Second life: a utopian project gone bad

On: October 14, 2007
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About Tjerk Timan
During the last couple of years, I have been involved in Industrial Design at the Technical University of Eindhoven, both on the theoretical as well as the physical/practical side, always working on the boarder between the digital and physical. After an internship at Mediamatic, I wanted to get more involved in the digital side of new media. Currently, I am investigating the complex realm of new media [at] the master course New Media, UvA. With a thesis focus now on ‘objects that blog’ within the context of an internet of things, the challenge is to investigate the agency and influence of things. Especially when these things, being digital or physical, are capable of sharing, posting, editing, deleting content. And on who’s account? Within that same line of thought, the digital is often taking itself for granted maybe too much, where often the step towards WHO and HOW data is manipulated is left out of the loop. Taking these things back into the (design) loop is one of my missions, with the statement in mind that the way content is created and consumed has at least as much importance as the technology driving it. Furthermore, I am currently active within the Digital Methods Initiative at the University of Amsterdam. Also, I do some occasional freelance work, where disciplines differ from web-design to workshops to product design.


second life logo
Of course, we all know Second life, any many writings already exist. Mostly on how incredible and promising this open-source-collaborative online community-building actually is.
To see in what ways these terms hold any value nowadays, I logged into Second Life after a long, long time. Shocking experience…

Instead of the usual whatever-take on these ‘do you agree’ buttons, I actually started to read it, because obviously, Second Life is not your free-roam-around 3d chat-room anymore. Somebody introduced some rules.
As Christoph Spehr notes, in current societies, especially within capitalism, there are always certain parties that create the rules of the kitchen and, since it is in their power, they will uphold this rules by any means (since it is the reliance on these rules that keeps them in the drivers seat).

In the kitchen of Second Life, I came across the following rules:
more rules…

In the three guiding steps by Christoph Spehr, the first one already conflicts with the kitchen rules:

There are three aspects that have to be taken into account if you want to build a free cooperation. The first is that all rules in this cooperation can be questioned by everybody, there are no holy rules that people cannot question or reject or bargain and negotiate about .

So, in this digital utopia of society-creating, I cannot have a discourse about the rules? I found this quite a disappointment; while having this great opportunity to learn about human-society processes, the way to cooperative knowledge is shut. Why?
no entry
Because even utopias have back doors and secret agendas. In this case the picture shows a no-entry zone.

It’s very important that the concept of free cooperation does not dictate special ways of structuring societies or any other levels of the social


You also have to develop forms of getting independent and forms of articulation, critical articulation, of reclaiming public space.

Where is the reclaiming of public space in Second Life? Why are (capitalist) rules of kitchen not under attack? I guess this is due to the fact that this public space has no value but economic. Its not about social capital, its about nihilistic (ab)use of this digital space, turning it into the same everyday as analogue life (except for the tele-porting, that is).

Although this all seems rather disappointing and the LindenLab policy seems rather patronizing, of course some of these standards were needed to create possibilities for social interaction and (hopefully) some collaborative work, an yes, the chatting is fun (for half an hour) and the interface does allow you to respond to social actions very adequately. I would have liked it better though if the sets of rules and limitations was created through and/ or by the citizens of second life, not by an institutional ‘outside’.
To finish with one more (very nice) quote by Spehr:

Everything that people do together is a kind of cooperation because they share work and they use the work and the experience and the bodily existence of others – also historical and direct and indirect ways. And though there are two extremes, free cooperations and forced cooperations, most of what we know in most societies is forced cooperation.

2 Responses to “Second life: a utopian project gone bad”
  • October 15, 2007 at 3:53 pm

    Since when has Second Life been a utopian project? A great deal of that dialogue has, I think, been supplied from outside; whereas _inside_ the system, the conversation has been about engineering, i.e., how can we (within the constraints of a real-world economy) create a (necessarily) profitable online environment, capable of hosting profitable businesses, vocational users, and a diverse community of avocational/entertainment users?

    Throughout, or so it seems to me, the rules of engineering have held sway — the prime rule of engineering being to save cost wherever possible, regulate only where necessary, and define ‘necessary’ as you go along, in a process of discovery, measurement, comparison, evolution.

    As to “the rules being made by the citizens of Second Life themselves” — there are rules and there are rules: some (within constrained scope) are appropriately made by residents at large, others aren’t. And the most basic rules governing authority and economy can only be made by owners of the computing substrate that sustains the world (i.e., Linden Lab). That’s the nature of what happens when you live in a world that runs on computers owned by a US corporation — itself subject to liability and regulation, and to the expectations of investors.

    And this is a GOOD THING. Because (as pretty-much anyone in the technical hierarchy at Linden Lab will agree, I feel pretty sure) it’s stabilizing this little experiment and keeping it from falling into “the tragedy of the commons,” while we all work very hard to conceptualize and build and evaluate and standardize the infrastructure for subsequent generations of virtual world, which will undoubtedly be more along the lines of loosely-federated, decentralized platforms — some of which will surely be cooperatively funded, conceived, and nurtured as true utopias (insofar as this is possible given that we all presently live under the sway of RL governments).

    My advice is: stop dissing the experiment. Get in, commit something of yourself (a little money, a little time and intelligence), and help evolve the platform and the new society supertending it. It’s already _way_ realer than you seem to think.

  • October 15, 2007 at 9:28 pm

    @John Jainschigg:

    thanks for the comment! I do agree with you that of course at a certain point ‘rules’ are needed to regulate a certain society. Question is when rules become more important than the community itself (dogvillian mistakes are easily made).
    By the way, the post was meant to look at Second Life through the theory of Christoph Spehr and his notion of a free cooperation (-opposed a forced one), not about dissing the experiment (critical question here, though: is it still an experiment?).

    I do agree with you on the point of ‘the tragedy of falling into commons’ and for that reason it is indeed smart to create a set of rules in order to ‘grant’ a certain direction for the experiment. I wouldn’t base them on technical grounds, though, because in my short memory, technical reasons have NEVER stabilized anything yet (did they?).

    Interesting for me to know would be if and how the residents were/are involved in collaborative/ community building (along with the apparent ‘contract social’ flowing out of these collaborations) and to what extent this digital community is representing processes in ‘real’ life.
    Guess its best to log in again…

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