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Henry Jenkins on Second Life’s effect on first life politics

The esteemed Henry Jenkins responds to an online discussion of whether Second Life has any political effect on first life.

Henry begins:

The last several decades of observation of the digital world teaches us that the digital world is never totally disconnected from the real world. Even when we go onto the digital world to “escape” reality, we end up engaging with symbolic representations which we read in relation to reality. We learn things about our first lives by stepping into a Second or parallel life which allows us to suspend certain rules, break out of certain roles, and see the world from a fresh perspective. More often, though, there are a complex set of social ties, economic practices, political debates, etc. which almost always connects what’s taking place online to what’s going on in our lives off line.

After all, we each really only have one life and there is really only one world

Henry concludes (but do no miss what’s in between!):

Often, real world institutions and practices constrain our ability to act upon the world by impoverishing our ability to imagine viable alternatives. This is at the heart of much of the writing in cultural studies on ideology and hegemony. SL offers us a way to construct alternative models of the world and then step inside them and experience what it might feel like to live in a different social order. I think there are some very real possibilities there for political transformation.

We do this as individuals on the Web, trying on roles and characters as if they were clothing, seeing which ones fit and which ones pinch under the arms. And Henry gives good examples of ways in which SL experiences can affect the first life politics of individuals. E.g., maybe you visit the SL Dafur Village and have your eyes opened, or you’re able to hang out with other gay people even though you live in a rural and repressed part of the world.

Henry’s piece clears out objections to SL as merely “masturbatory,” to cite the strongest criticism from the mailing list. This raises to prominence – and leaves us with – two basic questions, both of which are entirely familiar to workers in the field:

(1) The Internet overall enables people to get information they otherwise would not have found and to find others with shared interests. What do the specifics of SL enable that the other services of the Internet do not?

(2) Does (or will) SL affect the way we organize socially and politically, rather than “merely” affecting individual perception? If, for example, a particular SL domain works splendidly, will we be able to transfer the organizing principles to first life or will the virtual particulars of SL make that impossible? Suppose, for example, that the SL success depends on continuous anonymous bodily presence. That’s not something we can readily do in the real world. Are there examples already of a SL experience having an organizational effect on first life? Does collaborating (or bullying) in SL make us more like to collaborate (or bully) in first life? Are SL kibbutniks more likely to be real world kibbutniks?

I don’t know. But I’m glad Henry and the folks on the mailing list (among others) are working on it.

By the way, on March 21, at 6 or 6:30 (I don’t remember which), I’m scheduled to hold a Berkman “Web of Ideas” discussion of how participatory culture encourages participatory democracy. It’s open to all. And I can tell you right now my answer to the question: I Don’t Know. But I bet the names Henry Jenkins and Yochai Benkler turn up in the conversation. [Tags: ]

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