The Social Experiment

From left-wing to right-wing libertarianism

After a few more weeks it was clear that Second Life was not what I thought it would be. First and foremost, in the 12,000-user-sized virtual economy of mid-2004, there was a huge proportion of people who just worked for free. They didn’t want to make money. They gave everything away, or bartered for other things. And they spent as much time having fun doing things as the ones that only worked for their next L$. Trying to fit a conspiracy theory that explained their existence — after all, if they were refusing to compete in a simulated virtual economy, why would LL allow them to stay? — was starting to stretch the boundaries of my imagination, so I obviously had to drop my beautifully laid out plan for becoming SL’s leading entrepreneur and get a few interviews with the venture capitalists and business angels was going astray.

So what was SL’s history so far, and what were actually people doing with it? The recent past (from the perspective of 2004, of course) had been quite different: there was no economy and no need for it. People just connected to SL because they felt the urge for being creative. They built things and had fun building them. There was not even a need for “barter” (although this quickly appeared later, in the form of “prim hoarding” — in the early days, there weren’t any parcels, and you’d have a fixed amount of prims to play with. So Beta testers just hoarded as many prims as they could, by rezzing them, and then traded them with others who wanted to have a go at building). This was pretty much the left-wing libertarian’s dream: no rules, no money, no problems. Just be creative and build.

We might find this naive, but the real truth is that the whole Internet just started like this: people volunteering their time to do creative things together. While of course the Internet of 2009 is not the same as the one in 1969 — and mostly because of a paradigm shift — the whole point is that the small-scale left-wing libertarian utopia of Second Life worked well.

For a while.

Like almost all these social experiments, these kinds of utopias work quite well up to the limit of the Monkeysphere, or about 150 people. From here on it becomes a complex problem worth studying by anthropologists and sociologists, but putting it bluntly, put over 150 people in the same shared environment, and conflicts will arise, as you start seeing people as merely “stereotypes” and not “real people”. “Real people” are the ones you really care about; the rest you ignore (or hate). It’s the way we humans are — it’s part of our nature, and it has evolved well before homo sapiens even existed.

So how does a loving, caring, gentle, altruistic clan or tribe of 150 grow beyond that number? Studies show that the only option is to complexify the society. It cannot be based on the same altruistic model any longer — it requires norms, rules, ethical codes of conduct, and someone to enforce them. That way, societies can grow, apparently exponentially, since if we look at our planet, we can definitely create single societies with a billion human beings in it (just look at China and India; but even the European Union is growing beyond half a billion). We might even extrapolate and believe that one day our whole planet might be under the same society — it’s not that far away — or even beyond that (if someone figures out how to do human space travel profitable). The trick, history shows us, is to enforce social norms and conducts.

At this stage, my left-wing libertarian friends have lost interest in this article 🙂 I can only tell them that just because you wish an ideal society based on altruism, it doesn’t work for more than 150 people. Sorry. We’re just not genetically engineered for that. However, we’re nevertheless clever enough to create way more complex societies. We just have to discard some of those nice, warm feelings that come from designing ideal societies.

And this was what Linden Lab actually did, even before the official launch of Second Life. Land became private property — you wouldn’t be any longer at the mercy of “prim hoarders”, since your parcel would have an amount of prims just for you, that nobody could take away. That meant that land had to be owned, and since barter is not so good for privately owned land, Linden lab introduced money. At the same time, they also started “policing” a bit more, to avoid people abusing each other’s private property. Intellectual property rights were codified into Second Life — the permission system. Now, not only “land” (or better: “the right to own prims”) was private property, but your own content became private property as well, to lease, sell, or give away at your whim. This model of society required little else, but it managed to advance to the next stage: right-wing libertarianism.

In real life, right-wing libertarianism doesn’t span a long time in history, but it certainly allows “millions” to live pretty much as they wish, so long as they have a common currency and recognise an authority (that employs force) to settle minor disagreements. We see how this worked in the US’s Wild West or during Australia’s expansion phase. There are not many examples around, but they have a few common denominators. One is that it doesn’t work long-term (beyond a few generations) with an egalitarian society, because ultimately brute force will dictate the rules — and either you have it or can afford to hire it, or you’re out of luck. Modern governments limit brute force by making it a state monopoly. Put in other words, violence against others is a crime — except if it’s the government exercising that force. Democracies believe that the best way to make sure the government doesn’t abuse that force is to regularly elect the representatives on government through universal suffrage. Thus we come to our current models of government.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
%d bloggers like this: