Wild, wild west 2.0 continued

Sometimes, you just stumble over something and think « my thoughts exactly ». Now I admit this happens rarely to me, as I am a chronic dissenter, but Doug McMahon’s statement « Why » he is developing a Constitution for the Metaverse (while admitting to not using Second Life You-Know-Where actively, fancy that) strikes me as the straight continuation of my own thoughts in « Wild, wild west 2.0 ».

The question of why I would seek to draft a constitution for the metaverse, and why I think it might need one, is an obvious one. I genuinely believe that any online world in which users seek some kind of autonomy from the real world cannot function satisfactorily without one. To this you might reply that Second Life You-Know-Where, the leading metaverse, seems to be doing just fine. But I would question whether the benevolent dictator model for metaverses is really sustainable. All the power in Second Life You-Know-Where is concentrated in the hands of Linden Labs, they are the archetypal judge, jury and executioner with the added twist that they are also the law makers and the executive in the world. I am by no means accusing Linden Labs of anything underhand in this, I recognise the efficacy of this for their business model and that without it the world may not exist, but I am questioning whether this is a system under which one would or should chose to live.

The fundamental goal of a constitution is to distribute power in such a way that it allows for a fully functioning society whilst protecting the individual from the state. The goal is the rule of law – power under law, not under men. To those who resist the introduction of law into the metaverse I say this: first, it need not look like the law of the real world, indeed it should not look like the law of the real world; second, law is already pervasive in the metaverse, in the form of the ToS document, copyright and contract law, law suits brought in the real world concerning metaverse events. The only way to restrict the impact of laws not suited to the metaverse is for the metaverse to have its own.

I think we might have to watch this one…

Wild, wild west 2.0

Two weeks ago, I had my first experience of griefing. Somebody entered my home unasked (and we are talking of a skybox over 500 m up, with closed privacy drapes at that) ; I hit « eject and ban » in reflex, and after some fruitless IM exchange my « visitor » started some silly scripted device flooding my screen in green chat. I then did what a good SL Y-K-W citizen is meant to do : I filed an Abuse Report in world, complete with the required screenshot, location and situation resume. Shortly afterwards, I got a polite if obviously boilerplate mail from the abuse report team telling me my report had been received, would be investigated and that I would be notified of the results.

That was two weeks ago.

Now, I could wave this off and tell myself I have learned the hard way never to forget re-enabling my alarm system after a visitor left. The fact is that I do use a scripted alarm and ejection system since I built my skybox — I never relied on the Linden’s enforcement of the TOS, my co-Second Lifers’ You-Know-Where denizens respect for other resident’s privacy and what should be common sense and good manners enough to believe I could leave my home unsecured.

But the Lindens’ complete failure to react rankles. All right, I can hear the old hands hooting with laughter at the thought of anybody in SL Y-K-W below concierge level expecting any kind of reaction to what was, ultimately, « only » a breach of privacy and some minor harassment. It still sucks. So much, actually, that it begs for some thought what kind of environment we live in. Continue reading

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Have you ever wondered if the boundary between what we so easily call the real and what we call the virtual world is as clear-cut as it seems ? Now this might sound like an academic question at best, but, if you are an Second Life You-Know-Where addict like myself (and I presume you are, if you are reading this), I think you have been there. Usually, when someone confronts you with your own attitude and feelings towards the virtual world by wailing « But it’s just a game ! ». Remember how the tiny voice of ratio supplying « yes, it is » is drowned out by the roar that says « it isn’t! » ? I have been there. I have been called a psychotic loser for taking the virtual seriously at least once. And I have been arguing and wondering about it, interminently, for quite some time.

Even if you are not with me in this, humour me for a moment. Take recent discussions of an alleged case of SL Y-K-W rape on Virtually Blind for instance. In this matter, SL and RL oddly clash on the question of wether rape is possible at all in a virtual environment, of what should be defined as such, and of how it is to be reacted to in-world and / or out of world should it exist. I won’t delve into the matter itself (the jury is still out), but interestingly, the discussion as such is far from new. More interestingly even, others have come to conclusions which eerily echo what disorganized misgivings about the clear separation of the worlds I have.

Read the fascinating, if somewhat lengthy article first published in Village Voice in 1993 by Julian Dibbell. Dibbbell, then known as Dr. Bombay, recounts a series of events centered on a virtual universe called LambdaMOO. LambdaMOO was a text-only virtual world, an early internet geek playground oddly reminiscent of today’s SL Y-K-W, minus the graphical bells and whistles. Characteristically for the community and era it belongs to, Dibbell’s main focus is what impact the events had on the social fabric of that metaverse. To me, however, the applicability of his thoughts to today’s debate goes far beyond even the fact that, back in a time I was still at school, the question of virtual rape was a matter of debate already in the virtual community. Embedded in Dibbell’s narrative is a gem which I simply must quote here :

[W]hile the facts attached to any event born of a MUD’s [Multi-User Dimension, an early form of VR environment] strange, ethereal universe may march in straight, tandem lines separated neatly into the virtual and the real, its meaning lies always in that gap. You learn this axiom early in your life as a player, and it’s of no small relevance to the [discussed] case that you often learn it between the sheets, so to speak. Netsex, tinysex, virtual sex — however you name it, in real-life reality it’s nothing more than a 900-line encounter stripped of even the vestigial physicality of the voice. And yet, as many a wide-eyed newbie can tell you, it’s possibly the headiest experience the very heady world of MUDs has to offer. Amid flurries of even the most cursorily described caresses, sighs, or penetrations, the glands do engage, and often as throbbingly as they would in a real-life assignation — sometimes even more so, given the combined power of anonymity and textual suggestiveness to unshackle deep-seated fantasies. And if the virtual setting and the interplayer vibe are right, who knows? The heart may engage as well, stirring up passions as strong as many that bind lovers who observe the formality of trysting in the flesh.

He goes on to state that « what happens inside a MUD-made world is neither exactly real nor exactly make-believe, but nonetheless profoundly, compellingly, and emotionally true. ». Does that sound familiar ? To me, it certainly does. Has your pulse ever quickened at the laconic message telling you someone is online ? Has your heart ever fluttered at the sight of two rather cartoonish 3D renditions locked in embrace ? Has your breath ever caught at a line of text scrolling off your screen emoting love, hatred, or raw animal lust ? If it has, as it has for me, you should feel the truth of what Dibbell says.

Which eventually brings me to the cryptic title of my post. It alludes to a simple, yet complex idea along the lines of Dibbell’s thought : the idea that there might not be a single line separating the real and the virtual, RL and SL Y-K-W, and that all there is cannot necessarily be categorized as belonging to either the one or the other side. That we might have to accept that the two seemingly clear boundaries neither meet nor match perfectly, defining a space that is neither part of the one nor part of the other world. In this space, a reality emerges that belongs to both worlds it originates in, but is exclusive to neither, emotionally as true as it is physically non-existent. The truth, to paraphrase Dibbell, lies between the gaps ; what binds so many real persons to the virtual world might be the interstitial reality which they have discovered, often without being aware of it, or acknowledging it fully.

I intend to explore that reality. If you join me, mind the gap. Because the gap is what matters.