Art and Exploration, Deep Thoughts, Second Life

Linden Lab at War: Virtual Worlds and Human Technology

You rez a prim in Second Life and you add another prim or two and you have a house, and suddenly your brain starts to believe that there’s a sort of pattern of extrapolation everywhere you look: the smallest thing is part of something larger, or has the potential to be part of something larger still, and suddenly I’m at the book store and I start wondering about who chose to categorize the magazines the way they did, why the titles about Photoshop are under art but the ones on 3D design are lumped together in the gaming section, or why Vanity Fair can be variously found under fashion, lifestyle or current events, and suddenly I’m spotting political agendas at Borders and Barnes and Noble.

I’ve decided that I’m at war with my brain. Or my brain is at war with itself: there’s my real-life brain, the one that’s able to focus, and filter, and prioritize, and make decisions. And then there’s my Second Life brain, the one that can’t quite remember what its purpose was, and has this tendency to wander, following a trail of prims from Winterfell to Immersiva, and which can extrapolate concepts of identity from the sudden ubiquity of sculpted collars or baggy pants, or which believes that the placement of Vanity Fair is a bell-weather for the American zeitgeist.

I’ve decided that while I used to think that M Linden (Mark Kingdon) was the equivalent of my real life brain and Philip the pure embodiment of an SL brain taken to its natural conclusion, I may have gotten things mixed up a little, because M clearly is far enough past his first rez date that he must have SOME of that wandery propensity to extrapolate, so I’m going on the theory that he downloaded part of Philip, who himself downloaded a healthy chunk of Mitch Kapor, and that they’re all trading swap drives in the back alley behind the Lab trying to optimize their disk space.

In a wide-ranging interview with Tateru at Massively, which is not only a must-read but perhaps one of the best interviews I’ve ever read with someone from the Lab, Kingdon makes a telling comment (or two):

“So what else have I brought? Compassion, an artistic sensibility, an obsession with experience design, a willingness to take sharp left turns, a deep interest in free-market economics and the interactions of companies and people in markets and management experience helping companies through substantial transitions.”

Which is to say that while grounded in management and economics, M also has a lighter touch, a propensity to wander and post Flickr photos – and call it a left turn if you will, I call it the sudden urge to teleport.

The Lab at War
Linden Lab is at war with itself.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s the occasional bloody skirmish, but mostly this is like a highly stylized Kabuki theater kind of war.

Or think of it more like a game of Risk, the kind you played when you were in high school or university with a bunch of uber-geeky friends, where you’d spend 15 minutes before each move in a sort of shadow dance, strutting and trash-talking and cutting deals in the kitchen when you went to grab another bottle of Coke, and then switching to hyper-analytic mode as everyone parses what it meant to take over Greenland.

The Lab is at war but they’re just as interested in the process of that war and what it means and how it might end, which isn’t to say that there isn’t a fair amount of political posturing and alliance-forming just to keep things interesting.

See, the troops are being reinforced….they have a new PR agency coming, a new VP of Marketing in the works, the new VP of Web Development they hired a ways back, Tom Hale is drilling through bedrock like some kind of cartoon character with a ferocious grinding sound, Catherine is off to Europe to man that front, and all the new engineers, I’m told, rarely even log in to Second Life, they don’t entirely know about the world whose code they’re finessing, while the 130-odd person support staff actually LIKE the world, and just try to keep a smile on their faces as they deal with another roll-back request because someone set their region to auto-return.

Now, I was kind of lucky this past week, because I met enough Lindens that I got a chance to feel that inner cultural pulse or whatever. And maybe the biggest thrill of it all was getting to meet Jack Linden who should probably just be given the job of being a kind of wandering cultural ambassador or something, telling stories of the old days when they didn’t even let Brits IN the world, and yet they slipped in anyways by pretending they lived above a pizza joint in Yonkers. I just wish I hadn’t been too exhausted to drag him to a bar somewhere and ply him with single malt.

Now, the Lindens will say that this war is ‘growth pains’. It’s the third big burst of hires and expansion, they needed to move past duct tape first and into governance, and now they need to move beyond governance into, hmmm….well, into being kind of organized or something. And they’ll say it’s all part of a natural progression from organic growth into planning and road maps and departments.

And as M sees it, his role is to manage all this, saying that his biggest challenge is “leading the company through the next phase of growth. Keeping Second Life as staggeringly wonderful as it is today while making it relevant and accessible to a wider audience. Keeping my perspective while listening intently but intelligently to the many voices in and around Second Life.”

See, M is at war with himself, really, walking a tight-rope between protecting core values while expanding the mission. But in the focus on taking over Greenland so that, eventually, Europe too may follow, the real war is being fought on a much larger field of battle.

Climbing the Slope of the Long Tail
Viewed from within the Lab, the launch of Second Life Enterprise is more of a spin-off than a shift in direction. I call it SLEEK to embody the idea that its meant to be a product, brightly packaged, supported with all kinds of documents and FAQs and PowerPoints or whatever – and kudos to Amanda for actually launching something within the Lab in a way that consisted of more than a blog post and then a long lunch.

Now, with news that the SLEEK pricing is on a per annum basis, as reported by Erica Driver, I’m nearly apoplectic. The pricing structure is, frankly, a slap in the face to anyone who has been talking up a ’stand-alone Second Life’ and is a good enough reason, frankly, to get in touch with the Protosphere guys again. But….well, whatever. It’s hardly the end of the world, the price itself will hardly be the mission critical issue for most companies, but the structure, to my mind, is a significant barrier to anyone who was thinking of building applications that would be coupled with SLEEK.

But let’s leave that whole rant for now, it’s Saturday, my SL mind was headed for another destination.

See, I’m of the belief that SLEEK is the natural extension of an idea I keep struggling with, extrapolating from, trying to make sense of: which is that the key thing to understand about the concept of the ‘Long Tail‘ isn’t that digital media makes the store shelf infinitely long and infinitely available, but that digital media makes the concentration of power at the TOP of the tail infinitely more dangerous in its aggregation.

This is the traditional view of the Long Tail, in which the red represents ‘digital markets’ with a focus on a long, long tail of sales, down to single sales, a single book, a single song (and the blue represents traditional models):

But I can’t help thinking that the Long Tail looks more like this:

Now, I’m playing fast with the rules of the Long Tail a little, whose purpose is to explain that companies should stop focusing on the top end, the book shelf, the best-sellers….and should look to ‘make bank’ instead with all those single sales, the endless shelf, and should expect to make some pretty fine coin on a cent or two per song sale, just ask the folks running iTunes or Netflix.

But I like to look at it this way because it feels more like how the Long Tail must work for the content creators rather than the companies who are supposed to be making bank – a sort of slow plodding hard-scrabble life in the tail part, and then this mountain you have to climb to get up where the good stuff is. And I throw in the little blue dashes for a reason: because somewhere in that climb up the Long Tail I can’t help noticing that there’s usually a barrier or two in place, barriers that are unrelated to pure talent or drive, and while it’s not always clear what those barriers are they’re usually there.

In Second Life, the Long Tail was the very basis of the world. While other virtual worlds and on-line communities have all kinds of structures for underpinning the ability to ‘make bank’ (if at all), Second Life institutionalized the ability to do so, and like other on-line properties where you can actually make money from what you create, it became a kind of test-bed or prism through which you could view the idea of the Long Tail, one that was extrapolated from single cubes and single lines of code, the very essence of the Long Tail, with its endless shelf of prims, terrabytes of them, what must seem at times like a collection of single items that pushes the envelope of what that endless digital shelf must look like, straining the very servers that contain it.

And every now and then, stuff comes along that stretches and warps that digital shelf, and if you’ll excuse my crappy Photoshop skills we can look at a few of the recent changes in Second Life and extrapolate that they might look something like this, with blue being the effect of CopyBot and Builderbot, and green being the potential impact of the SLEEK marketplace:

Long Tail

In other words, the Long Tail isn’t static. It’s flexible and can change shape and, I believe, isn’t even one tail but rather a succession of them – a sort of endless tsunami of Long Tails where one gives way to another and today’s Linden Lab risks being yesterday’s AOL if it doesn’t bend the curve the right way.

Which is what M and company are trying to do, really, even if they don’t think of it that way: they’re trying to bend the Long Tail to find the optimum curve in which everyone can make bank, themselves included, whether by taking those little slices way down at the single-digit sales, or up in the top.

The Information Diasporal
The Long Tail is possible because of the Web.

And the theory is that in the new digital economy code empowers the dispersion of power, the distribution of ideas, the sharing of content, and the ability to endlessly innovate and collaborate.

Chris Anderson, who invented the idea of the Long Tail, seems to have woken up from a bad dream this week (and then promptly fell asleep again) when he wrote:

“We are innovative animals. If something can be invented, we feel compelled to invent it. If I don’t do it, someone else will. That which can be invented, must be. It almost doesn’t matter how useful it will be or even if it might be dangerous. Matches must be struck, just to watch them burn.

I wondered if the inventors of the atomic bomb felt the same way. Atoms can fuse, so let’s fuse them. Chain reactions can take place, so let’s start one. They can happen faster with the right materials and conditions, so let’s create them. And so on. Each step of the way is just grabbing the natural opportunity in front of us, but the end result is a weapon of mass destruction.

Will it come someday with some guy like me fixing the last bug in his code and pressing compile? Will he even know what he has done? Or will it be more gradual, with loads of us building it bit by bit, with no single moment, technology or decision marking the point where we crossed the line?

Maybe that day will never come. But it stopped me in my tracks for a few minutes as I reflected on how amoral invention is. Technology wants to be invented and we are almost powerless to stop it. We are hard-wired to create the future, be it good or bad. Invention is its own master.

Does code augment freedom? Or do we become its slave?

Setting aside this larger metaphysical question, I wonder whether code itself actually has a propensity towards freedom, towards the Long Tail. The pundits would have us believe that there is an informational diaspora of sorts, or, as it says in Deuteronomy: “thou shalt be a dispersion in all kingdoms of the earth” (to lift off of Wikipedia), with its modern echo in “information wants to be free” and Tish’s latest passion, the “end-to-end Internet”.

And this is where my extrapolating (and often irritating brain) comes in: because I look at Second Life and I see how a single prim combines with others to make a table, and with more still to make a house, a parcel, a region, a continent and a world. And I can’t help wonder whether code doesn’t have that same propensity towards aggregation, whether our belief in the ubiquity of data (and that concept of “all information wants to be free”) doesn’t in fact disguise another more hidden truth, which is that while the information may have the same sort of granularity as the blessed prim and may come to exist EVERYWHERE, that the code itself leans towards aggregation, meta data, and semantic tags, each of these larger concepts nested within still larger ones until, maybe, we get to the point where we ourselves are granular actors contained within the larger vessel of code.

And if so, then the concept of the Long Tail isn’t just about making bank, but gives a hint that concepts like open source or the Creative Commons may not be our own cultural conceits, but are instead products of the code itself, a kind of sleight-of-hand in which the granularity of code convinces us to contribute to that granularity, which serves not just to populate that infinite digital shelf but also feeds the larger tendency of the digital universe to cluster, aggregate, and to create concentrations and meta-concepts that feed the fat end of the tail in ways that may not seem at first glance all that harmful, but that at some point slip past that point of “building it bit by bit, with no single moment, technology or decision marking the point where we crossed the line”.

Windowless Rooms
Wikipedia, the Creative Commons, open source, the Long Tail – all of them come with assurances that there is a universal benefit to collectivism. And yet the foundations upon which these concepts are built is technology, which either has the propensity for aggregation, or, at the very least, contains the ability for US to enact that aggregation. And whether it’s the binary nature of the digital which seeks to categorize and assign yes/no, on/off to every bit of data, which increasingly looks a lot like knowledge, or it’s the result of our human desire to both make decisions and focus while we simultaneously extrapolate and aggregate….the collectivism is undermined by the increasingly arcane tool sets with which that aggregation occurs.

Google seeks to be the temple of that aggregation, providing us with tools that even my mother can understand, while hiding the more complex tool sets in the windowless rooms where the servers live.

We yank the code from the corporations who, while hiding their code, are at least constrained by laws and regulations and must report to governments and shareholders and the markets, and build mirror code instead in a collective, not reporting to anyone really, the code itself becomes its own ruler, it either works or it doesn’t, but the moral choice embedded in that code doesn’t need to report to any superstructure other than the loose tribe that creates it.

These aren’t necessarily bad things: the concentration of too much power in the hands of one or two companies should be resisted just as too much power in the hands of a single government might make you uneasy if you know your history.

But there’s a Masonic feeling to the whole thing: we’re not just individual actors contributing to the common good, we’re individual actors contributing to the evolution of digital spaces that have no governing body, and we’re hoping that in so doing our collective contributions will lead to a common good, without always stopping to have much of a conversation about it, although we start to get worried if it happens all over again: if Google actually turns out to BE the next Microsoft, although it’s typically only the big, easy-to-spot targets that we worry about – the rest of it is too granular, too innocuous, the metadata is invisible to us, it’s all held in those windowless rooms.

Rational Actors
We have, perhaps, given up on the idea that economies are driven by rational actors. The debate in economics seems to have shifted from the notion that we will all make sane and logical choices towards understanding that most human decisions are NOT binary: we may KNOW that we should get a check-up, but we’re not composed of on/off switches and exist, instead, in a constant state of maybe.

Our ability to focus and prioritize doesn’t mean that we’re rational, because having focus is coupled with what we DON’T focus on, which is the broad field of ambiguity AROUND our decisions. It’s the focus that’s articulated, not the ambiguity, the constant state of maybe, even if we find a small island where the answer is yes/no.

And yet our lives are increasingly mediated by technologies that don’t ALLOW maybes, the closest we get is “remind me later” which is a deferral, not a choice reliant on our right to be ambiguous.

And so while the economists will argue about how to measure our irrationality, another more interesting schism exists between our very human characteristic of waffling, of living on a spectrum between yes and no, on or off, and the nearly iron-clad rule that digital environments are incapable of ambiguity, no matter how many variants and scales we build into our tables of choice.

These schisms play out in the personal choices we make on-line. Bettina’s decision to stop blogging on Not Possible in Real Life, in spite all the soothing murmurs of support and loving hugs, is in so many ways the product of these tensions between the granularity of content and its aggregation, between the binary pulse of code and the more human need for ambiguity, and the pressure these tensions place as we try to climb the slope of the Long Tail, or as we try to preserve our right to ‘maybe’ in a digital space that requires constant tending and increasingly arcane ways to tag, and link, and cross-post so that we can feed the engines that demand free content, but which place a penalty if you’re not willing to pay the gate keeper or understand the power that resides in windowless rooms. Bettina lost the battle and will not be the last.

These schisms are the same ones that can drive the real economy to its knees, the risk-adjustment and aggregation formulas chugging away in the windowless rooms of Wall Street convincing us that risk itself can be avoided, aggregated, packaged up and made harmless, attempting to assure us that we can set aside our ‘maybes’ and buy a house that we can’t afford, and will probably never BE able to afford, but we’re led to believe it’s preferential to say yes than to sort out the ambiguities that arrive when we ask the question “why?”

The Warriors of Ambiguity
Code does not yet contain our humanity. We are not yet governed by it, in spite the fact that we allow it to mediate more and more of our lives.

We can only achieve the enabling power of digital environments insofar as we can create transparency in the moral choices embedded within it, can resist the creation of gatekeepers and closed off markets, and can recognize that there are still some places where the code can still be governed, while fiercely guarding against that governance tipping over into obfuscation.

The war at the Lab isn’t a war between growth and stasis, between a “loose confederation of coders” and a tightly organized bureaucracy. It is the war to remember that the technology is in the service of people, with all their hopes and fears, their ambiguity and endless ability to say maybe.

It used to be that everyone in the world knew each others’ name, but now they barely know each others’ name at the Lab itself.

Working in a code-driven enterprise, there will be increasing pressure to systematize, to make binary, to aggregate and to create closed rooms in which the cipher-like code can scrape and direct and be free of governance.

But there’s hope. Because so long as Mark remembers that “compassion, (and) an artistic sensibility” are the bedrock upon which his “obsession with experience design” and “management…through substantial transitions” should be placed, then perhaps we’ll be able to resist the temptation to let technology itself bend the curve, to create walls and barriers and secret handshakes, and can model instead a vision of technology that is humane, and can be the playing field upon which we express our ambiguity and art.


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