Art and Exploration, Business in Virtual Worlds, Collaboration, Deep Thoughts, Identity and Expression, Second Life, Visualization in 3D

The Courage to Create (Part Two): Virtual Worlds and the Frontier

Rollo May wrote that courage contains the “seeming contradiction that we must be fully committed, but we must also be aware at the same time that we might possibly be wrong. This dialectic relationship between conviction and doubt is characteristic of the highest types of courage, and gives lie to the simplistic definitions that identify courage with mere growth.”

This dialectic is at the heart of the struggle to translate virtual worlds, and in particular those based on the imagination of their users, into the wider adoption that is often quoted as the end goal.

We’ve Reached the Frontier, But It’s Still a Frontier
With Second Life as an example, Mitch Kapor famously proclaimed that the frontier age is over. This implies that the early frontiers people have been proven right. But I’d argue that the jury is still out. And it’s not because the people were wrong, but rather that the edges of the frontier haven’t been fully formed yet.

If being on the frontier means, in part, having the courage to explore what’s unknown, knowing full well that the exploration might be the wrong choice, at the wrong time, or in the wrong place – then the payoff for courage is not merely that the land was settled, but rather that in settling the land we can know that it was better to settle HERE.

There’s a difference between a proof of concept and the resolution of that concept in a “fitness of categories” – we’ve proven that the wagon trains can arrive at the coast, but the shape of this new city, its hopes, its possibilities and forms haven’t yet been settled. The early artists still have work to do. The fact that the merchants are pulling up the rear doesn’t mean that the exploration is over yet, it just means that the merchants will face a similar challenge.

Participating in virtual worlds still takes courage: we can mitigate, firewall, build integrated social 2.0 applications, and publish corporate dress codes, but the reality is that this is still an act of corporate courage. And because courage couples a sense of rightness with doubt, we need to be careful with what can be a fragile balance indeed – whether through policy or sim pricing changes; through key notes or blog posts.

The courage isn’t related to the “platform” being ready – but rather the readiness of the people using it to take a leap into what is still an unknown to many of them. You can liken it to a video-conference all you want – all you’re doing is calling a virtual world a giant phone booth. It take a lot less courage to enter a phone booth than it does to deal with issues of identity, interconnectedness, new tools for sociality, and the ability to visualize and create new forms.

So if it takes courage to participate, then it’s a participation on the basis of being committed to what’s “right”, hand-in-hand with doubts: a fragile balance. The question becomes, I suppose, what your definition of “right” is – because if the people managing these worlds are content to say that the platform ‘works’ and doesn’t crash anymore, then I suppose it doesn’t take courage to be there anymore.

And maybe saving on business travel or having sculpted prims and Windlight is enough. Maybe Kapor was correct – the platform has proven itself, the frontier has been vanquished, and therefore whatever doubts you have aren’t relevant: there’s always another believer in line behind you, wallet in hand, ready to plunk some money down to get a piece of the new dream.

But I’d argue that it doesn’t matter who you are: if you show up and stay a while, you’re embarking on a courageous journey, because more than anything the frontier represented by virtual worlds isn’t a technical one, a code-based thing, or even something stable enough to let companies hold avatar-mediated conference calls: it’s a journey of creation, and being about the creative act, is a harbinger and test bed for new forms, new ideas about identity, new perils, and a model in which we are recreating the language of possibility.

The New City
In my last post, I argued that the concept of the “flat” world goes hand-in-hand with the “spiked” city.

The flat world theory argues that technology has collapsed geography, and because of that has created efficiency: production, time, and space reduced and optimized, value bopping from time zone to time zone seeking the efficiencies and connections that weren’t possible before, unleashing at the same time new value. The products of the Flat World are ideas like crowd sourcing, and Wikinomics, and hive minds and whatever.

Coupled with this is the idea of the Spiked City. In an ideas-based economy where tangible goods constantly trend towards commodity, attracting ideas is what counts, and attracting ideas means attracting people, and the most efficient way to attract people is still the city. The city is one of the few ways that the conditions can be set to attract and develop talent, and some cities are better than others at doing this, thus creating “spikes” where the economic value and talent is pooling.

Second Life, however, contains both: efficiencies and connections through collapsed geography, and the conditions by which the creative class is attracted. It may well be the largest mass creative project the world has known, and one of the largest concentrations of creative talent in the world today.

The questions facing Second Life aren’t much different from what would face any city at the cusp of staying, or becoming, one of the world’s “Great” cities – a New York or London for the digital age: how to attract and retain the creative class, which is the engine of today’s growth.

Linden Lab built the tools, the residents built the world, and in turn new tools were created so that the vision of this emerging city could be realized. The economy and policy that underpinned this cycle was an important measure of progress, a lubricant, an incentive, and a safety net. Policy and economy facilitate and encourage the sharing and improving of the tools, and the use of the tools by the users. The city becomes vulnerable when either the economy or policy threaten the “circle”, or when the tools (or “platform”) doesn’t keep pace with the vision of the creators.

And like other great cities, Second Life, if it loses its creators, is at risk of losing its status – it becomes the Buffalo of virtual worlds when it once aspired to being New York. Great cities in this age survive because of their creative class, not because their creative class left great builds behind as they emigrated elsewhere.

The Creative Purpose

But what is “right”? If this is a frontier – what’s it a frontier in service of?

Rollo May said that the most important courage of all was creative courage:

“Whereas moral courage is the righting of wrongs, creative courage, in contrast, is the discovering of new forms, new symbols, new patterns on which a new society can be built. Every profession can and does require some creative courage. In our day, technology and engineering, diplomacy, business and certainly teaching, all of these professions and scores of others are in the midst of radical change and require courageous persons to appreciate and direct this change. The need for creative courage is in direct proportion to the degree of change the profession is undergoing.

But those who present directly and immediately the new forms and symbols are the artists – the dramatists, the musicians, the painters, the dancers, the poets, and those poets of the religious sphere we call saints. They portray the new symbols in the form of images – poetic, aural, plastic, or dramatic as the case may be. They live out their imaginations.”

These new symbols and forms aren’t esoteric, although they can be. They can be as practical as understanding new models for data, new processes for work, or new models for collaboration. But they can also be deeper, more personal, more intense, and be about identity, and love, and the mediating power and peril of technology, and about our sense of self and our place in the wider world.

Virtual worlds are increasingly offering a wider range for exploration of these symbols. Metaplace will let us explore and learn many of the same things, but more immediately let us individually experiment with notions of play, and the mechanics of form, and the purpose and beauty of pattern (because play, like much of life, is about recognizing patterns and, more importantly, the variants and emergent designs).

OpenSim will let us construct our own platforms where we’re not only able to engage as creators, but also the tools to leverage the economy and policy and interconnectedness with other forms of data, or identity, or meaning.

As the range of tools through which you can express your courageous decisions to create expands, whether you’re a business looking to increase your ‘innovation quotient’ or an individual who wants to explore the sublime limits of play, cities will rise and fall, and new communities take shape and dissipate, and as our impulse to create gives rise to new forms the frontier will just keep moving off slightly further into the distance, always tantalizing, always holding the promise and peril of a tomorrow that never loses its capacity for change.

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