The copy of a screenshot of the virtual version of a person at right is Angie Mornington, host of a weekly fashion show on Treet TV, the television station of the avatar-driven social networking platform Second Life. I find that sentence confusing, too. If you want to depress yourself, think about how 15,000 people a week use their fantasy lives in a 3-D computer world to watch television—and the virtual television equivalent of The Home Shopping Network, at that. If you want to depress me, point out how that’s about 300 times the readership of my blog.
All this information—okay, not the last sentence—comes from a trend piece in today’s Times about luxury spending in virtual worlds like Second Life, There.com and IMVU. For those of you unfamiliar with the ever-narrowing canyon between geek and sexual fetish culture that is Second Life, it’s a free-form, virtual world in which players own land and consumer goods, run businesses, interact socially and live out lies of computer-modeled desperation through their avatars, which are invariably both disturbing and attractive in roughly the same way as Angelina Jolie. Membership in these sites is free, but the money you spend there—Lindens in Second Life, Therebucks in There—has to be purchased with actual United States or foreign currency. Which—especially after you hear that such virtual worlds enjoy economies whose “avatar-to-avatar transactions [are] estimated at between $1 billion and $2 billion a year in real dollars,”—begs a question: Why?
Let’s not even get into the question of why so many people are so evidently fascinated by a world that, as near as I can tell, promises a slightly less visually realistic version of contemporary boredom. There are no goblins in Second Life, which baffles me. Why, when you went to all the trouble of constructing a three-dimensional virtual world in which players can live out richly-detailed fantasy lives, would you not fill it with ravenous goblins that those players can then hack to death with swords? Wouldn’t virtual—or for that matter real—Starbucks be exponentially better if sometimes right when you were paying for your caramel macchiato* a slavering hobgoblin burst through the plate-glass window, and you had to choke it to death with your money still clutched tightly in one hand as you stared into its bleary, ichor-stained eyes? This is roughly the same complaint I have against God, and I don’t understand why you would construct a world without regular and stunning acts of personal heroism/violence, and on a totally unrelated note it has been many weeks since I have known the touch of a woman. Second life does not involve killing monsters, is what I’m saying here. Nor does it allow you to fly spaceships, or shoot a machine gun, or eat approximately 1,000 Kix while running from ghosts. It’s a game the same way Facebook is a game, in that it allows you to live out a simplified version of your real life in which you are approximately 15 percent more brave, because you know that you can delete yourself at any time.
Yes, that’s true of real life as well, with the asterisk that when you delete your account in First Life you’re not allowed to just sign up for a new one using your Hotmail address—or maybe you can, depending on your views on reincarnation and the afterlife, and here we go off to the theoretical races again. Second Life and its ilk are a pretty much bottomless trove of postmodernist speculation. If your plan for the afternoon is to use your time machine to go back to 1989 and talk to Jean Baudrillard, please make sure you didn’t accidentally leave a copy of today’s New York Times in there, because it will explode his brain. A virtual world in which virtual people have to go to virtual jobs in order to get enough fake money to kill time in virtual coffeeshops with virtual strangers is just one more step on our road to a Completely Electronic Life, like in the Matrix or The Possibility of an Island or whatever, and I for one welcome our Virtual Age. I look forward to being part of that 1 percent of the population that is not morbidly obese and, while the rest of America is drinking Mountain Dew Code Red and talking about RobotBall via webcam, spends its time getting real handjobs in the woods. Second Life probably heralds the end of biological life as we know it, and I don’t care. What I want to know is why you would own 60 pairs of boots there.
Such is the inventory of Caroline Hanekamp, a 39 year-old office manager whose Second Life avatar, Grazia Horwitz*, spends a lot of time buying virtual shoes—”pumps, boots, all sorts of regular classical shoes — the more the merrier. And if I see something really cute, I want it in all the colors.” She’s not just weird. According to the Times, clothing and accessories account for 40 percent of Second Life’s virtual marketplace, and make up 20 percent of its overall economy. Remember, while such transactions are conducted with Lindens or Therebucks or some other online credit, those credits are purchased with actual money. Caroline Hanekamp is buying virtual running shoes with resources she might otherwise use for, you know, food. Also, it’s not just that virtual fashion looks cool. Second Life features fashion districts with boutiques that sell unique wares, fashion magazines, fashion blogs and runway shows, which means that a lot of the virtual luxury market is driven by branding. Many virtual accessories and articles of clothing are purchased because they are expensive or hard to get or made by prestigious designers, meaning that their prices reflect more than their practical value, which is zero.
All of this quickly gets too depressing to think about. Telecommunications technology has finally allowed human beings to construct an entire fantasy world that could conceivably contain all of us, and the fantasy we have collectively chosen is one in which it’s cool to buy expensive shoes. If art is the dream of culture, our culture apparently dreams of a place that is exactly as materialistic and bitchy as this one, only cheaper. Chaucer had London, and dreamed of devils. Cervantes had the Enlightenment, and dreamed of knights. We have the internet, and we dream of Prada.