Saturday, May 08, 2010

Search for A Second Life Culture or Omphaloskepsis

I'm going to continue my journey for "a" Second Life® culture and risk an omphaloskepsis outbreak. If you've found your way here from other places, welcome. This is my third post in a series on "The Search for A Culture in Second Life". You may want to read the first and second posts.

This week a quote trickled through my twitter feed from @MeganMurray 7:29AM May 6th:
I sometimes think we talk abt tools and metrics more because they are easier to grasp & less combustible than talking about being human.
I agree. This entire discussion of culture - virtual or otherwise - is messy stuff.

Questions, presumptions and world views - are we just navel gazing?

More than one person has asked me why I started this particular set of posts; some ask from curiosity, some with a taint of suspicion. Some have gone so far as to attack me personally, and some suggest that I'm wasting my time that could otherwise be spent on more important (albeit undefined) endeavors. Still others encourage me quietly from the sidelines.

I wasted a lot of time agonizing over answers and second-guessing myself but I've come out on the other side still believing one thing with certainty: There are no right or wrong answers, there are merely more questions. And I do believe that it's our ability to ask questions, and our willingness to try to answer them - each in our own way - that matters. Questions drive progress and innovation. On the flip side, unspoken presumptions and assumptions thwart it.

One presumption I made in my initial discussion was that Second Life is largely perceived as a world with an organic substrate. That this idea of a "world" was shared just like the words prim, rez or avatar. This is most certainly not the case. Some see a world but others see a tool - bits of hardware and software organized into services served upon a platter (platform) in order to perform a function. Still others see a game, an entertainment service, or just a business.

These are lenses, and they are not the same nor do they lend themselves well to shared perspectives about culture. If you see Second Life as a platform, a non-organic set of tools or services, then this idea of culture or even the notion that culture matters can seem somewhat preposterous or even better - the word we've recently come to embrace - specious. This kind of split in world view, as Prokofy highlights, is reminiscent of a fifty year old debate and discussion, described by C.P. Snow's essay "Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution" - what Snow saw as a dangerous schism between the sciences and the humanities. (if you are new to Snow, the NYT has a nice piece on the subject)

We've witnessed a bit of Snow's Two Cultures even in Second Life. If you recall the conversation between Beyers Sellers, Celia Pearce and Tom Boellstorff on the Metanomics episode "Av Culturation". At the end of the discussion, Beyers closes with what he calls "Connecting the Dots" and for this particular conversation he began:
"I’m a little challenged to connect the dots; I’m not a cultural anthropologist. I’m an accounting professor by trade, but by training I’m really an experimental economist. So today I connect the dots by putting on my experimental economist’s hat and giving anthropologists a piece of my mind..."

and continued for some time to challenge the validity of the work Pearce and Boellstorff because it lacked empirical integrity and made some suggestions for "fixing" the "problem".

Like Beyers did (perhaps unintentionally), it's easy for T Linden (Tom Hale) to wave a hand and dismiss the discussions on Dusan's blog and other places by saying "Culture is far too limiting a concept" as he stands on the "objective", "data driven" and "practical" side of the fence.

T Linden and the team under his control have their own sub-culture, based on software and systems development processes and practices, which is certainly very different even from other sub-groups within Linden Lab but ostensibly consistent on some level all embracing an overarching culture for Linden Lab known as the Tao of Linden which reminds every member that:
"it's our mission to connect us all to an online world that advances the human condition"
But despite the overarching Tao cultural guidepost, T Linden sees the mission as (from Dusan's blog emphasis mine):
"SL is a big dream of an open ended, creative, diverse, “place” (that lives inside the computer) and is as rich, challenging, rewarding, frustrating, mundane, sublime, and economic as the real world – except that you can do/imagine things that are not possible."

Why does this matter? Because these beliefs drive decisions, and those decisions are expressed in tools, like Viewer 2.0, than ultimately shape the very essence of our existence and our evolution - an yes, in turn the economy. I made comments on my own blog and on Dusan's blog about why this omphaloskepsis is important to me.
"I won’t speak for Dusan, but for me the stimulus for thinking about the distinctions of culture are driven from a product development perspective. In my experience understanding native human behavior, beliefs, etc is a good way to inform development."
"I am neither arguing nor suggesting that we build anything for the sake of anything. I am suggesting that a few moments of introspection, experience and open dialogue might help us understand the nature of Second Life - and not as a tool like a hammer - but truly as a world filled with people."
Do I think we should build something? Yes. Awareness. Why? Because "tool builders" usually miss the mark without it."

I understand the essence of divided cultures; I live it everyday. I live in the chasm between the technologists and the business, between the creatives and the pragmatists, between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act ... and I appreciate how it changes the landscape.

World, platform, business or otherwise, the one question that is still rattling around in my head this week is the following:
Can a business based upon a platform succeed whilst recognizing, respecting, and embracing the emergent culture of its users?
If your answer is yes, then this conversation should continue. If your answer is no (or it doesn't matter), I guess you can stop reading here. :D

Language and Semiotics - words matter, but we can go beyond just words

Kenneth Y T Lim, Assistant Professor at the Learning Sciences Lab of the National Institute of Education (NIE) / Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore shared a podcast episode "exploring a broader conceptualisation of language as a dimension of culture in Second Life" [1]  in response to my initial post "Is there A Culture in the Virtual World Second Life?" [2]. In his podcast, Kenneth shares two helpful observations (please listen to the podcast, these are but excerpts).

First, Kenneth proposes that the seven framework elements (as I described them) should be considered instead as dimensions.

In his words:
"Speaking personally I see these more as dimensions rather than elements, especially because framing them in terms of elements implies a discreteness which I suspect might be more permeable than first appearances suggest."
Second, Kenneth extends the dimension of language beyond the written or spoken words to include particularly unique Second Life affordances, namely the ease of fabrication of artifacts and ease of shaping the land, or terraforming. These are particularly powerful communication faculties within Second Life, ones that indeed connect us all in our everyday experiences on the grid.

From Kenneth (emphasis mine):
"Architectural expression can also be thought of as a form of language in a fictive world especially in that it, just as it does in real life organizes space within a place. However, architecture is much more so a form of language in a fictive world because of the facility with which architecture can be employed as a means of self expression and interpersonal communication."
Kenneth helped me see that indeed culture is not some static thing, but a richly dynamic organism that does in fact have unique qualities in Second Life that are derived from the platform itself - that is, the capability to communicate beyond the constraints of text via symbols and signs in ways that are not easily afforded to us in real life.

Lalo Telling also describes this idea of a shard language beyond words in "Nothing but a pack of cards" by suggesting that there are three pillars upon which Second Life is built: Avatar, Lag and Prim. These words are universally shared across the grid and are defined by our individual experiences within the shared space. Following Kenneth's idea of architectural expression, the prim is more than a word but a universal concept that allows us tell powerfully persuasive stories.

In Lalo's words:
"It matters not a whit which groups you belong to, or which societies you identify with... whether you are furry, neko, fae, Gorean, steampunk, Medieval, or "just plain folk"... which kinds of music you listen to or where in SL you go to do so... which languages you speak, or which time zone of the planet you live in. You hear the stories in the prims that were put there by their creators, and you remember them, take them with you, and share them."
Indeed the builds, landscapes and places are things upon which we as Residents have come to depend as fundamental dimensions of our culture. Photos sharing sites such as flickr and Koinup are packed with images of these artifacts and architectures, shared by a diverse population. The images also highlight another dimension, that is of ourselves, or our avatars.

Botgirl Questi has long been exploring the nature of identity and shares Lalo's take that the Avatar is an essential dimension of culture, shaped by the very construct of Second Life itself.

In her words on my last post:
"I finally developed the point of view that the base experience of being an avatar embodied in a virtual world is the most singular, universal and significant characteristic virtual world residents share. And I suspect that if there is such as thing as a baseline Second Life culture, it is rooted in the fundamental experience of avatar life within the capabilities and constraints of the "physical laws" of Second Life."

This concept that signs and symbols are persuasive is echoed by Philip Rosedale as well. From his May 2008 TED Partner Series Talk: "Philip Rosedale on Second Life", Philip makes the following points (emphasis mine):
"The Web puts information in the form of text and images. The topology, the geography of the Web is text-to-text links for the most part. That's one way of organizing information, but there are two things about the way you access information in a virtual world that I think are the important ways that they're very different and much better than what we've been able to do to date with the Web.
The first is that, as I said, the -- well, the first difference for virtual worlds is that information is presented to you in the virtual world using the most powerful iconic symbols that you can possibly use with human beings. So for example, C-H-A-I-R is the English word for that, but a picture of this is a universal symbol. Everybody knows what it means. There's no need to translate it. It's also more memorable if I show you that picture, and I show you C-H-A-I-R on a piece of paper. You can do tests that show that you'll remember that I was talking about a chair a couple of days later a lot better. So when you organize information using the symbols of our memory, using the most common symbols that we've been immersed in all our lives,you maximally both excite, stimulate, are able to remember, transfer and manipulate data. And so virtual worlds are the best way for us to essentially organize and experience information."

Later in this discussion, the moderator John Hockenberry poses an intriguing question (statement) to Philip:
"The question is, there appears to be a lack of cultural fine-tuning in Second Life. It doesn't seem to have its own culture, and the sort of differences that exist in the real world aren't translated into the Second Life map."
And Philip replies (missing a chance to reinforce his semiotic argument stated earlier):
"Well, first of all, we're very early, so this has only been going on for a few years. And so part of what we see is the same evolution of human behavior that you see in emerging societies. So a fair criticism -- is what it is -- of Second Life today is that it's more like the Wild West than it is like Rome, from a cultural standpoint. That said, the evolution of, and the nuanced interaction that creates culture, is happening at 10 times the speed of the real world, and in an environment where, if you walk into a bar in Second Life, 65 percent of the people there are not in the United States, and in fact are speaking their, you know, various and different languages. In fact, one of the ways to make money in Second Life is to make really cool translators that you drag onto your body and they basically, kind of, pop up on your screen and allow you to use Google or Babelfish or one of the other online text translators to on-the-fly translate spoken -- I'm sorry -- typed text between individuals. And so, the multicultural nature and the sort of cultural melting pot that's happening inside Second Life is quite -- I think, quite remarkable relative to what in real human terms in the real world we've ever been able to achieve. So, I think that culture will fine-tune, it will emerge, but we still have some years to wait while that happens, as you would naturally expect."

In 2008 Second Life was hardly a semiotic wasteland; it's too bad Philip missed that chance to drive that home and rather reverted to sanctions or prescriptions such as text translators to defend culture.

As each person above has pointed out, symbols and signs are important communication vehicles since often mere words can confound us. As Kenneth pointed out, my use of the word "element" over "dimension" limited the discussion and in my own commentary and discourse, I've found the word culture itself to be a stumbling block so much so that I reverted quite quickly to the English dictionary as a lowest common denominator.

In the end, a shared definition is not really that important but a shared understanding about that which we agree, disagree, believe or don't believe, gets us further along.
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