200 not out

With pleasing synchronicity we have reached post #200 just as the year is drawing to a close, which seems like a good excuse to review the last 12 months in the intellectual hothouse that is Second Life Shrink.

We managed to knock off our second century in about half the time it took us to get to our first 100, which either means we are getting the hang of this blogging lark, or, more likely, we have too much time on our hands. (Or I have at least; Olivia is more of a low-frequency/high-quality correspondent.)

Our top ten posts by views over the past year were:

  1. Zombie Epidemiology
  2. No man is an island
  3. Greenies may have invaded some time ago, we hear
  4. Why we hate and fear the BBC
  5. The killer awoke before dawn
  6. Less than zero
  7. Nothing to do with your Vorsprung durch Technik
  8. Nietzsche work if you can get it
  9. Just to clarify…
  10. Liberté, Egalité, Virtualité

Our traffic generally has maintained a mostly upward trend, and while we did have a relatively quiet spell over the summer we’ve been busy again since the autumn, and this December has been our best month ever. The zombie post is top because we got a link from the popular Undead Report, the one-stop shop for post-apocalyptic survival advice. (The Australian guy who runs it seems to take the prospect of civilisation being overrun by the living dead a little too seriously, and sometimes I worry that the “zombie” thing is a euphemism, and what’s he’s really getting ready for is some kind of Charles Manson-style race war or something, though I’m sure it’s all perfectly innocent, and he’s just really into zombie-killing.) We don’t get many direct links from other blogs; this is something I’m going to try to work on. Most of our hits come via searches, with a small but growing proportion from Twitter, FriendFeed and similar social networking sites, something else I’ll try to expand in the new year.

My personal favourites among this year’s posts, in no particular order, are:

These posts reflect what for me is the main attraction of blogging about SL; the ability to casually apply heavyweight intellectual scrutiny to an essentially trivial subject. I would be reluctant to offer a Marxist or psychoanlytical analysis of some real-world situation without a lot of research and thought, but I feel free to write about virtual topics more spontaneously, since if anyone pulls me up for sounding ridiculous, I can excuse myself by pointing out that the whole idea of taking the metaverse so seriously is in itself rather absurd.

So what can readers look forward to in the new year? More of the same essentially. We will try to make good on our promise of an increased level of general cultural commentary, but the next couple of months are likely to be dominated by my quest to foment social revolution in Second Life. Whether that will be of interest to anyone other than myself remains to be seen.

Anyhow, I’m just heading off to usher out 2009 in the company of some old friends, so I’ll finish by saying Happy New Year to one and all, and may it find you healthy and prosperous.

History needs a push

Back in April I received an email inviting me to participate in a beta test of Metaplace, the “next-generation virtual world platform”, that, its designers hoped, would make it easy for anyone to create their own little metaverse.

“Lonely?” the invite inquired enticingly, before promising that I could “meet new friends to chat and build with.” I can’t say that I wasn’t tempted, but I figured that wasting my time in one virtual world was enough to be going on with, and gave it a pass.

I kept meaning to go back and have a proper look in the months that followed, but never quite got round to it. I was interested in what their monetisation strategy might be, and this week I found out; they didn’t have one, and are shutting down their operations early next month.

Metaplace isn’t the only player in the virtual world business to hit trouble recently; Forterra have laid off half of their staff, and are rumoured to be up for sale.

I hope there isn’t going to be a virtual rerun of the real world financial crisis, with relatively small outfits going to the wall first, to be followed by the big operations that everyone thought were solid. It would be vexing, to say the least, if Second Life were to disappear just as I have finally worked out something fun to do with it, though perhaps an atmosphere of impending crisis will help my plans.

Here’s me in my new outfit, in a bar in Steelhead, a steampunk community in the Pacific Northwest:

I’m trying my best to look like a Wobbly, though I’m perhaps a little too smart. Clothes for the common man are hard to get hold of in SL; the best I could do was this Victorian worker’s suit by Eladrienne Laval. At least the neckerchief is deepest red. I’m going to try to get some radical agitating started in the new year, once I’ve worked out what our demands should be, and had some flyers and red cards printed up.

Merry Yuletide

We’d like to wish all our readers a happy celebration of whatever strand of the ancient North-European mid-winter festival their particular faith community has appropriated.

Secular rationalists that we are, we tend to shun such displays of primitive superstition, but we do make an exception at this time of year, when any opportunity to ward off the depressing reality of the cold, dark days by eating, drinking and generally over-indulging must be seized with both hands.

Virtual Bakumatsu

On the 8th of July 1853 US Navy Commodore Matthew C. Perry anchored at Uraga Harbour near Edo (modern-day Tokyo) and presented officials with a letter from President Millard Fillmore, which demanded that Japan, which had been largely closed to foreigners for two centuries, open its borders to US trade. To show that he was serious Perry bombarded the harbour with explosive shells, and when he returned a few months later he found the locals willing to sign up to the Convention of Kanagawa, which established, among other things, minimal import taxes for foreign goods.

In the years that followed Japan was obliged to conclude similar treaties with other Western powers, and the influx of cheap imports plunged the country into economic chaos. The feudal order of the 250 year old Tokugawa Shogunate collapsed under the pressure, its demise speeded by military intervention by the US, France and Britain. It was followed by the Meiji Restoration, which laid the foundations for the modern industrialised Japanese state, though the remnants of feudalism were not entirely swept away until the defeat of the Satsuma Rebellion in 1877 (an event portrayed, with considerable artistic licence, in the film The Last Samurai).

I mention this because I can see parallels between the hierarchical society of sakoku-era Japan and the regime we know in Second Life. What commerce there is with the outside world is strictly regulated by the ruling caste, who either directly control the marketplaces, or take a hefty cut of transactions. In-world manufacturing is dominated by small-scale craft producers, and success in this field is dependent on acquiring mastery of relatively low-tech but somewhat esoteric skills. Borders are closed, there is no democracy, and the population lives and dies at the whim of their masters.

Like feudal Japan Second Life is threatened by a tsunami that may sweep away the present economic certainties. This peril does not come in the shape of a warship, but in the seemingly harmless form of mesh imports.

The plan to allow import of content created using professional 3D design tools like Maya or Blender was first announced back in August, and recent reports have suggested that it will become reality soon. The Second Life design market is currently protected by the fact that there is little incentive for professional digital designers to learn how to build with prims, since there is no application for the skill outside of SL. Once they are able to create virtual objects using the knowledge they already have it’s more likely that they (or the companies that they work for) will see SL as a way of making some easy cash. Existing SL designers will find themselves exposed to competition from a well-established industry, whose advanced products will make their painstakingly sculpted prim creations look hopelessly primitive, and their businesses will be unable to survive.

Will this opening of the market to outside competition be a bad thing for the average non-entrepreneurial resident? The quality of virtual items will rise, and they will probably be cheaper too, since production will be more efficient. The grid as a whole will survive, as the Lindens are sure to impose a healthy tax on mesh uploads to keep their revenue stream flowing. There may be less circulation of L$ within the world, as the dominant businesses are less likely to be resident-owned concerns, and would be extracting their profits rather than spending them on the grid, but this would just mean more real money would have to be transferred in to allow residents to buy stuff, which would also boost the Lab’s bottom line.

What might change is the nature of the SL experience. The idea that all residents have the tools at hand to create their own reality will fade, to be replaced by a culture where our avatars exist only to consume the products that are manufactured for us. Second Life, which seemed to offer an antidote to the alienation of capitalist society, will have become just one more expression of it. I guess this is progress though, and we can no more resist it than the Samurai could halt the march of modernity and expel the barbarians. We can only hope that this is just the first step in a process of proletarianisation of the SL population that will one day create the conditions for more progressive social change.

Watching the Okhrana

Anyone who harbours doubts about my theory that the Lindens are the Romanovs of the virtual world should read this report of their secret police at work, snooping on the chat of those well-known subversives the Elf Clan Social Network.

Liberté, Egalité, Virtualité

There was an interesting story in the Herald this week, concerning Greg Drayman, a well-known figure around the SL auto-racing circuit I’m told, who found himself on the wrong end of a permanent banning order earlier this month, as a result of conviction on what seem like trumped-up charges. As one might expect Mr Drayman is not best pleased at this turn of events, especially since the penalty extended to the confiscation of all his virtual land and property, including the popular Kokopelli Raceway Park.

This act of Linden absolutism backs up my theory that social relations in Second Life are essentially feudal in nature, and that the conflicts that arise are analogous to those which drove the transformation of western society in the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth centuries, culminating in the triumph of bourgeois liberal democracy. (An excellent overview of this period is provided by E. J. Hobsbawm in The Age of Revolution: Europe, 1789-1848).

What are the demands that must be met before we could be confident that injustices like those inflicted on Mr Drayman could happen no more? What concessions must be wrung from the Lindens to bring the political culture of Second Life into the Nineteenth century, never mind the Twenty-first?

If we take our cue from the liberal revolutionaries of the past we would campaign for basic democratic rights: universal suffrage, civil liberties and the rule of law. The Terms of Service should be replaced by a written Constitution (approved by referendum), a Legislature should be elected to write new laws as necessary, and day-to-day policy should be directed by an elected Executive, all overseen by an independent Judiciary. Some sort of land reform would seem to be essential too. As we have noted before SL land is distributed under a leasehold system; for capitalist social relations to really take hold there would have to be the possibility of owning freehold land.

These rights might seem unobtainable, since it is difficult to see how any leverage could be exerted on Linden Lab as long as they own and control the physical infrastructure of the grid. Any assault on the virtual Bastille could be repulsed by the flick of a switch, and cyber-insurrectionists liquidated just as easily.

There may be a technical solution to this though; it would involve engineering interoperability between the main grid and OpenSims running on non-Linden hardware. The key thing would be to allow SL residents to import into their inventories items created on external systems, preferably without the Lindens being aware of this. (I have no idea if this is feasible; I imagine it would involve hacking into the asset servers in some way.) Political dissidents could reside on democratically constituted OpenSim servers, storing their virtual lives safely beyond the reach of the SL authorities, ready to be transferred to an alt when they needed to visit SL proper. Nobody would need to have a premium account, unless they particularly wanted to lease land on the main grid, though there would be no real reason to do that if land could be bought outright on a non-Linden grid. Merchants could set up in the free zones, attracted by the lower tax rates and superior governance, which would give a them a competitive edge over businesses still paying dues to the Linden empire.

If enough people got on board with this, and if the rebels were able to stay one step ahead of the Lindens’ attempts to secure their borders, the Lab’s revenue from subscription and tier payments would dwindle, to the point where they would be forced to concede to democratic demands, as the ancien régimes of Europe were obliged to cede power to a triumphant bourgeoisie in the Nineteenth century.

Would this be enough to satisfy those of us with more radical aspirations? The situation might be akin to that in Russia after the February Revolution, with Liberals and Mensheviks trusting the bourgeoisie to complete the process of democratic reform, and Bolsheviks arguing that only a dictatorship of the proletariat could truly achieve the goals of the revolution.

It seems clear that a campaign for democratic rights in Second Life is long overdue, and that communists should play a leading part in such a movement (though in organisational terms we would have to maintain a separate identity within the anti-Linden struggle, to ensure we were in a position to oppose the liberal tendency to compromise with counter-revolutionary forces). It would be a big task, but I don’t think that it’s impossible. I have some more detailed thoughts on Party structure, programme, propaganda and tactics, but I’ll save them for another post.

Back from the dead



[If you’re wondering why we’re making even less sense than usual, we have to publish these codes to let Technorati know that we’re not a zombie blog. We could delete this post after the job was done, but why miss the chance to drop in another intellectual zombie link?]

On being kind not cruel

Remember Gwen Bell? Social media guru? I wrote an embarrassingly mean-spirited post about her blog back in January? (I don’t know what was bugging me that day, but whatever it was it had my misanthropy turned up to 11).

Anyhow… this month Gwen has been running “The best of 2009 blog challenge“, inviting bloggers to reflect on the year just past, and nominate their favourites in various categories, one each day.

I’m usually no good at posting to a deadline like this, due to my almost complete lack of self-discipline, but it just so happens that today’s prompt is “Book”, and I was just thinking today of something that I read a few months ago, which struck me at the time as especially memorable.

It’s a passage from Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, first published in 1966, and the book that made Thompson’s name, though the style is much more straight reportage than the gonzo journalism he is famous for. It’s a solid piece of work, humanising the Angels and locating the moral panic that grew up around them in the context of social change in 60’s America, without ever losing sight of the fact that they always had the potential to act in seriously unpleasant ways.

The bit that sticks in my mind wasn’t written by Thompson himself (though he does provide many quotable lines), but by Allen Ginsberg, part of an speech he gave in 1965, in which he tried (successfully as it turned out) to dissuade the Angels from carrying out their threat to attack a march against the then-raging Vietnam war:

To take the heat off, you’ve got
to take the heat off
Find Peace means stop hating yourself
stop hating people who hate you
stop reflecting HEAT
They want you to join them to relieve
the heat on you & on all of us.

Take the heat – Anxiety Paranoia –
off us, AND off the police, off all the fearful –
REASSURE, and act clearly in such a way
as to reassure –
by being kind not
cruel –
and it’ll be remembered and responded to.

Ginsberg’s plea has been rendered no less urgent by the passage of four decades. I can’t pretend to myself that I’ll be able to live by his words, but I’ll try to recall them when I’m blogging, and my Anxiety Paranoia is getting a little out of control.

Incomplete hints of impossible marvels

One of my favourite places in SL used to be Innsmouth in October Country, a run-down coastal town with more than a few hidden secrets. Sadly, it disappeared some time ago, to be replaced, last time I looked, by an anonymous marina.

Now Innsmouth has been resurrected, though it’s looking even more dilapidated and spooky than it used to:

The whole place seems deserted, though the lighthouse is still working:

But be careful – the town is not as empty as it seems, and a little exploration may turn up more than you really want to find…

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