Saturday, December 19, 2009

Second Life

What was it like, to teach the Dharma in Second Life?

That question has been posed to me quite a few times, since Adam Tebbe, founder of Kannonji Zen Retreat in Second Life invited me to teach there on Dec. 16, 2009.

A week before the date, Adam introduced me to Second Life, created an avatar for me, and taught me how to sit down, strike the gong, and other basic movements. I was struck by the tasteful design of the temple. Clearly, care and attention had gone into creating this alternative reality.

At the appointed hour, I came into the temple, more or less materializing à la Star Trek, into a throng of about 30 people (there are 1300 in this particular community). Everyone, except me, had their audio muted to avoid what would otherwise have been a cacophony of feedback. For the first few minutes, I had the same feeling I had when I did a tele-teaching with Tricycle, about three years ago: the disorientation that arises in the absolute absence of any sense of being with other people. I moved to interaction as quickly as possible, to have some sense of who was present (hmmm, interesting context in which to use that word). Responses to my questions came back through instant messages, but the messages scrolled by a little too quickly. This was a small problem, but it did inhibit my ability to respond to all the questions and comments.

During the actual teaching, it quickly became clear that, to judge from the questions and responses, some of the people "present" had a good level of experience. I did my best in my comments and approach to meet them, yet one can't read much in terms of body language or emotional energy from (or through) an avatar, and I could only guess at how to respond.

In comparing Second Life to other online teaching I've done, Second Life, for me, is a bit thin for two reasons: the setting seems to add an additional layer of separation, the appearance of speaking to a group of people sitting, and the interaction is limited to speaking and responding to comments and questions.

I've used a couple of online classrooms (wimb and dimdim). While they don't provide a visual scene as Second Life does, they do allow people to see a video of me, and, in addition to the voice and IM communication in Second Life, I have the use of a whiteboard, slideshow, screen-sharing, and web links to enrich the interaction.

Of course, Second Life provides a completely different experience and was not designed as an interface for teaching, so the comparison may seem unfair. But I was there to teach and that was what I was trying to do.

Having said all this, I was impressed and intrigued by the size of the group, the level of interest, the level of experience, and, not least, the ability to make it sustainable financially, all of which says that something is happening here (but I'm not sure what it is).


SL watch said...

Deciding to teach in Second Life is a good risk to take, It shows your innovative.


Margaret said...

There's a problem with Second Life which most of its fans ignore--the HUGE number of servers necessary just to keep it running. Vast amounts of energy, which means electricity, which means generators... There's a serious environmental impact to all those avatars and scenes and movements; and although you can buy a carbon offset for your avatar (in Linden dollars, of course)... is it really worth it? and is it really an ethical way to be teaching the Dharma?

I would like to see this environmental issue debated, but any discussion about using Second Life usually just turns into Second-Life-is-the-way-of-the-future versus you're-an-antiquated-old-fogey-if-you-don't-like-Second-Life.

Anonymous said...

The format is a little sci-fi to be sure, but some people may not otherwise have the chance to be “present” to a teacher or community in this way, let alone have Q&A en directe. So contact with a teacher may be rare and precious for them.

The virtual world creates, as you say, another layer of separation, a veneer. And the esthetic of the avatars, opposed to the zendo, is rather distasteful, no? It would be nice if Adam could tweak the graphics so that we could all materialize as white clouds without distinguishing marks, and sit together lightly touching as one mind…

That said, it is accessible to many and offers "presence" as much as other kinds of interaction, albeit with its own set of obstacles.

Al said...

Margaret, the same comments could exactly be said about any use of the Internet, with its massive servers and electrical needs, yet I do not see people debating using the Internet to spread the Dharma in some form.

Ken, I am sorry that I missed your "appearance" there. I'm part of the Five Mountain Sangha but have been a fan of your writings and podcast for a few years. We have a zendo on the Kannonji site off in a corner. We've been using SL recently instead of Skype or the phone for remote interviews and have experimented with it for koan work between teachers and students who are not local. Given the choice between voice only communication (or floating video heads) and SL, we've found that the limited embodiment of SL adds some extra dimension to things once you get used to using it. There are frustrations with it at times but it is a tool.

Margaret said...

AI, you're right. And yes, the Internet is (can be) very useful. But given that the Internet already uses more energy on a daily basis than the entire airline industry, why pile on all the additional energy use of Second Life? Is the additional benefit worth the additional cost?

Anonymous, Second Life is NOT available to many. Only to places with high bandwidth and even then the viewer doesn't always work. Bandwidth (lack of) can also limit the availability of services, a friend told me of a 'meeting' he attended where avatars were asked to check their hair at the door or there wouldn't be enough bandwidth to include everyone in the gathering.

AI, how does Second Life work in conveying the fine details of facial expression and involuntary body movements? I understand that you can only deliberately move an avatar, they don't have any of the twitches humans have. Have you tried Dimdim as an alternative to both Skype and SL?

(Ken, I think I've hijacked your blog.)

Al said...

You seem to be saying that since SL doesn't replicate the flesh and blood effects of a meeting (from mannerisms to someone's garlic breath), it isn't terribly useful.

My primary teacher is over 2,000 miles away and I have regular koan practice with him. Skillful means includes using the tools we have to the best of our ability given the situation.

I'm still afraid that I found it a bit hypocritical to complain on the Internet about the non-greenness of SL. Let's go back to writing letters (oh wait, that uses trees!). :-) Everything has its costs and, frankly, electronic communication is far less wasteful than many options when meeting in person is not available.

Margaret said...

AI, that's not what I was saying. Or even seemed to be saying. I was asking you a question. And I agree everything costs. I'm interested in the cost-benefit analysis of SL as opposed to other available forms of Internet communication.

Ken said...

This conversation about the cost-benefit of various forms of interaction over the internet would probably be of interest to many more people. I'm delighted that my blog post has stimulated this conversation. I certainly don't feel that you've highjacked the blog, Margaret, but I do suggest that AI and you open this topic up on our ning site, where many more people will have an opportunity to weigh in with their thoughts and experiences.

AI, in particular, a fuller description of your experience with your Zen teacher in Second Life would be most welcome. That you find the Second Life interface works better than Skype is most intriguing.

As I work with many students through Skype, I'd like to hear more about this.


sharonyogart said...

My computer skills weren't quite up to the Second Life. I wasn't able to get in until the end.

Having said that, I do plan to learn how to do Second Life.

Despite thinking that the name is a bit "Dim," I like the DimDim system. Have taken several courses that way facilitated by a lot of technical support from Greg.

I think Ken has been teaching me as much about the technology as he has about Buddhism!

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