I could chat with Tom Boellstorff all day – but I’ll take an hour when I can get it, as I recently did on Metanomics (full video at the end of the post).
During my recent interview with Rod Humble, the new CEO of Linden Lab, I had one major piece of advice: reach out to Tom and spend some time with him (and while you’re at it, hire an ethnographer to work at the Lab!).
Excerpts from my interview with Tom might help explain why:
On Virtual Worlds, Techne, and the Concept of the Overlay
DUSAN: So one of the concepts that you followed in your book quite beautifully and, I think, made clear that although there may be multiple cultures within Second Life, there was also a Second Life culture, which was defined by certain things that the broader community had in common. And then you also posed the question that broader community, was there anything particularly defining, and you talk about techne and episteme. And I’m still fascinated by that idea, and I’m fascinated whether your thinking on that has moved further since you wrote the book. Maybe just explain a little bit what you meant about techne within techne.
TOM BOELLSTORFF: Sure. One thing for me, especially as a researcher, that I’m extremely lucky. I have a job. I’m a professor. I have tenure. They can’t fire me unless I just do something incredibly stupid. I can take some risks, right, and say things that people might debate with or disagree with. But to try and put my virtual hiney on the line a little bit and try and push the envelope. And so one way in which I did that is, I really want to say that there is such a thing as Second Life culture. There is a broader, general culture, even though there are, of course, all of these other subcultures. And it reminds me how often Americans don’t think there’s such a thing as American culture. We’re so diverse. There’s 50 states. But then, when you go to Indonesia, right from the outside, they’re like, “Tom, there’s a thing that’s American culture. You don’t realize it because you’re in it, but there are some things that Americans share.” And then there’s all this diversity as well.
Another interesting thing that anthropologists have talked about for a long time is what can unite a culture can be disagreements and conflict, not just agreements. We can be bound together, and, if you look it by conflict, and if you look at the political debates in the United States right now, it’s a great example of how conflict and disagreement can be something that binds people together. I guess some people could talk about that’s how it is with their family or something. But that culture isn’t the same thing just as consensus, as agreement. It’s about shared meanings and beliefs that we can disagree on.
And there’s always subcultures in any culture, but there are also sort of broader cultural issues that you will find. For instance, in Indonesia or in the United States or in Second Life. And when I try to think about what are those really broad things, things like AFK show up. And then, in the book, when I try and step back, and this is something I still think about, the difference between knowledge which the Greeks call episteme and crafting and making things, which the Greeks call techne and is the root of our term technology.
In the western tradition, the origin myth for knowledge is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the Christian tradition is the best known example. And the back of my Apple computer has a picture of that, right, the apple with a bite out of it. But in the old Greek mythology, the origin of craft is from Prometheus stealing fire from the gods. And, in the original Greek, what he actually steals isn’t just fire, but the ability to use fire, which they call techne, this ability to craft things.
And so I’m very interested in especially the sort of user generated Virtual Worlds, like Second Life. But even in things like World of Warcraft where there’s a lot of modding things, people doing creative, unexpected things with the platform that the designers never intended. We see all of this stuff around crafting, and that even spreads out to people putting their photos up on Facebook and doing blogs. People used to think that mass media would mean that people wouldn’t write anymore. They would just buy and mass produce newspapers. No one expected that these technologies would lead to all of this new authorship and all of this new creation in so many different ways. And so I play around with this in my book, by talking about this age of techne, this way in which crafting has become this really interesting not new at all, obviously it goes back to the Greeks but it is really becoming visible in a new way.
And then when I try and think about what makes a Virtual World different than email or then making something in my back yard or something with wood, it’s that you can have techne inside of techne, in a way. That we are sitting here in this Metanomics place, in this Sim that is made by silicon and chips and computers, and people building things with prims, and then we are building stuff inside of that thing. There’s this interesting kind of recursion, this kind of way in which it’s eating its own tail. I still am trying to think that through.
And, if my next book I haven’t told anyone this before because it’s years from being done because of all the work I’m doing that right now I think maybe the title for it might be something like Overlay because I’m very interested in all of the stuff on augmented reality, on immersion, on even language about addiction and compulsion, ambience, the way in which people are using cell phones and laptops and iPads and mobile devices to augment an overlay these different technologies in the physical world, in all kinds of directions, without them blurring into each other: that layering for new kinds of meaning and new kinds of social groups and all kinds of new stuff. And I can’t say more about that yet because I don’t know. But I really think I want to try and do some research on that and think about what techne might mean in that kind of space. Read more…
I was invited to speak at Train for Success yesterday and, frankly, the audience was the main attraction. Maybe there was something about the topic (the Future of Virtual Worlds) – but there was no shortage of ideas, passion and discussion….I only wish it could have gone on longer.
Much of the discussion sort of spun off from my recent interview with Rod Humble, the new CEO of Linden Lab. It felt like we all wanted to answer the question: is there still hope for virtual worlds, for Second Life, for the idea of the metaverse?
Mitch Wagner attended – and I absolutely loved having him there. His recent blog post has generated discussion: he proposes that the dream of a ubiquitous Second Life won’t happen because participating in a virtual world just isn’t convenient.
My response to that was pretty simple really: who said we need or want ubiquity? And besides – the very inconvenience of Second Life is one of its finest virtues.
By being inconvenient, it puts us in a place where we log-in with intent – something that you don’t find with Twitter or Facebook.
Social media is a river – it flows, it rages, it hits rapids and it sometimes meanders. But you can sort of keep one eye on your social media stream and one eye on reality. With virtual worlds (and platform games, and MMOs and other forms of ‘immersion’) you enter with intent, it requires your focus, and that’s the benefit…..and there will always be a place for that on the digital landscape, even if that place is small-ish and contained.
Social media is a river, and virtual worlds are an island – a place you go with intent, for context, to stop, to have rich discussions and dialogue, to participate in stories. Read more…
Long-term residents of Second Life would probably experience the little shiver of recognition that I did during a long-ranging interview with Rod Humble, the new CEO of Linden Lab.
“For me, the hook was the moment I created something,” Humble told me. “It was the moment I made a cube and then checked off ‘activate physics’ and watched as the cube fell to the ground and bounced to its side.”
For many Second Life users, that initial ‘aha’ moment is often something so simple that it later seems difficult to describe the power of the experience: the moment you rez a prim and realize that the ability to create the world is in your own hands; the day you buy your first pair of virtual shoes or hair and just somehow feel, well, emotionally connected to the way your avatar looks; the night you go dancing in a club and it suddenly dawns on you that you’re in a “room” with people who are spread all over the world.
At its core, the Second Life experience isn’t terribly complicated: give users rich tools for creation and communication in a shared 3D space, and see what magic arises.
Humble agrees: “Early on I was exposed to the idea that if you can tap into the power of people’s creativity you’ll have something incredibly powerful. I was exposed to that idea through things like Maxis and the insights of Will Wright (creator of SimCity and Spore). Second Life is onto something really powerful – the ability to create is the magic and I want to help build on that.”
It was incredibly refreshing to have a conversation with Humble and not hear him talk about things like “the long tail of virtual goods” or “making bank”.
In fact, I don’t actually think he mentioned “Linden Lab” itself – his focus was the world, the experience.
After several years where the only press that came out of Battery Street was always about the Lab and how wonderful the Lab is, and how awesome its latest hire (or feature, or product, or market) is….well, it’s nice to just talk about Second Life again with someone who might still be a noob, but who at least gets the power of the prim.
Because after a while, that prim becomes things of increasing orders of magnitude – the prim becomes a table which becomes a dock, a home, a village, or a whole island. Our virtual shoes become vast virtual wardrobes containing not just clothes but shapes, attachments, genders and species, ages and sizes.
And our conversations move into increasing orders of magnitude as well, and it can start because we realized one night that we were in a place with other people, and the ways that we could express ourselves were our own.
The Quality of Conversation
I was reminded of the power of Second Life a few months back when we hosted the first Virtual Veteran/Civilian Dialogue. This event was the virtual equivalent of a broader initiative that brings equal numbers of veterans and civilians together in a facilitated conversation.
“By the end of the evening, there’s this unity, and the two groups do understand each other better,” Ms. Dolan said. “I think it breaks barriers. That’s why I’ll keep going.”
“The goal,” Mr. Winters said, “is to create a space for a story to be told, to try to counter isolation.”
“What surprised me the most,” he said, “was people’s willingness to be emotionally naked in front of groups of strangers.”
And I couldn’t help thinking that those quotes sound a lot, to me, like Second Life. That maybe the mission of using a virtual world to enhance the human condition isn’t so far off.
What starts as a prim becomes a table, becomes a dock, becomes your home.
What starts as a casual conversation finds increasing orders of magnitude: a chat, a love affair, watching a movie together, attending a lecture, or using a virtual world to heal the effects of war.
Humble seemed to agree but had the same trouble many of us do in explaining the quality of virtual conversation:
“I compare what we’re doing to a conference call – but this is so different. There’s something really special and unique about the fact that we’re talking but I can sit here and look at you, and look at the beach or the world around me. That’s a really special thing.”
But Humble might not have visions of using this special quality to achieve world peace just yet:
“One of the first things that occurred to me was I just want to bring a bunch of friends in here and watch a soccer match together,” he said. “I’m a soccer fan and I want to hang around with other soccer fans, and be here as fans because that’s what you do.”
Anthropologist Tom Boellstorff was our guest on Metanomics this past Monday. It was an exhilarating conversation, covering everything from the cultural implications of voice in Second Life to the concept of “Overlays” as a way to think about our digital lives.
Tom is an incredibly engaging person with an enthusiasm that left me (and many in the audience I think) feeling exhilarated about the future of virtuality. We’re just at the beginning in our understanding of what virtual worlds mean, the implications of avatar embodiment, and the larger cultural implications of our increasingly digital lives.
I’ll comment more soon once the transcripts from the show are available.
In the meantime, here’s the video of Monday’s show:
OK, so not much ground to cover on tomorrow’s Metanomics when I host Tom Boellstorff, noted anthropologist and author of the seminal work Coming of Age in Second Life.
The discussion lifts off of my previous post on the future of Second Life to which Tom graciously responded in the comments.
In follow-up chats with Tom, we toyed with a show focused on the merger of the Teen and Main Grids. We thought we might discuss how our journey as avatars in a virtual world isn’t unlike our journey as humans – from “noob” to “teen” to wiser and more mature (um, OK, the latter is subjective and has nothing to do with parcel ratings).
I can’t help thinking how true this is – when you first arrive in Second Life, you’re like a little kid. This is followed by your teen years of trying to fit in, lots of shopping, and endless hours dancing and chatting. (OK, so my own teen years were nothing like that, but you get the idea).
With Tom, however, there’s so much ground you can cover that it’s tough to restrict yourself to one topic. So we’re going to just stick to the topic of “everything” and see where it takes us.
I’ve interviewed Tom previously for this blog and if you want some homework before the show, it’s worth a read. Or have a glance at a wonderful post that Jennette Forager put together in preparation for the show.
But prepared or not, please join us on Monday as I welcome Tom Boellstorff to Metanomics, 12:00 pm Pacific Time.
So it’s the first day on the job as the new CEO of Linden Lab. You’ve done your homework, of course, and you spent time with Philip and maybe even Mitch or other board members. You’ve read a few of the blogs, tracked back through Google to do a sort of Second Life history lesson, and you’ve been mulling over what you learned at your last job.
You have a pretty good idea that the staff will be restless. And it’s true – most of them have been keeping their heads down the past few months, not a lot has actually been done other than a few token pokes at projects, and there’s none of the fervor that marked life at the Lab in the past, and maybe that’s a good thing. They smile happily when they meet you, but you can read the watchful waiting in their body language – something that says “OK, so what the hell are we going to do.”
The Second Life user community seems cranky about a few things but relatively calm. Without the benefit of having lived through several years of SL history, you might not really grasp how incredible the drop-off is in people writing or being passionate about Second Life….blogs that have gone silent may have had the benefit of reducing the level of drama, but this has also reduced the broader level of advocacy (and usually for very good reason).
But maybe that’s a good thing too. It’s not like the world is falling apart, exactly – things are stable or sputtering but not thriving, quiet but not exciting, and things don’t break as much as it seems they once did.
First day. Clean sheet.
We all know your mandate – build Second Life into something that someone, somewhere would want to buy. No pressure, no hard-and-fast deadline and we won’t say it in public, but let’s face it – there’s no IPO in the future, and while a profitable Linden Lab can put money in someone’s pocket, the end game here is sale and not some sort of endless annuity.
So, welcome to Linden Lab. All eyes are on you.
Your Imagination Unlocks a World of Play
I picked up a copy of Create, the game that Rod Humble, (the new CEO of Linden Lab) headed up while at EA (amongst other jobs). And it’s not such a bad game – but even better is the box, which has headlines that read:
- Spark Your Imagination! The game that rewards you for being creative
- Create your own scenes
- Use your imagination to unlock rewards
- Experiment to solve fun challenges
- Open up more ways to play
All of which is to say that Create is a sort of cartoonish version of the Second Life value proposition (although it’s probably a lot closer to a more complex version of Little Big Planet in terms of what it actually does) aimed at a much younger demographic.
Create takes the approach that you can facilitate user creativity by mapping out activities, learning and ‘making’ against rewards and unlocking points and so on. But the game mechanics shouldn’t distract from the fact that it’s primarily a toy rather than a game, with rewards and stages/phases that are more extrinsic than they tend to be in Second Life, unless you sell stuff or rent land.
His work on Create, and more specifically an interview he did with the Guardian give me some faith that he understands the main value proposition of Second Life: that when you help people to create things you are at the center of a deep kind of value – what some people call fun, but which can also unlock rewards of other kinds.
And so at a basic level, the idea of Second Life will be familiar to the Lab’s new CEO, he’ll get it (perhaps more handily than someone who comes from an ad agency, as Kingdon did) and with virtual goods and ‘user-generated content’ remaining buzz words in both Silicon Valley and on Wall Street (albeit with Second Life no longer considered even a remote contender for either) he’ll be working on ideas that are in favor with the Facebook/gaming crowd, albeit for a company that pretty much no one cares about anymore.
But for me at least Second Life takes us beyond ‘user-generated content’ and ‘virtual goods’ and it would be a mistake to now try to follow the buzz words that SL originally created, and that have been picked up by others. Second Life has taken us beyond, even, what it means to create a world.
To understand where Second Life can go from here, it’s important to understand that it is the place where, for many people, the future has been tested and we have come to an accommodation with a wider world of change.
User-Generated Content is Not a Business Model
I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last few months (well, even more so than usual I guess) – about how user-created content is reaching us in more places and how ‘older’ forms of content are finding new life and meaning, whether videos or TV shows or books or even old cartoons or magazines (re-purposed as iPad apps, say), because they are being accessed on new devices and in new formats and are thus more amendable than ever to being ‘remixed’ or (to use the current buzzword) curated.
This has been driven in particular because of the breathtaking growth of mobile computing and has led to an acceleration in the reach and impact of this new ‘digital/mobile/Internet everywhere’ world, rolling through (or over, depending how you look at it) one media, one area of life, and one industry after another (my own included).
A few years ago the idea of multi-screen access to entertainment seemed like it would remain the province of digital natives – Tweeting or “Facebooking” as they watched television or holding chats in YM or MSN with their friends. But at Christmas, I watched my father surfing an NFL iPad application as he watched a game on TV and I saw my mother texting information from Google maps that she was looking up on her new MacBook Pro. Maybe not the widest survey of consumers in the world, but a pretty good indication of how ubiquitous user-curated media consumption has become.
Now, in the business world or on Wall Street the idea of user-generated content is often interpreted as….well, as “we get stuff for free from our users”. And while there are times when Linden Lab has tipped from facilitating user-content to mining it, what makes Second Life fairly unique is that the platform owner is not the only party who can make money off of the users’ content, because of its unique combination of technology, economy, policy and community.
Tyler Cowen, who appeared on Metanomics, points out that user-generated content isn’t just the stuff we ‘make’, it’s the way that we parse, surf, edit, read, participate, comment, edit and append as we live more and more of our lives online. Through his book Create Your Own Economy he points out that value in the digital age has shifted. We are living in the new economy of, well, of “me” – meaning that value is no longer simply dispensed and consumed, but is dispensed and then achieves its value once we create our own meaning and context from it through the process of “curation”, remixing, editing, participation, and co-creation.
On Metanomics, he commented on how virtual worlds demonstrate this wider trend:
“I think what the web is and what Virtual Worlds are, it’s a blooming, buzzing confusion that can be intimidating or it can be bewildering. But the way you make it work for you is to go out there and literally impose order on it and use good filters, have ways of drawing from it what works for you, whether it’s your Twitter feed or RSS or what island you go to in Second Life. A world that appears completely unordered, in fact in each of our individual minds, a high degree of coherence and meaning, we do the ordering. It’s like we create these private worlds of our culture, using the powers of our own mind.
…I think we’re usually buying little dreams. We not only buy food and shelter, but when we choose styles or when we buy clothes with any kind of fashion, when we decide how we’re going to have our hair cut, we’re all, in a way, buying virtual goods because their importance exists only insofar as they are interpreted by other human beings. What’s important about them it’s not like their physical attributes, but, again, how they are interpreted by other people within this common framework of meaning.
So what Virtual Worlds do is, they take that common framework of meaning and somehow make that more explicit technologically, like there’s an actual virtual space. But I think it’s copying something we’ve been doing all along, I think that’s a big part of why it’s powerful, actually very natural. It’s very biological, I think. People think of Virtual Worlds as like contrary to biology or contrary to what they call atomic space.”
To Cowen, an economist, the economy of today is self-created – we assemble value on our own through our process of both creation but also through our acts of parsing the imaginative acts of others.
But the phrase I love best: “I think we’re usually buying little dreams.”
In this context, he’s referring to tangible goods – and making the important point that even physical goods aren’t always about their tangible aspects (excepting commodities, although even that can be argued), but their cultural connotations and meaning. The economy of things has become, even before this digital age, an economy of shared context and meaning (because ‘goods’ had continued to shift beyond the commodities necessary for survival) – an economy which to date had been largely facilitated by broadcast and mass media and distribution.
But in the digital age, we can still share and communicate this framework of meaning but with a difference – because the site in which that meaning is communicated allows for deeper personalization and choice, and the creation of the artifacts from which meaning is constructed are accessible to everyone, are more democratic, and aren’t reliant on a few delivery points or distribution channels.
The hammer force reality of this, if you take it to its deepest extremes, is that this capacity, which has been facilitated by digital technology, is upending nearly everything.
Because whether we’re going to the doctor’s office or going to work, whether we’re headed on vacation or to a concert, whether we’re watching TV or reading a book on our Kindle – we have become accustomed (or feel entitled, depending on what you’re talking about or your point of view) to a world that offers us the ability to curate, to remix, to choose, and to assemble experiences that fulfill our own personal definition of dreams rather than simply to adopt the assembled dreams of others.
In the developed world, this process of assembly and curation is most often associated with the media we consume.
But over the past year I’ve seen how powerful this notion is not just in its impact on how we entertain ourselves or connect with others….but in how entire industries and enterprises are structured, the meaning and construction of the jobs we do, and the expectations we place on the wider culture and institutions (which increasingly seem like relics in a more fluid and dynamic landscape). In the industries that I work in, which once seemed as immutable as possible in the face of change, I’m seeing one foundation stone after another crumble in the face of our individual ability to assemble dreams. (And I can’t help thinking that the implications for the developing world are staggering.)
Second Life is not a virtual goods platform, and it’s doesn’t have a business model based on user-generated goods: it is, instead, a fully contained prototype of a version of the future in which technology has continued to take us in the direction of limitless choice in how the world we live in is constructed, how we decide to interact with each other and the content that we choose to consume.
The business model of Linden Lab is to develop and support the tools that allow users to participate in an online environment in which they have a maximum amount of choice in how their digital lives are constructed and curated, and to be a transactional partner in the “buying of little dreams“.
Virtual worlds didn’t so much predict the future as provide a giant sandbox in which to explore the different ways that the future could unfold.
In presentations, I often say that I could have learned about social media from Facebook, or user-generated content from youTube, but I ended up in Second Life instead – and by ending up there, was able to see that the future isn’t necessarily what the conventional wisdom says it will be.
I can’t imagine having any particular interest in things like on-line governance, privacy, identity, virtual commerce, law, economics, or 3D content development if it wasn’t for Second Life. By thinking about these things I started to realize that there were wider implications – that these weren’t just digital communities, these were pathfinders to a broader cultural change that might awaken us to the challenges in the way we organize our lives and enterprises.
And, through Second Life at least, we come to realize that the responsibility for how technology turns out is in large measure our own. We have the right and the obligation to lend our voice, energy and passion to whatever vision we have for the ways in which technology informs our lives, whether we view it simply as a tool or extension of who we are, as a site for culture, as platforms for enterprise and governance, or as just another gadget that we struggle to learn and adopt.
Through our often frustrating relationship to the companies who have their hands on the controls of these digital domains, we can learn that it is our personal responsibility to come to informed decisions about whether to invest our time, passion, and identity within someone else’s sandbox, or whether we prefer to strike out on our own.
We start to realize that the idea of the ‘State’ has an increasingly tenuous tie to government because we start to realize that the places where we derive value are controlled by non-state actors. As a result, we also start to rethink the nature of the enterprise and the interdependence we have on platform owners, communities, and wider ecosystems of value. Companies, schools, and organizations are no longer confined to geography or to the walls that contain them. Read more…
So, the way this works is we’re all part of the new social media landscape. I friend you, like you, topsy-turvy you, and your social graph increases, your ‘influence’ grows, and before you know it you’re a guru because you’re rewteeted more often than the guy next to you, who might have a better idea but who hasn’t figured out how to get himself on the social graph.
I’ve been pegged as an evangelist not because of what I say particularly, but because for whatever reason people paid attention and the social graph said that they had done so (at least according to the theory of the social media experts in the crowd).
I wasn’t always an “evangelist” (and don’t think of myself as one), I was just someone who like to write about what he thought of virtual worlds and Second Life.
But the social graph had its way, and even though I don’t have that much useful to say, I’ll be labeled and tagged and, heaven forbid, always be the guy into the metaverse, my interest in cooking or esoteric Latin American literature notwithstanding.
The reality is that outside of the social graph, I’ll talk about a lot of things, I like to solve really weird problems and bring a grab bag of tools to their solution, but within the social graph I’m pegged in a certain way, and that’s fine, it’s intriguing in a way how that happens.
But over the course of several years blogging, there was something I discovered, and puzzled over, and wondered about:
We are told certain things about technology and how it works and what it means, but are these truisms? And did those truisms need to be that way?
You hear the phrase: “All digital content is copyable.” And this phrase has a whole bunch of other conclusions attached to it – like, since all content is copyable, the idea of IP when it comes to content is dead, and therefore business models need to arise which acknowledge the “copy reality” of our lives online.
But are these truly, well, truisms? People argue over whether Android or Apple will WIN – with one camp saying that Android will because only open systems ever win in the end, while another camp might say that Apple demonstrates that the truism about copying, the truism about open systems are merely hypothetical, there are more designs than there are meta-concepts, the rest is just punditry.
So if these truisms are a little more fluid than we think, is the idea of the social graph as cut-and-dried as people make it out to be?
Your World, Your Online Shopping and Socializing Experience
I was struck by a post at BBH Labs. They conclude that the above model of participant media suggests that companies ignore “clever people” at their peril.
And this struck me in particular because I believe, and have written about, the fact that Linden Lab has abandoned its “clever people”.
The Lab turned its back on “Your World, Your Imagination”, as Philip clearly did (and told me so, when I interviewed him at SLCC) and as others at the Lab continue to do.
In the discussions about mesh import, for example, Jack Linden made the point that “there are very few creators” in response to my question about the cultural implications of mesh. This implies that the number is significant, and equates a one-to-one relationship between how many people there are and the influence they have on the culture of an online community.
Jack (and others) would say that mesh changes very little, it doesn’t shift the emphasis out of the in-world experience, because the number of creators is very small.
Now….before I get pegged as being anti-mesh, I’ll state (again) for the record that I’ve been advocating for mesh for almost 3 years now.
But the larger significance is that the Lab’s principle concern is with a volume of people – that it’s the larger “casual users” who matter, the users who haven’t even arrived yet. Philip said to me: “And most of them will never rez a prim, so it’s not really ‘Your World, Your Imagination’ because for them, they’re just shopping and hanging out.”
Which may be true (although I’d argue that you enter a world of your own imagination no matter WHO you are, when you arrive in Second Life and many other online platforms) but places a certain literal faith in the power of numbers alone. Read more…
Games aren’t just for kids. Whether in school or at the office, an effective game can help motivate, train or educate. Game mechanics – the “rules” and technologies that support a game experience, can be used to support social networking, competition, and personal achievement. And games are increasingly being used to reach out and engage with customers.
During this Masterclass on Game Development, I’ll host as we go behind the scenes with a panel of guests and look at how games are developed.
What IS a game, exactly? How do you develop the rules, stages and rewards in order to make a great game? What technologies do game developers use to display their games? What are the advantages/disadvantages of immersive environments like Second Life? How does a game developer deal with ‘emergent behavior’? How are games ‘monetized’ and what are the new models and decisions that game developers need to make? (Freemium, pay-to-play, subscription, etc.)
We were talking about fruit. Bananas, a cup of melon wedges. He couldn’t remember the pear. He could picture it, I think, but it took some effort to connect the image and give the pear its name.
It wasn’t exactly silent in the room. There were the bleeps of the machines and someone talking in the hallway. But there was a sort of silence in that space while we waited for the word ‘pear’ to materialize.
There was something profound in that moment of silence, of waiting, and somehow it held larger silences, the deeper rivers of meaning that run through things, it might have connected to something in the past, I’m not entirely sure, of other pears perhaps or certainly of other conversations, but mostly the moment was about nothing more complicated than a sort of translucent now-ness.
You can’t give moments like that a name.
You just honor them and feel richer for them. You might want to file them away or mark them, somehow, diarize them (or blog them) but none of those things adds to their profundity, and none of them can be communicated in a way that does more than ask: “did you ever have one of those moments” and maybe the person did, but the tendril of understanding isn’t a shared experience so much as a recognition.
I wonder if we have a capacity to remember now-ness? Isn’t looking back contradictory to those experiences when meaning isn’t held in what we do or where we were but is instead held in the silences or the music we hear that has no notes?
Last summer, I threw sticks into a river with my nephew. But the space that opened up for me was in the silent space between the sticks, outside of the splash they made, it was held somewhere in the moment before we chose the next stick and after the last one had floated downstream.
Meaning was invisible, held in the gaps between the things we can describe.
Philip Rosedale and the Algorithm of Empathy
I spent over an hour with Philip Rosedale at SLCC and we talked about emotional bandwidth amongst other topics.
It was a compelling view of an aspect of technology that felt intuitively right: that in a virtual world things can be communicated that an outside observer wouldn’t be able to spot.
He made an interesting point: that you could remove passcodes from Web site log-ins because you can measure the way in which people type. So, if I input my log-in name, for example, a computer can detect the very subtle ways in which my typing of that name is different from anyone else’s – a digital finger print, of sorts.
Intuitively, this makes sense. When you’re speaking with someone online, and when you’re speaking with someone in a virtual world in particular, there’s a layer of communication, of signals, that aren’t immediately evident:
- Pauses between sentences or a very slight, fractional delay in a response can often signal that the person you’re talking to has their attention elsewhere;
- Whether their avatar moves, turns its head, shifts from left to right can indicate whether the person you’re talking to is “present” in the virtual environment or is attentive to another layer of communication: text chats, say, or a Web site they have open in another window;
- And specific phrasings, the way language itself is constructed, signals world views or backgrounds which can break through even when someone is “in character”.
These things are so subtle they’re difficult to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it. What an outside observer sees is an avatar and maybe some text chat, but they don’t see how someone’s familiarity with the platform allows them to pick up a set of signals that communicates emotion, context, or connection in non-evident ways.
These signals are also the reason why the introduction of voice to Second Life in some ways does a disservice to the power of the platform to communicate emotional bandwidth. Voice can be more efficient and can carry context of its own, but my personal belief is that when you use voice your brain somehow shifts signal processing from those ‘in-world’ elements to the audio signals and a layer of meaning is lost.
Philip’s view was that as technology increases in capacity, its ability to carry emotional bandwidth will increase as well. He had some kind of figure or physics or something that had to do with how much bandwidth we can absorb and how much bandwidth computers can carry – as the two approach parity, computers will be able to carry as much emotional bandwidth as physical reality. Read more…