Some general remarks on Second Life and the creative use of digital media

In his famous article “Real Programmers Don’t Write Pascal”, that still circulates the Internet in various versions, Ed Post, refering to the classic area (some would say the stone age) of computing, made a clear distinction between what he calls the “real man” and the “quiche eaters”, those who know something about computer programming and those who don’t. Post’s head-on approach to the intricacies of programming without a safety net may seem elitist and arrogant today, but it would do some good in a time when so-called IT professionals are no longer able to implement a decent memory management and flood the world with bloated applications that render older but completely workable computers, dozen times more powerful than the supercomputer of the eighties, almost useless today.

I’d like to make a similar distinction between those who actually use digital technologies and those who only consume them. Let’s call them the makers and the wannebes. The wannebes can be easily recognized by not knowing anything about the founders. the history and the present conditions of the digital and network world that they interact with each day. They seriously think that knowing how enter a search term into Google, creating a simple Excel spreadsheet or sending SMSs via their smartphones makes them computer literate. They regard Bill Gates as the world’s greatest programmer and reverently read the orbituaries of Steve Jobs, completing ignoring the demise of a man such as Dennis Ritchie, co-inventor of the C programming language, who died a few weeks later and whose impact on computing was ten times more profound than that of Gates and Jobs taken together. The wannebes regard themselves creative when they upload pet photos on Facebook, buy cool ring tones or discuss the latest apps for their Android smartphones (never asking themselves why anybody should use a crippled operating system such as Android when the real thing – Linux – is so easily available). They know nothing about the wide field of creative uses of digital technology that are notoriously neglected by mainstream media. The have never heard of generative art or creative coding or live electronics nor of all those tools developed for artistic purposes that have spawned whole subcultures, be it Csound or SuperCollider, ChucK or Pure Data, Processing or openFrameworks.

To make it short: Those wannebes, who do little more than passively follow what others tell them is new and hip and cool, think they swim on the highest waves of the digital world. But actually they are only flotsam of marketing campaigns. It’s funny and annoying when such people, who have never had any own ideas for the creative use of digital media and never reflected about the utilization of virtual worlds, start to tell the makers what can be done in Second Life and what not. Any artist or event organizer active in Second Life could write whole volumes about this. I was confronted with this ignorance recently when I proposed in a Facebook group a seminar for science fiction writers in Second Life and had to deal with people who still regard Second Life as a game and dismiss it in comparison with the stupid online games they waste their time with.

It’s true that, as with all other digital media, the majority of  Second Life users seek out fun and distraction and more or less passively consume viral trends and offers. There’s a lot of gossip and role playing and virtual sex and hundreds of lousily constructed sims in SL, no doubt about it. Things start to get interesting when creative people reflect about the potentials of a new medium that they are offered and figure out how to use it in ways never intended by their creators. Take for comparison YouTube. Just considering its simple basic idea – give people a site where they can upload videos – you could never have predicted things like video blogs or that music lovers use a video site mainly to exchange audio. The basic idea of Second Life is not much more complicated: providing a 3d infrastructure with various means of communication and interaction and the ability for users to create objects and enhance their behavior with script programming. That, basically, is all. And now visit an event such as the coming Festival der Liebe (Festival of Love), the annual cultural festival at the German SL sims (this year for the first time with extensions into the OpenSimulator grids) and you may start to marvel what creative people make of it. The most obvious application of Second Life – bringing people at widely separated physical locations together for common activities – is only the beginning.

The wannebes will never grab this. They will continue to nag that SL’s time is over and assume that the rest of the world is as passive and unimaginative as they are.