The Social Experiment

Speculum mundi or the failure of the social experiment?

The more time passes, the more Second Life seems to be a failed social experiment, in the sense of allowing to create human structures and societies that don’t exist in the real world, because of the conditions of the countries we live in RL. My Immersionist friends would say that this is the premature announcement of the death of immersionist places — spaces we create where we’re not bound by the rules and laws of the real world.

I wouldn’t be so drastic in claiming the “death” of the social experiment, just recognising that the current way things are going, Second Life just mirrors real life.

The good news is that we know of an alternative that actually works.

It’s called the Internet.

The Internet is a real anachronism in our time. In spite of being much more regulated that it was on the early 1990s, it still maintains one fundamental aspect: nobody really owns it. Oh sure, if the US government shut down the root DNS servers, things wouldn’t go well for a while, although the Internet is robust enough to allow for “alternative root DNS servers” to emerge and replace the existing ones. You might also claim that there is no Internet, there are just telecommunication providers, linking all those networks together — and whomever controls the telecoms, will control the Internet. Again, this is also not correct. It’s true that most of the traffic on the Internet is carried by a limited number of carriers — but there are quite a lot of them! It’s also true that if suddenly, say, the US government would forbid the US carriers to connect to the Internet “because it’s full of pornography” (20% of all traffic on the ‘net is porn), the whole world-wide Internet would be severely hit. But it wouldn’t disappear. Existing non-US carriers are big enough to handle the load; they would simply find an opportunity to expand their world-wide fibre networks, it would just take some time.

But the beauty of the Internet goes beyond that. In theory, there are technologies that allow you to be totally anonymous on the ‘net — but not beyond the long arm of the law. Just far enough to allow borderline behaviour to transcend local, regional, national, or international barriers. We can see that on the websites sharing copyrighted material for free — they switch nodes, they use peer-to-peer networking, they use proxy services, and overall, it’s hard to track them down. And uncountable millions use them. These netizens are technically outside the strict boundaries of outdated concepts like “countries”, even though they have their own rules, their own codes of conduct, their own procedures to deal with culprits. In a sense, they’re the last remaining libertarian society on this planet, and they’re hard to eradicate, since it’s very hard to point a finger to where they actually are. Today, for instance, if you wish to host a gambling site to offer online gambling to US residents, you can opt for several out-of-border hosting providers to deploy your services, and with enough ingenuity, you’ll be impossible to track down (even though it’s getting harder to do so).

Although this is at an extreme end on what is technically — or legally — possible, there are far better alternatives. Simply switching borders for hosting your service allows organisations and individuals to display information and sell services that otherwise would be impossible. Thus, in countries with repressive regimes, hosting a blog on a server located in a country with freedom of expression, allows people to write whatever they please. If they’re careful enough to take some measures, they’ll be able to get away with it — as we all followed in the media with the Iranian students on Twitter — and it’s not easy to stop that. The Internet is just too universal, too pervasive, too ubiquitous.

Thus, a “less central” Second Life could, in theory, allow the same to happen. There are two possible alternatives, of course. The first is that Linden Lab starts co-locating elsewhere in the world — and switching private islands to the co-location facility that allows a different range of local laws that better accomodate the wishes of residents. To do this effectively, it means using the same trick that PayPal originally did: setting up different companies, and just loosely binding them in a consortium (but without ownership relationships between them), since, of course, the “mother” company is subject to the laws of the country they’re in, and all subsidiaries will have to respect both the laws of the “mother” company and of their own country. Having the companies set up as merely “siblings” would neatly sidestep the issue: each “Linden Lab Company” would only need to respond to local laws. If no legal relationship exists between them, this ought to work. In a sense, Linden Lab’s “SL behind a firewall” product might allow this to happen.

Nevertheless, it would still mean that all residents would be subject to the same ToS defined by the abstract, overarching organisation “Linden Lab”. A better approach is to do it the Internet way: no relationship whatsoever, each company is independently owned and organised, subject to their own country’s laws, and just agree to exchange traffic among themselves. In fact, this is what is happening under OpenSimulator’s HyperGrid right now. The problem is that OpenSim grids are still at very early stages, have very few users (probably less than 50,000, adding them all together) and cannot connect to Linden Lab’s main grid, something which will very likely be impossible before mid-2010, when the protocols to define the way non-LL grids might be allowed to interconnect with LL’s own grid will be finished, and that will also take a few months to get implemented.

Thus, at this stage, we’re just waiting to see what happens. Until the end of 2010 it’s unlikely that we can expect the social experiment of Second Life to continue. We’re at the waiting stage. OpenSimulator will continue to evolve; possibly other technologies might (or not) become “SL-compatible” in the mean time; possibly Linden Lab will experiment with truly discontinuous grids (i.e. each having their own sets of central servers, as opposed to the current model, where both co-location facilities are connected through fibre and actually share the same central servers directly) before that, and open their first non-US grid next year. We can only speculate.

One thing is for sure. No matter what will happen by then, I still think that creativity, but most importantly economy, will be the driving forces of Second Life. As LL will start facing some serious battles on the technology front (the most interesting ones probably coming from OpenSimulator itself!), Second Life will have to make sure that its biggest success — the virtual socio-economic environment — continues to evolve and expand. Technological stagnation might be acceptable for a while (and in the recent pre-M Linden days, this mostly meant focusing everything on stability and bug fixing, and forgetting innovation; M Linden desires that technological breakthroughs make part of the LL agenda again), so long as neither the social and the economic environments are affected. The current trend seems moderately optimistic. SL’s economy grows above its number of new users, which is positive. The same can also be seen, to a degree, to the higher number of hours used by the residents. LL also has some metrics on the number of IMs exchanged, which might give a clue on increased social interaction. The rest, however, is not very easy to measure, and even more obscure to interpret. In any case, SL has quite strong arguments on those two areas — and “community” is seen as a way more valuable asset as anything else, and the main driver for economical transactions. I find that extremely encouraging, and quite in line with what is happening on the Web, too — a reason that made my company launch a business-oriented community (and not merely a technological “pack” of services, or simply a land rental system for corporations), the Beta Business Park. Bringing people together to talk about business is the very stuff that Second Life is made of.

In any case, I definitely look forward to what we might be doing in 2011 or so, not only on the technological level, but in the social and economic level. It should be interesting to see if the protocols that allow Second Life to exist today will truly become the “3D Internet” — with its freedom from local borders — creating a virtual space that is unbound and unstuck from national borders and laws, just like the Internet did for the 2D world, and expand its community and the economical transactions that way.

It certainly worked on the Web.

And no, I’m afraid that the building shown at the first page is not available for viewing in Second Life; the university that is doing the research for it (a project that has been going on for almost 4 years now!) has not enough funding to keep it in SL, so, well, it’s on Beta Technologies’ own OpenSimulator Grid. No, unless you have a very good reason for it, I’m not going to create logins for that 🙂 However, if you’re a Gridnaut you can use OGP, or if you’re registered at another OpenSim grid, you can use Hypergrid to teleport over. If not, well, you know — you won’t be able to see it before the end of 2010 🙂 If nothing in this paragraph makes sense to you, I’m sorry, but you’ll need to read one of my other articles to get a glimpse of what I’m talking about 🙂

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