Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Having spent a lot of time in Second Life over the past eleven years, parts of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash are downright quaint: the ways in which he needs to explain avatars, or virtual spaces, or the word “metaverse.” And there are things he describes that have been implemented almost word-for-word in Second Life, which is kind of creepy.

I enjoyed the story itself (and much more than Neuromancer, with which Snow Crash is often paired as precursors to parts of the internet and virtual reality). I’ve only read a few of Stephenson’s novels, but I rather enjoy the way they meander and take side trips.

Otenth and technology

I’ve been active in Second Life, where I’m known as Otenth Paderborn, for over four years, and I’ve only recently realized some of the effects of my participation on my use of technology.

First, some meandering backstory.

One of my favorite artists is Edward Gorey, who among other things created hand-drawn and ‑lettered books, some of which show “Ogdred Weary” as the author. What a fantastic anagram! It’s not just the use of the letters, but there’s a symmetry to the two names, Edward Gorey and Ogdred Weary. In moments of daydreaming over the years, I came up with an anagram of my own name that I thought approaches that aural relationship: Otenth Knutsen. Kenneth Sutton: Otenth Knutsen.

When I joined Second Life, one had to choose from among a list of surnames and create a forename that produced a unique combination. There was nothing even approximating Sutton available, nor anything that Kenneth seemed to fit well with (or where Kenneth hadn’t already been taken). So I turned to my heretofore unused anagram. But no Knutsen, either! On the other hand, I had no trouble with Otenth having already been claimed in any combination. I finally settled on Otenth Paderborn.

Eventually I discovered that I wanted to be able to communicate with my friends in Second LIfe outside of Second Life. I started using Google’s mail program, creating an email account for Otenth Paderborn. (This is very, very common among Second Life users.) From there I went on to explore and use several of Google’s tools: calendar and docs foremost among them. My personal calendar, which has been digital for years, went online in a Google calendar—which belongs to Otenth Paderborn!

Then when some of my friends were trying Twitter, I started that, too. Here’s the interesting part: I’m not really a cutting-edge technology user, and “Kenneth” is almost always already taken. So I signed up with Twitter as Otenth (it was my Second Life friends who made me curious about it, after all). One thing led to another, and soon I became reconciled to using Otenth as an online handle even for things that have no connection to Second Life.

So there’s the first and perhaps most obvious change in my relationship to technology: After using the internet for years, I’ve acquired a handle that I use fairly consistently (sometimes even without checking to see if Kenneth is available).

The second change is exemplified by my use of Facebook. I signed up for Facebook when it was opened to anyone, but I never really saw much use in it—most of my long-time friends didn’t use it much (or the internet in general). But then, as my circle of Second Life friends expanded, I discovered I knew lots of people who were using it. Once I was spending more time on Facebook, I began to find old friends and former coworkers, and I’ve actually reconnected with a couple of people because of Facebook. Which I started using because of Second Life!

The third thing is the oddest, and the one that I’ve only recently realized: I have been much more likely to try out new technologies as Otenth.

I’ve been using Dropbox for a while now as part of Radio Riel, the internet radio station I’m part of that has grown out of Second Life. A month or so ago I realized Dropbox would be handy for work—first just for my own purposes when I work from home, but then also for collaboration. And without thinking about it, I invited my coworkers to Dropbox—and they got emails from Otenth Paderborn! Well, I now have a second, work-only Dropbox account. But my personal Dropbox use is and will continue to be associated with my Otenth Paderborn gmail account. (I highly recommend Dropbox to anyone who wants to back up files in “the cloud,” to keep files synced between computers, or to share files with other people. If you use this link to join, you and I will both get a small bonus on the free 2G of storage anyone can get.)

In a similar fashion, I recently decided to pay less for telephone service, and I’ve shifted to Skype as my unlimited domestic calling solution. And of course as you will guess, my Skype account belongs to Otenth Paderborn.

Isn’t the Internet a strange place?

What Is Real? Lessons from a virtual life

Order of service and message presented to Unitarian Universalist Association staff chapel Nov 10, 2009

What Is Real? Lessons from a virtual life

By day, Kenneth Sutton is the mild-mannered managing editor of UU World magazine. But by night, he is Otenth Paderborn, gentleman, landowner, Steampunk, and DJ in the virtual world of Second Life.

Chalice Lighting (by UUA Chaplain)

At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.

First Reading: A Psalm of Life, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream! —
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act, — act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.

Hymn 315 This Old World

Words from a traditional American hymn, adapted

This old world is full of sorrow,
Full of sickness, weak and sore.
If you love your neighbour truly,
Love will come to you the more.

We’re all children of one family,
We’re all brothers, sisters too.
If you cherish one another
Love and friendship come to you.

This old world can be a garden,
Full of fragrance, full of grace;
If we love our neighbors truly,
We must meet them face to face.

It is said now, “Love thy neighbor,”
And we know well that is true;
This the sum of human labor,
True for me as well as you.

Sharing of Joys and Concerns

Reading Macbeth Act 5, scene 5, 19–28, William Shakespeare

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.
                                   Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Hymn 109 As We Come Marching, Marching

Words by James Oppenheim

As we come marching, marching in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing: “Bread and roses! Bread and roses!”

As we come marching, marching, we battle too for men,
For they are women’s children, and we mother them again.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!

As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for — but we fight for roses, too!

As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days.
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler — ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and roses! Bread and roses!

Sermon: What Is Real?

I know I should aspire to ensure that each of you, while sitting here, has a good chance of connecting all the dots I made in my choices of readings and hymns. I fear, however, that is not how I approach reality. Reality is, first, rough-and-tumble, but it also has shifting appearances and defies easy definition. If you don’t see the connections (or if you imagine others of your own), I invite you to engage with me in that sort of discussion best carried out after work at the 21st Amendment.

I’m involved in, and this service is inspired by my experiences in, Second Life, which is a persistent, three-dimensional, virtual, user-generated, social environment.

I recently attended SteamCon, a science fiction convention in Seattle. I went in order to meet people I already knew from Second Life, the third time I have met friends I previously knew only virtually. It is the consistency of these experiences, as well as oft-heard ribbing about virtual worlds or “computer games” or “social media” that spurred these reflections, which I first presented in a nondenominational Christian church service in Second Life.

Are the pixels one sees in Second Life real?
In the sense that we are not each dreaming, or imagining the screens before us, they are real.
They are real pixels, then.
No, they are not flesh. No, I do not have horns (although two people at SteamCon both offered to make horns for me).
To be real is to acknowledge inherent nature—and inherent limitations.

Is art real? –and not just in the facile sense of being real canvas and pigment.
And no, “I know it when I see it” isn’t a good answer, either.
Neither is “I like it.”
Art can take so many forms. What is it that makes it real art?
Among other things, real art is created with intention by an artist.
To be real is an acknowledgement of intent.
Real art is meant to feed the spirit and heart.
To be real is to acknowledge dimensions beyond what we can touch and see.

Is a telephone conversation real? Are the people on the other end of this conference call real?
Hello! Can anybody hear me?
It is real sound, created by real electromagnetic energy.
It is a real intention.
But what makes it a real conversation is not only the intention (leaving a message in voice mail is not a conversation!)
A real telephone conversation is communication.
To be real is to communicate.

Is love real?
It is a real emotional state–whether reciprocated or not, whether permanent or not, it can cause real differences in behavior, resulting in physical action in the world.
While it may take one by surprise, it is intentional when expressed.
It is, hopefully, communication.
But beyond that, healthy, mutual love is connection.
To be real is to connect.

So back to the pixels that one sees in Second Life.
Beyond the reality of their pixelness, the reality of the images,
they were created with intent
sometimes they were created to inspire
they were created to communicate
they were created to allow us to connect.
They are, while “only” real pixels, also real on a much deeper level.

So, the people at SteamCon:
Were the people real avatars?
Sometimes the genders didn’t match.
No one had horns, wings, or blue skin.
Some people were multiple avatars.
To acknowledge inherent nature, no, the humans and the avatars have a different inherent nature.

And yet,
and yet.
*Is* the inherent nature actually different?
It depends often on intent.
Does the human intend to use the avatar to deceive?
(Setting aside the fact that humans often intend to deceive, without the need for an avatar, and yet they are still “real” humans.)
Does the human intend to obfuscate or deny the relationship to the avatar?
(Setting aside the fact that humans often obfuscate or deny their previous actions, and yet they are still “real” humans.)
Is there a congruence between what the human and the avatar communicate?
Sometimes there is.
In many ways, there is a consistency between what is communicated by the avatar and by the human.
It doesn’t even have to be conscious–we humans are very good at reading one another’s subconscious communications.
Even if an avatar is meant not to reveal anything “real” about the human, how can it not?
We express our reality with every action we make. Every choice tells the world something real about us.
We cannot help but infuse our avatars with intimations of our human reality.

What is real?

Real is when someone at joys and concerns at a UU church service in Second Life shares that he has lost his job (and this, sadly, is shared all too often these days, in all of the social circles of Second Life).
Real is when one of your communities reminds a member faithfully every night to take his medications.
Real is when an acquaintance lets your community know she is undergoing chemotherapy.
Real is when your friend tells you her plans to leave her husband, who has Asperger’s, and to whom she is married only in name.
Real is when that friend tells you her husband has pancreatic cancer and she has decided to stick by him until he dies.

Sometimes, sometimes,
there is a connection.
And I don’t mean romance, or sex.
I mean those moments when we choose to reveal our hearts to another, and to witness another’s heart with respect and love.
That can happen here.
Is it not what we are hoping will happen at this very moment?

What is real?

This moment is real.

Savor it.

Hymn 128 For All That Is Our Life

Closing Words The Tempest Act 4, scene 1, 148–158, William Shakespeare
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Go in peace.

Sleeping memes

Perhaps it would be better to let sleeping memes lie, but I’m going to pick up on my friend blaugustine’s Where I slept in 2008.

  • at home, the vast majority of nights
  • my sister’s house in Brawley, California
  • Ramada Inn, downtown San Diego, California (after visiting my family)
  • AmeriHost Inn, Sun Prairie, Wisconsin (at a press check for UU World at Royle Printing)
  • Embassy Suites, Fort Lauderdale, Florida (UUA General Assembly)
  • Newton, Massachusetts (housesitting for most of July and August)
  • Bromo Ivory’s house in Rochester, New York (on my way to CaleCon)
  • CaleCon at Stone Willow Inn, Saint Mary’s, Ontario
  • EconoLodge, Fultonville, New York (on the way home from CaleCon)

I really didn’t think the list would be so long. I forgot about staying in San Diego and the press check trip until I started writing this post. I guess I haven’t been such a homebody after all.

Beauty from sorrow

One of the people I’m coming to know in that funny, online, “I’ve never met them” way is Tateru Nino, a fellow denizen of Second Life and Twitter (who happens to live in Australia). She’s a prolific blogger and writer, ready with insightful commentary about the unfolding metaverse. She has posted a lovely essay prompted by the death of her father: Remembering.

It’s a funny thing, memory. Well, my memory is. I remember that I was at places, knew people, did things. Except I remember them like they were something that someone told me. Not like I was the person who was there. Most of those memories are gone now, anyway. A year or two years or three, and there’s just vague fragments, like a half-remembered story or a distant dream — yet somehow, I still remember pretty much everything I ever learned.