A second chance at life

Second Life is really starting to hit the news properly now – it’s been a 1337-geek blogosphere darling for a little while, but some of the more mainstream outlets are picking it up. And as usual, they’re blowing it out of all proportion as it stands at the moment. But what about in a few decades’ time?

Steve Rubel, always on top of the facts behind any PR hype on the web, has the facts and figures to show that although there is a definate upswing of interest in Second Life, due to a few pieces in meatspace magazines like BusinessWeek, and the relaxation of sign-up rules that mean you don’t need a US credit card to join the party. He’s not so sure that Second Life has the same easy appeal of the more simple ‘social’ sites like Youtube or MySpace, though:

“Unlike say YouTube or Wikipedia, browsing Second Life requires a time investment. You need to install an application on your computer, which some are naturally skittish about. Second, you have to want to learn the world and explore it. YouTube and other online communities, on the other hand, are more appropriate for those who like light fare and want to wind their way in and then out to other activities on the Web and then return. So, to me this means the engaged Second Life citizen is more technically adept than many of us.”

That will probably seem pretty obvious to the likes of you and I, but not necessarily to the market of marketeers that Rubel is primarily pitching to.

I posted here before about the first businesses moving into Second Life, and waxed lyrical about the long-term potential of metaverse commerce and economies – and I stand by what I said then, too. Since that time, old bands hungry for new relevence (and aiming at the late-30s bracket that they appealed to the first time round) are making moves to colonise the metaverse by playing gigs there, though whether it’s because they think there’s good press to be had from it (or whether they want to reconnect to what their publicity people see as a bold new market, or that they simply spend a lot of time there themselves thanks to the moneyed and carefree rock-and-roll lifestyle) remains to be seen.

Likewise, what exactly a US federal bureau, The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, think they’ll achieve by setting up shop there is a little obscure. Maybe they just have a few geek Second Lifers on the staff who convinced the boss it would be a good plan.

Furthermore, ever ones to smell an opportunity for profit (sharks and blood, anyone?), business consultants are starting to set up as specialists in Second Life marketing advice. OK, so these people gamble and speculate on trends, but they rarely leap in feet first unless there’s a reasonable promise of money or publicity in it for them. The signs seem to indicate things are happening in the metaverse, and for quite some time now I’ve wished I had the time to spend in going to check it out.

But, humans being the tribal creatures that we are, we tend to trust the news and views of those we consider to be closest to our own tribal affiliations. Which is why I’ve been keenly following Warren Ellis’s posts regarding his meanderings in Second Life. If Ellis can’t find the real action somewhere, then there probably *is* no action.

He bought himself some land there recently. Well, actually he bought a castle. And some land. Why did he bother?

“I decided I wanted a homebase there because the potential of the Second Life system outstrips its now infamous uses as a peculiar setting for prostitution and an enabler for fursex and ageplay weirdness — in searching for a place to buy, I unfortunately came across “Ito’s Ageplay House”, a purchase apparently being considered by the other visitors, avatars of an older Papa Bear man and what looked horrifically like an fat-kneed Little Orphan Annie.

Someone recently said, in fact, that SL could be the germ of the next major operating system. It, or something like it, could conceivably be the backbone of what comes after the web.”

See? He found the action – creepy action though it may well be (and if Warren Ellis thinks it’s OTT, you know it’s got to be on at least the far side of kinky). There is, reportedly, a whole lot of very weird sex in Second Life – but that should come as no surprise, seeing as porn and sex has always been the first thing to colonise a new technology (think printing press, telephones, VCRs). This may be why there aren’t that many regular visitors there. Sure, a lot of people have signed up, but apparently you rarely see them:

“The other night I spent an hour jumping around SL — something to do while sick and yet not wanting to leave the keyboard in case my head cleared up enough to write, you know how it goes. Didn’t see another person. I’d been, entirely by accident, jumping into empty places. Occasionally the “avatar radar” in the mini-map would show one or two green dots on its edges — other users outside my field of vision. Most often, the map showed no pings at all.

I tell a lie. I jumped to a house I wanted to look at, and there were people f*cking in the basement. That was the first.

Otherwise, it’s been jumping into a series of empty, abandoned clubs. It’s eerie, the way this place can seem so utterly f*cking desolate sometimes. Like the 80s image of a city after a neutron bomb — buildings still standing, all humans exterminated. You have to wonder what it feels like sometimes at Linden Labs, SL HQ, looking at this vast virtual universe they’ve generated, and a third of the population of f*cking Boston logging in once a week. Some days, it must feel like they threw a universe and no-one showed up.”

Ellis goes on to mention that this is largely due to the fact that to own land in Second Life, you have to pay a fee – a tax to Linden Labs, the creators, if you like. It can be assumed that once Linden monetise the place in a different way (which the ingress of businesses may enable), there’ll be an awesome goldrush-scale landgrab by ‘the little people’. MySpace is bound to lose its appeal sooner or later – why spend time finding pictures of other people to pretend to be, when you can simply design yourself from the toes upwards, with no tedious limits as imposed by reality? The potential is there. It’s just not free enough yet.

In the meantime, it is packed out with all manner of extreme weirdness: armouries selling code that will do unspeakable things to other people’s avatars; virtual galleries of people’s avatars in the buff; people re-enacting the Gor books (ugh). But Ellis also notes the ability to ‘3D print’ avatars, much like a story I plugged at Futurismic (which was concerned with World of Warcraft, but is equally applicable). The ability for the two realms to transfer objects as well as money across the virtual borders is already in place.

But another sign that virtual spaces are reaching a ripeness is their colonisation and exploitation by another subset of the population – criminals and scammers. MMORPG players have been robbed of items that have a significant value in meatspace, and there aren’t sufficient laws and prior precedent to deal with the situations that arise in these cases. Already people are starting to debate the ethics of earning money in virtaul worlds, while in the meantime some people are just happily doing it anyway (cheers to Mac for that last link).

In my opinion, Second Life is a definite sign of things to come. Indeed, from a personal perspective, I get most of my as-yet-used story ideas from these sorts of reports. From a science fiction perspective, the metaverse enables you to use every trope in the history of genre, from the sublime to the ridiculous, and have it justified by the fact that we already have realities where all these things could occur. You want to be a chimera of man and tiger? No problem. You want a second persona of a different gender, or no gender at all? Sorted. You want to escape a world that economically, politically and socially has almost nothing to offer you? Cool, step on in. You want to travel between a multitude of different worlds with a mere wave of your fingers and a magic word? Abracadabra.

There will be hundreds of these virtualities in a decade or so. Separate worlds, with their own laws, their own economies, their own cultures. The only thing that will hold people back from living there completely is the unfortunate burden of their actual physical existence in meatspace. As jobs in meatspace disappear, employment in the metaverse will boom. For those on the bottom of the economic pyramid, they will be able to get time in the metaverse by working in sweatshops that will give them twelve hours of access as long as they work in a virtual store or factory for six or eight of those hours, meanwhile providing them with shabby dormitories in meatspace that they will only see for a few hours between logging off in the evening and logging on after breakfast.

And as always occurs when mankind finds new territories, there will be conflict. We’re already seeing the petty crime. Next will be the small-time gangs, then the true mobsters. And then the biggest criminals of all, the corporations and the governments, will make their moves. But they will meet resistance from their homegrown equivalents, and from populations whose sole reason for locating there was to find somewhere they could fight their corner if need be. There will be war. There will be economic butchery. There will be ideological jihads.

Even if we never make it off this planet that we have so comprehensively wrecked, we will have a host of new worlds to colonise and squabble over. Because as much as technology accelerates and changes our horizons, our evolution as social beings will always be far behind. You can take the human out of meatspace, but you can’t take meatspace out of the human. The new stories of mankind will be written across many different realities. I hope I find the time someday to sit down and write some of them myself.

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