends on how you perceive yourself […] It’s very easy to experiment with identity here. You can change your whole look as easily as people can change clothes in ‘meatspace’. One’s avatar’s total appearance can be changed in mere seconds, yet may get a completely 180-degree response from those around you inworld. A hulking dragon brings out a totally different reaction than being an adorable pixie. I have been many forms, almost always revolving around my pink-and-green color scheme. I’ve called it ‘the Torley Council’, wherein I imagine a type of mini United Nations in my head, with each persona diverse yet unified — it’s all me, after all.”

In closing:

“We are blessed to live in such an age of technological abundance, as unstable as some systems may be. We owe it to ourselves to harness those tools to be healthier, happier, more creative human beings. When our own needs are met and our resources are replenished — and when we are genuinely comfortable in our own skin — we can more ably help each other.”

I’ll crack open a neon watermelon and toast to that.

The Container of My Person

“There were times, I told him, at the age of five, six, seven, when it was a shock to me that I was trapped in my own body. Suddenly I would feel locked into an identity, trapped inside myself, as if the container of my person were some kind of terrible mistake. My own voice and arms, my name, seemed wrong. As if I were a dispersed set of nodes that has been falsely organized into a form, and I was living in a nightmare, forced to see from out of this limited and unreal ‘me.’” — The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

I wonder if you’ve ever felt trapped in this way. I have, of course, and I suspect that you have too. Carrie Fisher said on Twitter (captioning a photo of her dog): “My body is my brain bag, it hauls me around to those places & in front of faces where theres something to say or see” [sic]. It’s unclear whether Carrie meant to apply this sentiment to herself or the dog, but it certainly applies to me. Her comment is a poem about how it feels to be an awful meat-sack — it feels, predictably, awful. Piloting this body is a slog.

Second Life screenshot by ▓▒░ TORLEY ░▒▓.

Second Life screenshot by ▓▒░ TORLEY ░▒▓.

The promise of virtual reality is to free us from such “real”-world restraints. What will our avatars look like in a hundred years? Post-gender and post-form, or exactly like the musclebound hunks and bit-titted blondes that titillate today’s Second Life denizens? We mustn’t forget the furries and weaboos, already a significant contingent of any visually oriented social network (which is all of them) (especially 4chan) (maybe they don’t haunt Instagram? idk).

Part of what draws me to cyberpunk, as an aesthetic / lifestyle / political ideal, is that I hate the tyranny of my physical form. I’m restricted to this flesh, to this brain full of misfiring synapses, and here’s the worst part: every experience that makes up who I am is filtered through faulty nerves. Wouldn’t my identity be completely different in a body with unfamiliar memories? Imagination says that I would be myself but better — yet I’m imposing my illusion of control on a hypothetical future. I’m not in charge of developing these simulation products. I don’t know what options and settings will be available.

Neither do you — don’t forget. Keep hacking, because the rest of us haven’t learned how.

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