Sunday, March 4, 2007

Purpose, community and virtual reality

Events in my own life and community this week have submerged me into a time of mourning and reflection.

A long-time friend, Robert Busby was murdered last week. The impact of his death ripples far beyond the loss to his family and close friends. He worked for nearly 30 years to realize his dream of creating a center for culture and arts in Lansing’s Old Town district. When he bought his first building on Turner Street in Lansing’s decaying original downtown his first gallery, Two Doors Down, was named based on its proximity to the infamous the Mustang Bar, which set the tone for the neighborhood.

His gallery became a non-profit community endeavor, supported by the work of a group of artists who worked to bring real art, music and poetry to Lansing. Robert subsidized this in large part with his own labor and day job working as a model builder at GM. He had the same resources most of us have and had, but somehow he managed to be a patron of the arts. Arts and artists were not an interest or priority for the majority of leaders in Lansing (the then mayor, demanded the removal of a nude drawing at a Lansing Community College student art show to protect his wife’s sensibilities), so Two Doors Down was more then just a space to hang pictures. It was the place where the conspiracy to feed the soul of our community took root and grew into the place it is now.

Two Doors Down was laid to rest in 1989, but another gallery sprouted up down the block, then another, and another. Meanwhile, Robert continued to adopt dilapidated buildings, uncover their beauty, and turn them into working, living and playing spaces. The last building he bought was ready to be condemned after a fire gutted it. He loved it back into life, creating the Creole Gallery and his home there. His retirement from GM allowed him finally to concentrate all of his attention and energies on his gallery and the Old Town community.

Last Wednesday night hundreds of us gathered outside of the Creole to hold a vigil for Robert. Each person could remember many shows, concerts and performances they had been to there, and always, Robert in the center of it, inviting people in to the circle and making them feel part of it. In this way he made many, many friends, who continued to build, patronize and enjoy Old Town. Now it has become ours to carry on.

Robert’s death brings to a point a long internal debate I have had with myself over Second Life, its value and meaning, and what it says about us. Second Life is a virtual reality, an immersive experience, a complicated and time consuming exercise that only contains the meaning you bring into it. I admire and enjoy the landscapes and buildings created by its residents, and I value the friendships and connections I have made there. I think many residents are doing meaningful work there. But I wonder how many of SL’s residents are participating less in their real lives in order to learn and explore it? At what point are we contracting because we are mesmerized by our digital lives? Participating less in our own communities, seeing less of our friends, not supporting our local art scenes, in favor of a digital existence?

Second Life is only good for me to the extent that it serves my purposes in life. There are many ways in which I think SL is an improvement over television, or even reading a romance novel or mystery. But virtual reality is far inferior to almost anything my real life can offer. I would far rather meet my Second Life friends in the flesh for a real beer, concert or gallery tour. The technology, and therefore the seductiveness of the medium will only improve over time. So those of us who are exploring its uses need to keep the bigger picture in mind before we lead others into it, and surely that means first learning to use it in a skillful way ourselves to expand our own lives, relationships and communities.

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