7. Conclusion

In this work I have argued that worlds such as Second Life are not games, but are rather environments that facilitate creation and sharing. Freedom and fun are the prime motivations for residents to create their own environments in this world. They seek to manifest a world of their ultimate creation, where there are no restrictions on their creative expression, and where they can participate in the fun economy.

While virtual worlds are attractive to residents for the perceived qualities of fun and freedom that they offer, fun and freedom are not always the result of participation in them. The same tension that exists between freedom and profit in the macrocosmic world of meatspace also exists, albeit to a lesser degree, in the microcosmic world of Second Life. As such virtual worlds are an accurate reflection of a society that purports to value fun and freedom but does not deliver them reliably.

The Second Life content creation tools lower the barrier to the creation of quality, complex content and residents enthusiastically embrace them. Ordinary residents massively outnumber professional developers of content, and are often happy to create content and give it away gratis, or to sell it much more cheaply than professional content developers do. This content is not always up to the same standard as professional content, though it is increasingly the case that it is.

Most content creators are not trying to make a living from their productions and resent the imposition of the permissions system which they see as a non fun aspect of their Second Life experience, which only serves to make collaborative endeavours more difficult. The conflict of the freedom to create and the freedom to control one’s creations is an exemplar of Dibble’s1 model wherein the spheres of work and play are melded. Profit is not the only motive for creation, not even the primary one. It is overwhelmingly the case that the primary motive for creation is the sharing of the creations with others. However the needs of the few wishing to create for profit are prioritised by the mechanics of the Second Life permissions system over those of the many that see them only as an impediment. I suggest that this prioritising of social needs over profit will be seen more in the meatspace world over time. People are rapidly losing faith in capitalism as a system to provide for all their needs and it won’t be long until conditions become so dire that the effort required to effect change will seem worth it.

I have elucidated the reasons why trying to control content permissions is not the best way to help residents benefit from their creations. The open source business models I have herein discussed, e.g. where creators encourage copying in order to overcome the problem of obscurity, where creators sell off the shelf items as a method of attracting orders for bespoke items and where items are given away as loss leaders, show how in an economy of free and easy copying of digital goods creators cannot rely on attempts to artificially replicate meatspace scarcity to help them benefit from their endeavors. Rather, they should view the copying and exchange of their creations as an invaluable promotional tool and adjust to the reality of infinite, cost free replicability. Ideally the profit motive would be removed entirely, but until creators are freed from the meatspace world’s capitalist system, and the need to make money implicit in it, this is unlikely to occur.

The fun economy conditions users to expect to be heard by those who control the online spaces they inhabit. This preconception of users is the reason Linden Lab was so reviled by residents for its failure to heed their requests. This will inevitably have an effect on the political structures of a meatspace world where millions of people have grown up immersed in an online world where dissatisfaction is relieved by going somewhere else and making a new thing there, or by making one’s own solution to problems having no redress otherwise. Change is already being seen. The collapse of Twitter after its purchase by Elon Musk exemplifies the growing awareness of users that they are not trapped in a space once it no longer suits their needs, or their ideals. The growth of decentralised spaces, such as the fediverse, shows a trend toward user controlled content, although not all distributed spaces are as democratic or responsive to users’ needs as they initially appear. Many of those who migrated to Mastodon after Musk’s purchase of Twitter for example did so because they thought it would be a realm that was not controlled by a single billionaire but rather by its users. While it is true that many Mastodon instances are designed around the priorities of users, most have no mechanism for users to give feedback to instance admins. This has resulted in a situation where there are now a multitude of tinpot dictators instead of one billionaire tyrant. Still, it is much easier to migrate to a different instance than it was to leave Twitter and migrate to the fediverse, especially since all of one’s followers and followees are not lost when migrating between instances. It is notable though that the majority of those fleeing Twitter chose to move to another space dominated by a different billionaire, e.g. Bluesky or Threads. I suspect we will see a series of iterations of the controllers of such spaces acting against the interests of users, causing users to migrate again until eventually the realization that an extractive capitalist model is never going to serve the needs of users permeates through the user base, at which time models that support user control will predominate. This may take some time.

Here in Australia the Pirate Party, a political party populated by technologically aware, particularity internet savvy citizens, who were overwhelmingly under 40, used electronic democracy for all decisions, stating in its constitution “Policy development should occur with the maximum possible interaction with the party members – the party should engage in as a participatory process as is possible, and outcomes should be reached through consensus2. The Pirate Party had no real electoral success in Australia and subsequently merged with the Science, Secular, Vote Planet and Climate Change Justice parties to form Fusion Party Australia, which has an ethos of collaboration and openness, although they have to date had no electoral success. Overseas, the German Pirate Party, which has had some electoral success3 before encountering setbacks due to scandals, utilizes LiquidFeedback, open source software which facilitates proposition development and decision making4. Whether this kind of democracy will continue to grow remains to be seen. Based on my experiences in communities in cyberspace I suggest it will, due to the high level of dissatisfaction and disengagement with meatspace politics, combined with the general presumption of individual rights and democracy exhibited by residents of virtual worlds. However I see the most likely political philosophy to expand into meatspace from those habituated to having to seek their own solutions to the problems of online life is some form of anarchism.

Virtual worlds (along with most online life) exist in a state of anarchy, where residents most commonly resort to mutual aid to resolve problems5. This is particularly the case in Second Life because Linden Lab refuse to take any role in mediating disputes between residents, instead preferring to rely on nation state legal solutions such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which, in addition to only applying to the United States, has been widely abused6 and is a remedy so expensive to deploy that it is not practical for the low dollar value transactions common in Second Life.

The reason for this anarchism may seem ironic. The unrestrained communication provided to us by the internet is allowing us to see that we are all part of a greater whole. Never before in human history have so many made such intimate contact with so many others. In the communities I studied, on a minute by minute basis, people were living virtually beside other residents who were physically located in far removed places around the globe. This made us much more aware of the cultures of the places our fellow community members inhabited in meatspace. One example of this is that whenever the subject of which meatspace time zone one was in came up people in the United States would invariably give their zone as, for example, Eastern. I would then remark that I was also in Eastern. Further enquiries as to my location invariably produced much confusion. Eventually, after long exposure to an Australian, they realised that other countries also had time zones that contained Eastern in their name. This was accompanied by an increase in their knowledge of the geography and culture of countries other than their own.

This kind of virtual cohabitation is only one exemplar of the process whereby formerly discrete cultures are combining at a much accelerated rate. Events happening in meatspace that are physically far distant from us have a much greater resonance for us when we deal daily with persons living in those meatspace locales. We might well be intimately acquainted with people living through the revolutions and wars of our time, to which we would not otherwise be exposed on such an affecting level if having to rely for information of such events to be conveyed to us by an increasingly corrupt and inept fourth estate. This intimate information provision is filling the gap left vacant by the absence of an efficient, unbiased media.

The result of this peer to peer information sharing is that it is harder to obfuscate political realities and easier for individuals to connect and mobilise. The kind of hold over the mediascape that individuals such as Rupert Murdoch now have is diminishing daily. Centralised control of information is becoming less and less possible7, a process exemplified by the rapid growth of OpenSimulator while Second Life declines. Despite the arguments of authors such as Lessig8 and Zittrain9 that we are heading towards a permission culture, where choice is reduced and shiny, locked down devices proliferate in an overly proprietary nightmare, I remain optimistic. The relentless force that will save us from this future is the human desire to create and explore.

In order to make the best quality remix possible, to create the best quality culture possible, access to the best quality information is required. The development of the internet is having a democratising effect on information access and reissue, by removing the expense of publishing, and extending the reach of the individual so much that it is now possible to wonder if publishers are even still relevant10. The manner in which Sci-Hub has so successfully subverted the corrupt, extractive publishing model that dominates academia is an exemplar of this. However it is still difficult for a non academic, like Cleopatra, to access the most accurate and detailed information. This is because this democratization process is being challenged by publishing companies who are seeking to obfuscate the output of academics through restrictive copyright requirements for journal articles and academic books, and by making them so expensive that even universities are going broke trying to pay for books and journal subscriptions11 12 13 14 so they can get access to the work produced by their own academics. They are being forced to pay twice, once in the form of salaries for academics and again when they pay to buy back access to the works of those academics15. Indeed this phenomenon has become so damaging for universities that some are now refusing to pay the exorbitant prices demanded by academic publishers and are turning instead to open access publishing or starting their own open access archives, like arXive at Cornell University which has nearly a million articles16 17. Academics, among them myself and the other members of the Egyptian community who were academics, are agitating for change, as evidenced by the Cost of Knowledge website where nearly fourteen thousand academics have pledged to not support Elsevier journals because of their business practices18.

The entertainment industry is also a challenger to this democratization process and to remix culture. The advent of instant, perfect, copying and remixing is a threat to their business model and so they seek to curtail it. This is seen in Second Life by their closing down of those themed sims they could find. The very corporations who today seek to restrict access to ideas and stories have made a fortune by remixing information in the public domain, but now seek to declare ownership of those stories and prevent others from doing the same. An example of this is Disney, who has profited from stories in the public domain19 but who now seek to tightly control the copying of these stories. Now Disney are seeking to prevent others from doing as they have done20, to build new cultural elements from the stories previously told. Their most famous icon, Mickey Mouse, made his debut in a remix of an earlier film, Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill. Fortunately the internet is now so vast, and the number of users so high, that it is impossible for such corporate control to be realised in any meaningful way short of the imposition of the Orwellian nightmare. If Heidegger is right, if the best thing about humans is that we have the capacity to open new worlds, then unless we do everything we can to make the best worlds we can we are failing to be the best we can be. Such a failure may be terminal.

Telling the stories of other times and places helps us to learn from them in a way that simply learning facts about them doesn’t. However, because of the great distance in time between us and the ancient Egyptians, I don’t believe we can understand them as they understood themselves. We have been able to study their language in a meaningful way since the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799, yet in just over two hundred years we still haven’t properly learnt how they pronounced vowels. But if we can combine our propensity for story telling with the immersive experience of living an ancient culture we have a much greater capacity to walk in another’s shoes. But the unknowing remains. In an age where instant access to information proliferates, where one can look up facts more easily than at any time in history, there is a new kind of unknowing. On the internet no one knows you are a dog. We know we don’t know who the other is on the internet, we know Wikipedia might be wrong, we know anything we find on the net must be questioned for veracity. Many educators prohibit their students from using Wikipedia, citing its lack of veracity, but I suggest this known falsity, although actually massively overstated21, makes us wiser. If we proceed on the basis that all knowledge must be questioned surely we are better positioned to discover truth.

My journey into this virtual world was one of discovery and learning. My strong natural inclination to read and research pushed me further and further into the world of the ancient Egyptians. Possibly further than you the reader might have liked to be drawn into the intricate details of ancient rituals. However this shows the potential of virtual worlds for education. I was drawn into the world of the ancient Egyptians by role play. Experiences rather that exposure to facts excited my enquiries, though I often found myself wishing for some face to face guidance from an expert. This was echoed by the desire of members of the community to have the hieroglyph game be a guided experience.

In other research I have shown that the best results from teaching in Second Life result from a combination of face to face and virtual teaching22. This has likewise been found by other authors23 24. It has also been found to hold for other virtual worlds25 and for other forms of online instruction26. Most teaching in Second Life utilises a mixture of face to face and virtual engagement27, but some use fully immersive teaching utilising role play28, though the latter are certainly in the minority.

Meatspace and the virtual seem to be two worlds because we presently have to do one or the other at a time. If I am walking around in the world I must be utilising a computer to do so. I cannot be simultaneously walking around in the meatspace world. This will not long be the case. Once we are accessing virtual worlds in a way that augments our meatspace world we will be able to do both at once, and indeed the one will be able to interact with the other. If, instead of being tied to a bulky desktop computer I had been able to use augmented reality29 to interact in the world, it would have been an entirely difference experience, the two perceived worlds would have become one. This kind of interaction is already happening to a limited degree with smartphones, and to a more advanced degree with the aid of technologies such as the Occulus Rift30 and the Virtuix Omni31, but much more immersive, seamlessly interactive augmented reality wearable systems will remove this perceptual dividing line completely.

The perception that virtual worlds are somehow not real will not persist. When technologies are new they seem strange, foreign and unreal32, for instance, McLuhan33 notes that in the early days of the telephone the word phoney was used to mean the lack of real substance inherent in a telephone conversation, that there was something considered unreal about telephonic communications on account of the lack of the physical presence of the persons so conversing, or the lack of a physical substrate to the message. Likewise in the present day interactions in virtual worlds are often derided as unreal. This will pass over time as these technologies become more familiar and more widely used and we integrate them into our lives.

How we will deal with issues of identity in cyberspace is altogether another question. Will corporations continue their push to get us to use our real names online, or will more separatist conceptions prevail? The events in the community show the difficulty of maintaining separation from one’s online self. It is one’s self, but it is not. Even those of us who set out to maintain a distinct separation between our avatars, the characters those avatars play, and our meatspace selves, find that despite our best efforts, from time to time, we fail and enter an integralist reality. Though I was immersed in my avatar’s experience at times, I don’t think that the avatar is my primary self. I still prioritise my meatspace self. But would this still be true if I was spending as much time in the virtual as I do in meatspace? If I could park my meat body somewhere and have my consciousness totally enter cyberspace?

We cannot, at this time, immerse ourselves so fully into virtual space that we might nullify our meatspace perception. However such an exigency is already being worked towards34, and if the plans of those who wish to upload their consciousness come to pass, then this would be the only sure method of discerning if sacred space exists in virtual space, meatspace or astral space, or perhaps, as I believe, simultaneously in all three. Until the day comes, and I am certain it will, when we can unplug from our meatspace bodies’ sensoria completely, meatspace is where our perceptions remain focused. Meatspace remains our real reality.

Do others care about who we really are when they have made our acquaintance in cyberspace? This seems to depend on the type of relationship one has with them. The more personal the relationship the greater the concern. Certainly the media has reported on a host of cases where relationships in Second Life have resulted in meatspace divorces35 36 37 38. I did see this in action, I knew an inworld couple whose relationship resulted in meatspace marital upheaval when it was discovered by the partner of one party. There seems an odd disconnect here in that those persons who partake in these kind of relationships are often advocates for the reality of Second Life, while at the same time insisting their meatspace spouse won’t mind about their inworld romance.

My own experience was with much less intimate relationships, though it had serious consequences in the community. Much of Cleopatra’s unhappiness with my character revolved around her assertions that he was a misogynist who actively plotted to reduce female participation in the priesthood and the community in general. The thing the cloud of unknowing hid from her, and from you, was that my male avatar has a female behind him in meatspace. I have spent quite some time wondering about how events would have played out if I had had a female avatar. Would Cleopatra and I still have had a falling out? Would my relationship with other members of the community have been different? Almost certainly.

I had a male avatar for two and a half years and no one had guessed that he had a secret female inner self. I am not arguing that my character couldn’t possibly have been a misogynist simply because my meatspace body is female. I could have chosen to play a woman hater, but I didn’t. Moreover, the failure of my ability to maintain a separatist position at all times indicates that my meatspace self comes through into the avatar even if I try for it not to. Had I chosen to play a misogynist, in extremis my meatspace self’s lack of misogynism would have come through into the character when I became one with him.

After the collapse of the first community I came out to those I started the second community with. Their reactions did vary, but none of them were bothered by it. Some expressed extreme surprise, some admiration for my being able to effect this mirage for so long, and some were ambivalent, remarking that that kind of thing certainly happened all the time, although much more frequently with meatspace males having female avatars. I am certain that if I had maintained an intimate relationship with any of them, the reactions would have been amplified. I continued my relationships with them in the second community in more or less the same way as I had in the first. In time some forgot again, and when I later had occasion to meet them in a female avatar and made myself known to them, they would remark that they had forgotten, the power of appearances taking precedence. One remarked to me that he couldn’t conceive of me as a woman and was just going to keep thinking of me as a man.

For me the experience of being a man for so many hours a day for such a long period was a sustained examination of the nature of my self. Being as I have spent a majority of my working life in male dominated occupations it was not difficult for me to pass as male. My personality has been informed by those long years cohabiting with men so closely, though I am sure it is also the case that my personality was such to start with that I was suited to male company. I am not a girly girl. In fact that was the reason I chose to be a male to start with. When I first entered the world I had created a female avatar. But as I began to customise her I found that the majority of female accoutrements in the world were not to my taste. Animation overrides were always sold as either male or female. I quickly found the female AOs to be invariably overly sexualised. I just didn’t walk like that and I didn’t want my avatar to do so either. Some of the male AOs had masculine traits that I didn’t think perfectly suitable to a female avatar, but none of them were as obviously sexualised as the female ones. The solution I settled on was to select a male avatar and the least overtly masculine AO I could find. It was the least sexualised option. Perhaps this also explains why I hadn’t felt the need to obtain genitals for my avatar.

My being a man for my time in the world added another level of creation to my role play. I was a meatspace woman playing at being a male avatar playing at being a male character. Even when I was in other parts of the world than the Egyptian community I was still playing a role. It was a role that was a remix based on information I had about how males behave. Fortunately for me no one is trying to lock up information about what males are like behind paywalls in the same way they are for much other information. If that had been the case my portrayal of a male would have been less convincing. As it was I was able to successfully use the widely available information about being male to participate in a community and help to create culture. I was also making a new me, a me that included the lived experience of being a male.

As I have shown in my discussions of how residents remix to make new meaning, virtual worlds are at the forefront of culture creation. They enable us to create and immerse ourselves in new ways of living. Virtual worlds are test beds for new forms of societies, new forms of being. The immersive and multimedia nature of virtual worlds, and the sheer amount of time people spend being in the world, hasten the remix and allow individuals to create their own meaning and then live it. It is a reality where the subjective has primacy. The having of objectivity requires perfect knowledge. As we do not possess omniscience we must admit that we are in fact creatures of subjectivity. Only in the omniscience of apotheosis could we have objectivity, and once we had it we would be excluded from subjective experience. Anything we learn is a construction of our own subjective reality tunnel. And that is fine. That tunnel is the place in which we live. Instead of investing our efforts in trying to establish the primacy of a single, objective reality we would be better served to embrace anekāntavāda and realise that we cannot individually know the totality of being. This would have a dampening effect on the desire to impose a reality on others, which is the cause of the polarized tribalism that dominates political discourse at present.

The more I found out about ancient Egyptian religion the more it was in sync with my own religious ideas. For example, the divine in all things. In ancient Egypt, first kings, and then all humans were considered sons and daughters of the gods, “they are his images and come from his person”39. The physical world was also of the divine essence, “The Creator’s description of this in the Bremner-Rhind Papyrus (18, 21-22) … is that he broadened out (wsh) in the world and became being (hprw) itself”40. This is the exact opposite of the Jewish concept of tzimtzum, whereby Jehovah removes himself from a space in order to create the more finite human world41. The presence of divinity in both the natural world and in humans in ancient Egyptian thought is in stark contrast with the status of both in the Abrahamic religions. Moreover in ancient Egyptian thought humans were perfectible creatures who could achieve assimilation with the divine. It has always been my experience that both the natural world and humans are divine things. If this is the case then surely there is no reason why the divine would not be found in cyberspace.

The experience of my avatar’s initiation ritual certainly removed for me any doubt about the possibility of the generation of the perception of sacred space in cyberspace. Although I remain uncertain as to the exact locus of the sacred space in question, it was undoubtedly present. In my initiation ritual, while in the state of flow, where meatspace perceptions faded and I seemed to be in the world completely, virtual space became sacred space. That this perception continued on once my senses reasserted the primacy of meatspace, and to such a degree that I had felt compelled to close the ritual there as well, seems to indicate that the sacred space exists wherever one’s perception is focused. I can report that the perception of it was present in both spaces. It was found where my consciousness was focused.

If we admit of a divine spark in mankind perhaps it is that we are divinity made manifest without objectivity. We have forgotten it, perhaps on purpose. Perhaps we are manifest for the purpose of experiencing subjectivity. The nature of the universe supports this supposition. The manifest universe can be characterized by a single thing. That thing is change. Atoms move, energy flows, perceptions happen. We know things exist because we notice changes. Our perceptual system is drawn to changes. When we look at a scene our vision centers on the area of highest contrast or the most movement. If there is but a single tone in a scene we cannot discern anything but a flat field of colour. To have no change is to have stasis. Omniscience is stasis. To be omniscient is to always know everything. To know everything that is or will be. For such a being there can be nothing new, no change. There is only stasis, boredom. For change to be possible there must be the capacity to do or know or be a new thing. Thus the manifest universe could not exist without subjectivity. We each come to our own personal understanding of being as we create our own remix. From the ontological point of view of the ancient Egyptians, and myself, all things are part of the one divine totality of being. Cyberspace is real and divine in the same way that meatspace is.

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