Internet Librarian 2007 concluded with a disguise, with Liz Lawley attired as her avatar, Maleficent, in World of Warcraft™. The audience noticed the disguise, but not what it disguised. The close of the conference coincided with Halloween, making the couture choice less suspicious, a trick instead of a treat.
Those in the front row of the auditorium Twittered about it. Bloggers took photographs with the latest cell phone technologies – the iPhone had just appeared, but apparently the content of Lawley’s talk went unnoticed. Professor Lawley returns for Internet Librarian 2008, and I worry about the librarians who listen to Professor Lawley, the ones kind enough to tolerate non-librarians at their conference. I am one of those outsiders, a non-librarian, though I am a Libran.
Dark things were displayed for the audience last year during Lawley’s presentation, though my point is a general one about a genre of presentations dealing with virtual worlds. It might be difficult to refashion the military milieu of a year ago when Lawley spoke, a time when the war in Iraq was arguably a more prominent feature in the American consciousness. Last year, many citizens took note of the quotidian killings of civilians and soldiers in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet, Liz Lawley began with what she described as two “live demonstrations,” both of which involved the killing of a creature, one in Second Life™, the other in World of Warcraft™, and no one in the audience blinked. Why was most of the audience in a good humor about someone peddling death during a time of war? Librarians are highly educated people, and surely some must have rejected Lawley’s war of all against all.
In loving and proud tones, Lawley described her special involvement in World of Warcraft™, and how she embraced the competitive, agonistic nature of the game, but she made no explicit connection to the World of Warcraft™ called the Iraq war, or the so-called War on Terror. How could she not have been aware of that? Oh — her presentation fell under the category of gaming. Virtual worlds are not real worlds. I can almost sense some readers wanting at this point to yell out to me: “Get real!” Exactly.
Lawley’s barely disguised presentation did not turn on some difficult philosophical distinction between the phenomenal and the noumenal, á la Kant. I believe such words are banned at Internet Librarian anyway. Somehow presentations about virtual worlds receive immunity from questions about those worlds’ blatant connections to the real world (which includes the virtual), and to the real ideological implications of the activities in virtual worlds, most of those activities conforming to the most crass forms of capitalism. (Own an island in Second Life? Buy a new outfit this week with your Linden dollars? Sell your avatar on eBay?) Yet, presenters about Second Life™, World of Warcraft™, and other virtual worlds gain the real world benefits from adding an item to their CVs, convincing their institutions to use travel funds to attend a conference, and gaining professional cachet for presenting at Internet Librarian. Talking about virtual games and worlds involves necessarily the non-virtual world, and non-virtual lucre.
At Internet Librarian, the presenters at sessions on gaming technologies, virtual worlds, and the like, emphasize routinely the importance of play. Who can blame the librarians for wanting a touch of fun in their lives? Some of them sound as if they are not only doing jobs Americans don’t want to do, but also jobs librarians don’t want to do. When given the choice between looking up a 13-digit ISBN, and opening up a can of pwnage on an opponent in some game world, anyone can guess which sounds more fun. Many of the presenters at such sessions also claim on behalf of others that without an integration of this sense of play into the workplace called the institutional library, patrons (a.k.a. customers, users, guests, or smart ALACS – Advocates of Libraries Attached to Coffee Shops) will go elsewhere.
Little attention is paid to groups that would be unable to afford the latest toys mentioned at Internet Librarian’s “buzz sessions,” to the laboring – rather than playing – classes who do not have time to Twitter away, to constituencies that find the idea of Linden dollars preposterous. Internet Librarian could be about questioning and discussing the larger, and sometimes esoteric, forces that impact libraries and learning. It seems too often to be about celebrating technology at any cost, though you can drink the Kool Aid for free.