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Huddling Places?

Posted by SIM on January 7, 2007

Web Beat: Technology points to ‘huddling places’
By BILL ZAPCIC
January 07, 2007

It’s the 22nd century. People have abandoned the suburbs for the deep country and for the rejuvenated cities, though with virtual reality, hologram rooms and instant communications it doesn’t matter where folks live.

People constantly are in touch with each other, including their friends on Mars, where a highly civilized society of philosophers reached out to Earth. Earthlings, in return, brought their science to Mars.

Essentially, Earth and Mars are doing the left-brain, right-brain thing.

This is the background of Clifford D. Simak’s Huddling Place, a 1944 science fiction short story. (It’s scary they thought of these things 63 years ago, isn’t it?).

In the novella, Jerome Webster, a surgeon who once traveled to Mars and became eminently familiar with the Martian brain, has just buried his father, also a doctor. The Websters and their artificially intelligent robot servants moved from the “huddling places” of the cities to remote lands where they, nonetheless, had everything they wanted and all the companionship they could imagine — through projections and loudspeakers.

Webster is discussing the funeral with his friend, Juwain, an ancient Martian philosopher on the verge of describing a fundamental truth that will change the course of history and society. After they part company, Juwain takes ill and only Webster can save him.

The problem is Webster also has taken ill: He is awash in an ever-swelling agoraphobia and cannot leave the security and familiarity of his home to go to Mars. He barely could stand outdoors at the burial plot.

His robot butler recognizes this and points out that Webster’s father had suffered from the fear as well, that the phobia gripped the two of them slowly and progressively. Webster vows to defeat it, to venture to Mars and save his friend, but in the end he stays home.

E-mail, IM, MySpace and more are turning us into Websters. We connect via tools that let us stay disconnected at the same time. Through ICQ and IM we click-clack notes to each other; we even have a shorthand language to make us ROTFL. As opposed to phoning each other.

Even phoning has taken on a more disconnected tone. Do you talk or text more on your cell?

BlackBerry users know the answer to that. (The makers of the BlackBerry technology want all Samsung BlackJack phones delivered to them for destruction, alleging patent infringement. This is serious business.)

Everything I know about where the Web is going suggests we want to bind to each other, that we’re looking for people like us wherever they may be. And yet we go deeper into our apartments and bedrooms and basements and stare at screens and come up with cute nicknames and post to forums and reply to blogs without actually touching anyone else.

Which brings me to Second Life (//secondlife.com). Second Life is a 3-D online world with 2.3 million participants, some 15,000 of whom are online at any given time. In Second Life, people buy and sell virtual land, attend virtual concerts, go shopping virtually and spend real money.

There’s even an exchange rate between U.S. dollars and Linden currency (named for Linden Labs, the company behind the software).

Second Life is breathtakingly beautiful and the cutting edge of software. It’s also wrong, wrong, wrong.

To me, Second Life is a weird game though the people who frequent the, um, place swear this is no game.

Folks, this is not real. Real is rain and snow, B.O. and sweat and love and pain.

Real is life and people who frequent Second Life need a first one.

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