A Second Life Sentence
Going inside Gitmo with Pacific Grove virtual reporter Bernhard Drax.
Thursday, December 11, 2008
Draxtor Despres is on his beat. Trusty microphone in hand, omnipresent headphones tamping down his shock of pitch-black porcupine hair, he moves effortlessly through a hip, post-modern furniture store called Corn, stopping briefly to ask an interesting-looking patron what she thinks of the prices.
After a short conversation, the girl wanders off to continue shopping for the perfect pink barcalounger.
Satisfied with his investigations into pre-holiday consumerism, Despres nonchalantly leaps high into a vast blue sky and then soars up, up and away, not bothering to leave any suit in a phone booth. The reporter promptly transports himself to the unlikely destination island of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“‘WHOA! THIS IS WHAT I HAVE BEEN MISSING.’”
Despres is a new sort of journalist, a freelancing blogger known as a “vlogger” who plies the endless, bizarre Sim world called Second Life in pursuit of interesting angles and scoops. Despres is armed with a natural curiosity and technical proficiency that fires his passion for storytelling, a sort of in-world videographical news production which has won him several prestigious awards for his reporting. This week he has traveled to Paris to receive one such honor, the “Every Human Has Rights” media award for a piece he produced about the “Virtual Guantanamo” prison that has been built in Second Life for the Second Life Cable Network. Despres was selected along with 30 other international print, TV and online journalists as a part of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
He is also rather unreal. He is a cartoonish character, or more accurately, an avatar. Draxtor Despres, the reporter, is a highly rendered, computerized figment of the fertile imagination of Bernhard Drax, a very real human who lives a quiet first life in Pacific Grove with his wife, young son and several cats.
A musician and film score composer by trade, Drax is a native German who discovered Second Life when a former bandmate suggested they bridge the thousands of miles between them by jamming together virtually.
“We were just nostalgically reminiscing, and then I hung up the phone, and went online to www.secondlife.com, and was like ‘Whoa! This is what I have been missing,’” Drax says as he navigates the World with a practiced fluidity, constantly multitasking, writing short, cheerful notes to friends and fans – he is somewhat of a celebrity and a media pioneer in this other world – while simultaneously ducking his avatar through the stark chain-link and barbed-wire maze of Virtual Gitmo.
Second Life was created by Philip Rosedale in 2003 at his company, Linden Labs. “He was interested in creating a virtual social network,” Drax says. “And it is a society. Everything that you have in real life, you have here. People come to Second Life to date, and shop and work. There are discos and TV shows, concerts of all kinds, and even tedious city council meetings filled with real, retired civic administrators.”
Draxtor the reporter has documented stories ranging from efforts to cure disease using virtual communication and collaboration to the salacious world of simulated kink.
“What I like about Second Life is the entrepreneurial ingenuity. It is a creative engine. The educators and educational institutions are the big winners in Second Life. There is actually a replica of the Harvard Law School, with Harvard professors that I can instant message, and they will get back to me! In real life I would call their office and I could not get through to them, not in my lifetime!” Drax says, glancing at his avatar sitting in a steel cage, dressed in the now-infamous orange jumpsuit of a Gitmo imprisoned terror suspect.
“Virtual Guantanamo is the only place in either world where anyone can physically go and experience what it is like, and to discuss what has happened there,” he adds. There are lectures at Virtual Gitmo from top scholars on the subject. Aside from the physical landmark, Virtual Gitmo is noteworthy for another, fairly new effect on societal zeitgeist: lifeheads react very strongly to seeing a digital version of themselves shackled in a cage. “People are very connected to their avatars, and when they see them imprisoned, there is a psychological effect,” Drax says. “There are many studies about this phenomenon.”
Not unlike a real person looking for some perspective on the notion of personal freedom voluntarily stepping into the damp blackness of a solitary cell when visiting Alcatraz Island, Lifer heads are inclined to submit their avatars to temporary imprisonment as a way of gauging the degrees of suffocation and isolation that are part and parcel of being held captive at the infamous Camp X-ray in Guantanamo Bay.
As the bearded, bespectacled family man passionately explains the potential for Second Life citizens to tackle, and perhaps sway, public opinion about controversial human rights issues such as extraordinary rendition and state-sponsored torture, he pauses.
“What the hell?” Drax mutters, distractedly reading a rapidly developing text script that runs down the left side of his large monitor. As he sits, virtually locked in solitary confinement, he also fields dozens of incoming Second Life communiqués, including a totally random request to loan a thousand dollars to a virtual stranger, which incredibly, he does, in Linden Bucks, the Second Life Currency – at 23 percent interest, with a six month payoff. “I just made $230!” he says proudly.
“[Despres/Drax] is pioneering an area that is no doubt going to be increasingly important as people tire of the mainstream media,” interjects Starr Sonic, popping in, literally, for a chat. The scarlet-tressed, thigh-booted Sonic is the alter ego of an Australian producer for the Second Life Cable Network, a popular in-world media outlet that employs Despres as a freelance journalist. “He is using a virtual world to raise awareness on human right issues,” Sonic says, “and I congratulate him on his achievements.”