Too tired of “virtual is not real”

For some silly reason, I’m unable to post a comment on http://mashable.com/2010/05/03/second-life-users-file-class-action-lawsuit-over-virtual-land/ so I’m pasting my comment here instead:

Jolie,

I really appreciate that you’ve posted the data with the numbers on your article 🙂 It avoided a lot of the typical “get a second life” one-liners and “why are people taking this serious? it’s just a game” kind of comments. They were fun when they were a novelty… a decade ago (Linden Lab was founded in 1999).

And now, to business!

Of course “pixels” are valuable. If not, web designers — a job description that didn’t exist in, say 1994 — would be out of business. I’m quite sure that the web designer market, which is little else than putting coloured pixels on a 2D screen, is worth billions and has dozens of millions (or perhaps hundreds of millions) of people working just on that area. They were laughed at in 1994; now they’re a serious job like any other. And although it’s insanely easy to “rip off” most websites’ design, it doesn’t mean it’s legal to do so — or that web designers are out of a job because, well, web pages are not real, but just pixels.

So it’s not even a question of “agreeing” with @ThorErik (which I totally agree with, btw). It’s just a fact of life. Software is virtual and doesn’t exist physically, but you pay for bits and bytes. Webpages are not real, they’re just pixels, but you can buy and sell designs. Logos are just pixels, and they’re expensive. An ad put on Google AdSense is just pixels, but you can make a campaign out of pixels to advertise products, and make thousands or millions from that ad. A PDF with a financial consultant’s evaluation of a company is worth way more than the paper it can be printed on 🙂

Just because a product is made of pixels and not atoms, it doesn’t mean it’s less valuable 🙂 (Atoms are 99.9999999999999% empty space anyway; why do we value them so much? 🙂 ) The irony is that not even “money” is much “real” these days: most money in circulation is not printed on paper or coined on iron any more, but they’re just bits travelling across bank accounts. Does that make money less valuable because most of it has become digital? Surely not!

It’s time that the fans of the “only atoms are real” world-view start waking up and understand that we are in the 21st century, where information is as valuable as atoms.

The argument that “3D models” are “not real” because they have no physical representation is also a fallacy. We can print in 3D too. Just because people are not aware that 3D printers are becoming commonplace, that doesn’t mean that they’re irrelevant 🙂 And you can definitely take a snapshot of a virtual environment and print it on 2D paper too. Again, the content itself will be far more valuable than the bit of paper it’s printed on. But the same applies to everything which contains information — from books (hardly a recent technology!) to TV (where people pay millions for an ad that is shown just for a few seconds and is not “stored” anywhere!… unless you make a recording)

So, well, @Otto, you’re truly missing the point. People pay all the time for things that don’t physically exist. You’re commenting on a webpage that does have no physical existence. You subscribe to TV channels that don’t physically exist. You listen to music on MP3 players that are nothing else than bytes. So if all these things don’t exist why are you paying for them? 🙂 Why is there a huge market for those non-existing, non-physical, information-based services and products?

More to the point, why is a virtual world different? That is just base prejudice and nothing else; and a narrow mindset of someone who hasn’t stepped into the 21st century and probably still believes that currency is tied to the gold standard… 😉

With that in mind, your question on the article is easily answered. Ownership in 3D is the same as ownership in 2D. If web designers are entitled to own their web designs; if logo designers are entitled to own their logo designs; if photographers are entitled to own rights to their images; if video and audio producers are entitled to copyright protection of their content; well… 3D or 2D, what is the difference then?!

Usually people get confused because some 3D environments tend to borrow words from the real world to describe abstractions representing what is going on. We talk about “virtual real estate”, “virtual goods”, and “ownership”, when actually we mean “servers”, “designs”, and “copyright licensing”. This kind of adapting real world concepts to describe a virtual experience shouldn’t surprise us much. After all, we talk about “browsing the Web” and “clicking on a link”, which are just convenient abstractions as well. Imagine if you could travel back in time to 1990 (not that long ago!) and tried to describe your experience on Facebook: “Well, today, I ‘clicked’ on a ‘link’, ‘browsed’ to Facebook’s ‘page’, ‘posted’ an ‘article’ and ‘liked’ some ‘comments’, ‘added’ some ‘friends’, but then I was bored and ‘played’ FarmVille”. That 1990 resident would think you’d gone completely insane and suggest you consider therapy, although he might be perfectly familiar with the notion of playing computer games, even online computer games.

Don’t get stuck to abstract concepts that have reused existing words for their own purposes. In ten years, all these terms will be as part of our daily vocabulary as “tweeting” is today.

About Gwyneth Llewelyn

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