Heretics & copybot

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POSTED: November 16, 2006

I was going to write a long essay about copybot, relating it again to the uncertain nature of a world founded on false premises; a topic I broached when I wrote about mega-prims in Second Life.

However, thanks to a link posted by Pathfinder Linden, I read this post by Raph Koster, which seems to sum up most of my argument without any need for me to pause and pen it. He begins by stating:

In short, what’s happening is a small-scale social crisis that brings into sharp relief the split between the hacker-ethic-libertarian-info-must-be-free ethos that underpins much of the technology of virtual worlds, and the rampant commercialism that has actually enabled its embodiment. What we have here is a case of bone fighting blood.

Also of interest is the long response by Prokofy Neva, notwithstanding his apparent compulsion to see everything in stark, not to say binary, left-right terms. The points he makes are substatntial, and he is correct (in my view) in arguing that Raph leaves out the social issues. However I think Prokofy himself leaves out some social infrastructural issues that pertain both to this issue, and to the possible future development of Second Life.

People setting up businesses in Second Life with a view to earning real money need to understand what kind of world they are entering, and it is very different from the real world in subtle as well as obvious ways. It had neither large scale distribution systems nor a coordinated media landscape. Both news and goods travel fitfully and sporadically. It does however have teleporting and flying as “normal” modes of transport, which effectively eradicates distance to the detriment of both sociality and spaciality.

This means that customers operate in a different environment from customers in Boston or Berlin. They really discover things in passing because they rarely actually pass anywhere. They usually go straight from A to Z without passing any points in-between. This in turn means that comparable articles are on sale at wildly different prices, and the cheaper (or free) ones are sometimes better than the more expensive.

This in turn means that many people that I have met find themselves regularly feeling ripped off – not by individual sellers but by the environment; the way you might feel vaguely ripped off after spending an afternoon in a bazaar in Morocco. You suspect that you have paid too much and the sellers are laughing at you, but you have no “proof” that you can point to. In Heidegger’s terms, this kind of environment affects people’s mood, not their emotions.

Another relevant difference between RL and SL is that in real life a fake rolex watch will probably not perform as well, or last as long, as a real one. It may tarnish quickly and only look like the genuine article for the first few days. In Second Life dresses and engines don’t wear out; cars don’t crash; and pictures don’t fade. A copy of a shirt or a pair of shoes is as good as an original, and if it looks good then it is good, because, in most cases, looking good is all it actually does.

Why are these things relevant to the arguments about copybot? Because they all help shape the ambience within which buyers buy from sellers, and the values that get put onto things.

They are an important underlying strata in the culture of Second Life, a culture which in my view is more superstitious than rational.