Dusan Writer on Pixels, Policy, and the Barbarians at the Gate

Today we have an excellent syndicated post from Dusan Writer, Editor of the information-rich Dusan Writer's Metaverse. A well-researched thinker and virtual worlds writer, Dusan has provided comments and critiques on Pixels and Policy articles in the past.

In Digital Barbarism, Mark Helprin lays down the gauntlet against the Creative Commons, open source and machines:

"Very clearly, the choice is between preeminence of the industrial or of the collective, of improvisation or routine, of the soul or of the machine. It is a choice that you have perhaps already made, without knowing it.

Or perhaps it has been made for you. But it is always possible to opt in or out, because your affirmations are your own, the court of judgment your mind and heart. These are free, and you are the sovereign. Choose."

Now, Mark sets up his argument as a battle – one in which the lone artist must rail against the gathering forces of darkness, the code kiddies at the gates, the collective enslavement to the power of technology, and how the digital age is upending traditional notions of property and creation.

These are issues I struggle with, and in that vast sea of voices arguing that information needs to be free and that we'll all be ennobled by our collective work on Linux or whatever, Mark lends a welcome second opinion.

In concept, there's something appealing about things like open source. It's kind of like a communal barn-raising or something – we can all pitch in together and have a few drinks after and go dancing and the horses will be safe. Just as its appealing to be able to download a book from Google instead of trudging to the library or waiting for Amazon to get the shipment here. (Being in Canada, I can only hack around the restrictions on the Kindle, so I'm left with a Kindle with one book on it, which I got my brother to buy when I was in New York last year).

But when I start seeing issues of Harvard Business Review devoted to how enterprise can 'take advantage' of the open source movement, I can't help wondering whether there isn't something to get concerned about, it all sounds like a lot of free labor most of the time, and someone's got to pay, right?

Virtual Worlds as Testbeds of Policy

To be honest, much like I didn't follow politics that closely, I had never really thought before about the governance of the Web, or how policy is formed in on-line communities, or whether 'free information' made sense.

As I often say, I could have figured these things out by writing a blog or by making my own videos and uploading them to youTube, but instead I discovered Second Life, and from the vantage point of a virtual world I found myself puzzling over things like governance and code and being struck by how tenuous it all felt: you spent half your time parsing the latest blog blurb from Linden Lab to see if it's a true policy switch or a whim.

We all became Kremlinologists, but our eyes turned to Battery Street instead of Moscow. Half the time, the Lab seemed to be acting like a….well, like a Lab. Policy changes were announced and then….abandoned.

Does anyone remember when we were all going to be sending abuse reports to estate managers instead of the Lab? I don't even think that e-mail/AR feature works anymore, at least it doesn't for me. So what seemed like the start of a shift to a decentralized governance model of sorts ended up being another one of those threads that just sort of ended, or got tied up in knots, or maybe someone erased the JIRA and they decided to start over.

And over time, the very randomness of policy and governance elicited, from me at least, one of two responses:

– "Oh, there they go again, what are those crazy nutcases up to this time?" (at which point I'd continue rezzing prims until the whole thing blew over), or

– "I keep thinking I could do real BUSINESS here, but why the hell would I invest my reputation and my company in a platform that doesn't even seem to have a proper governance model?"

The Lord giveth and can taketh, kind of thing – and what sensible company would put themselves in the hands of a platform owner who reserved the right to pull the rug out from under you at a moment's notice?

Linden Lab Takes a New Tack at Policy

Now, there's lots of speculation as to why Philip Rosedale has scurried off to do his own thing, and some of that speculation is related to the decision to rein in third-party viewers in the days immediately following his announcement.

Maybe it meant that the open source experiment that Philip was driving was over. Its been a long time since we've heard anything about interoperability, for example, and that Snowglobe project was, well, hobby-like somehow. Or maybe it was Philip's attempt to pull the coders in from all those other viewer projects in an attempt to put a cap on the wild west of copybot/griefer and other fun features filling up the Grid.

"Let me start my OWN open source project," he may have said to all the alphabet Lindens like M and T. "With my name attached to it, we can siphon the talent back to Snowglobe and those other projects will fall by the wayside."

Except they didn't. And now Philip is crowd-sourcing steak burritos and building electric love machines over at his new island, P-Squared.

But let's just assume for a minute that this indicated a fundamental shift in policy. Let's just say that the content protection road map, and its child, the third party viewer policy, are some kind of new stake in the ground for how the world is going to work.

It has certainly FELT like they've been more organized and systematic about things. They seem to want to tighten up the way that the world is managed and, the best they can, to MEAN what the SAY instead of just saying it and letting the actual execution of the policy rest in the hands of some front-line support person working out of their basement somewhere.

But can someone point me to a broader definition of the Lab's stance on governance and policy? Can someone send me the org chart or decision process for how this stuff is being managed? Does anyone know whether Mark Kingdon has the final say? Or Cyn?

And by the way – when was the last time you heard from M anyways, other than in some newspaper account or whatever? Did he lose his Second Life blog password or something?

We're Kremlinologists again. We can agree or disagree with the steps the Lab is taking. But yet again, we're in the dark as to what it all means, how it's being decided, what the framework is by which these decisions are being made.

Now, the typical response to this line of thinking is: if you don't like it you can go elsewhere or buy yourself Nebraska. But seriously – this is a world. And saying "leave if you don't like it" is like Bloomberg saying "If you don't like the pollution in New York, move to Ithaca."

It's not that easy, buddy – and I have a right to know what you're doing about it, and how the decisions are being made.

The Reality of Code

A lot of the stuff written about virtual world policy is based on tap-dancing around the concept of the 'magic circle' or walled gardens or whatever you want to call the idea that virtual worlds are somehow separate from reality. But the rule books are being rewritten as these issues play out more broadly. Facebook's privacy policies or data scraping are tomorrow's book deal with Google.

Reality, with its laws and courts and jurisdictions, has intruded into virtual worlds and the idea that the EULA and the TOS were sufficient to create a firewall for platform owners is an idea that is quickly eroding.

It's not as if real-world laws didn't matter before – but they mattered LESS, because companies like Linden Lab or Blizzard or whoever could calmly proceed, safe in the assurance that their TOS (subject to revision) and EULA (sign it or don't come in) would forever protect them, they could ban you on a whim, they could change the economic infrastructure of the world, they could nerf your class…it didn't matter, this wasn't the real world after all.

This evolving reality is creating an uneasy alliance between the culture, governance, and code that is used to manage virtual worlds, and the lawyers who need to double-check everything against existing case law while keeping their eyes open for resident-initiated law suits.

But that's the thing: there isn't a dichotomy anymore between the real and the virtual. Virtual laws are beholden to real world laws, but virtual culture is one of the sources by which real world laws are amended in a seemingly endless game of catch-up.

And so while Mark Helprin has a point: that there is a movement towards collectivism, machines, and the idea that information needs to be free – it is a false dichotomy to say that we must choose one or the other. We may need to ARGUE for one or the other, so that we can make sure that our voices join the debate with sufficient clarity – but the reality will be far messier and organic than choosing one side of the fence.

Code is not agnostic. Code embeds moral choices.

And the world is not best facilitated by the laws of code. The world is messy and chaotic, and code can inform our choices about how innovation evolves and what our possibilities might be – but just because code provides a model for those possibilities, we are not beholden to it, anymore than we are beholden to territorial morality.

The Challenges of Pixels and Policy

Against this backdrop, policy in virtual worlds continues to evolve. But the issues are increasingly complex and don't lend themselves to simple solutions or dichotomies.

Open source is not FREE. Someone pays for it. The Long Tail may exist, but its existence doesn't mean that power doesn't still concentrate in the hands of a few. The fact that information CAN be free is not the same as saying it SHOULD be. In fact, I've yet to see a truly compelling argument for why it should be other than because, well, because people want it, they feel a sense of entitlement, and why should they be on the outside looking in?

It strikes me that the touch points in our exploration of policy in virtual worlds include a few major issues, and a bunch of cultural markers that we can keep an eye on to let us know where we are. And with almost all of them, I'm wary of false dichotomies, which isn't to say that I avoid simple truths.

The things I watch out for are the following:

– Identity, how it is managed, and whether we can protect our individual right to have rights and control over our own digital identity portfolios.

– Trust, and how it is established. In particular, I believe that the notion of real life identity as the connective tissue of trust is an inadequate response. It may give us an easy-to-use shorthand, but it isn't sufficient for the challenges ahead, and displays a stunning lack of imagination.

– Platform transparency, especially related to governance, and whether platform owners are abdicating their leadership and communication responsibilities.

– Content protection and the reconciliation of clear policy statements with enforcement and code, and how it is managed in a way that respects existing cultures.

The cultural markers I watch out for include:

– The 'porting' of standard business models and approaches to online communities and attempts to transpose 'traditional' enterprise structures to domains in which the rules of operation are different. Whenever I see words like 'pragmatic' and 'efficiency' these are red flags to me that innovative technologies are about to be watered down and sapped of their empowering energy.

– The misinterpretation of virtual world culture by mainstream media.

– Trying to 'spin' the platforms. Seen it with Kaneva or Google Lively or others – and whenever I hear things like "we're not actually a world, we're social media" the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

I'm sure there are others. And I look at these things through the lens of a simple belief: that the power to create, even if undertaken only by a few, ennobles us, enriches us, and increases our human potential, both individually and collectively. I don't pretend I can predict how that power can be affected by these issues or markers, but it doesn't mean I won't stop trying to understand.

4 thoughts on “Dusan Writer on Pixels, Policy, and the Barbarians at the Gate”

  1. It seems to me that outside of a small (very vocal and prolific) group of true-believers, most software users could care less about whether code is proprietary or open source. What matters is how well a given application provides features, usability, reliability and cost of ownership in relation to its competitors.
    After a couple of decades, open source has neither brought Microsoft and Apple to their knees nor killed Capitalism.
    Hopefully we can get past these questions and focus on more important matters like how well virtual world clients support boob physics.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. And I do have to wonder why others agree, when usually what happens is we have to suffer withering lectures about why “code is law” (and not embedded policy, or, as I put it, ideology welded into the tools) or why we all need to be contributing to the stone soup of Creative Communism.
    I haven’t read Halprin’s book but thanks for reminding me of it again.
    I do want to point out that the Kremlindenlab problem is caused by our company-town situation. It’s got all the awfulness of opensource with its script-kiddie groupies and authoritarian personalities claiming they are “transparent” even as they are autocratic, and none of the positive features (whatever they might be, I’ve become totally skeptical). But the opensource hoax is then further embedded at the Lab in a decidedly authoritarian regime that has total control of the economy and prints currency like some Central Asian dictator, throwing dissidents in jail and marking up oil (immersive work spaces behind firewalls) for wealthier patrons than its immediate neighbours.
    The power to create has become a tattered thing when the Linden code cave and management in part too celebrates the nihilism of Burning Life, which, not surprisingly, ends in a feast of stolen content using the latest exploits from third-party viewers the Lindens won’t rein in.

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