A lot has been made recently of IBM’s use of Second Life as a method interacting with it’s employees. I’ve heard about this in the press, and even respected people like Warren Ellis have weighed in on this.
Much as I respect these people – Warren especially – I have watched, in horror, as we commercialized the Internet. I made a good living off of helping (IBM among others) perform what I considered a usurping of the internet for financial gain and held my tongue the entire time. Let’s face it – it’s never good to bite the hand that feeds you, and the commercialization of the ‘Net seemed inevitabe anyway. The Internet began as a great tool to research and learn and its become nothing more than a shopping mall festooned with porn ads, spam. It’s become the cheaper sleezier version of a Las Vegas Strip mall.
But the addition of IBM to Second Life has implications which have not been spoken of by anyone. Thus far, all the articles have been "Oooh isn’t this great – one of the big names in technology is embracing the virtual world.". I’ve had a Second Life account for a while. I don’t support any major corporation or commercializaton of Second Life or any Virtual world. I can’t. My reasons begin simply that just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should do something. And the concept that IBM is actually proactively establishing meeting places for Employees there – summarizes a theme at IBM that has been rampant for years, a theme found not only there but throughout businesses globally and that theme is the employee as a human being, is no longer a human being. They are a face in a archive, and now their not even a particularly well drawn face.
Employees as it is don’t come up on the radar of "What is Right or Ethical" for most business decisions. In this era of dehumanization of employees where thousands can be laid off from one country merely because another country is willing to provide what amounts to as slave labor, the removal of one more instance of direct human to human interaction is just not a good idea. It’s one more chance for an "aerial warfare" level of callousness to assert itself. A chance to provide managers a way to not look into the eyes of those they manage, to make decisions in a vacuum. After all, these aren’t humans we’re dealing with – they’re cartoons. They’re "avatars". They’re not human.
As we go further and further down the road of less and less face time with each other, our ability to become cold and remove the last vestiges of humanity from our actions increases. Don’t get me wrong virtual worlds – are incredible places. They provide a chance for us to "do it right" remove the mistakes we must make in the real world to survive. In the world of Second Life, there’s an almost utopian quality to the place. But as with all utopias there’s a darker side, a payment that must be made to the universe. That payment is our loss of humanity.
When we can all fly – teleport – create objects out of thin air – we are as gods. And gods, are often without souls themselves. We’re enabling people who have very little contact with reality, to distance themselves further from the human condition. We’re empowering the decision that being there – seeing someones real face, reading their true reactions, touching the real item, doing all those things that make real life a blessing and a curse… we empower the decision that reality is no longer needed. That real people… are no longer needed.
We strip ourselves of humanity, so that we may pretend we are gods … and in the end, we become neither gods nor humans but a virtual representation, of what a human would be, if the place they lived in – were not reality. I do not see that as a step forward for humans, or for technology.