"Don't criticize what you can't understand." That Dylan lyric was a defiant generational manifesto directed at "Mothers and fathers / Throughout the land." Um, that would now be us. I try to keep this admonition in mind these days. So you won't find me instantly agreeing when somebody else my age denounces Second Life, one of the largest 3-D virtual reality communities, as a colossal waste of time.
Sure, it might seem that way now. So far only one friend that I know of has dabbled on Second Life. It seems that when she tried to give her avatar big boobs, she succeeded only in making her fat. (The typical female avatar, according to my friend, is so buxom as to resemble a balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving parade.)
No doubt some of our more technically advanced peers (having mastered the mysterious Second Life user interface) already inhabit fabulous, state-of-the-art Internet personas—dazzling avatars that can be found having acrobatic sex in virtual orgies. Maybe the rest of us will catch up someday, playing out our second acts on Second Life. The "old age commune" people my age imagine may come to pass not here on Earth, but in virtual reality.
Then again, it's possible that Second Life has already peaked, what with presidential candidates, marketers and even colleges turning up in the neighborhood. (The University of New Orleans has just announced that it will open a virtual campus on Second Life, where it can hold classes in the event of another major hurricane.)
All the same, I'm still curious to explore this net netherworld. On a website called "New World Notes," I find the perfect virtual Virgil, in the person of Wagner James Au. Au, who describes himself as an "embedded journalist" in Second Life, bravely posts a photo of himself next to his (handsomer) avatar. He keeps track of Second Life events, and publishes interviews with creators of some of the interesting avatars. As I skim his posts, I find myself more drawn to Second Lifers who present themselves as humans, and less so to the "furries," residents whose avatars look like squirrels or chipmunks.
The first link I click on takes me to an interview with Jason Foo, a wounded Iraq veteran. In "Post-War Reconstruction," Foo, who is unemployed, talks about the real-estate business he has started on Second Life, which earns him real money to supplement his disability pension. He has also created a Veteran Fund that accepts donations for other wounded vets trying to build new lives.
"The Skin You're In" is a post about Californian Erika Thereian. The "archetypal white girl of the world's dreams," in Au's description, Thereian spent three months on Second Life inhabiting the skin of a black woman. Her reports on the racism she encountered make me think of the famous 1961 book "Black Like Me," in which a white journalist describes his experiences passing for black in the Deep South. Except that Thereian's transformation was accomplished not with skin dye, but with the click of a mouse, and did not in any way endanger her life.
Then there is the link to "Avatars Against the War," a virtual peace demonstration timed to coincide with a real march on Washington, D.C. last January. The avatars appear to be channeling the '60s peace movement, and they have the drill down pretty well. They march on the steps of a virtual Capitol Hill chanting peace slogans and waving signs saying "Make Love Not War." I remember those aviator glasses and the American flag shirt, though not the 4-inch high heels or the black falcon perched on someone's arm. Well, maybe I remember the falcon.
Now that I've had my brief visit to Second Life, I don't plan to go back for a while. I'm nowhere near ready to be measured for my avatar, but when the time comes, I know just what she's going to look like. It will be easy to recognize her because I am going to make her flat-chested. Coming next: "Flat Like Me."