This weekend's FT (great newspaper, a must-read if you want to understand how the non-US centric part of the world thinks), features a superb commentary on the Second Life virtual world from Christopher Caldwell, a senior editor at The Weekly Standard. You can try to read the article at this link, but you might need a paid subscription to see the whole thing, so I will hit the high points.
Caldwell argues cogently that spending lots of time in an alternative reality is "a vaguely onanistic hobby that serves as a retreat for those who can find no purchase in real life."
In fairness, there's something to be said for vaguely onanistic hobbies, but he does make a few good points:
"Online avatars are not autonomous. They are not related to their creators the way Mr Hyde is related to Dr Jekyll. They are related to their creators the way Mr Hyde and Dr Jekyll are related to Robert Louis Stevenson."
"If avatars were really the free spirits that internet boosters claim they are, then trademarks would lose their value in 'alternative' worlds – and they don’t."
He does point out that there are a lot of businesses setting up shop in SL, but he also makes the argument that few SL devotees are willing to admit:
"Corporate marketers consider avatars mostly as “eyes” that can be drawn in a non-shopping but fantasy-susceptible situation – as in a football stadium, or in front of a TV screen. Virtual reality is a new form of advertising. It is not a new world."
Caldwell comments on the highly publicized article in the Jesuit magazing Civilita Catolica, which I haven't been able to find online in English -- or Italian for that matter. (Anyone know where to link to the original article?) by Fr. Antonio Spadaro, which calls for missionaries to inhabit Second Life.
A lot of online commentators have used this as a jumping off point to ridicule religion, but Caldwell and Spadaro have the right spin, I think:
"Virtual reality may be overrated as an economic phenomenon, but it is an important spiritual one. While not offering anything particularly new, it may still manage to devalue the old, posing dangers to a person’s inmost character – his 'real' character or, if you prefer, his soul. It does this mostly through what Fr Spadaro calls 'the temptation towards the cancellation of experience'. More and more of life can be 'rewound', undone and treated as an 'experiment' that has no moral meaning."
If you don't believe this, Caldwell goes on to point out an uncomfortable truth about Second Life. To a large extent, it's about the "idol worship" all of our great religious texts warn against, the triumph of materialism over spiritual growth. If you don't believe that, consider the kinds of avatars Caldwell notes that people choose:
"There are reportedly few children in the world of Second Life avatars and few members of the working class. The virtual world makes it clear that there are identities nobody wants."
In what seems to be an echo of T.S. Elliot's famous line, Fr Spadaro writes. “Today people are afraid of naked reality.”
There are good reasons to experiment in virtual worlds, but there are also good reasons to keep both feet in the real one too.