Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Fools for Tools

What project will Danton Sideways develop in Second Life? I thought I might go into business, or get involved in CDS politics. But a bit of soul searching has revealed that the Real Danton is above all interested in putting into practice Ivan Illich's theory of convivial tools.

In Tekki-Wiki Social Club I touched briefly on the subject of tools, in a discussion about wikis, drawing a pertinent comment from Prokofy Neva. Prokofy has presented his own take on the use of the word "tools" by Linden Labs in his Life Among the Lindens post, as follows:

"Tools! My God, I should have realized long ago that they picked up this rhetoric from Stewart Brand *slaps head* -- the old Whole Earth Catalogue had tools for living, as they called it, and we used to spend hours poring over its pages, reading about old-fashioned ice picks that were actually the perfect thing to use on stubborn weeds in your garden - or whatever. It was even more dorky than the LL Bean Catalogue. It was always about drying and grinding millet seeds and making millet loafs (whenever I think of that era of the 1960s and all that Whole Earth stuff, I think of millet loafs, and how goddamn hard they were to eat, with like 92 different grains and raw vegetables in them, and how we used to force them down anyway; in fact, what they did was make food taste like a tool...)"

Good old Prok – always ready to pop your balloon for you. Prokofy's role, as I see it, is to challenge our habitual ways of thinking, to act as a gadfly to force us to reflect more deeply. Prokofy is the sort of opponent who, if properly listened to, teaches you more than your friends ever will.

Because of course the Whole Earth Catalog was mother's milk to Danton Sideways. The Whole Earth Catalog came first, and Ivan Illich only became important to me later, in the nineteen-eighties, when I learned how Illich's theory of convivial tools had influenced personal computer pioneer Lee Felsenstein.

Why do I now refer to Ivan Illich more than to Stewart Brand? One reason is that Illich provides a specific theory about tools, while Brand has always focused on practice (albeit a practice of spreading new theories). But there are also basic differences between the approach theorized by Illich, and the approach put into practice by Brand. I will try to show that these two approaches are complementary.

The key difference is that Brandian practice is implicitly elitist, while Illichian theory is explicitly anti-elitist. The Brandian approach has always relied on a new Promethean elite, supposedly wiser than the traditional unenlightened elite, which is to bring "alternative" tools to the citizen. Thus the Whole Earth Catalog was produced by a team of specialists (and even those who contributed simply by writing letters to the editor formed a sort of elite), the CoEvolution Quarterly presented articles written by experts, the participants at the first Hackers Conference were hand-picked, and the Global Business Network assembles a stellar cast.

Illich, on the contrary, persistently criticized professional elites. The recurring theme throughout his books is that the professionalization of knowledge tends to disempower the average citizen. In Deschooling Society he demonstrates how professional teachers can prevent learning, in Tools for Conviviality he demonstrates how professional technologists can prevent community appropriation of tools, and in Medical Nemesis he demonstrates how professional doctors can prevent self-healing. The basic thrust of Illich's thought is to encourage individuals and communities to take back the control of knowledge which has been monopolized by professionals.

Thus, with respect to tools, Illich's proposed solution is community appropriation of technology. Stewart Brand has of course always been concerned with community. But Brand tends to see the tools coming to the community from the outside. The right tools are supposed to empower the citizen, without there being a need for citizens themselves to be involved in tool development. For Illich, the community only really appropriates the tool when the community itself participates in developing the tool.

A case study of the Illichian model of community tool development is found in the history of the personal computer. In the early nineteen-seventies Lee Felsenstein was working in San Francisco as chief engineer for the non-profit organisation Resource One, which had obtained the donation of an obsolete XDS 940 time-sharing computer. At a time when the Internet was no more than a research network linking a handful of campuses, Resource One set up a few public terminals at community gathering places around the SF Bay Area, to serve as electronic bulletin boards. In 1974 they installed a showcase connection at the Whole Earth Access store on Shattuck Avenue, using a fancy Hazeltine 1500 CRT terminal, which they leased with a service contract. One day the service technician working on it dropped the circuit board for the keyboard, breaking the ceramic pack on one of the chips. That experience started Felsenstein thinking about how to make such a system survive in a public access environment.

Felsenstein had just read Ivan Illich’s book "Tools for Conviviality," and was impressed by Illich's description of how radios were repaired in the jungles of Central America. The radio technology was sufficiently accessible to peasant users and brought out their inherent tendencies to learn. If you tried to fool with a radio, the tube might overheat, but it would survive and give you some warning that you had done something wrong. The radio could thus be used in the jungle environment because it "grew up" a cohort of people around it who knew how to maintain it.

To transpose such a model to computers, which require perfect reliability at every clock cycle, was particularly challenging. Felsenstein nonetheless convened a discussion group around the concept of a convivial computer, on the hypothesis that a new type of computer could only survive if it grew a computer club around itself. Among the subjects discussed by the small group (which soon fizzled out) was Don Lancaster's article in Radio Electronics magazine, telling how to build a "TV Typewriter," which did nothing more than print characters on a home TV screen. Felsenstein was interested in this possibility of constructing a little box, for about a hundred dollars worth of parts, which you could connect to a TV set to make a rudimentary terminal. He worked on developing an improved version that used random access memory chips. Felsenstein realised that if you installed the random access memory in a simple computer, you could then use that same memory to run the terminal. He therefore defined a terminal that used a three card set: a memory card, a card to put data into the memory, and a card to get information out of the memory and put it to the screen. To connect the three cards he defined a 44-pin bus structure that used cheap Vector connectors. He has suggested that this was the genesis of the architecture of the personal computer.

But to carry our story forward, a few months later, in January 1975, the MITS Altair 8800 hobby kit was advertised in Popular Electronics magazine. That advertisement catalyzed a meeting of computer enthusiasts grouped around the People’s Computer Center in Menlo Park. The meeting was attended by Lee Felsenstein, Steve Wozniak and many others who went on to play key roles in the development of the personal computer. The Altair is considered to have been the first "microcomputer," but it was in fact little more than a microcomputer chip inside a box. Those at the meeting soon realized that they, as a group, probably possessed more computer knowledge than the team that had thrown together the Altair. This group, which later called itself the Homebrew Computer Club, met regularly over the next year or so to carry on informal discussions of how to construct personal computing devices, in a collegial atmosphere of shared enthusiasm, rather than commercial interest. The very name suggests the extent to which this group embodied Felsenstein's original Illichian idea of a "computer club" to "grow up" a new type of computer – which is precisely what the Homebrew group did.

The Homebrew Computer Club was in fact a cross between the Brandian Promethean approach and the Illichian participatory approach, since it brought together an elite, but working on a participatory model. This is one way that the two approaches can be complementary. Another way is for a Promethean elite to bring new tools to a community, and for the community to then appropriate the tools and participate in their further development. This is essentially how things happen with free and open source software. Highly specialised programmers develop a software package, and then turn the source code over to a community of users, who participate in further development by finding bugs and adding new functionalities. Going a step further, when the Promethean elite deliberately sets out to design tools that can be easily modified and appropriated by the users, the two approaches fuse together into a new paradigm.

Another of Illich's key contributions is his use of the word "tool" to refer to all sorts of human constructs, rather than just physical instruments. The Whole Earth Catalog had already used the word "tool" in a very wide sense – more than half of the items in the Catalog were in fact books. But Illich makes this extension of meaning explicit, building on a tradition exemplified by the French philosopher Jacques Ellul, who in the early nineteen-fifties used the word "technique" to include all of the various administrative methods used by modern state bureaucracies. Illich for example specifically calls legal mechanisms "tools." Certain other thinkers even refer to ideas as a type of tools: see for example Daniel Dennett's paper on Making Tools for Thinking.

Which brings us back to Prokofy Neva. If the word "tool" referred only to physical instruments, it would be hard to refute this argument from his Life Among the Lindens post:

"The tool thing is loosely based on that old idea of 'give a man a fish, and you have fed him for one day; teach a man to fish, and you have fed him for a lifetime'. The problem with this facile adage of Western do-goodism is that people in civil war in Africa have a different problem. My God, they know how to fish, if they even have fish (a lot of them are in the desert). The problem is their kleptocratic governments steal their poles or poison the waters or chase them off their land with fratricidal wars. A man in Darfur needs a fish, not a pole, and somebody should attend to the larger problem of all the well-poisoning and cattle-slaughtering and compensate the villages for that destruction."

Prokofy's point is conclusive if by tools we mean only physical instruments such as fishing poles. The first need of poor people in many countries is not for material tools, but to be liberated from the corruption and repression of their own governments. But the question is how to achieve that. The international community can play a role, on the Promethean model of bringing help from without. But it remains critically important for such communities to develop their own internal capacity to struggle for democracy. Thus the pertinence of the Illichian model of development by the community of its own "tools" in the largest sense, including the types of associations, organisations and thought-models that can enhance empowerment in the local context.

How does all of this apply to Second Life? For more on that, tune in next week, same time, same URL…

Sunday, 27 January 2008

Sausage of Unity

by Sleazy Writer

Danton has invited fellow CDS resident Sleazy Writer to write a guest post. Sleazy addresses one of his favorite subjects: sausage. It might also be noted that during the recent CDS election debate, while the candidates were warming up for their speeches, Sleazy amused the crowd by flying around the Colonia arena disguised as a hot dog.

One of the most basic and defining aspects that makes SL a world is its geography. And the geography of the 'mainland' continents is what this short article is about. Apparently, the new SL technology was initially used to show off and apply its versatility. Flexible simulators could be shaped into anything, small lakes and seas were attached. Rivers, waterfalls, rapids, peninsulas, mountain ridges, coastline and even geographical puns or logos were added to the small but growing world that SL was. A volcano towered over exotic Hawaiian lands. Forested northern lands and great lakes appeared and a breathtaking snow region full of possibilities grew to the first continent. A strange but original atoll was discovered -- coral reefs rising from the sea, changing into grassland and into mountains. It could be travelled by railroad like the continent before it could be explored by rivers or by road. A cool experience for immersionist users and many others.

But then it was over with the fun. Someone decided, probably with good reason, that it was time to make some money. And money was made by churning out thousands of boring, identical [insert unflattering adjective] grassy lumps of Lebensraum (3, 4, 5 and 6 at the left), a truckload of McSausages to be consumed by the masses.

SausageLand, the last time I checked, comprises four continents, about two-thirds of the main landmass of virtual Eden that the company has created for us. Plot after plot used as sandbox and then abandoned as a slum of plywood. The geography algorithm that was used is nice but also useless to the experience since there are no distinguishing features on the sim level. The unpaved roads it generated do not encourage exploration but are a road through a hell of twirling ads, strippers, Giulianis and unsolicited biblical advice (A bit like that good old Klingon initiation rite involving pain sticks). It's understandable and it's fine. But isn't this a sad state for a new world that is shaped by imagination?

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Tekkie-Wiki Social Club

The "tekkie-wiki" (also written "tekki-wiki" or "tekki-wikinista") is another Second Life concept invented by Prokofy Neva. As he explained in an interview with Hamlet Au, Prokofy sees the tekkie-wiki as a "collective expert technical brainstorm to collaborate on projects outside of uninitiated scrutiny." Prokofy holds that tekkie-wiki is part of the ideology of the Feted Inner Core, which is a supposed group of talented content-creators, encouraged and subsidized by the Lindens, and forming the established and recognized elite at the world’s center.

Prokofy’s August 2005 post What is the Tekkie-Wiki? reproduces his original definition of the term on the SL forum, which can be summarized as follows: "Tekkie wiki is the technically elite subculture of SL that gets jazzed on showing off their skills in prim building and scripting, but doesn't get excited in delighting joe average user." The post then goes on to criticize the more general culture of wiki websites, among which the best known is Wikipedia.

A wiki is a website with pages that can be freely created and edited by anyone. The wiki principle probably inspired Linden Labs when they first decided to let residents create their own objects. Second Life is in fact a sort of wiki in three dimensions. There is however a key difference, in that Linden Labs also established individual ownership over objects, and residents can only edit objects that belong to them.

Prokofy's criticism of wiki websites, taking Wikipedia as a case in point, centers on lack of accountability, and on hidden control by an inside elite. Old-fashioned media had an educated editorial board and a director who was a tangible figure with social accountability. The accountability of a wiki is supposedly provided by its self-corrective nature: anyone can see and correct false information. But this mechanism has shortcomings, and wikis are notoriously unreliable. Wikis do however remove traditional obstacles that prevented all kinds of smart or helpful people from sharing their knowledge with others. But rather than being open and democratic, as they are touted to be, wikis tend to be dominated by insider groups, characterized by secrecy, apprenticing, hazing, and arrogance. For Prokofy, the basic problem is that a wiki is a collective, and that any collective tends to evolve towards the type of closed group-think that characterized the Soviet Union.

But what exactly does Prokofy mean by a "collective." Human society is by definition a collective endeavour, so the term needs honing down. I suggest that Prokofy is referring to a particular type of collective organisation, one which steamrollers over the individual and the individual's rights, in the name of the "common good."

Before I came to Second Life as Danton Sideways, I spent a few months contributing to Wikipedia, under the name of Redeyed Treefrog. I notably created a long article on the History of Wikis. I also created a number of shorter articles, some of which were deleted because the only sources they cited were web-based. One of these articles, on the subject of Sunir Shah - who is discussed further below - was deleted after minimal discussion by a self-appointed committee, assembled during the Christmas break, at a time when my attention was on other things. I logged on one day to find the debate closed, because the 5 day time limit set for the deletion discussion was over, and the article gone, without my having even had a chance to participate in the debate. With some difficulty I identified the administrator who had initiated the deletion, and left a message on his page saying I would like to discuss the matter by email, but there was no reply.

This whole proceeding reeks of "secrecy, apprenticing, hazing, and arrogance," to use Prokofy's words. Being relatively new to Wikipedia, I have neither expert knowledge of the arcane system, nor a social network of other contributors to turn to for help. The administrator in question is an anonymous contributor, with no visible hierarchical superior. I find myself in the position of a powerless individual crushed by a faceless bureaucracy, like the hero of a Kafka novel.

I nonetheless remain an enthusiastic fan of the wiki format. Danton Sideways is a self-proclaimed disciple of Ivan Illich, whose philosophy involved returning to people the control over knowledge and techniques. Wikis are a prime example of how this can be done. Of course Wikipedia is unreliable, and it is at present completely gangrened by an elitist inner core, but it is still an amazing repository of collective knowledge, and one that could only have been constructed through massively distributed collaboration.

My diagnosis is that the problem has relatively little to do with the wiki format per se, and everything to do with a deficiency of internal democracy and a lack of safeguards to protect individual rights. New technology engenders new social structures, which at first take haphazard, and typically elitist, forms. Specific efforts must be made to improve emerging social systems, and to make them more democratic. It took European culture some two thousand years to develop the forms of mass democracy we have today, and in view of their poor present performance in the matter of human rights, we can only hope that the job is still far from finished.

What can be done to improve the way wikis function? I might give an example taken from the bit of research I did on the subject. It seems to me that there are three key people in the history of wikis: Ward Cunningham, Sunir Shah and Jumbo Wales. Ward Cunningham invented the first wiki, called WikiWikiWeb, and Jimbo Wales founded Wikipedia . But who, you may ask, is Sunir Shah?

Sunir Shah is a young internet enthusiast and forum moderator who showed up one day on WikiWikiWeb and started writing on the subject of WikiOnWiki, which means thinking about wikis, what they are, how they work. But Ward Cunningham and his associates wanted to restrict WikiWikiWeb to specialized discussion of computer programming. So Sunir left in 2001 and created MeatballWiki, the first wiki devoted to thinking about wikis. Sunir and his friends at MeatballWiki developed a range of concepts that have become fundamental to wiki culture. The first is that a wiki is a community.

The idea of on-line communities is nothing new. As noted by Fred Turner in From Counterculture to Cyberculture, one of the seven design goals underlying the creation of the WELL in 1985 was that "it would be a community," and WELL participant Howard Rheingold first coined the term "virtual community" in 1987. But Sunir and friends were the first to apply the idea of community to wikis. To see what this produced, the best is simply to read the pages of MeatballWiki. One spin-off was the concept of barnraising, which is a concerted group effort to help an individual implement a project, which could even be the creation of a new wiki. Another innovation was the practice of awarding virtual barnstars in recognition of outstanding efforts on the part of individual contributors. The MeatballWiki team also extensively contributed to developing Interwiki, which denotes various methods for linking together existing wikis.

Wikipedia did take a number of ideas from MeatballWiki, such as Barnstars and Interwiki. But as my personal experience indicates, Wikipedia seems to have evolved more into a soul-less collective machine, instead of into a self-conscious community concerned about its individual members. The Wikipedia social system thus appears to be still in its infancy, and characterized by the type of elitist, insider manipulation that Prokofy denounces on Second Life.

The emergence of elites is natural, and there is nothing to gain from trying to prevent individuals or groups from achieving excellence. As suggested above, the solution to tekkie-wiki elitism may instead have something to do with developing community and democracy.

Do we foster community then by asking the elites to think more of the well-being of others, to be more concerned for "joe average user," as Prokofy puts it? That approach might move things a bit in the right direction, but creators and entrepreneurs are notorious for looking out for number one, and in general only seek to serve their customers to the extent that doing so increases their own business.

Another possible approach, and one which is in line with the philosophy of Ivan Illich, would be to focus one's efforts on increasing the tekkie-wiki capacities of all of the other users. This could be done for example by developing better user support systems, such as tutorials and on-line help, and by promoting the formation of social self-help groups for the uninitiated, throughout the many different virtual communities flourishing within Second Life. The possible implementation of this approach is a vast subject. To sum it all up in a simple formula: let’s create some Tekkie-Wiki Social Clubs for the rest of us.

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Spammed by Prok

When Prokofy Neva adds his two cents to someone’s blog, the result can resemble a spam attack. Out of the ten posts existing yesterday on Danton’s blog, six have been hit with long comments by Prokofy, signing in as Dyerbrookme. On three of the posts, he made two comments rather than one. And several of Prok’s comments are longer than the original posts.

Danton Sideways is flattered to have received this attention from Second Life’s foremost pundit. As I indicated in my post about Second Life Loudmouths, I find Prokofy to be consistently interesting and informative. Moreover, his incisive critical analyses help me to understand this scene I recently joined in creating my avatar on Second Life. As is his general wont, however, Prokofy has gone into exhaustive detail in responding to my posts. It may therefore be helpful if I provide a brief summary of Prokofy’s comments, for those who lack the time to read through them all.

It could be noted in passing that Prokofy suggests that there is room for a Second Life newspaper giving "news, satire, cartoons, classifieds that was not tied to the land baron business, or banks, or to a TV station," and that he offers additional explanations for the phenomenon that I have called Second Life Blues. But the main gist of his comments concern Second Life economics and politics, so let us turn to those subjects without further ado.

Prokofy reacts strongly to my question about whether he is a member of the Second Life oligarchy, up at the top of the economic pyramid, alongside the likes of Anshe Chung. Harrison Randolfe had already mentioned in a note added to his famous pyramid scheme article: "I thank Prokofy for enlightening me to some of the bitter realities experienced by those on top of Second Life's economic order." In his comment on the present blog, however, Prokofy denies being "on top" of the pyramid, stating: "the land barons, while famous for having Anshe Chung supposedly making a real-life million, are collectively, much lower wage-earners than the content creators" such as animation wizards Craig Altman, Owen Khan or Cristiano Midnight, or dress designer Simone Stern. Prokofy observes that land barons have far greater costs (tier, prefabs) and spend more hours doing customer service, and claims that he personally is quite low on the pyramid because he deals in mainland rentals: "any island dealer with 20-30 islands probably makes double what I do, because islands simply sell better and are more fully occupied." He concludes that if most of the Second Life business people, including himself, billed for their hours, they would break even or lose. (Note that this was the main thesis of my post anyway - one which Prokofy seems to confirm.)

Prokofy then gets more positive and corroborates Gwyneth Llewelyn's encouragements, suggesting that there still exist many possibilities for opening up new businesses in Second Life. He points to the many newcomers from outside the Anglo-Saxon countries (Brazilians, Dutch, Russians) who have lowered the prices in rentals, services, and widget businesses, and added better service, notably by avoiding the tendency to over-script everything. The most successful are those who log on and stand behind their store counter day and night. Prokofy also notes that there are many content creators making money from prefabs, furniture, animations, clothing and inventions to do various things.

Prokofy’s reaction to Madame Irma’s pronouncements is of a different sort. Here what he objects to is Madame Irma’s insistence that "nobody shops in malls anymore," seeing in it an echo of the snobbish disdain that the Feted Inner Core had expressed for Anshe's "tacky" malls, before economic logic obliged many of them to join the mall scene. Prokofy claims on the contrary that people do still shop in malls: currently popular shopping sims such as Tableau are essentially higher-end malls on private islands. He does however agree with Madame that the overwhelming majority of sales in Second Life are currently made through search ads, despite the tiny minority that still make their fortunes through word of mouth (which is undeniably important), and that loudly insist on the forums that "nobody" uses search and that it is "broken". Prokofy concludes that people with little boutiques and a special clientele refuse to believe in malls, but in studying Second Life economy one must set aside blinders of class taste and go to see what is happening in the field. (Danton did try to do that, but his first excursion took him no further than Madame Irma’s world-view.)

Prokofy’s reactions to Danton’s political musings are mostly concentrated in his comments on my Troubled Sleep post. He says the leftists in CDS don’t need to create a separate leftist city, because CDS is already leftist, in that the land is not for sale on the open market. What does he mean by that? I bought a total of three plots in Colonia Nova, and last week I sold one of them by putting it up for sale "to anyone." It was purchased during my absence by a complete stranger who simply clicked on "pay." Prokofy must be referring to something else, because he tells about how he opened Ravenglass to the general public for sale, and everyone said he would be flash-mobbed by land barons, but he wasn’t. He holds this up as a model for CDS to follow, claiming that the fear of right-wing plotters buying it all up is what prevents the Frieswiththat (his play on the name Neufreistadt) gang from letting the sim become a truly open democracy. According to Prokofy, decent prices and a covenant would be sufficient to prevent that from happening.

And Prokofy repeatedly points to Danton’s unfamiliarity with all of these issues. In one comment he states directly: "Danton, you have to study SL history and economics way more than you have." I’m painfully aware of this. I break out in a cold sweat wondering how I am going to keep up with all the new posts of the main Second Life bloggers - let alone read the past ones! I claim to have clinically identified a condition of in-world avatar anguish, for which I modestly propose the name Danton’s Syndrome. What then will we call this out-of-world obsession with trying to keep up with the Second Life blogs and forums? Since the name "Danton" has already been used, perhaps this separate but related disease, which I again claim to be the first to have clinically identified, could be called the "Sideways Syndrome."

Saturday, 19 January 2008

Benchmarking the Boutiques

With her long comment on my virtual money blog post, Gwyneth Llewelyn started me back on my search for in-world business possibilities.

I thought I should begin by talking to someone with hands-on experience of virtual shopkeeping. I discretely asked friends for the name of an avatar I might interview, and was introduced to a businesswoman who runs a small shop in a distant sim. She willingly answered my questions, but for reasons which will soon be apparent, she desires to remain anonymous. I will just call her Madame Irma.

I met Madame Irma in her boutique, and started off asking questions about shops and shopping in Second Life. She wondered at my curiosity. I told her that I wanted to benchmark Second Life business practices, and was in search of the best stores in Second Life. In my Funny Money post I had summarized Prokofy Neva's history of Anshe Chung's shopping malls, so I asked Madame Irma where to find the best shopping malls on Second Life.

"Malls?" replied Madame Irma, nonplussed. "Nobody needs to shop in malls any more. Only a newbie would travel to go shopping. You just open Search, go to the All tab, and type what you're looking for. When you find the name of a shop that interests you, you can teleport there. But you can also shop on the SL Exchange Marketplace or at the Onrez site."

My personal experience of shopping had started in my own neighbourhood, with the purchase of a roman chair at Torin Golding's Roma outlet in Colonia Nova. I had clicked on a picture of the chair to pay for it, and received the chair into inventory, with no shopkeeper present. I had then gone to the large Emporio Romani store in Colonia, which is full of panel pictures of clothing, but had wondered how to try something on before buying. Madame Irma explained that some shops let you try samples. To demonstrate, she put on a sample of hair that she had in her inventory. The hair sat neatly in place, but above her head there hovered a box, which could only be removed by buying the sample. She took the hair sample off and put it back into her inventory.

I realised how little experience I have with Second Life shopping. I should get out of CDS more often and see the (virtual) world. But my education was only beginning. Madame Irma started talking about speciality shops. "RAC is the best for skin," she explained. "For sexbeds it used to be Strokerz, but now there are many shops. And XCITE corners the market on, well, penises and such." I already knew something about this, having read the Wired Guide to Second Life. Madame Irma went on: "All newbies get taken to XCITE at some point. And there are nice themed malls, like the BDSM malls."

It was my turn to be flabbergasted: "You said nobody goes to malls anymore. But now you say there are whole malls just for bondage, dominance and sado-masochism." Madame Irma could only confirm: "OMG yes," she assured me, "BDSM is very big on Second Life."

Talking about skins reminded me of a web page that I had seen, about a sim with a shop that sells dragon avatars. I mentioned to Madame Irma that I fancied the idea of being a dragon for a while. "You are so bored," Madame Irma replied. I was afraid that she had said I was "boring," but I checked the chat history, and she had indeed said "bored." However, on Second Life "bored" appears to be a derogatory term. After about a quarter of an hour in-world, some 50% of newbies announce: "I'm bored." Those are the ones who never come back. Myself I've been endlessly fascinated since the first moment, so my reptilian fantasies are not from boredom. I just think it would be great fun to fly around as a huge dragon. I could scare little children…. I could eat newbies! Second Life tends to bring out the hidden side of everyone's nature. For some it is BDSM. Apparently my hidden nature is to be a fire-breathing griefer.

Talking with Madame Irma made me realise that it is much too early for me to do benchmarking about Second Life businesses. I've got to do more serious Second Life shopping myself, before I can start thinking of selling anything to anyone else.

Friday, 18 January 2008

Second Life Blues (Danton's Syndrome)

Second Life can be a euphoric experience. It offers seemingly unlimited possibilities for identity, for creation and for friendship. Land can be bought quite cheaply, and one can either make or buy the house of one's dreams, as well as everything needed to get comfortably installed. By joining a multitude of groups one can build an ever-growing personal network of friends and associates. Thus one's avatar moves into the virtual world, invests time and energy, and develops a life.

But there seems to be a down side. Sometimes when I log off, I am filled with a vague sadness, a sort of anguish. After a particularly severe bout of such feelings, I logged back in, and found someone to chat with. "I've got the Second Life blues," I said. "Does that exist? Does anyone talk about it?" But my friend changed the subject.

I thought about this anguish, and found a number of plausible explanations. The virtual world is a place in a very literal sense, and behind the avatars are real people. But the virtuality gives this place and these people a set of highly specific attributes, some of which are, to say the least, inconvenient. One major attribute of places and people on Second Life is that they are impermanent. Builds can disappear from one day to the next, and whole sims can drop out of the virtual world. Avatars in the best of cases tend to be intermittent, and in the worst cases just disappear, either for extended periods, or permanently. How many times have I logged in to find my sim completely empty, because the avatars are off-line? And in my short Second Life I've already seen a number of avatars take their leave, the consequences of which can be exacerbated by the anonymity of their real-world identities. After one of these departures I asked a friend if there were any known reasons for the sudden withdrawal. The friend only said: "Oh, you get used to that here. The key word in Second Life is 'Second.' Avatars come and go, and that one will probably be back sooner or later." But some never come back. To the extent that there is a second life, there can also be a second death, and cases of virtual suicide.

Anonymity is another attribute that can have social side-effects. It is well known that the anonymity of on-line forums tends to transform certain participants into trolls, those Internet monsters who procure vicarious pleasure by triggering flame-wars with other forum users. Relationships with other avatars can be similarly brutal, unpredictable and emotionally dangerous. Anonymity can bring out the worst in people, because the lack of social constraints allows them to behave in ways they would avoid in real life.

Has this phenomenon of "Second Life Blues," and its causes, already been scientifically described by others? If not, I claim the invention of the term. Medical syndromes are often named for the doctor that first clinically observed them. If Doctor Danton is the first to write a blog post that gives a precise clinical description of avatar malaise, it would be fitting to call the described set of symptoms "Danton's Syndrome."

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Going into Buzz-ness

During the past few weeks the Confederation of Democratic Sims has been in the throes of election campaigns. This election period has been the occasion for the Real Danton to stand up and reveal himself as a "left-libertarian." Ruminating about Second Life politics has also lead me to spin out a paranoid rant about flash-mobbing as a political gambit. But now that I've voted, my attention has already turned back to more serious matters.

I’m still looking for a line of business to go into on Second Life. I've been toying with a few ideas, such as for example creating an in-world travel agency. But what does it mean, in fact, to "create a business" on Second Life? In my rather pessimistic post about virtual money, I suggested that it only means playing at business, since the real-life gains seem to be generally paltry. That post was graced with a long comment by renowned Second Life blogger (and CDS's own) Gwyneth Llewelyn, in which she promotes a more positive point of view.

Gwyneth points out for one thing that there are many other large land barons, in addition to the notorious Anshe Chung with her Dreamland. For example, the Azure Islands, owned and operated by the Australian company DeepThink, directed by Second Life residents Adam Zaius and Nexus Nash, now have a larger landmass than Dreamland. Even smaller barons such as Prokofy Neva and Desmond Shang of Caledon have at least a thousand paying customers each.

Gwyneth also gives numerous examples of promising sectors of economic activity on Second Life, including fashion, education, art, music, lawyers and environmental groups. She even mentions finance, regretting that Linden Labs has made it difficult for the finance subculture to survive in Second Life. In the fashion sector, Gwyneth mentions Ana Lutetia, whose website review of the Second Life fashion scene has become a reference. Gwyneth also refers to the giant education sector on Second Life, noting that "they organise huge venues, sponsor thousands of projects, do RL conferences all the time, and write hundreds of papers." She specifically points to the New Media Corporation as an example of an in-world business that provides services to this education sector.

My initial reaction to Gwyneth's comment was to reiterate my earlier objections about the generally low real-dollar profitability of Second Life economic activity. What do the earnings of the land barons represent in terms of real dollars? Moreover, the big land barons, sitting at the top of the Second Life economic pyramid, hardly represent the average Second Life business owner. In the other sectors, what are the real economic gains of individual entrepreneurs, when translated into US Dollars? The SL fashion sector, including clothing, hair, skins and so on, is undoubtedly enormous, even in real life dollars. But since each separate transaction is for only a tiny amount, one wonders about the net earnings of the individual small creators and entrepreneurs. And for all the size of the Second Life education sector, how many large in-world service providers can it actually support?

My objections undoubtedly contain an element of truth. But I've recently come across additional information which corroborates Gwyneth's point of view. Studying the SL History Wiki in more depth, I've been realising how big Second Life and its economy actually are. And I've been reading a fantastic paper by Cory Ondrejka, which has helped me better understand the Second Life "market." Prokofy Neva in a recent post credits the telehubs and Anshe Chung with stimulating in-world creativity, but Cory shows that the key insight in fact came earlier, from Stanford Law professor Laurence Lessig. Cory describes Lessig's contribution as follows: "Specifically, he made the comment that it was a mistake to ask users to create a world but not allow them to own what they had made." The in-world economy and the explosion of resident creativity both spring from this initial decision to allow individual ownership of created objects. Cory goes on to suggest that the in-world economy breaks down the dichotomy between play and profession. In other words, playing at business in Second Life is true economic activity, based on exchange between real individuals linked into networks.

The intensive networking that goes on in Second Life is one of the aspects that drew me here in the first place. In this context, where the boundary between work and play washes away, the definition of "economic activity" also expands beyond mere in-world exchange. For me personally it has little to do with Linden Dollars, and everything to do with audience and notoriety.

Let us say, for example, that I create an in-world travel agency as my Second Life business. This would mean concretely that I would create in-world links to a plain old website, full of pages about possible in-world travel destinations. (Such websites already exist of course, and I may discuss them in a future post). I could then contact landowners to see if they would give me commissions on travellers or buyers that I send their way. But the net profits would probably be rather meagre when exchanged into US Dollars. I might however want to create such a "company" in order to procure something other than Linden Dollar commissions. If the website succeeded, my payoff would be notoriety: I would have captured an audience. And I have in mind a number of ways to profit from that buzz.

Saturday, 12 January 2008

Troubled Sleep

What do you do if your socialist theme park gets flash-mobbed by right-wing trolls disguised as fairies?

Now that the Real Danton has stood up, he can let it all hang out. I've been sleeping fitfully lately. One night as I nodded off, I was seized with the vision that my real life had always been virtual, and that only my Second Life was real. The following morning I awoke out of a frightful nightmare, in which an army of cyborgs was trying to destroy Neufreistadt and the Confederation of Democratic Sims.

The term "socialist theme park" is a pearl from Prokofy Neva, who dropped it into a discussion dealing with the conflict between Ulrika Zugzwang and the democratically-elected Neualternberg usurpers. When I find time I will study this whole story in greater depth, but it does seem that Neualternberg and its successor Neufreistadt were originally of leftist inspiration.

In more recent ages (that is, over about the past year or two), the Confederation of Democratic Sims (CDS) has opened up to a wider population. This is only natural for a democratic country. Any true democracy will have a left, a right and a center, and the litmus test is to see what happens when the elections replace a leftist government by a rightist one, or vice-versa. So the label "socialist" no longer applies to CDS as a whole, and should be reserved for parties such as the Citizen's Social-Democratic Faction, which is just one among the four active political parties.

But I've already expressed the opinion that Second Life is a mirror of reality. This potential of the virtual world to model, perchance to influence, the real world has undoubtedly struck others as well. So let us take that intuition a step further, and imagine a worst-case scenario.

What if a hidden group of right-wing Second Lifers decided that CDS was a hot-bed of subversive ideology that should be smothered, and systematically set about to flash-mob the fledgling democracy, buying hundreds of tiny plots in order to elect an overwhelmingly rightist government? In such a case, the progressive group that had built the sims in the first place, and whose avatars actually spent most of their time there, would find themselves dispossessed by a mob of hostile strangers who only stopped by to vote, before teleporting back to their virtual condominiums.

Be at ease, gentle reader. The Real Danton has been assailed by a paranoid fantasy. But remember the title of Andy Grove's book: Only The Paranoid Survive. Looking ahead to the merely possible cataclysm, I have come up with a proposal for preventive measures to protect the progressive element within this fragile experiment in virtual democracy.

One is tempted to look for solutions in various mechanical devices that might limit the country's "mobbability." One could try to set stringent barriers to citizenship (as do real world countries). One could implement identity verification in order to limit election fraud (this has been discussed on the CDS forum). I think that such measures are important, in order to guarantee that CDS functions as a true democracy. But they fail to reach the core issue.

The central question from my personal point of view is how to maintain a leftist enclave in the midst of this burgeoning democracy. We leftists must let the democratic majority go its own way. If CDS truly succeeds as a democracy, the little group of leftists will be swept aside, submerged beneath waves of avatars of all political tendancies, averaging out to a middle-of-the-road common denominator. But those whose political vision extends beyond formal political democracy to the active promotion of a more just society should still somehow band together. Doing so simply as a minority party of quixotic leftists squeezed to the edges of a consensual crowd that supports the status-quo hardly seems satisfactory.

What I propose is the creation of an explicitly leftist sim, which would take its place within a highly decentralised Confederation of Democratic Sims. In other words, let us create our own leftist city-state, with an explicitly leftist constitution and government, and simultaneously change the CDS constitution to a truly federal model. Each democratic sim would thus become a separate mini-state, with its own local government, and would send elected representatives to the central CDS government. One could imagine that the right-wingers would create their own city-state, the center-of-the-roaders would create theirs, and the Federal Government would become a free-for-all where everyone argues wildly about everything all of the time (and more reasonably about some of the things some of the time). In real life such a geographical separation of the political clans is unthinkable, but in virtual reality it somehow seems to make a lot of sense. This is another illustration of the difference between real life and virtual life, as is the fundamental lack of exchangeability between real money and virtual money. To tell the truth, I find these clear dividing lines between the real and the virtual to be rather comforting.

Of course, if this proposal for a politically-oriented sim did find supporters, the battle would probably then be fought over whether or how to modify the existing CDS constitution in order to allow a more decentralised federal structure. In the last resort, if no agreement were reached on changing the constitution to a truly federal model, the leftist group would have to go off and create its own little island by itself. But that would be unfortunate, because it would diminish the Confederation of Democratic Sims, and remove from it one part of the full democratic spectrum of opinion.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

The Real Danton

Will the real Danton Sideways please stand up.

On the early TV game show To Tell the Truth, each of three contestants claimed to be a person who had done something unusual. The members of a celebrity panel voted for the one they thought was telling the truth, and the host then pronounced the famous formula shown above. In the sixties this meme inspired an episode of the Twilight Zone series, called Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up, and in the early nineties Allucquère Rosanne Stone wrote a now-classic essay on cyberspace called Will the Real Body Please Stand Up?

I'm going to reveal the real Danton. Other than in the case of a scripted robotic Non-Player Character (NPC), there is a real-life identity behind each Second Life identity. But what I'm going to reveal is the true identity of the virtual Danton, rather than of his real-life counterpart.

Because the virtual Danton himself has a hidden identity. I realized this when I thought about my last two blog posts. Why did I transition so abruptly from a humorous, consensual account of the marriage of ThePrincess and MT, to such a heavy, partisan analysis of the Second Life economy? Did I simply make an error of judgement, forgetting that what people like, and what I apparently do best, are thumbnail stories from day-to-day personal life? It's more complicated than that.

The real Danton is an avatar with a vision. He is among those whom Prokofy Neva calls the "left-libertarians," a label which Prokofy applies to Linden Labs management in general, and to Cory Ondrejka in particular. But I'm far from convinced that this label applies to Linden Labs. It may have applied to Cory Ondrejka, but he has parted ways with Linden Labs. And those who run companies must answer to the investors, which means that they are generally more concerned about maintaining profits, than about pushing any particular political philosophy. But the individual avatar Danton has full liberty to stand up and reveal his partisan engagement on the side of the "left-libertarians."

Behind Danton's immediate identity-crisis is this big question: "What am I doing here in Second Life anyway?" It's all so new to me. I hardly even know yet how to pick objects up, and I'm already trying to define my role in the micro-community of CDS. I think it's clear that the material aspects are a low personal priority. In my house I'm satisfied with one sofa and two chairs; I'm still running around in my dirty leather jacket; and I have yet to graduate beyond making plywood boxes. I do have various in-world fantasies of a practical nature, such as to build a Centre for the Promotion of Convivial Tools, or to found an in-world cooperative business with a few colleagues. But what interests me most is writing.

So I've been thinking about where I can go with that. I had hopes of doing something with this blog, but it is starting to look difficult. I made a bit of a splash with one or two articles because it was new, and because I sent IMs to the entire group announcing my posts. But I'll never have either the notoriety or the content to achieve the success of someone like Gwyneth Llewellyn. I played with the idea of trying to do a blog about CDS. For example, I could interview local residents about what they do, playing the role of a "Hamlet Au of CDS." But even that seems hard to sustain. So I've come up with a plan B.

We should start a CDS newspaper, to which all would-be writers from CDS could contribute. I seriously propose that we should pool our energies, and create a local newspaper, which we could call something like the "CDS Herald." That way I could contribute articles about the community, a la Hamlet Au, which might actually be seen and read by other CDSers. And I could then reserve this blog for left-libertarian rants, which no one other than myself would ever read.

Sunday, 6 January 2008

Funny Money

About a month ago, after only a few weeks on Second Life, I bought a home in a quiet corner of Colonia Nova. Then a few days ago I was unexpectedly presented with the opportunity to buy a small shop near my home. I jumped on the chance, although I have as yet absolutely nothing to sell, since I'm still learning to make basic plywood boxes.

Economic activity is evidently a central part of the Second Life experience. Most landed residents have a shop or a business of some kind, in addition to their house – or in place of a house. It appears however that the wheeling and dealing of the majority of residents remains on the level of a game. Someone has said that if you calculated the average financial return on all of these virtual businesses, you would find that the owners could have earned a higher hourly rate by babysitting for their real life neighbours. There are exceptions, notably among the land barons, who purchase and develop large blocks of land, sometimes entire sims, and then rent out parcels. The most famous land baron is Anshe Chung, who made over a million real-life dollars from her in-world business. But for each successful merchant or land-baron, there are thousands of gifted creators producing marvellous content and gaining only a pittance from it (just as in real life).

So I have no illusions, but I'm ready to play the game of developing my own virtual business. I therefore began looking through the blogs and websites to learn more about the virtual economy. As usual, a natural starting place for my research was Wikipedia, which has a long article about Second Life, as well as shorter articles on specific topics such as Second Life Real Estate.

The particularity of the in-world economy is the currency. Linden Dollars (L$) can be converted to or from U.S. Dollars, either through Linden Lab's official currency exchange, called the LindeX, or through third-party currency exchanges such as SLExchange (SLX), ACE or BNTF. These currency exchanges are said to be open markets, fluctuating daily as resident transactions set the buy and sell price. However, Linden Lab in fact intervenes whenever necessary, by buying or selling Linden Dollars to keep the exchange rate relatively stable, at around L$270 per US$1 on the LindeX. (The rate is slightly higher, around L$ 275-285 per USD, on the third-party exchanges.)

It has been suggested that this stability is fragile. The total value of Lindens in circulation is only partially backed by Linden Lab revenues in US Dollars, since Linden Lab steadily creates new Linden Dollars out of nothing, such as by providing new premium users with stipends. This fragility could lead to a recession, or even to outright economic collapse if people lose confidence in the stability of the exchange rate. Moreover, Linden Lab includes provisions in the Terms of Service which state that Linden Lab is not required to pay any compensation if Linden Dollars are lost from the database, which deprives Linden Dollars of intrinsic value as a form of currency.

What I understand from all of this is that Linden Dollars are a truly virtual, rather than real-world, currency. Investing in them involves correspondingly high risk. The lack of true exchangeability with US dollars was demonstrated by an experiment described in an often-cited blog post by venture consultant Harrison Randolph. Working for a group of entrepreneurs and investors, Randolph sunk nearly $10,000 USD into Second Life over a 6 month period, borrowing from or lending to virtual banks, and entering into various types of virtual financial arrangements. Randolphe's first conclusion was that you can seldom trust those with whom you’re doing business in Second Life. Even supposedly well established business citizens are prone to defaulting on any obligations which prove inconvenient, since their real world identities are carefully-guarded anonymous secrets.

Randolphe's second conclusion was that the L$ exchange process is more of an open auction than a true currency exchange market. The catch is that the announced stable rates only apply to small amounts, to the multitude of tiny transactions by small-time buyers and sellers going through the official LindeX exchange. As soon as you want to make a big trade, you must go through the private exchanges, which are owned by the businesses which sit at the top of the Second Life economic hierarchy. (The “Virtual Land Baroness” owns the largest such exchange). Every time Randolph tried to transact more than a couple hundred US dollars, the exchange rate would suddenly spike to levels of about 400 to 500 Lindens per USD.

Because of this "rigged" exchange scheme, the end result of each of Randolph's deals was a net return of only around 4%, which was the prevailing interest rate on dollars deposited in a real world bank! He tried to figure out a way to disguise his trades, or to create his own in-game banks and exchanges in order to arbitrage the other direction, but found no solution. This led him to conclude that Second Life is a "pyramid scheme." As he notes, the buzz is that it is possible for enterprising residents to make big money in Second Life. The reality is that one of the more successful in-world business-persons that Randolphe spoke with made an impressive L$50,000 in one month of operation of her virtual jewelry store - which is only about $185 USD! A tiny handful of land barons and brothel owners are responsible for nearly all of the real money extracted from the game, and they profit from the mass of new recruits who invest in-world in the hopes of making big money themselves.

The question that interested me next was, how did the big land barons at the top of the pyramid get their start? I obtained an answer from the blog of Prokofy Neva, the Second Life loudmouth who engages in rough intellectual jousts with just about everyone, in the name of defending "resident rights." Prokofy turns out to be an acknowledged expert on Second Life economics. This acknowledgement is shown for example in the applause that Robert Bloomfield, a professor of accounting at Cornell University, and creator of the Metanomics conference series , gives to Prokofy's long commentary posted to the Metanomics website. Bloomfield also turned to Prokofy for advice when Bloomfield was granted an interview with Robin Linden. Although Prokofy mocked Bloomfield for turning to him for advice, he willing provided Bloomfield with a list of questions about Second Life to be posed during the interview. (It could also be noted that Prokofy is opposed to Bloomfield's project of promoting self-regulatory business associations in Second Life, an opposition which reminds one of that distant time - four years is an eternity on internet - when Prokofy, under the name of Dyerbrook, struggled against the Sims Shadow Government.)

Prokofy gained his economic expertise through the school of hard knocks, as an in-world business-person. He explains in a recent blog post that he got his start by advertising his rentals in an Anshe Chung shopping mall, located on the same sim where Prokofy's rentals were. And Prokofy still has tenants today. Thus when Prokofy pipes up to defend "small businesses" on Second Life, he knows by personal experience what their problems are. Of course Prokofy is in business in order to be able to mouth off, rather than mouthing off because he is in business, but the end result is the same. He knows what he is talking about.

Prokofy is thus in a good position to inform us about the history of Second Life economic development. As he tells it, the whole story hinges around the introduction of the telehubs, which modelled the Second Life economy for a few years, before the Lindens changed tack and destroyed them.

The telehubs were an artificial constraint on resident travel that was introduced to make residents socialize and build together. The Lindens got this idea from Jane Jacobs, who held in her classic "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" that New York grew and thrived because of rich accidental constraints that forced travellers and merchandise to go through it. Travelling Second Life residents were thus forced to teleport into the hubs and then fly out of them, which obliged them to congregate, if only briefly, before they rushed off somewhere else. The areas around the telehubs soon became ugly, laggy messes, obliging the Lindens in late 2004 to start redesigning some of them with green grass, trees and open spaces, in order to mitigate the mall lag and blight. But according to Prokofy, the telehubs were an enormous engine of growth and creativity for Second Life, precisely because of the capitalistic mall development. Entrepreneurs realised that this land was valuable, bid it way up on the auctions, and cornered the market. Thus Anshe Chung, Blue Burke, Moonshine Herbst and a few others made their fortune in mall rentals and machines. Anshe's malls were carefully master-planned, laid out to provide a maximum of rental space and an easy flow-through of avatars, and business boomed.

Prokofy claims that: "The mall barons created a system that, ironically, was extremely democratic, accessible, and wealth-producing." Although mall rentals were very high per prim, anyone willing to pay the price could get a stall, whereas prior to that point the Second Life economy resembled a medieval apprentice system. You had to cultivate and flatter a member of the aristocracy of feted divas, in order to get a spot in the back of her store. Prokofy adds that under the mall system: "You could even make a deal with Anshe, if you were large enough, to put out your stores for you each time she managed to snag an auction win with a telehub in it." Did "small businessman" Prokofy successfully make such deals with Anshe? Would he in fact be sitting somewhere high on the Second Life pyramid, instead of down here with the rest of us, as he pretends?

Prokofy waged a battle for keeping the telehubs, as did Gwyneth Llewelyn, though for different reasons. But all 42 telehubs were simultaneously deleted in late 2005 by the Lindens, who were under pressure from various lobbies to allow teleporting "P2P" (which on Second Life seems to mean Place to Place, rather than Person to Person). With the telehubs gone, some of the malls stayed as before. Traffic continued to come, but the lag was gone, since only those residents visited who specifically wanted to be there.

What this story would seem to suggest, of course, is that the mall-managing land barons who climbed to the top of the pyramid during the telehub period, now form a permanently closed club. The "historical conditions" that allowed them to rise by grabbing the land around the telehubs are now definitively gone. One could always try to create a brilliant new set of themed sims, on the model for example of Desmond Shang's Caledon or Torin Golding's Roma, in the hopes of attracting enough renters to make a profit. But the sheer concentration of economic activity that resulted from the telehubs no longer exists anywhere on the grid. With the telehubs gone, the in-world economy has frozen into a form of oligarchy, which someone like Prokofy Neva has no reason to contest, however undemocratic it has become.

There remain of course many ways to make real money from Second Life. The best bet is to provide consulting and content creation for real life businesses that want to establish an in-world presence. Since these businesses install their in-world presence only for purposes of marketing and publicity, the service-provider acts as a cross between an advertising agency and an architectural firm, with a dose of computer savvy thrown in. It is significant that such service-providers are wary of Linden Dollars. One of these companies recently indicated on their website that their services are billed in US Dollars, though this information has since been discretely removed from the site (hidden from the public eye and reserved for private response to serious client queries). In others words: please pay us for our real-life services in real-life money, rather than in Linden funny money.

I still plan to create my in-world business. But the information summarized in this post indicates that my chances of making more than pocket money in-world are practically nil, especially since I'm unwilling to invest the significant amounts required to become a land baron. Second Life is however an incredible tool for learning about economics and entrepreneurship. A whole range of economic phenomena are modelled with surprising realism within the virtual world, to the extent that some people seem to have taken it for a real, rather than a virtual, economy. And although a tiny few at the top of the pyramid do extract real dollars from the system, the in-world business of most residents remains just a game. And this is how it should be. The proper employment of funny money is to use it to have fun.

Thursday, 3 January 2008

ThePrincess and MT tie the knot

On the evening of Friday December 28th I was roaming aimlessly through the streets of Colonia Nova, deep in IM discussion with Jon Seattle about theories of learning. I was suddenly contacted by ThePrincess Parisi, who urged me to join MT Lundquist in a pub. I found this a bit odd, since ThePrincess was obviously somewhere other than at said pub, but I told her I was interested. I mentioned this to Jon, who was game to go along, and ThePrincess replied that MT would send us both invitations to teleport. I stood waiting for a while on the main square of Colonia Nova, and when I received the TP invitation I clicked my way to the pub.

I found MT Lundquist sitting at the bar, surrounded by a few CDS residents that I knew - Brian Livingston, Sleazy Writer and Alexicon Kurka - and a couple of SL residents who were new to me - JT Vale and Tyrant Labber. Behind the bar was the pub owner Ham Rambler, and helping him was one Rosa Petlyakov. After saying hello to everyone, I took a seat on a barstool, and listened to the conversation. I heard it said that this was MT's last night as a bachelor, and I suddenly remembered the marriage. A week before ThePrincess had invited me to their wedding, and now MT was having his bout of drinks with the boys!

I wondered why Jon was taking so long to show up. Someone said they'd just seen him fly by the window, and he was soon seated next to me, swivelling back and forth on his stool. I asked him how he did that, and he told me to use the arrow keys. I did so, but soon regretted it. I was rather lagged in the pub, and each time I swivelled my stool in one direction, I'd touch the arrow too many times, and turn farther than I wanted. I spent most of the discussion facing away from the others, in various directions, so when I finally got back into the right position, I just stayed put.

The conversation got onto some technical issue about computers and software, which was a bit over my head. We were then unexpectedly joined by plump Bertha Dalglish, who asked whether we thought appearance is important in an avatar. That led to collective musings about virtual identity, during which Boris Janus, a big black cat, landed on the bar and began alternately prowling and lolling in front of us. People started to leave, so I congratulated MT one last time, said goodbye to all, and then logged off.

On Saturday I logged on just in time for the wedding. Since I knew ThePrincess Parisi and MT Lundquist as CDS citizens, I had assumed the marriage would be held in the Neufreistadt church. It was instead held at the church in Icewater, next to their home. When I got there MT was standing out front with JT Vale, who was best man, and Phos Noel, who acted as the priest. We all went inside, and the guests began to arrive. In addition to those already mentioned, some of the residents I saw in the church were: Zanni Honi, JerryDon Lane, Catz Jewells, Celeste Balogh, Mizou Vavoum (of Carpe Diem Design), Sleazy Writer, Beaver Stansky, Sudane Erato, Satir Decuir, Kelmo Columbine, Markko Ondricek (of Witchlight), Poppy Spire, Bells Semyorka, Robbi Rockett (of Swingsnthings), Dominique Littlething (of Katmandu), Andrew Laguna (of Knights of Arcadia), Pastor Carnell and Rain Ninetails. Who did I miss? (And whose name did I misspell)?

While we were waiting for everyone to show up, JT Vale, who was standing in front of the altar next to MT, made jokes to pass the time. I was awkwardly using the alt-mouse utility to try to survey the scene, when my screen froze up, and I crashed. My first reaction was to send an IM to MT, asking for a teleport, but there was no reply, so I sent one to Sudane Erato, and she TP'd me back into the church. During my absence the ceremony had started, and I understood that MT had been too busy to even read my IM, let alone reply. Phos Noel made a long speech, pretty much based on the traditional Christian rites, and the bride and groom kissed, and everybody applauded and said hurrah. The newly married couple walked down the aisle together, and the guests began filing out to go to the reception, held in a large building next to the church.

It was only at this point that I realized how inappropriate my outfit was. Everyone there was wearing their finest clothes, and I still had on my newbie jeans, and a dirty leather jacket that I had found among some free clothes that Sleazy Writer had given me. So instead of going straight to the reception, I went to hide around behind the church, and stood in the snow in my shorts, trying to change into something more suitable. There was in fact a dinner outfit in the clothes Sleazy had given me, but I didn't find it, and had to settle for just a better pair of pants and a more spiffy leather jacket. I made a few wrong clicks somewhere, and the jacket suddenly came down to my knees, and then only to my armpits. I finally got it back to the right length, and ventured in to the reception.

I must have been changing during a rather long time, because when I finally got to the reception, it was ending, and the guests were already leaving to go to the dance party. But I was on time to get the address, so I teleported over to the night club in Featherman. There I ran into Sleazy, who had apparently also changed his outfit after the church ceremony. He was now wearing an oversized top hat and garish Bermuda shorts with huge polka dots on them! Why did I bother?

I entered the ballroom, and found Brian Livingston standing there, watching a few couples who had started to dance. But I heard no music, so I checked whether my audio streaming was correctly turned on, which it seemed to be. I asked Brian, who reported that he had briefly heard some music, but that now he heard nothing. So I stood with him blankly staring around, until finally whoever was at the controls got the music to work, and we were bathed in rock and roll. I used my standard 8 dance steps again, cursing myself for my failure to have taken the time to procure a decent dance script.

The remainder of the dance party was a bit difficult for me. Real life intervened heavily, and I had to leave my avatar standing stupidly inactive for long periods. I also crashed a couple of times. But I was still on hand towards the very end, after the married couple had left. Michel Manen made a brief appearance, just after the departure of the newlyweds, and went off himself, perhaps in search of them. There were only a few couples left, including Phos Noel dancing with Kelmo Columbine, and Celeste Balogh dancing with Lostshang Banshee. I saluted them for their perseverance, and said goodnight.