Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Disappearing Virtual World

It's an unfortunate fact that nothing comprehensively captures the constant process of change, either in real or virtual worlds. In the real world we do manage to capture some aspects of ongoing change through museum exhibits and various artistic mediums, such as Jules Aarons' street photography or the San Francisco street car video.

There is too often no systematic way this occurs, though, and what survives to future generations is unfortunately left to chance in many cases.

Cataloging some aspects of virtuality is a little easier in some respects, especially for the standard internet, which is captured by features such as Google Cache and the Wayback Machine, systems that create a repository of web pages and provide a way to observe and measure change in that medium.

Virtual worlds, though, defy easy documentation and seem to function more like the real world in that respect. We do document some images of the ever changing virtual landscape through blogs, Flickr pages, and machinima, but many sims and their attendant builds come and go with little attention ever being paid. Just like the real world, memorializing the virtual world is too often a hit or miss proposition.

One example that my good friend, Freckle Heron, pointed out to me this weekend was the upcoming remodel of the Empress and Hierophant sim (SLurl here) that, as far as we can tell, is scheduled for a complete makeover in the coming days.

The Empress and Hierophant Sim - Image by Freckle Heron
We visited the sim this weekend, and it is quite a beautiful build that looks, according to Freckle, very much like Wales. I've never been to Wales, but I can tell you that the design was very captivating and did give the sense of visiting a quaint English village in the British countryside, complete with fog and rain.

What the remodeled sim will look like is anyone's guess, but what we can know is that this image, or other ones like it scattered in various places across the web, are all that will remain to document it's passing. The beauty that was this place will never exist again, and 100 years from now, no one will have any way of experiencing its details in any meaningful way.

And, for every sim that is captured through such imagery, who knows how many others wink out of existence without any documentation at all.

While some might argue that this is of little consequence, I would argue the exact opposite. The virtual world is an important aspect of our technological and social development, and thoroughly and systematically documenting it will be a boon to future generations.

And, if the virtual realm is of no consequence, what are we doing in it and should we be there at all? If you believe that virtual worlds are worthwhile, then perhaps it's time for an organized effort to document them.

Virtual Smithsonian, anyone?

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