Art and Exploration, augmented reality, Deep Thoughts, Second Life, Virtual World Platforms

The Predictive Power of Virtual Worlds

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.

Alternative Futures
And as pioneers in these new worlds, we can see that the conventional wisdom isn’t always the only way that the future will unfold.

- There is no single way that content can be protected or copied, sold or transferred. There is a spectrum of choice, and for all of the hardened positions around the issue, there is no single way in which this turns out. Virtual worlds predicted digital domains in which content could be tagged for ownership and commerce. Copy/mod/transfer is still, to my mind, one of the revolutionary features of Second Life, one which was able to stake a claim to a different vision from copy-left or Creative Commons – digital rights management embedded within a system of commerce and incentive.

- Similarly, Second Life demonstrated that there truly can be value in the ‘Long Tail’ – and predicted the iPhone/iPad marketplace for applications. The Second Life Marketplace, for all its dysfunction, is an incredible example of a marketplace for components and content.

- There is no single ‘truth’ to how online identity should be managed. The conventional wisdom is that anonymity online leads to a loss of trust – but virtual worlds have continually demonstrated that connecting our online persona to conventional identity isn’t the only way that we can be engaged in communities and create deep and lasting bonds.

- There isn’t a dichotomy between “open” and “closed”. Second Life predicted the wider range of online platforms from walled gardens to ‘open’ APIs, from open source to closed code. I might have once believed that open source is, well, better – but watching how these issues have played out in Second Life has alerted me, at least, to the hidden economies of open source communities.

- It’s possible to create online economies based on very very small transactions. As the news industry struggles to understand how it will stay relevant, Second Life demonstrated that its possible to create an economy for digital value based on tiny transactions and a large ‘gift’ economy.

Much of the value in Second Life as a ‘platform’ has derived from the fact that it pioneered a future. But much of that future is now being realized elsewhere and in many ways Linden Lab missed the boat because where once it had the opportunity to ‘export’ those innovations (the Linden should be Web-wide, for example, and the recently botched implementation of display names was a missed strategic opportunity to add to wider systems of identity).

The Future, Next
But virtual worlds haven’t lost their predictive power.

On my own short list, virtual worlds still have incredible head-room for innovation, and will be important domains for exploration in the years to come. For myself, my list of ‘predictive’ issues include the following:

Our Social Geography
The Web does a lousy job with the concept of ‘place’. According to some definitions, Facebook is, in many respects, a virtual world – it has its own governance, community, content and drama. And while it has “places” embedded inside it (Farmville, say) it doesn’t meet the standard definition of a ‘place’.

Now, maybe ‘place’ doesn’t matter anymore. The conventional wisdom is that geography is irrelevant – we can connect across time zones and around the world. But I’m not so sure. “Place” gives us security, icons for community, and signals intent.

Virtual worlds have demonstrated that “place” can have a profound impact on how we relate to each other in a digital space.

Augmented reality seems to suggest that we don’t need a virtual world to affirm a connection between our digital activities and ‘place’ by bringing the digital into physical space. But there’s a contradiction at the core of A/R: we’re paying less attention to our physical worlds because we’re mediating connection through technology, but A/R proposes that we can make the physical more relevant by adding, well, more technology.

A/R is, therefore, at war with itself, and while I’m a big believer in the concept of the end-to-end Internet, I’m a deep skeptic about A/R.

Virtual worlds (and increasingly large-scale game environments) are the frontiers in which the concept of geography are being explored – and so long as we believe that we have a yearning for a ‘place’ they will remain an important site for this exploration.

The Architecture of Game and Play Space
OK, so maybe this is just a personal fascination. But I really think that virtual architecture and its influence on physical architecture, urban planning and public space is one of the most important things that virtual worlds can help us to explore.

Games and Narrative
Games and story blend and yet remain elusive to each other.

Virtual worlds remain one of the leading spaces in which to explore how narrative can be created. Game mechanics, however, are increasingly being understood as powerful tools for community, change and learning. The next frontier of digital experiences will be the continued exploration of how game and narrative can coexist, and how the combination of the two can be the aggregating power for community.

Virtual worlds can get lost in the broader noise created by ‘games with narration’, but they still have a valuable role to play in finding a reconciliation between game mechanic and story.

One day, you’ll be able to play Red Dead Redemption and at a certain point simply stop playing it, set up your own little general store or ranch and start creating your own story. In the meantime, virtual worlds will have already been there and demonstrated how it can be done.

Search in the Age of Imagination
I still propose that Second Life is the largest collaborative community creation project in history. And I’ve always seen what has been created not as a bunch of scripts or 3D objects but as the creation of ideas. The failure of search in virtual worlds isn’t just the failure to make 3D content ‘findable’ but is a failure of creating a broader context for finding ideas.

So long as we treat virtual worlds as being comprised solely of people and objects, we miss the larger potential: virtual worlds allow us to ‘surf’ through a landscape of imagination, and until we can find the semantics and tools to better articulate the meaning in those acts of imagination, we’ll continue chasing after the best way to search for shoes while missing more profound possibilities.

Second Life Next
So those are a few of my fascinations, although none of it means that I’ve stopped being interested in virtual economies, content protection and IP, identity/alts and avatars (especially the idea of the avatar as an identity management system) and all the rest of it.

But these fascinations do lead to a mini wish list. Nothing fancy, just a few “wouldn’t it be cool” kind of things:

- Second Life should reaffirm the value of geography and land. And this may seem, well, heretical, but I actually kind of wish that we’d get rid of teleports and return to telehubs. By reaffirming the value of Second Life as a place with its own unique geography, we’d be able to explore not just a platform for creating 3D spaces, but what it means to be a virtual world.

- The Viewer needs to have programmable panels. You should be able to program HUDs directly into the viewer, which would open up a new range of interaction mechanics and a new market for ‘applications’. This would help to widen the range of game-like mechanics whether for training and education or just plain clean (or dirty) fun.

- If you’re going to have display names, then get it over with and allow us to link them to openID, Google, Facebook and all the rest of it. It’s time to let us link to ‘social media’ (and yeah, I’ve been railing against this for years, but times change).

- Launch mesh already. I want to see what people do with automated 3DS plug-ins and visualization and architecture and all the rest of it.

- SL needs to reaffirm the tag-line “Your World, Your Imagination”. And I know this is right because every Linden I’ve told this to has told me I just don’t get it. To the Lindens (well, actually, the Lindens I’m talking about are all gone now, like Philip and Jack) – this phrase doesn’t recognize that most people aren’t content creators. What a load of crap. Bring back the tag line.

- I’d like to have a world (and worlds) that I can keep logging into. All eyes on you, Rod, and welcome to Linden Lab.


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