Mirror, Mirror On the Screen

It’s been a few weeks since I first started experimenting with the Play As Being practice, and ventured into Second Life. I continue to appreciate the performative brilliance of utilizing Second Life as a means to study the nature of consciousness, being, and reality. I am starting to imagine a metaphysical syllabus that incorporates virtual world immersion as an instrument for laying bare the everyday assumptions we make about consensual reality.

While I am learning something about myself as I project my identity into my avatar (its almost impossible not to, as veteran SL’ers will attest), I am also learning more about this world, and its seductive attraction. Lots of Second Lifers believe that Second Life is just as real as Real Life (which, for mystics might just mean that both are illusory), but I lean more towards the cautious opinion that Second Life is a mirror, albeit one with a great deal of depth.

Mirrors are quite magical and wonderful (7 years of altered luck, and all that). They can be used to see far and deep — think reflecting telescopes or the michaelson-morely experiments — but they have also trapped a fair share of narcissuses in their alluring reflections. So does SL represent the vanity of vanities? Maybe not, but considering that the energy consumption of a typical SL avatar now exceeds the energy consumption of an average real world brazillian, it is important that folks consider their time in SL well spent.

One upside of my recent journeys is that I now appreciate the research going on in this area much better. Here are two pieces from the Chronicle of Higher Ed reporting on research going on at Stanford’s Virtual Human Interactions Lab:

The claim that a user’s avatar imprints so strongly on their psyche is much easier for me to understand after spending some time in Second Life. I would have been far more skeptical of these findings if I hadn’t experienced the power of this medium first hand.

These findings and experiences really helped me imagine the potential impact of projects like Virtual Guantanamo (which I haven’t personally visited yet). I can say, that when I stumbled across the Virtual World Trade Center I found the location distinctly eerie and spooky. Apparently I’m not alone, as the virtual storefronts on the groundfloor are vacant here too. And, as I learned recently at a symposium at the Fashion Institute of Technology, SL is an ideal environment for teaching fashion and design. While SL has its share of casinos and lap dances, places like Rieul’s Zen Garden and the Interfaith Gardens show a real diversity of interest, consistent with the proposition of SL as a mirror.

As for the core experiment, sprinkling the pixie dust of reflection and contemplation throughout my day, I continue to be impressed by how malleable my awareness can be. In Pema’s words: “repetition is a powerful thing.” Over the past few weeks I have also enjoyed poking holes in reality while at the movies and travelling to foreign countries. Ideas we have been repeating and playing with regularly in Dakini’s lovely Rieul teahouse.

Jingles, Mantras, and Catch Phrases

play as beingWell, I’m on day four of our experiment with Play as Being, and have noticed subtle changes in my mood, disposition, and preoccupations. I really like the rhythm of this discipline – in Piet/Parma‘s words, this practice is an experiment in trading off duration for frequency.

Between work and school I haven’t managed to carve out significant stretches of meditative duration the past few years, but the gentle, persistent redirection of my attention is somehow more manageable, and showing positive traces. I am more confident in my decision making, better at recognizing and balancing desire and self-control, and spending more time thinking about abstract concepts and questions.

I have been very excited about this adventure, though I have self-censored and tempered my enthusiasm since I continue to be wary of the seductive siren’s song in the aesthetics of an unfamiliar media. I love learning and experiencing new things, but I sometimes have a tendency to go overboard, so I am trying to take things slow (I put myself in a lower tax bracket than my 1% cohorts – I only pause hourly, and drop by the tea house once every day or two).

With the help of a new friend that I met at PyCon, who coincidentally works at Second Life, I am appreciating the value of this type of practice in the interest of cultivating a non-judgemental awareness. Could the mainstreaming of experiences like these become the catalyst for a widespread shift in consciousness?

On the cognitive/phenomenal front, I crossed a threshold yesterday and actually experienced some SL memories. Unlike the afterimages (like after a day of playing tetris or picking mellons), these memories had a different quality. And, unlike trying to remember which page I read a story on the 2D web, these memories were vivid and real. I am realizing the ways in which an environment like this hacks my perceptual system, tuned over millennia of evolution to respond to faces and places.

This riff has me thinking alot about neural hacking, and the ways in which we all can begin to deliberately program and alter our habits and patterns of perception and interpretation (errr, I guess some people probably just call that learning 😉 ... however, the metaphor of software has perhaps pushed our understanding of flexibility and malleability farther than ever: e.g. Mind Hacks and Your Brain: The Missing Manual). I think I can make a good argument that the safest and most effective way to reprogram our consciousness is through the natural interfaces that our mind provides – namely, our natural senses.

Contrast this approach with the crude and barbaric attempts to modify mood and behaviour through pharmaceuticals. And compare this approach to the Mind Habbits “game”, which begins with the design question “Can we design an interactive multimedia experience designed to make people feel better?”

My work and studies have been conditioning me to be more deliberate and purposeful in my use and design of technology. Second Life continues to present affordances and opportunities for learning and growth, but I still haven’t heard that many stories of this kind of targeted exploration, which specifically leverage’s the unique advantages of an immersive experience. There must be conversations like this happening in serious gaming circles, though in many ways, this project demonstrates that it isn’t the game that needs to be serious, rather the attitude, approach, and context that the participants bring to the table.

Finally, here is an enumeration of some of the networks of concepts that this project has activated for me:

Quite a fun web of ideas to be snared in.

/play as being

The Zen of Life^2

cgon370l.jpgI suppose it was only a matter of time before I experienced something within Second Life that caught my interest. Though I work on and study social software, I haven’t been particularly giddy about metaverses (multiplayer, persistent, 3D immersive environments) for a variety of reasons – perhaps tracing back to the fact that I haven’t really enjoyed playing too many computer games.

As a free software developer I have participated in quite a few post-geographic projects where communication is managed quite effictively in 2D. While I recognize the value of ‘presence’ and synchronous communications, I doubted that an avatar added much additional value to a communicative experience.

This semester I am personally participating in a digital studio, where we have held some meetings inside Adobe’s Connect, but have found the experience cumbersome, adding little value over irc (or, at least, VOIP + text, like in skype). I usually dread video conferenced meetings, though its sometimes worthwhile to share a browser. At work, we helped set up a Global Classroom for the Earth Institute, which has been receiving rave reviews, but is mostly just a shared video experience (with a few live events). Prior to this week, I have visited second life on a handful of occasions as a guest, but mostly just been reading about it, watching videos, and hovering over other people’s shoulders while they play.

All this changed this week, after a chance encounter with a professor, Piet Hut, whose work I encountered years ago as an undergrad. His dialogue with Bas Van Fraassen on The Elements of Reality really helped me crystallize my thinking on a range of philosophical questions, and the perspective explored in this conversation may serve as an effective bridge between ancient and modern metaphysics.

Prof. Hut is an astrophysicist at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study (which now, more than ever, reminds me of the village) , and he takes phenomenology and mysticism pretty seriously. His interdisciplinary research is really all over the map and I dig his philosophies of science. His writing is usually clear and free of jargon.

I have not been keeping up with his work, but when I saw his name on the schedule at the CSSR Neuroscience and Free Will conference, I decided to crash his talk (and I figured there would be coffee and snacks).

In his talk he mentioned some of his latest work inside of virtual worlds, including new ways of conceptualizing (scientific) simulations and research. I was quite receptive to this topic, since I have been thinking a whole lot about how Technology is transforming Epistemology, which I have started writing about here, and hope to expand upon at the end of this semester (um… that’s in a few weeks!).

His latest project though is another trip entirely – (or, perhaps identical, from the inside-out ;-)). The project, Play As Being is described and tracked on that blog, and is a bit tough to explain in words – you sorta have to try it to understand/believe it.

So, I kinda had an enlightening experience inside of SL. I learned about the potentialities of virtual worlds as phenomenological laboratories. While I was there last night I was attentive to my minds restlessness (how weird is it that after 45 minutes I was compelled to stand my avatar up and stretch my “legs”?) and learned a few new RL practices. I brought the lessons back to meatspace today, and was much more mindful of my body and breathing. I’m not on the full 1% time-tax rhythm, but I am working on picking out mnemonic bells so I can introduce a bit more discipline into the flow of my experience.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been that surprised at the cognitive value of a 3D experience. I mean, I’ve read about The Loci Method in books like The Art of Memory. But the idea of using the environment as a Zen training studio really blew me away. I imagine you really need the right group for the experience to work, but I am quite impressed by this particular purposeful use of this instrument. It took a really good teacher(s), but I have a much better appreciation for effectively using SL as a space to practice mindfulness and contemplate Being.

Has anyone else heard of things like this happening w/in SL?

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