Like a cask of “premium” wine, virtual reality is for many of us as good as it is ever going to get.
A recent Four Corners report on the 3-D Internet website Second Life provided an insight into the growing popularity and profitability of virtual environments. Somewhere between 20 and 50 million people, it seems, now spend time in these computer-generated spaces, transcending geography and nationality for the citizenship of One Digital World.
At any given moment, Second Life alone plays host to about 20,000 individuals who have swapped their corporeal for a virtual self - known as an “avatar” - in order to engage with similarly disposed cyber-intimates in whatever exotic pursuits their imagination takes them: principally to shopping, real estate speculation, gambling and perfectly programmed sex.
Indeed, perfection is more or less mandatory in Second Life. Any given avatar is not a pixellated reproduction of its physically and emotionally defective creator, but a “personalised” version of how she or he would like to appear and behave. Perkier breasts, a bodybuilder’s torso, no unsightly hair or blotches.
Once the physical makeover is complete, the avatar is “teleported” to one of hundreds of “social areas”, to interact live with other avatars controlled by other people sitting at a computer desk somewhere, anywhere else in the world. Participants’ average age, we’re told, is 32, the ratio of women to men being 45 to 55.
It goes without saying that there is no such thing as a free lunch, even in a virtual world. You can participate for nothing, but only to a very limited extent. To look good and be a real player - especially when trading in real estate - you need a credit card.
Second Life’s currency is the Linden Dollar and the going exchange rate is US$1 for 270 Lindens. It all adds up. As explained by an academic on the program: “If you want to know what the typical productivity is of a person in these environments, it seems to be about $2,000 per person, per year. So, that's a per capita GDP number. And it's roughly equivalent to countries like, I don't know, Bulgaria …”
For some reason, this harmless pastime attracts ungracious criticism, exemplified by the suggestion of one correspondent to Four Corners to “get a life, a real one. Virtual reality games like these are for people who don't have what it takes to lead a real one, who want to live in a delusion.”
Such detractors raise as many questions as they beg. The most obvious is why anyone should not prefer a virtual to what is ominously called the “real” world. Idealism, discernment or progress of any kind begins with an active imagination, a dissatisfaction with the “real” status quo; it is not in itself delusional. At the same time, it is evident that the vast majority of Second Lifers are not budding Einsteins, so perhaps we need a somewhat more prosaic justification for their activity.
In the first place, as just intimated, virtual socialising and commerce can be seen as essentially entertainment, no better, worse or more expensive than many other diversions that do not attract such rabid censure. In one respect, it may be a solitary activity (which is obviously suspect); but in another, it involves much more human intercourse than, say, attendance at a sporting event where human solidarity is expressed in a mob chorus of “C’mon Aussie, c’mon!” or its less genteel variants. At the very least, computer-generated futility is a lot less anti-social.
A second consideration is that “virtual” reality is something to which our species has always been drawn. Only the technology has changed, and with it the extent of our personal involvement. A recording, for instance, whether audio, visual or both, is a virtual reproduction of an actual performance - these days enhanced by studio paraphernalia to issue as near flawless a creation as possible. Voices are upgraded, instruments mixed through innumerable channels, computers themselves an increasingly integral part of the artistic process, especially in film. It is difficult to see how this departs qualitatively from what goes on in Second Life, with its drop-dead gorgeous skin, clothing and hedonism.
Much the same holds for all art, at all times, from Michelangelo’s proto-avatars of God and His saints in the Sistine Chapel to the daubs of a frustrated caveman.