Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Sherry Turkle and Virtual Worlds

Location: Prognosticator's Chair

My students are in the midst of Alone Together, Sherry Turkle's jeremiad about the dangers of technology that throughout her book she calls "always on" and "always on you."

Though few Second Life or World of Warcraft users carry these imagined worlds around in their palm, given the beefy nature of the client software, many do spend lots of time in-world. Turkle's subjects mostly find escape there, and she freely admits that one can use these imagined spaces for "embarking on a potentially 'therapeutic' exercise" (212).  Mostly, however, she focuses on gamers like Adam, on the verge of losing his job, or Pete, who cheats on his wife with in SL, having a relationship with an avatar named Jade.  My students had their worst stereotypes of these immersive environments supported by Turkle's book, which otherwise does such a fine job of critiquing the other from of addiction to online activities, the augmented self of texts, apps, and phones glued to the users' palms.

It would be been interesting to see what she'd make of Fran, the 85-year-old Parkinson's patient, who with her daughter created SL avatars. As Wagner James Au reports, Fran was able to visualize herself standing again unaided, while watching her avatar Fran Seranade do Tai Chi or dance. Soon enough, Fran recovered some mobility.

Tom Boellstorff, author of Growing Up in Second Life, has met Fran and her daughter. He and other researchers are studying what has occurred. It's a heart-warming story of the sort rare in Turkle's book.

I will speculate a bit here, something I warn my students against since for them, the art of extrapolation from solid data may be safer for their grades.  I'll let you readers grade me.

Alone Together began as Turkle's "letter" to her daughter Rebecca. In Paris, Rebecca had spent her time texting and on Facebook, instead of taking in the city's many delights. Turkle was disappointed and has crafted one of the best critiques I've encountered of our relationship with our machines and the loss of such things as "the rewards of solitude" (3).

I hope that my class will remember Joel, Turkle's research subject who is an SL builder, both of content and community. Yet I fear Pete or Adam will stay in their minds instead. I do not possess the professional expertise to question how Turkle's bias might have influenced her writing about virtual worlds, but as a reader, I would have liked more Joels, and maybe a Fran, to balance the negative and all-too-common stereotypes of gamers as addicted, soon-to-be-unemployed, social castoffs.

In fact, I'd go so far, an an educator who has used Second Life and OpenSim grids and SimCity 2000 in class settings, to make another claim. Whatever the validity of Turkle's data, her method of presentation about gamers weakens for this reader her critique of social media, texting, and other potentially addictive behaviors.

That may be my bias, given the ease with which users of those apps can get a regular fix.

Work Cited:

Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other. New York, Basic: 2011.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Phone Book's Here! The Phone Book's Here!

Location: Front Porch

Verizon's phone book landed on the porch a day or two ago, and only this morning did I get around to unwrapping the skinny little thing. It's like the Ghost of Phone Books Past, to this techno-Scrooge.

In another era, the arrival of the new edition would cause quite a flutter. Misplacing the phone book was also unthinkable. They were not easily or cheaply replaced, and my father guarded it like the Dead Sea Scrolls. In an otherwise chaotic Lebanese-American household, the phone book held court on the telephone table. Nowhere else.

Now phone books are incomplete and small. Verizon banishes residential listing entirely to a Web page, a crowning irony since most of the land-line stalwarts I know are so old that a broom provides the interface for web access in their homes.

Once, however, the phone book provided all sorts of diversions. I've three degrees of separation from musician Frank Zappa, but only one from his phone book. A grad-school friend named Rick, when living in Los Angeles, once had the job of delivering the huge directories to the homes of the famous and crazy in that star-studded town.

At one address, he was ringing the bell when a hippie "who looked like a madman" stuck his fuzzy head out of an upstairs window. "What the hell you want?" he challenged Rick.

"Phone books!" Rick replied, and the hippie's face brightened and he came running, shouting "Oh man! The phone book's here! The phone book's here!" Rick quickly found out he'd delivered Frank Zappa's phone book.  Lord knows what chemically enhanced games were played with the directory.  I know that my friends and I played geeky games of generating random names for role-playing games by picking, in the I-Ching manner, examples from the phone book and mixing examples from white and yellow pages. Names such as "Lorenzo Plumber" or "Scrap Metal O'Malley" resulted, to our geeky delight.

Now the I Ching is online, so I asked of it "What is the fate of the phone book?" With six casts of the stones, I received this answer:
"Waters difficult to keep within the Lake's banks: The Superior Person examines the nature of virtue and makes himself a standard that can be followed. Self-discipline brings success; but restraints too binding bring self-defeat."
History of technology there? Tim Wu's The Master Switch, the text just completed in my course on The History, Culture and Future of Cyberspace, is all about those who establish standards for an entire industry, like Bill Gates, though not just for themselves. Some geniuses such as Steve Jobs foresee needs we don't yet have, and they push others to and past the breaking point to make the vision real and the consumer's need materialize.

In the era of mobile technology, where most of my students carry area codes from faraway lands, there's no sense in a phone book. Discipline is needed, however; my students get so lost in a web of constant texts and other inputs that they do not give sufficient priority to e-mail about classes, and they suffer as a result.
So as be blunder forward, without much direction or a good directory, into this connected era I will miss the nigh-sacred tome on the "telephone table" in my, and perhaps Frank Zappa's, dining room. 

Or, perhaps, another room in his hippie mansion.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Cloud Party Customization For Avatars

Location: Shiny Canyon

I'd been away from Cloud Party for a while, but a conversation during yesterday's VWER meeting spurred me to log in during the meeting.

I'd heard of but not tried the virtual world's new customization features. At login, I found myself in a welcome area, and wearing a new basic avatar greatly improved from the one I'd driven before.

Cloud Party's little smart-phone icon was drop-dead easy to recall after time away,  unlike many aspects of Second Life's bloated interface. I did not recall how to get home, but a navigation app on the phone, much like a maps tool for a physical phone, got me to Shiny Canyon in one smooth teleport.

Back in my stylin' pad there, I decided to try the customization features now in CP. First, I found it hilarious that unlike SL, where most male avatars are hulking body builders, my CP avatar was a skinny white guy. I'm no Hercules in real life, but farm work has made me rather burly and skinnier in the middle. So I buffed CP Joe Essid out to match the actual one.

The process greatly resembled SL's customization features, one aspect of SL that I found students mastered quickly. One can also save outfits and looks, as in SL. The lag was negligible as I did all this from within Firefox. Soon areas of outfit creation will merit a spin. I do not know what "movement" does, for instance. In the hair settings, I rather enjoyed the "stubble" feature for the beard. With hair removed, the avatar got the same swarthy look as this blogger.

Enter, Guido... rather like me but younger. There is no geezer-slider in CP's custom features.

At the VWER meeting, educators were too quick to dismiss Cloud Party for its name and lack of community. I'm not so sure. Despite a name I don't like all that much, anything that runs this well in a browser merits a close look. And without Facebook logins as mandatory (I still use mine) and  a working virtual currency plus marketplace, this world deserves more press from educators.

I'll have to have a try with the in-world building tools, rumored to be difficult. I'll also have to see if the ability to connect islands to make contiguous regions exists, also as rumored.

Shiny Canyon will never be the same.