SFO's Counter-Culture lives on! Second Life's metaverse and Burning Man

By | October 13, 2009

 2197464751_4b624e3b46[1]I have always been fascinated by the counter-cultural heritage of  Second Life  – as evidenced by Phillip Rosedale’s much vaunted epiphany   at the 1999 art, fire and community event,  Burning Man, in the middle of the Nevada desert.

Residents in Second Life acknowledge the connection with an  SL event, Burning Life  held in-world each October to coincide with its real world counterpart.

Here’s an excerpt from their email (bring out the tissues) :

In 1999, a dreamy guy from San Francisco decided to go explore this Burning Man thing he’d been hearing about. Into his car, he tossed a tent, water and everything else he needed to survive, then he drove 300 miles out to the Nevada high desert. He arrived at a featureless, 40-square miles of cracked mud, ringed by distant mountains. Hot. It was terribly hot. Except when the sun went down. Then it was just plain cold. The Black Rock Desert is an ancient dry lake bed. “The Playa”, geologists called it; harsh, foreign, unforgiving and so shockingly barren that it *begs* to be your empty canvas. A strange encampment had been erected there, ringed around a 40-foot tall anthropomorphic wooden statue destined to be burned the last night. What the Dreamer found there— a huge group of people, self organized into a city, collaboratively creating a different reality— tweaked the direction of the project he was working on back in San Francisco, and filled his head with ideas about the nature of reality, creativity, identity and community. He worked some of these ideas into the very fabric of his project “Linden World”, which you and I now know as Second Life. That Dreamer was our founder Philip Linden.

It is worth remembering that the roots of Silicon Valley were laid by the counter cultural movement in California, although on the technology side, the Valley’s geographical proximity to NASA, Lockheed and the Stanford Research Institute also played a part. ( I use John Markoff’s book What the Doormouse Said as a reference. )

Second Life differs from all other virtual worlds because it is a bold social experiment, one reason why its residents forgive Linden Lab again and again. It has direct lineage to the experimental lifestyle advocates from the late 50’s , the  60’s (best exemplified by Stewart Brand and Howard Rheingold, WELL and the Whole Earth Catalogue), groups which held  anti-authoritarian views about personal freedom (Yippies), and mind expansion (Tim Leary), and Rosedale is as a charismatic as the best of them.

These memes spilt over into technology circles . The Home Brew Computer Club passion for personal computing was in part a political response to government-held central data banks: why could individuals not have this too?!

So occasionally I like to remind myself about the anthropology of Second Life way, and its subversive geneology. It’s also worth noting that some of the user behaviours modelled in SL have seeped into user practices  in more conventional virtual worlds such as those which target the business sector : there is a little of the shaman in every avatar, no matter which platform.

If you are similarly intrigued by the connection between the 40,000 people who comprise Burning Man’s temporary community and the hundreds of thousands who inhabit the metaverse,  have a read of this years’ Survival Guide to Burning Man.

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