Directed by Jason Spingarn-Koff
During the opening credits of Life 2.0 we watch the process of joining the online community Second Life and creating an avatar including, at one point, the choice between a "natural" and an "unnatural" look. But as the documentary unfolds that distinction becomes increasingly blurry, and the hierarchy between first and second lives is repeatedly inverted. Jason Spingarn-Koff's powerful, well-made documentary explores the various practical, emotional and metaphysical implications of such immense and complex digital environments through the unusual but by no means unique experiences of four Second Life users. In occasional cutaways, Philip Rosedale, the philosophizing founder of Linden Labs—the San Francisco company that runs SL, as it's called throughout the doc, often in opposition to RL (real life)—responds to the moral conflicts playing out in the four subjects' lives. "Things are real because they're there with us," he muses, "and we believe in them."
That definition holds most literally true for the film's first subjects, a couple who met and began their relationship in SL, beyond the purviews of their respective spouses. They're introduced as their avatars are interviewed by the director's camera-toting, cowboy-hatted digital representation, and meet shortly thereafter—he's from Alberta, she's from Westchester. Their narrative, which leads to double divorces and heartbreak, continually veers into reality TV voyeurism, but with a digital twist. We watch them share an awkwardly intimate sexual encounter within SL, but a subsequent RL fight is filmed in a similarly intrusive and uncomfortable style. (In such scenes, competing impulses towards narcissism, voyeurism and privacy explored in We Live In Public come to mind.) There's less human drama, but more far-reaching legal implications in sections devoted to Asri, a college grad living in her parents' basement in Detroit and, at doc's start, earning a six-figure salary selling luxury homes and clothes that she designs within SL. In contrast to the very real, very dire economic conditions that define her life offline, she's a powerful entrepreneur for those 14-20 hours she spends online every day. Until another user steals her designs and precipitates the first ever intellectual copyright infringement suit over digital goods, further affirming the truth of Rosedale's statement.
Spingarn-Koff's most engrossing subject, though, turns out to be an engaged thirty-something web developer addicted to his avatar, an 11-year-old girl named Ayya. As his exasperated fiancée articulates many of the dismissals frequently hurled at inhabitants of virtual worlds, his real life is profoundly—and ultimately positively—transformed by his second life. The film articulates cautious optimism regarding digital world- and self-building—though it avoids addressing worrisome trends like the thorough corporate colonization of Second Life. While such complex web-based platforms can facilitate financial exploitation and emotional manipulation, they clearly also provide venues for radical personal discovery and development. Life 2.0 leaves up to the users how skeptical or sanguine we should be about those possibilities.
Opens May 20 at the reRun Gastropub Theater