Bushfires, MUVEs and Cultural Archives

I don’t like Second Life, its ugly compared to the incongruously beautiful and violent worlds like Azeroth (World of Warcraft) and Middle Earth (Lord of the Rings Online). It’s expensive for Australian users, who have to exchange Australian dollars for American dollars before purchasing the Second Life currency called Lindens (names after its creator), although as the DIGC101 students demonstrated in class last session you can do a lot ‘in game’ or ‘in world ‘without paying for anything.

I do enjoy thinking about Second Life as a prominent virtual world. As an object of inquiry, I also like thinking about Second Life in terms of its pedagogical potential, but I do not actually want to log in, it’s not a space that I particularly enjoy ( the constant ‘rezzing’ of models and textures a visually dislocating experience) and I find the learning curve to build and create in world too demanding for the limited time I have to explore these features. Which then makes me then reconsider the value of ‘virtual worlds’ as a learning and teaching tool, in the same way that I look at old or badly designed class room and think would I be able to learn in there.

I do enjoy thinking about the answers to questions of whether Second Life is a game, a place, a piece of software or simply a tool. Salt et al ( 2008 ) refer to Second Life as a multi-user virtual environment (MUVE), which is an interesting and useful way to think about other types or ways of accounting for the structures and implications of virtual worlds and the opportunities for using them for educational activities. By emphasising the idea of multiple and simultaneous users in a virtual, or even just digital environment, I think this means that Google Earth and the Streetview function of Google Maps, start to emerge as extensions of what it is that software like Second Life allows us to do.

As a colleague, Kate Bowles, discovered Google’s Streetview in Australia has unexpectedly (although I’m sure someone at Google has considered this) produced a virtual environment in which we can [re]visit those communities and townships in Victoria, which were obliterated in the most recent wave of bushfires in that state. The town of Marysville, although ‘wiped out‘ still exist temporarily for the user to wander through ‘virtually’ in ways that may help us to question and think about the impact of both the fire and the technologies involved in this act. Where Streetview is unavailable the satellite images and the user contributed links and public photos connected to this region from within Google Maps also serve as a semi-permanent digital representations, or virtual ghostowns.

Like Flickr and YouTube, Google and its associated apps have become unlikely institutions for virtual ad hoc collections of cultural memories and digital public archives, and in this case not a celebratory or nation building exercise, but as an unintended and highly commercialised function of the technologies involved. Burgess and Green (forthcoming) discuss this issue in relation to YouTube in its capacity as an accidental ‘cultural archive’ (pg 87):

“…if YouTube remains in existence for long enough, the result will be not only a repository of vintage video content, but something even more significant: a record of contemporary global popular culture (including vernacular and everyday culture) in video form, produced and evaluated according to the logics of cultural value that emerge from the collective choices of the distributed YouTube user community. YouTube is thus evolving into a massive, heterogeneous, but for the most part accidental and disordered, public archive.”

The accidental and disordered are very two strong components of this unintended archive, unlike government funded institutions responsibly for archiving public culture, such as the Australian Centre for the Moving Image or the National Film and Sound Archive, or the National Museum of Australia YouTube is free to act as a commerical operation without being publicly responsible for a process that has traditionally demanded public access, maintained strict quality standards, and guaranteed persistence and accountability, but also highlights the potential for critiques of the ideology of top-down cultural heritage. The value of YouTube as a cultural archive, is as Burgess and Green argue, a result of the vernacular and “profoundly disordered” (p.90) that rely on individual user aggregation, display, and contribution.

Second Life is also capable of this, as we find massive investment of time and engery from teams of students, designers, engineers and enthusiasts faithfully building 3D representations of famous landmarks and significant locations from the ‘real world’ in the virtual one, but also individual users recreate there childhood homes and favourite locations from their past online. The concept of the virtual ‘environment’, rather than the more holistic term ‘world’, emphasises connection to our collective presentation of experiences of the past rather than an abstract notion of the virutal as a remote and pale reflection of the real. More on Flickr.com in regards to these issues to come…

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