Age and Treachery

On the set of « A Fish Called Wanda » then 77-year old director John Crichton was given a t-shirt by his co-director John Cleese. It read

Age and Treachery Will Always Overcome Youth and Skill

Though this was meant as a joke about the significant age difference between the director and the rest of his crew, there is a moment of philosophical truth in this. Faced with a world ruled mainly by elder people with an entirely different background and set of interests, youthful talent is doomed to fail. Witness the departure from the Second Life Teen Grid You-Know-Where-for-Underagers of its whizz kid Katharine Berry, as announced in her blog.

For those of you who have never heard the name before, Katharine Berry is probably best known as the developer of AjaxLife, a web based Second Life You-Know-Where client which has allowed many people to maintain their social network on SL Y-K-W even when unable to install the SL Y-K-W client on a machine. I have been using AjaxLife on and off, myself, and have been full of admiration for the work of one single dedicated developer, a female one at that, always a sure way to win my sympathy. What I was not aware of before the announcement of Katharine’s withdrawal and the accompanying media coverage is that she is « only » 15 years old (an ageist reaction I will come back to later).

As befits to her being underage, Katharine has religiously stuck to using the Teen Grid you know where alone, gaining a track record there as a forum moderator, volunteer and provider of web services (all of these by now defunct). Exemplary one would say, were it not for the fact that it must have been a very disheartening experience. As she explains in more detail here, her main reason for leaving Second Life You-Know-Where is the complete state of neglect Linden Lab seems to leave the Teen Grid you know where in, and the low resident count which follows from this sorry state of affairs.

Now, like most Main Grid Second Lifers You-Know-Where denizens I presume, I have been entirely oblivious of what goes on on the Teen Grid you know where. Judging from Katharine’s comments on her departure, it hardly looks like an interesting offering for bright young minds. In fact, it looks suspiciously like an excuse everybody can agree on when it comes to excluding teens from Second Life You-Know-Where in general. By everybody, I do mean that Linden Lab aren’t the only ones at fault here, though they are obviously responsible for the sorry state of the thing, but that all of us Grid Second Lifers You-Know-Where denizens share a part of this. After all, we always point to the Teen Grid you know where as the place for underage Second Lifers You-Know-Where denizens to go whenever we squabble with the Lindens and each other over the value and founding of age verification. It is such a convenient fig leaf when we basically agree that everybody under legal age (and that means anybody below the age of 21, in some cases) should be excluded from participating in Second Life You-Know-Where. They have their own grid you know where, haven’t they ?

Katharine’s withdrawal alerts us to the fact that this notion is nothing but a convenient lie. Linden Lab obviously does not offer a valid option to underage Second Lifers You-Know-Where denizens, and judging from the duration and extent of this state, it will not do so in the foreseeable future. In that light, the question we Main Grid residents You-Know-Where denizens should ask ourselves is : do we actually want to lose talent like Katharine’s ? Do we really think a world is a better place if the young (gifted or not) are banned from it ? Are we so comfortably ageist we think there is nothing worthwhile to be contributed by people below a certain arbitrary age limit ? The ageist reflex is never far ; I know it was not with me (see above), but how about not giving in to it ? Every world needs fresh talent, and age has nothing to do with it. Confining this talent to the Teen Ghetto (oops, Grid you know where, sorry for that) is stupid.

Of course, there is the problem of adult content. Let’s be honest : the ability to create and interact with adult content is one of the main selling points of Second Life You-Know-Where. I know that there would be no point to it for me if I could not indulge myself via my strike>SL Y-K-We avatar. I am pretty sure I am not the only one. There is more to it, of course, but that is neither here nor there. What is is that we have to either agree to Second Life You-Know-Where being an ageist society, barred to the young, or find a way to open the Grid you know where to them. Which means relieving us and the Lindens of liability by blocking underage Second Lifer’s You-Know-Where denizens access to content they are legally forbidden to see, in a foolproof way.

The Lindens have announced and then elaborated on a verification scheme on their blog (first, second and third post here). As noted here, it originally seemed to point into the direction of a content rating system, which basically would have allowed for segmented access to Second Life You-Know-Where content, effectively clearing the way for a demise of the Teen Grid you know where. Strangely (or maybe not) it has been one of the most vocally opposed announcements of Linden Lab, with the fact that youths are not meant to be on the Main Grid you know where at all a key argument.

The Lindens have not risen to this. Instead of challenging our comfortable ageism and boldly asserting the measure as a foundation for the merging of the Teen and Main Grid you know where, they seem to just stick to a bottom line policy bent only on protecting Linden Lab’s butt. Which would make the whole package nothing but a grand insurance scheme against the liability of underagers sneaking unto the Main Grid you know where to be confronted with unsuitable content (as explained by Gwyneth Lewellyn).

That would be disheartening enough, but some Lindens at least seem to have latched another agenda entirely on the thing. Robin Linden’s blog post makes the establishing of « trust » through identity (not age) verification the cornerstone of the whole affair. You can dismiss this as mistaken, as Grace MacDunnough does, especially after the Lindens voided the in-world avatar rating system not so long ago, but I am feeling rather queasy at the fact that this is from the same person who backed and inspired the call out on « broadly offensive content » in the infamous Keeping Second Life You Know Where Safe, Together post. That post, which Robin clearly declared her brainchild here, sparked suspicions that the Lindens advocated some kind of moral majority policing and started one of SL Y-K-W’s largest, and, for a short period, most vigorous, protest groups. Its troubling connotation of Brave New World also marrs Robin’s statement on verification. I, for one, am very wary of that kind of vision of a better virtual world. It is this mix of corporate bottom line logic and conceited agendas that makes me fairly sure I do not want to participate in the Lindens’ grand new scheme. I do think, however, that the grids you know where should be merged, and that is not going to happen without some kind of age verification.

Thesis :

  1. As there is no viable alternative but exclude the young from Second Life You-Know-Where until they reach an age where years of exclusions have redirected them away from it, effectively robbing us of a future, the Main Grid you know where needs to be opened for underage Second Lifers You-Know-Where denizens.
  2. To make the Main Grid you know where safe for teens, its content needs to be segmented by suitability and a working system installed which makes sure the segmentation holds, which means more than providing coverage against litigation.
  3. To achieve this without compromising the range of Second Life You-Know-Where’s contents, our privacy and the divide between physical and virtual identity, we residents must take matters in hand. Waiting for Linden Lab will not help. It’s priorities as a commercial entity are different, and there is the ominous risk of the whole process being hijacked by individuals with as dubious agenda.

There are tentative first steps as some realize age verification is needed, and cannot be left to the Lindens. A group of residents is offering an in-world age verification system called AgeLock (there is an interview with one of the founders, Allana Dion, here). Time will tell if it can stand the test of litigation. But it does not address the big question of how to make the Main Grid safe for teens. In fact, it expressly states that it does not :

How does this system prevent children from accessing adult content?

It doesn’t. It won’t. It can’t.

As parents ourselves, we really do care about the importance of protecting children but this is not about protecting children this time. In this instance, our goal is to provide a sense of security for the adult community.

It is our opinion that, currently, the only system in place that can effectively keep children out of areas where they don’t belong is responsible parenting. We are not able to be the world’s baby sitters, even if it were our desire to be. The purpose of AgeLock is not to protect children or prevent them from viewing adult content, but rather to protect us, the adults of Second Life You-Know-Where, from the indisputable fact that they already are.

Us versus them ? This is most certainly not going to end the ageist segregation of the grids and let the teens share our world. We need better systems than AgeLock to achieve this, if we want to do it without sanitizing our world for the teens’ sake. We should. No world is better off that shuts out a sizeable portion of its future.

I have no proposal how this is to be done. I am no guru, and I most certainly am no politician. But I know it will take you, and me, and many more besides to do it. Understanding that we need to do more than enforcing the status quo of « teens stay out » is the first step. Else age and treachery will have overcome more than Katharine Berry’s youth and skill.

9 thoughts on “Age and Treachery

  1. Summary of the first grid you know where-wide test run of the famed, extensively tested, crucial to Linden Lab’s corporate strategy, age verification scheme : it doesn’t work. Oh, and they’re not too sure about what they mean to do with it either, it seems. [edited 2007-12-11 to delete the missing link to a transcript of Linden office hours documenting that last point, and to add this :] Now, everybody surprised at the fact that it is also a ridiculously ineffective way to screen minors from inappropriate content say « aye » — but only after heading over here.

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