Friday, July 27, 2012

Is Second Life Viable as a Civilization?

Civilization is a movement and not a condition, a voyage and not a harbor.

Arnold Toynbee

          Recently, I came across a newly published book, Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson This is a very interesting read which I strongly recommend to students of the world we live in today.  The author’s premise is that there are six characteristics which differentiated Western civilization from the rest of the world in its original success and that the West has lost its edge as other societies have now acquired these and is pulling ahead. 

          After my recent stories about friendship and social life in Second Life (SL), this book got me thinking about civilization in SL itself.  I mean why couldn’t SL be a civilization?  And, if it can be, is it sustainable? 

          Niall Ferguson’s six characteristics are competition, science, the rule of law, consumerism, modern medicine, and work ethic.  I’m going to look at each of these in the context of SL to see if SL could be considered a sustainable civilization. 

          First is competition.  Is there competition in SL?  I can say yes.  There’s certainly enough shops about and services being offered to prove that point.  But, with Linden Lab (LL) being able to arbitrarily take over a market (i.e., currency trading) or shut a business activity down (i.e., gambling) is there true competition inworld?  What exists in SL is reminiscent of the New Economic Policy (NEP) brought forward by Lenin and then eliminated by Stalin in the period after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.  The threat of the monopoly powers of a command economy always lurk about in SL.  Copyright protection and a stable currency are other prerequisites for competition.  One would be hard pressed to say either exist inworld.  Anyone remember the copybot issue? 

          Second is science.  Does SL have science?  Yes, but…  (Always with the qualifier.)  The original science behind SL was innovative for its time.  Mesh and machinima were highly regarded additions to the original base.  But, (Here it comes.) will there be more?  Will it be enough?  Where is the new innovation?  Mobility has been missed.  How does SL coexist with social media like Facebook and Twitter?  Is SL like the West in Real Life (RL) which is losing its lead in science to late comers to the party?  Is SL going to go the way of ancient China, inventing marvelous devices like rockets, movable printing type, and paper currency only to see others reap the advantage and eat its lunch? 

          Ferguson’s third characteristic of a civilization is the rule of law.  The rule of law permits investors and businesses to know that their investments will be protected from wrongful seizure and there will be redress for bad behavior.  Here SL is a non-starter.  There seems to be considerable frustration among residents about how to resolve issues among themselves or with Linden Lab. Notwithstanding the policeman and jail in 1920’s Berlin there’s not a whole lot of law enforcement in SL. 

          Next Ferguson raises consumerism as a characteristic of a civilization which is forming.  Again, the variety of goods and services available in SL seems to imply that this attribute exists.  My question (I always have questions I’m a writer after all.) is can this be sustained?  What new goods and services can be offered?  Will there ever be a device like an iPad in SL?  Will residents made the investment of capital and time to build new products and services inworld? 

          The fifth characteristic is modern medicine.  At first glance, this might be dismissed as irrelevant in a virtual world.  (I almost did.  I’m prone to rushing to judgment.  Just ask Significant Other.)  But, with a little imagination (Occasionally I have a little.) this concept could be extended to the idea of viruses.  Could we consider problems like lag and griefing to be epidemics?  How are they dealt with?  The lack of an infrastructure to deal with issues like this is another negative against SL being considered a sustainable civilization. 

          The final characteristic is a work ethic.  Here, I feel very positive about SL’s success here. One only has to visit the multitude of sims inworld, 1920’s Berlin and Ancient Alexandria are but two examples, to know that a strong work ethic is alive and well in SL.  In fact, I believe that is the one characteristic that can overcome the shortcomings with the others. 

          Let me recap.  Out of the six characteristics of a successful civilization developed by Ferguson, SL has some semblance of all of them except for the rule of law.  The lack of the rule of law precludes a stable, safe economy for the investments that could be made inworld to build a true SL civilization and sustain it. 

          Can this be overcome? I don’t know.  I won’t be negative and say all is lost.  But to succeed, the residents of SL will need to come together to develop the components of a legal system.  (Be warned this means lawyers!  Always a necessary evil in successful civilizations.)  And let’s not forget LL.  They’re always out there just over the horizon.  I’m drawn to a comparison of the thirteen colonies in America and England in the eighteenth century.  (Apologies to my British readers.)  A group of independent minded individuals who are willing to work hard but are stymied by a remote and aloof power more interested in its own political squabbles than in the welfare of all.  (I wonder if I could be this revolution’s Thomas Paine?) 
          In closing, I believe that SL could develop into a civilization, albeit a virtual one.  I think the die has been cast and virtual civilizations will arise.  For SL, the question is will it become one of the greats, long remembered and highly regarded long after it declines as do all civilizations.  Or, will SL be one of those flash in the pan civilizations that sprang up briefly and whose ruins now litter the deserts of the Middle East? 

As always, I’m grateful to all for their kindness and time in stopping to talk with a stranger who was passing through their lives.

Below are a few pictures of some of the communities I’ve visited inworld, chosen to highlight SL’s civilization. 

I welcome feedback from readers, please either comment on my blog or e-mail me at . 

     If you would like to read about my other adventures in Second Life
please click here.

Photo No. 2 Downtown Esoterica

Photo No. 3 Manchu Picchu

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