April 3, 2008
I 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?