Victor Margolin

Second Life is an online “consensual hallucination” that now involves more than one million players around the globe. It is a visual environment in which players choose virtual avatars or personas to represent them. These avatars carry on a virtual life, establishing relationships, shopping, buying and selling real estate, and engaging in other activities. Well, you might think that one million people who are free to invent a world of their choosing and who spend many hours each week, not to mention considerable amounts of money, participating in it, might instill a strong dose of social idealism into its creation.

While I am not a participant in Second Life, what I have read about it suggests to me that it embodies little that is inspirational and is instead based on strong values of consumerism and the creation of individual wealth. The characters or avatars all have bodies that look like the most handsome and beautiful anime characters and their wardrobes rival those of the world’s wealthiest fashionistas. With garments costing only modest amounts in real money as it is converted into Second Life linden dollars, even a secretary or waiter in the real world can dress like Imelda Marcos or Giorgio Armani.

Similarly with houses; players spend a great deal of time and money building big houses with all the amenities that would consume vast amounts of energy in the real world. Ambitious Second Lifers invest extensively in real estate and speculate in land values just as one might do in real life. In fact, from what I have seen thus far, the ideal for many people in Second Life is to live more lavishly in the virtual world than they can in the real world. In Second Life they virtually enact social rituals such as marriage, sex, and even divorce. To add legitimacy to Second Life, real world companies are trying out marketing ideas for new products in virtual form. And the Swedish government has opened the first virtual embassy in Second Life to provide information about visas and other matters of interest to the international community. The fact that Second Life has replicated the most extreme values of materialism and shown little evidence of social idealism, at least in the literature about it, is discouraging. Second Life, in fact, does not have real world players who are poor. Everyone who plays has to have enough money to pay the fees, and buy enough goods to virtually keep up with the Jones’s.

Second Life is also a world where unacceptable behavior can always be suppressed by Linden Labs, which manages the Second Life website. What Second Life seems to indicate is that for the players, consumption is a powerful drive in which they will invest many real-time hours as well as real funds in order to enact its rituals in a virtual space. Few of their fantasies have much to do with ecological sustainability or social justice. In fact, the players in Second Life have taken no risk to invent a society based on different values. There appears to be little evidence of new forms of social behavior that would lead to a more sustainable world. Second Life players have also eliminated all the risk of living in the real world of high consumption. Virtual consumption does not generate tons of garbage for landfills nor do virtual vehicles emit carbon compounds. Second Life players can have large wardrobes without needing to take their clothes to the cleaner or polish their shoes.

Although Second Life is evolving and taking on more real world issues, it is doubtful that the players wish to take their simulation to a level of detail that would make to be in real life. In essence, one might argue that Second Life is a massive escape from the consequences of real world situations, whether those of being overweight, overworked, or underpaid. Rather than address those situations in order to attempt improvement, Second Life players shift their psychic energy to a virtual world in which they have more control and can thus repress any problems that plague them in real life and which seem less easy to control, whether through fault of will, imagination, or circumstances. Second Life is a fertile ground for architects and designers who earn real money by designing houses, clothes, and even body parts. Some can even make a living as designers of virtual objects. But their designs have yet to be meaningful to anyone outside the Second Life world of high consumption. In that sense, the architecture of Second Life provides a sad contrast to the historic utopian designs of a Tony Garnier, a Sant-Elia, a Bruno Taut, a Le Corbusier, or a Yakov Chernikov, all of whom took considerable risks in envisioning new building types and social scenarios. The history of utopian thought is one of attempts to imagine a better world that might actually come to be. Second Life poses no risks. It simply exaggerates many of the attributes that are physically unsustainable and psychologically unacceptable in the real world.

Victor Margolin is Professor Emeritus of Design History in the Department of Art History of the University of Illinois at Chicago, and a founding editor of DesignIssues.