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In Computers We Trust

In the past, I have been impartial to those who create slightly tilted online identities. I never put much thought into it. Personally, I have been straightforward online with regards to who I am, what I look like, and have always used my full name. I have never used an avatar. Up until a few days ago, I didn’t even know the term avatar.

Logging on to Second Life was similar to my experience visiting House on the Rock in Dodgeville Wisconsin. Every time I visited a new page (room), I kept thinking, this can’t exist, this is crazy! But 3 million ‘residents’ as well as IBM view it differently. IBM’s CEO Sam Palmisano Calls “3-D realms such as Second Life the ‘next phase of the Internet's evolution' and says they may have ‘the same level of impact’ as the first Web explosion? (Kirkpatrick, Second Life: It’s Not a Game). Several other corporations have become or want to become inhabitants of this “admixture of fantasy and reality? world (Kirkpatrick, Second Life: It’s Not a Game) to the point that the creators of Second Life, Linden Lab, is having difficulty keeping up with the demands. While Second Life’s growing success may appear to be connecting online users (mostly cartoon-like avatars), it also creates a grey area of authenticity. Interesting how the word avatar stems from the Sanskirt word “word Avat?ra, meaning ‘incarnation’? (Wikipedia). Further, the word is related to the eighth avatar of the Hindu religion, Krishna. Which was subsequently, in the 60’s, borrowed by the infamous cult the Hare Krishnas. Are the ‘residents’ of Second Life not only re-incarnating their identities as well as joining a cult? And how healthy is it to wear an online ‘mask’ for a up to a quarter of your day? In her book, Turkle states that, “on it (the internet) people are able to build a self by cycling through many selves.? (Turkle, Life On The Screen, p 178). Again, I am impartial or indifferent to the somewhat fictional identities we find online. On one side I see the benefits of vicarious wish fulfillment that releases psychic energy and allows an individual to socialize and adapt normally. But I also see how detrimental Second Life can be when the user needs to act accordingly in the RL (real world) and the communication skills they will fail to learn or maintain. Skills such as facial expressions, body language, even physical proximity which all play into communication. This lack of complete communication is disconcerting as well as the loss of physical community (opposed to online community). Turkle states, “we seem to be in the process of retreating to our homes, shopping for merchandise out of catalogues or on television channels, shopping for companionship via personal ads.? (Turkle, Life On the Screen, p. 235)
For instance, I went shopping at the Mall of America during the holiday season. It was extremely empty and the sales associates looked miserable. I asked, where are all of the shoppers? They replied, buying gifts online. Moreover I went out to eat (downtown Minneapolis) at restaurant the other night and my husband and I were 2 of 4 patrons in the restaurant.
In conclusion, I believe that virtual worlds can be healthy if used in moderation. I believe that employing an avatar or several avatars is a great outlet for self-exploration. But I also believe that the greater the increase of accessibility to live your entire life online (shopping, dating, trading, working), the greater the chance that commerce will fail, as well as town halls, bars, restaurants, YMCAs, and other venues that bring people together. We will eventually be completely co-dependent on a machine, the computer.