Networked Imagination and Persistence

The education keynote at the SLCC conference this morning was by Connie Yowell of the MacArthur Foundation. She brought up a range of interesting things, but one of the key ideas she presented relates to the idea of connectivism as key to teaching and learning. In this context, she called it networked imagination. Her general premise is that virtual worlds can be the result of a single person’s imagination, but it supports the possibility of people building upon the imagination of others.

This is true on a variety of levels in Second Life; you can copy, collect, and often modify objects originally created by others, but true sharing of builds is difficult. I had lunch with Ali Andrews from the University of Northern Illinois, who pointed out that co-construction is fraught with practical difficulties; each prim in the build needs to have its permissions switched by its original creator to allow co-editing, a process which is tedious and easy to forget on a single prim. In a build that shared, if a single prim isn’t jointly editable, and the collection of objects (making up, say, a single building, or other larger item made up of a collection of individual prims) is placed into someone’s inventory, the next time it comes out into the open, the entirety of it becomes uneditable by both builders. It’s easier to build alone and share your creation, but actually allowing multiple builders, actually doing what Connie suggested, is more complicated. Co-ownership is a difficult proposition.

But more seriously (in my mind) is the problem of ongoing shared space. There’s a wonderful video of a build from start to finish that replicates Van Gogh’s “A Starry Night”; the point of the build was to make the video, the point of the video is to demonstrate the build. In the build, you could stand in one particular spot and see the world exactly the way you see it in the painting. I think it’s amazing, and it saddens me deeply that I can’t go in world and see it. It’s gone. I don’t know how long it stuck around, but I’m told that the point of these videos (machinima) is not to create the builds for posterity, or even in order for others to experiences it in person (so to speak), but only to create the video. I used to bring everyone I knew onto Info Island to show them an audio art exhibit where you could run through sounds and make your own little a capella music, but one day it just vanished. It was a temporary build, and no one seemed to have offered to keep it around. So it’s just gone.

You can build on the creation of someone else’s imagination only as long as that construct exists in world; so much is so incredibly temporary. If you wanted to house something long term, you’d need to pay for the space to put it somewhere. And you’d need to pay regularly. If someone builds something marvelous and useful to the world, but then moves on to other worlds or other projects, you lose that build. Even if the creator of the build is supportive of others taking on custodial ownership of their build, there’s very little structure in place to hook up those creators with people who are prepared to house their creations; in fact, there are no resources around for long-term build storage. Small items, say, a dress or a shirt, are unlikely to disappear, but large builds (like, say, the recreation of the sistine chapel), most certainly will.

I’m a fan of ephemeria. I’m a very big advocate of it, in fact; I don’t feel great about generic blog archiving, for instance, because I believe strongly in the space between permanent record published material (like books), and unrecoraded/ephermal material (like ideas or dinner conversation). This is something I love about the internet, how it takes “publish” and makes it more fluid and flexible. I think there’s a huge place for public, “published”, ephemeral material whose existance depends entirely on the will of the author. But I have the luxury of feeling that way about blogs. There are tons of services that provide long-term storage for blogs, so its not as if the world of the blogosphere is likely to disappear any time soon. Holding on to a blog, or letting your blog just stay up dormant, costs little to nothing. What bothers me so much about the disappearing Second Life builds is that there really is no way to hold on to them. An abandoned blog (so very common) is still a blog, and is still readable; an abandoned build in Second Life just doesn’t exist at all. In fact, the system encourages you to destroy your builds if you lose interest in them; the land you built it on is valuable, and you can sell it for serious amounts of money. Second Life is the most ephemeral space I’ve ever seen.

Rather than set up more reference desks in Second Life, I wish the librarians in-world could instead start collecting builds. Lots of builders would love to either have their build on permanent (or semi-permanent?) display in a central location, or have it sunk into a catalogue where it can be recreated by others for short times. Borrow the sistine chapel or van gogh for a couple of weeks for a class, say. Networked imagination is a great idea, but Second Life without some means of archiving and sharing is not going to allow for that in the long term. The MacArthur folks seem interested in philanthropy in digital worlds;I have a hard time imagining much that’s more important than that.