Digital Ruins and Ghost Towns

Recently an article was shared by a friend on Facebook, it concerned Second Life, the article was an account of walking through Second Life (SL) empty halls and campuses, and wondering where all the hope had gone (see here). A thread developed around the post. Some noting it had not died at all, reflecting on the temporary trends that often fixate learning technology with those who chase the latest new thing often the fore. Two things struck me:

First the idea of ruins, abandoned physical appear to have an aesthetic value that these digital ones do not;

Secondly, I wondered on the relation to other legacy spaces, do we feel the same way about an old project website as a do about an abandoned virtual campus, and if not why not.

In this post I explore the implications of these questions for the design of online spaces.


Figure 1: RoughBounds Sparker on the Teen Grid in 2007, Image by Rebecca Ferguson, CC BY NC SA 4.0

Ruins in Second Life

Before exploring this I should admit I have engaged with SL but not for some time. From July 2007 to late 2008 I was part of an OU project on the Teen Grid as part of a programme called Schome, and then later as a consultant on a JISC funded project. I wrote a paper for the second SL conference based on my experiences, of feeling neither in the place nor fully at my desk at home, somehow inbetween. In particular with the arrival of sound and hearing the background noises on others audio which brought their world in, and reminded me they were not fully there either (Macintyre 2008). At the time I was thrall to Heidegger and the essay “Building Dwelling Thinking” (Heidegger [1950] 2000) and wondered what neither dwelling in one place or the other meant for authentic learning.

While I am no longer as interested in Heidegger and dwelling as I once was, it was a formative experience, and questions of authenticity, of place making and of where learning takes place shape my design work. Therefore while it was “not for me”, I still hold onto a bunch of questions about these spaces. Perhaps this relates back to the earlier question about the aesthetics of ruins. In the physical world it is not the absence of people that signals that something is no longer used, it is the decay, the crumbling buildings, the grass and trees sprouting forth, the work of man [sic] succumbing to nature is part of the sublime, at its peak people built ruins. In his book “In Ruins” Woodward (2001) notes the importance of impermanence in Christianity, when Pope Pious II introduced a law in 1462 to protect Rome’s ruins it was to act as a reminder, a memento mori, of the fragility of human creation in the face of divineness.

Walking around SL one does not experience decay, when I logged in for the first time in a decade what I experienced on landing was a naked people. I think this is perhaps a different matter. Moving on, SL still partly remembered me and I had a list of addresses  already in place, the island’s I visited were empty, in many cases I could not tell if they were still education islands as they were filled with adverts, but not people. The buildings, hours of time rendered in digital form stood as fresh as the day they were created. It is not the decaying hope of Fordlandia, Fords experimental rubber plant and city in the Brazilian jungle now overgrown, nor is it Robert Owen’s New Lanark another Utopian vision now rendered as a heritage experience.  Though these pristine spaces do feel like a photo essay in a design magazine, and the lack of decay in a space you know to be neglected is jarring, it almost as if the idea that once abandoned it ought to fall into ruin foreshadows our understanding of these spaces.


Figure 2: A Domestic Mememto Mori, a gift from my partners mother, CC BY NC SA 4.0

Legacy Sites

Compare this with project websites, the sites often remain, mostly they still works. Do these sites feel strangely abandoned, eerily quiet? No they don’t. They are more like an unread project report that sits on a shelf, or those old files in a shared folder, one day it might be useful.  The sense of emptiness is something that only occurs when project has social presence built in. Project websites are information repositories. The lack of people is visible in SL, and the lack is different from being without people because they are yet to be inhabited and carry with them expectations like Fordlandia, and once empty the decay of unrealised hope.

In robotics people talk about the “uncanny valley”, the sense of uneasiness that comes from perceiving a humanoid robot falls in the uncomfortable position between being too real and not quite real enough. 3D virtual worlds are a long way from this level of visual realism, but designer do use functional realism, ways of knowing about spaces, of throughways, of buildings, they call to our familiarity with the built environment as cues to what one might use these spaces for. So there is an element of uncanniness, what is missing from this low resolution functional realism is decay.  This question of decay reminds of another question I had about SL, the role of forgetting. At the time I was observing, note taking, recording reflections about SL one of my colleagues suggested I could double check the SL logs in case I missed anything, and the logs might be usefully mined for insights.  It was the first time I realised how important forgetting was.

As a researcher it is the other side of remembering, sometimes through repetition, sometimes through their singular occurrence and sometimes through their absence you recognise and remember. In his book on remembering in the digital age “delete” Mayer-Schonberger (2011) notes the important role forgetting has in allowing people to make decisions, too much information is too much. He suggested digital memory form embarrassing videos on you tube to project files ought to have an expiration date.  You can see an inkling of how expiration might work if you wander around the UK OER site JORUM now hosted on The Way Back Machine . It is broken links and unsaved pages, the next step would be for it to slowly fade. So how is this relevant to SL. Educators and learners interest in SL is on the wane, and they are like old project sites. However, something else will emerge, we will find ourselves in 3D virtual worlds perhaps in VR worlds like Decentraland, and when we do we will need to have a sense of what happens once it is over, I am going to suggest if we are to mimic the use of physical spaces then we build in entropy,  we allow them to decay.

Conclusion and Design Implications

One of the common archetypes in SL is the garden, in her essay on Little Sparta addressing Finlay as “he” Susan Stewart (2005) opens the essay with the phrase

“He who makes a garden is own unmaking makes”,

closing with

“He who makes a garden, his own remembering makes”

Perhaps useful for the makers of 3D virtual worlds in the future, as it means attending to what happens without maintenance. Sites that are neglected but do not decay alert us to their uncanniness, as designers we need to attend to the cues we draw from the physical into the virtual and how following or disturbing the pattern alters how we experience these spaces when they are live with people and when they are dead.



Heidegger M. ([1950] 2000) Building Dwelling Thinking, in Krell D. F. Ed., Basic Writing: Revised and Expanded Edition, Routledge: London, pp343-364

Macintyre R. (2008) Inbetweenness OR in two places at once, In Peachey A. Ed., ReLIVE 08 Researching Learning on Virtual Worlds, Open University 20th -21st of November 2008,  pp208-216

Mayer-Schonberger V. (2011) delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, Princeton University Press: Oxford

Stewart S. (2005) The Open Studio: Essays on Art and Aesthetic”, University of Chicago Press: London

Woodward C. (2001) In Ruins, Chatto & Windus: London


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