In the United States’ modern mythology, Route 66, established in the 1920s, emerged as a symbolic way to hope and freedom, to the promises of a better life or to the dreams of a more authentic existence on earth. This set of images also comes to my mind when I visit Mother Road – Mirage Motel 66 in Second Life, which, together with its neighbor sims, presents a small town built on the desert along a representation of probably the most famous highway that the US has had.
Mother Road – Mirage Motel 66 is not the first incarnation of the historic Route 66 in SL. The repeated presence of that highway in the virtual world and the fascination it exerts on visitors and photographers show how its imagery is cultivated among us, SLers.
Not surprisingly, the adjacent regions to the current Mother Road in SL, which help building the image of a town in the desert, offer homes for those who are attracted by the idea of living in such an iconic landscape. In other words, they reflect the assumption (probably a well-founded one) that SL residents are commonly touched – to the point of considering inhabiting it – by the myth of the road that, through a scenery of conquered wilderness, leads to some kind of missed paradise in the west of our imagination.
Actually, the west is a proper place to house paradise, in the eyes of the sons of Cain, who was banned to the east of Eden after murdering Abel. The west is where the greener fields should be found in the hopes of Okies trying to escape the consequences of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, either in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (where Route 66 is famously mentioned as the United States’ Mother Road) or in Sanora Babb’s Whose Names Are Unknown.
In a way, the journey to the west, the idea of crossing the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific, has also appealed to Americans as a path into the wilderness and towards freedom, independence or abandon, be it under the colonialist mentality of the Manifest Destiny in the 19th century or under the spiritual quest cultivated by the Beat Generation in the 1950s and 1960s.
I will risk to say that representations of the Mother Road may exert a special attractiveness on Second Life’s residents because SL itself is still a product of a time in which we searched for online existences as our western paradises. The most successful product by Linden Lab belongs to an era in which the internet used to be thought of as a thriving and expanding bubble of liberty – or as a no-man’s land as well. Yes, SL has always been a walled garden, governed by the Lab, but we have never been driven in its domains by the algorithms that populate today’s social networks.
In the history of its existence, the internet has changed from that unexplored land of possibilities into a controlled environment where our presence is limited by all the routines that determine what we will see, whom we will interact with, what kind of content will be presented to us and so on. To put it in another way: we moved from utopia into dystopia.
As in Steinbeck’s or Babb’s novels, there was no Eden in our west, no paradise in our California. Still, as the Beat Generation pointed to us, there is the way itself, the wild desert in which we can still navigate. US Route 66 may have been decommissioned in the 1980s, but the idea that it represents is still food for our dreams – and in a way that’s why we keep building such a highway again and again.