Monday, January 28, 2008

Second Life ... Rights

Reader warning: this blog post is more a stream of conscience post that I would prefer. Proceed with caution.

I've had blog-block for the better part of three months now. I managed to squeak out a post or two, but there's been something eating away in the back of my mind that I was unable to articulate. Each time I sat down to post, that thought was lingering, half spoken, half digested, half seen, but never fully mature. It's still not fully matured, but at least it's here now. It's about the design of Second Life, or rather the lack of design and what it means for avatar "rights".

What struck me today as I was listening to Robin Linden speak at the MacArthur Series on Philanthropy and Virtual Worlds: Considering Civil Liberties was this: that which we know collectively as "Second Life" was not designed from a master plan, but evolved from a set of seedling technology and social hypotheses that have subsequently matured like kudzu and are strangling all of the simple minded summaries such as "Second Life is a 3D game" and raising larger issues about behavior, and therefore rights.

Despite what Ginsu Yoon espouses, Second Life is neither a game nor a product in the typical shrink wrap sense, and it has far and away exceeded a "software as a service" offering. It is a system of systems that includes hardware, software, financial, social and political systems and most of all, people. Where you have people you have to determine whether you impose a social contract and define rights, or you can you decide not to decide - as in the case of Second Life.

Ever the social optimist, Philip Rosedale in 2004 interview with the Second Life Herald explains this philosophy:
So SL poses a new question... what if the online environment offered you MORE freedoms than the real world, in just about every way. I assert, by comparison to these historical cases, that we might therefore actually behave better in such a place. We might learn faster, interact more deeply, and therefore become better people, at least on some levels.

Of course we think they (property rights) are fundamental rights. We think of SL as like a developing nation, and it has been shown repeatedly in history that the nations which give strong land and IP rights to their citizens grow fastest and are most competitive. BTW, there is a book called 'The Mystery of Capital' that really hammers this point home. Other folks haven't done this for two reasons... One is that they don't have the deeper mission that we do... to create a new and better world. And the second is that they fear (as large companies) the legal risk that comes with the position. They don't want to deal with all the challenges. I think the first point is fundamental though... they are simply building entertainment products... and from a simple perspective entertainment is easier to do with lots of control. We are just looking at things from a much larger scale.
Arguably the most interesting thing about Second Life is the combination of creative freedom and people, some with strongly held convictions that residents have rights akin to those in the U.S. Constitution. The challenge is, however, that property rights and IP ownership mean consequently that governance is neither centralized within Linden Lab, nor can it be held by any other single entity. Linden Lab cannot assume the "god" role of typical MMOG designers simply because far too many things are outside their control and as such, logically they will react as required to avoid any legal liability but will otherwise not impose. This has been demonstrated in the rulings regarding age play, gambling and of late, banking institutions. Of course these restrictions make Philip sad; they violate the very core of his beliefs about societal evolution.

In today's MacArthur discussion, the First Amendment was cited in context of actions that take place in world and on Linden Lab managed forums, which are essentially private property. Didn't the Supreme Court rule that the U.S. Constitution does not give individuals the right to enter and remain on private property to exercise their right to free speech except in the case of public spaces such as shopping malls? Unless Second Life is considered a shopping center (arguably a stretch) it's private property, and the "free speech" argument holds no water especially in the case where banning or otherwise excluding individual rights is essential to maintaining Second Life as a business.

So this is the root of my blog-block:

What is Second Life?
Is it Philip Rosedale's world changer, or simply a business?
Can it be both?

People often ask me "Who will build the "Second Life" killer application?" The answer is there will be no single Second Life killer. Second Life may ultimately die under the weight of its own expanse and our inability to successfully address the multitude of social and legal issues it has raised. In return we will have highly structured, tightly controlled Stepford virtual worlds, all lined up in pink chiffon and serving cupcakes.

The vision of Second Life as world changer requires we start seriously addressing the social, political and cultural issues in something more than one hour fireside chats with hand picked celebrities in well-controlled settings. We need serious and actionable discussion and people who aren't afraid to get their hands dirty and their knees skinned. It's going to be a long haul.
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