Invisible Islands

Below you will find a guide to abstract geographies in Second Life. Abstract geographies, as I am using the term, are places that don’t try to represent something that can be found in the physical world but instead originate from the imagination. They break the basic signifier/signified duality that defines many of the locations found in Second Life.

To understand what I mean, let’s first consider a few examples of representative geographies in Second Life.

Perhaps one of the most frequently visited places in Second Life is the recreation of the Eiffel Tower. What the designers tried to do was to recreate in a virtual environment a model or representation of the Eiffel Tower that would map directly to the physical monument that dominates the Paris skyline. Were you to log into Second Life and visit the representation of the Eiffel Tower, you would immediately recognize its iconic iron beams, its frame-like architecture, and the distinct upward sweep of its design.

Other representative geographies abound in second life and include anything from the Globe Theater in London to the Taj Mahal. These project are impressive in the artistry of their construction and carry the cultural value of these locations into the medium of virtual environments.

But what about this idea of “abstract geographies.” Unlike the recreations of the Eiffel Tower or Globe Theater, abstract geographies don’t take as their model anything that can be found in the physical world. Instead they are the product of the designer’s imagination. It is worth emphasizing here that all geographies in Second Life are constructed; they are meticulously designed (if you saw the film Inception, you might think of the role of the “architect” that Ellen Page plays). So, even the most representative geography is still a fabrication of the imagination, but the designer of an abstract geography moves beyond the need to rearticulate places found in the physical world to the places found only in the mind. William Gibson famously described cyberspace as a “collective hallucination.” If that is true, it is nowhere better articulated, in my view, than in non-representative geographies of Second Life because of their deliberate and conscious break with realism.

Almost by design such geographies are difficult to describe in text, so to give you a demonstration of what I mean, I’ve created a number of videos that take you on a tour of three abstract geographies: Immersiva, Two Fish, and Centus.

I should take a minute to explain the title of this post. “Invisible Islands” is a term I’m borrowing from a writer named Italo Calvino who, in the early 1970s, wrote a book titled Invisible Cities. Set in the 13th century palace of Kublai Khan, the book consists of a series of descriptions in which the traveler Marco Polo describes for Kublai Khan the various cities that comprise his empire. But as each city is described, it quickly becomes apparent that these cities are not to be found in the physical world, but rather in the shared, collective imaginations of Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, with each city more abstract and fantastical than the last. These cities that Marco Polo describes are non-referential in that they don’t correspond to any city that actually exists outside of Marco Polo and Khan’s imaginations. They are therefore ‘invisible cities,’ because they can’t be seen with the usual visual tools, meaning the human eye; they can only be apprehended in the ephemeral space between Marco Polo’s oration and Khan’s hearing and imagination.

Likewise in Second Life we have invisible islands (the geography of Second Life as a whole is that of an archipelago, seen here: World Map of Second Life) that do not exist outside of imagination. Yes, we can see them with our eyes, but not without the mediating technologies of 3D graphics and the Second Life engine.

Check out the videos below and let me know what you think. (The first video is basically what you just read, so you can skip it if you’d like.)

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