Business in Virtual Worlds, Collaboration, Deep Thoughts, Identity and Expression, Second Life, Virtual World Platforms

De-Augmenting My Reality and Beach Houses in Nebraska

My new spot in Winterfell. Trying to figure out how to decorate. Ping me if you wanna visit.

I’m feeling kind of militant these days about my identity. In fact, I feel almost wistful for the day when I was able to stand up in full horror and ire and fight back against someone who called me an augmentationist.

I had street cred as an immersionist, I lived in-world, I had a house, I knew Midian City, I had some of the best dance moves in anyone’s inventory, and I’m not even sure that I had linked my real name to my avatar name at the time.

We had a little prep meeting for next week’s Metanomics event, and everyone was introducing themselves by their real names, so I did the same. But M Linden said something along the lines of “No, you’ll always be Dusan here” which was, quite possibly, one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me in Second Life, although I’m not sure he realized how much that meant.

See, what happened was this: I got so excited about the possibilities of virtuality that I wanted other people to understand. And part of that meant attempting to translate the potential of virtual worlds through the prism of my work. I was convinced that virtuality could have benefits for training, collaboration, and maybe even things like giving patients a place to share their stories, or physicians a place to simulate clinical practice (a lot of the work we do is in health care).

But more than that, I was convinced that there was a sort of road you could take, one that started with sitting around and chatting and maybe customizing your avatar a bit, and then moved through simulation or role-play (no, not THAT kind, more like the ‘walk a mile in your patient’s shoes kind of role-playing), and then ended in co-collaboration and innovation.

But in order to get there, I’d need to bring more of virtuality into real life and more of real life into virtuality, although I never saw the two things as dichotomous anyways – virtual worlds are REAL, and the lessons learned don’t just affect our avatars.

The False Dichotomies of Business on the Grid
There are a bunch of ways of thinking about the coming launch of Nebraska (the Lab’s firewall/stand-alone solution for ‘enterprise’).

One is that Linden Lab will finally have a platform that’s neatly packaged, supported, and ready-to-ship, with none of the messy things like separate avatar registration, security holes, and intolerable clauses in the terms of service and EULA (companies don’t like the fact that Linden Lab maintains a claim over corporate content uploaded to SL).

I think it’s useful to pause and understand that Nebraska platform is more like a spin-off than some major shift in strategy. As I understand how Nebraska came about, it wasn’t mandated from the top, but rather pitched from some folks (Chris Collins primarily, from what I gather) who figured there was a market for a stand-alone server, who asked for permission to cobble something together to see how it went.

Which isn’t to say that it won’t be something that the Lab now focuses on, but any claim that somehow Nebraska means less attention for Second Life is, I don’t think, grounded in the reality of how they’re thinking about these things. There are probably 20 times more people working on the new viewer than have been involved in Nebraska. There is more investment that has been made in the new Web site than on figuring out how to market to corporate customers.

Regardless, I bring this up because I don’t think there’s an either/or proposition going on here. Nebraska will have clients, businesses will use it, but Second Life isn’t going anywhere, and Linden Lab isn’t about to siphon off attention from reaching its goals of millions of casual users.

As exciting as it might be for those of us who HAVE business customers and want them to get a taste of what you can do in virtual worlds, the future of virtual worlds doesn’t suddenly take a turn OR find itself at a fork in the road, and as much as it’s a messy, complicated message, there will be businesses in Second Life and there will be businesses behind the firewall.

For content providers, this means there will be a spectrum, not a bunch of either/or propositions, although the breadth of that spectrum has the potential to influence the underpinnings of the Second Life economy if there is insufficient opportunity to find customers for beach houses or clothes or whatever. It might end up looking something like this:

Creative Expressionists Entertainment focused, peer-to-peer opportunities that are based on selling products or services to other residents within Second Life. In particular, this is a land-based economy, whereas Nebraska will be a platform-based one. Very different skill sets, very different economics, but if the Lab keeps an eye on the ball, room enough for all.

Virtual World Developer: Business-to-business developers who create solutions and opportunities for their clients via platforms like Nebraska. These can be private behind the firewall things or private estates (or, a lesser case now, although I actually see this growing rather than shrinking) a publicly accessible location within Second Life, kind of like a Metanomics for business or whatever.

Enterprise Development: Business developers who concentrate on delivering solutions for the Nebraska behind the firewall platform. Or similar related solutions sales via alternative platforms.

I don’t see these activities as mutually exclusive. The creative expressionist might be selling clothes, for example, to fellow residents, or to the virtual world developers. I am NOT convinced that the market for enterprise will suddenly become so large that all the creative energy gets siphoned off to hidden private grids.

What I AM convinced is that these things should be discussed, and the Lab should paint the context with which it sees the evolving economy: are they still committed to land, and peer-to-peer sales, and are they truly committed to content protection? It SEEMS like they are, otherwise why the new Web site and the third-party viewer policy and all that? And why would M be talking about 10 million accounts if he didn’t MEAN it?

Nebraska Is a Start but Not Always a Beginning
For some people, it will be far easier to explain Nebraska as a stand-alone thing and never particularly mention Second Life, other than something like “based on the same technology that runs SL”. For those people, it will be enterprise stuff: save money on travel, collaborate at a distance, provide employees with work/life balance, increase retention….stuff that VPs and directors get all excited about.

But for others, we’re just at the very rough beginning here. And I believe that there will be a few CEOs or executive suite types out there who don’t look at virtual worlds for their collaborative/training possibilities, but come back and ask the question: what kind of massive change can I achieve through virtual worlds? Is this the best platform to achieve it? Can virtual worlds help to embed design thinking or sustainability into my corporate DNA? Can I overhaul our mind-set when it comes to radical collaboration because of virtual worlds?

To answer these questions, it won’t be the augmentationists and application providers they turn to (although they may turn to them first). It will be the immersionists – the Scope Cleavers, maybe. Or Bryn Oh. They’ll come tapping at the door of NPIRL and ask the question: can you see the future from where you sit? What does it look like? Can you show me the way?

So even at the corporate level we’ll have requirements for different types of solutions. What’s critical, is that they will be solutions and not technologies. But they will be solutions that address a range of specific issues, whether creating a better environment for team collaboration, addressing goals tailored to healthcare, or tackling the larger agendas like radical collaboration, design thinking, or innovation.

Solutions. Not technology or servers.

Beach Houses in Nebraska
When I responded to the claim that I was a *gasp* augmentationist, I quoted Kevin Kelly:

A major theme of this present century will be the pursuit of our collective identity. We are on a search for who we are. What does it mean to be a human? Can there be more than one kind of human? In fact, what exactly is a human?

We get to play with answers to these questions online. In Second Life, or in chat rooms, we can chose who we want to be, our gender, our genetics, even our species. Technologies gives us the means to switch genders, inhabit new forms, modify our own bodies.

At the same moment, we have the rise of hyper-realities. These are simulations so complex, convincing, and coherent that they have their own reality force. A fake so good, it is sold and bought as a fabulous fake. A Disneyland so enticing, that it spawns its own “fakes.” There must be something there to fake. Or Photoshopped images so obviously unreal that they have their own reality. Synthetic materials more desirable than natural ones. Originals inferior to their reproductions. Who cares what is real and what is memorex?

These hyper-realities launch questions such as whether a assault in virtual space counts as an actual violent assault or mere virtual assault. How much of our real lives is mental? How much of reality is a consensual hallucination? Where do our minds end and outside begin? What if it — everything outside of us — is all mind?

The faster and greater our lives become mediated — the more time we spend communicating through technology — the more urgent this question of “what is real” becomes. How do we tell the difference, if any, between realities and simulations? How do these redefine humans?

These broad themes of collective identity, about what community means, about what it means to be human don’t stop when you arrive at the office. Corporations aren’t completely ignorant about what’s going on, but they’re increasingly passengers.

And while Nebraska and Forterra and Protosphere will offer real, definable value to business, it’s kind like Warcraft with no quests or guilds: it may be nice to look at, and it may be engaging, but it will never be as mind-blowing as doing a full-out throttle on a boss.

If you want to go deeper into the future, then virtual worlds rather than walled corporate campuses will still be where the real action is, even if the virtual world ends up being behind the firewall. The enterprise that does a Wikitecture on its ‘campus’, or who hires Bryn Oh to visualize product design in 2015, or the company that gets MadPea to do a training game – they’re the ones who will start to push the envelope of what’s possible because they’ll realize that the lessons learned in the more social spaces of virtual worlds are providing hints of the kinds of serendipity and paradigm-changers that are possible.

For now, we’ll focus on easy-to-understand solutions for enterprise. But hopefully there will be some who don’t take their eye off the ball and remember that there’s a longer wave of change that this is part of, a wave that isn’t exclusive to virtual worlds but is part of a broader shift in which we are rethinking the enterprise, whether a business or a school or a government agency.

And I think and hope that the Lab gets it: that the limits to our creativity will only end if the world itself stops growing, that if we stop building beach houses and if people stop going dancing or we stop rezzing prims then we will cease to discover new ways to explore our humanity and in so doing push the boundaries not just of the future of enterprise, but the future of our cultures.

As for myself, I bought myself a little plot in Winterfell where I’m going to work on some kind of cozy library or study so that I have a place to think and brood.

And you can sell this stuff to business, er, enterprise, however you want. But I’m going to keep talking about immersive power and explain that there are some of us who also LIVE here….and if that’s too radical for your corporate agendas, then I’ll see you in a few years and we’ll compare notes on whether you’re exactly where I left you, or whether you’ve found some other way to rez your future.


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