Anti-war protests, bell bottoms, tie dyes, and organic foods are all the rage. Dennis Hopper (or, at least his caricature) is on TV pitching no-load mutual funds or Roth IRAs—I can't remember which—while trying to convince us it's all somehow subversive, that "the man" doesn't like it one bit. He leaves us with no option but to conclude that "the man" these days wants us to blow our money frivolously on a hedonistic lifestyle of free love, drugs, and that loud rock and roll music.
I don't know about you, but I'm choking on all this '60s nostalgia. So I find it richly ironic that today's culture, which spends so much of its time, energy, and money idealizing the "be here now" '60s, seems hell bent on fashioning a "be anywhere but here now" existence for itself.
No matter how many Che Guevara bumper stickers we slap on our Saturns or vintage T-shirts we buy at the Gap, we can't hide what we're really all about here in the early 21st century. We're about escape, and the concept of escape is taken to a no more grotesque extreme than Second Life.
Perhaps you've heard of it. It's garnered a lot of mainstream media attention lately and was recently cover material for Newsweek magazine. Second Life is where chat room meets the holideck. Or, for non-Star Trek fans, Second Life is where chat room meets psychedelic mushrooms.
It's an online "metauniverse," which—for you slaves to a single reality—is a "fully immersive 3D virtual space, where humans (residents) interact (as avatars) with each other socially and economically in a cyber space that uses the metaphor of the real world, but without its physical limitations. Residents can explore, meet other Residents, socialize, participate in individual and group activities, and create and trade items and services from one another."
Let me translate: It's playing pretend.
Second Life is a hi-tech syringe mainlining anaesthesia into the carotid arteries of literally millions of people who are abandoning large chunks of the reality they're supposed to inhabit for a gooey world of absolute fantasy.
The avatar, for instance—this 3-D image or icon representing the user in this make-believe world—is nothing but a symbol of the user's self-image absolutely unencumbered by any rational limitations. So, for instance, if you've always felt yourself to be more a legume than a man and you want to live life as a walking, talking (or chirping, if that's your thing), fuscia-colored lentil who plays Black Sabbath tunes on harpsichord to packed houses of adoring female potato chips, well then, go for it! This is your Second Life!
The hopeful part of me yearns to believe that these "Second-Lifers" are people who have tried everything else and have simply run out of alternatives, that they're not otherwise healthy, potential-filled people in this world who are just opting out.
Perhaps, I hope, these are people who have already tried ingesting platoons of prescription mood-altering pills, but the rose-colored glasses those pills used to produce are now scratchy and weak. Perhaps they've already tried watching 12 hours of TV a day but turned it off when even last Tuesday's "Oprah-thon" brought no tears. Perhaps they've already stair-stepped through every gateway drug until now even crystal meth is but a mere cup of coffee to them.
Such is not the case. The aforementioned Newsweek article tells the story of an underachieving (on planet Earth) 40-year-old, named Peter Lokke, who is actually a real go-getter in Second Life. He makes a decent living through his avatar's (a woman, by the way) ability to design and sell make-believe clothes for other people's make-believe avatars. Alas, Lokke "never pushed myself to get into [clothing design] professionally [in the real world]." Now, he is so entrenched in making something of himself in his make-believe life that he admits, "I'd rather panhandle on the street than leave Second Life."
Wow. As happy as I am for Mr./Ms. Lokke having found his/her calling in at least one of his/her lives, I hope I'm not being too harsh in pointing out that, well, it's the fake life he/she is succeeding in...where he is a she...with ambition...selling clothes that don't exist...to beings that don't exist...in a world that is, at its bedrock, HTML code.
Sadly, however, Ms. Lokke doesn't seem to be the exception. According to Newsweek, in the Netherlands, 57 percent of Second Lifers spend more than 18 hours a week there, and 33 percent spend more than 30 hours a week. The Gartner Group estimates that by 2011 four out of every five individuals who use the Internet will be involved in Second Life or one of the other competing "metauniverses" out there. That translates to 1.6 billion people.
Now that I think about it, maybe we are fashioning a '60s existence here in the 21st century after all—Timothy Leary's '60s: "Turn on. Tune in. Drop out."