We of the White Suits

Monday, May 24, 2010 Monday, May 24, 2010

I'm not saying we are or should wear white suits, Hamlet Au aside. I'm referring to the 1951 comedy/science fiction flick, "The Man in the White Suit" starring Alec Guinness, who would later on become Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star wars series.

The premise of this 60 year old film is straightforward: a nerdy chemist working at a textile factory produces an amazing invention: a fabric that is virtually indestructible and automatically repels dirt, staying clean forever. Even better, the suit slightly glows white due to its "radioactive content". Well, perhaps that isn't so good.

Nevertheless, the story unfolds and the protagonist, Sidney Stratton, attempts to convince his textile factory to produce clothing with the new miracle fabric. Initially interested, the factory owners soon realize that if they were to produce clothing with the new fabric, they'd be out of business because people would never need to buy clothes again! Even the workers found the possibility to their detriment, and they united with management (unprecedented in the 1950's) to force Stratton's idea out.

It's a fun movie and an interesting premise. But could it be true? I believe we're living this science fiction story out in Second Life today. Consider the clothing our avatars wear: it never wears out; it never gets dirty; and, if you are so inclined, it can slightly glow. Our clothing doesn't have to be white, however.

And thus we'd never need to buy any more clothes, and the virtual clothing factories would close?

Apparently not. An inspection of anyone's inventories shows at least hundreds, if not tens of thousands of clothing items that don't soil, never wear out. The virtual clothing factories are not closing. They are thriving, mostly.

Why is this so? What is the difference in attitude between the 1951 movie and 2010 virtual life? I think it's that people think differently about life today - we are accustomed to living in a universe of creativity and options, whereas the people of 1950 were less well off, with far fewer options for creative outlets. They were satisfied with less, while we are never satisfied because we know something new is merely as distant as the next imaginative thought. Sure, there were no doubt 1950s fashion hounds, but none of them had 17,000 items of clothing as our avatars do.

I believe this attitude is one of the success factors for virtual reality. People want to create. They want to consume new things. In fact, many proceed through their virtual lives almost with the sole purpose to acquire new (indestructible) clothing designs.

With the exception of Hamlet, of course, who has only one white suit.

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