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The Virtual Whirl: The meaning of life

Tateru Nino

"Get a life", "Get a first life", and so on, and so forth. If you're involved in virtual environments, you've probably heard this phrase a lot. Wagner James Au of New World Notes suggests that people who use those phrases are among the least likely to 'have a life' themselves.

Well, we'd say he's half right. It's more that the people you hear it from don't really have much of an idea of what life is all about and how it works. It's not an uncommon theme. Botgirl Questi points out that in order to see something more clearly, sometimes you have to look at it from a very different perspective.

This week, in The Virtual Whirl, we're going to take a couple perspectives for a spin, and talk about the meaning of life actually is, insofar as the phrase "get a life" is concerned.

When I was growing up, older children and teens were starting to find the telephone to be a convenient medium for keeping in touch without significant travel. This way, they were able to less-expensively keep up with their social circles and peers, while at the same time obeying parental preferences for them to remain at home in what was seen as an increasingly less safe society.

Paradoxically, those same juveniles were repeatedly informed that they should 'get a life', and that talking on the phone constituted 'fake' conversations with 'fake' people. Adults transacted very little substantive business on the phone during this period, preferring to have the same discussions face-to-face, because "that made it real". For adults of the period, the telephone occupied about the same niche as the SMS text message does in more recent days.

It was quite a few years before the telephone started to be considered an instrument of business, barely distinguishable from a face-to-face conversation.

What does that have to do with life, though?

Parents thought their kids weren't living one, essentially being what social psychologists would call 'refusers', lacking in or rejecting meaningful engagement with others. When they were telling their kids to 'get off the phone and have a real life' primarily what they meant was that they should have extended periods of meaningful engagement with others (those others, coincidentally generally being the same people who were on the other end of the telephone).

So, the meaning of life (at least insofar as it concerns us for this topic) is "extended periods of meaningful engagement with others".

So, why did adults then say "get a life" to teens on the phone, and why do people say it to virtual environment users now?

It's all down to what you consider meaningful engagement to be, and whether you can actually see it happening.

You're a modern Internet user, and you move to a new town or suburb. You don't really know anyone much in the new place, it's true. However, you're still in touch with all of your friends and family (wherever they might be in the world) from the moment your ISP plumbs in a working Internet connection for you, or as soon as you can settle in at an Internet Cafe or WiFi hotspot.

After a few prospective efforts with the neighbors you find that you've got little, if anything at all in common with any of them. Frankly, there are enough cultures and sub-cultures that the statistical odds of you lucking out and having someone within a block or two of you that's potentially compatible can be pretty low. So, not much chance of meaningful engagement there, then.

But that's alright. Through the Internet and virtual environments, you're still in touch with family, friends and relatives, and have contact with a potentially vast number of compatible people, independent of any geography.

Pretty soon, however, some people might think you need to "get a life". They don't see you participating in meaningful engagement – because the kind of meaningful engagement you're experiencing just isn't the kind that they can see, and it is clear that you're not engaging with the social and community structures that they would prefer you to be involved in, many of which may only be an accident of geography.

Generally, though, people just don't think in those terms. Instead of thinking in terms of 'preferential' and 'non-preferential', they mistakenly think of those same things in terms of 'right' and 'wrong'.

You might be using Second Life to hang out with friends, telecommute to work (saving petrol and pollution), raising money for charities or cancer-research and arranging meet-ups with cool and interesting people that you would never have met if you restricted yourself to your local geographical spaces.

"Working full time with and through virtual environments is like having three extra discretionary hours bolted on to every single 24 hour day"

In the eyes of many, that makes you wrong, because you don't lean up against the back fence and talk about the Golden Globe awards with neighbors with whom you have nothing else in common than a circumstantial proximity.

Frankly, they just don't know what living is. You're doing more of it, with more people. You're living a richer, fuller life than they dream that you could be, or that they dream that they could be.

Working full time with and through virtual environments is like having three extra discretionary hours bolted on to every single 24 hour day that I can spend with my family and on other activities. That's time I wouldn't get if I worked the same number of hours in an office, with my engagement hanging out for all to see.

So, go get your own life. This one's mine.

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