Saturday, 18 October 2014

Is sex in Second Life pornography?

Wagner James Au has opened up an interesting debate over on his blog, New World Notes, stating that Linden should “forbid pornography and extremely violent content [on Second Life 2], at least in the first few years of launch before SL 2 achieves mass growth (assuming it does).”  This is based on the finding that half of SL’s current most-visited regions are adult-themed.

All credit to Au for having the courage to even approach this can of worms, let alone open it.  On the one hand – as was swiftly pointed out in the comments that followed – this statistic could be interpreted in a very different way: that the popularity of adult sims suggests SL2 absolutely must not ban such content if it wants to achieve appeal.  On the other, however, many long-term residents – myself included – are sick of the sniggers that mention of SL gets amongst RL friends; sniggers based upon the widespread belief amongst the ‘masses’ that sexual activity is the main reason why people enter the metaverse.  Of course, we all know that plenty of people do enter the metaverse for exactly this reason, and also that plenty of people who don’t go on to discover it anyway.  I have no real issue with that at all, but I do wish SL could be respected for all the other experiences it offers – or at least that it could be understood as a place where people get up to the same range of stuff more or less that they might in any other place.  As Au goes on to say, “virtual porn in particular has always been an impediment to Second Life going mainstream, hurting its brand, scaring away mainstream institutions, and just generally causing it to be a laughingstock for anyone who wasn't familiar with how much more non-porn content the world contained”.

What really got me thinking about Au’s piece was the notion that sexual activity in the metaverse could be termed pornography.  To be fair, whether it can or cannot is something of a straw man issue not really relevant to the larger point he’s trying to make – possibly for want of a better word, he’s using the term ‘porn’ as a convenient umbrella for activity he’s absolutely right in highlighting has given SL an unhelpful reputation.

As a side issue, however, I think it’s still one worth exploring.  Porn is an ugly word.  Folklore would have us believe that something like 99 per cent of men use it, yet if that is the case it’s certainly not as openly discussed amongst this population as its other passions, such as football: the knowledge that it’s widely used does little to reduce the sense of personal shame or embarrassment in admitting to using it oneself.  There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that regular ejaculation in males promotes good health in a variety of ways, so one might think that anything which facilitates this could be viewed – at least tentatively – as a good thing (not everyone is lucky enough to have a sexual partner, nor necessarily one with whom sex is frequent enough to achieve these benefits).  But the word porn carries with it an immense baggage of association, with mental infidelity, the exploitation of women and the maintenance of male chauvinist and misogynistic views probably headlining amongst these.

An argument could be advanced that ‘porn’ is no longer fit for purpose as a word which carries sufficient meaning by itself.  One qualifying adjective has already fallen into common use, with ‘child porn’ now the common expression for a type of pornography which is illegal.  There’s a clear and necessary need for this (much as we would wish that there wasn’t), a line which just has to be drawn.  Other lines or subdivisions aren’t perhaps as necessary, yet to classify, for example, a video of two lovers having consensual sex (which they’ve both agreed to distribute) as the same thing as one of an acted out encounter between a plumber and a housewife (who has mislaid her purse somehow) seems odd; we wouldn’t consider a home video of a family barbecue to be the same thing as a restaurant scene in a movie just because both featured people eating.  To extend that category into some of the more extreme areas of pornographic depiction and practice makes the one-size-fits-all approach feel even more bizarre.  And what about porn made by women?  What about porn made for women?  What about ‘revenge porn’ videos posted after a break-up?  What about the videos made with the explicit purpose from the start of publically humiliating someone?  What about, where no nudity or sexual contact whatsoever is shown, only the faces of people as they experience orgasm?  Is all of this really one thing?  Surely not.

Though this, to a certain extent, is also another issue.  What about sex in Second Life?

Perhaps sex in SL can be considered under two different lenses.  First of all, there is the depiction of sexual activity: the poses, the animations, the removal of clothing, the visual enhancement of genitalia through attachments, the use of furniture or other items, the sound effects and the various descriptive phrases used either by the people engaged in the act or – and I still scratch my head over how this phenomena came into being – by scripts in the aforementioned genitalia; all of the things which someone could observe, either as a person involved or as a third party witness to the scene.  What sets this aspect aside from ‘conventional’ or ‘traditional’ (I really can’t think of a better summarising term) pornography is that it’s an entirely artificial depiction: anyone observing such a scene is not actually observing real people actually having sex.  Having said that this is different from ‘regular’ porn, however, computer generated sexual imagery is certainly not an invention of SL and goes all the way back to the very earliest and least graphically capable of computers, where ‘pixel sex’ would have referred to black and white pixels the size of your thumb.  Beyond that, erotic drawings and paintings pre-date computers by centuries.  In this respect, then, perhaps SL sex can be considered pornographic.

The second lens, however, concerns the interactive nature of sexual activity in SL.  If one is engaged in sex with another person in the metaverse, one is no longer a passive observer of an act.  Instead, one is actively engaged with another person in creating sexual imagery – be it through a visual depiction as described above or through an entirely textual exchange of intimate thoughts and ideas.  Whilst there might be elements of this which originated in SL, the more general notion of interacting with someone non-physically to create a ‘sexual story’ is, again, hardly unique to the metaverse.  ‘Sexting’ – the act of interacting with someone sexually over mobile phone texts – is perhaps the most prominent example of this discussed in the mainstream media today (whenever a celebrity or politician gets caught doing it), but, going back, sexual activity took place in internet chat rooms long before even Yahoo Messenger became popular – before even the web was created.  Then there’s phone sex.  Then there’s sexually explicit letter-writing.

Whilst publically expressed opinion on such activity might well be judgemental, such judgements would probably mostly take place in the context of a revelation of someone who is in a monogamous relationship interacting sexually behind the back of their partner.  A politician caught doing this is only generally newsworthy if he or she is a married politician.  Amongst the liberal-minded, at least, few would raise much of an eyebrow upon learning that someone was sexting their girlfriend or boyfriend – it might well be considered a little Too Much Information, but no more so than learning something about their ‘regular’ sex life.  Few would consider it porn.

Does role-play blur the issue still further?  In a role-played situation, a fictional scenario is created between two or more people; the option to share RL information alongside this is of course there, however it’s entirely possible – and, I understand, an expressed preference amongst some role-players – that a whole scene could be acted out without any reference whatsoever to the authors’ emotional state or sexual arousal.  In such a scenario, the argument could be forwarded that the only sexual intercourse that takes place is between the avatars on screen as fictional characters, that the real-life humans behind them are merely writers engaged in an act of shared storytelling.  Is this still, nonetheless, the creation of pornography?  Even if all authors involved remain completely sexually detached from their narrative, they are still creating something which depicts a sexual act, as described earlier – even if it’s entirely without avatar manipulation (an entire scene could be role-played in chat or IM, whilst avatars remained fully clothed, potentially not even in the same sim as each other).

By this reasoning, then – and I readily admit it’s a tentative reasoning; others might approach this from entirely different standpoints – sex in SL both is and is not pornography.  One of the reasons why I continue to love Second Life and the metaverse more generally is the way in which it opens up topics like this and exposes the inadequacies of the words and constructs we use to define life and the experiences which comprise it.  ‘Porn’ is an inadequate word.  One of the most beautiful things about sex in SL is how it can awaken you to the thoughts, feelings and desires of your partner – and that’s something you can take back with you into the real world if you hadn’t already discovered it there.

To return to Au’s article, if SL do implement a ban on porn in SL2 it will be a hard ban to enforce.  Animations and poses would all need to be vetted, for starters (including all scripted furniture).  Nakedness would need to be forbidden, perhaps by incorporating underwear into all skins, though this would require all user-generated skins to be vetted also – in fact, more or less anything worn or attached would need to be checked in order to avoid the creation of ‘nudity clothes’ (which I recall reading once was the method of circumventing enforced-underwear employed during the days of the teen grid).  For the ultimate in porn-prohibition, chat and IM would also have to be monitored, perhaps using the same sort of software that corporations now use to screen emails (your IM to someone that you can’t sleep because the cock next door is crowing would be blocked with an automatic message that “Your message breaches our community communication policy”).  It would be an enormous effort that many might argue would be better invested elsewhere.

And yet, sex in SL is an issue.  In fact, it’s not whether or not it’s ‘porn’ that’s the issue, but the sort of sex that’s going on and where it’s happening.  By and large, I think the division of sims we have today into adult, moderate and general – with adult sims separate from the mainland – is appropriate.  Remember: at the time of SL’s largest media exposure, sex halls could be wondered into within your first few virtual steps.

But the issue is ultimately deeper than that.  There are sims and groups in SL which promote rape fantasy.  There are sims and groups which promote female slavery and humiliation.  I’ve heard the liberal arguments about consensuality defending these things, but I remain deeply uncomfortable about their existence in the metaverse.

My guess is that a ban on sex – or porn, if you prefer – in SL2 is probably unlikely.  If virtual reality does go on to become the Next Big Thing, however, expect the can of worms concerning it to get well and truly opened.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Counting down to NaNoWriMo 2014

As we hit the halfway mark of October, it's time to start the clock on the countdown to NaNoWriMo 2014.  This year in November, I'll be writing the fourth novel in the AFK series.  Currently untitled, the book will explain the unexpected twist at the end of 'AFK, Indefinitely' and introduce a new Second Life investigation for Definitely Thursday.

As any of you who attended my talk last year at Milkwood might recall me saying, I've taken in recent years to cheating a little before the start of NaNoWriMo by getting a few thousand words down over the preceding month (though still aiming to add 50,000 words post 31 October).  Somehow or another, I'm already past the 10,000 word mark for AFK4, so I have strong hopes that this year will see the book finished.

If you would like to hear me talk about NaNo, I've been asked by Harriet Gausman to talk again at Milkwood at some point over the coming weeks.  No date set as yet, so check back here later for more information.

Oh, and don't forget I have a free Excel Spreadsheet for keeping track of your NaNo progress - one of my most popular blog posts!  Click here.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

MORE magazine interview

I'm featured on the front cover of MORE magazine this month, with an eight page interview inside by Lacy Muircastle.  Read below via the screen grabs (click each to enlarge), or head straight to page 23 of the mag to read it at Issuu.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

The continuation of division

How Second Life and everything else internet has failed us – or we have failed it.

Those of us old enough, wise enough or, essentially, unhinged enough to have seen between the cracks of this big brick wall we call ‘society’ will likely long ago have worked out that there’s no such thing as the new product that will make everything better; nor will there ever be.  The next new iPhone, we’ve realised, will not cure the world of ill and it won’t do a single thing for an individual that even the most ardent of Apple fanbois would select to look back upon fondly in his very last moment of life.  Likewise the next Xbox and the next PlayStation and whatever it is that Nintendo does next.  Likewise, in all probability, the Oculus Rift.  Likewise Second Life 2.

All of these next-big-thing bandwagons, we’ve realised, are essentially just the dressed-up treadmill of capitalism, the soap opera gift-wrap to the requirement that we endlessly buy things in order to keep everything (and everyone) working.  This is no big revelation anymore.  Even the machinery of capitalism itself no longer tries to conceal it from us; there is no need.  It turns out that most of us are no more turned off from buying things when the inner guts of consumerism are exposed than we are from eating bacon when we learn it comes from pigs.

How we love looking forward to our next big tech, just the same.  The rumours.  The anticipation.  The debates.  The reviews.  That we know (in the same way that know the Earth orbits the sun and not the other way round) that this is all just an endless loop and that this time next year it’ll be something else we’re looking forward to diminishes our enjoyment of it not one jot.  I’m not being cynical here: I enjoy it all as much as the next moderately IT-informed human being.  And I’m not saying either that no things created are transformational, just that they’re not really transformational enough.

The computer, for example, has been transformational; I still marvel at word processing.  The Internet has been transformational and I still marvel at email and the speed with which I can pull information from the web on just about any topic in a matter of seconds.  Perhaps the most transformational thing of all about the Internet, however, is the communication it opens up with other people.  It was inconceivable when I was growing up in the seventies and eighties that we would in the not-to-distant future be able to speak with people all over the world for as long as we wanted and for free – let alone video chat with them.  Even throughout most of the nineties this seemed unlikely.  Today, it is more-or-less taken for granted.

Second Life, in its admittedly rather clunky fashion – although I have no doubt this will be improved upon in its next incarnation – takes this one step further: In SL, we can actually do things alongside people who are hundreds or even thousands of miles away from us.  We can create together.  We can perform together.  We can watch things together.  We can shop together.  We can just sit together if we want to in a café or a living room or a town square or an open field and talk.  It is astonishing the boundaries that the metaverse enables us to transcend.

In theory.

If I could travel back in time to make a visit to my teenaged self and describe to him the world’s technology today, I wonder what he would say?  Let’s suppose I arrived in early November 1983 when, unbeknownst to most of us at the time, the world came within a button’s press of World War III.  Nuclear annihilation was something I thought about a great deal in those days and it sobers me to think that there are in all likelihood a great many parallel universes in which Soviet nerve did not hold out and the world really did end that week.  On 7 November 1983, Uptown Girl by Billy Joel was at number one in the UK music charts (incidentally, the first seven inch single I ever bought) and Islands in the stream by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton topped the US Billboard Hot 100.  In the news, a bomb was exploded by a terrorist group at the United States Senate (no-one was killed).  It was a Monday.  I would likely have spent the evening playing on my ZX Spectrum computer.  Can you remember what you were doing that day?

In truth, right then I was only just becoming aware of the nuclear threat and the likelihood is I was far more preoccupied with what was happening in Doctor Who than I was with world affairs (after all, the twentieth anniversary special, The Five Doctors, was just a couple of weeks away).  If the button had been pushed, I would likely not have understood what was going on (not that I would have had all that much time to digest it), which is probably how it should be for a twelve year old boy.  Even so, if a forty-something me from the future had turned up to talk about the internet and things like Second Life, I like to think that I would have worked out pretty quickly that a consequence of all that incredible communication potential had to be that people were finally managing to get along together.  Well, wouldn’t it?

But, in 2014, despite all these transformational advances well beyond the scope of what most of us who were around 30 years ago could have dreamed of, we’re still about as far away from that dream, it seems, as perhaps we’ve ever been.  As nationalism sweeps across Europe (the rise of the UK Independence Party in the UK is only one example of this), as Russia takes what many feel to be the first of many calculated steps to come in rebuilding the former Soviet Union, as the US is slowly torn in two by increasing political polarisation, as Islamic State – arguably the love-child of the Blair-Bush legacy – bring unspeakable brutality to the middle east, I’m waiting for the moment when people on big stages start asking the question, Why?  How has it come to this?  How have we not yet moved on from here?  Why have we not made some sort of progress when we have all this incredible technology?

It’s too easy to blame just the politicians.  As an inclusive humanist, I have long been waiting for the world leader who has the courage to explicitly make decisions based on the world’s interests rather than “this country’s interests” (whatever that country might be), but I’m not so naïve as to believe that such a person wouldn’t be voted out of power at the very next chance his or her electorate got.  It’s too easy to blame the people of the press, who sicken me on a weekly basis with their seeming quest to make us angrier and angrier and angrier; it is us, at the end of the day, who buy their newspapers and sustain this.  It’s too easy to blame parents.  It’s too easy to blame schools.  It’s too easy to blame capitalism.  It is all of these things together – and more – and the whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts.

And yet, it’s really not so complicated.  All we have to do – all of us – is be better at empathising with others and exercising compassion.  That’s it.  That’s all we have to do.  Pretty much every single disagreement I’ve ever been witness to has involved one or both sides being unable to understand how the other is thinking and feeling. 

In recent months, I’ve become excited in my anticipation of yet another potentially transformational moment to be brought about by technology.  Over the last couple of decades, our knowledge of planets beyond the solar system has exploded: as of 1 September 2014, we know of over 1,800 worlds, with new ones being discovered at an astonishing rate.  We have the Keplar telescope to thank for much of this, a $500m NASA spacecraft that enables astronomers to identify planets when they move between us and their native star.  Like so many NASA missions, its operational life has already far exceeded its planned life expectancy and the data being returned has enabled estimates on the number of potentially life-supporting worlds in our galaxy (calculated from the percentage of solar systems which have planets of a certain size orbiting their sun at a distance which would expose them to a comparable amount of solar radiation to Earth – it turns out this is about 20%); currently, this number is thought to be in the billions.  This analysis has become increasingly refined and new techniques are being devised which will allow analysis of the atmospheres of these planets.  One such technique will enable astronomers to detect the presence of chemicals known not to exist naturally in the universe.  When the day comes that a world with these chemicals in its atmosphere is identified, we will have discovered proof of intelligent life on another planet.  There is a growing confidence amongst scientists that we will have this proof within the next twenty years.

Perhaps this discovery will be the catalyst that changes human thinking from ‘me’ to ‘us’.  For many years – perhaps decades; perhaps centuries – we won’t know anything about these civilisations other than that they exist.  We won’t be able to communicate with them (the distance will be far too great); we won’t know what the people of these planets look like or what they eat or how their homes are or what their art is like: we will only know that they are there.  We will only know that we are not all that there is any more.  We will only know that all of us on this planet are one thing – human – and that there are now other beings we know of who are not this thing.  We might finally start to identify with the people we previously hated.

And yet it’s so terribly lazy to pin all one’s hopes to a magic solution from a far-away place; as a writer, I can’t help but feel I’m just hoping for a deus ex machine to pop out of thin air and rescue us all, and that I should be shamed for the very thought by having my pencils taken away.  And even if it happens, it might in any case turn out to be no more transformational a moment in the long term than was the release of the Nintendo Wii; humans are incredibly wedded to their prejudices.

But something has to happen if we’re going to survive.  We can’t just continue with our them-and-us mindsets indefinitely and expect things to all work out somehow.  Every single time we call someone a jerk or take sides or add to the polarisation of a debate; every time we make it harder for people to rethink their positions and meet us (or others) in the middle ground, every time we collude with the idea that one side is right and the other is wrong, we only end up digging ourselves deeper and deeper and deeper.  It isn’t easy, but neither is it complicated.  I don’t really know how Second Life could help us build some of these bridges, but I still believe that it has the potential.  It’s not going to be a menu option, however, or a HUD you can buy on the Marketplace.  All SL can do is provide the opportunity. 

Whilst I’ve been writing this article, the former Northern Ireland First Minister Ian Paisley has passed away.  Dr Paisley was a big man who, for many years, placed himself in an entrenched position over the future of Northern Ireland.  His later decision to fight for peace and share power with his former bitter enemies was a turning point for the Northern Ireland peace process and the key moment for which he is being celebrated now in the media.  Peace is never without pain, and Northern Ireland remains a stark example of this.  But peace is peace, and we have to fight for it.  If we don’t, the eventual alternative will be so much worse than whatever wounds we have right now. 

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Two places at once

I've written a third short story featuring my 'Avatar Dining Club'.  It's called 'Two places at once' and considers an avatar who appears to be in two different places in SL at exactly the same time.  But how...?

This one has been published at Virtual Writers' World and you can read it here.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Ten facts about early Second Life

Following a signpost from Ziki Questi's blog, I spent some time yesterday at 'Second Life History', an LEA (Linden Endowment for the Arts) installation by Sniper Siemens which presents a walk through SL's history, from 2001 right up to 2014 (where a set of steps leads towards SL2).

It's a fascinating virtual stroll and it's particularly easy to linger on some of the photographs along the way, snapshots of a world that looks very different from the metaverse today.  My only real complaint, in fact, would be that there weren't enough of these.  This got me thinking: personal snapshots are amongst the few inventory items not bound eventually to perish so long as they get saved out onto a hard disk before SL gets switched off; wouldn't it be great if someone created a year-by-year collection of these, contributed to by as many different residents as possible?

Around the exhibit, information is also presented through a series of sculptures depicting key SL events in the order that they occurred.  Personally, I'm most interested in the period before I joined (although it was still interesting to revisit some of the headlines from my own time in SL).  Here are ten facts you may or may not know about that period:
  1. SL started out as 'LindenWorld' in 2001. 
  2. 'Da Boom' was the first SL sim (and it still exists today). 
  3. Stellar Sunshine was the first SL resident.  She joined in March 2002 and is now aged 12 years and four months old.
  4. Linden Dollars were introduced in December 2003.
  5. The full range of basic prim shapes we have for building inworld today wasn't complete until 2004.
  6. Teleporting was introduced in 2004, but it was only from one 'telehub' to another and you had to pay to use it. Free point-to-point teleporting as we know it today wasn't introduced until December 2005.
  7. The free basic account wasn't introduced until October 2005.  Free accounts used to pay a L$50 stipend every week, but this stopped in May 2006.
  8. The first 'gateway' for the first hour experience was opened in November 2005 (Orientation Island).
  9. Megaprims were created by Gene Replacement aka Plastic Duck in 2006.
  10. A hack in September 2006 allowed access to residents' real names, contact information and passwords.

The installation is only open until 30 July, so hurry over to take a look if you can.  It's an immersive reminder of what a fascinating story the tale of SL is, and one I count myself privileged to have witnessed unfolding.