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Getting a Second Life in Davos

I spent today asking myself what it is about Second Life that has suddenly engaged the interest of so many different kinds of people, in a way that other technology topics seldom have.
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I'll reiterate what I said in a feature story I wrote for the current issue of Fortune - Second Life is important
not because it resembles a game, or because of how many people are signing
up, or the big companies starting to do business inside it. What convinces
me it is one of the most significant technology breakthroughs in history is
that it is a platform on top of which users can create their own software
and content, realize their ideas, and even make money.

One aspect of that user-generated content is the avatar itself, the cartoony
digital self-manifestation through which a user navigates and experiences
Second Life. It is created by the user and its behavior can be whatever the
user would like. Just because you're a 50-year-old man, for instance,
doesn't mean you can't have a 20-year-old female avatar (something I briefly

Here in Davos, Switzerland, where I am attending the World Economic Forum, I
had the privilege of moderating a dinner discussion with a group of thinkers
on what it means that avatars are contributing to a new form of digital
online identity.

The discussion was incredibly animated - perhaps more so than any dinner
panel I've ever moderated. Discussants included Linden Lab board chairman
Mitch Kapor along with Sun's (Charts) optimist and big-picture educator (and
chief scientist) John Gage, Skype co-founder Niklas Zennstrom, French
blogger Loic Le Meur, Singapore Youth Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, Harvard
literature professor Homi Bhabha, brain scientist Baroness Susan Greenfield,
Israeli investor and tech leader Yossi Vardi, and former MTV President
Michael Wolf.

What surprised me were two things - first that Bhabha and Greenfield had
such pertinent observations to make, respectively, about the literary
influences already evident in virtual worlds and the potential impact of
digital identity on our conception of what constitutes reality and offline

But even more impressive was the very fascination that the room-full of
miscellaneous Davos leaders clearly feel about Second Life, regardless of
whether they have tried it or not. Those attending the dinner ranged from
Vyomesh Joshi, who runs HP's huge printing business, to Suzanne Seggerman,
who heads a New York nonprofit called Games for Change, to Karim Kawar,
former Jordanian ambassador to the U.S. Such is the diversity of power and
thinking in Davos.

Everyone was riveted by the analyses of Bhabha, Gage, and Greenfield, among
others, and by what Kapor said about what Linden Lab is aiming to

I spent today asking myself what it is about Second Life that has suddenly
engaged the interest of so many different kinds of people, in a way that
other technology topics seldom have.

Here's what I hypothesize: Second Life enables online human communication to
resemble offline in-person communication more than, up to now, has any
application, including e-mail, instant messaging, chat rooms, and even
online games.

As virtual world technology increasingly can mediate the subtleties of human
behavior, the issues raised by its use grow accordingly more complex. Any
thinking person can relate to these issues, regardless of whether they might
be interested in the details of pure tech topics such as the latest
operating system competition between Microsoft (Charts) and Apple (Charts),
or whatever.

This is fabulous for a tech writer like myself, because there are almost
infinite new angles to explore about what the technology means and where it
could go. That's also one reason why Reuters has a fulltime reporter inside
Second Life, named Adam Pasnick (called Adam Reuters in the virtual world).
Incidentally, Pasnick is here in Davos conducting interviews of Davos
attendees that are broadcast live inside Second Life.

There were many Second Life subtopics that didn't fit into my magazine
story. So don't be surprised if I write more about it in coming weeks.

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