SecondLife: Navigating realities

Posted by jerry on May 30th, 2007 — Posted in

This is essentially a paper I presented at the Crossing Cultures conference at ANU in 1998, with some minor updating to reflect more recent developments in virtual space.

What do we think of when we encounter the concept of ‘Virtual Reality’? Perhaps we have visions of people like myself staggering around the padded podia of the VR Cafe, or perhaps we have visions of sending our avatar out into SecondLife for another kind of immersive social experience.


Such immersive experiences position the user/reader in an artificial world comprised of computer-generated graphics. These greet us, perhaps at one end of what Ruthrof (1981) termed the ‘ladder of fictionality’. Ruthrof here depicts the distinction between invented and non-invented narrative as a ladder of varying degrees of fabrication. The steps of this ladder are bounded within authorial structuring of narrative and set in contra-distinction to what Edmund Husserl terms the ‘world-out-there’. I want to argue throughout this chapter that there are strong parallels to be drawn between the reality/virtuality debate, and the figurative/non-figurative debate in contemporary literary theory.

The other side of this debate is that we have ‘real’ encounters too, like the one in which we typically find ourselves, say, during a work day. In such a context we are at least positioned carefully within discourses about reality. Perhaps we might think of this as being mediated by and through language and the concepts we use to articulate that reality. Indeed our identity is tied to our perception of reality, and perhaps that is what we find so frightening when we push a little at the boundaries of our safe, ‘real’ identities in situations that allow us to deterritorialise – even within fictive spaces such as virtual worlds.

Perhaps deep down there is a concern that at the heart of our identity is an absent centre – an interplay of planes and surfaces reflecting our culture, our situation, our context. Yet at the same time this identity may not have a core ‘self’ waiting to be ‘uncovered’. Perhaps identity is something more fluid than that – a by-product of those pratices by which identity is enacted.

In the media, we have seen concerns that we are losing the youth of today as they become absorbed within the dark reaches of cyberspace. The media continues to perform what Fiske and Hartley termed the ‘Bardic Function’, holding up to society a mirror of its dark side. Such mirrors tell us narratives about

In this paper I want to explore three things:

* The place of the body in cyberspace, including technologies of positioning, such as the virtual reality – mixed reality/augmented reality continuum. I shall explore this through issues of space, including issues of resolution (line drawing/high res photo), registration (body on background), and through issues of time, including issues of synchronicity (of image with voice, and time zone issues);

* Questions of identity, through issues of authenticity/authentication, which may be articulated in terms of degrees of ‘playing false’, ie through the use of fictive and multiple identities (across gender/race/age, etc); and
* Issues arising from crossing cultures in cyberspace. These issues include the emergence of discourses of danger, mis/ambiguous readings of the presented world, the place-ment of the body in virtual space, and cultural aspects of the movement from linear to hypertext reading practice, and the development of visual semiotics, including virtual proxemics – literally the positioning we place between our avatar and someone else’s.

As we develop increasingly cyborgian technologies of communication and interaction, are we necessarily conjuring up a dystopian, Orwellian vision of a world filled with a-social cyberpunks? Or are we seeing merely a clash of cultures within the Developed West threatening to divide an already fictive unitary identity?

There is a small joke that asserts: “There are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world up into two kinds of people, and those who don’t.”

That joke is the point of this paper. It is about a clash of cultures. Ironically, rather than a clash of East-West world-views or a ‘clash of civilisations’, I want to suggest that we are seeing a clash between those who view the world in binary terms, and those who see the world in terms of hyperlinked alterity.

The technologies that are producing the latter culture, are with us today. They are Web2.0 social software – technologies of community. Networks. The internet is one, increasingly popular technology. But in this paper I want to talk about another, related set of technologies. These are technologies of telepresence, of virtual reality, real reality and a spectrum of middle ground terms sometimes referred to as mixed reality, or augmented reality.

What do we mean by these terms? Virtual reality seeks to completely immerse the user in an artificial world comprised of computer-generated graphics. There are a number of views on what constitutes VR. A major distinction of Virtual Reality systems is the mode with which they interface with the user. There are some non-technologically mediated methods that some people stretch to include in in the term ‘VR’, such as books, plays, movies or pure imagination (as though writing were not itself a technology), but for the purposes of this chapter I shall restrict myself to computer-based VR. That said, the inclusion of books and the like would raise for us similar implications in dealing with issues of the ‘ladder of fictionality’ with which I opened this chapter.


Mixed Reality combines views of the real world in some proportion with views of a virtual environment. Augmented Reality describes displays that consist primarily of a real environment, with graphical enhancements or augmentations. Augmented reality is said to enhance the virtual experience by adding elements of the real environment.

An example of this is a lab in Japan where teleconferences are held in rooms hundreds of kilometres apart, but in which live video and still photographic images are combined to provide an illusion that all participants are in the same room.

Of course teleconferences have been happening for several years now, and in themselves are unremarkable. What is different about mixed reality is that it represents a movement further towards the fully immersive experience. And this creates, according to its protagonists, a greater sense of contact with the other person or people. Such an environment is SecondLife, where you can play real music in real-time while your avatar plays a virtual instrument, or dances.

Mixed reality reduces bandwidth by keeping some elements of the image constant, while dynamic images, such as people, can then be rendered with higher resolution for the same bandwidth as normal video/television. But what does this do for our sense of mediation? What happens if increasingly, not only our movies have combinations of people and animated cartoon characters, but our real interactions do too?

What does this do for procedures of authentication? What if the person we think we are talking to in real time is actually someone quite different? What if the images were substituted? These are questions that have plagued information technologies since the dawn of writing. Plato, writing as Socrates in the Phaedrus, complains that writing could make information available to those not ready or authorised to receive it. Today this issue is being played out in terms of under-age access to pornographic material, and in electronic commerce for authentication of financial transactions. I suspect that we will find ways to agree on new forms of ‘signature’ to accommodate such changes and in the process cease to see them as problematic. Either we are dealing with another form of ‘public’ space in which we present a persona not so different from our current use of dress codes and cosmetic touches that ‘improve’ our presentation or we are dealing with yet another imposition on what previously might have been seen as a ‘private’ space.

In terms of the so-called ‘post-structuralist turn’ (I prefer philosophical recognition) these technologies can be seen as challenging the notion of biological individuality so cherished by modernist philosophers. This challenge strikes close to that which Deleuze and Guattari (1983, 48) refer to as deterritorialisation. An extension beyond the expected subject-space, a projection into the meaning-space that Kristeva refers to as the semiotic CHORA.

At the heart of all this is the place/role of the body in cyberspace, which is an issue of identity, as Senft and Horn (1996) point out. Indeed, the role of the body remains under-theorised today. Nonetheless it would seem to be increasingly important to address these issues as mixed/augmented reality systems extend the problematic role/place/identity of the body in human interaction, and in human-machine interaction.

But under-theorised or not, new technologies of interaction are forcing us to confront new modes of subjectivity. Sherry Turkle (1996) refers to this in her discussion about virtual worlds, like SecondLife – with previous incarnations being MOO-spaces – Multi-User Domains – Object Oriented (text games) in which people interact in real-time with other people and in textual spaces with virtual objects. People on internet ‘chat rooms’ routinely make fluid distinctions of gender identity. I suspect though that these days in virtual worlds, like SecondLife this is old hat and actually happens by exception.

Sherry Turkle, (1996:178ff) notes that avatars are able to express in concrete terms an important aspect of individual identity formation. Drawing on Lacanian psycho-analytic theory Turkle sees these multiple avatars as external representations of the multiple identities which collectively form the individual.

I want to suggest that this is where the relationship between individuals and larger identity structures intersect in important ways, each as multiplicities of discursive elements. In this sense I want to extend Turkle’s work on individual identity on the net to encompass a range of identity structures from individuals to nation-states. To do so, I seek to combine elements of Lacan’s theory of individual identity with elements of Michel Foucault,’s ‘author function;’ to arrive at a theory of networked identity that can be seen to operate at all levels of discourse, from individuals to states.

Such a theory is crucial to an understanding of the fluid nature of identity. In addition it provides a means of understanding the complexity of interactions between what is taking place on the internet at the level of the individual and what this means for the family, the corporation, the nation-state.

Two processes combine to allow/cause the individual to enter the social world. The first, is via what Jacques Lacan (1982:1-7 especially 4) terms the ‘mirror stage’. In this stage; the child sees herself as other, exterior to the child who does the seeing. This necessitates a division between the ‘I’ that is seen and the ‘I’ that does the seeing. The outcome is that the child notes a gap between herself and the world around her. It is in the desire to overcome or bridge this gap that the child enters the symbolic order through language.

The second process is through language which necessitates a division between the ‘I’ of discourse (that is the socially construed idea of what the term ‘I’ means) and the ‘I’ who speaks.

So individuals enter the social world through language. In the process the individual establishes and maintains her or his identity. At the same time, the individual is positioned by the social contexts in which language is used. The society in which the individual is embedded produces the forms in which social relations can be enacted. The individual thus represents a social formation within the symbolic order.

Individuals speak their identity across a range of discursive situations. Among these are situations that require the individual to ‘speak for’ or ‘in the place of’ other individuals. Examples of this include the family as a site of intervention for a range of practices concerned with health, economic viability, social conformity, within legal discourses, and so on, extending up to larger formations such as organisations, firms or nation-states. Moreover as individuals we articulate a range of personae or identity structures such as wife, mother, lecturer, lover, shopper, internet wizard, author and so on.

Thus insofar as the individual represents and is represented by and within a range of discourses, the individual cannot be said to be unitary, continuous or cohesive. It follows then, that the individual may be construed as such only insofar as he or she enacts a specific regime of boundaries, establishing and maintaining the identity of self in opposition to the anarchic exterior.

For Turkle the use of multiple identities in cyberspace merely extends the range of selves available, thus making the individual in a sense more complete, and more comfortable insofar as it is possible to ‘try out’ or model a range of points of view. In short, the notion of individuals being unitary is itself an illusion. The self of language and of the symbolic order at large is always ‘virtual’ – a simulation. Thus moves into other modes of mediation are metonymic rather than metaphoric – an extension, rather than a different order of existence. This is why postmodernists prefer the term ‘alterity;’ rather than difference. That is, an interplay among a matrix of alternatives, rather than the more hierarchical binary dichotomies that characterised modernist thought.

Sherry Turkle, provides perhaps one of the best descriptions of the reality of virtual life, regardless of the medium in which it is played out:

… the idea that you are constituted by and through language is not an abstract idea if you’re confronted with the necessity of creating a character in a MOO. You just do it. Your words are your deeds, your words are your body. And you feel these word-deeds quite viscerally. (Turkle in Brockman 1997:307)

Of course in SecondLife the world is visual and aural and richly textured, so other cultural codes or semiotic systems come into play, such as dress codes, body shape (there’s quite a market in body shapes and skin types)

But how shallow is it? and what about the threat aspects? While the internet is clearly not an end in itself, so the issue facing education is becoming one of how to produce more sophisticated readers of multimedia, rather than rigid readers of text. The business and government communities are going to need people able to work comfortably in intranet environments – indeed facility with the internet is rapidly becoming a factor in employability in the US.

I want to argue that new media and other multi-layered forms of communication provide depth in two ways. Firstly they provide images as well as text, and are generally speaking within a more richly visual environment; and secondly they provide the facility for hypertext linking. Critics, such as Clifford Stoll, want to liken hyperlinking to channel surfing on TV, but there is a difference. Hyperlinking allows the reader to construct their own narrative sequence to the information they want to retrieve. The reader is engaged in an active process, constantly making choices about whether to go down this or that pathway.

Textual documents can be enriched with links to their source material or explanatory notes, or related material. Moreover, and perhaps of greatest importance, is the way hypertext breaks down the linearity and hierarchical structure of linear writing. The web is closer to what Hélène Cixous, called écriture feminine (feminine inscription) than segregated and bound volumes of print.

There are important implications for this in the way people develop their very thought processes. We are long past the time when the mythical ‘renaissance person’ could hold all the world’s knowledge in their mind – it was probably a myth long before the Renaissance. Perhaps today learning needs to focus on how to access the data one needs in life, and how to read it with a critical eye. These are the human aspects of education, and are perhaps the most neglected by those who want to focus solely on spelling and grammar.

The world today is a complex world of change. Information is being put out of date before it reaches print, let alone before it has languished in a school library for twenty years. So even in schools there will be a significant social and educational division between those who receive an active education using online tools in a critical and multifaceted environment, and those who receive a narrow, linear and hierarchical education – who will be best equipped for a changing world? Clearly then, there will be information haves and have-nots within the developed world, in ways that matter critically to the continued development of those countries. Can SecondLife and other such space provide an alternative educational environment to overcome the tyrannies of distance and – albeit at the cost of increasing the need for bandwidth? I suspect it can, judging by the conference spaces that are springing up all over his virtual world.


Stoll suggests that the net is like channel surfing on a TV set. Everything is presented in bite-sized chunks, and people can click aimlessly from page to page passing time while waiting for the next page to download. But rather than lament the passing of the linear understanding of the world, we should perhaps recognise that we live in a world of surfaces. Moreover we live in a world of surfaces that produce identities at the intersection points between one surface and another. The net is an excellent metaphor for this process, which was identified some thirty years ago by the likes of Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, and Michel Foucault who steered us into the postmodern turn.

What is becoming increasingly important is the interplay between the surfaces of our culture. We speak of identity as multifaceted, lending strength to novelist Neal Stephenson’s (1995) metaphor of the ‘diamond age’. An age in which identity is constantly shifting, playing off one form of light against another, and existing in that interplay.

If that is the case, the nostalgia for ‘core values’, for a ‘core identity’ or a universal subject on which we could hang our identity and preach one way of life over others on the assumption that it somehow had access to the real reality, is nothing more than an exercise in self delusion, a facade of depth.

But this is something quite different from the so-called nihilism of the postmodern condition. It does not indicate an absence of ethics, far from it. For if the individual is identified by and through their signifying practices – their language, their actions – and if these actions are only meaningful insofar as they identify boundaries between self and other, then the individual, as a philosophical imperative, must take responsibility for his or her own actions. Indeed individuals must take responsibility for their own being, their very identity as a member of this or that community.

So ethics re-enters the debate insofar as each social community negotiates its own way of dealing with the world, its means of constructing self as against the Other, thus ethics can be seen as historically contingent. Moreover, since it comes up against all other communities with which it has to deal, then these ethics can be considered permanently under siege – essentially contested. Such ethics are arguably stronger than those produced in an historical era when ethics were considered to be ‘god-given’, because the latter system allowed the individual to evade or sidestep responsibility for his or her own actions. Have we moved so far from these traditional roots?

The print and electronic media plays its Bardic role, providing narratives of threat wrapped up in discourses of danger. Net porn, online paedophiles, virtual rapists, hackers with sniffer programs to get your password, credit card number and read your email and so on, form text-tiles that are quilted to the fabric of identity.

All this wrapping, all this thickening of the skin is needed in order to prevent a crossing of boundaries, a pricking of the skin. But this would seem to be an over-emphasis on something that should be little more than an administrative or procedural problem. I want to contend here that the issue runs rather deeper into the fundamental constitution of identity itself. Surely we would not be so worried about penetration if all that were at stake were a metaphorical flesh wound? If the body in question were an object, if it were a unitary subject, with a centre well protected by layer upon layer of all too solid flesh, perhaps that would be the case. But if identity is that which is enacted by practices of boundarymaking and edures only for as long as the practices are upheld, then penetration at the boundaries becomes a visceral issue of identity survival. Are the narratives of identity, that modernism persists in telling, sufficient to account for all the challenges? Are they about revealing a true or core identity? Or is there a sense of desparation about the desire for closure?

I contend that the narrative is too complete. Popular culture from Neighbours to the Young and the Restless, to Mills and Boon and the News serve to build and strengthen narratives of unitary subjects. These in turn are stitched together in a web of community, itself protrayed as complete in its containment. These are narratives of return and internal resolution, narratives of conservatism, narratives of power and normalisation. They are fictive epics to soothe away the grazes of life in the world.


Their purpose is to provide a sense of community identity – shared values. These are the narratives that extoll the virtues of family values – when the ‘average’ two-parent, two-point-six child family represents less than fourteen percent of the population. It is a narrative of lack for which normative legislation gets passed and by which those who are construed as Other become demonised.

So too for those who went online. The same issues extend here to cases of ‘virtual rape’ in cyberspace, such as that described by Julian Dibbell (1994), to actual assaults resulting from unwary correspendents meeting in ‘real life’ with ‘virtual’ friends. No doubt there is some truth in these stories, these narratives. Indeed, narratives like these have helped shape popular concerns about the internet, resulting in sometimes draconian legislative responses. Such responses raise questions about the power of the virtual to influence the real as theese new technologies of networking make it easier for us to willingly suspend our disbelief. Surely this is what gave so much force to the debate over the power of fiction to lead people astray as seen in the court case over Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. But all this presupposes a pure binary oppostion between the fictive and the real.

Ruthrof pointed to ladders of fictionality. I prefer to think of the asymptote of fictionality. By this I refer to the imaginary line one might draw within language or other semiotic system, at one end tending towards, but never quite reaching ultimate fictionality, or de-referentiality. The other end would tend towards, but never quite achieve the mythical one-to-one correspondence with reality. This too applies to contexts in which various realities are merged to form one perceptual input along the reality-virtuality continuum.

This brings us back to the intersection between the debate on the virtual-ness of virtuality and the linguistic turn in poststructuralism. Specifically I want to reference the Whorff/Sapir hypothesis (in Whorff 1956) which echoes Wittgenstein in proposing that the limits of language are the limits of the knowable world.

This is not the nihilism sometimes ascribed mistakenly to Derrida, but rather a recognition of the role played by conceptual mediation – whether visually, textually, aurally, tactile-ly or olefactorily – in providing us with operational frameworks through which to view and operate the ‘world-out-there’ whether it is linguistic or non-linguistic.

If this is the case, then there are implications for the role of the body in cyberspace in the constitution of distinct cultures – the wired and the unwired. One culture will literally think in a more linear fashion, the other in a more hyperlinked fashion, making connections between concepts through juxtaposition and achieving as teams or communities rather than as individuals or corporate bodies.

One culture will deal in binary, adversarial logic, the other in systems of alterity and inclusion. But these are no longer cultures from abroad, though they may have more in common with like-minded souls across the planet, across different time zones – people with whom they form relationships while knowing they may never meet in person. In the body.


Within the nation, the state, the community, and the family two distinct sets of cultures are interacting, one with the other. For some it marks the end of the nation-state, for others the family. I suspect in the end the nation state will survive, the family will thrive, but our web of close interpersonal relationships may spread out across geographies we can barely imagine. It will be a world of two kinds of people: those who divide the world up into two kinds of people, and those who don’t.


Cixous, Hélène (1981) “Castration or Decapitation?” in Signs Vol. 7. No1, pp41-55.

Deleuze, Giles and Guattari, Felix (1977). Anti-Oedipus. New York, Viking.

Dibbell, Julian “A Rape in Cyberspace; or How an Evil Clown, a Haitian Trickster Spirit, Two Wizards and a Cast of Dozens Turned a Database into a Society” in Dery, M., Ed. (1994) Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture Durham & London, Duke University Press pp.237-263

Fiske, J. and Hartley, J. (1978) Reading Television London, Methuen.

Foucault, Michel “What is an Author?” in Harari, J. V., Ed. (1979) Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Perspectives London, Methuen pp.141-161.

Kristeva, Julia “Revolution in Poetic Language” in Moi, T., Ed. (1986) The Kristeva Reader Oxford, Basil Blackwell pp.90-136

Lacan, J. (1982) “The Mirror Stage” in Écrits : A Selection trans. Alan Sheridan, London, Tavistock.

Ruthrof, H. (1981) The Readers Construction of Narrative London, Routledge Kegan Paul.

Senft, T. N., Ed. (1997) Sexuality and Cyberspace: Performing the Digital Body New York, Women and Performance Journal.

Stephenson, N. (1995) The Diamond Age London, Viking.

Stoll, C. (1996) Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway London, Pan Books.

Turkle, S. (1996) Life on the Screen London, Weidfenfeld and Nicolson.

Turkle, S. (1997) “The Cyberanalyst” in Brockman, J. (1997) Digerati: Encounters with the Cyber Elite London, Orion Business Books pp.295-303.

Whorf, B. L. (1956) Language, Thought and Reality New York, Wiley.

Copyright Jerry Everard (1998/2007)

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