Word of mouse

Luciano Floridi finds you only live twice

On May 23 2007, the Maldives became the first country to open an embassy in Second Life (SL), the web-based, virtual world inhabited by more than 6.5 million avatars (computer-generated residents), beating Sweden by a week. A quick look at the daily press shows that the popularity of SL is increasing exponentially. But this is not the main reason why philosophers should pay attention to it. SL is nothing short of the largest and most realistic thought experiment ever attempted, a true mine for philosophical research. Of course, this is not exactly how Linden Lab sees it, but just a few examples can easily drive the point home.

Ontologically, in SL the existential criterion seems to be some degree of “interactability” (x exists only if it can be interacted with) rather than a modal or temporal feature (x exists only if its essence is eternal and immutable) or an epistemic test (x exists only if it can be perceived). Your avatar might be there, but if it does not interact with its environment it counts as less than a ghost. It is an odd but instructive experience to be treated as thin air.

Of course, this prompts further questions about personal identity, the individual and social construction of the self, the emergence of communities with their rules and ethical codes, and so forth. New questions also begin to arise: think of the new digital flavour of “Platonic love”, or of the time when granny will leave to her grandchildren not only her earrings, but also that daring avatar, with spiky blue hair, that she started developing as an undergraduate in the twenties (of this millennium).

Epistemically, in SL one may enjoy a new opportunity to indulge in some old and idle speculations (“Am I an avatar in First Life, who is really being manoeuvred by another puppeteer in Zero Life?”; “do we live in a digital simulation?”) or probe more serious, new issues, for example about epistemic social trust, about ethical software design, or about the value of different theories of truth in a world that is in constant flux and which can easily answer to our wishes (in SL all sorts of things can be animated, not just automatic doors, so “snow is white” may become performative).

Semantically, imagine how interesting it can be to test new ideas about meaning and reference in a context where everybody is dumb, and must almost stenograph to communicate. But hurry up, because people are already “vocalising” SL and learning how to speak. Teleported to new places (known as islands), you may be tempted to experiment with different identities (try being many people at once, or someone with a different gender from the one you have in First Life) or diverse profiles (having a pair of wings is rather normal) or alternative personalities.

In these and many other cases, SL could easily replace Plato’s Ring of Gyges, Descartes’ malicious demon, Nozick’s pleasure machine and other similar thought experiments. But do not misinterpret me. I am not talking about SL as a mere colourful illustration of some philosophical theory. Reducing SL to PowerPoint material would be as pathetic and unimaginative as using the Matrix to illustrate Putnam’s brains in a vat argument, and as interesting as the garnish around the steak. What I am suggesting is that we should engage seriously with the new phenomenon and try to conceptualise it from within. For once, in order to think differently we may need to think inside the box.

Let me close this invitation to do some serious philosophy about SL with two warnings. One is political. We should never forget that someone is shaping our SL by running the system. A serious ethical investigation might be crucial in order to approach phenomena like SL critically. The other is psychological. We are mental animals, who live most of our lives wrapped in a semantic infosphere, even when this may mean just being obsessed with the local darts team. A virtual world that unleashes our imagination and allows us to be who we like and behave as we wish, where every exploration can be safe because utterly reversible, and (second) life is literally what we make it, is very dangerous. For it could certainly be as addictive as the most powerful drug. Watch out for SL-ics Anonymous.

Luciano Floridi holds the Research Chair in Philosophy of Information at the University of Hertfordshire and is president of the International Association for Computing and Philosophy.

  1. Great, now I just made a second life account to see what all the fuss is about!

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