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Tech Q&A

Tim Guest

Describe your latest project.
We've always dreamed of perfect places: Eden, heaven, Oz... places over the rainbow, beyond death and loss, where the self can be refurbished and our sadness set free. Now, through computer technology, we can inhabit those worlds together. Each week, between 35 and 50 million people worldwide abandon reality for virtual worlds. In Boston, Massachusetts, a group of nine disabled men and women inhabit one virtual body, which frees them from their lifelong struggle to be seen and heard. The Pentagon has begun to develop virtual worlds to help in real world battle. BBC Radio 1 hold virtual festivals. In Korea, where one particular game has 8 million residents, virtual violence has spread into the real world. Fortunes have been made, and mafia gangs have emerged to muscle in on the profits. In these new computer-generated places, which at first glance seem free from trouble and sorrow, you can create a new self. With the click of a mouse you can select eye colour, face shape, height, even wings. You can build houses, make and sell works of art, earn real money, get married and divorced. On websites like eBay, people sell virtual clothes and rent virtual property for real cash — for a total of nearly $1 billion a year. Second Lives is a journey through the electronic looking glass.

  1. Second Lives: A Journey through Virtual Worlds
    $4.50 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "Rich and colourful...an important mapping of a new social frontier." The Guardian

    "An anthropological adventure but also Guest's personal voyage...a fascinating portrait of rainbow landscapes and their inhabitants." Time Out London

  2. My Life in Orange: Growing Up with the Guru
    $3.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "Honest and vivid, this is an absorbing book about survival and good intentions gone awry." Publishers Weekly
What inspires you to sit down and write?
Dogged exhaustion of all the alternatives.

Chess or video games?
Although I've only just started to study chess with any seriousness, it'll always be video games for me. I remember the first time I sat, age five, in front of a Unix console in my father's silicon valley offices, to type careful commands — 'go west', 'hit dwarf' — and watch as the dwarf, through words alone, hit me in return. What entranced me then is what still entrances me now: Look, that's me, inside the TV.

What do you do for relaxation?
I tend to walk the streets of London being carefully angry. Strangely, not everyone seems to want to get out of my way. There's a serious point, though — at the end of a long century's journey towards the primacy of the individual, everyone is enthroned in their own kingdom of the self: we want each other, but we also want each other to get out of our way. I think virtual worlds are a new kind of manifestation of this desire: to feel connected, while keeping people at bay.

Douglas Adams or Scott Adams?
Both succeed wildly in corrupting us with pleasure, but I have to give the edge to Douglas Adams. As my editors know, I share his enthusiasm for timely delivery of copy. "I love deadlines," he wrote once. "I love the sound of them as they fly by."

What was your favorite book as a kid?
When I was nine years old, my favourite thing to do — when I wasn't at the arcades with my father — was read Nicholas Fisk's On the Flip Side. The book's basic premise was that one day, out of the blue, people started to disappear. It was something like the Christian Rapture, except the decision to leave was entirely each person's own. The idea gripped me. I too wanted to leave behind the heartache of this world, to abandon my troubles and vanish into some other, easier place. As I wrote about virtual worlds, they seemed to be a new manifestation of this same old hope: the yearning to transcend, to reach up, to let go of our skins and find a new place without sorrow and loss.

What new technology do you think may actually have the potential for making people's lives better?
I'm never entirely convinced that technology makes our lives better. Half the time it seems to act as a buffer between us and our difficult selves. For years, advertisers have taught us to seek comfort in machines, and now entertainment machines, designed to replace the real world with something more comforting, have become corporate battlegrounds, where money and power compete both for our cash and for our desires. Advertising enflames our desires by selling us things which promise what we need, but simultaneously undermine those needs. Cars promise ease, freedom and access to nature, but also deliver traffic, fines and asthma. With our new global digital consciousness we have made a kind of Faustian bargain, buying freedom partially at the price of our loneliness. Having said that, given our fairly bleak landscape of intimacy, we all need a buffer from life. I like my iPod.

If you could be reincarnated for one day to live the life of any scientist or writer, who would you choose and why?
I choose the two greatest and craziest scientists of all time. I'll spend the morning as Nikola Tesla, trying to control weather with homemade lightning bolts, and the afternoon as Wilhelm Reich, out into the back garden with a homemade energy-weapon, shooting down UFOs.

By the end of your life, where do you think humankind will be in terms of new science and technological advancement?
Unfortunately, I feel there may well be troubled times ahead, as towers crumble and we as a species realize that no kind of tool or system of symbols can permanently keep our vulnerability at bay. My hope is that a new kind of balance will emerge, where technology serves our needs in a more organic relation with the rest of life. Virtual worlds may well play a part in that process: I spoke with James Lovelock, the originator of the Gaia hypothesis of the earth as a living organism, who said he saw redemptive qualities in the property of virtual worlds to transport us without moving our bodies. I imagine a future with localised, physical communities that satisfy the needs of our bodies for groups — with all their attendant connections and contentions — and virtual connection that engages us intellectually with the wider world.

÷ ÷ ÷

Tim Guest is a journalist and the bestselling author of My Life in Orange: Growing Up with the Guru, about his childhood on communes around the world. Guest's articles have appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph, New Scientist, and Vogue. He lives in London.

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