In 2003 when Linden Lab launched the virtual world Second Life, it was a novelty and a huge success, with a community of over a million at its peak. A quaint convergence of unfettered imagination and dollar-powered real life — through avatars, business, product sales, music, movies, and even news reporting and politics — its ever-changing and expanding virtual world took off.
I visited a few times to research stories and marvel at people “buying” property, creating chic haute couture, building and selling homes, and having absurd keyboard-bashing sex with strangers (through self-created manga-style characters), all premised on an actual exchange rate of 320 Linden dollars to every US dollar.
Second Life was at once exhilarating, entertaining, educative, eyebrow-raising and strange. This is the world many are returning to in different forms as lives collapse and shrink uncomfortably into small bedrooms packed with dull relatives, bawling kids, and one shared television.
Unsurprisingly, as China reopens, the biggest queues are for the divorce office. Yet there is a rediscovery of the self, books and hobbies, but there is also an explosive urge to connect — and escape. And this urge might provide the kernel to repower travel, this time with greater relish and less haste.
With social interaction dramatically reduced, virtual contact is much in vogue, not necessarily through giant musclebound avatars, but through simple collaborative phone apps such as WeChat, WhatsApp, Skype, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, YouTube, Join.me, Yammer … the list goes on.
Having lost normal human contact we are now even more gregarious than before — like marooned survivors on a desert island — resulting in a curious hyper-engagement in socially distanced times where even neighbours cower if they spot you in the lift lobby.
Emboldened by the deafening quiet, wild animals are prowling city streets, peering into homes with undisguised curiosity in search of their own grocery shopping list that might include a human or two if the sell-by date is okay. The world is outside and we have become the denizens of the zoo, a great curiosity for passers-by.
Three cheers then for the wandering penguins, pumas, leopards, deer, monkeys, wild boars, elephants and mountain goats that have clattered into towns wondering what the fuss over humankind is all about with nary a massage parlour or a decent deli open. And where does that bloke David Attenborough live anyway? It’s a hard life for furry adventurers.
When my son was a young teen I remonstrated with him about his locked “man cave” where he sat in a pitch-black bedroom peering at a glowing laptop screen and, later, a phone. His friends would drop in and they all would sit in the dark room — like a coven of diminutive druids in hoodies — peering at their own screens, wordlessly texting each other.
“Why don’t you all just talk?” I would inquire. “We are,” someone would mumble. Well, at least they were saving electricity.
This thought crossed my mind as I lay in bed with the lights out peering at my glowing iPhone trying to raise friends from New Delhi to Singapore, London and Los Angeles. I checked to see what my son, now a respectable thirty-something, was up to. He’d been cooking — with all the lights blazing — and had photos to prove it.
So what happened to the Real World? It’s been reduced to mistyped links that will get your blood pressure up and blurred images flashing across mobile screens, though museums and libraries have heroically offered access to their vaults — if virtually so.
But then that’s what Second Life and alternate reality sites are all about, and in the midst of a sobering global pandemic the last thing you wish to encounter is a shower of pink phalluses (which is how bored techies heckle chat shows apparently).
I was chatting (in person) with family some months ago (circa 1BC, before Covid) and a niece planning a destination wedding — rudely interrupted by the infernal coronavirus — turned to her mum to ask sadly, “Mum, what is this Real Life you all keep talking about? It’s so depressing …” That was then.
Now I think I’m enjoying my old-man cave. No maid, no visitors, no deliverymen, no neighbours, no wise guys, no office and, when I get off my guitar, no noise. Even CNN has become a bit much after Donald Trump decided to “liberate” Georgia and urged people to inject disinfectant. Television off.
Nites.tv, the site that made a stab at opening up a world of free movies during the quarantine, has also been blipped off the air because of copyright violations. More silence.
I’m increasingly wary of social apps too, where emigre friends, battery-fed on Breitbart News, insist everything that ails the great US of A is a Chinese plot. Okay, WhatsApp off.
My Facebook feed is clogged with sly and seedy Hindutva posts from India about Muslim perfidy but all these people joyously blaspheme by digging into the Saracenic delights of mutton biryani.
It reminds me of Monty Python’s Life of Brian — “Well, apart from biryani, tandoori chicken, the Taj Mahal, ghazals, Sufi poetry, algebra, chess, the guitar (via the oud), coffee, carpets and shisha, what on earth have these people ever done for us?”
For the Facebook lynch mob, as well as for me, it’s time to reconnect with the Real World. Get a life. Really.