Friday, April 15, 2005

"Virtual Worlds: Past, Present, and Future" (a talk for UCLA Future Salon)

"Highlights from a two year career as an embedded journalist in an online world, April 2003-April 2005"-- notes and illustrations for a talk I'm giving today at UCLA for the Acceleration Studies Foundation.

A persistent, streamed, fully 3D, user-created world. Using the building and scripting tools available to them, the paying subscribers (we call them Residents) create and own all the objects contained in it, and use them to build games, clothing, etc.


- Creating an entire environment (as featured in "Dreams of Fields")

- Creating a game (as featured in "Shooting to Kill")

- Creating art installations (as featured in "Burning Man, Burning Life")

- Creating fashion (as featured in "On the Runway")

Instead of requiring Residents to a pay a subscription fee, SL has an official in-world currency called Linden Dollars, which can be bought and sold for real money on third party sites. Residents retain IP rights over their creations, which allows them to make money.

- Example: Kermitt Quirk's Tringo (as featured in "The Tragics of Tringo")


My first introduction to Second Life was as a freelance technology journalist for Salon and Wired, in early 2003-- during the demo, however, Linden Lab offered me a contract to cover the development of Second Life as an emerging community for a blog called New World Notes. My in-world avatar is "Hamlet Linden", modeled after myself, but wearing a white suit in tribute to Tom Wolfe. (Alternate avatar inspired by Hunter S. Thompson.) My first entry was almost exactly two years ago-- April 22, 2003.


In the beginning months, I struggled to find a tone for NWN, and a meta purpose. Was it "advertorial", or genuine journalism? But I was already familiar with Julian Dibbell's work, and my experience as a host on the online conferencing system the WELL (whose dramas were documented by Katie Hafner for Wired here), and my own personal experience with other MMORPGs (while playing Everquest, I witnessed a gang shooting right outside my house) made me suspect it could be latter. There's news to be found, in the interaction between online worlds and the real one.

Four early NWN stories convinced me that it was possible, too:

- "Home for the Homeless" (a young homeless woman comes to Second Life)

- "War of the Jessie Wall" (the war in Iraq comes to Second Life)

- "Riding Out the Debate" (3D political expression comes to Second Life)

- "Tax Revolt in Americana" (in-world political unrest comes to Second Life. This entry was picked by an academic at Yale Law School, which made me realize how seriously serious people took this medium, too.)


Because of this, reporting on the way Second Life interacts with the real world is a recurring theme, especially in a time of war and debate over war. Examples:

- "Quilt of Many Colors"

- "The Second Life of Baghdad"; see also "The Soldier's Mistress", "Living Memorial", and "In the Towers of No Shadow".


The open exchange of Linden Dollars for US$ on third parties sites has also had a profound effect on the culture of Second Life-- and subsequently, on NWN. Examples:

- "The Soldier's Mistresses", "Taking it Off to Give it Away" (see also "Giving it Away", Part 1-3)

- "Post-War Reconstruction"

- "Anshe at the Gates"

- (See also "Market Forces" for a discussion of the "Donna Karan or Donald Trump" path to financial success.)


Some Residents with scientific/medical backgrounds have used the building and scripting tools for research and therapeutic applications. Some examples:

- "The Nine Souls of Wilde Cunningham"

-"A Lever to Move the Mind"


Two years later, the possibilties of the world and the inventiveness of the Residents still seem inexhaustible, moreso as it becomes a truly global community. In some cases, this means personal exploration of the most intimate parts of real identity, love, and desire. And as the society grows, so too do broader desires for civil order, stability, and democratic input:

- "Man and Man on Woman on Woman"

- "Watching the Detectives"

Meanwhile, the world outside the conventional user base begins to make its own desires for it known, seeking to shape it ways that are difficult to predict:

- "Sweating the Details" and "The Flat World Dancers of China"

I can only be sure of my intent to be here reporting, as they happen, as chronicler and advocate of the people within it who make them possible.

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