A SECOND SIGN OF THE TIMES: AN INTERVIEW WITH DENNIS MOSER VIA EMAIL – MARCH 14, 2012
SUMMARY: As part of a homework assignment for his “New Media and the Museum” class taught by Prof. Kate Hennessy; Jeremy Owen Turner interviews the virtual world librarian and music composer, Dennis Moser about heritage and conservation issues surrounding public and private signage in Second Life. The purpose of this interview is to draw parallels between the contemporary treatment of signage in Second Life with the “Neon Vancouver – Ugly Vancouver” exhibition of historic neon signs – currently at the Museum of Vancouver (MOV).
DENNIS: Because the Mainland is governed by the Lindens and the private islands are not, I consider them an unfortunate necessary evil. I think it reflects the general non-regard of the Lindens with the creative content providers both on the Mainland and those who develop the private islands. I’m not sure anyone would rush to accuse the Lindens of exercising or encouraging good taste. And unless the content is in violation of the Terms of Service, the Lindens are not usually going to get involved.
JEREMY: Are some signs more appropriate than others? Why/Why not?
DENNIS: I do feel that some signs are more appropriate than others. I hate to invoke terms like “discretion” or “aesthetics” but there is often a lack of both throughout Second Life. Bad design is bad design and I think that the pressures of community come into play more quickly on the private islands. That said, there continues to be a need for direction in the initial user experience.
First-time users of SL are invariably a little thrown off by the complexity of the interface and “experience.” Anything that can ease entry into the environment is good. I continue to hope that wiser heads will prevail when it comes to the design and implementation of those signs relating to this.
JEREMY: As an artist in Second Life, have you made any signs? If yes, what kind of signs would you like to make and why (for what purpose)?
DENNIS: Since my creative work in SL is performance (music, with some infrequent visual work), my “sign-making” has been largely related to that work. They have tended to be performance promotion posters that are shared with friends and venue owners. But like many, I’ve tried my hand at more general building, exploring the possibilities of textures and animation of objects, though these have never been used in “signs” proper.
JEREMY: As a curator, what kinds of signs would you want to preserve from Second Life and why? Is the content or type of these signs important?
DENNIS: This is more about the significance of the content and context of the signs than the signs-as-objects. If signage relates to an event — especially a non-recurrent one — the preservation of that signage becomes part of the context of the event. These “markers” are important, especially for things such as performances that might otherwise pass unmarked. I am too familiar with builds that had signage about the objects and events taking place there that subsequently disappeared with no record of their having been in existence. I think it is important to consider that the signage is but one element of a totality of the experience within Second Life and, as such, needs to be included as a part of a whole.
JEREMY: What would the act of preserving these signs tell future generations about Second Life’s cultural heritage?
DENNIS: What does the act of preserving them tell future generations or what would the signs themselves tell future generations? Two distinctly different, yet related, questions there. The second first: the signs themselves help to document this environment we call Second Life. By providing additional details about the place and/or the event, they can glimpse a bit of what was happening in there at that moment of time. It would, of course, be an incomplete picture since the signs are only a small part of the totality of the ecology.
The first question: to me, this is the more important question. WHY are we preserving these signs? To what end? Is it just vanity, a saying “We were here” to future generations? A “Look at what we could do” thumbing of noses? Maybe all of that or none. If we are willing to recognize the value of the creative impetus behind the signs’ creation — or their “significance” in relation to an event or objects — then we are saying that these things we found of value and feel that they need be shared with the unborn yet to come. The fact that they exist in such a fragile and fugitive environment makes this latter gesture all the more poignant.
JEREMY: If Second Life were to disappear in the coming years, what would be the best strategy to archive signs, entities and other virtual objects from Second Life?
DENNIS: Lowood, et alia, included Second Life in their “Preserving Virtual Worlds” project and devoted an entire chapter in their report documenting the failure of their approach for “archiving” Second Life. This may have more to do with their strategy, which was heavily reliant on scripted, automated processes, than anything else. One serious factor was that they — like many others — continue to think of Second Life as a “game.” A better approach, which I have staunchly advocated for some time now, is to take a more ethnographic approach for virtual environments. If we consider the information ecology that such places comprise, to “archive” them requires nothing less than approach that would be used in an analogue environment. And because we are talking about entire “culture” we must avail ourselves of the very same approaches, in this case every ethnographic tool that exist for documenting human cultures in the analog environment. This means the use of interview, oral histories, ethnographic visual documentation (in this case, ethnographic machinima*), and so on. This is, of course, a large part of my argument in the paper from DRHA 2010 (http://people.brunel.ac.uk/bst/vol1001/cover.html), addressing the difficulties of documenting performance practices in Second Life, specifically.
The fact that the environment in which all of this takes place is digital or “virtual” simply means that we must utilize digital application of methodologies that are already extant and, in some cases, highly refined and effective.
One thing that was clear from the “Preserving Virtual Worlds” report: the proprietary nature of Second Life is the single greatest hindrance to its long-term preservation (this was an inherent flaw in the project’s methodology and the application of scripted or automated processes for gathering materials together for preservation purposes!).
JEREMY: What would it mean to “restore” or “conserve” signage in Second Life? Would re-constructing or emulating a new sign from your memory of what the signs looked like represent an “authentic” artifact from Second Life’s signage history? Why/why not?
DENNIS: “Restoration” and “conservation” in this context are two distinct activities, and this leads to your second question — the reconstruction, especially from memory, is particularly problematic from an strictly-defined archival perspective: the “reconstruction” from memory is NOT a “trusted” document. That is, because it is NOT the actual object, or a replication of that object from a “trusted” source, the provenance of the object being instantiated is suspect. You cannot verify, unequivocally, that it is what it purports to be, and therefore authenticity is suspect. This could represent a major problem, especially with regards to creative content of significant financial value. “Emulation” is predicated upon having a trustworthy source for the materials being emulated, so it might be less problematic — a documented provenance could be ascribed to the source material, making the issue of authenticity much more manageable.
Of course, “restoration” could easily be accomplished by the loading of the source code on to an appropriate platform, though this might entail keeping hardware (and operating systems) on hand that would support these endeavors. I’m not sure that “conservation” in this context is even possible, since there is no “treatment” option available … I suspect that “preservation” is a more apt choice.
* The growth of machinima-makers in Second Life is an excellent example of the failure of much of the academic community to come to terms with the realities — pardon the pun — of Second Life. The concept of “ethnographic” or “documentary” machinima is almost entirely absent. To the best of my knowledge, to date there have been no serious attempts to utilize ethnographic methods for documenting Second Life communities. “
JEREMY: I would like to add to this that Tom Boellstorff wrote a book about ethnographic research in Second Life called “Coming of Age in Second Life” (2008).
DENNIS MOSER is part of the Library faculty at the William R. Coe Library of the University of Wyoming, serving as the Digital Resources Librarian. Moser’s research includes the preservation of digital cultural heritage materials.
JEREMY OWEN TURNER is a PhD student at Simon Fraser University’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology (SIAT) in Vancouver (Surrey),Canada. Turner has also been an avatar performance artist and music composer in Second Life since 2006.