Coup de tweet

In another sign that Animal Crossing is turning into the Second Life de nos jours, notable politicians have been spotted on the platform. Perhaps Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez visiting islands owned by her Twitter followers isn’t quite on the scale of Hillary Clinton setting up an SL campaign HQ back in 2008, but it does, rather depressingly, suggest that no corner of cyberspace will a haven from the upcoming Presidential election, which is shaping up to be even uglier than feared.

This shouldn’t be a surprise of course; with the stakes so high for Donald Trump there is no gutter he won’t stoop to. A couple of months ago it looked like he might be able to coast to victory on the strength of being the incumbent at a time of relative prosperity, but his disastrously inept response to the coronavirus crisis, and the subsequent economic implosion, have left him staring defeat in the face, with little option but to continue his steady erosion of democracy.

So we have been treated to the spectacle of the President of the United States of America using his Twitter account to traduce a dead woman’s reputation, as part of a ludicrous conspiracy theory aimed at one of his many critics in the media. This seems like lunacy, and perhaps it is, but it also fits in with his strategy of portraying himself as an outsider, battling the liberal establishment, which, predictably, has reacted with outrage to this latest transgression. The evidence of 2016 suggests that his core voters will lap this up, but it does risk alienating his more marginal support. To cover that angle, Trump has also been tweeting baseless allegations of potential electoral fraud, a move transparently designed to prepare the ground for him refusing to accept defeat if the vote goes against him in November.

This is all quite alarming. Since the fabled checks and balances of the US constitution have proven to be worthless in the face of Trump’s dictatorial ambitions, it might appear that the only thing that can prevent the most powerful nation on the planet falling completely under the control of an unstable despot is his own party turning against him. Given that the GOP refused to even look at the evidence for impeachment, that seems like a forlorn hope.

Fortunately though we don’t have to depend on the Republican Party to stop the putsch. For all his bombast, Trump’s support across the nation is very much a minority, and any attempt to steal the election will, I’m sure, provoke a popular uprising. As ever, when bourgeois democracy is under threat, and the liberals vacillate, it’s the proletariat who are called upon to save the day.

Furry traversing

As we enter another month of lockdown, with the majority of the population still sundered from friends and family, there comes news that increasing numbers of people have been signing up to a virtual world, where they can customise their avatar, decorate their homes, craft their own clothing, and experience the social contact that has been denied them in these difficult times, recreating all sorts of communal gatherings, including weddings. All this has drawn the attention of big brands, who are rushing to establish a presence in the metaverse.

This story might sound familiar to readers who have been around since the early days of this blog. However the virtual world in question is not Second Life, but New Horizons, the latest instalment of Nintendo’s Animal Crossing franchise.

ACNH does have some things in common with SL – a non-linear structure, user-generated content, and an emphasis on social interaction – but also some key features that have helped propel it beyond being a niche interest, like the easy-to-grasp user interface, the cute graphic design, and the highly-regulated family-friendly ambience. Its biggest advantage though is that it can be accessed on a relatively low-cost console, or on mobile devices using the NookLink app, instead of forcing would-be residents to shell out for a PC with a high-end graphics card.

Linden Labs’ persistent failure to produce an iPhone or Android app has always puzzled me. It’s clearly technically possible – there are plenty of graphically-intensive mobile games around, and a third-party viewer was available for Android for a while – and even if the smartphone client didn’t have all the bells and whistles of the desktop viewer it would still be enough to keep more casual residents engaged. I suspect it has something to do with the somewhat extortionate revenue-sharing terms that both Apple and Google apply to their respective app stores, but other developers seem to be able to make money in that market, so I don’t see why an SL app wouldn’t be viable. If one existed it might give ACNH a run for its money, particularly among more mature demographics.

Perhaps though the real problem has been one of timing. If current events had unfolded back in 2006, then SL might have been well-positioned to meet the demand for a virtual social hub, and could even have cornered the market for remote business meetings. As it is, a combination of the ubiquity of smartphones, the popularity of social media, and much-improved video-call technology has left the erstwhile pioneer nothing but a cautionary footnote in metaversal history. Sometimes it’s possible to be too far ahead of your time.

2020 vision

[I guess it bodes ill for my serious writing career that I have been unable to resist such a painfully obvious title for today’s post, but I was up late last night, so I think I can be excused.]

What lies ahead for SLS as we enter the new decade? I expect that we will feel compelled to continue commenting on the unfolding political situation, on both sides of the Atlantic. My prediction is that the Brexit question will actually calm down a bit now that Boris Johnson has a solid majority and, no longer beholden to the ultras in his own party, is able to negotiate a sensible trade deal with the EU. Things are likely to get more lively in the US though, since the long-awaited impeachment process has significantly raised the already-high stakes in the 2020 presidential election. Donald Trump will be going to jail if he loses, giving him the motivation to abandon the scant regard he has for constitutional niceties, assuming he allows the election to go ahead at all.

Away from politics, I would like to start posting longer, more considered, pieces on broader cultural topics, perhaps once a month or so, but that’s an ambition I’ve had for several years now and it’s never happened yet, so we’ll see.

And Second Life? I did renew my annual subscription back in October, which cost about $90, even though the only way I have of accessing the grid these days is via an old copy of the now-defunct Lumiya app on an elderly tablet, which, unsurprisingly, doesn’t produce a particularly satisfactory graphical experience. Theoretically that shouldn’t matter too much if I just wanted to interact with people, but the perennial SL underpopulation means that one has to wander around for ages before bumping into anyone, and it’s difficult to stay interested without something pretty to look at. I should try to get back into virtual living again, because I’m sure SL will just disappear one day, and I’ll miss it when it’s gone. It might be quite interesting to compare my thoughts about it now with my first impressions from back in 2007.

So, politics, culture, Second Life, that should keep me busy for the next twelve months. I may even find time to cover our other main neglected category, psychology. I could do something tomorrow on avoiding procrastination….

State of disappointment

It’s the evening after the morning after the night before, and I have to say I’m still feeling pretty bummed out. I’ve purposefully avoided reading any news today, because I know it would just have depressed the fuck out of me even more; instead I spent most of the day in bed, and the rest watching movies.

I guess I’ll pick myself up in time, and get back to the struggle, but for now I just need a bit of space away from reality . If only there was some sort of virtual world I could lose myself in…

Ten Years After

Rather remarkably, today is the 10th anniversary of the very first post on this blog, and, while I started out full of enthusiasm, I don’t think I would have predicted that I’d still be churning them out a decade later.

It’s not been a steady stream of course – when I did a retrospective on the occasion of our 5th birthday back in 2012 I had a lot of material to work with; the pickings this time around are somewhat slimmer. There have been a few highlights though; here are my favourites:

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

So there you have it, 16 worthwhile pieces in 5 years. Is that a good enough return to justify keeping this blog going? On balance, I think so, though I guess we can revisit the question in 2022. In the meantime I’ll revive one of our traditions, which had sadly fallen into abeyance, the contrived musical link.

Trouble in paradise

I was thinking about Second Life for the first time in ages today, prompted by reports in several publications about the SL Bunny apocalypse. The ever-dependable New World Notes has the full story (and updates); the abbreviated version is that ersatz pet dealers Ozimals have shut up shop due to various legal entanglements, cutting off the sole supply of virtual rabbit food, and thus dooming countless beloved furry companions to an untimely demise.

This unhappy tale reminded me of a couple of columns I wrote in the early days of this blog, wherein I noted that one of the few ways of making money in SL was to induce residents into becoming dependent on some substance you controlled. Of course I never acted on this insight, partly due to my high ethical standards, but mostly due to laziness, and so missed out on my share of the millions of dollars that Ozimals were reportedly taking in.

I guess that with that sort of money washing around it was inevitable that things would come to a sticky end, but it’s still sad that there should be so much collateral damage. The whole sorry episode can be read as a parable of what happens when ugly commerce encroaches upon an innocent Eden. Bunnies – even virtual bunnies – should be free.

Pool’s re-opened

We’re not the only metaversally-orientated blog that’s woken from a coma recently; after a gap of nearly three years the legendary Alphaville Herald has started updating again, with Peter Ludlow back at the helm. (Presumably he has time on his hands after leaving his last job just before getting fired for sexual harassment).

Ludlow, through his alter-ego Urizenus Sklar, has proclaimed a new mission statement for the publication, promising to extend his characteristically overwrought analysis from the virtual realm to real life, specifically contemporary US politics, on the somewhat shaky grounds that “Real Life has become a virtual world”.

So far the fruits of this project are limited to amusing but fairly pointless trolling of an obscure white-supremacist, but presumably it will move on to consider the whole Trump phenomenon, which, representing as it does the griefing of the entire body politic, should be right up Ludlow’s street.

Waking from the virtual dream

Towards the end of 2011 I wrote a post about the different strands of my online life; back then this blog, and my associated Second Life persona, were by far the most time-consuming portion of my virtual existence.

Fast-forward to today, and we find SLS almost moribund, and my avatar utilised only sporadically. The total time I spend online is about half what it was, and my most active presence is the Facebook account which carries my real name.

Does this shift away from anonymity and virtuality have any deeper meaning? Probably not. My retreat from the (relative) depth of blogging into the shallows of social media seems to be in line with general trends, and there are various personal factors that have kept my focus on reality of late. I’m not sure whether these are good developments; the time I spend consuming mindless click-bait on Facebook probably would be better employed in composing thoughtful posts on this space, but I can’t say that eschewing SL interaction in favour of seeing my real friends a bit more has been an entirely bad thing. I am a bit sad that the liberation from corporeal limitations that Second Life seemed to promise never really materialised though.

I guess these things go in cycles. Perhaps come 2017 I’ll be be re-immersed in whatever iteration of virtual life is fashionable, and boring the world with my pseudo-philosophical pieces on the significance of it all. In the meantime I am going to keep on blogging – I’ve managed at least one post in each of the last 89 months, which seems too good a streak to break…

Always hopeful, yet discontent

Second Life made a rare appearance in the mainstream media this week, when the Guardian picked up the story of new Linden Lab head honcho Ebbe Altberg’s interview with TheNextWeb.

It’s been a while since I’ve had the energy to get interested in the internal world of the Lab, but one thing in the piece did catch my eye; Altberg’s announcement that SL will be relaunched on a new technological footing in the next year or two. Presumably they’ll be throwing out proprietary standards like prims and LSL, and replacing them with mesh and C, or whatever the rest of the industry is using these days. “We’re not going to constrain ourselves with backwards compatibility,” says Altberg, worryingly.

I guess this means that I’ll be waving goodbye to my little virtual house, and all my virtual possessions, and starting afresh in a virtual Year Zero. I’ve not paid attention to TOS developments for ages, but I vaguely remember “ownership” of land and objects in SL being redefined as a revocable licence to use the service, so when they take my stuff I’ll be due precisely no compensation. (Of course, as a hardcore communist who doesn’t believe in private property, I can’t really complain about this, but still, it’s a bit annoying).

I’m all for progress, but the fact is that it’s been the comforting stasis of Second Life, the calming respite from the uncertainties of reality, that has kept me paying my subscription over the last few years. If that goes I’m not sure that I’ll have a reason to stick around.

Oh well, as they say, changes aren’t permanent, but change is. I suppose I’ll adapt…

The Spy in the Cab

As if we denizens of Second Life were not paranoid enough already, we learned today that US and UK intelligence agencies have been covertly recording our in-world activity over the last few years.

In reports published in the Guardian and the New York Times, drawing on files provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden, it was revealed that the spooks viewed virtual worlds like SL and World of Warcraft as a “target-rich communication network”, which could be used by terrorists and subversives as a tool to plot the overthrow of Western civilisation. At one point “so many C.I.A., F.B.I. and Pentagon spies were hunting around in Second Life … that a “deconfliction” group was needed to avoid collisions”, and “while GCHQ was testing its ability to spy on Second Life in real time, British intelligence officers vacuumed up three days’ worth of Second Life chat, instant message and financial transaction data, totaling 176,677 lines of data, which included the content of the communications”.

Interestingly, while Blizzard have denied they were aware of the WoW snooping, both Philip Rosedale and the current Linden Lab management declined to do likewise when invited to comment by the NYT, which also reported that Cory Ondrejka, then Chief Technology Officer at LL (and also apparently “a former Navy officer who had worked at the N.S.A. with a top-secret security clearance”) had “visited the [NSA’s] headquarters at Fort Meade, Md., in May 2007 to speak to staff members”.

I used to believe that no one would ever bother to trawl through the minutiae of SL interaction looking for subversion, but it seems that my faith in the anonymity of the virtual crowd has been badly misplaced. It’s certainly made me think about some of the political conversations I’ve had with people in SL over the years, which, for all I know, may have triggered all sorts of automated warning bells, and landed me on some agency’s watch list. Scary stuff. I’ll certainly be more circumspect in the future.