“If a tree falls in the forest, and no one’s there to hear it, does it make a sound?”
You know that one, right — who doesn’t? Philosophy 101, even if you never took the class… and if you did, you would likely have sat through — and maybe contributed to — hair-splitting speculations like “What about animals, or birds, or insects?” Eventually, some smart-assed nerd (such as me, in this case) will pipe up with, “Well, what is sound? It’s vibrations in the medium of air. The roots ripping out of the ground; the branches striking each other, and other trees, as it falls; the tree hitting the ground; all will displace the air, causing vibrations — which are sound, by definition — independently of ears to hear it.”
What has that to do with Second Life? Or virtual worlds generally? First of all, I’ll quote Dusan Writer (again! Yes, I know… but he can be damned inspirational at times):
The natural extension of the prim is the collation of our ideas of what the future holds. The single atom of the prim carries the imprint of possibility. The story it tells is both our own, expressed through what we display, our avatar, or the ‘build’; and that of our more universal stories, the collective narrative which is made possible because we have a home for rendering content and turning that content into ideas…
Second, I return to that seminal work by David Gelernter which I quoted last time (also, thanks to Dusan):
The Internet has a large bias in favor of now. Using lifestreams (which arrange information in time instead of space), historians can assemble, argue about and gradually refine timelines of historical fact. Such timelines are not history, but they are the raw material of history. They will be bitterly debated and disputed — but it will be easy to compare two different versions (and the evidence that supports them) side-by-side. Images, videos and text will accumulate around such streams. Eventually they will become shared cultural monuments in the Cybersphere.
Stories… shared cultural moments… why, even Prokofy Neva had a rare moment of lucidity in a comment to Dusan (same link as above):
I think that there is so much lore and narration and story attached to all the prims, that you can’t look at it too absolutely. The lore that people acquire to learn not only the workings but the culture of Second Life isn’t techne but episteme[, it] seems to me.
The First Dimension
The common thread in all of this is Time. We live the organic mode of our lives in four dimensions: length, width, height, and duration. We live the virtual mode in four dimensions, too. Three of them are mathematical constructs, algorithms in software, analogs of length, width, and height reinterpreted for our 2-dimensional monitors. Time — which should be considered the First Dimension, not the fourth — is the dimension which binds the organic and the virtual into a single life, what Gelernter calls our lifestream. When you log off Second Life, your memory of what occurred within it doesn’t vanish with the application window; neither does your anticipation of what might occur next time you log in. The persistence of your virtual vision is part of your internal lifestream; it influences your sense of self as surely as who you are influences how you are in both the organic and virtual modes of your life.
We have personal lifestreams, and we have shared ones; the latter are the foundation on which Culture is built. In my list of “what is culture” in the previous blog entry, I mistakenly omitted shared continuity. It’s as simple — and profound — as the idea that the real world we awaken to each morning is the same one we fell asleep in the night before. We instinctively relate to Second Life the same way. We have learned that not everything persists from login to login — builds, and sometimes entire sims, disappear overnight and forever — but earthquakes, hurricanes, and sudden cardiac arrest tell us that organic life is no different in that way, either. Still, we expect permanence overall, if not in the details. To paraphrase Dusan and others, “every prim tells a story,” and we expect to pick up those stories where we left off.
Some prims tell much longer stories than others. In recent weeks, a renewed interest has arisen in the history of Second Life, as told by the objects and builds to be found within it. I believe it is in reaction to the perceived threat of “the end of the World as we know it”, brought to a head by Viewer 2.0 (consequently, the source of the blog-conversation among Dusan and I and others about culture). I have begun a project to find and record such places, and to tease out their stories as best I can from written accounts — which are, sadly, sparse and difficult to find. I am nothing like the first to do this, nor will I be the last… but it’s necessary to preserve the stories the prims tell, and it’s also fascinating, and a lot of fun, sim-hopping and snapping photos.
Oldest Established… Permanent? Floating?
Over at SLUniverse, the discussion began with a simple question: “What are the oldest remaining places in Second Life?” That answer depends on what you call a “place”. If you mean regions, 16 of them tie for first place.
If you mean oldest builds, that’s where the matter of persistence arises, as well as some contention. The construction widely believed to be the oldest is a statue called The Man, still standing in more-or-less its original location in the Natoma region. “Inspect” reveals a creation date of July 19, 2002 (nearly a full year before SL’s public opening of June 23, 2003).
However: The Governor’s Mansion, located on the eastern edge of Clementina and created by SL’s first non-Linden Resident, Steller Sunshine, wins — maybe — by a whole 8 days. “Inspect” reveals a creation date of July 11, 2002.
Why do I say “maybe”? Because of information posted in that thread at SLU, and a couple of posts by Hamlet Au at New World Notes — and this, which is displayed in a sort of museum in the basement of the Governor’s Mansion.
Pardon the quality — it is, after all, a screenshot of a texture applied to a prim, of a screenshot taken when Second Life was still “Linden World” (running in Windows 95?) — but that’s the clue: creation dates to be found by Inspect are not always the ultimate arbiter. The metadata connected with that display doesn’t indicate when the original screenshot was recorded, but… In the foreground is the Governor’s Mansion, under construction, and I think it’s safe to assume that the avatar is Steller Sunshine herself, and that she recorded it. In the indeterminable distance, however, is The Beanstalk.
According to Hamlet, Steller built that on her first day (and night) as a Resident: March 13, 2002. And, according to the Second Life Wikia (not to be confused with either Second Life’s own official wiki, or any of the Second Life-related entries at Wikipedia):
Alpha [that is, Linden World] was on a different grid. Everything was wiped, save for user inventories and a few buildings that were manually copied over (data-dropped).
There’s some disagreement as to whether this occurred in October or November, 2002 — regardless, the anecdotal evidence implies that the Beanstalk reigns as the oldest build in SL.
Or does it?
The Beanstalk (or, judging from the Linden World screenshot above, a truncated remnant of the original) now stands in the center of the Welsh region, another of the Original 16. Inspecting various portions of it returns creation dates of July through August 2003, a full year after both The Man and the Mansion. Occam’s Razor yields this deduction: The Man and the Mansion were “data-dropped” into the brand-new, closed-beta sims of Natoma and Clementina when those were first booted up, whereas the Beanstalk was rebuilt from Steller’s inventory.
(I hope Steller, wherever she may be, gets wind of this and provides the conclusive testimony.)
Here is one more monkey wrench to throw into the philosophical works: A group of enterprising (and entertaining) German Residents, who blog collectively at The Last Days of Second Life, independently concluded that the oldest object in SL is — of all things! — a beachball, created by Philip Linden on April 30, 2002. It is also among the most ubiquitous — it can be found in the Objects folder of the Library, in the Inventory of every Resident!
If a tree falls…
When is a virtual object an object, and when is it merely the potential to become one? How old is the copy of Philip’s beachball you’ve just now rezzed on the ground for the first time? How do we consider persistence in a world where fragments of it go offline occasionally, from unscheduled crashes or scheduled re-starts? In a digital world, is the record of the thing the same as the thing itself?
I, for one, am willing to forgo any hairsplitting about interrupted persistence and declare Steller’s Beanstalk the oldest surviving build, of any kind, in Second Life. But, the philosophical questions still nag…