Why discussing governments is so hard…

For those who missed it in the forums, here goes a reprint. It deals with the Neualtenburger Projekt and some may need to read most of what’s been discussed on “SL Government” to understand a little why I felt the need for writing this post:


Neualtenburg is a symbol for controversy among pre-conceived ideas. My guess is, it will always be like that. Let me explain why.

First, there is no way any explanation can be isolated from context. Neualtenburg has both a historical and a social context.

Some months ago, Robin Linden thought it would be a nice idea to propose the residents to set up an experiment of self-government. At the time, I thought there were two ideas behind it:

1) Getting good PR for LL. Notice that LL doesn’t want exponential growth (they wouldn’t be able to handle it). They want sustained growth, by word-of-mouth, and by attracting the “correctly-minded” individuals to LL: creative people with an education.

2) Helping out LL in getting our “world” organized. There are thousands of ways to do this. Robin’s unfortunate idea was to ask the residents what they did think about ONE of those ideas.

The snowball effect became a glacier – put “self-government” in a phrase in the forums, and it’ll ignite like a torch in a dry corn field. LL understood the lesson quickly: take care of the kind of questions you ask if you don’t know how your market (ie. us!) thinks.

(The conclusion of that episode was simple: Robin pulled LL away from the discussion, and LL set up Live Help instead. This time, they made sure not to ask the community what they thought about that!)

It’s easy to see “how we think”, or, rather, “how the large majority thinks”. Put up a polling system anywhere in SL, make sure all 17,000 residents give their opinion, and the results, unsurprisingly, will be:

  1. An overwhelming majority (> 95%) of the highly creative people here will consider themselves anarchists/libertarians (even if they never really thought of being “labeled” that way).
  2. A vast group (certainly above 60%) are paranoid about their own governments (or governments in general).
  3. A very large group (harder to estimate) does not “trust” a fellow resident with any kind of “authority” (ie. if they have a choice to create a group to do something, or do it by themselves, they will prefer to do it alone).
  4. Another overwhelming majority (again, my estimates show > 95%) believe that SL is an Utopia where they can be whatever they want to be, without any intereference, and, more important than that, this should not change ever.
  5. Despite some griefers, certainly more than 60% of the people agree that the “divine Lindens” manage Utopia pretty well most of the time.
  6. Utopia is supposedly defined as “a place where no one has power over anyone else”.

This “overall image” is certainly not a characteristic of SL itself, but curiously enough, it’s more frequent on groups of highly creative and intelligent people, more in the US than elsewhere, but certainly present throughout most of the western countries.

It unfortunately leads to some misconceptions…

1) The problem with anarchist/libertarian views centers on the concept of “freedom of speech” (or “freedom of expression”). According to true anarchism/libertarianism, there should be absolutely no limitation on “freedom of speech” (ie. this term is accepted with an absolute, or intrinsic, value).

This means that things like suing for libels or slander does not make any sense under the concept of “freedom of speech”; also, any kind of attempt of limitation on freedom of speech is certainly an abuse of that power.

In reality, there are no anarchist/libertarian societies working, so we cannot have an example of “absolute freedom of speech”. What we have instead – and all countries abiding by the UN Declaration on Human Rights (1948) will have that as one of the pillars of their own constitutions – is a different declaration of “freedom of speech/expression”, which will work for democratic systems. It states that the right of exercizing your freedom of speech cannot be interpreted to allow abuse, in any way, to destroy the rules of the system.

A simple consequence is that you cannot abuse your right of freedom of speech to harass other people verbally, for instance. Or you cannot use that same right to destroy the system that allows you to express your freedom of speech. Another example, you cannot create a party/faction/association whose only purpose is to replace a country’s constitution to disallow freedom of speech.

But it goes further than that. If you have a set system of rules (let’s call it a “constitution”, but it also could be a “charter” for an organization, or “the internal rules” of a company), and allow them “freedom of speech”, this does not mean you can now abuse this right to systematically “pull down” that system of rules.

This concept of “relative freedom of speech”, or “limited freedom of speech”, is hard to grasp to anyone of an anarchistic/libertarian persuasion – for them, there can only be “absolute freedom of speech” and everything else is just “playing with words and concepts”.

I’m afraid to report that both the UN as well as hundreds of countries will not agree with that. I certainly agree that the expression “freedom of speech” tends to create an idealized, utopian image of what we “would like it to be”. But it is not that way.

2) Paranoia and a general distrust of all types of “government” or, more correctly, “power abuse”, tends to make residents of SL believe that they are in an Utopia, where these things “simply do not happen”, and this is one of the major reasons why they have joined SL and stay here. Any change to Utopia is, necessarily, a Bad Thing (even if some are prepared to accept that change is necessary – they simply will leave Utopia if change comes). Actually, Utopia is really about not existing change any more (there are no “changing utopias”).

Thus, things like a gallopant capitalism in SL are “tolerated” since it’s just the exercize of a freedom of will and expression. People may like or not like it, but they accept it, since it’s a part of Utopia as well.

In reality, Second Life® is not an anarchistic/libertarian Utopia, since the Lindens are the Benevolent Dictators (or demi-gods, since they are all-powerful) who “rule the world”. This is a very interesting concept, and I was very surprised to read about some polls telling that a large majority of the western population, given the choice between the current democratic establishments, and a government by a benelovent, mild dictatorship, would gladly embrace the latter. Democracy – the alleged rule by the people – is viewed as just a vehicle for power-hungry politicians to impose their own will upon others. By contrast, a benevolent dictatorship will leave people free to do whatever they choose, as long as everybody is happy – if the people is happy, the dictator is happy as well (contrast this to totalitarian dictatorship, of course – a benevolent dictator knows that abusing his/her power will get people angry. He/she will always use his/her power only as a mediator).

Our own in-world philosophers and theorists have a good argument in favour of the benevolent dictatorship. LL is a company, so they earn more money if everybody is happy, meaning that all their decisions will be towards making people happy. Power is only employed when someone is not happy, or making others unhappy. Any change in this type of “arrangement” will necessarily give rise to a discontented mob that will leave SL – thus making LL suffer. LL provides the adequate “balance” to make sure that the discontented residents are a smallish group, leave SL quietly, and do not interfere with other peoples’ happiness. This argument can be extended to the ultimate question: “If LL did not exist, and we had to manage the sims by ourselves, would you still be part of the SL community?” Most people (even if they dislike Lindens in general) would reply “no!” to that.

Also, most – if not all – people have had bad experiences in self-ruling communities. At least in the threads I follow, I seem to be the sole exception. I have had EXCELLENT examples in virtual communities. Things like Linux or Apache wouldn’t ever see the light of the day without self-organization. And they are just the top of the cream. Even in highly structured online games – where every advantage or bug is exploited to rank higher in the game – I have seen lots and lots of examples of communities coming together and organize themselves. Sure, there have been setbacks. Sure, in some of those cases, people actually rebelled together to “overthrow” virtual governments (curiously enough, this also meant that they have “organized” themselves first!). My point is, the detractors of “organization” have long lists of bad examples to give, and this is the reason for them to put an emphasis on “anarchy”. I, for myself, also have long lists of good examples (all the open source projects, to start with…), and that’s my own reason to put in a good word for “organization”.

Another reason for “anarchy” vs. “organization” has to do with the social structure of SL. We could divide the residents into two broad groups – “creators” and “consumers”. While there are exceptions at both extremes, it’s interesting to point out that the large majority of “creators” are “creative hermits” – ie. they don’t socialize and don’t want to socialize at all, for them, SL is a creative platform, let others have fun “socializing” if they wish. The ratings’ thread is a good point to see the arguments against any system that emphasizes “organization” and “socialization” over “lone creativity”.

So, any kind of “organization project” is viewed as a “threat” to Utopia! Especially if they are presented as “medium-to-long term projects”. Ganging a group of people together to put up a themed sim is never a “threat” – it’s something short-lived – and the group “falls apart” after the themed sim is operational, and it’s time for the next project. This means that there really aren’t “power struggles”, but smallish groups of 10-20 people working creatively together for a while, for the sole purpose of setting up some stuff. And then they peacefully disband, each to his/her own hermit hole.

In reality, what people tend to forget is that all dictatorships – benevolent or not – have an aristocracy, and it’s the will of the artistocracy that prevails upon the others. The aristocracy, in SL, are the very large land owners (nor necessarily the “land barons”) and the top creative designers. If they leave, LL suffers – as in RL, 80% of the power is concentrated in about 20% of the people (and I would imagine that in SL it’s much more like 99%:1%!). So, they have LL’s ears. Again, they oppose any type of self-government: this would allow the “common resident” to have a saying in affairs that are better dealt directly between them and the Lindens directly.

This means that, unlike an “open” democracy, where you know “who is in power” and you can blame them for all that’s wrong, a “closed” benevolent dictatorship has a “group in power” which no one knows how it works or how it exerts its power. They do it… in secret. 🙂

How strange that people trust so much in “them”!

You see, my own view is very simple. By understanding that LL has all to lose if everyone is unhappy, and thus rules very well, we need to extend that to the aristocracy as well. If they are unhappy, this means that more than 80% of the world falls apart (and if I was bolder, I would even say 99%…). The reverse is also true, what is good for the aristocracy, is good for LL, and thus good for SL. So this also means that the aristocracy “rules” in a very benevolent way. The more attention they will capture, the worse it is, if they’re pointed out in a crowd (ie. the forums!). Best be silent  🙂

Now here comes Neualtenburg.

Technically, Neualtenburg is just a themed sim, nothing more. The Lindens gave an incentive to people wanting to preserve the snow sims. Ulrika & friends stepped in and made a proposal, which was accepted. However, instead of the usual approach of “ganging a group of creative people together”, Neualtenburg used the infamous words: “government, self-rule, organization”, and Neualtenburg becoming “more” than a pretty place with cool textures. It would become a self-sustained community, creating its own rules. The group felt that the building & scripting part would be the “easier” part – almost all of Neualtenburg is “in place” right now (sure, there are a few spots that need to be done, and there is always need of further building/scripting to finish it all). But that was just step one.

Step two is “where the fun begins” – “the hard part” – making the City of Neualtenburg a reference, where people come to visit and share the fun. Pretty buildings and cool scripts are not enough for that, there has to be an ongoing incentive for people to visit and expand on the original ideas. However, since most of us in SL will have our own projects, and our own SL schedule to “fit in” for this or that, meaning that it’s not always easy to keep “supporting” a project once it’s “started”. That’s why so many themed sims rely on scripting instead – look at SimHorror, Spitoonie or Neverland, where you theoretically don’t need any people around. Once the themed sim is developed, you can simply “move on” towards The Next Big Thing.

Things like SimCast or Dark Life – or, of course, Neualtenburg – need an “ongoing development team” to make them interesting. Look at the wonderful Nexus Prime cyberpunk city in Gibson. Empty of people, empty of animation, after a while, you have seen it once, what’s the point in returning there? “Nothing goes on” – since the developers moved to other, more ambitious projects. And the city goes to sleep afterwards…

To have an “ongoing effort” of people motivated to do city animation (this does not necessarily mean new events, but figuring out new ways of improving the city, redesigning old structures, expand the ones that are a success or get rid of the ones who did not work, i.e. “make the city live”), there is no “easy” way to do it, if you just have a monolithical group with a few team leaders. What happens if the team leader gives up? Or gets angry with the group? Or “sells out” the land? All these questions pop up every time a fantastic project comes to an end because its original proposers, for one reason or another, simply “go away”.

One alternative, as envisioned by the Neualtenburg group, is having a form to “rotate” the leadership of the group, assign people different roles in mantaining the themed sim, get rules for what can be done and what cannot, and so on. The important part to remember here is change. People change, SL changes, the city should change as well. Monolithic group structures do not deal well with change. No matter how good the “Utopia” is, if there is a change, you need to adapt to change. It’s pointless to remain stubborn and insist that you want to “resist change” – SL is not different than RL in that aspect. You don’t want to change – you die. That’s why several projects are usually short-lived, or rather, they don’t survive their original creators (yes, fortunately, there are some exceptions as well).

So, the Neualtenburger Projekt recognizes a few key issues, and almost all of them are annoying to be considered by most residents…

  1. We know that SL is not an anarchistic/libertarian utopia, but a benevolent dictatorship by the Lindens. This does not bother us in the least. We don’t expect SL to be any kind of utopia, but rather the product of what the residents do with it.
  2. Despite what most people think, the basis of SL is change – not stagnation. The system changes with each new release of SL. New people with new ideas come into SL, and this disturbs the “establishment”. Also, LL itself changes, and changes their own views. Success is for the ones better dealing with change, not for the ones relying on their year-long experience with SL to tell other people how to shape this world. LL doesn’t do that, and they “own” the game; why should residents be more stubborn than LL?
  3. Dealing with change means a flexible group structure. You cannot rely upon the same old arguments, the same old ideas, the same old thoughts, or even the same old people, to come up with the necessary adaptation to change.
  4. So, one solution for long-term themed sim is creating a structure which allows for discussion of ideas on how the sim should be organized, and involving the kind of people that want to participate. You can call this structure whatever you wish – we role-play it and call it “government”, since we are used to RL analogies. I.e. no one calls their land “my virtual space on the viewport” or so. 🙂

What the Neualtenburger Projekt is not:

 

  1. Another Utopia within an Utopia! This has been the major source of confusion in the “public” discussions in the forums, and the real reason for me to post in the first place. When people read about “government in SL”, they expect one of two things: 

     

    1. A totalitaristic and autocratic form of rule, where “leaders” abuse their power over the others, to impose their will upon the rest of the members (and, if you wish, upon everybody else). Forget about it. You don’t need a “government” for that in SL. Actually, this is precisely what happens with groups right now! We simply could set up a group and have the officers ban everybody who did not agree wih them. That’s exactly what all themed sims do in SL right now!! And they don’t need to “excuse themselves” to other people, or justify their own choices. It’s their own group, and the issue is finished. You disagree with the group, don’t visit their sim, go build your own. How many successful projects started in SL like that? Think malls and dance clubs…
    2. An “idealistic”, “utopian” government – or rather, a “libertarian government” (if you wish to call something like that). People on the public forums tend to pick up on their own definition of a libertarian government, and compare Neualtenburg with it. That’s the wrong approach, my friends. Neualtenburg is not a libertarian utopia, and never meant to be! Any attempt to compare Neualtenburg with that “idealized government”, which only exist on the detractor’s minds, will necessarily fail.

    This last two points are the source of confusion in the public forums, because people have a difficulty in understanding concepts, both abstract and real. Just start on the thread’s name! “Social Democratic is a code word for Totalitarianism”! Help! You’re completely missing the point here, this would be like saying the United States is a totaliarian police state ruled by an oligarchy with mock elections – while certainly sometimes it looks like that, the truth is, it’s not! Or saying the the United Kingdom is an autocratic monarchy, because the Queen rules. Another fallacy, the UK has been a constitutional, democratic monarchy for ages and ages.

    This means that when you picture Neualtenburg as an utopian government, and read that some of the members of Neualtenburg are allowed to express their own thoughts – automatically, a bulb light over your head, and say: “Ah-HAH! I knew it! They don’t allow different opinions, so it’s totalitarism!” As a matter of fact, exactly because people are allowed to express their views (especially when they are contrary to libertarian utopic ideals!) it means that there is no “totalitarism” in place…

  2. Neualtenburg is just The Official Ulrika’s Zugzwang “Groupies” Gang. This is a simple way to tell that 40 people who are part of the group are nothing more than worshippers of Ulrika & Friends. Again, simple rhetoric… some of us agree with Ulrika, and Ulrika agrees with some of us as well. But, as Pendari very well pointed out, Ulrika can go away for a while and relax, and Neualtenburg does not crumble to dust – unlike other themed sims with their own groups, which totally depend upon their “leaders” to work. Neualtenburg does not. There are organizational structures in place that are still embryonary, but will hold the Projekt in place.Does this mean that if Ulrika, Kendra, etc. one day disappear that Neualtenburg will be up and running? Oh, it most certainly will. I would agree that it will probably see a few changes. We are not their clones and blindingly follow their “commands” – it’s not NeualtenBORG we’re talking about 🙂 – but, instead, each one of us brings his/her own views on the subject. And, instead of blindingly obeying, we compromise. We had several disagreements in the past – some slight, some severe (ie. group members leaving). I expect this will continue, it’s human nature after all, and some of us can adapt and live with the changes, some can’t (or do not want to). Everybody is free to participate, under the rules – and this means that if you totally disagree with something, well, you have to present your case, convince a majority that you’re right, and see your opinions unfold. Just like in RL, you have an option to say your saying, and persuade others that you’re correct. But you also have to be open-minded enough to accept that others (or the majority) will not agree with you, all the time, even if they may agree some of the time. Either you feel this your way – and Neualtenburg has, on its proposal, several ways of dealing with minority opinions and give them much strength – or you’re in the wrong group. Nothing wrong with that, people join and leave groups for the same reason (in RL and SL)!
  3. Neualtenburg is going to take over the world. Well, I know that this is somewhere on Ulrika’s signature 🙂 and another cause of worries for many people 🙂 since we all remember the “fear” about SL Government. Haney has already solved this issue by officially stating what Neualtenburg is about – preserving a themed snow sim, if possible, long-term. The “government” is, as explained, the Projekt’s way to deal with long-term projects. Is it the best way? Ah well, that’s for us to experiment with, and LL will certainly be interested in the results. Will this form of government “expand”? Only if and when people want that.Let’s pick up an example. Neverland was created by a group of 30 or so people – residents as well as a few Lindens. These people have created a great project, everybody is happy about it – and now the group splits apart and starts something new from scratch. Probably on another, different group, with different objectives, and on other scales. Spellbound provides the “driving force” and aggregates new creative designers around them, and this will give SL probably additional, themed sims. Way cool.

    Now imagine that some of the original team members are sad because, after having all that work, people are going to press the delete button and everything disappears, but the memories. Wouldn’t it be nice to continue? Say, by introducing new ideas, have new scripts, other “games” and “attractions” online, etc? Or imagine that a group of highly talented people approaches Spellbound and say: “Hey, we got some amazing ideas to expand Neverland, it’s a pity we couldn’t be a part of the original team, can we join now and maintain it, and implement our own ideas?” Well, as the organisation model currently stands, Spellbound would either shrug them off and say “sorry, we’re not interested” or “wow cool, well, if you want, you can have it, we’re off towards our next project, Neverland is history for us, but thanks for the offer, yes, please, continue our work”. There aren’t many alternatives to that, are they? Also, the way Neverland is modelled, there is no real way to “make a profit” from it, which means that any new group which “takes over” would need to think on how to pay at least for their tier fees every month… and why should people pay for something they already have experienced for free?

    Neualtenburg proposes a viable model to deal with that. As it was said over and over again, the mid-term objective is to make Neualtenburg “profitable”, ie. having the tier donors get a return on their investment. Will Neualtenburg make it? Only time will tell, but the two major points are:

    • There are things into place that will deal with longevity of the Projekt, allowing new people to come while old ones leave, and keep it going – changing and adapting as needed.
    • There is a model thought about profitability and several ways to tweak it and fine-tune it in order to make it work. Of course it has to be tested “in the field” first. But at least serious thought was put into the profitability system.

    So certainly, grouped themed sims, if they want to deal with long-term longevity, will eventually exchange ideas with Neualtenburg. Does this mean that we will see “little Neualtenburg clones popping all over the place”? Actually, I don’t really think so. Most SL residents are too individualistic to group together and organize themselves, when they can get wonderful things built alone (and due to the ever-changing nature of SL, the “urge” to leave a “permanent imprint” on the world is not so strong). I think that getting 40 similar-minded people out of 17,000 is already a small miracle.

    And what about Neualtenburg expanding beyond its borders (ie. beyond Anzere)? Again, there are a few problems with that. Neualtenburg itself has a fixed charter by the Lindens – “to preserve themed snow sims”. So, assuming that we can run Neualtenburg for a profit, the idea to get a few more snow sims and replicate the model is certainly tempting for some. The group would have to expand, though, and getting novel ideas to “fill up the extra space”, which is harder (what can you do with 2 snow sims that you can’t do with one? A bigger city? But bigger cities do not generate more income just for “being there”, except for dwell eventually…). One alternative would be to “start over” with a different government model on a completely different sim. But this would stretch the human resources as well – the “original team” would have to make sure they can “do it all over again” while leaving Neualtenburg operational, and not cripple one project with the burden of sustaining another. Finally, there is “organic growth”, ie. people in the neighbourhood of Anzere asking for help/ideas to change their own builds and make it “look like” Neualtenburg, and eventually benefit from advertising/PR as well. I remember one or two buildings just outside Neualtenburg which are absolutely awful and a tribute to bad taste. But we have no “jurisdiction” beyond Anzere. This does not mean that we could not approach the people owning those buildings, offer to restyle them for free, and promise to advertise and promote them. A few will eventually agree to participate in the Projekt as well. Most will get angry just for asking. So I’m not sure how this will work out.

Some closing thoughts (this is a waaaaaaay too long post!). I personally have seen the bad reaction to all kinds of “SL government”. Inspired by Buddhism and similar philosophies, I truly believe that ignorance is the root of most misconceptions and ground fear or hate. By properly explaining what Neualtenburg is and what it certainly isn’t, we give people some “food for thought” – i.e., they will still believe that it’s a Bad Thing, but at least they will be discussing the Projekt based upon facts, and not idle speculating on what they “believe” Neualtenburg to be. In my reasoning, Linden Lab has learned their lesson, and avoid any talk of “SL government” before people get restless again. If there is a time in the way-too-distant future where LL declares the mainland sims under “SL government” – they will make sure that the largest part of SL at that time is completely anarchic and without any rules. So, if we have 300+ sims in the mainland right now, this will only happen when we have a total of 6000+ sims – and probably most of them private sims, or sims hosted on non-Linden co-los, ie. something well beyond 2005, and the release of the source code of SL’s sim server software. This is future speculation, and only reflects the idea that yes, I believe there will be “organized communities” in SL, some even organized by LL, but the vast majority of the land will remain a chaotic and anarchic frontier.

This is also a reason why the Neualtenburg is open and public – you will see there how often the members of the Projekt disagree, and how they often compromise on “less than perfect” solutions for the sake of getting the Projekt along. We are all humans, and each with his/her own opinion. Certainly there will ever be disagreement – but one thing is disagreement and compromising, the other is flaming wars, and people leaving the group. The point is, if people take pains to read what we write, they will be able to understand what we are planning to do.

Unfortunately, I believe that most people don’t read things properly. They just browse the text diagonally, and all their anarchistic/libertarian neurons fire up and boil the blood as soon as the G-word is mentioned…

About Gwyneth Llewelyn

I'm just a virtual girl in a virtual world...