Sunday, November 9, 2008

Second Life as an Exploration of Culture and Diversity

I have the honor and privilege of having Young Geoffrion as the guest blogger for my blog, so kindly offered to me through Arminasx's and Vint Falken's Mix and Match challenge. So without further ado, I give you Young Geoffrion....

An explorer learns to tread carefully around marshy ground, and there is no landscape so littered with quagmires and fraught with hidden dangers as those of Culture and Diversity. Where does Culture begin and Personality end? Is Culture received by the individual or created? How is Diversity to be measured and characterised? And is Diversity a Good Thing?

Melting pot and multicultural communities have always struggled with such questions because the personal self-identity of its members is built on these shifting quicksands. We no longer have the luxury of living unquestioningly in the stone farmsteads built by our grandfathers, where most of our day is spent in the company of those who look and think and act like us. We live instead in busy cities teeming with strangers, foreigners, mixed classes and races, where personal roles and social ambitions jostle. A wilderness of diversity and culture sits at our doorstep and waits at our fingertips.

Second Life was created in such a community, sprung up in one the most culturally diverse cities in the world. Diversity is implicit in the promise of a world imagined and created by its residents, and promoted in its advertising. We are born to this Life as Ruth but immediately begin a search for our own identity.

However, the Second Life pursuit of personal self-identity reflects a Western preoccupation. Other cultures emphasize the relation between the self and others, by defining the interdependent self, often employing extended kinship terms. Such cultures tend to view conformity as a virtue and diversity as a selfish unwillingness to accept a role in the community, an indication of moral immaturity, or even a dangerous untrustworthiness. East Asian traditions, military and regimental cultures and religious communities generally eschew diversity as disruptive and dangerous. They offer clear roles for individuals who want them and find them useful; I have lived a large part of my life in such a culture, and my sense is that they are barely represented in Second Life.

Why explore diversity in the first place? Is Diversity beneficial for the individual and the social collective at large? It seems to me the answer depends on how individuals manage and integrate multiple social identities across culture, gender, class, or race, profession and ideology. In the United States, assimilation of immigrant cultures to the dominant American mainstream is encouraged, while in Canada and Europe one tends to see a public effort to maintain a separate identity or integrate multiple cultural identities. In other societies we see ethnic cultures marginalized. In Second Life, at least among English-speaking residents, no single dominant culture has emerged and identities are generally designed to be as distinct as possible.

Second Life celebrates play as a social dynamic. Though some come to work, the majority of residents are here to entertain themselves and their friends, and this too is a typically Western preoccupation. It could be argued that diversity is an advantage in a social environment designed for entertainment, but not in situations designed to accomplish other goals. Communication problems and relationship conflict hamper information exchange in diverse teams, and one way to reduce conflict is to emphasize the common identity of the team. On the other hand, homogenous teams may suffer from reduced group creativity and smaller skill sets by marginalizing or assimilating diversity.

Some avatars enjoy frequently changing appearances; I think most settle on a single appearance and experiment with a variety of roles within different groups. As Second Life permits us to participate in behaviors typical of identities other than our own, we learn to identify with multiple social groups and discover compatibilities between different cultures. This process unlocks knowledge and unleashes creativity. But whether it helps or hinders the pursuit of social goals is still unclear.

Second Life turns this morass into a playground, where diversity is a given and managing personal identity is a valued skill.

1 comment:

HeadBurro Antfarm said...

Hi Young - great post. I think that SL has coped really well with allowing huge numbers of very different social groups to enter and mix. I find that emotional ties in this world are made and broken with a speed that is not normally seen outside of a teen socail group though and this seems to cause a great deal of 'drama' and pain for many people. Still, once folks get past that and really find a purpose in this world, the melting pot seesm to bubble along very nicely.