Why we hate and fear the BBC

A couple of weeks ago the BBC published a piece about Second Life on their news website. The article itself was a fairly inoffensive statement of fact – in summary “Second Life? People used to talk about that a lot; now, not so much” – but it set off an entirely predictable flurry of indignation around the SL blogosphere. The prize for the most ridiculously hyperbolic comment goes to Hamlet Au at New World Notes:

The BBC’s recent magazine article, “What Happened to Second Life?” … is so incandescently bad, to read it is to feel the entire institution’s credibility undermined.

One can picture tribesmen in the jungle of Myanmar, hunched over their short-wave radio, wondering if they can still trust the BBC’s reports on the Naypyidaw junta after that hatchet job they did on SL.

Why do SL aficionados respond to even mild criticism by foaming at the mouth in a way that makes Leave Britney Alone Guy look like a model of calm and reason? (Not that I haven’t been guilty of this myself once or twice).

I suspect there may be some projective identification going on. Anxiety is generated by the conflict between the desire to express unconscious fantasy through the medium of virtual reality, and the internalised attitude of general society that such activity is not really what one expects of a grown adult; these desires are therefore split off into “bad” internal objects.

A threatening sense of dis-integration may be produced, which, if it cannot be contained within the ego (that is, if the subject is in the paranoid-schizoid position), must be projected into our perceived critics, who, we imagine, are persecuting us because they do not understand the value of our virtual experiences – though in reality it is actually we who cannot fathom why we want to spend time on such apparently pointless activity.

The vehemence of our response is mystifying to those outside the circle, who begin to regard partisans of Second Life with genuine bafflement, and not a little trepidation. Thus the defence creates its own reality, which may be effective in relieving our anxiety (as the conflict is perceived to be between ourselves and “bad” external objects, rather than being intra-psychic), but which sets the stage for a cycle of mutual misunderstanding and hostility.

Anyone who has worked through the depressive position should be able to tolerate the ambiguity related to being a fan of Second Life, both internal (I know it’s a bit silly, but I like it anyhow), and external (other people may think it’s silly, but it doesn’t make them bad). It helps to be honest with oneself about one’s motives for spending time on the grid, and to leave the rationalisation to the Lindens, who, after all, do have a business to run. The truth is that Second Life is like any other pastime; some people are into it, most people aren’t, but that’s cool, and certainly not worth getting all angry about.

Tweetomania

I hate to admit it, but, way behind the curve as usual, I have started to view Twitter as an important part of my life, rather than a pointless irritant. When I set up our feed I was intending just to use it for publicising blog posts, but then I started following a couple of people (you know, just for kicks), then a couple more (though I could have given up any time I wanted, I just didn’t want to, right?), and before I knew it I was getting mildly agitated if I couldn’t get my tweet fix several times a day.

The tipping point came when I started following Mal Burns, who is a one-man SL newsfeed, cranking out dozens of tweets a day linking to all sorts of interesting metaverse stories. He seems to have quite a big audience, judging by the surge of traffic we have had on the couple of occasions he has featured one of our posts.

Our feed is somewhat less influential, though we do have a few followers, including one celebrity, Noreena Hertz, the vaguely left-wing economist, though I expect that by the time you read this she will have ditched us – she’s done the follow/unfollow thing on us a few times before, so I suspect that she has some sort of system that automatically follows anyone tweeting with the #economics tag, and then one of her assistants kicks us off a couple of days later when they actually read the rubbish we have written. Interestingly, our old SLS account has roughly ten times as many followers as our active feed, despite not being updated for nearly a year.

My addiction has been facilitated by my acquisition of the TweetDeck app for my iPhone, which makes it much easier to post updates and follow the general chatter. TweetDeck is part of the huge ecosystem that has grown up around Twitter, with literally hundreds of startups vying for a slice of the revenue pie, which, last time I looked, amounted to exactly US$0. Twitter head honcho Biz Stone has reportedly targeted 2010 as “the revenue year”, but even he isn’t willing to predict that the company will be profitable any time soon, so I can’t see how all the hangers-on are hoping to make any money.

I have a horrible feeling that the whole set-up is some kind of plot to get us all hooked on free produce, before they crank up the price and force us to pay big bucks to feed our habits. That wouldn’t be entirely bad news for me though, since I am qualified in the treatment of cyberaddiction, and the tweet-detox market might be worth quite a bit.

Scenes from the Class Struggle in Second Life

Anyone who felt that my suggestion that all property in Second Life should be collectively owned was overly fanciful should perhaps direct their attention towards a couple of recent developments in the area of SL commerce.

First up: the changes to the structure of XStreet listing fees and commission charges. The exact ins and outs of this are detailed elsewhere; the main thing is that the service has become much less friendly for small-scale vendors, and more orientated towards big operations.

Secondly, Pink Linden recently sent out a questionnaire to a sample of SL merchants, canvassing their opinion on various hypothetical developments, including setting up an official Linden-sponsored shopping mall. Again the pricing and commission structure would favour large, established businesses over their smaller or newer competition. (It may be relevant that Pink used to work for eBay, who have also been accused of squeezing small sellers off their platform).

This initially reminded me of the concept of State Monopoly Capitalism. The intricacies of this theory are too complicated to go into here, but it can be roughly summed up as the idea that in the late stages of capitalism the state becomes increasingly identified with the interests of a particular section of capital, specifically the big monopolies, to the detriment not only of the proletariat, but also the smaller capitalist enterprises.

The thesis is not without its problems, though a full discussion of these is beyond the scope of this column, and it has been rather discredited by its association with the Popular Front orientation of Stalinist Communist Parties in post-war Europe. The question of the power of monopoly capital and its relationship with the state is more interesting than ever these days though, and it’s still worth reading Lenin on Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, and Mandel on The Economics of Neo-Capitalism.

To transfer the concept of SMC to Second Life, one would have to see the Lindens as the equivalent of the state, and the big merchants as monopoly capitalists. Are either of these assumptions valid?

To quote Engels, from The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State:

[The state] is a product of society at a certain stage of development; it is the admission that this society has become entangled in an insoluble contradiction with itself, that it has split into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to dispel. But in order that these antagonisms, these classes with conflicting economic interests, might not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, it became necessary to have a power, seemingly standing above society, that would alleviate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of ‘order’; and this power, arisen out of society but placing itself above it, and alienating itself more and more from it, is the state.

A “society … entangled in an insoluble contradiction with itself … split into irreconcilable antagonisms” does sound like a description of Second Life, and the Lindens certainly have the coercive powers usually associated with the state, but is it a state in the modern, capitalist, sense of the term? There may seem to be “classes with conflicting economic interests” among the residents of SL, but what is the nature of these classes? To answer these questions we must determine where avatars stand in relation to the means of production, which in turn requires us to decide what form the “means of production” take in a virtual world.

Virtual items may be created in the minds and on the computers of designers, but they only take on a social reality when they become available for exchange, when they are uploaded to the platform. Thus the virtual world itself forms the means of production. Linden Lab owns the world in its entirity, which means that no one else can independently control those means of production, and thus no resident can really be said to be a capitalist, let alone a monopoly capitalist.

Second Life may indeed be the scene of class struggle, but the conflict is not between workers and capital. The social relations that operate are more akin to those pertaining between feudal overlords and their serfs, with the Lindens taking on the role of absolute monarchs, supported by a small group of robber barons. The virtual masses are not proletarians free to sell their labour power to the highest bidder, but peasants obliged to toil for the benefit of their masters.

How can we move on from this obviously unsatisfactory state of affairs, and build a virtual communist society? I have a plan, but I’ll need another post to explain it properly. I might even make it my entry for the Linden Prize

Bonfire of the Inanities

Blog-cataloguing website Technorati overhauled its database last month, purging tens of millions of spam blogs which had been making a mockery of their ranking numbers. Unfortunately there seems to have been a fair bit of collateral damage in this operation, as the internet has resounded with the protests of outraged bloggers who have seen their cherished writing projects disappear from the index. I am sad to say that Second Life Shrink was among the casualties; it is no longer possible to check how much authority we have, or see where we rank in the world wide web. Which is just as well probably, since the last time I looked the answers were “not much” and “way down”. (I never really understood how the Technorati ranking worked anyhow, since over the years our place has varied from below 5 million to inside the top half million, while all the time we have been turning out more or less the same rubbish, to more or less general indifference).

I does make me reflect on why I bother to blog at all, especially about something as unimportant as a minority-interest computer fantasy world. I think it’s the very inconsequentiality of the topic that that makes it attractive. It feels good to have strong opinions, because it sustains the illusion that one’s thoughts might actually matter in the grand scheme of things, rather than just being transient chemical reactions in the nervous tissue of a barely sentient creature in one obscure corner of an essentially chaotic cosmos. Strong opinions about important things are risky though; someone else might strongly disagree with you, raising the threat of unrestrained violence, or at least social awkwardness. Much better to confine one’s pontificating to subjects that no one really cares about; whatever I write about, say, IP rights in virtual worlds, I can be fairly sure that, in the unlikely event that anyone is paying attention, they won’t be upset to a degree that they will want to come round to my house and have a fight about it.

Even when I offer my random thoughts about things that might actually be relevant to everyday life, like politics or economics, I know that I’m not going to encounter any serious disagreement, because my voice will be lost in the general hubbub of subjectivity that is the blogosphere. There is no vehicle better than a blog for sounding off without having to think about how others might interpret or respond to your comments. The promise of Web 2.0 – that it would facilitate intellectual interactivity on a global scale – is in danger of being lost, as we bloggers use the medium to reinforce our own preconceptions instead of opening up to the ideas of others. (I’ll stop there before I prove my argument by descending into completely solipsistic nonsense).

Anyway, I’m going to try to re-register with Technorati, since I need to feed my obsession with blog statistics. Our content may be getting a boost soon – our art correspondent Olivia is back at work, and has promised me an article before the end of the month – and I wouldn’t want to miss the increased authority her erudite commentary will undoubtedly bring us.

[I was going to link to a video of the Austin Lounge Lizards performing their track “Bonfire of the Inanities”, but YouTube has failed me, so here’s another of their numbers, “Jesus Loves Me But He Can’t Stand You”.]

A Nation of Shopkeepers

The third-quarter SL figures came out the other week, and, as usual, tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes. One statistic in particular caught my eye; the number of monthly unique users, which was just over 750000. This reminded me of the results of a survey of the SL economy released in the spring, which estimated there were around 18000 self-identified virtual businesses.

The 750000 figure will include an indeterminate number of alts, and the 18000 enterprises may each employ more than one person (or some people may run more than one business), but, whichever way you look at it, it’s clear that SL entrepreneurs form only a tiny part of the virtual population.

I have no objection to people using the immersive virtual environment that is Second Life as an opportunity to live out their shopkeeper fantasies; whatever floats your boat I guess. However I do find it irksome when this small minority demand that the whole world should be structured to facilitate their particular brand of role-play, even if this grossly inconveniences everybody else, and, when they don’t get their way, threaten legal action that might destroy the entire system.

Linden Lab should adopt a Zindra-style solution to this problem, and set up a special continent where aspiring virtual business people can be segregated. There they would be free to sell each other shoes and sex-beds, sue one another to their hearts’ content, and leave the rest of us in peace to have fun with our second lives.

Love Forever Changes

Philip Rosedale, late of the SL parish, has a new startup, the snappily named LoveMachine. Its exact purpose is still obscure, but there is talk that they will “have a huge amount of fun, make a bunch of money, and try to save the world”.

Philip has helpfully listed the first few corporate tasks, which include “Locate some great bars in SF that could be good to park new company in for a while”. I’m off to polish my CV for when they advertise for an in-house psychiatrist.

[Hat-tip: Opensource Obscure]

Waiting at the Berlin Wall

It’s 20 years to the day since the fall, literal and figurative, of the Berlin Wall, an event that at the time was astonishing in its rapidity, and seems no less so two decades later. In retrospect it is easy to say that it was inevitable that the exhausted regimes of Eastern Europe would topple under the twin stresses of Western economic dominance and popular discontent, but even at the end of the 80’s the Cold War was such a dominant fact of everyday life that its abrupt, and relatively peaceful, conclusion came as a shock.

I identify myself politically as a communist, so you could be forgiven for thinking that I would look back on the events in Berlin with regret, but I belong to that tradition of the British left which can loosely be described as “Trotskyist“, so I was as happy as anyone (apart from the inhabitants of Eastern Europe obviously) to see the bureaucratic Stalinist regimes of Moscow and its allies disappear into the pages of history. What was disappointing was that they had been brought low not by the renewal of revolutionary ideals that we had anticipated, but by being outperformed by the western economic model (we had anticipated this too, just not so soon, or so suddenly).

It’s fair to say that the demise of the Soviet Union had an enervating effect even on us leftists who were actually its deadliest ideological enemies, since it heralded a period of capitalist triumphalism that is beginning to falter only now (at least in the West; in the developing world communism has remained influential). That said, the existence of the obviously repressive Soviet bloc was always a dead weight around the neck of the left, forcing us to spend time thinking about the nature of the deformed workers’ state that would have been better spent working on more pressing issues, and its collapse has ultimately proved liberating for progressive movements in Europe. (Of course the local difficulty we suffered pales into insignificance beside the blighted lives of millions of workers who actually had to survive under “socialism in one country”). The story of the degeneration of the high ideals of the Bolshevik revolution is one of a missed opportunity to build a better future, and one we must learn from, as the world once again urgently needs an alternative to the bankruptcy of capitalism.

There’s a reconstruction of the Wall on the grid, with details of its history, including the iconic Checkpoint Charlie:

berlinwall01

Perfect if you don’t want a holiday in the sun.

District 23

It’s just one year on from his landslide election victory, but Obama’s political obituary is already being written by right-wing pundits, on the back of Republican gains in gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey. I’m not sure how far it is possible to generalize these results to the national level, since elections for State positions tend to heavily swayed by local issues, though clearly the Democrats have some work to do ahead of the mid-term elections in 2010.

Also interesting was the news from New York’s Twenty-Third Congressional District. The official GOP candidate dropped out of the race after a mauling in the conservative media (who labelled her a RINO for her social liberalism), and national Republican figures like our old friend Sarah Palin endorsed the third-party Conservative candidate, who ticked the right boxes on issues like abortion and gay marriage. The Democrats won what had been a safe Republican seat.

Worryingly, some Republicans seem to be drawing the sensible conclusion from this – that in times like these sticking to a fiscally conservative message will win more votes than preaching a socially conservative line. Reassuringly, others seem to think that the problem was that the Republican party is not socially conservative enough. We can only hope that the latter camp emerges victorious in the run up to 2012, so that we can look forward to four more years of a Democratic Presidency, during which, if we’re lucky, Obama might even start doing some of this crazy socialist stuff we’re always hearing about (though probably not).

Taking Ownership of the Problem

In an intriguing footnote to the Burning Life festival, reports have emerged that a person or persons unknown distributed a mysterious box around the site, said box allegedly containing a virtual cornucopia of ripped-off items. Outraged commentators immediately cited this as yet another example of Linden Lab’s woefully negligent approach to protecting IP rights. Interestingly, and I’m sure entirely coincidentally, the alleged super-crime was brought to the world’s attention by none other than Stroker Serpentine, who of course is currently suing the Lab, claiming in his action that, among other things, the Lindens have had a woefully negligent approach to protecting IP rights. If that wasn’t enough to get the conspiracy theories going, Stroker’s rather ham-fisted attempt to pin blame for the alleged offence on (apparently) well-known open-source advocate Damen Hax further fanned the flames. Throw in the whole third-party viewer controversy, and the scene is set for another skirmish in the long-running war between the forces of DRM and the open-source guerillas.

Godless communist that I am, in my ideal virtual world all items would be free to transfer and copy, and content creators would contribute their talents without material recompense, their reward being the knowledge that they had helped build a better experience for everyone. I guess that’ll have to wait until after the revolution. In the meantime we’re stuck with some sort of copyright protection system, though we clearly need something better than the current unsatisfactory model.

The lesson from the music industry is that there is no future in ever-more-complex DRM – making customers jump through hoops to access content that they have purchased just pisses them off, and it’s never long before the pirates crack it anyhow. It’s much better to make paying for stuff so painless that people won’t go to the bother of seeking out stolen goods – some sort of micro-payment or subscription system seems to be the favoured model.

How might that work in Second Life? The first step would be to establish a central content inventory, run by Linden Lab directly, or some semi-autonomous surrogate. Upon payment of a subscription residents would gain access to this inventory, and would be able to rez up a set amount of prims. The exact number available concurrently could vary depending on the level of the subscription – free accounts could be limited to, say, 10, with a sliding scale up an unlimited quantity. Continued access to the items would be dependent on keeping up the payments. Content creators who wanted their items to be included would have to register, and once they had they would get a cut of the subscriptions, based on the relative popularity of their stuff.

I’m sure that it wouldn’t take too much tweaking of the permissions system to make this function. The key would be to set the subscription (tax might be a more descriptive word) low enough so that evading it by picking up pirated goods was more trouble than it was worth, but high enough to generate enough revenue to keep the designers happy.

A scheme like this is much more likely to succeed in a virtual world than in real life, where a lot of work would have to be put into prediction of demand, and planning resource and capacity allocation. This doesn’t always work out well in practice, though I’d argue that it is possible to run a successful planned economy if enough information is available. In a virtual world however, items can be manufactured instantly, with practically no resource implications, so it’s perfectly feasible to have no advance plan for production, and to just react to demand.

The biggest hurdles to overcome might be cultural, psychological and political. Designers would have to accept that they were essentially employees, or at least subcontractors, of a big state-owned corporation, and residents would have to be happy to pay the tax to support it. Somehow I can’t see either of these things, especially the former, coming to pass, and I doubt Linden Lab, grounded as they are in the free-market spirit, would have the appetite to run such a system anyway.

If the public option isn’t palatable, there might be a private alternative – designers could band together in consortia to offer a smaller subscription service. I think it would really need the scale of a grid-wide operation to make it practical though, so over time the trend would be towards a private monopoly, which has a lot less to recommend it than a public one.

I’m sure that someone has thought of this before, done the sums, and worked out that it wouldn’t be profitable. I don’t see that as a valid objection though, since the aim I have in mind is improving Second Life for everyone, rather than making money for anyone in particular.

The broader point is that it’s no good pursuing technical solutions to what are essentially cultural problems. It’s very difficult to make people do things that you want them to do on an individual level, even harder to get them to stop doing things you don’t want them to do. A better approach is to try to construct a psychosocial milieu in which the desired behaviour is more likely than unwanted actions.

The solution to the content theft problem lies not in stronger encryption of content, nor with harsher penalties for breaking the TOS. What the Lindens must do is engage in some social engineering, to foster a stronger sense of collective ownership, to build a community that believes that an offence against one is an offence against all. Give everyone a chance to own an equal share of everything, at a price that seems fair, and no one will feel the need to steal, for they would only be robbing themselves.