Friday, October 14, 2005

Stairway to the Nest

And I go over to the psychologist, and he says, "Emo, what does this inkblot look like to you?" I said, "Oh, it's kind of embarrassing." He said, "Emo, everyone sees something, so don't be embarrassed. Tell me what the inkblot looks like to you." I said, "Well, to me it looks like standard pattern #3 in the Rorschach series to test obsessive compulsiveness."
-Emo Philips

Ever notice birds don’t build stairways to their nests? Yet the fully airworthy Second Lifer insists time and time again to include the unnecessary crutch in every build! Perhaps this folly is what the judges of the recent State Of Play competition tried to expose when they gave SL’s finest builders a verbal spanking. The lesson was basically that Second Life is a powerful virtual reality tool that should not be used to simulate real world structures but rather should be used to express creativity in ways nobody understands or can identify with.

I have always considered creativity to be the degree to which creators, morph the information received by their senses into something else based on their core of experiences. Generally speaking, the more complex the morphing, the more creative the idea is deemed … to a point. The spectrum ranges from non-creative to, well, frankly INSANE. At one end you have an automated script that takes your input and echoes it right back to you. You type “Hello World” and it returns “Hello world.” At the other extreme we have output that bares no resemblance to the input. You type “Hello World” it returns a shade of blue between hockey stick and thirteen written entirely in pungent. Now THAT’S creative!

Actually it wasn’t very creative, it was random. Real creativity is generally found at a sweet spot on the spectrum where ideas are morphed and pushed to the limit but never depart from the context in which the audience will receive them. Whether you anguished geniuses like it or not, this context is important.

Many of the freedoms Second Life grants us are savored mostly when placed in a real world context. Flying, for example, is far more gratifying when zooming over the tops of trees and houses than it would be in, say, some abstract upside down room from an M.C. Escher drawing. Without an earthly sense of “UP” it’s impossible to know that you’re flying at all, never mind enjoy it.

This brings me to our little civics contest. Cutting edge ideas understood and appreciated only by academics may very well help to promote civic engagement and strengthen the public sphere … as long as you don’t actually need people. But for most civics projects the perceptual context of the general public is non-negotiable, and right now that means letting people know which way is UP.

My recommendation for next year's State Of Play judges (and I know they are scrambling for a pen to write this down in their Moleskines) would be to hold two contests. One would reward the most creative virtual space least encumbered by the context of our real world experiences. The other would be about bringing people together for civic engagement in a virtual world.


  1. If there's going to be two contests, it'd be nice to have two panels of judges too. Makes things that more diverse, and dare I say, progressive. In counterpoint to the academic credentials, we should have a krumping expert on the team, because krumpers know how to make good use of the human body in a public space. Same with someone who does parkour. And who knows public spaces better than custodians? For these, their "credentials" are lifelong experience. Having lived, breathed, dined in these spaces. And then, plain and simple, we need someone like Mr. Bean on there. I'm serious. If anyone's ever seen Rowan Atkinson's fine English comedy, you quickly realize how much Mr. Bean explores the extraordinary in "everyday, civic spaces". And although he doesn't come out and say his appreciation outright, you can deduce from his body language that he is taken aback and that being alive in a community is something he—even if appearing confuzzled—truely is passionate about.

    And that all harkens back to human control of environment. So-called terms like the "urban jungle" or the "concrete forest", what we've built on top of what nature birthed.

    One thing I've found is how humans generally prefer a gradual deviation, as opposed to sudden aberration. While stairs can be a PITA to walk on, for your eyes only, they provide a line of sight as to what's coming before/next. Get densitized, settled in, and then prepare yourself for the next shock to come. It's like one of those training montages.

    Speaking of Escher, there's one videogame (someone please help me out here), where there's a special level. You're travelling along, and the room orientation just suddenly jarred every few minutes so you temporarily know which way is UP, for the time being, but that changes.

    In a way, what the judges of this State of Play contest revealed ends up ultimately saying more about them—than the entrants.

  2. One positive thing to emerge out of this -- dare I call it a debacle -- has been the rich dialogue on the Second Life forums. A common enemy, this time in the form of a judging panel, goes a long way in getting people to lay down the hatchet and discuss issues in an intelligent manner. Or... it's that the people interested in discussing architecture aren't the ones who like holding hatchets?

    I liked your post. I've been writing and poking fun at the judges on the forums, so will leave most of my thoughts there. I have enjoyed reading many intelligent analyses of the situation. Jake Reitveld's comments particularly struck me. He acknowledges that the judges would be looking for avant-garde things that might help redefine modern/virtual architecture. However, he also cut to the core by writing, "But the role of cutting edge architecture is to push the limits of peopel's relationships to space without comprising the person ability to enjoy it or understand it." Well said, Jake.

    One thing is for sure, whether we are talking art, architecture or another medium, I like a piece of work to be able to stand on its own two feet without a dense support structure of theory. If it takes a treatise to explain value, then usually the pleasure the academic/critic is feeling is not so much from the work itself as from the excuse to luxuriate in mental gymnastics and/or hear themselves talk.

  3. " . Flying, for example, is far more gratifying when zooming over the tops of trees and houses than it would be in, say, some abstract upside down room from an M.C. Escher drawing."

    I disagree, but it's a moot point in SL given that the renderer doesn't really support -- oh, what do I know, I haven't even looked into hacking the renderer. But flying without an "up" is certainly fun in some of my experimental voxel worlds. Of course, that isn't done with polygons.

    Harrison Partch

  4. The judges said (effectively), you're suddely free from all these real-world constraints, make use of it.

    Well, that's not such a bad idea on the surface. But I think it's a natural reaction to being in an obviously artificial world to want to ground it in a sense of the familiar - to add a bit of "reality" (the real world) to make it seem that much more engaging, immediate, emotional, and connected.

    Sure, you could build the surreal set of Mirrormask in SecondLife, but I think it would feel hollow, being artificial-inside-artificial.

    On the other hand, it may just be that a majority of residents want what they can't have in the real world: that would explain the abundance of cars despite the ability to fly, and the presence of food when there's no need to eat.

    Whatever the actual reason is, I think imposing a pholosophy on the creative process - as those academics seem to want - is at best counter-productive. Quality and creativity stem from desire and interest, not guidelines or theory.