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November 20, 2006

Filed under: culture»internet»second_life

Welcome to Second Life, Comrades

Want to bring a wistful look to the face, and a tear to the eye, of any good socialist? Mention those magical words: post-scarcity. It's practically the definition of utopia to wish for a world where no-one lacks for anything, which most Marxists rationalize by pointing to automation and a (hopelessly optimistic) faith in the innate goodness of humanity. There, they daydream, real socialism would finally be possible.

Second Life, the online environment and cult favorite of "edgy" technology writers, is a similar utopia for libertarians. A virtual world that proudly trumpets its economic statistics on the front of (currently, US$622,731 spent in the last 24 hours), it also subsides almost entirely on user-created content--or, nowadays, on content created by enormous corporations and organizations hoping to cash in on Second Life's geek cred.

What happens when one utopia runs into another? Recently, Second Life fell victim to exploitation of Copybot, a reverse-engineered program that allows players to copy items without paying for them. Raph Koster, famed designer of failed-but-ambitious online economic systems, elaborates on the point of the copybot--being able to create anything you want, without asking permission or paying money--as practically the embodiment of post-scarcity Marxism intruding on Second Life's libertarianism. They're being hoisted on their own petard, he states.

Speaking for the vast majority of people who are sick of hearing how great Second Life is, I'm going to admit to a small, warm feeling of satisfaction--like I just ate a freshly-cooked spite burrito. Mmm.

Mandatory disclaimer: I don't play Second Life. I've logged in once, long enough to verify that yes, it's a very ugly place, and no, it doesn't run well on my laptop. So I'm invoking Pundit Privilege here--the ability to write about things even though I don't have direct experience with them myself, just a lot of acquaintances who do. If that bothers you, all I can say is stay as far as possible from the Wall Street Journal's Op-Ed section.

So someone I know, who specifically asks to remain nameless, calls me last night after her first logon to a Second Life server. Let's think of her, while I'm under Pundit Privilege, as a taxi driver who gave me the perfect transitional device for an article. The Second Life newbie, not being a gamer, is first of all having trouble moving. Also, she is confused about the sights of Orientation island.

"There's a person washing the sidewalk," she says. "They have a sign or something that says you can make money washing the sidewalk." We are both silent for a moment. I don't know what she's thinking, but I'm wondering why a digital sidewalk is dirty in the first place, much less why it would be profitable to clean it. It sounds like a scam, I say.

"But," she continues, "I don't understand. What do people do here?" And I have to explain that they don't necessarily do anything, that Linden Lab (who create and maintain Second Life) simply provide the tools for their users to create everything else. So if there's something to do, it exists because someone bought the land from Linden (using real money) and built something on it.

The newbie is in Second Life for a design class project--she needs to write a business plan, and had the idea of opening a Second Life boutique, because then she'll have the hippest business plan in the class. She'd like to actually have a storefront--or at least a "coming soon" sign--for her professor and classmates to see. But that would require paying for a premium account, then buying and paying rent on land. I tell her it might be easier just to make a web page.

Second Life is, as I said, supposed to be some kind of utopia where creativity is rewarded with a stream of virtual money, which can be redeemed for real money. It has no government. Linden Lab stays out of disputes as much as possible--their first reaction to the CopyBot fiasco, for example, was to tell people to prosecute under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Predictably, cyberselfish outlets like Wired trumpeted a lack of regulation as "a bold experiment in protecting creative work without the blunt instrument of copyright law." Meanwhile, merchants and a number of players have begun closing up shop, under the belief that there's no point in Second Life without an economic system of scarcity.

But to me, what's amusing about Second Life is what it reveals about poverty. Sure, the internal world is a meritocracy of sorts--assuming that you've got cash to rent space for your storefront. But even among the set of people who can cruise the grid for free, there's selection taking place--it requires a relatively new computer with a decent 3D card (my 1GHz laptop with built-in video chugged through even the most basic areas) and broadband Internet access. On top of that, those who can enter Second Life are presented with a world that has less legal baggage than many lesser-developed countries. One of my projects at the Bank has been audio work on problems of land tenure--when the poor don't own their land, they can't use it as collateral for development, and they can't rely on a secure legal situation. That's a serious problem. It is ironic, from my point of view, that when geeks had the chance to create their own private world, they immediately recreated land tenure problems--and saw them as a positive. It's a world where you don't have to eat or pay road maintenance or deal with the big, bad government. You just have to pay rent, and hope that the mob doesn't screw you over.

Implicit in the world of Second Life seems to be the primacy of value. How much are those shoes worth? How much could I get by designing my own shoes? How much would I need to sell in order to make back my land costs--or can I make money by land speculation alone? The concept that we might value something by non-monetary means--did I enjoy creating it? do I want to share it with others? does it make me feel good?--seems to have passed the community by. Or, at the very least, nobody talks about it. Blogs like Second Life Insider mostly seem to comment on commercial items that come across as utterly bizarre to those who don't actively take part--why would I want skates? What's the point of having funny-looking shoes, or a virtual dragon? CNN isn't commenting on the creativity of designers. They're more interested in the money Second Life is generating, and Congressional plans to tax it.

And the newbie asks me, finally, why this is any different from a video game. But it's simple, really. If I buy a game, even an online game like World of Warcraft, I'm paying for someone to entertain me. It's akin to a book or a movie, and the story or experience has non-monetary value to me. Joining Second Life is paying to take part in more commercial transactions, most of which will be less fulfilling than their real-world equivalents because of their intangible nature. It's no wonder people can be so addicted to accumulating virtual property--even in possessing it, you're reminded that you really don't own anything. Perhaps in the wake of that subconscious dissatisfaction, the need to acquire remains unsated.

I don't know which one gives me more cause to despair: that Second Life players think it's inconceivable that someone would be creative without financial incentive, or that they can't see how the system itself is reinforcing that viewpoint. The term "false consciousness" has never been so tragically appropriate.

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