May 01, 2007

Second Life: My New Life in Pixels, Part 5

Law and Order in a Virtual Society, or "Whose Second Life is it Anyway?"

After a few of weeks in Second Life, I have learned about the vast number and variety of residents and locales. There are millions of potential inhabitants (although maybe only about 25,000 or so are actually online at any given time).

Environments and public spaces in SL vary from benign, empty and pastoral garden spaces, to raucous, busy urban malls where the sheer density of avatars brings out the best and worst in online behaviour. If you want to sit alone in an empty Japanese-style temple surrounded by gold dragons, you can do that. If you want to be in a frenetic mob of rejects from a superhero novel creating spontaneous pyrotechnic displays, you can do that too.

When I first joined SL, I was quite surprised by the sense of hedonism and the lack of structure that some of the residents seemed to enjoy. Generally, I consider SL to be a surrealist's wonderland and truly, one of the largest ongoing costume parties in the world today. I call it a costume party because in it's essence, unlike online role playing games, SL does not require it's participants to take on a particular game-play sort of role, or pursue or contribute to any pre-set goals. SL is more like an empty, undefined environment that, over time, becomes structured by it's inhabitants, according to their own needs. In fact, according to Linden Labs, much of the content in Second Life today has been created by it's residents.

Inhabitants Shaping Their Environment: One Early Experiment

Back in the early '70s, before the beginning of the MIT Media Lab, Nicholas Negroponte's Architecture Machine Group created a simple interactive kinetic sculpture/installation comprised of a terrarium of gerbils and tiny metallic-covered boxes. A robotic arm positioned over the gerbil cage would occasionally reach in and change ("adjust" or "correct") the position of a box. The gerbils had their own needs, and would move boxes on their own to create little living spaces or simply as a consequence of their natural movement and activities. The robotic arm was, I guess, metaphorically, like the "hand of the creator". I suppose the whole piece was an experiment in the interactions between two systems in a shared environment. (This experimental environment was described in Stewart Brand's excellent 1987 book The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT)

We've come a long way from the gerbil cage. Each of SL's regions requires it's own dedicated server. As of March 2007, Linden was running about 2000 servers located all over the United States, with plans to be able to scale up to handle something like 100 times the user activity they are handling today. So, Second Life is quite a massive virtual space.

Still, I think the existence of SL poses the same kind of question posed by Negroponte's gerbil cage experiment: With the ability to dynamically change and define their environment, what will the environment's residents decide to do?

The Culture and Ethics in Second Life

Unlike the simple walls of the gerbil cage, in SL, the boundaries and controls of the environment - what it will and will not let it's residents do - are multi-layered and can be rather complex.

The physics of the world (usually) include gravity, solidity, acceleration and visibility (e.g. atmospheric effects like fog or turbidity).

Ethics and morality however, are defined by a list of rules. There is good, social behaviour and bad, anti-social behaviour in SL, just like anywhere else.

Second Life has it's own stated set of Community Standards, which advise in a nutshell:
  • In public, "PG" rated areas, public nudity of residents is frowned upon. Billboards advise new residents to not walk around naked.
  • No intolerance, harassment or assault permitted to other users
  • Indecency is relative to the stated rating in each SL region. Some areas are rated "PG", so have different standards than areas that are rated "Mature" or "Adult"
Negative Feedback, or How the System Controls Itself Socially or Ethically

Officially, Linden instructs residents to use the in-world "Report Abuse" feature to complain about the behaviour or actions of another resident.

Unofficially, I have also discovered that groups of residents have formed their own voluntary law enforcement associations - self-appointed cops on patrol - in order to discourage unacceptable or anti-social behaviour. They wear cop uniforms and have some kind of weaponry or powers that allow them to control (or subdue) misbehaving residents. I found this fascinating.

In one of my first visits to Orientation Island (a popular PG hang-out for SL residents), I saw a cop, introduced myself and asked him about his role in SL.

Me: "So, are you Linden staff? Are you authorized or sanctioned by Linden?"
Cop: "We organized ourselves."
Me: "So how do you enforce? Do you have weapons or something?"
Cop: "Yes. We have weapons."
Me: "So, you can arrest people?"
Cop: "You want to be a cop?"
Me: "Nope - I'm just curious. Never met a cop in here before."

Suddenly, a red biplane flew down low next to the crowd. The cop ran over to the shouted to the pilot not to fly so close to the onlookers. After a few moments, the cop returned.

Me: "So, you guys just decided to become cops?"
Cop: "Sure, It's Second Life."

A third resident, standing 10 yards away, pipes into the conversation:

3rd Res: "Second Life doesn't need cops. If you have a problem with someone, just report it to the staff."
Cop: "F*ck that. Some people are animals. We're cops! It's Second Life!"
Me: "As long as people are being helpful and constructive, it's all good to me."
3rd Res: "You can play cop if you want to, but Second Life doesn't need cops."
Cop: "I have to go. There's a shooting."
Me: "A shooting!? Can residents get injured here?"
Cop: "Some areas have games with guns. Some users don't respect where they can and can't use them."

I found this exchange fascinating. I don't think there's any concept of mortality in Second Life - you cannot die per se - but there is a concept of right and wrong, and punishment. According to the SL Police Blotter, users who have broken the rules have been penalized with temporary suspension of privileges to enter SL - like 2 or 3 days, but usually, many small penalties consist of a warning.

A number of social, economic and cultural issues and problems have arisen in Second Life which seem similar to the kinds issues arising in small countries in "Real Life". In SL, residents have broken the law and some have tried to test the social or ethical frameworks of their world.

In 2006, residents of 400 regions voted to ban certain types of false or exploitive behaviour by commercial business residents.

The Linden Dollar-based virtual economy of SL has suffered from hyperinflation, and the complexion of SL has also changed as a result of active commercial exploitation of SL as a marketing and revenue generating space. To me, these are all direct evidences of how this virtual society is evolving and how it's residents are expressing their needs and are testing the boundaries of it's existence.

Just so you don't think I'm taking this whole thing too seriously, Second Life was parodied brilliantly by Vancouver blogger Darren Barefoot.

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