June 6, 2007

Book review: "Virtual Worlds: Rewiring Your Emotional Future," by Jack Myers with Jerry Weinstein

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Virtual Worlds: Rewiring Your Emotional Future
By Jack Myers with Jerry Weinstein
Myers Publishing LLC / ISBN: 978-0-9793887-1-2

When it comes to books that purport to give the skinny on cutting-edge topics, there's an inherent danger involved, in that the reader doesn't know whether to trust the author or not; if they knew anything about the cutting-edge topic in question, after all, they wouldn't need the book purporting to give them the skinny in the first place. And man, as I've well learned over the last year*, there's not a subject out there these days that's more of a lightning rod for both legitimate futurists and smooth-talking con artists than that of "massively multiplayer online" environments, or MMOs, the technology behind such videogames as World of Warcraft, as well as such "virtual worlds" (or virtual realities, or Metaverses, or Grids, or whathaveyou) as Second Life. And indeed, if you listen to everything being said these days about MMOs, you'll be led to believe that they're simultaneously the next step in human evolution, the next iteration of the internet, and a colossal time-waster frequented by only the most intense of the world's Comic Book Guys.

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And now into this heap comes Virtual Worlds: Rewiring Your Emotional Future, by noted media columnists Jack Myers and Jerry Weinstein, which in its press material promises to "open the eyes of readers to this completely new world" of MMOs, as well as offer ongoing supplementary material online that will keep the reader "emotionally connected to a virtual world community experience for years ahead." Yeah, but is it wheat or chaff, you're asking? And the answer here, unfortunately, is mostly chaff; that even though both authors are well-respected in their field and have published much more engaging manuscripts in the past, here they are simply in over their head on a subject that's moving much faster than they can keep up with to begin with, providing in the end not much more than a way for mid-level managers to sucker their employers into coughing up $15.95 for "ongoing professional learning material."

Now to be sure, the star of this duo is Myers; he's the one with the Academy Award nomination under his belt (for 1995's Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream -- he was an executive producer), the one with a Peabody Award, the one behind the Jack Myers Media Business Report and related MediaVillage "all things television" site. And indeed, his punchy online musings regarding the media industry in which he's entwined, as is the case with many of those pithy regular writings of corporate executives, are quite entertaining and sometimes illuminating, while still never taking more than 6.2 minutes to read from beginning to end (which you just know that a marketing committee was in charge of finding the average time of, and that probably coincides with how long the average American bathroom break is as well, which will undoubtedly be the subject in the future of yet another pithy Jack Myers Media Business Report).

But Myers is voluntarily taking on a much weightier subject here than the usual "how to viral your way into the hearts of teens worldwide" tone of his online reports; he purports in his press material for Virtual Worlds that he will be doing no less than sharing "his insights on how this new Internet development will impact society, relationships, and business," and "alter the emotional DNA of future generations." Whew, that's a pretty tall order for what's essentially a 10,000-word essay padded out into a full book, and unfortunately Myers doesn't live up to the task, because of a combination of small problems that add up to a big one: because he never offers any other insights besides surface-level ones, because some of his basic information is wrong from the start, because the micro-chapters were obviously written as separate online reports over a long period of time, so much so that their points sometimes clash between one chapter and the next.

Take the first point, for example, that Myers never lives up to the insights promised on how MMOs will profoundly reshape society; that when all is said and done, in fact, most of Virtual Worlds is dedicated to the very pedestrian topic of marketing within MMOs, which can basically be summed up with, "Lots of companies are mad they missed the dot-com bubble, so are now throwing obscene amounts of money at virtual realities in a desperate attempt to seem hip, and in some magic way they don't understand to get rich from it." There's nothing too profound these days about what marketers are doing within spaces like Second Life, because the truth is that most are not doing much worth noting at all -- the same mailing lists, the same stupid gamey crap, the same blaring unwanted videos and music and other "synergetic multi-platform experiences," but now within a 3D cartoonish environment that you can walk through with your 3D cartoonish "avatar." And the truth is that when it comes to this subject, Myers rarely shares any insights that can't be already found for free online at various MMO blogs, not to mention in a more timely way than a fully published paper book as well.

No, what's of more complex interest when it comes to MMOs, and where original writers on the subject like Tony Walsh and Raph Kostner are making their mark, is in what these virtual worlds mean for us emotionally, sociologically, and mentally; of what impact they are having on the human condition, on global society, on the handicapped, on the poor, and more. And this is where we get to the second major problem mentioned, which is that Myers' logic when it comes to this subject can often get confusing, muddled, and contradictory, with only a loose grasp on the forces at play behind those who get caught up in the world of MMOs. For example, one of Myers' major points in Virtual Worlds is that the rational part of our brains (the logical part) is often in conflict with the irrational part of our brains (the emotional part), already not a very insightful insight; but then he actually frames the argument as one of the "brain" versus the "heart," as if the blood-pumping organ itself somehow had nerve cells of its own, neurons and synapses and the ability to actually generate its own thoughts, that somehow come into direct conflict with the "rational thoughts" the brain and spinal cord are producing.

Throughout the book, in fact, Myers ends up cobbling together a pidgin mash of inexact science and new-age babble to explain the points he is trying to make, which is where the third problem lies; that he's not quite sure what his point is, when all is said and done, with the message changing from chapter to chapter, I'm assuming from the chapters probably being former Media Reports written at varying different points of time, and probably within the context of vastly different larger subjects. In chapter 1, for example, Myers emphasizes how a different personality can be set up for multiple city environments within an MMO, a completely different "you" based on whether you're in Virtual New York, Virtual Tokyo or Virtual Nebraska; in chapter 4, though, the point is that the real world is actually becoming a smaller and smaller place because of MMOs, with a person's singular personality becoming more and more unified globally because of them. At some points he claims that the various competing MMO companies are currently in the process of creating one uber-platform, which simply isn't true; at other points he claims that traditional corporations are almost exclusively run based on ultra-rational decisions, an assertion that will make anyone who's actually worked at an office laugh out loud.

Now, I don't want this to be a Myers-bashing fest -- because like I said, I've also read through a pretty fair sampling of his shorter online writing, and in general have been sincerely impressed by a lot of it. I have a particular weakness, in fact, for corporate executives who are good zippy writers, because they tend to be great bosses too, the guys I loved working for back when I was in Corporate America myself so many years ago; smart, insightful, always ready with the witty anecdote that half the time is kind of bawdy as well, the life of the party at the downstairs pub every Friday evening (and usually paying for the drinks too, and usually insisting on top-shelf liquor on top of everything else). But as a lot of people already know, you don't want these guys having too much to drink and suddenly wanting to talk about philosophy and Ibsen and the nature of the world, because then it suddenly becomes one of those uncomfortable white-collar one-camera comedies that the BBC is so good at, and you're one drunken unintentional snort away from your ass getting fired. Such writers are fine within the realm of magazine articles, blogs and the like; it takes a special one writing on a special subject, though, to make a good transition to a full-length book, and here Myers unfortunately misses the mark.

Out of 10: 5.3

*For disclosure's sake: In 2006 and '07, I maintained a publication myself about Second Life entitled In The Grid, which received its share of quick hype within months of it opening, and a flood of spam from marketers afterwards, which undoubtedly flavors my review of Myers' book.

Read even more about Virtual Worlds: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads

Filed by Jason Pettus at 8:53 AM, June 6, 2007. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |