Even as a child, Philip was drawn to the underlying mechanics of things. “I just inherently had an interest in how things worked. What caused gravity? Why did a rock stay in one piece? As I got into building things, it struck me that it was quite easy to imagine objects, but even with the skills I had learnt, it was fairly difficult to build them. I think when computers came round, and I got into programming, I was struck that computers offered a better environment with which to build things. So I combined that with a knowledge of physics and that led me to question, couldn’t computers just do everything? Couldn’t we simulate everything, with rules that are rich enough to enable us to build what we dream about?” Rosedale decided that what he wanted wasn’t the ability to change the world, but to replace it with something better – a virtual world, with no barrier between thought and action. However, he decided computers weren’t powerful enough. By June 1999, after putting himself through college with funding from his software company, Rosedale had left his position as CEO of RealNetworks (which brought out his video streaming software that would eventually become Real Video) and joined forces with an old colleague, to form Linden Lab. Their vision was a renovation of his childhood dream: a world where people could build whatever they liked, and become whoever they wanted. “It was ‘ploughing the dark’, to quote Richard Powers,” Philip said. “The idea of just creating something from nothing.” Philip believes that the freedom to create and connect with others inside Second Life will improve us. “Second Life is a world which is in many ways identical to the one we live in, but, in significant ways, it is better,” he told me. “Second Life can make us more collaborative. It can make us communicate. It can make us better people.” Computer games generally have a reputation for nerdiness, but the demographics don’t always match up – inside Second Life, you’re just as likely to meet a man as a woman, for example. In other ways virtual worlds are a great medium for shy people, those not at home in their body, like Philip himself. “Eye contact is uncomfortable, physical proximity is threatening,” he says. “Second Life is like a gateway drug, because basically it makes you more willing to communicate.” Philip sees Second Life as a correction to our early, disempowering media – a better place, owned by us all. “Second Life is the statistical average of all our dreams,” he told me. “It represents nothing less than what we collectively want the world to be. When you look at Second Life, what does it look like? It looks like Malibu. And why is that? Because Malibu is the average of all our dreams. It’s what people want. They want the sunset, a powerboat, they want palm trees, they want to be living on the seafront. That’s what we all want.” Philip’s zeal for his virtual world borders on religious. Virtual worlds are an inhabitable form of an age-old human dream: a perfect place, beyond sorrow and loss, where the self can be renewed and set free. Eden, heaven, Oz and now Second Life – we’ve always dreamed of leaving the world behind, only now can we actually inhabit the place we want to leave it for. Virtual worlds afford liberation – a lethal and life-giving combination of experience without risk. By presenting us with a perfect, airbrushed world, where beautiful people live easy lives, they enchant us into denying our own troubled, anxious existence. “You can hold yourself back from the suffering of the world,” Kafka wrote in his diaries. “But that very holding back is perhaps the only suffering it is in your power to avoid.” Of course, we can run from trouble, but trouble always catches up with us. And trouble has followed us into virtual worlds too. Last year, Second Life was repeatedly attacked by self-replicating objects, virtual terror attacks by devices, which copied themselves until they crashed the world. With freedom comes responsibility, and many virtual residents, being infantile in their desire for fulfilment, don’t want to take responsibility. Crime has come to Second Life, as well as extortion, and even child pornography. After one resident recreated the World Trade Center collapse – he and a friend, who had lost a brother in the real terrorist attacks, sat inside as the towers fell – residents gathered to berate him for being insensitive. Then other residents arrived to defend the freedom of their land and the right to do as you please. One resident,
tired of the moral struggle, protested on a website. “When does our Third Life come out, so we can escape our Second Life?” “Did I know there would be conflict? I suspected there would be, because we knew that people want to control space,” he says. “But it is my belief that increasing the rate of communication between people, even if sometimes they don’t want it, is very empowering.” In Second Life, you can look as you please. When I met Wilde Cunningham, a group of nine men and women with cerebral palsy who had discovered a new lease of life online, they decided their virtual self would have orange skin, as there were both black and white people in their group. “I think that Second Life will reduce some of society’s conflicts that are based on cultural stereotypes,” Philip says. “I hope that Second Life, depending on how widely it gets used, will be likely to quickly close barriers between cultures, in ways that make us less warlike than we’ve traditionally been. With the terrible case of war, it’s easier to kill people you don’t know. Second Life makes it so easy for you to double-click to go to, say, Japan. But I think that there’s a question, a more meditative one, about what kinds of conflicts will emerge in a perfectly mutable world, and whether they might not be even more psychologically destructive than the ones we have today. They could be, I don’t know. We’ll have to see. Do people make each other cry in Second Life? Oh my god, yes. Very much so.” From the inside, Second Life feels like the whole universe, and Philip Rosedale, king of his world, believes it “very much resembles the future of everything”. For a while, late last year, the UK media seemed to buy into his dream, with newspapers like the Guardian publishing Second Life stories sometimes twice a day. In recent months, though, there has been the beginning of a backlash against Second Life. Having spent close to $20 million, Linden Lab are only now just breaking even, and some have begun to question the numbers of residents. When we spoke, Philip was keen to point out, “There aren’t 1.3 million people using Second Life. But there are 80,000 people a day in the world now.” With global attacks, and a series of database errors, on some days it is hard to log into Second Life at all. One afternoon, I logged on to find that, along with thousands of others, I had spontaneously changed sex. Philip is honest about these problems too. “What’s so funny about Second Life, is with all this attention, it still doesn’t work all that well yet,” he said. “But we know we can improve the technology, things like search, crash rates, all that stuff. As we improve that side of it – you think it’s growing now!” Philip Rosedale is excited by the possibility of new voice technology, which would make business meetings inside Second Life even more productive. (Over a thousand IBM staff are already using Second Life for meetings.) But ultimately, it’s the philosophical implications of his world that seem to excite Philip most. The child who dreamed about a magical tool-belt has grown into a man enchanted by his re-imagined heaven. “The real world we live in now... I’m painting a possible future, but the futurist in me says that the real world will become like a museum. It doesn’t mean that we won’t go to places like New York, it’s just that they will be like amusement parks, where we have carefully preserved memories of what they were like before. So it will be fantastically cool to go to New York, but in the same way that it’s cool to go to the Mayan ruins – the big buildings will still be there, but they’ll be covered in dust, as no one bothers too much with them any more.” Philip’s zeal reminds me of people who dream about space, who neglect the unique importance of the earth, and imagine mankind will soon explore and colonise the stars. Over the last century, we have discovered how inhospitable the universe is. The notion of outer space as full of possibility is a romantic dream. Philip’s notion of virtual space seems to me just as romantic. Nonetheless, he isn’t just another idealist. Virtual worlds are a new kind of place, an extension of the real. They make real the previously spiritual idea – one as old as mankind – that there are other realms beyond the physical. The themes of virtual worlds are the themes of religion: death, rebirth, loss, heaven. And now we can move in to heaven, to discover firsthand the trouble and the consolation hidden there.