Mom always said, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”
Mom doesn’t come to conferences with me. (It’s too bad. She’s good company.) Which was probably a good thing at the Metaverse Summit.
I was invited to the summit because I’m a metaverse skeptic. (Not the whole metaverse. I firmly believe that the sort of real-world metadata applications Michael Liebhold is interested in are important, and that three-D simulations of the real world are very important. And I can certainly acknowledge that lots of people are finding MMO games interesting and exciting.) Specifically, I’m very skeptical about Second Life, the platform which garners the most attention when people talk about the immersive web.
A few months ago, I picked a fight with Sibley Verbeck, the founder of the Electric Sheep Company, a company that builds games and environments inside Second Life and other metaverse spaces. I wondered how Sibley, a guy with a tremendous social conscience, could be so excited about a platform that involves so few people and has such high barriers to entry – if Sibley really believed in global inclusion and economic development, why work in a walled garden occupied mostly by highly wired alpha geeks?
Sibley is a gentleman, and responded to my jabs by inviting me to the Metaverse Roadmap conference, of which Electric Sheep was a lead sponsor. I’m guessing he invited me so I could try to add some thinking about how these new spaces can and can’t be useful to users in developing nations. But so much of the conversation was so speculative – and focused on problems with defining the metaverse we were supposed to be roadmapping – that I was able not to go into full-scale “ICT in Africa” mode. Well, not until the morning of the second day…
Wagner James Au – a guy I like a great deal, and whose journalism has helped me understand a bit of what people find exciting about Second Life – was talking about the potential social impacts of Second Life. He made reference to a virtual refugee camp built in Second Life to call attention to the ongoing genocide in Darfur, and suggested that, in the future, these sorts of virtual spaces could be updated with real-world data from crises around the world.
And I lost it.
Specifically, what bothered me was the reference to using real data from Darfur in Second Life… because it’s so damned hard to get actual data on what’s going on in most conflicts. Three years into the conflict in Darfur, there are photos coming out of the region… but it was a major problem for reporters to cover the situation in Darfur for the first two years of the conflict, as Sudan successfully kept most journalists out of the country. Real-time data is still extremely difficult to get given an absence of power, telecommunications infrastructure, and a security situation that makes it extremely difficult to cover what’s happening outside of guarded refugee camps. (We all hope this will change in Darfur as a result of the recent peace agreement, but it’s certainly not guaranteed.) In conflicts not consistently on the editorial page of the New York Times, there’s often no journalists on the ground capable of transmitting data to an international audience. And citizen’s media requires citizens who have access to the Internet…
When I consider the issues I’m most interested in, collecting information – especially from people who are actually affected by these issues – is a much higher priority than presenting this data in a 3D format. Given that roughly 100,000 people log into Second Life in a given month – compared to roughly one billion using the Internet as a whole – I suspect people trying to call attention to global issues are better off making a website than a 3D space.
I told James and the rest of the crowd that I thought they did themselves a disservice by trying to tie an early stage emerging technology to social issues like the crisis in Darfur – that it was a poor rhetorical strategy to suggest that this Second Life space had relavance to the situation on the ground. I suggested that projects like the schizophrenia simulator, which tried to replicate the experience of the disease for Second Life viewers, probably represented a better use of the technology that building a virtual Darfur. That it was presumptous for people who hadn’t been to Darfur, or weren’t working with Darfuri refugees, to represent the refugee experience. That they were doing themselves no favors – in rhetorical terms – by taking on issues like Darfur in a superficial way.
Needless to say, this wasn’t a popular stance with much of the crowd, though several people thanked me for my remarks and putting these subjects on the table. Some suggested that it was unfair of me to criticize people trying to use the Second Life technology to do something socially responsible. Others suggested that the 3D aspect of Second Life made the Darfur experience real in a way that it hadn’t been to them previously.
I’ve visited “Camp Darfur” in Second Life three times since this argument. Twice I’ve been the only avatar there. Once I had a pleasant chat with a very earnest avatar who told me that “lots of people find this place very moving.” The total emptiness of the place seems at odds with the reality of a refugee camp – those that I’ve visited are extremely busy places and the sheer number of people there is the main impression I came away with. This is a product of building this space in Second Life – while it’s easy to build things, the engine doesn’t support ‘bots – objects that look amd behave like users – which makes it hard to populate the refugee camp.
There are human figures on the photos that make up one of the walls of the camp – personally, I found them more moving than 3D tents stacked with crates marked USAID, but your mileage may vary. (Indeed, I think there may be an inverse correlation between the sophistication of the technology used to produce an image and its impact. I still haven’t found anything more affecting than the crayon drawings of Darfur produced by children who fled Janjawid attacks on their villages.)
One detail about the camp really bothered me – the campfire and the pile of firewood nearby. At the center of the camp is a pictureque wood fire with a cooking pot. You’re encouraged to sit on the huge fallen tree trunk and contempl ate the posters and images that surround you. I kept getting distracted by the big tree stump holding a lantern and the pile of logs as thick as my avatar’s legs.
Firewood is a major problem in Darfur’s refugee camps. There’s not much firewood in Darfur to start with. There’s little or no firewood left near refugee camps – refugees routinely walk five to ten kilometers from the camps to collect fuel. If men leave the camps to forage for firewood, they run a very real risk of being killed by militants or soldiers. If women forage, they run the very real risk of being raped. So families engage in a terrible calculus – sending young girls out in the hopes that they’ll neither be raped nor killed. Yoo-Mi Lee and Mark Jacobs are giving workshops in Darfur to help women cook with less fuel so they can reduce their trips outside the camps, exposing themselves to danger. In Mark and Yoo-Mi’s pictures, you’ll see small, thin sticks, not huge piles of firewood…
It’s possible that simulations will be a valuable tool for communicating the reality of situations like Darfur… if and when they get the details right… which they can only do if data is coming from the places they’re trying to simulate. The creators of virtual Darfur – who I suspect are smart, well-meaning people – probably put in this firewood not because they thought it was authentic, but because it was an object easily available elsewhere in Second Life which they didn’t need to custom create. But it ends up masking one of the more powerful details about the conflict, which you’d get from any competent newspaper account or from looking at photos of refugee camps.
The problems of virtual Darfur doesn’t mean that Second Life and other metaverse spaces won’t have a social impact in the future. But asking a technology to rise to this social purpose as this stage of its development may be unfair and unwise. It’s possible that hundreds, possibly even thousands of Second Life users will encounter this space – James speculates that, for some, it will be the first time they’ve ever thought about Darfur. This worries me – if you’re so deeply disconnected from the reality I live in that a Second Life space is the first time you’ve encountered this issue, then we don’t have much common context. (Do such people exist? Do they vote?)
The reason Second Life bugs me is not the fact that it slows my computer to a crawl, that most of my fellow characters are impossibly thin girls with overinflated breasts, or that most of the activity of the world seems to rotate around real estate and sex. (It reminds me of Reagan’s America, without the cocaine.) No, it’s the cyberutopianism. What bothers me is the fact that every presentation I’ve heard from Linden Labs has focused on the social implications of the space, the ways interaction in these new spaces will change fundamental economic and social dynamics of people all around the world.
These guys sound a lot like I did a decade ago. In the early days of Tripod, I spent a lot of time telling people that personal publishing on the Internet would change politics and communications all around the world, helping increase international understanding and bring universal peace… or something like that. My CEO finally convinced me to shut up and tell people the Internet would help corporations sell cars and mutual funds to recent college graduates. That let us raise money, which let us develop a technology that now, a decade later, looks a little like the precursor to blogging… which is helping some people start to change communications and politics… though only those with the money, knowledge and language skills to publish on the ‘net.
The fact that Second Life and immersive web technologies won’t revolutionize the world tomorrow isn’t a reason to stop working on them. Perhaps ten years from now, we’ll be able to see a line that connects from Second Life to whatever we’re all using everyday, the same way we can trace a path from NCSA Mosaic to today’s web tools. Or perhaps Second Life will look like a mistake and a dead end, like VRML, the last 3D technology I remember people getting this excited about.
In the meantime, wars will be fought, natural disasters will drive people from their homes, and political dissidents will be arrested and imprisoned. The web, now twelve years old, will help draw attention to people affected by these situations, improve reporting and give us voices from people on the ground… though we’ll still need professional journalists, real-world NGOs and, possibly, military forces to intervene in situations like Darfur. It’s not that the metaverse doesn’t matter. It’s just not a very high priority yet.
James Au tells me he’s interested in the virtual Darfur less because of its emotional impact and more because of the emergent behavior around it. You see, shortly after virtual Darfur launched, it was destroyed by “griefers”, people who get pleasure from annoying other Second Life users. (Au reports this situation with the lead: “Second Life has a Darfur, so it’s sad (though not surprising) that it has its own janjaweed, too.” This is another example of something I’d term a potentially unwise rhetorical strategy…)
Au reports that a group of Second Lifers who enjoy portraying comic-book characters – the Green Lantern Core – decided to patrol “Camp Darfur” and prevent future griefer damage. Their intervention wasn’t opposed by the Sudanese government, didn’t require the UN to organize a blue-helmeted security force and didn’t require US troops… if only it were so easy to solve problems in this life.