Augmentology"...is a concise manual of reality for our digital age."

Mark Hancock,_Augmentology: Interfaccia Tra Due Mondi_

[Sponsored by The Ars Virtua Foundation/CADRE Laboratory for New Media]

Shok Antwerp Transforms

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The web was built on openness and designed from the ground up to enable sharing of code – view the source from early web pages for examples. Yet it seems that already Second Life content creators want strict restrictions on copying, even going so far as to support the DMCA. So, while the DMCA is decried in so many cases (such as the RIAA suing elderly women and children who don’t even own computers), Second Life content creators want to call upon it for protection. There are currently multitudes of useful business models built around open source and free sharing. Why do users of Second Life, who have the ability to create a new world and rethink the negatives associated with our geophysical one, want to rely on an obsolete notion of copy restriction? This acts to simulate the production of physically-templated objects instead of assisting in the understanding of new models which are based on (and flourish from) copying, sharing and building commons.

Ultimately, this is my argument: much like the alter-globalization movement wants to create a new world, an “other globalization” not based on corporate profit at the expense of the millions who are exploited, synthetic worlds present us with an opportunity to imagine and craft the kind of worlds in which we want to exist. While many argue that Second Life duplicates the problems of sexism, racism and homophobia that we see in the geophysical world, I would argue that we can’t ignore the way that corporations are shaping our synthetic environs.

Linden Labs are currently the ones responsible for offering new avatars birthed into a synthetic world that is bursting with potentialites. At present, these avatars have the choice of manifesting as Male or Female, City Chic or Clubber. Why aren’t Second Life standard avatars such as these included instead: Steamclock builder, Vampire Neko, Futanari and Transformer? Clearly, Linden Labs choose to please their conservative corporate customers by ensuring sexual standards conform along a traditional axis. If most of Second Life looks like a mall, perhaps that’s because the current system structure is constructed to maintain profitability from every Linden exchange in-world. Another crucial element of interoperability, it would seem, is an open money system. Where are the developers imagining new currency systems who were so active a few years ago? Where are all the offshore havens? It is the responsibility of the creators of, and those passionate about, synthetic worlds to act ethically in the construction of said worlds. Each user is responsible for the emergent system. In light of this, let’s start setting up those realXtend and OpenSim servers, working on the code for interoperable worlds, begin populating them and seeing what new creations and relations arise.
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Mitch Kapor’s keynote speech presents current users of virtual worlds as marginal people in a “frontier world” that should expect the strong hand of the law to intervene, where the 3D sheriff strides into town on his new mount. Kapor said: “in the earliest wave of pioneers in any new disruptive platform, the marginal and the dispossessed are over represented, not the sole constituents by any means but people who feel they don’t fit, who have nothing left to lose or who were impelled by some kind of dream, who may be outsiders to whatever mainstream they are coming from, all come and arrive early in disproportionate numbers…that sort of arduous frontier conditions really give these environments their charm and their character…that is going to make things challenging for people who feel that as the frontier is being settled and there is less novelty and in some senses less freedom, it is always an uneasy transition for the pioneers.” Kapor goes on to say: “It was the way the west in the U.S. was settled. It is the way Second Life has been settled” and that he endeavours to make virtual worlds operate “in a more decentralized kind of way, one that Thomas Jefferson, if he were around, would be proud of…”. I, for one, want to abandon the whole wild west metaphor in relation to synthetic worlds. I would also hope that the settling of Second Life doesn’t involve the killing of millions of indigenous people and would not make slave owners proud. I prefer instead to think of synthetic worlds as birthed arenas based on the gestation of code. These arenas will then develop through nourishment provided by hardware and user creativity. The kind of decentralization that synthetic environments need to ensure freedom and growth would scare the hell out of Thomas Jefferson.
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If the example of the web shows us anything, it is that users and developers can ensure some degree of freedom for the next few decades. While net neutrality threatens the future of that openness – as phone companies demand laws that guarantee the prevention of copyrighted films from being downloaded – new technologies like wireless mesh networks offer the possibility for hope. One of the most important and wonderful properties of the net is that problems are identified and routed around. It seems that synthetic worlds are at a point where some routing is necessary.

RealXtend Breakdancing

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There are components ready to create a decentralized universe of virtual worlds: open source clients (Indra – the official SL client) and open source server software. OpenSim seems to be the current decentralised contender (which offers some SL interoperability) plus others including WoW server software. With the creation of Google’s _Lively_ we’re already seeing a lack of concern with interoperability through name collisions or name theft incidences.

Who stands to benefit from this kind of lack of interoperability? Obviously corporations with the goal of controlling the only available synthetic world would benefit enormously from halting interoperability. Users, then, need to demand interoperability or create systems that operate as such and make those that are not unusable. As users of virtual worlds and synthetic environments, we are responsible for the choices we make about what software we use. Users of Microsoft software are as much responsible for the Microsoft monopoly as is the company itself.

What stands in the way of creating interoperability? One major component of the web’s success is open standards. We need open standards in – and for – synthetic worlds. IBM and Linden Labs are currently working on developing such standards [see: Architecture Working Group].

I don’t think I need to explain how open standards have facilitated the growth and acceptance of the web. Yet, one disturbing element of Second Life that differs from the web is the lack of an underlying value of openness over intellectual property”. Richard Stallman argues that the very term intellectual property is a term that corporations readily co-opt and abuse. No surprise then that Linden Labs, in their official announcement on OpenSim interoperability, state that “intellectual property is the engine that drives Second Life”; not openness, sharing, social engagement, creativity or passion.

Friends of mine who are daily Second Life users describe it as just another social networking site – just another place to chat with their friends, buy a cool outfit and have a nice house too. In this way, one can see that the real value of Second Life is in making synthetic worlds accessible. While the initial openness of the web allowed anyone to write html and make websites, one could argue that it was only with MySpace that a true explosion of web authoring took place. MySpace allowed every kid to suddenly have a web page because of the combination of simplicity (fill out this form, pick your song here, upload your photo here) and social value (express your vanity here, look good to your friends here, show how cool you are here). Second Life does something similar; playing to sociability and degrees of vanity through the use of an easy interface designed primarily for creating and buying 3D objects. Perhaps Google’s Lively will demonstrate whether ease of use and a lack of catering for creativity is the adoption benchmark for the next synthetic world interface.

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