Bad reputation

Reports revealed this week that the UK government is maintaining an island in Second Life, at a cost of £12000 a year, for the purpose of allowing private companies to showcase new technology.

I would show you some pictures of the sim, but of course we mere taxpayers are not permitted to visit; only government officials and the firms taking part can gain access. The story has created a minor scandal, with opposition politicians seizing the opportunity to accuse the ruling party of “living in a fantasy world”, while the scheme’s defenders have claimed that holding meetings and events on the grid will greatly increase government efficiency.

My first reaction to this story was to think that £12000 a year was not a great deal of money, as government expenditure goes – it’s the equivalent of one very junior civil servant. Compared to the amount that, say, defence contractors gouge, it doesn’t seem to be the basis for a particularly lucrative business, even if the project is expanded when the pilot phase ends in 2011.

It also makes me wonder why government departments, or corporations, or educational establishments need to be connected to the main grid at all. Why don’t they run mini-grids on their own servers? That would be sufficient for meetings, presentations and teaching, without the risk of participants wandering out of the building and coming across something scary; it would also maximise control over access and security, and would presumably run faster and be more reliable. Most importantly perhaps, it would create some distance between the client’s business and the potentially toxic Second Life brand.

For the one thing that the man in the street knows, or thinks he knows, about SL is that it is a haven for sexual perversity of the worst kind, and while Linden Labs may insist that they have solved the problem by quarantining questionable content in its own continent, all they are doing is drawing more attention to the fact that the problem exists in the first place.

The potential customers that L-Labs are courting with their new U-rated strategy are probably not particularly worried that they personally will be exposed to anything untoward; they will be more concerned that association with Second Life will be a hostage to fortune. Political opponents, disgruntled shareholders or disaffected employees will be able to search Google images for something suitably salacious to take to the media; the result will probably be transient embarrassment rather than lasting damage, but why take a chance?

Real-life locations can reinvent themselves of course; I remember Times Square being pretty sleazy when I visited New York years ago, but I hear it is now thoroughly Disneyfied. I guess time will tell if Second Life will be able to undergo a similar process of rehabilitation.

I’m sure Joan would agree with me that Times Square was better the old way.

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