Mutsugoto gone

Readers may remember that a couple of years ago we reported on a project to create Mutsugoto, a virtual intimacy device, which promised to allow couples to caress one another even if they were geographically separated. Moray-based Distance Lab used a combination of cameras and lights to let partners virtually “touch” each other while lying on their beds miles apart, which, we commented at the time, seemed a much more promising way of communicating real feelings than interacting in Second Life, as it was directly sensual and avoided all the cerebral processing inherent in text-based liasons.

Sadly, this week we heard the news that the company had been wound up, though not before burning through £3 million of taxpayers money. It seems that the gentle and relaxing Mutsugoto wasn’t what people were thinking of when they heard the words “virtual intimacy”. More surprisingly, Distance Lab’s other product, Remote Impact, which allowed far-flung combatants to viciously beat one another, also bombed. In today’s world, where one finds anger and aggression simmering at every turn, I would have thought that that would have been a winner.

In support of Wikileaks

Last month I posted a piece about the Twitter-related travails of Paul Chambers, and commenter LarryE rightly pulled me up for my apparently unsympathetic tone. The point I was trying (and failing) to make wasn’t that I was unsupportive of Chambers, but rather that his case was small beer compared to things like the latest developments in the Wikileaks story.

My position is one of complete support for what Wikileaks are doing. I don’t have any sympathy with the notion that governments and diplomats need to operate in secrecy; it just buys into the idea that the business of running society should be reserved for the ruling elite, with the rest of us left in the dark. A lack of transparency favours the status quo; anybody who claims to be interested in progressive change has to believe in maximum openness. As Trotsky said, apropos of the Bolsheviks’ decision to publish secret Tsarist diplomatic papers, “Secret diplomacy is a necessary tool for a propertied minority which is compelled to deceive the majority in order to subject it to its interests … The abolition of secret diplomacy is the primary condition for an honest, popular, truly democratic foreign policy.”

The issue of government secrecy shouldn’t be confused with that of personal privacy; it’s perfectly consistent to believe that we should know what they are doing while maintaining the confidentiality of our own activities. Our rulers certainly see the distinction; while they scramble to keep their own secrets intact they are building up the infrastructure needed for a surveillance state.

Now Julian Assange finds himself in prison, and on charges that leftist types like myself will feel uncomfortable about dismissing as trumped-up, no matter how much we feel the timing of the case is very convenient for the authorities. It is of course possible to approve of what Assange has done with Wikileaks without endorsing every aspect of his character, and the allegations against him shouldn’t distract us from the substance of the issues that have been exposed.

It’s heartening to see the Anonymous response to the attacks on Wikileaks, though, as we’ve noted before, it seems unlikely to be sustained enough to really damage ruling-class interests.

Still, this feels like an early battle in what is going to be a protracted war. Even if Wikileaks doesn’t survive this skirmish in its present form, there is now an established community of radicalised internet activists ready to keep the fight going. With a bit more organisation the virtual class struggle might yet get the bourgeoisie on the run.

Give Peace a Tweet

The 2010 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded this week; it went to Chinese human-rights activist Liu Xiaobo, who is currently languishing in jail for his efforts. It’s hard to argue with the committee’s decision (unlike last year), but part of me was rooting for one of the other nominees, the Internet.

Riccardo Luna, editor-in-chief of the Italian edition of Wired, is one of the proponents of the Internet for Peace Manifesto, and writes persuasively of the Net as “the first weapon of mass construction … day after day, search after search, tweet after tweet, it is laying the foundation of a new era where sharing, common knowledge and mutual respect will prevail”.

Regular readers will know that we have previously noted the Internet’s capacity to bring out the worst in human nature, and it’s hard to see the network as an unimpeachable force for good when one reads about things like this. We’ve also been sceptical about the Net’s much-touted ability to galvanise social and political movements, and pointed out that it is just as likely to further ignorance and division by allowing people to receive only the information that they want to hear.

Despite all this, I do think that the Internet can live up to the vision that Luna outlines. The key thing to recognise is that the Net, like any other medium of communication, does not exist in isolation from the social relations that produce it. As long as we live in a system that is based on the exploitation of the masses by a ruling elite the Internet will reflect the power imbalances, along lines of class, gender and race, that exist in our society, with all the ills that accompany them.

Once we reach a form of social organisation that eliminates all these injustices – in other words, once we have world communism – then the Internet, like humanity itself, will be able to attain its true potential. Until then I think the accolades will have to wait.

The Revolution Will Not Be Twitterised

4chan seems to have been in the news a lot recently, and the /b/tards have been presented in a rather more sympathetic light than hitherto. I’m used to thinking of 4chan in terms of Lolcats and trolls, a place I’m aware of but would never admit familiarity with, at least in polite company. (Though naturally I’ve always had a soft spot for their war on Scientology). It jars a little then to see the Anonymous masses described as “internet activists” who have apparently developed some sort of social conscience.

The immediate cause of this rehabilitation, around here at least, seems to have been 4chan’s role in tracking down the infamous kitty-binner, a popular move in our pet-loving nation. They followed this up with something more substantial; going after ACS:Law, the UK lawyers notorious for their intimidation of alleged file-sharers. (Ars Technica has an excellent dissection of ACS’s reprehensible shakedown scheme). 4chan’s “Operation Payback” looks like it may put the final nail in the coffin of aggressive copyright enforcement, in the UK anyway, which can only be a good thing for both consumers and content creators, if not for lawyers.

Any romanticisation of the 4chan crowd as mischievous scamps who stand up for the little guy and stick it to the Man is obviously absurd, but it does tie in with a more general idea that the internet, and social media in particular, have levelled the political playing field, and given the ordinary citizen a weapon to wield against the power elites who run the world. One hears this from all sides; Peter Ludlow had an article in the The Nation this month on “Hacktivism”, specifically referencing Wikileaks and 4chan, over at World Affairs they think that Twitter will bring down the Chinese government, and Tea Party organisers laud the power of Facebook.

Perhaps I am just too wedded to old Bolshevik notions of the vanguard party, but I am very sceptical about all of this. While the web may be able to facilitate ad hoc attacks like “Operation Payback”, the sort of sustained campaign that would be needed to really change society requires a central organisation to give operational and, more importantly, political direction to the movement.

Substituting diffuse social media links for a more traditional party structure seems attractive, but I think it may be counterproductive. It might feel like one is part of a collaborative enterprise, but it is more atomised than it looks, and there is little opportunity to develop a collective consciousness. The Twitterverse has no effective memory, and there is no mechanism for a social media movement to learn from its experience. These things – pooling knowledge and experience, remembering mistakes and lessons, passing it all on to new generations – are the functions of a revolutionary party, and I can’t see that there is any way to replicate them virtually.

Internet activism can burn bright, and it has the potential to score transient victories, but I think it lacks the stamina for the long, hard slog that is the struggle to challenge entrenched power. If you want to change the world you have to face the truth:

You will not be able to stay home, brother.
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.

Thoughts on the Pitt Meadows case

A disturbing story came out of Canada last week; a 16 year old girl was reportedly drugged and gang-raped at an illegal rave in Pitt Meadows, near Vancouver. That’s horrifying enough of course, but what followed made things worse; pictures of the alleged incident were posted on Facebook, and while they were taken down by the site soon after, the images had already gone viral and spread world-wide.

It’s hard to imagine what the people who downloaded and distributed these images were thinking, but I suspect that few of them would see themselves as publishers of violent child pornography, which is what their actions amount to. It seems to be another example of the distancing effect of virtual communication, something we’ve commented on before. The medium can detach people from the emotional content of the information it carries, so that everything is reduced to affectless sensation, and a brutal sexual assault becomes just another transient distraction.

It’s only a tiny minority of internet users who are as morally blunted as this of course, as the outraged reaction to this story shows. I would guess that in most cases the people who passed on the pictures were acting thoughtlessly rather than malevolently, and felt guilty once they had considered it for more than the few seconds it takes to click “Fw:”.

It’s open to debate whether modern social media have created this type of behaviour or merely facilitated it. I would say it is a mixture of the two; the likes of Facebook and Twitter may not be responsible for what people think, but they do lower the barrier between thoughts and actions, allowing impulses that would previously have gone unexpressed to find their way to the surface.

There will be those who point to the Pitt Meadows case as an another example of how our society is going to the dogs, as traditional bonds of family and community are displaced by empathy-free Facebook “friendship”. The counter-argument, which I tend to favour, is that, far from weakening our ability to relate to our fellow humans, the new channels of communication opened up by social media, untrammelled as they are by limits of culture or geography, actually provide us with a greater opportunity to experience our shared humanity. Sometimes this process will highlight the darker side of our collective character, but mostly it has the potential to be a force for good.

Virtual alchemy

When Second Life Shrink was in its planning stages a few years ago I checked out several different blog-hosting services before settling on WordPress. I liked that it was open-source, and a couple of people I knew had recommended it, but what sealed my decision was the amount of statistical information that the platform provides. As well seeing the raw visitor numbers I can analyse where they came from, which pages they have looked at, and which links they have followed, providing me with hours of pointless distraction.

Until fairly recently just about all our traffic came straight from search engines. We’re top on Google for “second life shrink” of course, and lately we’ve been doing well with “second life demographics” too. “Second life addiction” and “second life psychology” seem to come and go; we’ve been on the front page with both of those at various times, though currently we’re languishing down on page three, where only dedicated searchers will find us. We tend to do much better on Bing for some reason; I’m not sure whether that should be a source of pride or shame.

We used to get very few hits from direct links; unsurprisingly, with a couple of exceptions, no one has ever felt that any of our posts were worth drawing to the attention of a wider audience. Recently though we have been getting a steady stream of visitors from a whole host of unlikely sites. I won’t link to them for reasons that will become obvious; suffice to say that they are not the sort of places we would like to be associated with.

I figured that this was likely to be the result of some sort of traffic-generating scam; and a little research has proved that this is the case. The program in question promises to deliver hits by automatically visiting millions of blogs and spoofing an incoming link from the site that is being promoted; the theory is that bloggers, their curiosity piqued, will follow the link back, and then purchase diet pills, or click on Google ads, or otherwise participate in whatever shady e-commerce scheme the site owner is counting on to make back the $70 the package costs.

At least this sting only leaves the would-be web-entrepreneur out by the cost of the program; most of the get-rich-quick-with-Google/Twitter/Facebook offers that litter the web these days are potentially much more expensive. Victims are lured in by the promise of secret marketing tricks for a payment of only a couple of dollars, but after handing over their credit card details they find that they have subscribed to a “newsletter”, for which they are billed $50 or more a month. Of course they can cancel any time, by simply calling a premium-rate number in the Virgin Isles, staffed by operators who will put you on hold for 20 minutes before asking for your bank account number so that they can process the transaction. These sharp practices are not always confined to the murkier recesses of the internet; last year Facebook was awash with similar scams that tricked people into signing up for overpriced cellphone services, though these have been mostly purged now.

What’s interesting about these confidence tricks is not that they are new, but that they are ancient. Persuading people to suspend their disbelief by invoking some magical new paradigm must go back to the days when enterprising cavemen extracted shiny pebbles from their gullible fellows by promising to share the secrets of how to generate revenue using that new “fire” thing that everyone was talking about. From medieval alchemists tuning lead into gold, through Gregor MacGregor’s tales of colonial riches, to Charles Ponzi‘s arbitrage of the International Reply Coupon, today’s blog fraudsters stand in a proud line of grifters and shakedown-artists.

While I like to think that I can see through crude scams such as these, I have to admit that I am not immune to the subtler form of self-deception that keeps me handing money over to disreputable virtual-world-pedlars, not in the belief that it will enrich me materially (nothing so base), but in the hope that I might be able to reinvent myself as a better person (despite all the evidence to the contrary). The alchemists of old sought the Philosophers’ Stone, the mystical substance said to grant enlightenment and immortality; perhaps Second Life, which promises to allow one to transcend the limitations of corporeality, is its modern equivalent.

Digital Death Day

Last Thursday was Digital Death Day, marked by a conference at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. The event was a spin-off from the biannual Internet Identity Workshop, which is generally concerned with the technical and commercial aspects of online identity, rather than philosophical issues, and the DDD meeting was explicitly aimed at “Death Care Professionals … Estate Planners … [&} Death Attorneys” which would seem to indicate that the participants were inclined to grapple with practical matters rather than existential themes.

Nevertheless, even consideration of strictly material questions like the heritability of virtual assets and the ownership of online identity cannot help but make one think about the way that social media have influenced the experience of bereavement and grieving in the modern world. News reports of the death of a young person almost invariably mention friends and family paying virtual tribute to the deceased via Facebook or Twitter, and the concept of the social network page as a persistent memorial is well established. There is no doubt that this phenomenon can have a powerful emotional effect, as these personal accounts show.

Is this a healthy development? The persistent nature of an online presence can give mourners a chance to bid their farewells to the dead in their own time, reducing the trauma of a sudden departure. It also maintains the focus on the whole of the life that has been lived, rather than just on the death itself. All this can help give meaning to what might otherwise seem like a senseless tragedy, which in turn may aid the grieving process for those left behind.

This is perhaps not as new as we might think. In many ways it is a return a concept of death that our ancestors might have recognised, a communal experience, rather than a private matter for the immediate relatives of the deceased, after a century in which the end of life had been increasingly hidden away.

Of course it can also be argued that this process trivialises death and loss, that it is impossible to pay respectful tribute to the dead in 140 characters, that death has become just another commodified experience to be vicariously consumed. There is some truth in this – one can hardly deny that one’s reaction to the passing of someone that one has no real connection to will be driven more by one’s own internal dynamics than any genuine feeling for the deceased. (We explored this phenomenon in relation to Second Life in a previous post). On the other hand, expressions of sympathy from complete strangers, whatever their motivation, can be immensely comforting to the bereaved. At the most basic level they are an affirmation of our common humanity, a recognition that we are all bound together by our inevitable mortality, and it is that sense of solidarity that can carry us through our darkest hours.

There can be only one

One-time internet pace-setters AOL have announced that they are getting out of the social networking business. They have put Bebo, which they paid $185 million for just two years ago, on the market, though no one seems to think there will be any takers. If no sale goes through the service may be closed down as soon as the end of May.

The management at AOL have hardly covered themselves in glory in recent years – the Time-Warner/AOL merger is often cited as the worst deal of all time – but one has to feel a bit sorry for them, as back in 2008 it wasn’t clear that Facebook would come to dominate the market to the degree it has. In 2007 people were still writing papers identifying FB as a service for the upper classes, and youth-orientated Bebo must have looked like a reasonable bet.

I think the demise of Bebo is further evidence that, for Web 2.0, value lies in the network, not in any particular interface. Underlying the story is a much older lesson though; in a maturing consumer market the middle ground tends to disappear, and to survive an enterprise must either be dominatingly large, or serve a specialised niche. If I were running Second Life I’d be tempted to follow the latter strategy.

Internet addiction update

In my last post on internet addiction I mentioned a few of the treatment options available; in a new development the Capio Nightingale Hospital in London has started offering a Young Person Technology Addiction programme. This is as far as I know the first specialised therapy programme for IA available in the UK, though I’m sure there are other people like me who are interested in the subject, and have been seeing cases as they come up in our routine work.

The Capio programme offers inpatient and outpatient therapy, and is only available privately, though I guess it might be possible to get it paid for by the NHS via an extra-contractual referral. The therapeutic model they are using seems to be a mix of CBT, IPT and behavioural interventions. I did train in IPT a few years back, but I’ve only ever used it in depression, so I don’t know how effective it might be in IA, though, now I think of it, it does seem likely it would be useful in cases where lack of confidence in interpersonal relationships is an issue. It’ll be interesting to see if they publish any outcome studies.

Falling into the chasm

It was reported yesterday that Facebook had overtaken Google to become the most popular website in the US last week. The social networking site gathered 7.07% of total hits (up 185% on last year), marginally ahead of Google’s 7.03%.

Pundits are suggesting that this is an indication of how people are increasingly using the internet in a different way – instead of searching for information, the theory goes, we are now looking more for social connections.

As we’ve noted before, this type of thinking seems to be driving Linden Lab’s corporate strategy, as they try to market Second Life as a social networking application. They clearly have some way to go to compete with Facebook though, both in the raw numbers – FB has a user base of 400 million, and concurrency of up to a million, against SL‘s figures of 18 million and 80,000 respectively – and in terms of cultural penetration. Major newspapers are still publishing articles that assume that the majority of their readers will never have heard of Second Life, while Facebook references can be found even in traditionally conservative media like legacy comics.

Grace McDunnough posted an interesting piece (illuminating comments too) on the Lab’s marketing strategy a couple of days ago. Referencing a recent Harvard Business School case study, which itself draws on Geoffrey Moore‘s influential 1991 book Crossing the Chasm, Grace concludes that the educational market is a bust, the “adult” market is an embarrassment, and that content creators are being slowly sidelined. What does this leave? A 3D chat service, or, as Grace puts it, “playing house with paper dolls”.

This rings sadly true to me, and seems a terrible waste of the platform’s potential, but I guess there’s no arguing with market forces. It seems that the early adopter community (in which I count myself spiritually, if not strictly speaking temporally) is going to find itself increasingly marginalised. We can only hope that the Facebookisation of Second Life turns into a complete fiasco, M. Linden gets his cards, and a more enlightened management goes back to the original, steady (if limited) business model of taking money from people like me, who are willing to pay a few bucks a month to live out the life of the mind in a virtual world.

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