David Payne on Second Life

David Payne There’s a great scene in US sitcom Cheers when postal worker Cliff Clavin confidently predicts that email is a passing fad and the art of letter-writing will one day return.

Cliff is threatened by technology, fears for his livelihood, and, besides, has no need of email. His world is small. All his social interaction happens in a Boston bar where everybody knows his name, surrounded by Sam, Carla, Diane, Frasier, and, most importantly, Norm Peterson, his best buddy.

But technology can bring out the Cliff in all of us, as it did to me last week at Nature Magazine’s trendy London HQ, when its Second Life presence Elucian Islands was unveiled to an audience of scientists, journalists, and academics.

Like a tourist film for a Dubai golf resort, the launch video whizzed us through the islands’ main plaza, science park, and conference centre, while a community of seated avatars (with names like Troy and Joanna Wombat), asked how we First Lifers were reacting to their presence.

Seated three rows back, I was desperate to view these people at closer range, to read the on-screen tags above their heads. Who were they? Were they really, as Second Life’s homepage claims, pioneers in a virtual world imagined and created by themselves?

Who were their First Life counterparts, and why were they not outside, enjoying the “real world” late autumn sun as it beat down over the canal outside?

This was my first proper encounter with Second Life’s 3D world since reading John Stott’s BMJ feature last year about how the technology is increasingly being applied in universities.

Anthony Steed, a Reader in Virtual Environments and Computer Graphics at University College London, told Elucian Islands launch event that he hopes to hold his first international conference programme committee in Second Life.

Already avatars have been used by psychologists to help tackle people with social phobias, he added.

Former newspaper proprietor Eddy Shah, who is soon to publish a cyber world thriller called Second World, talked of Second Life technology enabling instantaneous translation in the future, making language barriers a thing of the past.

“All scientists do is get something going. People move it forward,” he said.

In the 1980s Shah challenged his two children, then aged 6 and 8, to produce a newspaper in three days using an Apple computer. They managed it easily, paving the way for the desktop publishing revolution he pioneered and his defeat of the print unions.

I’d witnessed this first revolution first hand, and in the Nature building.

Macmillan Publishing, where I worked in the early 1990s, was a late adopter of the new technology, finally moving from typewriters to computers in 1994. It was in that building that I’d sent my first email and surfed my first website.

But back to Second Lifers. What next for them? Shah predicts future avatars will at some stage experience touch, taste, joy, pain, sorry, anger, frustration. The same as us, in other words.

The same as Cliff, in fact, when he masked his fear and uncertainty by pompously confining email to an early grave all those years ago.

David Payne is bmj.com editor.