Once again, I’ve been given an opportunity to visit another world, the strange and exotic land of teen culture. I’ve been assisting the New York-based organization Global Kids by reading and writing about 133 essays by high school students on how digital media affects their lives. You can download my report, read the essays and learn more about all aspects of the project by clicking here.
Very often these days, reality so closely imitates the science fiction of my youth that I have to pinch myself to be sure I’m not imagining it. Many decades ago, speculative fiction predicted that we would be able to communicate instantaneously at a distance, that we would live plugged into devices that magically manifest our every intention (and that we would evolve into big heads on tiny, useless bodies, but never mind about that last part).
While I am amazed by the ease and wonder of modern communications technologies–and while I admit to an unnatural attachment to my adored computer–these things aren’t exactly seamless for me. Every time I need to Skype someone, I have to go through a ritual of testing my headphone hook-up–half out of prudence, because I’ve encountered some glitches calling people from my computer, half because I just don’t trust it. I see myself as a member of the horse-and-buggy generation gingerly kicking the tires on a Model T. I’m willing to get behind the wheel, but I feel slightly ridiculous as I slide into place.
I don’t have kids myself, but I’m old enough to be included in the parental generation (grandparental, really). One thing I learned from the digital media essay contest is that in contrast to my own generational cohort, who merely dissed our parents for being unhip about music and clothes, many members of this generation see their parents as something akin to a predecessor species, a bit like Homo erectus is to Homo sapiens. As one essay author put it:
See, we are the first generation who has lived with all this digital media for the majority of our lives. I am not quite sure what digital devices our children will grow up with, but I am sure that we will most likely know how to operate it, unlike our parents and grandparents. The typical person age 10 to 25 understands more about electronics than our parents ever have or ever will.
Or, more prosaically:
Some people think more about the bad points of the Internet than they do the good and often these people are parents.
Essay authors were a diverse group as to age, ethnicity, location and socioeconomic status. The most common form essays took was the “slice of life” account, in which the teen author narrated his or her typical day, usually without reference to a single moment unmediated by digital devices. It seems that countless young people awaken to their cellphones, log onto MySpace.com to see if they’ve gotten any new messages or online friends, check the online weather before they get dressed, click their iPods to the day’s preferred soundtrack and text their friends from study hall to discuss after-school plans–and that’s just the first two hours! Nearly half the authors said they couldn’t live without one or another digital technology, and most were only half-kidding.
One aspect of the contest was operated through Teen Second Life, a virtual world populated and largely created by teenagers. It’s part of the larger universe of Second Life, “a 3-D virtual world entirely built and owned by its residents.” In Teen Second Life, kids create avatars (human or other figures representing themselves), objects and environments, then interact with others who also inhabit the virtual world, as this essay author described:
Second Life allows people of any age to build things, make money and interact with people all round the world. Second Life implements a scripting language called LSL (Linden Scripting Language) which is similar in syntax to C or C++. It allows you to do all sorts of things, such as make a door that only opens when someone says the correct password, or make a jetpack that allows you to fly at extremely high speeds, and other cool stuff like that.
There are built-in tools to do this, but the most inventive participants learn relevant programming languages so they can make or do whatever they like. Some people are more adept (and obsessed) than others, often making a tidy teenage living in the currency of this virtual world by renting “real estate” and selling “products” they’ve created. They can accumulate virtual currency and trade it for real cash when they have a large enough quantity.
The underlying structure of Second Life is commercial. There are gathering places (” Hang out with your friends at the Coffee Spot in Teen Second Life!”), malls and events, as well as discussion forums. “Residents” are free to exploit their creations for economic gain, and Second Life’s operators provide financial incentives by investing in businesses or events that attract and hold participation. That’s one reason why it brings to mind classic sci-fi, which so often portrayed the future as inhabited by itinerant tinkers and traders, a perpetual frontier where everything is available for a price. The 17 essay authors from Teen Second Life have internalized this metaphor, seeing their participation in the virtual world as preparation for real life (often referred to as “first life,” as in “I’m a high school student in first life but in Second Life I run a hotel”).
Since November 22nd [note: this was written in February] I have made about $200.00 in real life money on TSL Although I do have to pay a $40.00 land fee to own how much land I own, I always make a profit, since I have the lowest prices and the best quality rooms in TSL, so I almost never have a room available, and some people spend as much as 500 Linden Dollars on their rooms each week, so they can have more prims, or objects in their rooms.
But the truly profound difference is encoded in the name “Second Life.” Virtual worlds give young people an alternate universe (one that doesn’t exist only in their own heads, as mine did) in which they can recreate their identities as they wish, finding acceptance and connection they may not find in “first life.” Listen to this essay author:
I think that Second Life is a great place for kids and adults alike. In Second Life, you can do just about anything or be anything. In Second Life there aren’t very many bullies. There are a lot of gay and bi people, and unlike in real life, they aren’t taunted by jerks and mean people very much. Me and a few friends hold little parties for everyone usually shunned by society, like nerds, gay/bi, disabled, and just about anyone else that feels bad about themselves.
Without Second Life, some people wouldn’t have many friends.
I like to say that all the people who interest me now were fellow alienated weirdos in high school. What difference would it have made if I’d been able to create a safe, online hostel for alienated weirdos like myself, where instead of being preoccupied with my misery, I would be (virtually) embraced?
If you don’t know these worlds firsthand from a teenager in your household or neighborhood, I urge you to take a tour. I have seen the future, but I cannot enter fully into this strange new world. To paraphrase Wordsworth: “Bliss it was in that dawn to be online, but to be young was virtual heaven.”