Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Second Life as the Metaverse: Similarities and Differences in the Rule of Law

NOTE: This post is from a class I'm taking right now on virtual workplaces.

Neal Stephenson paints the Metaverse in his novel "Snow Crash" as a chaotic, laissez-faire society where laws and computer code suit those who create them and democracy is available only to the powerful or the powerfully talented. It is a utopia – but only for a select few. It is a place of business and commerce – for a select few. It is a place to gather and commingle – but the best gathering and commingling is reserved for a select few. It is a fount of information – for those who want it and can afford it. So it is not a utopia. It is not democratic. The masses do not enter the Metaverse and immediately find themselves on equal footing with their peers. It is, in fact, only a virtual re-creation of the real world Hiro Protagonist and the other characters in “Snow Crash” live in; a society just as ugly, amoral and chaotic as its virtual counterpart.

Second Life, too, is no utopia. But because the society it reflects is more controlled, more serene than the society reflected in the Metaverse, it is a much more pleasant place to visit. Second Life has achieved that pleasantness through creating a basic set of behavioral rules that reflect the accepted norms of our Democratic (with the big D) and capitalistic society.

Second Life’s rules (viewable at reflect our societies thusly:

1) The “Big Six” rules, preaching against intolerance, harassment, assault, disclosure of personal information, indecency and disturbing the peace.
2) “Global Standards, Local Ratings,” which allow for “mature” niches in an otherwise “PG” world.
3) Global attacks, which forbid disruption of the Second Life universe or servers with malicious scripts or objects.
4) Caveat Emptor, or buyer beware. Commerce is allowed in Second Life, but purchases are made at risk, just as they are in real life.

These rules uphold common Democratic principles, in that localities should impose or lift rules on morals without or with minimal interference from a higher authority while accepting that some rules are universal.

Rules in the Metaverse are harder to pin down, partially because they’re not as clearly spelled out in Stephenson’s novel as Second Life’s rules are on their website, and mostly because the reflected society itself gets along with fewer rules. But there are rules to be followed.

In the Metaverse and the society it reflects, law and order are not provided – they are bought and paid for. In reality, Stephenson’s “burbclaves” pay private security firms or engage in their own elaborate security measures (such as the Rat Things in the Hong Kong franchulates and the Vigilante White Rule/Black Power memes of the segregationist burbclaves) to preserve order.

In the Metaverse equivalent of reality’s “burbclaves,” local rules are again the norm. The Black Sun, for example, employs daemon bouncers to roust out anyone who is “being disruptive . . . anyone who is pestering or taping a celebrity, and . . . anyone who seems contagious. That is, if your personal computer is infected with viruses, and attempts to spread them via the Black Sun, you had better keep one eye on the ceiling (p. 55).” The Metaverse, however, allows for clever hackers like Hiro Protagonist to find cracks and niches to exploit, with the understanding – or at least the tolerance – of those in power who allow his activity to continue. Da5id’s tolerance of Hiro’s “Bigboard” program, which occasionally plays havoc with The Black Sun’s programming, is one example of an individual being allowed to break community rules, such as they are.

Buyer beware is certainly a rule applied in the Metaverse – Hiro, certainly, is wary of any hypercards he’s offered, and criticized Da5id for accepting a hypercard from a “black and white,” or an avatar created inexpensively at a public access kiosk.

In Second Life, law and order is the rule of the day. There exist an equivalent of “burbclaves” in Second Life – areas ranked for mature behavior, and private residences of-limits to those not invited. These areas are offered to allow for truly Democratic use of Second Life and reflects our real societal desire for privacy and relative freedom from offense.

Second Life has a similar tolerance of Hiro’s “Bigboard” in allowing untested objects and scripts to be tried out in “sandbox” areas. Second Life’s rules, however, are unclear if tests in these areas that are disruptive will result in disciplinary action.

This is where two critical differences between the rule of law in Second Life versus the Metaverse comes in to play: In Second Life, discipline is left up to a board of humans that will judge the miscreant on the severity of the offense and levy appropriate punishment. In the Metaverse, discipline is left up to daemons – programs like The Black Sun’s Bouncers – and individuals who take the “law” into their own hands (Hiro’s dismembering of the upstart Nipponese barring his access to Sushi K in The Black Sun and his “disarming” of the Cliff avatar trying to infect him with the Snow Crash virus – both acts performed without consequence – stand out as examples).

Additionally, Second Life applies its discipline universally, both inside and out of its “burbclaves.” In the Metaverse, what rules are outlined seem to apply only in selected areas.

That greater rules of law are applied in Second Life reflects well on the orderly society in which we live our real lives. The skewed rule of law in the Metaverse is merely a reflection of the skewed reality.

No comments: