Friday, June 11, 2010

first histories of Second Life: review of Wagner Au's The Making of Second Life and Thomas Malaby's Making Virtual Worlds

Since November, 2006, I've been very interested in Second Life and used it for fieldwork in writing my book Apocalyptic AI. One entire chapter is about transhumanist people and communities in SL. Influential commentators like Giulio Prisco, Extropia DaSilva and (then, but now retired) Sophrosyne Stenvaag advocate transhumanist technologies in SL and their efforts helped establish transhumanist groups in that world. What's more interesting is that the Apocalyptic AI worldview actually appears systemic to SL. That is, even folks who've never heard the word transhumanism still ascribe to a basic worldview in which virtual presence promotes a transcendence over finite human existence and many see SL as a heavenly environment. It would seem that this mentality has its roots in the origins of Linden Lab, the company behind Second Life. Two histories of SL have been written and they offer considerable guidance in understanding the development of SL and its possibilities for residents.

I didn't have a copy of Wagner Au's The Making of Second Life (Harper 2008) when I wrote Apocalyptic AI and I sincerely regret it. Nor did I have Thomas Malaby's Making Virtual Worlds (Cornell 2010), but it wasn't in print at any stage of my writing (obviously). Malaby's work is an ethnography of Linden Lab, where he hung out as a resident anthropologist on and off through the early years of SL's development. Au was hired as embedded journalist in SL and worked for Linden Lab for a time before branching out as a freelancer. His New World Notes is my go-to source for information about what's going on in SL and LL.

Au's book wavers between being a detailed narrative about the early years of SL and cheerleading for the business potential for the platform. Leaving aside the biz propaganda (which doesn't interest me personally), there's a treasure trove of insight into the development of the world and the things that make the community there so engaging. I was simultaneously thrilled and disappointed to see Au's claim that Phillip Rosedale (the founder of SL) suffers from alienation caused by his mortal body and contemplates visions of mind uploading (231-3). I was thrilled because, well, this is the stuff I study. I was mortified, however, that I did not have this at my disposal when writing Apocalyptic AI.  Au gracefully discusses the ways in which the SL community came together and helps us understand what it means to make a virtual community. In this, his book is a landmark treatise; much like Howard Rheingold's The Virtual Community, it provides a view of a virtual community's self-production. In short, Au believes three things characterize SL: Bebop Reality (the laws of reality can be manipulated), Impression Society (creativity and skill will impress others and are the basis of much social order), and Mirrored Flourishing (SL success translates to conventional life success). There are many great stories/histories in the book and it is well worth reading for anyone interested in SL or virtual worlds in general.

Malaby's thesis is that "in setting out to make a world that is supposed to make itself (through the content-generating actions of its users), Linden Lab evinced a remarkable and antibureaurcratic commitment to unintended consequences, and then found itself shaped by Second Life as the world and its effects grew" (16). Working through this eventually leads him to predict that in the future, bureaucracies will be increasingly open-ended (128). For this latter, I would have been interested to know which kinds of bureaucracy are most likely to benefit from an open-ended structure, as I don't know that I saw an argument universalizing it.  There's a lot of interesting stuff in the book, though much of it is unfortunately obfuscated by irritatingly awkward and dense writing. Fortunately, Malaby's observations of the company are interesting additions to the anthropology of business and his analysis of the role of technology at SL is powerful. Our modern expectation that technology will solve all our problems is on perfect display in Malaby's work.

Reading Malaby's and Au's work together will give any reader the opportunity to see how SL developed. Both Malaby and Au were insiders to the development of both the company and the world and their books complement one another nicely. 

These days, odd things are afoot. Based upon the recent reports at NWN and elsewhere, LL is laying of 30% of its workforce and trying to produce a web viewer for SL. What this will mean is rather beyond prediction; hopefully it will not spell the end of SL's more interesting community functions but will instead provide new ways for folks to engage with others in the virtual world.

1 comment:

  1. See Extie's new blog: