Dec 06 2011

Why Second Life Has Succeeded Beyond Anybody’s Wildest Expectations


A recent article on Slate proclaims “Why Second Life Failed.”  Assuming you buy into the author’s overall viewpoint, it makes a decent case. In essence, SL was touted as a “revolutionary solution” for a job it really wasn’t qualified to do. The problem is that this viewpoint shows a profoundly limited understanding of what Second Life is compared to what it was hyped to be.

Giulio Prisco and I have discussed this previously in commentary on his blog, and he makes some very good points about why businesses didn’t do well in SL — causes ranging from a lack of needed controls over their “space” to prevent griefing to a need for greater stability to better conferencing, but there is one very big reason that I believe explains why most current “business models” failed in S. It’s one I’ve discussed in my H+ article on 3d printers adding our way to abundance. SL is a prototype of an economy of abundance, and as such, inherently hostile to business strategies based on scarcity. It is not a “business tool” that the majority of current corporate structures can use simply because those structures are dependent on levels of centralized control and restriction to access to product that are impossible to maintain in a world in which everyone has access to the same basic ability to manufacture any desired item.

Modern businesses are essentially based on the “gatekeeper” model. They offer a “product” that they know you want, but which is either not easily made by you, or which cannot be obtained except through them. The example used in the Slate article is the “Milkshake.” We could easily make milkshakes at home, provided we had the ingredients and a blender, but the effort involved for most of us is prohibitive. It’s simply easier to go to the local fast food place and buy one than it is to go to the store and get all the ingredients and make them ourselves. As silly as saying that may sound, it’s true. (yes I know that is not the point made by the example made in the article, but I’m discussing factors that they are overlooking.) The point is the “business” provides “access” to something in a manner that is more convenient than making it ourselves, setting up a “tollbooth” between us and the item we desire.

This same “gatekeeper” model underlies nearly all current business models. It works so long as the “product” is easier to get by going through the “gate” than by making it ourselves or acquiring it from some other source. It’s this business model that doesn’t work in SL because in many cases the “product” is easier to get by either making it yourself, or by finding a nearly identical product offered by a different “vendor” for less than the prices demanded by the “Brand Names.” In fact, given the innovation and ingenuity displayed by some designers in SL, many of those “Brand Names” came up severely lacking. Coupled with the lack of those features Giulio discusses, I am not surprised that the originally hyped dreams for what SL would become failed, and failed miserably.

So yes, if you buy the model used in the Slate article, it is easy to claim that Second Life “failed.” But if you look at it not as a business platform, but as what it truly is — a “Virtual Reality Prototype Testing Laboratory” in which many of the issues we will face in the not very distant future as VR, nanotech, genetic manipulation and robotics technology begin to invade our day to day reality are already under investigation, then I would have to say that SL has succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.

No, it is not a perfect “prototype” because it does indeed fail to incorporate many activities that have become commonplace, like the social networking abilities of Facebook, or the ability to add in modular “apps” and such, but considering that those “products” came into existence after the creation of Second Life, that’s forgivable. What is remarkable is the prescient way in which the 3D manufacturing/nanofactory revolution is present in the object creation system, enabling anyone to have access to the “means of production.” While this system does require knowledge to use, the availability of online tutorials is phenomenal, and many of them use Second Life “actors” as tutors. Additionally, as time has passed and enhanced features have become available, such as better scripts, sculpted prims and the latest addition of meshes, the range of items that can be created has expanded enormously. And despite the massive variety of items and scripts already available, there are still nearly unlimited possibilities for a creative designer to create a unique and desirable product. This ability is the very reason that the “gatekeeper” model of business is impossible to implement in Second Life.

But even that pales compared to the social impacts that morphological freedom will have on humanity, and it is so integral to Second Life that even the Slate article mentions it in passing. I’ve discussed this frequently in other articles, but it bears repeating. There is no better laboratory in the world today for exploring the potentials and consequences of the ability to reshape our bodies as we wish. There are endless articles on “Digital people” and other “non human” entities that populate Second Life, offering us insights into what the reality of such “shape shifting” abilities will bring. Indeed, we are already beginning to see such “pop icons” as Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, (and, of course, Rachel Haywire) sporting hair styles and fashion designs that seem very SL inspired.

So yes, if all you think of Second Life as is a “business platform”, it’s easy to view it as a failed technology. But if you look beyond such a shallow framework, and look at the deeper implications of this “prototype of the future” it’s hard to see it as anything but a very rare and valuable opportunity to study the challenges and promises of a future beyond anything we have ever experienced in all of history. It’s the closest thing we have to a “working model” of Post Singularity reality, a simulation which could enable us to foresee the perils and pitfalls, to make mistakes and find solutions, all without suffering the consequences of making those mistakes in “First Life.”

It’s basically a matter of whether your only concern is immediate profit or the long term benefits it could provide to the entire human race.