Report from HUMlab Island in Second Life

My avatar chats with Japanese/Swedish artist Sachiko Hayashi’s avatar in front of the temporary shelter on the HUMlab Island (Thumbnail)
I am flying to right of the HUMlab House and garden area. (Thumbnail)

HUMlab presence in the online 3D world platform of Second Life (SL) is centered upon a 5120 square meter island we purchased in June 2007. Since then the island has been visited by various HUMlab staff, researchers and students but not much has been happening there. In fact it was beginning to take on the appearance of one of the infamous ‘sandboxes’, island where the new arrivals in SL spend them time learning to dress themselves, move around, chat and build things. A number of structures had emerged on the island, interesting although they were SL is full of sculpture that is not so easy to understand. I started looking around to find out who had been doing the building. Not so difficult as all the objects bear their creators name when you right click on them and request details. So I knew who they were made by and I do not want to discourage anyone from expressing themselves creatively so I mailed out a request to everyone on the HUMlab group list in SL some ideas for coordinating the Island. No replies. I then mailed out to individuals bringing up the idea of pooling resources and building together. Still not reply. So last night I leveled the island, removing everything and started again from scratch. The result is we now have a house, some trees and stones and a hut.
But this does not solve the problem of coordinating activity that leaves behind traces of use on the island. I’ve thought about sending out more messages, which I will do. As well I want to create and link a wiki or a blog to those stones you can see in the center of the island so those who use the island can leave messages, make requests or introduce themselves. I also have a plan for a more custom built structure on the empty end of the island.
Finally, some exciting news. Sachiko Hayashi, familiar to many in HUMlab from the 2006 seminar, Technology as a Medium: Artist as a Consumer will be resident on the HUMlab SL Island for the coming months working on an installation art piece in collaboration with artists from Denmark. More details later.

really good collaboration

For several years now, we have been collaborating with Kulturverket. I think it started with Lars Cuzner spending quite a bit of time in the lab – attending seminars (and asking questions) and engaging with HUMlab. He works for Kulturverket and is also a local artist. Him and us sharing the same studio space led to dialogue, new ideas and an exchange that has been going on since then. We have worked together on several projects including the Blog Opera Project (together with Norrlandsoperan and others). I really appreciate Kulturverket’s basic sentiment – encouraging and respecting young people’s ideas and creativity at the same time as involving professional culture workers in the process – and having a strong interest in digital media and everyday technology. They are also very interested in the science-art interface, and I really think they are doing some quite innovative work. Most of our joint projects are mainly run by Kulturverket, but we are involved in developing ideas and engaging in dialogue. And we share excellent staff. HUMlab as a meeting place for culture and technology is very compatible with Kulturverket’s work and ideas. Also, they have helped us increase interaction with local artists and ‘culture workers’. One of my intermediate publishing aims is to write a book on collaboration at the humanities-art-technology interface, and our collaboration with Kulturverket is certainly going to be a case study.

lab update

As our new research fellow, Torill Mortensen, notes, HUMlab did not quite look like an inhabited and ready-constructed lab when we visited the other week. We had to evacuate the present lab space to allow for new floor tiles (nice green-blue/cyan ones) as the old ones were more than 30 years old. As it turns out, adding a new section to the lab is a good opportunity to update the present lab as well. Apart from the floor, we will also get a new main entrance door (a silent one instead of the one we have now – this may seem like a small detail, but this will be a rather significant upgrade). As HUMlab inhabitants would know, there is currently a small passageway leading to the door, and we will also move the door outwards to give us a little bit extra space, but more importantly, to create a nicer entry point (most people do not like having to swipe cards. etc in a small passageway with their back to the only exit apart from the lab entrance). Some other improvements will also be made in the present lab. More about that later.

We will start moving furniture back into the lab tomorrow. People have offered to help, and I think there are quite a few HUMlab staff and members who miss hanging out in the lab.

There is quite a bit of work left to do in the new part of the lab, and it will probably not be in use until late October. We are currently testing out chairs and preparing technology purchases. There will probably be some kind of inauguration event in December.

Simulation and Critique in Second Life: Reading the Space for Wholes

I have been out of Second Life more than in it since returning to formal research after the summer break. However, my mind is still very much engaged with SL. I am planning some building for the HUMlab island, have tested out the new voice chat application (not so impressed but maybe I made mistakes), been watching the blogosphere dialogues and thinking about a paper that I owe for a course on technologically mediated communication that will be about Second Life.
Today I saw a video on SL and education, and here it is:

I agree with much that is claimed in this video but I think there are some problems. Simulation does offer the possibility of decentring subjectivity to create empathy and provide for practice based experiences in alternate settings. One example I can think of from HUMlab is the theatre project which allowed students to build virtual stage sets in Active Worlds to give them an idea of how it works to do it in RL. But I wonder if simulation can teach critical method in subjects such as history and art? According to the video, made by students at Bloomsburg University’s Institute for Interactive Technologies, students can walk around a Van Gogh painting or (perhaps closely related) “get a sense of what it feels like to experience schizophrenia” with SL. Such simulative experiences have some value as a means of expanding the mental worlds of students. But I wonder about the students developing a distance from their subject in order to develop critical thinking. Such critique I see as an important part of education. Being able to ask questions is about being able to understand problems. It is necessary to detach from any simulation, be it creative fiction or a military sim, in order to question and understand its values, reality claims and manifestations of power. Unless education is to become just remembering things the ability to ask questions and disassemble subjects is very important.

The late Wolfgang Iser wrote in The Implied Reader (1975), “If reducing the unknown is a process of self-discovery, the question arises as to whether this process can ever have an end. The search for oneself forbids the setting of any one particular aim whose fulfilment would mean total knowledge – in other words, the process of self-discovery depends on there being unknown quantities that must be reduced.” (128) The realist emphasis of SL, that is so well captured in the Bloomsburg student’s video, creates the impression that the unknown is simply overcome by continued engagement with SL. Rather than exploring the possibilities or presence of metaphor in SL, the students are asked “How else could students experience a period of history as when they are immersed in a virtual replica of it?” Well, does anyone really experience a period of history, rather don’t we create history? I wonder also, to quote from the video, that by claiming “immersive education gives participants a sense of being there” we are not just creating another “there” and calling it “there” (if you get what I mean). While not wanting to dismiss SL as a learning tool, as I think it most definitely is and can be, I think we should recognise its strengths and work with them. Second Life is a 3D represented space with multimedia capabilities, which large groups of people from all around the world can communicate in without huge costs. Just that we can share a simultaneous space with the world, listen to music and chat in it is a thing of great potential beyond trying to immerse ‘ourselves’ in such features as visual splendour.

Welcoming the next post doc – Torill Mortensen

You can really feel things beginning to gear up for the new semester. Not only are we getting a new floor and new, exciting lab – but yesterday we welcomed the next of our great post-docs, Torill Mortensen from Volda College. I know her from her work with Jill and blogging, but I have the feeling she is also well-known in the gaming world 😉 After sitting and listening to her tell stories about sliding backwards down ski hills and giggling along with her infectious laugh, I am sure that Torill is going to be a great addition – both academically as well as personally- to our growing HUMlab family. Welcome, Torill!