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Getting a Second Life in Davos

Avatars, digital identity and the virtual world of Second Life were topics at a Davos dinner session moderated by Fortune's David Kirkpatrick.

By David Kirkpatrick, Fortune senior editor

DAVOS, SWITZERLAND (Fortune) -- I'll reiterate what I said in a feature story I wrote for the current issue of Fortune - Second Life is important not because it resembles a game, or because of how many people are signing up, or the big companies starting to do business inside it. What convinces me it is one of the most significant technology breakthroughs in history is that it is a platform on top of which users can create their own software and content, realize their ideas, and even make money.

One aspect of that user-generated content is the avatar itself, the cartoony digital self-manifestation through which a user navigates and experiences Second Life. It is created by the user and its behavior can be whatever the user would like. Just because you're a 50-year-old man, for instance, doesn't mean you can't have a 20-year-old female avatar (something I briefly tried).

Here in Davos, Switzerland, where I am attending the World Economic Forum, I had the privilege of moderating a dinner discussion with a group of thinkers on what it means that avatars are contributing to a new form of digital online identity.

The discussion was incredibly animated - perhaps more so than any dinner panel I've ever moderated. Discussants included Linden Lab board chairman Mitch Kapor along with Sun's (Charts) optimist and big-picture educator (and chief scientist) John Gage, Skype co-founder Niklas Zennstrom, French blogger Loic Le Meur, Singapore Youth Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, Harvard literature professor Homi Bhabha, brain scientist Baroness Susan Greenfield, Israeli investor and tech leader Yossi Vardi, and former MTV President Michael Wolf.

What surprised me were two things - first that Bhabha and Greenfield had such pertinent observations to make, respectively, about the literary influences already evident in virtual worlds and the potential impact of digital identity on our conception of what constitutes reality and offline identity.

But even more impressive was the very fascination that the room-full of miscellaneous Davos leaders clearly feel about Second Life, regardless of whether they have tried it or not. Those attending the dinner ranged from Vyomesh Joshi, who runs HP's huge printing business, to Suzanne Seggerman, who heads a New York nonprofit called Games for Change, to Karim Kawar, former Jordanian ambassador to the U.S. Such is the diversity of power and thinking in Davos.

Everyone was riveted by the analyses of Bhabha, Gage, and Greenfield, among others, and by what Kapor said about what Linden Lab is aiming to accomplish.

I spent today asking myself what it is about Second Life that has suddenly engaged the interest of so many different kinds of people, in a way that other technology topics seldom have.

Here's what I hypothesize: Second Life enables online human communication to resemble offline in-person communication more than, up to now, has any application, including e-mail, instant messaging, chat rooms, and even online games.

As virtual world technology increasingly can mediate the subtleties of human behavior, the issues raised by its use grow accordingly more complex. Any thinking person can relate to these issues, regardless of whether they might be interested in the details of pure tech topics such as the latest operating system competition between Microsoft (Charts) and Apple (Charts), or whatever.

This is fabulous for a tech writer like myself, because there are almost infinite new angles to explore about what the technology means and where it could go. That's also one reason why Reuters has a fulltime reporter inside Second Life, named Adam Pasnick (called Adam Reuters in the virtual world). Incidentally, Pasnick is here in Davos conducting interviews of Davos attendees that are broadcast live inside Second Life.

There were many Second Life subtopics that didn't fit into my magazine story. So don't be surprised if I write more about it in coming weeks.

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Fortune writers and editors are reporting from Davos daily. For more from the World Economic Forum, visit our blog, The PeakTop of page

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.