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The Berkman Center meets Second Life

Cory Ondrejka and John Lester from Linden Lab, the builders of Second Life, were our guests at Berkman yesterday, which turned Tuesday into “virtual worlds day”. Cory walked us through a quick slideshow, giving a sense for the remarkable growth of this unique online space, one of the key early players in a field some are calling “the immersive web”.

Cory makes it very clear that Second Life is not “a game”, but much closer to a realization of “the Metaverse” or, perhaps more closely, the “Otherverse” from the Vernor Vinge short novel “True Names”. Rather than solving quests or killing monsters as they do in massively multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft, Second Lifers build homes, businesses, complex avatars, toys and games in a shared, detailed 3-D environment. Then people chat with each other using avatars, explore each other’s buildings and creations and work together to build new parts of the world.

Near the welcome area in Second Life

The community is small, but growing rapidly. 89,000 users have signed up, and 60,000 have logged on in the past month, Cory tells us. The virtual world is now roughly 100 square kilometers, about the size of Boston and Cambridge (though much more sparsely populated.) Those 50,000 active users have generated 100 million items, 10 million of which are avatars, using the in-game 3-D object editor. The in-game economy – based on “Linden Dollars” – handles $4 million dollars (about $15,000 in real dollar terms) – per day in currency trades as players turn real currency into in-game currency, and vice versa. ($1 USD = roughly $270 Linden Dollars.) In addition, 3.5 million transactions between players – using virtual currency within the game – have taken place during the lifetime of the virtual universe.

The world requires 1600 CPUs to model – each 250m x 250m “cell” is served by a single machine. Cory didn’t get too far into technical details, but it sounds like aspects of the world – textures, text files perhaps – are served from Apache web servers, while other aspects – the wireframes and their movement – come from a custom server which talks to the client running on a user’s PC or Mac. The system backends to a MySQL database which keeps track of the properties of all objects, their place in the space, etc. Unlike many multiplayer online games, which have different servers – shards – for different groups of players, Linden Labs has two, one for adults and another for teens. On the adult server, spaces are PG or Mature, and include areas where your character can be “harmed” as well as areas where you’re immune to ill-effects.

It’s the ability for users to model and code their own objects that makes Second Life compelling, Cory believes. 25% of user time in the world is spent creating objects – because so many users are building objects at any time, there’s 7.5 “user years” put into build the world each day. Despite the challenges of writing in the Linden scripting language (the guide to the language is 129 pages of dense technical prose, starting with the user-friendly, “It follows the familiar syntax of a c/Java style language with an implicit state machine for every script…”), more than 30 million lines of code have been written in the world.

In other words, Cory believes he and his collaborators have found a way to get groups of users to solve some of the hardest problems of distributed content creation: 3D object design, programming and game development. Second Lifers have created vast castles, complex shopping malls, multi-level games as well as more serious projects, like a space that simulates the experience of schizophrenic hallucinations, or a memorial to the London bombings. Some of these creations “cross the magic circle”, building connections between the real and virtual worlds, as creators pipe video streams into Second Life or hold discussions with real-world figures like Thomas Barnett in a virtual UN.

Better yet, his creators are paying for the privlege of building the world. While membership in the community is free, owning property – which is neccesary to create buildings, or most complex structures – costs money. The smallest available plot of land – 512 square meters – costs slightly more Linden Dollars than you’re given as a newcomer to the game, requiring you to convert some real money into virtual money to buy it. Then there’s a monthly upkeep fee, which starts at $10 per month for basic land and increase as the amounts of land increase. Virtual real estate baron Anshe Chung, pays $16,000 a month in upkeep fees for the hundreds of properties she owns, reselling or renting them to other players in the game. (There’s speculation that Chung makes as much as $150,000 a year in real dollars from her Second Life activities.) Asked about the financial model for Linden Labs, Cory responded, “Land. We sell real estate.”

All of this raises an interesting question – who actually owns this stuff? Linden grants users intellectual property rights to everything that they create. That was certainly useful for Kermitt Quirk, who created a popular game, Tringo, in the game and sold it to a real-world game publisher. But it’s less clear what it means for someone who builds a beautiful and complex mansion filled with carefully scripted features written in Linden’s scripting language. At present, there’s no way to move the creation onto a non-Linden server – if you decided you didn’t want to keep paying Linden Labs for server space, you’re out of luck as your intellectual property is only useful in a Linden-owned space.

This conrasts rather sharply with the online user-created content efforts I’ve been involved with in the past. If you got sick of hosting your homepage on Tripod, it wasn’t neccesarily easy to move it to Geocities, but you could save the HTML files and JPEGs and upload them onto the new server and your page would, more or less, work. That’s because web servers and clients (browsers) use common, public standards to exchange content.

Cory explains that this is coming – “public protocols” first, where Linden Labs publishes an API that would allow people to build their own systems that are compatible with Linden’s, opening the possibility that, with sufficient time, I could write a Second Life server and invite folks to migrate from Linden’s servers to my own with their avatars and objects intact, or open a portal between our two worlds. Actually opening Linden’s codebase and allowing programmers to tinker with the server or the graphics engine on an open source basis is “farther off”. Cory explains that it requires a good deal of work for a non-open source project to clean up their code so that outside programmers can work on it, referencing the ugly, hard-to-understand code Netscape released when they decided to open-source their browser.

This raises a question of whether Linden plans on being a technology or a hosting company. If “secondlife” becomes a protocol that is supported on different clients and different servers, does Linden make its money by building the best client and server (that didn’t work so well for Netscape when Microsoft started offering a web browser for free), or by hosting the coolest, fastest online spaces (the land model.)

Until “secondlife” is a protocol and there are multiple servers providing virtual land, Anshe Chung’s gamble seems like a risky one to me. What if Linden decides to institute a “Jubilee” rule where undeveloped land is distributed to the poor? Or what if Linden simply goes out of business? The virtual assets would disappear as well, unless Second Lifers found a way to recreate the world on another server. (This has happened in the past. When the graphical chat system The Palace went out of business, Palace devotees developed servers and clients to keep the world alive on a voluteer basis.)

While Linden is surely aware that a change like repossesing land would probably generate virtual riots, they’ve sometimes made other unilateral changes that have unintended ill effects. The winner of a Second Life games contest, “Primmies”, programmed by Jeffery Gomez, discovered that his game stopped working when Linden made some tweaks in their physics engine. This points to one of the key problems of creating property in someone else’s universe – if they decide, for perfectly valid reasons, to change the laws of physics, it’s quite possible that your creations will no longer function. (Linden points out that the new code is a “preview release” and that Gomez should have tested to see if his code worked in the new environment. Again, this is a little like warning people that the laws of thermodynamics are changing and they might want to see if their internal combustion engines will still work.) Gomez has recently written a long whitepaper, speculating on what a future virtual world specification might look like, attempting to solve some of the problems he’s encountered in writing in Second Life. In a passage about Second Life, he observes:

“Second Life also has no versioning standards, as all data is controlled and maintained within the system, which is in turn maintained by Linden Lab employees. Nearly all patches to the software must happen in all areas of the world simultaneously to function properly, a holdover from MMOGs (MMO-Based Games). This often breaks existing third party software, tasking all Second Life developers with an unpredictable moving target. Furthermore, prims do not work well for soft-modelled objects, forcing users to rely on Linden Lab for objects like trees, avatar meshes, and certain aspects of ground cover. The net result is a paradox: a highly sophisticated platform that only allows less advanced applications to work effectively.”

Gomez is raising an interesting issue here – if developers don’t have sufficient control over the world, will they build anything sophisticated in it? I raised a related, but different concern – is whether Second Life is currently working because “early adopter” players are willing to become programmers… later users might not be as willing to put in such a great investment of time and creativity. Cory had an excellent response – the next generation may not be creators, but might well be remixers, taking textures, objects, animations and sounds created by the first generation of users and building their own spaces out of these premade pieces.

Put new technology in a room filled with intellectual property lawyers and interesting questions arise. As a hosting provider, Linden Labs is a DMCA safe harbor – if copyright or trademark holders complain that their work is being used without permission and Linden takes the content down, they’re protected from liability. Part of my job at Tripod had to do with managing the hundreds of notices we might get in a day that infringing material was being hosted by our webservers, copyrighted content uploaded by users to their homepages. Linden has an added challenge – they’d need to find the content, which might be somewhere speeding around a virtual world the size of a small city.

For example, let’s say that lawyers for UPS encounter this photo, a screen capture of a virtual UPS deliver truck speeding across a Second Life landscape. They can send a DMCA takedown notice to Flickr asking the image be taken down… but the source of the image is still burning virtual rubber somewhere within Second Life. What does Linden do if they get a takedown notice regarding the UPS truck? They have to find the object within the world, find the owner and alert her to the “allegations” of trademark infringement. In a world of 100 million objects, this is probably a non-trivial challenge.

Clearly Second Life is a rich enough world that it’s generating some fascinating behaviors, not all of them desirable. Cory tells us that firebombings of nightclubs have become popular – while the fire doesn’t damage anything, the computational power required to render flames slows down everyone’s framerate and makes the clubs less fun to be in. Other “griefers”, as troublemakers are referred to in the world, have built replicating objects – ultimately 5.4 billion of them – that bounce around, fill rooms and make “cells” of the world unusable as all processor cycles are occupied moving the bouncing balls around.

But other behaviors are more interesting. The best way to keep up with Second Life is a blog called New World Notes, maintained by Wagner James Au, who uses the blog to feature news from within the Second Life community. But there’s also a muckraking alternative paper, The Second Life Herald, which specializes in scandal (like an alleged in-game Ponzi scheme) and griping about server issues. Like a town with two lawyers, a town with two newspapers is always more interesting than a town with only one.

I’ve been simultaneously tempted to spend more time exploring Second Life and turned off by the sense that this world – at present – is pretty disconnected from the people and issues I’ve been working with through Geekcorps and Global Voices. I asked why Linden required a credit card to sign up for a trial account, a barrier which keeps a large number of non-US and European users from exploring the system. (The obvious answer is, “we’re in this to make money, and someone without a credit card isn’t going to become a paying user.”) Cory’s answer was that they’re using credit cards as a proxy for identity, making it possible to ban “griefers” by banning their credit cards and their IP addresses.

But he went on to point out that, since the system is only usable by people with high bandwidth connections and fast computers, the credit card wasn’t a real barrier for most Second Life users. In other words, it doesn’t matter very much that my Ghanaian friends can’t get onto Second Life because they’re going to have an awfully hard time accessing the world from Busy Internet anyway. Cory was surprised that I was able to interact in Second Life (painfully, haltingly) using my PowerBook 12″ (which is only 4 months old, but too slow to be a good Second Life client…)

Perhaps it’s stupid to be considering what it means that these new spaces are only open to people rich enough to afford high powered computers and to pay maintenance on virtual land… and lucky enough to live in countries with high-bandwidth connections to the Internet. But I got a lot of funny looks when, in 1994, I started asking whether it should be a priority for Ghana to get connected to the Internet. People in developing nations are already finding ways to make money as gold farmers, doing repetitive tasks in online games to create currency, which can be sold for real currency. I think it would be pretty exciting if unemployed kids in African cybercafes could get introduced to programming by building custom objects for wealthy Second Life users who don’t have time to create their own mansions. (You know, like me.)

Ultimately projects like Second Life interest me for the same reason blogs and wikis interest me – the beauty of the Internet is that anyone who can access the net can contribute to it, making it richer, more nuanced, more complex and diverse. But until Second Life – or an open, non-proprietary, distributed successor – becomes accessible to a wider set of users, it’s going to fall short of its potential to become a space where people from all over the world can meet and interact.

That isn’t to say that Second Life won’t overcome these barriers. I wrote a paper, “Making Room for the Third World in the Second Superpower” that talked about the problems I had with the idea that cyberspace was going to be a space for political activism and change – until that space includes Africans, Central Asians, Eastern Europeans, etc., there are certain issues and types of change that we can’t expect to see happen. But the past year of work on Global Voices has convinced me that these barriers, while very real, are surmountable, and that cyberspace can be a space where people from througout the world have conversations and arguments.

Maybe it’s time to think about writing “Making Room for the Third World in Second Life”?

13 thoughts on “The Berkman Center meets Second Life”

  1. This stuff continues to fascinate me. My brief stint in SL led me to the conclusion that the world exists mainly for three types of players: Those who can create objects, those who have enough business savvy to profit from trading without creating, and those who simply want to socialize. For my money, the prevelance of the first two makes it not the best realm for the latter. And I mean for my money literally; I had a subscription briefly, but quit after coming to this conclusion. I did have an interesting conversation about this conclusion with SL’s own Athenian Gadfly, “Prokofy Neva”, who also lamented that the world seemed to exist largely only to put other things into the world, and pointed again to that Linden Labs top-down dictated universe as the reason for this focus on material objects.

  2. …until that space includes Africans, Central Asians, Eastern Europeans, etc., there are certain issues and types of change that we can’t expect to see happen.

    In this space, it would be fascinating to compare the kinds of objects people in different (real) spaces chose to build.

    Ever make you nervous when Sci Fi gets it right? (Or would we have gotten here if Neal Stephenson hadn’t come up with the idea first? Probably, but short of the multiverse I guess there’s no way to prove it.) Makes me think about how many alternate lives people built in the Sims… and wonder how long before someone sells their town house to finance their virtual Carcassonne. I’m increasingly interested in the line between creative imagination and fantasy anyway. What an immense project.

  3. Thanks for the mention and the fascinating write-up, Ethan. I do want to note that there’s actually at laeast three dozen blogs devoted to Second Life– most of them are listed on the left column my blog. Your readers may be most interested in the group-published SLOG magazine, the virtual architecture reviews of Chip Poutine and Jauani Wu, another RL architect and founder of SL’s Foucault Fan Club (!), the detailed socioeconomic analyses of Gwyneth Llewelyn, and the truly unique, rococo musings of Torley Torgeson.

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  5. Since Wagner James Au opened the door to blog pimpage, I’ll add that my own blog, Clickable Culture is an informative, comprehensive source of important, non-mainstream Second Life reports, articles, and interviews. I’d also like to recommend Gwyneth Llewelyn’s blog and Brace Coral’s blog for alternative coverage and viewpoints.

    Clickable Culture- http://www.clickableculture.com
    Gwyneth Llewelyn- http://secondlife.game-host.org
    Brace Coral- http://www.livejournal.com/users/brace_coral/

  6. Tom Robinson (aka, Jeffrey Gomez)

    Just a minor correction: my Second Life name is “Jeffrey Gomez.” That niggling error happens a lot. :)

    First of all, I apologize for the write-up not being finished. I didn’t anticipate it being published so soon when I myself have been contending with the real world.

    As for Second Life itself, it’s a very strange animal. The world itself suffers from it’s own double-life, trying to play itself both as a game and as a collaborative platform.

    Really, it’s this divisive wedge that makes contributing both interesting and difficult. Linden Lab wishes for the world to be open, yet it maintains its own closed economic model. It wishes for us to contribute and make a real living off what amounts to primitive, but highly usable, CAD tools with little crossover with the real world. And the laws of physics might change tomorrow, making for a seat-of-your-pants ride.

    Personally, I have very little financial capital invested in the world. All of my code is modular to the extent it might move elsewhere tomorrow. Which may be the case of Primmies if I wish to pursue it.

    The reasoning is pretty simple. I want to be able to control my data. It’s this lack of granularity that makes Second Life both a lucrative and highly risky business for Linden Lab and, by proxy, the investors in their world.

  7. Sorry, Tom – one of the challenges of Second Life is that it’s very hard to know what to call anyone. Found your paper very thought-provoking and looking forward to reading it thoroughly on my next long airplane trip… which, given my lifestyle, should be in about 48 hours…

  8. Great meeting you, Ethan. My real-life name is spelled “John Lester,” BTW. :)

    Given your intense interest in connecting people from underdeveloped countries to the Net and helping them communicate and share their culture with the world, there’s a project going on on Second Life I think you’d be very interested in.

    It’s called “Jibun Life,” and it’s coming out of the UAP (Urban Anthropology Project) Learning organization (http://www.learndream.com). They should have information about Jibun Life up on that website shortly.

    I’m also going to point those folks to this blog entry so they can share their vision with everyone directly. :)

  9. I believe that invoking “the poor” around the issues of Second Life and virtual worlds is a bit overblown. For one, just regarding the Internet, for years, Africans, East Europeans, Russians, Asians in fact have been on the Internet, including the poorest of NGOs and the even poorer people they serve, often victims of armed conflict. Such groups mainly use email, since they often have to pay by the byte and the web loads up very slowly, but in some countries, like Russia, there is a vast and rich Internet that may have less graphics bells and whistles but is all the richer for the literary and intellectual content provided, especially as an alternative to state media. Foundations like Ford or Soros’ Open Society or MacArthur have done much in the last decade to create Internet connectivity to the non-Western world, particularly in Africa and the former Soviet Union. So it would be incomplete to raise emotion-laden issues like “until that space includes Africans, Central Asians, Eastern Europeans, etc., there are certain issues and types of change that we can’t expect to see happen” — when the space ALREADY DOES include them and in some ways they have overtaken their sluggish and non-engaged American counterparts in participating in change in their societies.

    As to Second Life, it surely does require at face value wealth — or access to wealth, in terms of a DSL line, a credit card, and high-end computer graphics rendering capacity. But as I know from dealing with hundreds of people in my SL rentals business, many, many people who aren’t “rich” in this stereotypical sense gain access to SL through others or through increasingly less-expensive computers and high-speed Internet. These include students at universities; elderly and disabled on fixed incomes; people in Macau or Kyrgyzstan; stay-at-home moms who work part-time at Walmart; administrative or blue-collar employees who go to Internet cafes or have at least one friend with the right computers and connections. Europeans who can’t get credit cards or Paypal create items inworld and then use the cash for renting land or further financing their businesses.

    SL is the vital center of the Metaverse now, and accordingly, it really should become all-hands-on-deck for important intellectual centers like Beekman. That is, I wouldn’t want to see thoughtful people driven away by a superficial concerns about the poor of the world, who, as Jesus said, ye always have with you anyway. The virtual world of SL has considerable and profound problems that it generates almost unwittingly — and also has considerable potential. It has become far too large and complex for its original makers and would-be masters to manage. Their constant cries of “that won’t scale” as nay-saying to basic civilizational urges like zoning or dispute mediation require a really thorough-going analysis and advice from many different kinds of people in different fields — not just the narrow scientific field of streaming technology itself.

    The game-borking that Jeffrey Gomez talks about is a key issue — it affects not only outer-edge experimental projects but day-to-day scripts like automatic rental boxes that can suddenly start firing out mistaken “expired” notices when the Lindens update with a new game patch. Still, the world persists enough, works well enough, and has enough payback in terms of interest level, entertainment, and cash generation that many more people should come to it now.

    Many people argue about whether it is a “game” — to be sure, it has no literal goals or leveling up (though it has those in the metaphorical sense — one vital game is entering as a resident and “skilling up” to become a Linden). Yet I call it a game because it involves play of the mind, prototyping, experimentation, fantasy, etc.

    The business aspects very much hyped by the media are a mixed bag — frequently LL takes measures that are perceived or actual benefits to the long-term health of the platform itself, but which cause short-term harm and even alienation to some business groups, i.e. the forcing out of business of GOM, an independent games currency trader; the removal of telehubs, or transportation arteries that had served as commercial destinations, and replacement with point-to-point teleportation, and the removal of stipends and incentives.

    2006 will be the year that LL says it will grapple with the limited group tools to create more options for residents to build everything from artists’ cooperatives to firms to role-playing sims. And it’s this theory of groups, and how much (or how little) power they should be granted over the individual (or over the state) that is going to be the most fascinating intellectual journey of the next few years. The intriguing but highly troubling ideas that Beth Noveck has developed at NY Law School (http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue10_11/noveck/index.html) find often unanticipated embodiment in SL — SL is the matrix through which we can follow whether the rule of law and human rights established in the real world for centuries is about to be overthrown by online anarchy or very gameable and manipulated “direct democracy”.

    SL is free. And for only $21.95 for 3 months you can even have a square of land and $500 in game cash per week. I can only urge people to get in this game because these tools and this platform being developed will have a profound impact on our real world in a relatively short time. It’s paramount that more thoughtful people become involved in grappling with the crises and contradictions the metaverse has spawned, so that they can help shape it before it begins to have a destructive effect.

    And I’m forced to do some touting of my own apparently controversial SL blog here, especially as James Wagner Au, the official reporter for SL, has removed the link to it from his pages, and as others didn’t wish to be out of step in mentioning it.

    Group-think is a huge problem in the hothouse of SL – therefore we definitely need more thinkers to come into this group : )

  10. Catherine –

    Thanks for your comment. I understand you likely don’t read my blog regularly and probably don’t know what issues I usually write about. I tend to focus, both professionally and personally, on issues of the Internet in the developing world. While you may believe that “invoking ‘the poor'” is “overblown” in the context of Second Life, I wouldn’t have been writing about the Second Life community otherwise.

    I appreciate your recognition of the role organizations like Open Society Institute have played in bringing the Internet to developing nations. As a board member of OSI’s Information Program, it’s always gratifying to see our work recognized. And I certainly don’t disagree with your assertion that there are Internet users in every corner of the globe. Global Voices, a website I helped to found, helps showcase these content creators every day.

    It’s precisely because I’ve worked extensively on issues of the Internet in the developing world that I’m worried about the ways in which Second Life is closed to some parts of the world. While SL is “free”, it requires a credit card to create a character, a barrier which makes the universe off-limits to most of the world’s citizens, as well as an increasingly large percentage of the world’s Internet users.

    It’s precisely because I think Second Life is potentially very interesting that I’d like to see Linden Labs take the issues of access to the world seriously. Dismissing my concerns as “superficial” and using a poorly chosen Bible quote to characterize poverty as inevitable suggests to me that you probably aren’t as interested in the issues of technology in the developing world as I am. So be it. I’m less interested in virtual worlds than in the real one at present, and until the parts of the world I’m interested in start being better represented in worlds like Second Life, that’s unlikely to change.

    Thanks for your comment.

  11. Dear Ethan,

    I’ve written you a longer, more detailed response in your personal email — I don’t like to identify all my current workplaces because I often get harassed and like to at least reduce the incidences of such harassmesnt. Thanks for your response. As it happens, I’ve seen your blog, and I also believe we spoke at the SOP this year.

    As it also happens, I’ve long been associated with OSI, since its inception. I have frequently met with George Soros and his program officers over the years. I’ve detailed all my past and present involvement to you in email, and if some reader would like to follow up with me, write dyerbrookME@juno.com

    OSI has gotten to be a big place, so I don’t always instantly recognize everyone’s names in every context, sorry. I tend to be familiar mainly with the Eurasian-based programs of OSI.

    As a number of people from the Second Life community were weighing in with their concerns, I felt I should respond as well, and I hate to see someone “turned off” from the use of SL, even if only for international conferencing and prototyping ideas, by any kind of heavy ideological consideration.

    As director or staff of various human rights organizations over the years, I’ve been heavily involved in sustaining media programs in Africa, Eurasia, and Asia. I’ve worked as a journalist and worked helping journalists all over the world.

    So I don’t come at the issues of information, media, and sustaining media abroad, especially in countries of transition and conflict, as a dilettante (despite your assumptions sitting at the Harvard Beekman Center looking at a chance blog post), nor do I have any kind of indifference whatsoever to the problems and challenges of the developing world. I continue to work on issues like AIDS policy, increased funding for AIDS through the USG and the UN, the Millenium Development Goals, and many other health and human rights issues in my current UN work.

    What I don’t have is a facile, Marxist or hard leftwing perspective on these issues, since most of my experience has come from living and working in the countries suffering from, rather than celebrating this ideology. I believe a liberal notion of human rights, with balance between civil/political and economic/social human rights, must be at the center of development policy. Yes, I vote Democratic and yes, I oppose the war in Iraq and yes, I can probably check off every politically-correct box you’d like me to check off. What I don’t do is get all weepy about the world’s poor — it’s silly and ineffective. And I don’t think you galvanize anybody to conscience by trying to shame them for being in a high-end technology game instead of getting down with the people in Accra. People are going to be in the game anyway. The challenge is to try to use the game to make them more aware about Accra.

    I don’t believe in becoming prescriptive, ideological, and hysterical about poverty. I believe in doing practical field work and working through governments and international institutions like the UN to address these issues particularly in the field.
    The Internet — SL — Yahoo — whatever — these are all tools and worlds to sustain that effort, not replace RL f2f hard work.

    The credit card is merely used to register — I myself have helped people using my credit cards or Paypal to gain access to SL.

    There really isn’t a need for us to fret too much about this credit-card barrier — it’s easily overcome through the help of institutions like OSI or Ford and a host of NGOs all over the world where Americans are key funders and actors. After all, OSI spent millions getting Internet connectivity for hundreds of Russian cities, particularly with university campuses. Something like Second Life is just one more program.

    If SL were to become merely a free sign-up like Yahoo, it would be subject to even more griefing and grid-crashing than it is now — I think they need a minimum of barriers, and providing the name and credit card (which above all, is proof of age) is that minimal barrier.

    The technical issues of the DSL line, the streaming media, the high graphics capacity aren’t peculiar to SL as you know; I’m used to working in Russian and East European NGO offices where they have the Internet dial-up set to “1 out of 99 tries”.

    So if you google me, under Catherine A. Fitzpatrick, and see my extensive work in this field, you will see that you couldn’t be more wrong in your judgement of me, evidenced by your comment “Dismissing my concerns as “superficial” and using a poorly chosen Bible quote to characterize poverty as inevitable
    suggests to me that you probably aren’t as interested in the issues of
    technology in the developing world as I am.”

    What I respond to is facile political correctness in venues like Internet blogs. There’s no need for us to be wailing about poor Africans and Russians not having access to the Internet. The Internet is a tool, not a magical re-distributor of wealth between North and South.

    We are all *already* doing something about this. You’re already doing a great deal in your capacity, more than most. A tool like SL can be helped easily to *do more*. I don’t have any illusions about this game-like virtual space as solving the world’s problems by any means; what I do believe, however, is that increasingly both governments and societies are going to be using these tools, for better or worse, and it is better to pay attention sooner rather than later.

    The issue of “electronic direct democracy” for example plays out in spades in SL (imagine, they don’t have a capacity built-in for a “no” vote but just hope to behaviour-modify people toward making only positive proposals and garnering support for them which often comes in the form of alt accounts and subs in the BDSM sub-culture).

    I’ve continually tried to both interest OSI officers in Second Life, and to interest SL leaders in OSI. It’s been difficult. I’ve constantly mentioned the concepts of civil society, philanthropy, and open society to the top Lindens –not sure how much it resonates, given their technical and games/entertainment background but in fact they are very thoughtful and insightful people with a lot of awareness of the modern world and its challenges in cyberspace — as you must know — and are not at all callous to your concerns about access. Pathfinder Linden has a great deal of experience working with educators and would be the key contact there for any projects you conceive.

    One of the islands in SL is called Better World, associated with http://www.omidyar.net, and sponsors African teachers and has a Darfur and AIDS campaigns and other issues. It’s not the bleak conscious-less gamespace you might imagine.

    Indeed, the Lindens have the only “game company” (they are really more of a platform) that provides free, basic accounts to literally thousands of young college students (mainly men) and part-time workers (mainly women) and have opened up a huge international presence by less-wealth Europeans and Asians in a world that is usually dominated by wealthy male Americans.

    There is a bit of a cultural disconnect between the East Coast liberals and the West Coast liberals and those in between and the world of very young technical experts and older people in the humanities. Recently, for example, when I tried to get Hiro Pendragon (his avatar name), head of the SL Community Conference convened here in New York during the annual State of Play conference at NY Law School to consider having speakers like George Soros or other leaders from OSI to speak at the conference, he dismissed the entire concept out of hand due to Soros’ high-profile political work to dump Bush and to promote causes like harm reduction and saner drug policies. He was cautious. All of that high-profile media image of Soros meant that he couldn’t afford the freight of a Soros at something this new and fragile — the first RL conference of those who had only met online in this very revolutionary virtual world before. That’s a real shame.

    The image of SL as a game or entertainment, and the complex ramp-up of building, navigation, etc. skills when you join, is also off-putting to others I’ve tried to interest at OSI and other foundations and NGOs. I conceive of it as a powerful tool for reconstructing civil societies under attack or in transition — think of the possibilities for archives, art, data, memory, reports, etc. for communities in conflict, crisis, and exile in particular. They don’t (yet) see it that way. They will.

    Ethan, indeed “the poor ye always have with you.” This isn’t facile, but actually pretty deep. It’s actually quite a bit at the heart of George Soros’ personal experience and his own lifetime insights, starting with his oft-told story of his realization, after fleeing the Nazis in Hungary with his family and winding up in the UK, at how much poor Jewish students ripped off Jewish philanthropies in Europe. I’m sorry you aren’t feeling this as I do.

    In fact, the heart of Soros’ concept is not a mere guilty Western liberal cash dispensations to the undeveloped world (which is often in the thrall of tyrants who themselves are responsible for corruption and impoverishment of their countries) — it’s about empowering local actors who are in positions to make change and lead their countries out of misery by taking action even with their limited resources. Soros has always been about helping those who help themselves, not just straight charity.

    I can only encourage you to reconsider this notion, “until the parts of the world I’m interested in start being better represented
    in worlds like Second Life.”

    In fact, I can only note that “those parts of the world” — as they exist in individuals interested in this “Western” technology — especially young students — are going to find there way to Second Life before you as their representer get to represent them there in SL. They aren’t going to wait.

    I personally combine exactly those things in my RL and SL work, the work with “those parts of the world I’m interested in” (which involve the exact same war-torn suffering types of societies you are involved with) and the virtual, exotic world of cyberspace.

    While seeming to discourage quietism in me about poverty being “inevitable” (it always has been in human history, and utopian efforts to reduce it end up more often in sustaining tyrannical ideologies), you seem to expect SL to come to you. It is growing at a huge rate (from 10,000 to 100,000 just since I’ve been there) and really warp-like speed in terms of issues and problems, and you might be interested to become involved earlier rather than later if you are interested in finding ways for this technology not to replicate the problems you grapple with in RL, but to change them.

    Catherine Fitzpatrick

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