December 16, 2009 2 Comments
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.