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

My World Performs Me: Heuristics in Second Life and Social Media

Code is not agnostic. Code is the accretion of a thousand small decisions and a few large ones.

Code, because it is not agnostic, produces effects comparable to speaking another language.

I ‘lived in French’ for a while – listening to it, speaking it, reading signs in French, menus, newspapers. At first, I thought it was me: certain sentiments, feelings or explanations seemed incredibly hard to articulate.

I thought it was because I wasn’t fluent enough. When I went home to my all-English town, I suddenly realized that it wasn’t my proficiency that was the problem, but rather that the language had certain values embedded in it. French might be more romantic but it’s actually inadequate to expressing certain gradations of love. Languages with feminine and masculine nouns and objects also embed other subtle values.

Like language, code gathers values-systems around it over time. Even when code is written in a closed-off room by a single person, it embeds a way of looking at logic and the subtle shadings of that person’s values, which were themselves informed by both other code and other people. But most code isn’t written in a closed-off room – one person starts it, another modifies it, another appends, debugs, changes, upgrades.

Now, I’m not an expert on coding languages. But when you speak another language, it gives you a certain filter, a certain way of thinking about the world. In French, objects are masculine or feminine, love can be expressed along a certain bandwidth, and the past has more tenses than we find in English. With code, you also have a filter through which you see problems, connections, relations between data, and the performance of all of those things through some sort of interface.

Someone once told me that Second Life is object oriented programming made visible.

In virtual worlds with user generated content, not only is the code underlying the platform a particular form of language, but the ability to write code on TOP of that platform provides an idiom and gives us a specific lens through which to view the world.

Now, it doesn’t take much to see that code is changing the world. What is far more DIFFICULT to see is who’s taking responsibility for thinking about the values systems that are being built into it.

Drive, Motivation and the Imagination
A half dozen people pinged me to tell me that there was this incredible new book out called Drive by Daniel Pink. Now, other than the fact that there seems to have been a flood of behavioral economists and commentators telling us about how dumb we all were to believe in the, um, other economists and commentators, the concept of Drive seemed to have everybody excited – the light was flooding down, the scales falling from our eyes.

The premise of Drive is the following:

- Corporations, which used to motivating workers as if they were Pavlov’s dogs on the assembly line, still motivate people that way.
- This is bad. People are self-motivated, especially when it comes to creative work.
- Therefore, companies should help people be the self-motivated, creative people that they are so that the world can be more productive, we can all be happier, and the blossoming of imagination will lead to a new golden age of prosperity.

There, saved you $29.99. This should have been a $5.99 companion pamphlet to a 1990s Tom Peters book but what can I say – inflation.

Books like this seem to be based on a simple con: let’s you and I point fingers at all those dinosaurs out there believing THAT old myth, chuckle together, and nod sagely at how we know better. By bringing you into his confidence, you’re part of the inner circle who GETS it. Although, typically it’s not really “news” at all, you knew it all along, but heck, you feel a lot better that someone else had the same thought and could even get paid $29.99 to speak about it. Yay progress!

But there’s something naive and, I think, dangerous about this book. And the danger is that it sets up a false premise: that the economy has changed from one that is algorithmic and built on assembly lines and repeatable process, into a new economy which is all about creativity, about imagining new models – the age, in other words, of the heuristic.

Which Came First, the Heuristic or the Algorithm?
See, Drive, and other books like it, divide the world into ‘heuristics’ and ‘algorithms’.

Algorithms are the factory floors. Heuristics are that creative space where the fluid, organic spread of ideas allow us to create new models for the enterprise, value creation and our worth as individuals. Once we’ve cracked the code of a particular heuristic it can become an algorithm.

Newton had to kind of think about gravity for a while, the heuristic of it, before it could become an algorithm. Someone had to think about industrial production for a while before coming up with the algorithm of the Ford plant.

So, most of the world has moved past assembly lines and we’re required to show up to work each day hypothesizing a new future, bringing our creativity and intrinsic motivation to the task of continually churning out heuristics, whether for that new brochure a client wants, the new sim the school wants built, or the new software that will turn the lights on and off.

Pink claims that as individuals living in an economy where we need to continually create new “stuff” that we’re better motivated from within and that companies should simply facilitate this intrinsic motivation.

And this may be true where pure heuristics are concerned, but if you’re in a part of the economy that has anything to do with technology in general (say, computers on the desks), or the Internet in particular – then I’m not so sure that all of this intrinsic motivation we’re supposed to be having isn’t in fact in the service of the larger algorithm.

This dream of intrinsically-motivated creativity is great – an ideal world where we can all be who we want to be and not be treated like cogs by our corporate parents. The problem is that it’s not our boss or the company we work for that’s feeding that Pavlovian response anymore.

It doesn’t matter what kind of scheme your company sets up, because your motivations are neither enabled mostly by them OR you: there’s an extrinsic motivation, all right, it’s just that it’s embedded in the network itself.

Social Media as Algorithm
So kids are consuming 28 hours of media a day or whatever that latest study says.

Try chatting on-line with a 20 year old. Or even better, a 16 year old. There are short staccato bursts and then long silences. Now, not being a digital native, I can’t figure this stuff out. I can sit there staring at the little chat window in Skype or whatever, but eventually I give up and go check my G-mail or whatever.

Then, another little burst of text, my reply, silence again.

See, the 16 year old is like my Firefox tabs. I have 90 of them open. But for me, they’re bookmarks or reminders – “come back to this some other day, don’t lose the link”. For him or her, they’re active media outlets, and each of those outlets is an algorithm of sorts – demanding to be fed, energy apportioned across the tabs, a blurb here, an intense emo attack over there, and a youTube video in the background.

This isn’t bad. It’s multi-tasking, it’s working the room, it’s creating your own economy, it’s being at the pulsing heart of culture and connection. Forget about linking identity between your avatar name and your real one: this is identity shifting at warp speed, every tab or window a persona, some of them transparent, some of them anonymous, some of them game space and some of it social.

But underpinning it all is that code. A particular way of dealing with identity has its source in how the network was first coded. On the Web, identity itself wasn’t a performance criteria for how things worked – the world would be small enough that we’d still know each others’ name, and authentication held the peril of surveillance and commerce, things that the Internet was supposed to hack around….it wasn’t meant to become a big shopping mall, it was meant to let the network survive when everything else failed.

Identity, links, nodes, URLs….a bunch of small decisions embedded with perspectives which became the values system that operates the networks – and the digital natives surfing it all, embedding those algorithms, mastering the algorithms first, and maybe bringing a few of their own.

Eating Heuristics for Lunch
The network effect of the Web isn’t just that growth can be exponential, that memes can become viral, that some company in a garage can become the next Google in the blink of an eye.

The network effect includes the rapacious appetite of the code itself, the algorithms, for new heuristics.

The network needs new models, new approaches, new patterns to bolt onto what already exists. It needs heuristics that it can test, play with, spread throughout the nodes, discard , and then, every now and then, splice directly into its DNA.

Sometimes all of this activity is called crowd sourcing, open source, or just collaboration. But much of the time the activity, while ostensibly in the service of a specific output, does more in the service of the network itself.

See, I think that what Pink and the others have wrong is that the world has upended itself. Algorithms are no longer the product of heuristics. Instead, heuristics are the continually produced result of the algorithms.

The basis of the network was to allow multiple nodes, and to allow information, connections and ideas to not just flow down, but to flow out, to flow everywhere at once, and for the result to be that the flow itself became the source of new heuristics rather than heuristics informing the algorithms.

The network became hungry. The network needed to gobble up new models, new ways of thinking about and looking at data.

Our creative work may be self-motivated and may be somehow intrinsic, but it’s also increasingly in the service of a broader algorithm: the algorithm of the code that runs the network.

On Facebook and Second Life
Facebook isn’t a new MODEL for how we connect with people, stay connected, share information and socialize. It’s an ALGORITHM for how we do those things.

It demands that we poke, that we accept friends or ignore them, that we become fans and join groups, that our “Walls” become identity signals or badges for who we think we are and what categories we place ourselves in.

Spend enough time on Facebook (or, for that matter, FriendFeed or TweetDeck) and you’ll find yourself jumping up and down because you have 2,000 friends (or followers) or because some big shot is following your Tweets (N.B. His system was probably automated to follow you, but that doesn’t really matter).

For Facebook, being primarily an algorithm places an incredible challenge on the system.

Because systems need new heuristics in order to grow, to continue that exponential curve which is the ultimate values system underpinning the code of the network, Facebook faces the monumental problem that it has no source of heuristics upon which to feed. Change the algorithm (privacy code, commerce) and unsettle the natives. Open yourself to wider heuristics (allowing Google to get in there and scrape and link the data) and your walled garden comes tumbling down.

While Twitter may seem like a much smaller system, it is, in fact, driven by the ability to create new models on top of a fairly simple algorithm (how much simpler can you get that 140 characters of text?). Twitter allows the creation of new heuristics not just for the network, for thinking about how to link real-time information to people, but for how that impacts society itself.

Second Life, on the other hand, is an algorithm that’s as complex as a Swiss watch, the result of which is an incredibly rich and wide breeding ground for heuristics.

Second Life is the ultimate modeling workshop.

But as Linden Lab considers opening itself up to more direct linkages to social media (in the service of bringing in new people, or helping us share, or letting us connect with our “other” networks) – it also risks importing algorithms that we may not really want.

The World Performs Me
Have you ever been lost in rezzing prims? Or writing a script? Or creating textures for clothes?

On the one hand, we do these things because we enjoy them. We’re intrinsically motivated, as Pink would say.

But on the other hand, the thing about systems is that they embed things which extrinsically motivate us, or risk perishing altogether. Systems have become adept at carrying extrinsic motivators in their DNA, and often disguising that motivation.

In systems like World of Warcraft, the reward systems are incredibly explicit. We’ll put up with hours upon hours of grinding, and the system knows how to reward us just enough that we don’t give up.

The friends list in Facebook gives us a sense of belonging or self-worth, however vacuous some of us might think that is.

And in Second Life, there are both subtle and evident ways that we’re rewarded – whether selling something for a few Lindens, or mastering parcel controls.

Pink spends some time talking about artists performing better when they aren’t funded by someone (although Da Vinci might argue otherwise) – and maybe once a painter had achieved a certain mastery of form it’s true that the only motivation left to rely on is intrinsic, that extrinsic rewards color their work.

But what if the canvas talked back? What if the canvas kept changing and kept requiring a new set of skills? What is the canvas wasn’t just a blank slate but had its own algorithms to master, and which changed as a result of the paint touching it in the first place?

Second Life is evidence, I think, of both the promise and the peril of where the network is taking us: and it’s a strange land in which alogirthms give birth to heuristics which immediately feed the extension of the algorithm itself.

Our work is not just self-directed and creative, we’re all participating as performers in the service of testing and refining a deep network. And while this kind of activity is taking place all across the larger network of the Web, Second Life itself is imbued with certain values and characteristics which, perhaps, represent a values system that’s DIFFERENT from Facebook, or youTube, or Google’s data scrape.

As the world performs through us, as we bring our particular understanding of the world to the algorithmic canvas of Second Life, we’re finding new ways to accommodate our roles in these values-laden networks of code, we’re participating in new ways to model the creation of that code, and we’re right to resist changes to that values system without plenty of thought as to what it all means and where it might take us.

The challenge is to ensure that as Second Life “opens up” that it opens up new heuristics, to new tools, to new ways for us to allow the world to perform through our efforts and imagination.

There’s something unique about Second Life. It had the enviable ability to nearly start from scratch, and didn’t have to carry-over all of the code that had come before. It was built pretty much from the ground up based upon particular models for creation, identity, sharing and commerce.

While there’s always room to give the system new ways to model, to feed its need for heuristics, this doesn’t mean that we need to import algorithms from elsewhere, algorithms which might be the legacy of systems that we wouldn’t design the same way if we were to start over.

As the network continues to feed its appetite for new models upon which it can extend its algorithm into wider circles of influence, some of us have found a place on that digital frontier where the systems of identity, participation and social connectivity perhaps hint at how in spite being code, it can still be imbued with our humanity. And Second Life feels like such a place.

And if we cease to acknowledge this or to sit down and sort out what it all means, then we may lose the particular set of values embedded in the code to the larger algorithms in which our humanity often seems lost.


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