The COVID-19 pandemic has repeatedly reminded me of William Gibson’s latest version of the apocalypse, which appears in his 2014 novel The Peripheral and again in his 2018 book Agency: a long duration event called The Jackpot. As imagined by Gibson, The Jackpot is not a sudden catastrophe, such as a nuclear war, but a cascade of disasters in various fields: climate change, political crises, economic and financial crashes, diseases spreading and posing new health challenges and so on. That series of continuous calamities would end up killing about 80% of humanity.
It has already been said by many that the concept of a virtual world like Second Life owes a lot to Gibson’s vision of a cyberspace as it appeared, first, in a short story by him and, later, in his now classic novel Neuromancer – even if we recognize that SL is probably more directly linked to the idea of the Metaverse described in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash.
Now, amid the new coronavirus outbreak, Linden Lab’s CEO, Ebbe Altberg, has stated that the company is aware “that Second Life serves a great purpose for our community as people seek ways to stay in touch with their friends and co-workers, as they grapple with new social distancing protocols, mandated remote work requirements, and other precautionary measures”. Also, “if you have a friend or colleague who is looking for a safe place to socialize online during these tough times, we encourage you to help them discover how Second Life can enable them to feel less isolated by connecting them to your favorite communities or experiences”, wrote him in a recent message to SL’s community.
Again, SL seems to have some kind of connection with Gibson’s universe – currently, as a refuge for at least part of the challenges of the real life’s Jackpot-like times that we’ve been living.
The other day I was sitting with my husband, Randy, at World’s End Cafe, in SL, while thinking of this: actually, both SL’s social aspect and its virtual nature can help protect us from a collateral damage of this COVID-19 pandemic. As measures meaning the isolation of growing numbers of individuals increase and spread, the risk of experiencing an outburst of anxiety, depression and other mental health issues rises as well. That occurs for a number of reasons, but we can summarize them into the idea that humans are social beings and interaction with other people is part of what constitutes us and keeps us healthy. It may be painful, then, when we are asked to keep social distance and especially when it turns into quarantine and long term home staying.
In SL, I have Randy, I have friends… Sure, I have friends in the atomic world as well, and I could call them, I could see them on camera, I could hear their voices during my home staying period. Still, in SL I can go to a café with my husband, I can meet friends at some club and dance with them, I can go to galleries and museums, for they are kept open. Of course it’s all virtual, but there is some kind of interaction in SL that somehow comforts me a bit. I mean, talking to my friends on a video call is great, but, at the same time that the screen allows me to have some visual contact with them, it reminds me of the limits I have to share the same room with them. On the other hand, the contact among avatars in Second Life feels to me more like a possibility than a limitation. Because in SL my avatar is a representation of (an idealized) me and it’s running limitless out there, while on camera, for instance, it’s the confined me who’s limited by a screen frame.
Second Life will not save us from The Jackpot, if it’s really going on. Still, it will allow us to watch it from a café at the end of the world. Of course it’s not perfectly satisfying, but this is how love is in the time of cholera.