Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Virtual Lecture Circuit Will Eat Itself

I've been so busy with The Wishfarmers the last few months, I have not had time to check-out the fast-growing virtual lecture circuit in Second Life. I managed to get some free time this past week, and spent it on a few of the in-world talks by various luminaries, now a nearly daily occurrence.

What I found would shock and sadden, if I were not already painfully aware of the deep-seated public misconceptions about the metaverse. You can list the virtual lecture circuit among the victims of this syndrome, the very disease that The Wishfarmers aim to cure.

To be fair, there were a few inspiring moments among these talks, but most of these speakers are simply regurgitating their peers at this point. The formula seems to be taking their resume and all the disciplines of their field, and pasting these elements into Second Life -- just as one pastes a dress on a paper doll.

But is that really what the virtual world should be about? Translating the real world? (psst: If you think that, you're reading the wrong blog).

These experts are all very excited about "investigating the possibilities" of the metaverse. If I hear one more lecture about how excited they are, I will probably regurgitate something, too. Apparently they are less excited about actually acting on these possibilities -- or even considering them as they stand, before forcing them into some form familiar to them.

Yes yes, we're all very excited too. And we have been, for years. Welcome to the party. You're late. We're waiting for you to catch up, so please move past the buffet table. And check your preconceptions.

What's really shocking (even to me, and this is my business) is how these 'experts' all praise Second Life's possibilities, but they rush to close those doors by indulging their knee-jerk "flatland" reactions. Most go on endlessly about first life/second life analogies, even if they don't exist. They're all very eager to see the second life replicate the first one (perhaps because they are so important in the latter?)

I attended a seminar by a prominent professor this week, who was also 'excited'. Was he excited, perhaps, to see how the endless possibilities of complete freedom of personal representation could affect the way people think about themselves in the real world? Actually, no. He was however very eager to see how concepts of 'zoning laws' might translate into Second Life. Yes, well - that is exciting . . . if you are a gigantic geek! I wasn't close enough to hit him with my Clue Hammer, unfortunately.

Apparently, lots of people like to think these RL analogies are cute. They are not cute. They are flat, they are boring, and they are the equivalent of playing with dolls.

It can take a few minutes to recognize whether you are at one of these clueless presentations, and that's why I've created the following "Cluelessosity" test. If the virtual presentation you are attending meets more than 2 of the following attributes, then it is a flat, real-world role play for people who are accustomed to feeling important, like to flaunt their accreditations and are probably only there to say they were there (too).

Virtual Seminar Cluelessosity Test
A community service provided by The Wishfarmers

  1. Are the seats and setting arranged as if it were an RL presentation at a conference center? If so, they are obviously utterly clueless. Why use all of this technology and flexibility to recreate something boring you could do in Real Life, anyways? Just turn around and walk out now.
  2. Is the seminar area set to "no fly", and "no build"? Refer to number 1 above, for it is the same willful ignorance and real-life knee-jerk reaction that inspires this travesty.
  3. Is the presenter an expert? Well, they can't be an expert in a platform under 5 years old, so if they think they are, they've simply decided to ignore it all.
  4. Is the presenter "excited by all of these new possibilities"? This just means they can't get their head around all of the possibilities (surely not - it takes a couple of years).
  5. Is the presenter "looking forward" to hearing what others think? This just means they are hopelessly lost, and will take any clue they can get.
  6. Does the presenter think it's "incredible" that people spend so much time in Second Life? The translation here is that they cannot amuse themselves for more than 15 minutes in world. They haven't yet grasped what the rest of us are doing in here.
  7. Does the presenter disclose the "one big thing" that "Second Life needs most"? If so, they have not grokked it yet. There is no one big thing -- Second Life already has everything it needs (the Second Life residents!) to be what it is. This doesn't stop "experts" from proclaiming it to need everything from better physics, to operable mirrors (why??) and support for animated .gif files (whatever). It is nearly impossible to convince a geek that more tech is not the key to anything.
Second Life gives us an opportunity to re-invent everything almost from scratch. Throwing that away (usually without a single thought) is waste on a scale that should make one ache. Until the disease is cured, you will have me to expose the symptoms -- regardless of what form they take.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Could OLPC be The Primer?

I have been fascinated with the concept of "The Young Lady's Illustrated Primer" since my first reading of "The Diamond Age" over 10 years ago. Do read it - my own hundredth reading has been as inspiring as the first.

Many concepts seeded by the book, such as "Racting" (hybrid dual-blind remote interactive acting) have been on my R+D list for The Wishfarmers since inception. But it is The Primer that most excites me.

The Primer is a sophisticated computer in the guise of a book, embodying all the functionality of a storybook, encyclopedia, study system and data processing unit. It's tied-into the global network and transparently draws on external resources - and even other people - and integrates them into the content seamlessly. As it does so it constantly adjusts its content and delivery to suit the user, based on what it observes from interaction and even 'spying' on the environment.

I've always considered Second Life a good platform for prototyping it, but I have also followed with intense interest the development of the One Laptop Per Child project. The XO prototype system has built-in wireless community networking, and the operating system is designed in a way that supports complete connectivity between user applications.

What does that mean? Well, it means these applications can talk to one another. What will happen when these children all grow up connected in this manner - connected constantly in what they are doing, what they are facing?

How long before their network results in a collaboration to solve, say, the specific problems of one abused peer? Psst: About 30 minutes.

How long before some of the older ones develop software specifically to organize this and - who knows what other sort of applications we cannot imagine (because we are not 12).

A single child may be helpless, but what happens when they are hyper-connected, and empowered to organize their own (real or virtual) "instant mouse armies"?

At the conclusion of Diamond Age, thousands of adolescent girls raised on the same network of Primers work in unprecedented coordination to beat back an overwhelming force. What will happen when these mouse armies bubble-up and make their ways across the third world?

I don't know the answer to any of these questions, of course -- like you, I can only stare in wonder and watch with bated breath as an entirely new world unfolds.