Maybe it is the flow of Ira Flatow’s voice, or maybe I’m conditioned to expect the exceptional from his radio show, Science Friday. Either way, it was just refreshing to sit back and listen to the calm and intelligent conversation about Second Life and virtual worlds that Ira gave us yesterday on NPR’s Science Friday show.
Flatow, in the avatar persona of Ira Flately was taking questions in Second Life live yesterday afternoon during the taping of the show. I was listening on delayed radio broadcast last night, but the Science School sim where the action was taking place in world was reportedly maxed out during the taping,
Ira, with his characteristic curiosity, focused on the sociology and psychology of human behavior in virtual worlds as well as the very real research potential of Second Life. He brought on Dmitri Williams (USC), Sherry Turkle (MIT), Eric Lofgren (University North Carolina), and Cory Ondrejka (Linden Lab) to weigh in on various aspects of human behavior in virtual spaces.
Dmitri, Assistant professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication, honed in on an oft-overlooked aspect about extrapolating (or predicting) real life behaviors from virtual world behaviors. Incentives and risks in virtual spaces are often quite different than they are in real life. Rules, morality, laws, cultural imperatives may have no connection in a particular virtual space to the person’s real world constraints. Mapping incentives to those in real world environments – as well as environmental control – are key to making any kind of viable rl/vl behavioral research connection.
Turkle, Director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self Program and well known for her research on virtual identity, is particularly focused in this discussion on the bridges between real world and virtual world personas and behaviors. I have to say I found a good deal of dissonance in her continual distinction between the virtual and the real. Although she said she prefers to refer to rl as “rest of life,” and said she doesn’t like to make a distinction – she went on throughout the discussion to underscore “real” versus “virtual.” She mentioned she is particularly concerned about the impact of virtuosity on the political realm: that people put in real work to create virtual communities and yet don’t vote because they feel their virtual politicking is more potent. Turkle would like to see them move these organizational skills into the “real” political realm.
The dissonance for me is that she is surprisingly missing a key point in her remarks - we are increasingly melding our real presence into the virtual (okay the other way around too).
Virtual (in all its forms) facilitates our expanding global knowledge and presences and the imperative to do so is only broadening.
It seems to me we have virtual “presences” that we consider part of our “real” life – telephone, email, video conferencing, ecommerce, PayPal, eBay, WebEx, IM, text messaging, logins to our various networks. I’m sure your list goes on. The march is on toward taking our “virtuosity” as much for granted as we do the telephone. Yes, eventually, even the rl politicking Turkle is particularly concerned about will be played out in virtual spaces as seamless adjuncts to the real. Candidates are certainly using the virtual to expand their campaign organizations!
Dmitri pointed to a tangentially related thought – that scope and scale are
quite different in virtuosity. What may be small(er) group dynamics of
community and society in real space suddenly becomes the potential coordination
of large(r), more diverse groups. Real skills come into play – and are
learned - "there."
Perhaps we need to consider that those who feel politically (or otherwise) potent in virtual spaces just possibly, partially may be a function that they may be more rl/vl “melded” than others. I call it “sociology, not technology” in many of my presentations. (Yes, virtuosity can also be an escape. Okay, that is a huge topic for another post…. just consider my point for now.)
We won’t meld our virtual and real presences linearly or predictably. History takes jumps. Rudimentary case in point – mobile phones suddenly brought many parts of the world voice connectivity. They didn’t move through a “linear” progression of wired lines.
Back to Science Friday – and a final important point. There is a wide range of interpretation about the effects and/or benefits of virtuosity. Dmitri (again) pointed out that virtual must displace some real (or what we accept as “real”). The individual isn’t scalable, after all.
His research shows that “virtual” activities mean, for example, watching less television, but that certain news gathering behaviors are not displaced (radio, newspaper-reading….hmm would that be online (virtual) newspapers - isn't that real??). Virtual spaces also tend to be existing-relationship maintenance tools, but that relationships with casual friends may change – rl casual friends may be displaced with friends met in virtual places. The important question to ask: is what we displace better or worse? Not a simple “good” or “bad” answer to that.
Listen to the show at NPR here. Lots of other topics were discussed besides those I focused on here. Come back and tell us your thoughts!
Science Friday show notes here.
Photo Credit: Science Friday
September 1, 2007