Jowls are available

Jenny Diski

Most religions suggest that we get at least one other go at being. Christianity offers an afterlife, Judaism suggests an altogether better existence once the Messiah arrives, while Hinduism and other Eastern religions try to deal with samsara, the terrible burden of having to do life over and over again until you get it right. But I don’t think any of them offer much help with the alarming notion of multiple worlds, which quantum theorists have arithmeticked to prove entirely possible. As far as I can understand it, Many Worlds Theory proposes that there are n zillion worlds like this one but marginally different, operating in parallel to the only world in which we think we exist. There you’re wearing pink kitten heels not Hush Puppies, there you had sausage for breakfast not muesli, there it so happened that you took a left turn not a right one and became a fashionistic, carnivoracious arch-criminal instead of the peace-negotiating, vegan, style wasteland you are in this world. We might each be living out all our possible lives, through all the variations of what we could possibly say or do, in an infinite number of worlds where everyone else is living out their variations, each at some weird angle to this one that my sorry, innumerate and spatially challenged brain is unable to comprehend. If this sounds like hell on earths to you then you probably haven’t signed up for Second Life.

Second Life is a virtual online world that exists on a vast computer somewhere in California. It has a detailed landscape, a mainland, many islands and more than one million simulated inhabitants whose actual bodies are distributed around every part of the physical world. It’s called a game though there is no goal and no end point at which a clear winner emerges and takes the prize. In this it is no different from real life (RL, as it’s referred to in SL). And it’s free up to a point, which is the entrance price of real life, though just like the here and now, if you want to own any part of the world in Second Life, you need money to buy it. There are of course differences between RL and SL. You have to opt in to SL, which is a degree of volition you don’t get in reality. This does give it a certain negative charm: at least there is one possible life to which you can just say no. It also has the edge on the real thing (for me, at least, as an über-indolent person), because being a virtual world, you don’t have to go out to get to it. I used to weep envious buckets watching whatshisname in Close Encounters of the Third Kind being taken off-world to the absolutely not here anymore by those delightful doe-eyed creatures, and Second Life seemed to offer a way of doing this without the hassle of the striving, making mountains out of mashed potato, quest thing. So I signed up.

The problem turned out to be (as it must) that Second Life is organised and inhabited by beings from the real world who have by definition very little experience of being anywhere or any way else. Being virtual is not very different from being real because the virtual place and its beings are controlled by the same old us as always. I heard the Tory politician Bill Cash on the radio the other day explaining that we needed to repeal the Human Rights Act because it was formulated and operated by idealists. I suppose it was my idealist tendencies which caused my difficulty with Second Life. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but was, that this alternative world has a material life and economy uncannily similar to the one we’re already stuck with. If you are looking for another way of being, you’ll be deeply disappointed. But you probably won’t be because you will understand that it couldn’t be otherwise. I was beguiled by the idea of a world apart from the real world which people keep telling me I have to come to terms with. It turns out that there is no second life on Second Life, only more of the same old first and only one, but cartoon-shaped. In Second Life each individual can take little bits of processing power, learn to manipulate them and make two-dimensional objects of any kind. Linden Lab, the owners of Second Life, guarantee that everyone will retain the real world intellectual property rights to their virtual creations. So is the place stuffed full of extraordinary experimental poetry, song, fiction, art and architecture?

Second Life is a reiteration. It’s a virtual world of buying and selling, profit and consumption, material decoration and political apathy. What you get in this alternative world are houses, home decorations, clothes, jewellery, cars, motorbikes, casinos, strip clubs and shops in which to sell all these things to cartoon characters representing their computer owners, who ‘live’ in the houses on the virtual land they have bought, titivate their interiors, change their clothes, hair and jewellery, drive the cars, gamble in the casinos and stand around gazing at naked pole dancers. That is to say, staring at cartoons who shimmy up to two-dimensional poles and rub their pixillated breasts and pudenda in the time-honoured weary wanton manner. There is education. Tutors explain how to manipulate the pixels to make things, and there are American colleges running courses for their paying students. Of Socrates in the agora there is no sign.

You join Second Life in the form of an ‘avatar’. The first – and most entertaining – thing you do when you arrive is invent yourself. Beginning with a basic set of templates (hot chick, hunk, businesswoman, sporty type), you tweak dozens of detailed physical elements until you get something you want. Skin, eye and hair colour, clothing and height are all under your control. The inner and outer corners of your eyes can be turned incrementally up and down, your lips made fuller or thinner, ditto thighs, waist and pecs; cheekbones can be more or less prominent and higher or lower, ditto forehead, nose and breasts. Eventually, your avatar becomes a caricature of what you have always wanted to be, exactly what you are, or in some cases a large furry animal. In fact, by far the majority of the avatars are of the first kind. Offered the possibility of designing their own physiognomy, it seems very few people can resist producing the tinseltown dream version. Second Life is almost entirely inhabited by impossibly long-legged, big-breasted, muscle-rippling blondes with lips so plumped full of what would be collagen in the real world that they make Ivana Trump’s mouth look mean. The males are much the same, only taller. What this place needs is a grumpy old woman, I thought, and decided to become Second Life’s single example of an older generation. I made my avatar into a woman of 60, with wrinkles and jowls (they are available), downturned mouth and eyes, white hair, shapeless black jeans and a black sweater, and set off to find the nearest marketplace to mutter all kinds of thin-lipped warnings to the frivoling young. There was a time in the early 1970s in Amsterdam when the centre of the city was inhabited entirely by the under-30s. After a couple of days it got alarming. Where were the older people? In Second Life they are probably there, but they don’t have to look it.

It turned out that like the old everywhere, I was invisible and inaudible. I was spoken to just once. Someone who seemed to be wearing a tight maroon jumper and purple trousers said I looked old enough to know who he was. I was baffled.

‘I’m Captain Kirk,’ he explained as the jumper resolved into a tunic. One good thing about Second Life is that you can fly instantly from one spot to another. I flew. After a while I gave up wandering the earth (flying and teleporting in fact) with my messages of cultural dismay, and started asking questions of the helpful employees of Linden Labs made virtual flesh and available to assist the bewildered novice. (Speech is keyed in and appears on the screen in a small box. It’s slow.) They invariably answered my question ‘What is there to do here?’ with: ‘Well, what do you like to do in RL? You can meet people, dance, gamble, date, buy clothes, hang out . . . whatever you want.’

In fact, I only like to do two of those things, and gambling I do anyway in cyberspace, while clothes only please me when they are actually hanging in my cupboard or on my body.

‘But why wouldn’t I do the things I like in the real world in the real world?’

‘Because here you can do them better.’

I was taken with the notion of becoming a great painter, but I couldn’t see how Second Life would make me great at what I’m no good at in real life. If I wanted to think of myself as a great painter in spite of what I made on canvas or screen, I could just as well be delusional in the here and now. The point of a virtual existence became less and less clear to me.

‘I watch TV, read, and I listen to music.’

TV wasn’t an option in Second Life unless staring at a screen, talking at two-dimensional figures who are not what they pretend to be counts. Virtual concerts are available. The Arctic Monkeys (I think) had bought an island and were doing gigs on it, but no Beethoven quartets or Tom Waits concerts were listed when I searched for them. In any case, my computer doesn’t have the kind of sound system that would make even the Arctic Monkeys sound as they should. For reading, I was directed to the Library, where, this being a simulacrum of the modern world, for a few Linden dollars I bought a copy of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. But reading, after all, is and always has been a second life. So now a virtual me was carrying around a virtual book of poetry. And if my avatar (Jehu, I called my/herself) could have read it I/she would have done so to keep the virtual world out, just as I have done for much of my real life. Though, of course, my fantasy self couldn’t actually read my unreal book because an avatar doesn’t read or do anything, being entirely dependent on the will and brainpower of a real self out here in First Life directing it.

I had hopes of there being some kind of politics in Second Life. Maybe there were cyber-revolutionaries intent on subverting the pointless mimicry of the real world or an underground working to overturn the autocratic rule of the Lindens. Surely, in virtuality if anywhere the spirit of the Levellers must live on. What I found when I put ‘politics’ and ‘revolution’ into the search facility was something called Slobodan Milosz’s Marxist Information Centre. I put in the co-ordinates and teleported there immediately. ‘Welcome to my home and auto shop, where I have set aside a small area commemorating the influential ideas of Karl Marx,’ a notice says. Slobodan had been a leading member of the now defunct Second Life Socialist Party and Second Life Communist Party, but had given it up. ‘Joining a party that claims to reverse the whole of human history is bogus,’ the notice goes on to explain. ‘And is just as good as a group of girls who decide to wear bikinis. It does not solve the heart of the issue.’ Unarguable, really. There were impressive reproductions of Spanish Civil War posters and photos of Marx, Lenin and (perhaps because he had a beard) Freud. A copy of the Communist Manifesto was available, so I added it to my inventory to join the Sonnets. Through an open archway was Slobodan’s auto shop, where a variety of low-slung cars were for sale along with Mr Wong’s Laundry Van, designed and made by Slobodan for 30 Linden dollars.

However, when 15 members of the Front National lately acquired land and built their headquarters on Second Life things did take something of a political turn. Anti-fascist avatars turned up and demonstrated. A battle ensued. Political rage, Second Life style, is expressed by chucking exploding pink pigs at your opponents, strafing them with virtual machine guns, pelting them with holograms of marijuana leaves or anything else you fancy making with your little bits of processing power. The Le Pen brigade built another HQ in a different part of town, its walls covered with heroic studies of their leader. Supporters mill about inside and outside the building wearing muscles and white T-shirts. When I flew in to take a look, there was a brief demonstration by invisible forces who bombarded the area with fluttery anti-Front National signs and flying placards picturing a Hitler-moustached Le Pen. How strange to have an extreme nationalist party setting up shop in a hallucinated, incorporeal world. But excellent publicity for Linden Lab.

And sex? Nearby advertising hoardings suggested that anyone wanting to earn some easy Linden dollars should apply for work at the Sexy Vixens’ Play Den. There is a red-light district in Second Life. I arrived in Amsterdam (why be original in the unoriginal world of sexual fantasy?) and found crowds of male and female avatars hanging about outside booths where erotic dancers enticed customers into the club. A notice outside the Sexy Vixens’ Play Den warned against competitors:

Don’t be sold short by so called ‘classy’ escort agencies – when you are paying for it you want a filthy fuck puppet to fulfil your every fantasy. We have a range of poseballs, bondage furniture and sex gen beds. Our rates start at L$1000 for half an hour for the time of your life.

On the street, female avatars dressed in thigh boots, glittering bustiers or naked but for a thong and high heels, offered pussy in return for between L$500 and L$700. It’s always struck me that online sex, so essential a part of the online experience, would be no fun for those of us who are touch-typists and need to use both hands.

‘What do you do apart from talk dirty?’

‘Everything. Anything you like in RL I can do for you here. And you can do things here you’ve only dreamed about.’

I had a complete failure of imagination.

‘How?’

‘Give me some money and I’ll show you.’

I know this sounds like ‘I made my excuses and left,’ but part of me was very sorry that, after paying for the Sonnets, I had just L$244 left of the L$250 the nice people at Linden Labs give everyone to get started. It wasn’t a large enough part, however, to justify submitting to this paper’s publisher an expenses claim for virtual sexual enlightenment.

Aside from the mystery of the poseballs and the sex gen beds, nothing else about Second Life suggested a novel way of being. I suppose that I misread the whole thing. ‘Second’ doesn’t mean ‘alternative’. But not only does Second Life not offer an alternative existence, it positively encourages a replication of the regular world. It’s less a case of do it better than do it again: in fact, this seems to be its chief attraction. There is an embedded Reuters correspondent in Second Life working from a virtual Reuters building and reporting both in-world and in reality. In the foyer I met a reporter from al-Jazeera trying, like me, to figure out what the point was. So far he hadn’t come up with one. One recent excitement in the actual world’s press was caused by the discovery that people were making real and quite serious money by doing just what people do in RL: buying and selling, accumulating surplus, exploiting scarcity, creating desire, selling their labour, begging. You can buy and sell the Linden dollar on real world currency exchanges. It fluctuates, but currently L$247.5 is worth US$1. Land is created and controlled by Linden Labs. It represents computer power and they lease it out to purchasers for a monthly fee plus a US$9.95 monthly upgrade on the free account which secures the right to buy. Land can be sold, sublet and built on. One early land-grabber made US$200,000 in real life last year by speculating on Second Life property. Another virtual world based in the Netherlands, Entropy Universe, has made the economic link between fantasy and reality even stronger by building degeneration into everything that exists on it. Not just clothes and cars wear out, but presumably bodies, too. And no silly sentimentality about a national health service to worry about. A virtual money-market currency and built-in obsolescence is a perfect world indeed.

It makes the old Gnostic version of the Creation, which has a junior deity creating our universe to practise on, look compellingly plausible. The senior gods have surely long since produced a much nicer immaterial universe in which we, half-arsed underling attempt at a world that we are, cannot participate. And being what we are, and techno-whizzes to boot, we can and do perpetually reproduce our own conditions in increasingly sophisticated formats. A very different kind of multiple world theory, where the same sad little world is made over and over again. I really hope that our alternative selves, in at least some of those infinite parallel worlds the quantum physicists tell of, are doing better.