Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space

I logged on to the grid for the first time in ages last week, only to find that my entire inventory had been rendered inaccessible for some reason. This included all my shapes and skins, with the result that my avatar took on an elemental form:

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I thought this looked pretty cool, like William Hurt when he has spent too much time tripping in the flotation tank in Altered States.

Two things had changed since my last visit; the adult content filtering regulations had gone into effect, and I had finally got around to upgrading my viewer from the Linux alpha build that I’d been using for the last couple of years. I figured that one or other, or perhaps both, of these had nixed my content – not, I hasten to add, because it was particularly risqué, but because it was all old stuff, and I thought it was maybe unverified or something. This turned out to be an unnecessarily paranoid interpretation of events, since when I looked today everything was back to normal, there having been some sort of “Asset Server Issue”, according to the grid status report.

Anyway, I was glad to be reminded of Altered States, one of my all-time favourite stoner movies. John Lilly, on whose experiences the film is loosely based, is a hero of sorts to me – his work on altered states of consciousness during sensory isolation (he invented the flotation tank for this purpose) is very interesting, his later fascination with talking to dolphins perhaps less so.

Thus inspired I hit Xstreet to see if I could pick up a flotation tank for my apartment, but the closest I could find was this sci-fi style healing tank (L$200 from A’den Technologies):

flotation01

There wasn’t any sensory deprivation, but it was restful to bob up and down, listening to some suitable mood music.

The killer awoke before dawn

I’ve been caught up with work and social engagements recently, and so completely missed the latest big Second Life story; Stroker Serpentine’s lawsuit against Linden Lab over the thorny issue of IP rights, and the Lindens’ efforts, or lack thereof, to protect them.

The details of the case, and its merits, have been well covered in the Alphaville Herald and New World Notes, and there’s no shortage of comment around the SL blogosphere (like here, here and here). In such circumstances any opinion I care to offer is bound to be superfluous, as well as being thoroughly uninformative, seeing as how I have no knowledge whatsoever of contract and copyright law as it is applied in the state of California. But what kind of blogger would I be if I let ignorance of the topic or fear of repetition stand in the way of weighing in with my two cents worth?

Everyone agrees that content theft is an issue; Stroker’s case revolves around the question of whether the Lindens are mere providers of the framework in which the criminality occurs, and thus not responsible for it, or if the fact that the Lab profits from copyright infringement by collecting dues from the malefactors makes it part of the evil enterprise. The precedent that is being quoted is the case of Louis Vuitton Malletier, S.A., v. Akanoc Solutions, Inc., et al., where the luxury goods maker was awarded $32 million damages against a firm that hosted websites selling counterfeit Vuitton items. The Taser case seems relevant too, as well as the Lab’s previous actions in banning in-world gambling and banking, which presumably stemmed from a realisation that the US Department of Justice was likely to regard hosting illegal activity as an offence in itself.

The Lindens’ defence will probably rest on the “safe harbor” provision of the DMCA, but they may be on shaky ground there, since any claim to be at one remove from the murky business of SL commerce would be rather undermined by their ownership of XStreet, and their record of assisting aggrieved creatives with DMCA filings is allegedly very poor. There is some speculation that the Second Life Terms of Service, specifically the sections prohibiting residents from suing the Lindens, might be the Lab’s get-out-of-jail card, but it seems unlikely that any court would enforce a contract containing such obviously unfair terms.

All these legal questions are mildly diverting, but what is much more interesting is the underlying psychology. It reminds me of a gritty crime movie, the part where the heist has gone wrong and the thieves have started to fall out. One can only imagine that Stroker’s sex-bed business must have hit the skids before he would pursue the nuclear option of suing the Lindens. I’ve no doubt that having his designs ripped off has at least partially contributed to this, but I suspect that the inherent limitations of the virtual economy (which we’ve previously discussed here and here) have had a more significant impact.

It feels as if there is more to this than mere financial considerations though. What Stroker and other designers want is not just money, but respect, due acknowledgement of their creative talents. Unfortunately, outside of a small subsection of the SL population, being a virtual clothes/hair/whatever producer just doesn’t count for very much, in terms of cash or kudos. This may or may not be unfair (I tend to think it is some way off being the worst injustice in the world), but it’s a fact, and no amount of complaining on the internet or suing Linden Lab is going to change it.

Looking at it more analytically, there also seems to be an Oedipal theme to this lawsuit. By all accounts Stroker was a Joe-the-plumber type before Second Life gave him the chance to reinvent himself as a virtual pornography mogul; it seems ungrateful, to say the least, that he should set in train a process that could theoretically ruin the company that made his good fortune possible. The Lab may have begat Stroker, but he has good reason to think that he is not Philip’s favourite son; the sex business of which Stroker is the most prominent public face is often cited as the biggest threat to the Lindens’ future prosperity. Stroker would not have to be particularly paranoid to see the regulation of adult content on the grid as an attempt to castrate him (figuratively and literally; ridding SL of penises seems to be one of the prime objectives of the new rules). Perhaps the case represents Stroker’s unconscious desire to kill his virtual father before he himself is annihilated by paternal rage.

What would be the most desirable, or least undesirable, outcome of the case? Should Stroker prevail it would surely be a Pyrrhic victory. The suit is a class action, so every frustrated shopkeeper who ever had a texture pilfered would be able to jump on the bandwagon, exposing the Lindens to potentially unlimited liability. Even if this doomsday scenario didn’t come to pass, an adverse judgement would force the Lab to radically change the Second Life retailing landscape, probably by introducing some sort of merchant registration and approval system, shutting out the small scale entrepreneurs who are, everyone says, the lifeblood of SL creativity.

And what if Stroker loses? There has been the usual Atlas Shrugged-style posturing from various bloggers, with talk of how an exodus of talent will leave the rest of us wailing and gnashing our teeth, bereft of prim hair and erotic animations. In reality, of course, little would change, since any designers who did flounce out would be quickly replaced by others with equal skill and a rather more realistic estimation of the value society places on virtual creativity. It would be for the best in the long run, since Second Life can only benefit from a population that is more interested in enriching the collective experience than amassing personal wealth.

So I’m hoping that the case goes to court, and that Stroker loses. I doubt that this will happen though; the Lindens’ corporate lawyers will want to avoid the uncertainty of going to trial, and will push for a settlement, which I suspect is what Stroker has had in mind from the start. Even if they don’t admit liability the Lab will have to introduce more regulation to avoid facing similar actions in the future, and the nature of Second Life will change forever.

Whatever happens, it feels like a chapter, if not the whole book, is drawing to a close.

It’s the end of our elaborate plans…

Learn to forget

I heard something or other about Twitter this week, I can’t recall exactly what. Maybe if I watch some YouTube it’ll come back to me…

Brother, can you spare me an ISK?

More virtual-life-imitates-real-life news from the futuristic universe of EVE Online, where EBANK, one of the game’s largest financial institutions, has frozen all deposits after new management discovered a 1.2 trillion ISK (InterStellar Kredit) hole in the accounts.

At first glance this seems to be a repeat of the Second Life banking fiascos of 2007, but, to be fair to the directors of EB, they do seem to have been trying to run a proper retail banking operation rather than just a glorified Ponzi scheme, with interest paid to depositors theoretically covered by interest charged to creditors.

The initial stories of EB’s troubles focused on the embezzlement of 250 billion ISK by the bank’s former CEO, but what really seems to have done the damage is the spectacularly high level of bad-debt provision. Just about the whole of EB’s loan book looks to be unrecoverable, a failure of risk-management that makes even the most delinquent of real-life banks look ultra-cautious.

It is, I think, another example of cargo cult consciousness, the belief that you can capture the essence of something by replicating its superficial form. In this case EB did the things that a real bank does, like taking deposits and making loans, but without the social infrastructure than underpins such a business in the real world, like a legal system that allows creditors to pursue their debtors and seize their assets. More importantly, institutions of finance capital can only exist in the context of a system where there is actual value being produced, rather than an imaginary universe where work ultimately counts for practically nothing.

It’s surprising that anyone still believes that banking and other financial wizardry can magically create wealth, rather than just existing parasitically on the labour of the workers, given that recent events in the real world have shown up the masters of the universe for the frauds that they are. (ISK also stands for Icelandic Krona, and we all know how well that’s been doing recently.) A certain suspension of disbelief is required to enjoy the experience of EVE Online; perhaps for the more avid players their time in New Eden detaches them from reality altogether.

I want to spin my little watch right before your eyes

My Twitter feed is gradually accumulating a small band of adherents, all of whom, I am sure, are keen to digest my scintillating prose, rather than just following people at random as part of a Twitter-spam operation or SEO scam.

Quimbe, one of my new buddies, has been especially keen to share with me an amazing opportunity he has unearthed. Do I want to ” Discover A Rebel Psychiatrist’s Amazing Secret?” One that will let me “Put People Under Your Control Quickly & Easily … and Get Them to Do Anything You Want?” Well, who doesn’t? This arcane knowledge can be mine for only $197, thanks to the amazing generosity of master hypnotist Igor Ledochowski.

Actually, what Igor is peddling is not particularly new, drawing as it does on the work of the fairly well-known American psychiatrist Milton Erickson, pioneer of hypnotherapy back in the ’50’s. Erikson had a somewhat idiosyncratic concept of the unconscious as an entity whose therapeutic power could be tapped by entering into a hypnotic trance, which he famously could induce in a subject using only his secret handshake. Erikson’s ideas were always on the fringe of respectability, and his modern-day followers, most notably practitioners of Neuro-linguistic programming, which draws heavily on his work, are largely confined to the life-coaching and self-improvement industries.

Igor may not have much clinical credibility, but he does show some appreciation of modern business trends. He used to charge thousands of dollars for his seminars (he says), but there was a physical limit on how many of these he could do, and also a small pool of potential customers, for whose attention he had to compete with all the other gurus out there. With the advent of digital distribution channels he has been able to benefit from a new, and much more lucrative, revenue model – mass circulation and (relatively) micro-payment.

All this came to mind today when I read about the travails of the Second Life music scene. Apparently musicians and venue owners are struggling to get audiences to pay anything at all for their live music experience. Mankind Tracer, alter-ego of musician Seth Regan, is proposing that venues start charging a cover, and he feels that L$500 would be about right for one of his performances, though comments on the thread suggest that people think this would be too much for the market to bear.

My first thought was that if punters won’t pay US$2 to see your band then you probably need to practice a bit more. I’m not out much these days, but back when I was an avid gig-goer I would regularly pay US$10 or more to get into a club without even knowing who was playing. I guess the difference is that in real life even if the band sucks you can still have a good time, because you are in a bar, with your friends, but in SL if the act is no good then the night is a washout.

Even if we take the stinginess of virtual audiences as a given, it should still be possible to make good money if you put on show that is good enough to draw a big crowd. If you played to ten thousand people you’d still do OK even if 90% of them paid nothing at all and the rest coughed up a dollar apiece, and even better if you dropped the suggested tip to 25c and half of them put their hands in their pockets.

The problem is that this mass-audience/micro-payment plan requires a scalability that Second Life currently does not provide. Full sims can theoretically support up to 100 avatars, though on the rare occasions when I’ve been somewhere with more than a couple of dozen or so other people (which have all been music events, interestingly) the experience has not been particularly enjoyable. So even if your band could pull in a five-figure crowd (which is not entirely unrealistic, given the potential world-wide reach), the sim would crash long before you started making money.

Blue Mars, which has (finally) gone into public beta this month, promises the capacity that could make this model work. If that turns out to be true, virtual musicians on that platform might get the rewards they deserve.

There are certainly some bands I’d pay L$500 to virtually see…

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