I first heard the Second Life Lord’s Prayer in probably early-to-mid 2008 somewhere in, if my memory serves me well, the steampunk sims of Caledon. I was at that time curious as to why it was Philip Rosedale (as in ‘First Church of Rosedale‘) in California and not Philip Linden in Second Life who appeared to be God, a transcendent Deus Absconditus removed from the celestial bits and bytes of his creation. From the real-world point of view, of course, it made perfectly good sense; from a Second Life resident’s immersionist point of view, on the other hand, it smacked of heresy. In my mind’s eye, I saw Martin Luther nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the chapel door of the University of Wittenberg; smelled Giordano Bruno’s flesh burning on the Campo de’ Fiori; and so turned once more to the exegetical writings of St Henrik.
The Meaning of (Second) Life
Why are we here? It has the ring of a theological question about it; and we who populate the digital landscapes of virtual social worlds, instinctive theologians as many of us are, will be inclined to answer the question with almost religious zeal. (Interestingly, long after I wrote the first draft of this essay I was interested to read Gwyneth Llewelyn’s shrewd observation that “Second Life shares quite a lot of attributes of esoteric religions”.) And, in the inveterate manner of zealots intoxicated with that heady cocktail of visions, credo, and dogma, we will inevitably disagree with one another’s answers. It may sometimes turn out, however, that the entrenched positions we so vigorously and vociferously defend are, on closer inspection and sober reflection, caricatures of the positions we actually espouse. Holy wars may make narrow-minded fanatics of us all. My purpose in writing this essay–the first of two on this subject–is in the first instance to try to unclutter the conceptual landscape by revisiting and reviewing the now classic augmentationism-immersionism dichotomy introduced by Henrik Bennetsen in 2006; in the second place, to outline what would appear to many of us to be a new and quite different factional schism between a ‘Neo-augmentationsist’ and a ‘Neo-immersionist’ philosophy of virtual social worlds within the broader framework of Transhumanism. Whatever conclusions might be drawn I leave to you, the Reader.
The Why are we here? question is, it seems to me, apposite and important to ask in this context for at least the following reasons:
- no matter in what circumstance we may have first discovered virtual social worlds (Second Life, for example) or what reason might have motivated us to create an account in such a world, once we have done so–and stayed–it’s natural we should scrutinise why on earth we are still here, even though a post hoc rationalisation may be at variance with whatever it may have been that originally prompted us to sign up in the first place. I’d conjecture it likely, in fact, that, with the passage of time, we’d find that our virtual world presence had assumed such significance in our primary lives (as have our mobile phones, iPods, Facebook, Wii, and such like) that our rationalisations will hinge around the indispensability (like iPods, like Facebook, like the dishwasher and the air-conditioner, like the car and the television) of the medium: so much has it become part of the fabric of our lives, we are here because life is no longer thinkable without it. Yet in thus answering the question we have simply asked the very same question in a slightly different and maybe deeper way: why has Second Life become so integral, so essential, a part of our lives? Why are we here?
- albeit not a design decision by Linden Lab, it has turned out that many people, perhaps (as so often suggested) freed by their pseudonymity from the social and cultural constraints imposed by real life, have found in virtual social worlds such as Second Life a quasi-spiritual Experimentarium for exploring and expressing new selves, even if not either fully knowingly or purposively at all times (to the possibly troubling extent that I’ve even had avatars telling me that, having got it wrong in real life, they’ve seen Second Life as a ‘second chance’);
- moving beyond and orthogonal to that opportunity for enacted thought experiment and personal transformation in the present, there are those (and I include myself) who recognise in virtual social worlds, technologically crude as they currently are, an inevitably integral component of a highly plausible vision of the future of humankind as anticipated by futurists such as Hans Moravec and Ray Kurzweil. Often lumped together as ‘transhumanists’, those of us who hold such views represent a spectrum of technology-driven philosophies pivoting around the two opposing poles of what today we think of as immersionist and augmentationist stances towards virtual worlds, and what, for want of more imaginative terms, we might with an eye to the future call ‘Neo-augmentationsist’ and ‘Neo-immersionist’. The dichotomy lies at the heart of this article; and is one imbued with such crypto-theological overtones that it is from the seminary rather than from the corporate jolly in Southend-on-Sea that, with a sense of genuine perplexity, we seem to hear the ‘big-picture question’ (Bostrom, 2005, p.10) Why are we here?
The augmentationism-immersionism dichotomy was, so far as I know, first spotlighted and documented in late 2006 by Henrik Bennetsen in an essay entitled ‘Augmentation vs Immersion‘, now published on the Second Life Creativity wiki. He’d identified two ‘philosophies’ (as he called them), two ways of thinking about what kind of thing (crudely, ‘world’ vs ‘platform’) Second Life is, about therefore what one is doing there, and thus how one engages with and within it: the “immersion view … that SL is its own thing and should not be contaminated by anything from the outside” (Bennetsen, 2006), and the augmentationist view that “presumed that virtual worlds could be one among many ‘platforms’ for computer-enhanced sociality and work … In this view, virtual worlds could augment actual world capabilities, social networks, and concepts” (Boellstorff, 2008, p.115)
Like any neologisms that enter into popular discourse (or indeed, to continue my earlier theological analogy, like any theistic beliefs that enter into the popular imagination), Bennetsen’s terms have acquired annotations, accretions, marginalia, revisions, reinterpretations, a few distortions, an entire Hadith and Talmud, in the five years since he first defined them. In what follows I shall endeavour to stay as close as I can to his original characterisations which, to me, seem not only both clear and insightful but also, looking onwards from where we now are, largely unhelpful.
The Immersionist View
On the origins of the immersionist philosophy Bennetsen writes:
I think the notion of SL as a self contained space started in the early days. LL was faced with selling people this Second Life thing that no one really understood what was. If you looked at it you noticed the resemblance with a computer game and that is how it was marketed. Prominent members of staff such as CTO Cory Ondrejka also came out of the game industry, so there was a game culture within the company.
And, indeed, its “Team members have previously worked for market leading companies such as Electronic Arts, Disney, THQ, Acclaim, Hasbro, Mattel and RealNetworks”: Linden Lab, in this early press release (11th February 2002) was quite explicitly foregrounding its credentials as essentially a games company. Thus in the same press release, Linden Lab bills itself “a company founded to create a new form of interactive entertainment“, its DEMO 2002 conference presentation previewing its “LindenWorld entertainment service”. Still in beta on 15th February 2003, Second Life was being touted by Linden Lab, in the overview published on the official web site, essentially as a game with loose (reputation-based) rules of play:
Through a real-time reputation system, players can comment favorably or negatively on each other’s personas and property, creating a rating viewable by other Second Life Residents. A series of positive comments confers financial rewards as well as social status upon the beneficiary. A player with a low reputation rating may have to be content with their small, unadorned home, whereas a player with a high rating might find him or herself with extra money to build an addition, or be invited to an exclusive party limited to people of equal status. As in life, players will likely seek a balance between actively participating and watching from the sidelines.
Even as late as January 2006, the official Second Life web site was speaking of “an escape to a place full of people”, and of “players”.
Just as, when playing Doom or Tomb Raider or Age of Empires, the television screen or the computer screen is simultaneously both window and boundary, interposing between the real world of the player and the fictive world of the imaginary action, so ‘playing’ Second Life encouraged a view that maintained a strict separation between the real life of the player at the keyboard and the fictional role enacted by that player in the impromptu free-form multi-user drama of the virtual world. Even though one had some leeway in choosing a first name, use of one’s real name was both discouraged and, at the very least, made clumsy (“ChristopherHutchison Fisher” doesn’t sound quite right) by the necessity of choosing at sign-up a last name from a given list. Gwyneth Llewelyn in her blog article ‘Immersionism and Augmentationism Revisited‘, for example, notes that “back in 2004, it was even mandatory to keep quiet about your RL!”
Note however that, in Bennetsen’s original 2006 essay, the personal privacy afforded by anonymity is not cited as a defining factor for those espousing an immersionist view of Second Life; rather, it was far more a consequence of the strong game culture at that time. By analogy, if you were Lara Croft, you were Lara Croft in role; thus being Lara Croft while playing Tomb Raider by the very nature of the game design said absolutely nothing whatsoever about the owner of the hands at the keyboard. The philosophy of immersionism–that Second Life was a game-like self-contained space–was, however, congruent with the wish to take advantage of the opportunity to conceal one’s real identity. Thus Gwyneth Llewelyn writes of her early days in Second Life:
I used to be an “Immersionist” way before I knew what that meant. There were good reasons for me not to reveal my real identity back in 2004 (I had been stalked in RL through the Internet before, as people looked me up on blogs and forums I participated). I wished to continue the joy of participating on a vibrant online community that allowed me both to elude eventual stalkers, and a place where I could have some freedom of expression without fear.
Gwyneth Llewelyn, ‘Immersionism and Augmentationism Revisited‘
And so in 2006 I became (and, yes, the amusing homophone did encourage me to select that name from the list) as much Khoisan Fissure as Khoisan Fisher, so to speak, torn asunder from my ‘primary’ self in an asymmetrical relationship that allowed me, Christopher, to peer from my desk into that digital ‘self-contained space’ while not allowing my avatar and its co-residents, “trapped in a perfect world” (to quote from one resident’s profile), to peer back into the world of busy hands on keyboards. I’ll return to the matter of asymmetry and its ramifications later in this essay.
The Augmentationist View
It was, according to Bennetsen, Mitch Kapor’s watching Suzanne Vega perform live in Second Life in 2006 that brought home to him how misleading it was to think about Second Life and Real Life as different spaces; indeed to think about Second Life as a self-contained space at all. As would Duran Duran and other performers after her, the American songwriter and singer had rather been using Second Life as yet another broadcast medium, beyond radio and television, in which to perform before remote audiences. And, as would have been the case with radio and television, the actual performance had taken place in NPR’s radio studios in the very real USA. Subsequent appearances in Second Life by Kurt Vonnegut (2006) Bruce Willis (2007), Dennis Kucinich (2007), Barack Obama (2009), Noam Chomsky (2010), and numerous others, have consolidated this view of SL as communication channel. The fortress walls had been breached.
At the same time, real-world universities and corporations had been establishing presences in Second Life to explore and assess the benefits of using the platform as a further arm of their real-world operations. Educators, for example, have long been interested in ‘serious games‘ (the concept first mooted by Clark Abt in his 1970 book Serious Games) for running simulations, for problem-solving, and of course for learning in a non-intimidating environment. Second Life has, in abolishing the distances of real-world geographies (if not time zones), added to this the further opportunities of reaching new learners.
Finally, the Maldives was, in 2007, the first country to open an embassy in Second Life, closely followed by Sweden, Serbia, Estonia and Columbia; other nations have since followed suit. In each instance, Second Life has become an extension of real life.
Such instances apart, we in any case glimpse the world outside of Second Life on perhaps a daily basis with every “AFK”, “phone … brb”, or–as I recently was informed by a digital friend–“Oh gawd I been texting the wrong window fer 10 minutes”. With nary a window in sight on the in-world sea-bed from which she IMed me, one would not need a PhD in higher-order modal logic to figure out that the window in question sat in the Second Life viewer opened by her primary on her real-world computer desktop: the “I” who spoke was not the would-be mermaid. The sheer mechanics of enabling in-world participation may on occasions reveal the de facto if not de fide divina augmentationist in all of us.
My own stance towards Second Life, for those who have read my posts and comments elsewhere in this blog, must be clear by now: I’m naturally, historically, and culturally an augmentationist, someone who has never in his life played computer games (other than the occasional chess) but who from the early 1980s was actively participating in both academic and political discussions in USENET newsgroups. Yes, many USENET contributors–particularly in the flame-warring political groups–chose to hide behind pseudonyms; but by and large noms de famille rather than noms de guerre were the norm, and there was in any case scant evidence that users were posting as anything other than their real-life selves via what was understood by all to be quite straightforwardly a form of computer-mediated communication. But, in any case, anonymity (or pseudonymity) was, as I’ve already noted, never criterial for Bennetsen in distinguishing augmentationists from immersionists, the crucial decider being solely whether one viewed Second Life as self-contained or as an extension of real life. Even augmentationists will often exercise their right to anonymity!
Thus coming into Second Life in a uniquely professional context (I’d been tasked with undertaking a feasibility study for the use of Second Life as a platform complementary to the university’s existing e-learning suite) saw me carrying over, as were most academics entering Second Life, the culture of computer-as-communication-tool that I’d simply taken for granted for more than 20 years. And, like the nameless protagonist in The Prisoner, I would hear myself proclaiming from the lofty cloud-clad towers of the Lost Gardens of Apollo “I am not avatar key 36bfb8aa-8d1b-4c31-82ed-d4bcf1e4b77d, I am a human being!”
Problems, paradoxes, and asymmetries
Bennetsen’s identification and characterisation of immersionism and augmentationism as distinct and opposing philosophical positions has proven useful as a rough and ready guide to how different types of users may approach Second Life; yet his informally written essay does not attempt rigorous definitions nor make claims to be more weighty and authoritative than a simple summary of his personal observations. It’s unsurprising therefore that a closer look at the dichotomisation should throw up some problems and paradoxes.
The first and probably most obvious and least contentious point is that, although by a leap of imagination perhaps subjectively experienced by immersionists to be discrete worlds, Second Life is contained within Real Life, within the very real world of computers and keyboards and mice and chicken tikka sandwiches and dirty underwear and leaking taps that need to be fixed and jobs that have to be finished by Friday, all the paraphernalia and messiness of everyday life that is still obstinately and obdurately there whether we’re logged into Second Life or not. And, of course, until such time as autonomous intelligent agents within Second Life are themselves able to create content, the fact remains that everything that exists within SL does so only as a consequence of real-world brains, eyes, and hands creatively busying themselves on the ‘meat space’ side of the screen. And obviously in this respect too, with the creation of content a one-way flow, there is blatant asymmetry between the two worlds.
We might also consider that digital life, unlike biological life, is “opt in”. (Both are, of course, “opt out”, though in the latter case without the option of returning.) Moreover, we’re able to log out of virtual worlds and still retain uninterrupted self-awareness in a way that would not be the case were we to ‘log out’ of our primary lives.
If I sell you merchandise in Second Life, or rent you land, or (putting aside the matter of where the making of the music is actually taking place) am as a musician engaged to perform at your party, or indeed enter into any form of contract with you, what legally is the nature of the transaction that is taking place? You may, of course, prefer to think that circumstance in rather different terms, for example: “if my avatar sells your avatar merchandise” or perhaps “if the digital person of whom I am the primary sells merchandise to the digital person of whom you are the primary”. Assume now that I (or my avatar, if you wish) should fail to deliver to contract, and that the sum of money is significant enough for you to wish to pursue the matter: who is to be held morally, ethically and legally responsible? If I, the guy at the keyboard, dismissively suggest you take the issue up with my avatar, you may justifiably feel I am taking the proverbial piss. And now let’s look at the parallel real-world case: if in real life (and a computer nowhere in sight) I, Christopher, enter into a contractual agreement with you, Jane Doe, to deliver goods or services and I fail to do so, you may in that circumstance wish to take the matter further; and would be unlikely to warm to my suggestion that you take up the issue with my Second Life avatar. In other words, whether philosophically an immersionist or an augmentationist, the buck stops at me, Christopher, while lucky old Khoisan is off the hook. Again the palace walls are breached as the cosy partitioning of users into immersionists and augmentationists is rendered problematic.
The very same uncomfortable ambiguity is readable from Gwyneth Llewelyn’s argument for immersionism:
When a couple of lovers spend ages on the phone, nobody will consider that ‘immersion in the telephone system’—although it’s exactly what it is … We’re so “immersed” in voice communication without physical presence that, during a phone call, we forget all about the world around us
And yet, it seems to me, those who are ‘immersed’ are real human beings holding real telephones, still talking about a real-life relationship unmediated by external representations of themselves.
Gwyneth Llewelyn has written extensively on immersionism and augmentationism in at least three fascinating and quite thought-provoking articles (Llewelyn 2008, 2009a, 2009b). (If more than three, I regret I’ve not found the others.) Yet Gwyneth is professedly a digital person. She writes that “although my digital self ‘ceases to interact’ when I’m logged off from Second Life, it doesn’t cease to exist. After all, I still write blog posts when I’m not logged in, and other people read them”.
But who is writing the blog posts? who is this “I”? is it the digital ‘Gwyneth Llewelyn’ who on logging off from SL has not ‘ceased to exist’? and moreover is writing, not from within Bennetsen’s ‘self-contained world’ of immersionist Second Life within which by her own words–“it’s the environment (and other people are part of the environment, too!) that defines the digital self”–she is defined as a person, but from the ‘meat space’ her primary shares with her real-world readers? At best, it would seem to me, one might say she is writing ‘in role’, yet is doing so within a real world of humdrum web browsers and URLs and email clients, of windows and tabs and bookmarks and back buttons, and of real life readers who may not even have Second life accounts; or, even if they do, are reading the blog non-immersively (I would hope!) as flesh-and-blood human beings at a computer keyboard.
This raises the theological problem of transgression of boundaries, spirit made flesh, the uncomfortable interaction of real with virtual persons, the spookiness of television’s Most Haunted.
The Holy Eucharist
But now it’s confession time. I’ve a guilty little secret. I actually like Second Life in and of itself. Not that I can quite see it as a place, a ‘country’ as Philip (“I’m not building a game. I’m building a new country”) Rosedale would demiurgically wish it. (Yes, I know I mentioned earlier that real countries have opened ’embassies’ in Second Life, but try to get a real-life travel visa there, or seek consular assistance in getting your avatar out of some Gorean gaol, and you’ll realise that they don’t exactly function in the manner of real-world embassies.) In fact, I like Second Life so much that I created an “off-duty” recreational alt, Khoisan Guardian, who before his forced retirement spent his time in-world just hanging out with friends, dancing and skating and hot-air ballooning and whatever else with the rest. Let’s not be coy about it: he had fun!
Predictably, of course, the unimaginative Khoisan Fisher–that contingently anthropomorphic visualisation ongoingly generated and maintained by my (Christopher’s) busy fingers back here in real life–has, as did Khoisan Guardian before him, ended up hanging out with fellow augmentationsists for the greater part of his time. In many instances, their ‘primaries’ have also eventually met in real life. But he has also availed himself of the opportunity to become acquainted with a few immersionists who have proclaimed themselves ‘digital persons’ and who have opened up for him a view of Second Life (and whatever other virtual social worlds may emerge in the years to come) that suggests that the classic immersionist-augmentationsist dichotomy may need to be enriched to accommodate another (if not new) breed of players. The classic philosophies, as described by Bennetsen, pertained uniquely to the stance taken by Second Life users as they engaged with the platform in the present; Neo-augmentationsists and Neo-immersionists, transhumanists both, are aware that emerging technologies–including virtual world technologies–hold the potential “to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities” (Wikipedia article on Transhumanism). In fact, more than potential, many of us believe it inevitable.
I titled this section ‘The Holy Eucharist’, whimsically to begin with, but subsequently realising the momentous dual significance it has–or, at least, so it seems to me–in any Neo-augmentationsist-Neo-immersionist debate. The thought that had prompted the choice of section title followed discussions about what is ‘real’, and specifically whether anything that happens within Second Life can be held to have any intrinsic reality independent of the key presses, mouse movements, and fertile imaginations of flesh-and-blood humans at their computers. Were we Protestants conjuring with the symbolism of mere bread and wine? or were we Catholics talking seriously about body and blood?
The competing visions, it seems to me, hinge around just that theological point. Do we envisage a future in which we (or our digital correlates) reside in cyberspace? or a future for humanity in which out digital correlates are simply among the many possible extensions and enhancements of our real selves? Extropia DaSilva published her vision in her article ‘Obsoleting the Upload Dilemma’; my own is summarised in the following words from Jeffrey Ventrella:
Avatars, as we know them now, will get shuffled off to the virtual wax museums. We will return to direct physical expression. Our body language will be directly converted into electrical patterns and distributed around the world within seconds. The internet will become a neo-neocortex, strewn with virtual homunculi. New technologies for conducting natural language processing over the internet will become so invisible and natural that we won’t even know it’s there. … Why would you want to use a synthetic animated character when you can just be yourself?
(Ventralla, 2011, p. 253-4; my emphases)
Or, as Oscar Wilde succinctly put it, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken”.
Like Hindus and Muslims, like Sunni and Shia, like Catholics and Protestents, maybe more pertinently like Jonathan Swift’s Big-Enders and Little-Enders, the conflicting camps will continue to bicker and battle for ascendancy, brandishing their holy books and quoting from scripture, in a pointless debate likely to be finally resolved by men in white coats (no, not that kind–the other kind, the techies) kneeling to other gods in suits in Anaheim, Wall Street and Washington (or should that be Beijing?).
In Part II of this essay, to follow shortly, I shall argue that virtual social worlds offer us a platform for interactive storytelling, for weighing alternative “what-if” scenarios one against another, for model-theoretic thinking, all core to what, in my mind, it means to be human; and that this may turn out to be a principal motivator for the ineluctable appeal of, and our engagement in, virtual social worlds.
I should like to propose that we organise a one-day in-world “Why are we here?” symposium for sometime this summer (mid-July might be good), addressing issues of the kind the writers and commentators have raised in this blog. I’d be delighted to hear from all others who think this a worthwhile and interesting project.
Abt, C. (1970). Serious Games. New York: Viking Press.
Bostrom, N. (2005). ‘A history of transhumanist thought’. Journal of Evolution and Technology, 14:1.
Bennetsen, H. (2006). Immersion vs. Augmentation’. Accessed 8th May 2011 at:
Boellstorff, T. (2008). Coming of Age in Second Life: An anthropologist explores the virtually human. Woodstock: Princeton University Press.
Llewelyn, G. (2008). ‘Immersionism and Augmentationism Revisited’. Accessed 8th May 2011 at:
Llewelyn, G. (2009a). ‘Post-immersionism’. Accessed 8th May 2011 at:
Llewelyn, G. (2009b). ‘Esoteric immersionism’. Accessed 8th May 2011 at:
Ventrella, J. (2011). Virtual Body Language. The History and Future of Avatars: How Nonverbal Expression is Evolving on the Internet. Eyebrain Books.
Wikipedia, ‘Simulated Reality’. Accessed 8th May 2011 at: