"Nothing but a pack of cards"

‘Who cares for you?’ said Alice, (she had grown to her full size by this time.) ‘You’re nothing but a pack of cards!’

Sound familiar?

Try this:

“… there are as many cultures in Second Life as there are groups, and there are many hundreds of thousands of groups in Second Life. There are as many cultures as there are groups of people. […]  It’s not a monoculture. Sorry. It’s a global culture, and there are degrees where those cultures interact, but it’s not.”

Last time, I made an attempt to define the base of the Culture of Second Life. I approached it first in terms of language; i.e., no matter where you go on the grid or what language is being typed in Local Chat, there are certain words that everyone uses and immediately understands, because they stand for universal concepts and conditions that define life in SL (those conditions constrain life in SL, in the sense Steven Jay Gould used that term in his writings on evolution). My list can probably be expanded, but the most important — the Three Pillars which underpin all life within Second Life — are Avatar, Lag, and Prim.

Avatar: Everybody is one (or several, if they have alts). When we first enter SL, or other flavors of virtuality, we as thinking humans are immediately faced with a conundrum of identity: “Am I that image on my screen? Am I the simulated-3D presence that image represents? Is it me?” Thousands upon thousands of words have been written, in blogs and elsewhere, as people come to grips with this novel concept. Many different conclusions have been drawn, yet the question is never stale or outmoded — there’s no “An answer has been provided” — because each new questioner brings the perspective of her/his own mind to it. Even so, one thing is almost universally true: When speaking about their SL experiences to others, whether in-world or out of it, they use the first person. “I did this, I went there, I talked to…”, not “My avatar did, went, talked to…”, et cetera.  We are our avatars, and they are Us.

Lag: Everybody suffers from it. It makes no difference if you are a Linden or the newest of the n00bs, how many sims you own, how well-known (or notorious) you might be. Lag is universal and unavoidable (and, from the looks of things, incurable). Certain physics geeks (such as myself) might liken it to the Higgs Field, interactions with which gives particles the property of mass… but as a more graspable and appropriate metaphor, think of this: Lag is SL’s weather. It’s unpredictable, it varies from moment to moment, it cannot be escaped, it affects where we can go, and how quickly… and everyone talks about it. Just like in the physical world, when you can’t think of any other topic, there’s always the weather, and in SL, there’s always the lag to complain about. And we do, and we are understood and commiserated with in every language on the Grid.

Prim: Everything is made of them, and somebody made every one of them. From the mundane plywood cube and its geometric cousins, an entire world was made, and is being made as you read this — and other humans just like you and I are doing the making.  Dusan Writer, among many others, talks about the stories each prim tells. That may sound a little abstract, so let me provide some illustration.

The first is a full-scale reproduction of Mt. Saint Michel, a real place.  Its creator crafted each prim in a literally monumental effort to bring the experience of being in the real place to her fellow Residents, most of whom will never get to the coast of Brittany.  I am one of those… but I have looked online at photos of the real Mt. St. Michel, and I can attest to the detail with which the modeler reproduced the architecture and textures.  I have also spoken to one Frenchman who has been to the real place, who was nearly speechless in admiration after seeing the one in SL.

The second is a fantasy called Pteron.  It is a creation and expression solely of a single mind; there is no comparison to be made to establish “authenticity”.  None is needed.

The point is this:  These are prims, created and manipulated by human minds — a basic ability granted to every one of us by virtue of being in Second Life — and they communicate to us without the use of words.  Rather, they speak to each of us in the universal language of human accomplishment, and in the universal human awe of beauty.  I chose monumental architecture for examples, but others equally valid can be found among every category of “content creation” on the Grid.

It matters not a whit which groups you belong to, or which societies you identify with… whether you are furry, neko, fae, Gorean, steampunk, Medieval, or “just plain folk”… which kinds of music you listen to or where in SL you go to do so… which languages you speak, or which time zone of the planet you live in.  You hear the stories in the prims that were put there by their creators, and you remember them, take them with you, and share them.

To deny a common culture of Second Life, unique to the world because of the world’s unique characteristics — those Three Pillars: Avatar, Lag, and Prim — is to deny that there is a common culture of humanity.  It is to deny the experiences of every traveler who has ever lived, every museum visitor, every concert-goer, every person who has ever been exposed to the trappings of a society not their own and been moved by that experience because they know “another human made this”.

…we’re in the same space, and we have a representation of ourselves to interact with, and we have all of these millions of years of evolution where we can read and interpret and have emotional responses to the things that we’re seeing, and that’s why Second Life is such a compelling and visceral experience.

To deny a common culture of Second Life is, in fact, specious.

And — just as culture evolves within the constraints of its environment, a change in environment directly affects the culture within it.  The more sweeping a change in the former, the more permanent alteration of the latter.  The more drastically rapid the environmental upheaval, the more those who care about, and for, the culture they live in and helped to create will react with dismay.  Linden Lab’s ham-fisted dealings with the Residents; their drastic alteration of the rules; their rushed introduction of an interface with the world that, to all reports, makes creation more difficult; their painfully obvious push to create a society that spends instead of makes… all of that creates a sense of foreboding in those of us with eyes to see and ears to hear.

“At this the whole pack rose up into the air, and came flying down upon her: she gave a little scream, half of fright and half of anger, and tried to beat them off…”

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


  1. Both of the blockquotes above are from the same source, and the words of the same person: Tom Hale a.k.a. T Linden, from the transcript of the interview he granted to Metanomics on March 31, 2010.
  2. As a result of my previous post, I was invited to appear on “Tonight Live with Paisley Beebe” to discuss the topic.  Knowing that I could not do justice to my thesis with the extemporaneous spoken word, I declined… and wrote this instead.
  3. SLurls: Mont Saint Michel; Pteron

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


3 responses to “"Nothing but a pack of cards"

  1. Well said.
    I see “Facebook” as a place.
    “Twitter” is a place.
    The “internet” is a place perhaps.
    Once someone starts creating in Secondlife…it becomes a culture as well as a place. That creation may be one of prims, scripts, textures, a common language, or maybe just friends/groups.
    I have invited perhaps a dozen people to Secondlife over these past three years. Of that number I think three actually created an account, one stayed a week, another a day, the last stayed a couple months off and on. These people found the Secondlife place, they never found the culture, they never created anything. Two of those bought a few things, one was introduced to the residents of an estate and welcomed. I tell every newcomer that to remain in secondlife one must find a passion, a reason for being here. In my opinion, and in deference to *shopaholics*, shopping does not define culture.
    I go to a *place* to shop.
    I have *stayed* in Secondlife because I found a culture here that speaks to me.
    One way to dramatically change a demographic is to destroy its culture.
    I have been so saddened that those powers that be have, in a misguided attempt to further their bottom line, sowed the seeds of the distruction of what so many that came before have created.

  2. not that my comment has much to do with your post – your Looking Glass quote prompted me to share my single favourite quote: “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” Red Queen to Alice =)

    maybe that is true for being both in the real and virtual world?

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