Friday, August 08, 2003

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CRASH TWO

Two_towers_in_sandbox

Originally published August 5-8th 2003, here.

Strange, how even now, just seeing the silhouette can still feel like a punch to the heart.

Someone had sent me an IM from Olive, the "sandbox" simulator where you can build and experiment with pretty much any object, cost free-- even collapsible structures.

"Come to Olive," the instant message read, "We're about to knock over two buildings that look like the World Trade Center."

I paraphrase from memory, because what was about to happen was so object-intense, it would end up crashing the entire sim (and consequently, the chat log of everything leading up to it.)

My God, I thought, as I came flying up. Are they really going to do this? I wasn't sure I wanted to write about this. I wasn't even sure I even wanted to watch.

I had been to Ground Zero only three weeks after 9/11, when the surrounding buildings were still filmy with ash, and smoke was still spewing out of the charnel pit. So now, on the occasions when they once again air the news footage of the WTC's collapse, I still have to turn away.

But here were several Lifers, chatting away on the outside viewing platform between twin towers, eagerly waiting for the whole thing to come down.

Later on, Derek Jones insists he didn't have the World Trade Center in mind at all, when he began building them. He just built one, and then he started building another one beside it, and willy nilly, there it was. He does say that 9/11 might have had a subconscious influence. Derek lives near Chicago, and for some time after the original event, he worried about the safety of all the big-shouldered skyscrapers of his own city. "It made me feel pretty insecure," he says. "I couldn't stop thinking about it for a few weeks."

Once he's ready, all Derek has to do is toggle the physics properties of the buildings, and his unstable creation will succumb to the laws of gravity. In-world, Derek Jones' avatar is usually a monkey in a sci-fi uniform, as he is now, putting the final touches on a project that everyone gathered there agrees looks eerily like the towers that once anchored downtown Manhattan.

"Just without the crashing planes," Hikaru Yamamoto observes from the platform. In-world, Hikaru is a tiny girl, the kind of big-eyed anime tyke you'd see in a Miyazaki movie.

The young man who sent me the IM is right there beside me, too, raring for the crash to start; we'll call him Michael Mason. He's waiting to ride it out, largely because it'll be "fun", as he puts it later. But he's got another motivation for doing this.

On September 11th, 2001, a relative of Michael's was working as a manager for a financial services company in the World Trade Center's South tower. After the planes came plowing in, he did his best to evacuate his employees.

"From what I understand," says Michael, "many people saw him stay behind. And never saw him alive again."

Just two things belonging to his relative were left behind, and found: his billfold, lying a few blocks away from Ground Zero, and a small identifiable scrap of his body.

"They actually found [his wallet] the next day," Michael says. "But his DNA wasn't discovered until many months later."

I ask him if he remembered who found the billfold, which was recovered inexplicably intact. "I'm not sure, to be honest," he says. "But I do know that the wallet was in perfect condition."

When he saw Derek Jones constructing the two towers, he immediately identified them in his mind as the World Trade Center. "I wasn't upset that he was building it," says Michael. "I viewed it as a memorial of sorts. Even if it was a re-enactment."

Meanwhile, we're still waiting for Derek to sound the signal. I position myself on the top floor, where I still have a sweeping view of the ground below.

Not unlike the view from a corner office, I suppose.

Falling_from_collapsing_towers

"Here we go!" yells Derek. He gives the two buildings substance and mass. Around me, people are cheering in text, yelling things like "W00t!"

The floor beneath me goes suddenly, irrevocably unstable.

Folks are running in every direction, not so much to flee to safety-- this simulator is set to No Damage, so you're immortal within it-- but perhaps, just to get a better view.

Objects in Second Life are programmed with sound properties, based on their material composition, and they'll usually make the kind of noise you'd expect of them. So what we hear now (the only thing we can hear, actually) are hundreds of giant wooden beams, each of them about a ton or so, by in-world standards, groaning and scraping together. It sounds like hundreds of massive building blocks, being kicked over by an infant god who's gotten bored with the pretend city he made with them.

Motion is reduced to a crawl, as the server scrambles to describe the downward motion of all these objects, and the people falling with them.

By my lights, nothing that happens in the next sixty seconds can possibly match anything that happened then, when terrorists raked two long fissures from the skyline of downtown Manhattan. It cannot even come close to replicating what the thousands of innocent people that were dragged through their void left must have experienced then. That said, here is what it feels like to be in a 3D recreation of two skyscrapers in an online world, when you're standing in one of them, and both are summarily obliterated from the top down:

We finally hit the ground into the already mountainous rubble, while oncoming chunks keep falling from above. The noise of giant wooden blocks clattering together is so frequent now, it sounds more like muffled machine-gun fire. At some point in the last part of the crash, the intensity of the destruction is too much to compute, and the Olive simulator gives up the ghost. Everyone in Olive is temporarily booted out of Second Life, back into the first one.

I log back in, and fly to the epicenter; by that time, the collapse is complete. Now that the twin towers have been reduced to heaps, the slow-mo frame rate is beginning to ebb. The simulator is returning to normal, starting to move in real-time. People are cheering again, some flying above the debris. Others are clambering and hopping on it, like it was an anarchic obstacle course.

"So what did it feel like," I ask Michael Mason later, "the towers coming down, with you in them?"

"It was very frightening," he says. "Not knowing where I would wind up, how much rubble would fall on me, where the people that had been next to me would wind up.

The noise that the objects made as they collided together added to the effect."

"Anyway," I continue, "what made you decide to ride out the crash?"

"I just wanted to see what it would be like," says Michael. "It was mainly for fun."

"Fun?"

He laughs, perhaps sheepishly. "Not really sure how to describe it."

"Well, you said you wanted to know what your relative felt."

"Yes, that was part of it," Michael says. "It was sort of closure for me. I wanted to know just what he went through. How it would have felt for him. Second Life allows me to do that and live to tell the tale."

"Well, other than the flames and the blood and the terror."

"Yes," he says. After a pause, he adds that he noticed some people laughing, as they fell with him.

"There were a few LOLs… instead of screams of terror."

After the wreckage is cleared aside, Derek Jones makes a viewing platform, where he can show the images of the towers' collapsing to the audience that fell with them. On the night of 9/11, I stumbled down the street with my girlfriend, not at all sure what to do. We had gone to a nearby hospital, and offered to donate blood, but they hadn't set up a receiving room. We ended up at a local bar, where all of us (the place was crowded) stood there, to watch the uninterrupted news feed, looking up at the big TV screens in a kind of fixated, shocked haze. Watching the images of the twin towers coming down, over and over again.

I'm reminded of this, as we watch Derek flick up 3D images of his skyscrapers, tracking their inevitable obliteration in a series of screenshots. Looking at them together seems to be just as important a part of the crash experience, as the crash itself. We volunteer to be victims together, then we go down, then afterward we get up and watch ourselves go down from yet another angle.

At one level, we're just looking at a bunch of building blocks made up to look like two buildings that we knocked over for fun, really. But I have to wonder if we're seeing something more. In a popular World War II-era computer game from last year, you get to storm Omaha Beach, while all your squad mates are killed around you; in the sequel, you'll get to escape a sinking ship during the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. The nightmares of our grandfathers, vividly recreated as entertainment. But these are games made by large teams of professional developers, working with budgets approaching those of Hollywood films. What happens when the tools are available to anyone, in a world like this, and they begin to recreate the tragedies that affected them personally, for an audience gathering to get in on the fun?

For his part, Michael Mason says he'd like to build some kind of memorial to the victims of 9/11 in Second Life, a tribute to his deceased relative, and all the others lost in the unrepeatable madness.

"What kind of memorial would it be?" I ask him.

"Well, a monument," he says. "A statue. With some words. Names of victims. And a small statue of the World Trade Center in its full glory."

"What kind of statue?"

"Maybe of the guys picking up the flag from the WTC." He means the firemen, from the famous photo. I tell him that would be awesome.

"But," he adds, "I don't think I have enough money." In Second Life, complex objects are created from aggregates of essential building blocks, called "primitives". But it costs money-- in "Linden dollars", that is-- to instantiate those primitives into the world, and it costs still more to pay for their upkeep. (Objects are levied a regular tax, as is property.) And to build the kind of memorial he has in mind, Michael says, "You need lots of primitives." So for now he's sort of stuck in the place New York City was, after Ground Zero's cleanup, wrangling over costs and regulations that still delay the real memorial's construction.

In Olive, at least, where objects can be made without cost, you have all the primitives you need. But the next day, everything is gone, and unless you keep looking at the photographs you took of what happened at the time, it's forgotten.

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