The great escape

There has been a spate of posts about the balance between First and Second Life lately, starting with my friend’s Dandellion’s thoughtful and entertaining blog post Going Schizo. At its core is the question how to handle the realisation that the personalities we evolve in the 3D metaverse of Second Life might seep back into our atomic life (a distant echo of some of Dusan Writer’s earlier thoughts). Besides a fair number of comments, it has also spurned Kit Meredith to ask the question if atomic her is jealous of her avatar, and Botgirl Questi to complete her schematic of the relationship of metaverse and meatverse. Independently of those, Zippora Zabelin has touched on the same topic in her beautiful Life is a game.

The funny thing about all these is that, much as I wanted to give feedback and tell the authors how much I enjoyed their posts, my own uneasy balance between First and Second Life has not let me do so until now. Consoling and supporting a friend much in the same situation as Dandellion’s unknown avatar, but also saying a chance good bye to another one who was leaving SL, as well as finally accepting some other friends and lovers will never come back, has made me painfully aware how ephemeral our second life can be — and how fragile whatever fleeting balance we find is.

It also made me think. Because while we often discuss how, and why we leave this world for good, we rarely dwell on the question that maybe should have been asked first : why bother with the effort of two lives at all ? Why come to Second Life, and stay ?

I have an answer to offer, Continue reading


I have never been much of a political activist. The way I see it, however passionate you are about an issue, politics have a way of wearing you down by making you argue the same things over and over again, until anything you say is but the n-th rehash of things said countless times before. And while repetition might hone your skirmishing skills, each pass blunts your heart as much as it sharpens your tongue.

That, and the fact that I am a hopelessly shallow person of course, have been enough to keep me away from the nitty gritty of political work. Oh, I might cheer and wave, I might even run that first, glorious mile when events are still fast paced and exciting ; but don’t look for me when the going gets slow — unless it is in the boutiques we passed on that first mile. It has always been that way. I have always been that way. 

But life moves in strange ways, especially when you have two of them, and in one of mine at least things have been… different, lately.

Not entirely surprisingly, this has to do with trademarks ; trademarks as made into policy by Linden Lab, and as protested against by so many in the blogosphere. And then again, more surprisingly maybe, it has not. It has not because when all is said and done, what the issue really boils down to is not a silly set of writing rules for bloggers, nor even the presumption to enforce these by brute force if need be, but one simple and far more general question :

What kind of world do we want to live in ?

Yes, yes, I know how that sounds. Don’t call the orderlies yet (later, maybe : being put in a straightjacket and manhandled by burly men, then locked into a cell, only ever to get out for an ice bath or some electric shock therapy … but I digress).

Let me explain what I mean. Continue reading

So say I all

About two months ago, some of you might have caught a discussion panel sporting Robin Harper — aka Robin Linden — and Jack Balkin — professor of Constitutional Law and the First Amendment at Yale Law School. It was hosted by the USC Institute for Network Culture and Global Kids as part of the MacArthur Series on Philanthropy and Virtual Worlds and was somewhat curiously called « Philanthropy and Virtual Worlds: Do Avatars Dream of Civil Rights Considering Civil Liberties ».

Of course, the event was not actually held with that fancy strike-though title ; it went live under the simple heading « Considering Civil Liberties ». But it was originally announced as « Do Avatar Dream of Civil Rights » (see here and here ; and take note of the above mentioned Global Kids URL while you’re at it). One week before the event proper, the title suddenly changed.

I have been trying to put this curious title morph out of my mind for a while (in fact, I had latched on the whole issue originally for the panel’s content, and was hoping to get my teeth into that. Nothing more be said than that it was rather anti-climactic, though it did cure me of my dread of Robin Linden). But somehow, I can’t. It irks me.

Granted, it is entirely possible someone just noticed that another paraphrase of Philip K. Dick’s best known novel title sorely lacks in originality, and decided to change the title because of that (not that the new one shone in that regard). Still, I find it a rather surprising thing to do on such short notice, and I’m left wondering… What if, instead, someone realised that they had leant so far out of the window, trying to be funny and clever, that gravity was taking over ? Pondering how soft that concrete sidewalk will be on landing can do wonders for a change of mind.

For a sidewalk there is : one week before the sudden change in title, Tateru Nino posted A person chooses, a tool obeys on Massively. And sparked a discussion which took me by surprise. I would not have expected that alluding to the avatar as an entity in its own right would be such a contentious matter. Neither did the panel organisers, it seems.

The gist of Tateru’s argument, in case you haven’t read her post, is that an avatar is nothing but a tool, a « device without intention » no law can directly apply to, and that the tool’s user is the only actor in the play. It was followed Continue reading

The world Philip made

I am not often invited to chime in on a topic (unless it is SL Y-K-W‘s interface design, for some reason, and I still suspect those who do invite me of pulling my leg — pointing out it is abysmally bad, and getting worse instead of better, hardly makes me an expert after all), and thus I am usually happy to comply, especially when the invitation comes from a friend (yes, Grace, and by the way, you still owe me for risking snow blindness testing Dazzle). But when my friend Rick van der Wal recently invited me to comment on the discussion going on about « immersionism » versus « augmentationism » he had kicked off (or rather : rekindled) on his blog, I have been loath to comment. Particularly loath, I must say, not only because people I admire for their opinions and intelligence butted heads so hard the sparks flew (though I must admit it is a tad intimidating), but mainly because, simply, I don’t get the whole discussion. At all.

Call me stupid.

Well, actually, I prefer to be called other things (chérie, for instance, is veeery nice, though some people make my heart flutter as much when they call me vicieuse — you know who you are), but stupid will do for the time being. Because I must be missing something seeing how heated the debate gets. Which is why I decided to post my misgivings here, and hope for my peers and betters to point out what I have missed. Please be kind.

Always one for delaying the bashing by a display of good research (who said I hated dazzle ?), I’ll start by pointing out that I am indeed aware of the discussion having gone on for quite some time, as well as of its roots in the debate surrounding the advent of voice in the SL Y-K-W client. I have read Henrik Bennetsen’s Augmentation vs Immersion on the SL Y-K-W wiki ; admired Argent Bury’s manifesto, Taking a Stand and Sophrosyne Steenvag’s Open Letter To My Augmentationist Friends for their clearness and radicalness of thought — though I find myself unable, and unwilling to follow these two down the path of styling myself a fully autonomous digital being. I am aware they are considered the ultimate immersionists. I also know many of the bloggers and SL Y-K-W personalities I most admire side with them, to a different degree — Dandellion Kimban, Gwyneth Llewelyn, Grace McDunnough just to name a few… forming a camp, to quote the wiki, pitted against another one of people who, well, do what exactly — regularly use SL Y-K-W without immersing themselves into it in the least ?

I don’t get that.

Yes, yes, Continue reading

Second Life Guess

[I apologize for not being able to correct the title of this post so as to conform to the new trademark policy of Linden Research. A suggestion by the office of C. Linden and / or Linden Research’s censorship trademark lawyers is however pending]

Linden Lab’s ban on SL Y-K-W banks is in effect as of today, on the dot two weeks after it has been announced. Two weeks in which, in the words of Massively’s Tateru Nino :

…we’ve had protests – some assuredly genuine, some apparently staged – runs on banks (a sort of game of musical chairs, where everyone hopes not to be the one left standing when the music stops), and the usual commingled mish-mash of cheering, screaming, jesting and angry outbursts…

— much of it happening in the SL Y-K-W blogosphere (see my own round-up of it here). Now the grace period is over, the economic effect of the ban turns to have fallen somewhat short of the sky caving in, in fact seeming to be near to negligible for the SL Y-K-W economy as a whole (though I am sure that on the personal level, for people having lost money in the crash, this is an entirely different story).

Seeing that and the fact that Linden Lab seem nowhere close to reverting their decision, the discussion of the pro and con seems to have petered out somewhat. Artur Fermi stating in essence « Good riddance, and keep the hype down » on Your2ndPlace and Aldon Huffhines / Hynes arguing on SLNN that Linden Lab’s decision is ill conceived and drives needed financial services out of the official grid, and that LL should reconsider are more or less the last ones to battle it out. Prokofy Neva and Benjamin Duranske on the other hand have added most welcome shades of grey to the often black and white discussion by casting some light on the people behind the banks. So, what am I up to, besides fawning for some more pats on the back for my diligent compiling work ?

Well, there is a twist on the debate I find fascinating : Continue reading

Linden Lab en route to Hell, at last

The road to hell, it is said, is paved with good intentions. The same might be true of other destinations held akin to hell by individuals and organizations, though it is a matter of debate if these destinations would be considered such by anyone but the traveller. Take Linden Lab and governance for instance. One could argue the point that for the bunch of laid back coders and start-up entrepreneurs that constitute LL’s core, the notion of governance is by its very nature indeed hell. If it is, LL has taken a big step down that road, the biggest to date, and — of course — out of good intentions.

Hell ? Governance ? Girl, what are you gabbing about ?

Well, you will not have missed the fact that, with its New Policy Regarding In-World “Banks”, effective from January 22nd, Linden Lab has decreed what amounts to a total ban of in-world banking activities. This has been hailed, or at least acknowledged as inevitable, by observers as diverse as Benjamin Duranske, Prokofy Neva, Nobody Fugazi, Tateru Nino and Dusan Writer; dissenters have been few and in between, easily dismissed as either obvious lobbyists (for instance Arbitrage Wise, « CEO » of JT Financial) or as missing the point (see Lillie Yifu’s angry retort to Robert Bloomfield’s plea for a continuation of SL Y-K-W banking activities as a sandbox for RL studies). Not surprisingly, the decision sat far less well with depositors, who, on hearing the news, panically flocked to the ATMs to withdraw their deposits en masse before the impending closure of their « bank » (see Prokofy Neva’s superb on the spot reportage ; also the articles on Your2ndPlace and Massively), as well as being accompanied by cries of « despotism » on the comments everywhere. The whole thing simply reeks of RL déjà-vu.

Now I’m not going to discuss the pros and cons of the banking ban, nor of its implementation (try aforementioned Arbitrage Wise on Your2ndPlace, or Aldon Hynes on SLNN, a man also on record for saying it needed Colgate to bring smiling to SL Y-K-W avatars, for criticism of that). There is little my gut feeling and homebrew reasoning can contribute to what brighter minds have written. Neither am I going to ponder the question what the balance between scammers and little boys playing bank might have been ; being neither a lawyer, nor a theologian, I find the degree of inherent malice pretty irrelevant to my opinion of the impact of people’s actions.

What I do find interesting is why Linden Lab felt necessary to step in — and what this means for the future of Second Life as a society, a topic I hold dear since the spectacular failure of my first and only recurrence to in-world policing.

Gwyneth Llevelyn has summarized the three current theories about LL’s motivations. In a nutshell, these are : Continue reading

Pardon me, but you lost an U back there

I recently read Hamlet Au’s Is Second Life’s User Interface Cursed by Knowledge? post on new World Notes, where he tries to put the finger on the failure of Second Life You-Know-Where’s user interface to make the world and its usage accessible to newcomers. I even commented, a quick shot and rant that failed to relieve me, instead simmering inside my mind since, eventually to take the shape of the following post.

Hamlet Au’s argument hinges on the theory of « the curse of knowledge » as propounded in a New York Times article he quotes. The gist of it seems to be that woeful interface design is the result of people deciding which features should be exposed in the interface, and how, on the basis of too much technical knowledge. He concludes :

So how do you fix the Second Life You-Know-Where user interface? In all honesty, I probably can’t say. Then again, the Lindens can’t say. Metaverse developers can’t say. Longtime Residents can’t say. And if you read this blog on a regular basis, you likely can’t say, either. Thanks to the curse of knowledge, the very people who know Second Life You-Know-Where most are also the least qualified to introduce it to a mass audience. (This is probably why the open source initiative and heads-up displays have failed to improve user retention– most of the improvements and features to come out of them are made not for new users, but for established Residents.)

Now I think there is little doubt the interface of Second Life You-Know-Where could be tremendously improved to flatten the notoriously steep learning curve of new residents. Honestly, those of us who did not have an excellent background in 3D / FPS gaming had great difficulties mastering even the most elementary parts of Second Life (moving, interacting with objects, camera controls — more about these later) on the first go — I know I had. As to more advanced functions, I’m ready to bet that even long term residents are unaware of many tweaks, tricks and minor but useful functions.

As a moderately long term SL Y-K-W resident (my first rezzday approaches fast), I am eminently not qualified to comment on the improvement of SL Y-K-W’s interface according to the « curse of knowledge » theory. I cannot help feeling, though, that hands on experience as the (mostly unwilling) user and victim of a plethora of interface concepts and implementations both in hardware and in software form does count — in your case as in mine, for that matter : just look at the small ecosystem of remotes that probably has evolved in your living room as it has in mine, never mind the applications and underlying operating system of your computer —, and that some understanding of what you actually can do with an item (be it hardware of software) is necessary to ponder the best way to use it, though, obviously, this might often not be the one chosen by the manufacturer or propounded by current thinking (anybody remember the Office Assistant ?). Which is why I will count the fact that I never designed a complex technical system (software or other) in my life, and that I am happily and utterly oblivious of all theories of interface design as a big plus.

One thing that struck me in the comments that followed Hamlet’s post is that what most people discussed was the graphical interface to SL Y-K-W. The talk was of better and more appealing graphic widgets and of adding more « intuitive » interface elements as well as introducing the web metaphor into the client (a teleport back button, for instance), besides the odd call for splitting the monolithic viewer into smaller tools (*nix geek syndrome, I think this one is called). Basically, the commenters seem to agree that what sucks about the GUI of Second Life You-Know-Where is the « G(raphical) » part.

I disagree. To me, the user interface is far more than the window system, widget set, or « skin » as it is fashionably called these days, used by an application. I don’t think the main problem of SL Y-K-W‘s interface is graphical in its nature.

Just have a short look at it Continue reading