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The Electric Shepherds

by ThatBritGuy Sat Aug 11th, 2007 at 05:27:00 AM EST

For a noob, the most distinctive thing about Second Life is its banality. While the hype promises a virtual community celebrating every possible form of creativity and diversity, the reality is mostly virtual suburban sprawl. Flying across the mainlands reveals identikit malls alternating with acres of virtual McMansions, and open plots or shops for rent speckled with garish levitating FOR SALE signs.

Although you can rummage around Second Life for free, staying in-world costs money - quite a lot of money for a significant presence. So the losers are out to make a buck, while the winners can live out the perfect virtual white-picket fantasy of a beach house with a virtual speed boat that can't go anywhere.

From the diaries - whataboutbob

The difference between Real Life and Second Life is that you can have your fantasy lifestyle for less cash up front. The fact that you can't touch anything seems to be trumped by the fact that you can own it - which is evidently what matters most.

So this is idealised Platonic capitalism. Everything exists as a stylised version of itself, including the people, and the nominal $Linden Dollar, which is the local currency. According to Linden Labs, which is Second Life's governing corporation, Linden Dollars are valueless. This is odd because Linden Labs is happy to allow a currency exchange, where you can both buy and sell Linden Dollars for real dollars. At a rate of roughly L$250 to US$1 it has an uncanny near-parity with the Japanese Yen, and is far more valuable than Indian and Indonesian currency.

But without food to buy and other essentials to pay for, there's nothing to spend Lindens on, except virtual untouchable luxury. So the banality rules the content to an excruciating degree, because there's really very little to do in Second Life except make money, look beautiful and cultivate a lifestyle.

Most residents dress as if they're starring in Ken and Barbie Go Clubbing. Wings and sparkles are popular. Male avatars often opt for urban beefcake bling, or gird their bulging loins with DestructoBot fantasy armour. Female avatars are a long-legged fashion show of sex `n shopping stylings. Occasionally there's a nod to RenFaire pseudo-witchery or scifi and fantasy fandom. In the self-styled areas of the damned, you'll find vampire wannabes and sword mistresses parading around biting and slashing at each other, or at the occasional graduate of the in-game school for aspiring Jedi.

But there's a creepy sense of regurgitated Hollywood about all of these efforts. This is Libertarian California on Silicon, and it's not a surprise that one of the things you can buy is live virtual sex from a live virtual escort service. Even stranger is the extent to which residents seem to have internalised the real life suburban shopping experience. Shopping is open 24/7, and is mostly impersonal, so you don't have to talk to anyone while you do it, and no one has to talk to you. But go into any virtual mall, and the visual language will seem instantly familiar. Virtual companies have virtual logos with virtual graphic design of frighteningly lifelike pseudo-familiarity.

In a sense, we've been here before. Second Life is oddly reminiscent of AOL circa 1997 - a supposedly family-friendly walled garden that was popular with perverts and no-hopers, while outside of the not-so-sanitised chatrooms the web was fermenting its way towards the most original collaborative effort in history.

The parallels are hard to miss. When AOL started it had a captive audience tied to a simplistic but functional and - for a while - a surprisingly effective social networking environment. Even though the death spasms of AOL's first few incarnations took a good long while, it was eventually wiped off the face of the Earth by an open protocol called HTML.

Readers of a certain age will remember that before the web was asphalted over to make way for shopping carts and PayPal, it was born in an explosive riot of quirkiness. During the web's earliest years, business wasn't quite sure what to make of tens of thousands of people putting up pages about whatever the hell interested them, just because they could.

That was then. Now everyone realise that Second Life is not the web, because the features that made the web so interesting - open access, reliability, transparency, low cost of entry, and ease of use - are missing. And other features - specifically a generation's worth of consumer capitalist Pavlovian conditioning - have become more obvious.

This has created some revealing distortions. For example - Ginko, which is a virtual bank. In time-honoured Ponzi fashion, Ginko promised to pay returns of more than 40% a year. (Yes - that's 40%.) Many, many residents paid money into Ginko. As of early August, Ginko was refusing to honour instant withdrawals and had set up a withdrawal queue. Bizarrely,  new deposits continue to be made, even though Ginko's owner - known in-game as Nicholas Portocarrero - made it clear in a recent interview that the money may never be returned.

Pixeleen Mistral: when will you publish an accounting of your "investments"?
Nicholas Portocarrero: Never
Pixeleen Mistral: i see

Pixeleen Mistral: because you can't? or because it would tend to implicate you?
Nicholas Portocarrero: Because it was never part of the deal

Pixeleen Mistral: so the deal was people give you money and you might give some back, maybe?
Nicholas Portocarrero: The deal was, you loan me some money. I'll pay you interest and do my best to pay you back. I cannot pay 25% of everything back all at once. So the loan might need to be restructured, so that it is no longer in the form of an account balance. Accountholders are not shareholders and no disclosure agreement was agreed to.

Pixeleen Mistral: why did you make promises that you were very unlikely to keep? this whole thing looks like a long running scam
Nicholas Portocarrero: I understand

So far, so Wall Street Credit Crunch. But just like the real thing, what's interesting is the extent to which it succeeded in making its two owners rich. In Linden terms, total deposits were around L$200 million - worth an impressive $800,000 in real money. As a virtual bank Ginko was unregulated, and although there are rumours of class-action suits, and the certainty that Ponzi schemes are illegal, it's going to be interesting to see if Second Life scamming can translate to real world criminal convictions.

Ginko is symptomatic of Second Life's fundamental flaw, which is that Linden Labs notoriously doesn't care what happens to residents. Linden has taken no position on Ginko, and doesn't seem interested in anything that happens in-game as long as it keeps collecting its virtual feudal tithes from virtual land rentals, uploads, and currency exchange.

Another example - after a high-profile FBI visit, a recent Linden Edict banned virtual gambling. It did this overnight, killing hundreds of high-turnover virtual businesses instantly. The ethics of gambling may be debatable, but destroying a significant sector of the local economy without warning isn't an effective way to make your customers loyal to you.

So the tragedy of Linden Labs is that the same capitalist spirit that sucks the humanity out of the Second Life experience by trying to reduce most interactions to $Linden whoring and shopping is also responsible for Linden's lamentable reputation.

Second Life could be fun, and it could be creative. There's some good art to be found, some decent live music that can be piped in via a useful streaming media feature, and one or two locations have beaten the gravitational pull of mall-sprawl to become geuninely interesting.

But with a Second Life island costing $1800, plus a monthly rental of $250, both paid for with real money, it's just too damn expensive for most people to put much into it. Linden's rapacious love of lucre and its inability to work and play smoothly with its residents is rooted in its inability to let go of land, money, transaction fees, and server software. The guiding ethic isn't fun or art, it's naked virtual predatory capitalism, desperately trying to sell you a bridge before it collapses. Like other monopolies, Linden Labs thinks and acts like a feudal barony with a PR office.

And so the half life of Second Life is already well advanced. The novelty value of the space is disappearing, and so is user interest. There may be eight million people signed up, but at most probably only a hundred thousand or so are regular paying customers.

A handful of businesses are doing very well, but most aren't. A handful of real life marketers have made an impact, but most haven't, and the marketing community has been reduced to impressive maybe-what-if justifications for continuing to push Second Life as a valid promotional tool.

Ironically, it's the disconnect between real and virtual money that creates problems. Second Life could be a good forum for virtual stores selling real objects, or for real stores selling cheap virtual land.  If everyone and anyone could link in their own servers and add their own worlds, it would be a much more interesting space.

But in it its current state, introducing reality into Second Life, in the form of real money and tangible goods, creates instant cognitive dissonance. There's something very sleek and stylised about this alienation from the real world, as it tries to loft money making into a perfectly abstract disconnected activity. But just as in real life, the promise of Ultimate Success is based on mythology, not reality.

Second Life will financially disenfranchise most of its users as reliably as any other market will. The cost vs the benefits of Second Life are skewed firmly towards making a profit for Linden Labs. Compared to the web, where the cost of entry is very much lower and the potential benefits very much higher, Second Life has little to offer someone looking for a steady income.

What it offers instead is a kind of virtual doll's house. You can put up a house, fill it with furniture, and act out fantasies with heavily accessorised bendy pseudo-people. You can run a store and sell play things for play money. You can dress up in your sexy virtual Ken, virtual Barbie, and virtual cartoon character outfits and go out for the night on the virtual town, where the drinks won't hurt you and strangers are always not quite there.

Although Linden Labs seem fond of references to Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, the most revealing comparison is to an older novel by Philip K. Dick. Like all feudal business models, the Linden approach is based on farming its customers instead of serving them.

In Linden World, it's the customers who are the electric sheep, trained to accumulate, shop and spend on cue like performing animals.

It's lucky it's so distant from Real Life, or we'd all be in trouble.

Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico, wrote 'Runaway consumerism explains the Fermi Paradox' was his 'Dangerous Idea'.

The story goes like this: Sometime in the 1940s, Enrico Fermi was talking about the possibility of extra-terrestrial intelligence with some other physicists. They were impressed that our galaxy holds 100 billion stars, that life evolved quickly and progressively on earth, and that an intelligent, exponentially-reproducing species could colonize the galaxy in just a few million years. They reasoned that extra-terrestrial intelligence should be common by now. Fermi listened patiently, then asked simply, "So, where is everybody?". That is, if extra-terrestrial intelligence is common, why haven't we met any bright aliens yet? This conundrum became known as Fermi's Paradox.


I suggest a different, even darker solution to Fermi's Paradox. Basically, I think the aliens don't blow themselves up; they just get addicted to computer games. They forget to send radio signals or colonize space because they're too busy with runaway consumerism and virtual-reality narcissism. They don't need Sentinels to enslave them in a Matrix; they do it to themselves, just as we are doing today.

I would add to Miller's idea, that while most of us are so busy with our consumerism, televisions, and games, our world is being more and more polluted and unfriendly to our own existence.

If western civilisation collapses, it will likely be because not enough people were paying attention and trying to change course.  If-and-when the fall does come, peoplw won't be able to idle away the hours shopping, channel surfing, or exploring virtual worlds. Instead, we'll be scavaging for a dwindling amount of food on a dying world.

I find it sad that some people seem to care more about how wonderful a virtual world is when our real world is being destroyed. It seems that too few care about the Earth's wilderness, when there is endless virtual wilderness (with orcs!) to explore.

by Magnifico on Fri Aug 10th, 2007 at 04:00:52 PM EST
I've been studiously ignoring Second Life (haunted by mental images of the site sending out wires to burrow into your head, Tetsuo-like, a real-life web), so I don't know how it's being marketed to new users. I assume it's marketed partly as hip and tech and going well with that BlackBerry and $5 coffee that everyone carries today. I'd also wager that it's framed as not being part of consumerism, because you're not really buying anything tangible.

It is an attempt to divert our attention. If we were to start paying attention to the real world, we might not spend as much and we wouldn't want that now, would we?

I like using the Web to explore, but not to hide.

by lychee on Fri Aug 10th, 2007 at 04:48:58 PM EST
[ Parent ]
This doesn't have enough explanatory power to answer Fermi's Question ("Where is everyone?"-- not a paradox, in my view). You'd have to argue that for all cultures, of all species, the probability that a part splits off and expands in the real world is very near to zero. This seems hard to argue, and there are other perfectly reasonable explanations for what we see, so there's little pressure to adopt this hypothesis.

However, it is entirely possible that virtual reality is likely to absorb so much attention that it will provide a big push toward collapse of our particular civilisation.

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.

by technopolitical on Sat Aug 11th, 2007 at 11:54:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
idealised Platonic capitalism.

Welcome to the American psyche.

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.

by poemless on Fri Aug 10th, 2007 at 04:46:07 PM EST
Thank you for these insights into Second Life.

It is pretty much what I suspected. The whole Second Life thing has locked like a Ponzi scheme from the beginning: "Get in early, everybody is going to want to be here! You can take some losses early one because their will be more after you that you can sell your virtual property to for lots and lots of cash!" It lacks the flexibility of the web (or the virtual world in Snow Crash) and it does not give anything in particular. If you pay for World Of Warcraft at least you get a computer game (with real life opposition), while you can also chat with other players, dress up your doll, and so on.

The fact that very few computer people I know has a Second Life account backed this impression.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Fri Aug 10th, 2007 at 10:39:03 PM EST
Well the point where I decided it was probably no use was when I asked a teenage computer user about it, and with studied indifference he declared thatit was terminally uncool and full of perverts. Now if you can't get teenagers interested in your web project you are doomed,  worse if they think it's dull.

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Sat Aug 11th, 2007 at 03:58:25 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It sounds like an online version of the SIMS.

Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.
by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Sat Aug 11th, 2007 at 06:32:08 AM EST
[ Parent ]
That's broadly what I thought Second Life was, I hadn't realised it involved real money.  These types of games barely hit my radar, I'm just not interested.  I can get into certain types of games but I hate the feeling of having spent 4 or 5 hours somehow, wasting my day in front of the computer playing games.  

The closest I've ever got to being hooked on a computer game was Yoshi's Island on the nintendo as a teenager and Prince of Persia during a summer of nothing to do a few years ago.

I like games I can spend half an hour on and then leave behind me, but I've never been able to get into really complex empire or civilisation building scenarios.

by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Sun Aug 12th, 2007 at 03:42:53 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I am just like you...

Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind...Albert Einstein
by vbo on Sun Aug 12th, 2007 at 08:20:37 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I was just thinking that, myself.
by Heiuan on Sun Aug 12th, 2007 at 06:35:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Ironically, it's the disconnect between real and virtual money that creates problems. Second Life could be a good forum for virtual stores selling real objects, or for real stores selling cheap virtual land.  If everyone and anyone could link in their own servers and add their own worlds, it would be a much more interesting space.

Sounds like one of those "And then I made a billion dollars" ideas, sorta like google but with pics, and everyone loves pics.

Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.

by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Sat Aug 11th, 2007 at 06:33:40 AM EST
i don't get the google allusion, cuz it already has google images...unless you mean a standard search would bring out thumbnails that went with every search result....which'd be cool!

i think the idea of second life has merit, especially for bed ridden, aged, etc, and as an opportunity for young idealists to try out different identities.

as an opportunity to meet and mingle at a virtual market...sounds like fun, a kind of ebay but with fantasy.

i too predict this is a winning idea...

not the corporate topdown version of an interesting parallel dimension.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Thu Aug 16th, 2007 at 07:46:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]
i don't get the google allusion

What I mean is, you go to google when you want to go someplace else.  If there was your cybernetic avatar, and it could go anyplace, and you could buy your stereo as that avatar, as long as you had the cash, then this newly-invented world would be like google, the place you went when you wanted to make deals with people you'd never met before.

We're old school, we have that face thing, but so do the kids.  The difference is, they know who's getting it and who isn't, and that makes it harder for them with their relationships with their parents, as it has always been, but as kids like images and text, a funky avatar could be a great way to mix and mingle with kids around the world, hints here and there, a sorta ET meet and mingle tone, where those who wanna do, and those who might do may well do, everything open.  So what I meant by google is that the google company (whoever they may be) seem to make lossa folding asset by not hassling me and giving me something very similar to what I asked for, and often giving me the thing I asked for directly, without ever asking me for money.

Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.

by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Thu Aug 16th, 2007 at 08:49:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
oh, i get it...

still don't see how you could make it anonymouse and commercial tho..

your avatar has paypal?

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Thu Aug 16th, 2007 at 09:56:19 PM EST
[ Parent ]
My avatar is a zen communist.

Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.
by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Thu Aug 16th, 2007 at 10:20:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't know if paypal follows zen communist precepts, because I've never used it.

Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.
by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Thu Aug 16th, 2007 at 10:27:47 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It's rubbish but those who are sheep deserve their money to be taken by wolfs. I just hope that most of the users are Americans. They deserve it even more. They infected practically whole world with an evil form of consumerism and are about to destroy any trace of culture on this planet. Hope their medicine will kill them first before everything is run down by their cheap "Chinese" way of life...

Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind...Albert Einstein
by vbo on Sat Aug 11th, 2007 at 09:18:12 AM EST
I had never looked at it, but I imagined it just as you describe it.  

It is depressing to think how many people need that kind of sterile fantasy of total disconectedness from others.  These are the thoughtless masses that hold off any real progress like an avalanche blocking the road.

Our knowledge has surpassed our wisdom. -Charu Saxena.

by metavision on Sat Aug 11th, 2007 at 05:49:49 PM EST
It is depressing to think how many people need that kind of sterile fantasy of total disconectedness from others.

Really...and it's even worse that most of them are young people.
Having voluntarily this kind of cyber life in stead of real one...it's above me.
I am also amazed how many young men would rather seat in front of the computer watching pornography instead of going out and have real thing with a girl...what's bloody going on? Don't tell me I am too old to understand...it's not "understandable".
Don't get me wrong I like computer games and play on regular bases for hour or so every day but this is simply crap...Substitute for real life? It's insane...

Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind...Albert Einstein
by vbo on Sun Aug 12th, 2007 at 08:31:28 AM EST
[ Parent ]
But it is not total disconnectedness! Ok, I have never tried Second Life but I have played World of Warcraft a bit. The whole point of that game is that you play it with and against others. Sort of like playing board games instead of solitaire.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se
by A swedish kind of death on Sun Aug 12th, 2007 at 10:14:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
When I first heard of SL, it sounded like an interesting idea. I checked it out and found it to be one of the most boring experiences you can have online, I uninstalled the client after just two days. It's not the fact that it isn't real, but the disturbing qualities of SL itself (that you describe so well).

/I could get used to living in the US, but not in LA.

"If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles." Sun Tzu

by Turambar (sersguenda at hotmail com) on Sun Aug 12th, 2007 at 01:25:54 AM EST
I couldn't find any updated numbers in a few minutes of searching, but Second Life isn't actually as popular as it's media presence/account numbers would lead you to believe.  It gets a lot of publicity partly because Linden is good at that sort of thing, but also because it conforms to what mainstream media types think of when they imagine the future of online community(sort of an 90s-style 'virtual reality' graphically rich, avatar centric thing.  ie Snow Crash)
by bselig on Sun Aug 12th, 2007 at 09:39:10 PM EST
[ Parent ]
That's wonderful, because it adds an extra level of recursion and makes it a media fantasy of a media fantasy.

I think we'll probably see a move towards sims at some point, and Linden's play is an attempt to stake out a sim space before everyone else does.

But aside from the dismal politics, the technology isn't there yet either - it's just too damn slow and unreliable in its current form.

And the politics is dismal because the basic ethos is wrong. The net fell out of hacker culture, which made it open and quirky and to some extent self-designed. SL's top down 'We have a model' approach is broken because it assumes that the model can be enforced.

It's not as clean a model as MySpace or FaceBook or even Google, because the point isn't community building, it's the hustle. And the hustle is a very dull medium for communicating with other humans.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Mon Aug 13th, 2007 at 03:44:51 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Welcome, bselig!  Glad to hear more hope.

Our knowledge has surpassed our wisdom. -Charu Saxena.
by metavision on Mon Aug 13th, 2007 at 09:46:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Some people are playing Second Life very seriously

Sentient World Simulation (SWS) may have an answer. It's a computer-based project designed to "generate alternative futures" and no surprise, the US Defense Department is actively involved.

According to one of the project's developers, Purdue University professor Alok Chaturvedi, "SWS will consist of a synthetic environment that mirrors the real world in all it key aspects - Political, Military, Economic, Social, Information, and Infrastructure." The goal is to copy each person on earth into the SWS parallel universe, and then see how they respond to external events such as natural disasters or political upheavals.

The concept paper Chaturvedi co-authored additionally notes, "SWS provides an environment for testing Psychological Operations (PSYOP)," to help the military "develop and test multiple courses of action to anticipate and shape behaviors of adversaries, neutrals, and partners."

To anticipate and shape behaviors of adversaries, neutrals, and partners [...] [Mad Ave meets Mad Mag, meets Dr Strangelove!  Beam me up Scottie, please. -- DeA]

While The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 forbids US propaganda intended for foreign audiences from being used domestically, Information Operations Roadmap acknowledges that "information intended for foreign audiences, including public diplomacy and PSYOP, increasingly is consumed by our domestic audience and vice-versa."

The 2003 Pentagon document adds, "the distinction between foreign and domestic audiences becomes more a question of USG [U.S. government] intent rather than information dissemination practices."

Perhaps that's why a top US general ordered public affairs to be joined with combat PSYOP into one "strategic communications office" in Iraq in the summer of 2004.

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...
by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Mon Aug 13th, 2007 at 03:39:15 PM EST
That entire article is a must-read!

It is not new and we have "known" it for years, but still my blood boils and every cell rebels against acknowledging such abhorrent behavior, because it leaves me utterly helpless and unable to trust any information from (almost) any source.

It is anti-human, obscene, it is evil!

Our knowledge has surpassed our wisdom. -Charu Saxena.

by metavision on Mon Aug 13th, 2007 at 04:02:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Heard about this on the news today:  85% abandoned.


Then there's the question of what people do when they get there. Once you put in several hours flailing around learning how to function in Second Life, there isn't much to do. That may explain why more than 85 percent of the avatars created have been abandoned. Linden's in-world traffic tally, which factors in both the number of visitors and time spent, shows that the big draws for those who do return are free money and kinky sex. On a random day in June, the most popular location was Money Island (where Linden dollars, the official currency, are given away gratis), with a score of 136,000. Sexy Beach, one of several regions that offer virtual sex shops, dancing, and no-strings hookups, came in at 133,000. The Sears store on IBM's Innovation Island had a traffic score of 281; Coke's Virtual Thirst pavilion, a mere 27. And even when corporate destinations actually draw people, the PR can be less than ideal. Last winter, CNET's in-world correspondent was conducting a live interview with Anshe Chung, an avatar said to have earned more than $1 million on virtual real estate deals, when Chung was assaulted by flying penises in a griefer attack.

I didn´t read any further.

Our knowledge has surpassed our wisdom. -Charu Saxena.

by metavision on Wed Aug 15th, 2007 at 05:59:00 PM EST

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