The beta version of “Second Life” was published ten years ago this fall. Five years later, the game (which allows users to navigate through in a virtual world and interact with other avatars) had reached its peak. As the number of users grew rapidly, Second Life became a topic of public discussion and was examined by journalists, psychologists, teachers, sociologists, economists, and criminologists. They discussed the Second Life phenomenon and warned – not surprisingly – against the tangible consequences of virtual reality: Second Life would spawn new forms of dependence and addiction, they said, and the “residents” of the virtual world would gradually lose their sense of reality. Pornography would multiply and violence would be worshipped. Throughout the Western hemisphere, a whole generation would be lost to the evil and fake world of “Second Life,” spending their days in dimly lit rooms in front of bright monitors. In the end, the new reality would surely become exploited by an overpowering corporation, which would enslave the users and exploit them at will.
Today, Second Life has almost been forgotten. The number of active users has declined for years, investigative journalists have canceled their accounts and wire services have turned elsewhere, too. Only the prophets of imminent doom – who warned that the youth would only be the first to get swallowed up by the digital bog and that the rest of us would soon follow – haven’t quieted down. Their works still fill the shelves of bookstores and the pages of literary journals.
Second Life is a good case study for the idea that our thinking and our actions will be radically changed by the internet and mobile communication. The idea posits, simply put, that the internet is like a gigantic machinery, or rather like a gigantic net that has captured our social life and from which we cannot escape: we are lured into the net by way of gimmicks that satisfy our desire for gossip or entertainment or information. A few decades ago, this desire was satisfied by radio and TV or by some gadgets in your car. Today, apps are everywhere. They expose us to a constant stream of information and communication tidbits, they are displayed on little smartphones or big flat-screen TVs. They are addictive, they make us lose sight of the real world. We have lowered our defenses and are now becoming slaves to technology.
To proponents of this idea, this machine seems driven by capitalist multinationals, who are in turn run by shadow networks of greedy and amoral managers whose only goal is to keep us in a constant state of stupidity and dependence.
Second Life illustrates why such fears are unfounded. In front of the monitors are human beings. They haven’t been taken hostage by an alien force: they have merely allowed themselves to become addicted to something that they desired – consciously or not – all along. The best medicine against corporate power is our tendency to become bored: we like to play for a while, but we often abandon our pastimes again when boredom strikes. We’re also a lot more critical than most proponents of the aforementioned idea would admit. If we’re upset by something or dissatisfied with a product – if ads are displayed too prominently, or if a platform isn’t customizable enough – we tend to move on. The death of virtually all Facebook competitors is a good example.
Not the users are dependent on the managers of social networks: the opposite is true. Because users can easily network (that’s the whole point!), a social network inevitably provides the platform for dissent and resistance that disgruntled users might turn against the network. Second Life is failing because it has become obvious to all users that the virtual world is a social desert and mostly filled with solitude. Alternative platforms and another digital promised land are often just a click away. The last message from one platform is often an open invitation to all friends to reconvene elsewhere.
Isn’t it wonderful, so to speak, in the digital world of the internet? Obviously not. But the mistake is to search online for the root causes of social atomism. Social media and information technologies aren’t the reason that our social relations have weakened. Technologies are consequences of cultural change (and thus a legitimate object of criticism), but not its cause. The public face of the internet – social networks that allow us to start friendships with the click of a button and share snippets of information that confirm our own view of the world without much reflection – has evolved in a particular way because our networked reason has long demanded it. And the future of the internet will also be determined by the sum of human wishes and desires, not by some bodiless force. If you want to criticize the digital world, start by criticizing our wishes and desires – and not the technologies we develop to satisfy them.
Read more in this column Jörg Friedrich: Back to the future