Friday, April 29, 2005


A new world visionary ponders the future role of Second Life...

The irrepressible folks at Second Life Future Salon continue to bring an amazing group of people together to talk about Second Life, in-world and out. In a recent entry, member "Joschka Fischer" poses this provocative question:

"What [this] doesn't explain is how [Second Life] is any different from any other site focused on technology and non-substantive solutions fitting the narrow aperture of 'entertainment'. Reality need not apply?"

For a few crazy moments there, I thought Germany's Foreign Minister had popped up to weigh in on SL, but Future Salon host SNOOPYbrown Zamboni just e-mailed me to say it's likely just a pen name. (You never know, with these guys.)

What is certain, however, is that cyberpunk godfather, Austin bon vivant, and Wired blogger Bruce Sterling posted his own characteristically imagistic, sardonically optimistic speculation in reply:

"No bread? Let them eat prims.

"I would guess that the flashpoint comes when somebody designs something out of prims that actually enables Gappers* to eat... I have to wonder what the reaction to SECOND LIFE would be if somebody simply ported satellite links and laptops right into a starvation-riddled refugee camp. Learning to type would be no picnic, but really, given the utter boredom and cramped conditions in real-life refugee shelters, wouldn't SECOND LIFE be hugely popular? Who on earth would have more fun there than someone whose first life was utterly dysfunctional? How much would it cost to just try the experiment and see?"

Other fascinating thoughts precede and follow Bruce's post, so the entry is well-worth a full read, as is Salon Future co-host Csven's follow-up entry-- which is, in turn, a kind of follow-up to my recent entry on the arrival of a Chinese "sweat shop" worker into Second Life.

If I could crystallize this conversation into a single question, I guess it would be, "Can Second Life help alleviate poverty, bring global peace, foster democracy-- or is it just one more cool technology for the world's wealthy?" Lots of potential replies to that, so I'm tracking back to the original SL Future Salon entry, and encouraging their readers and mine to start a fruitful back and forth in the Comments section. With luck, it'll develop into a conservation that would even appeal to the real Joschka Fischer.

*The "Gap", in former Naval War College analyst Thomas Barnett's profoundly influential formulation, are impoverished, politically repressive regions of the world that are not integrated into the functioning "Core" of economically globalized, democratic nations. Absolutely recommended further reading here.

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I have to wonder what sort of out-of-touch insanely spoiled and feted life someone could have to think seriously of intruding into an emergency situation such as in Darfur, where people are trying to save lives and give them not radios or repeaters or other old-fashioned technology (that a repressive government like the Sudanese controls and obstructs anyway) but give them SL? Where they can watch Tringo and look at W-HAT's murdered whore "art" installations and go shopping in malls? Huh? What they need is just the ability to have women collect firewood outside the refugee camp without being raped by Janjawid militia. I can't imagine anyone wasting time and technology and logistics on deploying a game -- and that it *is* a game becomes starkly more evident in such a settting -- in a situation where people need just to keep from starving and find a way to go back home and plant crops. You have no idea. If we're supposed to get all breathlesss and perceive this as *not* a game but some groovay new technology for prototyping and planning, um...what was it we needed the 3D pictures and the badly performing, constantly patching and crashing thingie for again, with its steep learning curve..um...was it for collecting firewood? Or unstringing teenage boys parched with thirst out of trees, who were stuck up there as a lesson to everyone not to go outside the camp? You are so out of touch with reality, with your virtuality, that you are in serious danger of losing your humanity. Shame on you for blogging a link to that crap, Hamlet. It was Socrates I believe who once stood in the marketplace masturbating, and commenting that it was a shame that you could satisfy sexual desire in this way, but rubbing on your stomach wouldn't work that way to feed your hunger. Or was the plan to have starving people distracted long enough by watching a sexay avatar contest that they won't notice if the food deliveries don't make it from an indifferent West?

Posted by: Prokofy Neva at May 1, 2005 9:04:04 PM

Prokofy posted a similar comment on the Second Life Future Salon blog. I posted the following reply there:

Hi Prokofy,

Your thoughts are always appreciated, but I have to assume that you didn't read the whole post, other comments, or mission of the Second Life Future Salon blog and community. It's disappointing to see your mostly non-constructive comments here and your knee-jerk flame on New Worlds Notes. You say a Socrates anecdote came to your mind. "Don't shoot the messenger" comes to mine. We are simply talking about real processes at work in the world and I'm sorry if we got into territory that upset you.

But to remind you, we are a future foresight group that networks futurists, specialist experts, innovators and people interested in learning about and participating more effectively in a world in rapid motion. We think 1, 5, 10, sometimes 25 years down the road. Telling us we should be ashamed of ourselves for asking how digital worlds could come to assist the developing world and generally make people's lives better and more productive (not only today, but tomorrow and on the road in between) is a bit confusing in this context and not very conducive to an open discussion about serious issues.

Prokofy >"You've lost touch with reality...and you don't even have such a handle on virtuality...because some people have successfully used virtuality and its creativity to do things like raise money for tsunami victims or bring awareness to issues like women and work in various non-profit projects."

If you'd like an interesting look at using "virtuality" for philanthropy, you might download Randal Moss's talk from the first SL Future Salon. (I thought you were there listening to it last Thursday?) Randy spoke about the American Cancer Society's plans to extend their Relay for Life walkathon into Second Life—slated to be the largest in-world fundraiser yet. And I myself recently presented to a major gathering of National Voluntary Health Agencies on emerging applications of digital worlds, simulation, and distributed computing towards philanthropic goals. I note this here to publicly correct you when you imply that the SLFS doesn't cover or isn't aware of the work in these areas. Half of our very first Salon was dedicated to philanthropy in digital worlds and we are actively assisting the development of these kinds of projects (not just speaking hypothetically).

Prokofy >"You're letting yourself get too breathless about technology, and letting it get way out in front of you."

Again, step back and think about what kind of group this is and if you're someone who wants to participate or not. Future Salons are publicly open, forward-looking, future foresight and innovation communities. We aim to sort through the breathlessness and ride the wave of what's becoming possible. We do this through analysis, debate, and by networking talented, motivated people. Prokofy, you're welcome to be one of them, but I must say that I find your public comments here to be ignorant of who we are and what we're doing, as well as of the growing possibilities around 3D platforms not just for playing or "living" in, but as tools for real world access and empowerment across industries and social systems.

But besides all that and in any case, I hope you keep in touch! And thanks as well for keeping the discussion going.

Posted by: Jerry Paffendorf at May 2, 2005 1:12:47 PM

In response to Mr. Neva's post:

What's with all the xenophobic condemnation?? Seems like you're all about helping the third world, but only see one set of game rules and one corresponding solution: yours.

Obviously the SL Future Salon hit a nerve. What I don't understand is how you can SLAM the IDEA of hooking-up people in the worst living situations imaginable into SL. It's and IDEA. It may be wrong, right, or somewhere inbetween.

3-D Collaborative Space is a TECHNOLOGY that, in the long run, WILL help to level the international economic playing field. SL is such a TECHNOLOGY.

When we consider CRITICAL LEARNING PERIODS for TECHNOLOGY, we then come to the realization that it MAY be immoral to not provide underdeveloped populations with the most advanced collaboration software available, as soon as possible so that their youth can master the new technology and COMPETE GLOBALLY. But we won't know for sure until a few years from now. Hence, all of this sacriligeous discussion fueled by our "out-of-touch insanely spoiled and feted" lives.

History has already shown us that top-down development in underdeveloped nations doesn't work so well. SL presents a unique opportunity for BOTTOM-UP CAPITAL INFUSION. You clearly believe that SL is just a game. That's dead wrong. SL is a constantly evolving technology that allows all its users to set up the games, simulations, and social structures they wish to. It changes over time. It develops. New games are invented. Of course, all of life can be looked at as a game, and if that's your argument then I'm clearly wasting my time.

Cutting to the heart of things:

Shame on you Prokofy for advocating censorship of New World notes, discouraging development of new applications involving SL, and condemning a new discussion group with an idea that is not compatible with your view of the universe.

What's the dilly-yo?

Posted by: -Vis at May 2, 2005 2:13:23 PM

Jerry and -Vis, I'm not intimidated by a smackdown from the high-falutin SL Future Salon. In fact I did read the entire post, mission, etc. in a desperate search for some kind of context that would warrant the celebration of those photos. Your mission gets undermined with that kind of inadvertent message in the clickable culture. It's absolutely right and proper to question the really tasteless juxtaposition of a sexy avatar in an entertainment milieu with a RL picture of a wartorn refugee, especially with a cynical/humourous caption like "Let Them Eat Prims". Did you *really* think prims and online entertainment (even disguised as beau monde NGO work) was going to actually feed people? You don't have to read 14 tomes of scientific literature to understand that there's such a cynical lack of humanity in that jokey juxtaposition that there's no longer any awareness of the humanity's loss. You take the possible potential of such technology for helping people in the developing world, and your own, no doubt, noble work in that field, suddenly and jerk around that possible future capacity as justification for getting away with bad taste and cynicism worthy of W-HAT.

Where do you get the xenophobia? The xenophobia comes in this horridly Western-centric techno-centric notion that you could parachute into a refugee camp with all your gear and "entertain the masses" without thinking of what their real needs might be. I've already spelled out rather sharply what the disconnect is here. I didn't advocate any censorship for our in-house organist Hammie, I advocated a sense of shame for thinking there's something "forward looking" about objectifying and making frivolous suffering refugees in that manner. I sure do think you have to be horribly out of touch to think your brainy entertainment software is of relevance to a child whose mother is getting raped while fetching firewood and whose brother is strung up in a tree as a lesson to the mother not to come out of the camp. The shocking gulf between your entertainment-based and high-tech existence and these decidedly low-tech people surely needs bridging, but I have severe doubts whether you are the people to do it if you can't see the gulf before you see the bridge.

Oh, I'm quite aware of the power of these tools not just for entertainment and "living" in the Western notion. But you're hardly proving to me they are "tools for real world access and empowerment across industries and social systems" with an entertainment/suffering flash like that. You don't skirt the moral implications of that type of presentation and flippant captioning with then loading me up with all kinds of examples of Good Works. I'm more than persuaded, believe me, long before I come to your salon. Honestly, I'm not concerned about "looking good" here. I'm concerned about thinking through the really severe implications of using connective technology to link up very different worlds with very different agendas on all sides. If you salon is truly open -- which you've just signalled to me in a dozen ways is not really the case, I'll be right there questioning the assumptions that led you to snap, cut, paste, riff, and link in such a glib and facile manner about people's suffering.

Posted by: Prokofy Neva at May 3, 2005 4:36:29 PM

"But to remind you, we are a future foresight group that networks futurists, specialist experts, innovators and people interested in learning about and participating more effectively in a world in rapid motion. We think 1, 5, 10, sometimes 25 years down the road. Telling us we should be ashamed of ourselves for asking how digital worlds could come to assist the developing world and generally make people's lives better and more productive (not only today, but tomorrow and on the road in between) is a bit confusing in this context and not very conducive to an open discussion about serious issues." -
I'm so with that.

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