Rarely a month seems to go by without news that some place or another in Second Life is to disappear. I read recently that The Trace by Kylie Jaxxon, a beautiful, windswept beach sim which I wrote about in May last year, is to close soon. Leka by Kate Bergdorf, an island of peaceful spots and footpaths which I wrote about in February, has also just closed, to be redeveloped over the next couple of weeks into an art gallery. There are countless stopping points in my long SL journey which now no longer exist. The original Blue Angel Poet’s Dive shut its doors many years ago, as did its replacement (the latest version now resides in Chelsea). Sawtooth Mountain Resort, which landscaped for a couple of years the ground level of the mainland sim I’ve lived in since May 2007, is now just a distant memory. And does anyone remember The Greenies?
Places disappear from the virtual world for different reasons. Sometimes it’s a lack of money. Sometimes the money is there but the engagement from residents just isn’t and the owner’s interest wanes. Sometimes, the owner just wants to try something different. Sometimes the owner leaves SL. Sometimes the owner dies.
It’s tempting to regard the metaverse as ephemeral in a way that the real world simply isn’t, though a contemplation of life soon corrects that notion. I can think of many places In my own personal history which no longer exist. Buildings get demolished. Open spaces get built on. A school I worked in a few years ago and which I was very fond of was recently bulldozed to make way for housing, and I wonder often what that must feel like for the people who once attended it as children: a piece of their story is gone now, they can no longer go back there and look upon it and experience that sensation of old memories awoken. Ultimately, there is no such thing as ‘permanent’. Even the mountains and valleys and oceans of our planet have a shelf life. One day, our sun will die and Earth will be no more. One day, the universe will end and every accomplishment which ever took place within it will be lost. The metaverse is no different from real life, it’s just that everything is speeded up many times.
Even so, in an age where digital storage is cheaper than it’s ever been, it seems bizarre that virtual places are so transient, so fleeting, so momentary. It is so easy to preserve, and yet we don’t. The same can be said of the internet as a whole, where websites come and go, largely because digital bits need someone to keep on paying someone else money in order for them to remain in place. There is at least the Internet Archive, a repository founded in 1996 which contains now nearly half a trillion archived web pages as well as millions of books, videos, images and audio files, and over a hundred thousand old software titles. No facility exists there, unfortunately, for the preservation of Second Life places, nor does any such facility exist elsewhere. Then again, the archive itself is still just a collection of data on a collection of servers somewhere, which someone is paying someone to maintain. It could all too easily be switched off one day.
We’re still awaiting the supposed virtual reality revolution; reportedly, it lies just around the corner. The Oculus rift is due to be released early next year. Project Sansar is under development. I don’t know about you, but this pre-VR period is starting to feel a little worn-out. I’m no longer sure I believe it’s going to have the pervasive impact its architects are hoping for. But I do still believe that, at some point in the future, VR in some shape or form will become a mainstream activity. When it does, there will be perhaps a rise in interest in metaverse history. But there will be no ruins to poke through, no abandoned sims to explore; all those virtual places where once people met and interacted and came away with new ideas – all those places which once molded people, just as books and films and music and physical places have shaped human thinking through the centuries – will be gone. Perhaps then an effort will be made to preserve the new things which are added, but from now until that moment all we create will be created from sand. So I guess it’s up to us – the bloggers – to document those places, to recount some of the experiences, to publish a few of the photos, to stick a pin in the map of our virtual world which can tell anyone who ever looks one day, “this place existed and I was there.”
The latest SL impending closure I’ve read about is Le Mont Saint-Michel, a huge, sim-sized recreation of the French island monastery in Normandy which I’ve visited many times over the years and have some very fond memories of. It featured in my recent video, “What Second Life means to me.” A vastly ambitious build, the sim replicates every aspect of the island, from its narrow, winding streets to the sea wall which encircles the commune to the quiet monastery at the top. It’s an old build in terms of its technology, a construction mostly from basic prims which could probably be done in a quarter of the land impact today if created from mesh components. Having visited the real life place several times myself, I recognise that it’s not an exact replica of the Mont – nor could it be, starting from these basic building blocks and given the resource restrictions in place in SL. But the scale of the build is overwhelming. It is a work of great passion and incredible grace, and I am sad that it will soon disappear. My most frequented spot in the sim is the tiny balcony terrace at the back of Le café Poulard. When I sit there now, I can still recall past company, and the once whispered words, “Come home with me.” Second Life will not be the same without this place.
I have an interest in old technology and the things created with it. It always fascinates me to hear people younger than me say how such-and-such a game or such-and-such a TV programme from years past look terrible, dismissing these things as unimportant in their obsolescence. ‘The graphics are rubbish.’ ‘The special effects are appalling.’ But these were the expressions of our souls with the tools we had available at the time; these were the creations of people who could have chosen to sit and do nothing, and instead tried to create something new and big with what they had, something which introduced new thoughts to those who engaged with it and took us all one step further forward. There is no greater treasure to humanity than the thoughts and wonderings and creations – and sheer effort – of people, and I will always be moved by the struggle and ingenuity that can be seen in these artefacts of our existence. It is the very essence of our story.
One day – and it’s probably a day not all that far away – SL will look hideously antiquated next to whatever the new norm is. Tomorrow’s generation will look at the images which remain and say, “the graphics look rubbish’. They will not see the countless hours spent creating. They will not see the dedication or the passion or the desire to create something new which inspires other people. And that is okay, because that’s how people are. But they won’t all be that dismissive; some will pause to wonder, “what was it like to be a resident of SL?” Some of them might be driven to find out.
I really hope there will be something for them to explore.