by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist

One of the occupational hazards of working with computers and advanced technology in my job is that I have little time, tolerance for or interest in dealing with technology outside of work. This wasn’t always the case. I used to play and program computer games for fun. Now I find that time spent with a computer seems too much like work. So when friends show me their new Blackberries, PCs and video games, I do my best to be polite and pretend I’m interested.

However, a colleague recently showed me a new technology so intriguing that I find myself spending as much time as I can with it. Second Life is an online virtual world that is available to anyone with a modern computer and a broadband connection to the Internet. This is not a gaming platform but a social network that allows people around the world to interact as they see fit.

When you log in to Second Life, your presence is represented by an avatar – a 3-D representation of yourself that you can modify to look as realistic or as far-out as you want. Using your keyboard and mouse, you can control your avatar’s actions and movements. You can walk, fly or teleport around Second Life, exploring a variety of places from virtual stores and bars to classrooms and museums. There are so many places to visit that you would never be able to visit them all, even if you spent 10 hours a day exploring this world.

What is most intriguing about Second Life is that users created everything in its virtual world. Real people have created the buildings, furniture, cars and islands in Second Life. The ability of users to create and sell their objects has generated an entirely new virtual economy.

In fact, Second Life has its own currency, the Linden, and a monetary exchange where U.S. dollars can be exchanged for Lindens and vice versa. Several people make their real life living entirely by creating and selling things in Second Life. One person, Anshe Chung, is famous for being the first person to make more than $1 million from her Second Life real estate business.

There are also those who make money by selling, shall we say, “mature content,” in Second Life. But unlike the Web, the designers of Second Life have made it easy to toggle mature content on and off. And for those younger than 18, there is an entire “Teen” grid where adults are not allowed. Likewise, those younger than 18 are banned from the “Adult” grid.

More and more businesses are setting up shop in Second Life, and you can purchase many real-life products with Lindens. This brings up an interesting new set of possibilities for Second Life entrepreneurs: If I can make money in Second Life, paid in Lindens, and purchase real-world products in Second Life, also paid in Lindens, when would I ever pay sales, capital gains or income tax on these transactions?

On a daily basis, more than $1 million in transactions – U.S. dollars, not Lindens – take place between Second Life residents. For the theoretical economist, Second Life is a dreamland, where markets can be studied without any governmental regulation or interference. For the taxman, it is a nightmare.

At any given time, more than 30,000 people are online and interacting in this virtual world, and more than 4 million people have Second Life accounts. Only six months ago, there were just fewer than 10,000 people online simultaneously. Second Life is growing geometrically, and we will hear more about the technology in the coming year as political campaigns and media outlets set up shop in Second Life.

Today, Second Life seems a lot like the World Wide Web did in 1993 and 1994: somewhat amateurish, slow and lacking in technical and professional standards. But it is so exciting for these very reasons – it is a medium that has not been defined. No one can really tell what will become of Second Life, but it is entirely possible it will become the next Web.