The Little Engine that Could

There is nothing in the world except people. I have said this often enough already, I suppose, and there’s little to add.

But there is something the world is, and it’s a bit more than people. Among other things, like governance policy, the world of Second Life “is” it’s rendering and data storage engine, which force some constraints on our abilities to manipulate them and result in certain behavioral changes. People have certain needs, and almost all of them require or involve other people — as partners, as audience, as victims, but one way or another, if you follow the chain far enough you bump into abstract or specific other people.

But how can you fullfill those needs is dependent on the environment and what it actually lets one do.

The original design document for Second Life — if such a text existed at all — pictured a very different reality, quite unlike what we see and do now. It is evident in what it does let one do easily and what it doesn’t support for you at all.

Take a note that the only set of tools for world manipulation that the engine offers is the set of build tools. Notice the complete absence of sensible means of animation control in the client — gestures don’t really count, as they are largely useless for the purpose. Take a note of the sim limits on avatar quantity and the way the number of avatars on screen affects rendering. Take a note of the fact that while there are limits on prims per parcel, there are no limits to attached prims, and the fact that originally, the prim limits were not subdivided per parcel. Ever heard of “prim banks”? Legend says, that the first prim banks were actual safes with 1-prim gold bars in them, created so that other residents in the sim wouldn’t have access to prims stored, while the safe owner would.

Take note of the group system that starts failing royally with large groups, the friends system that’s horribly unsuited for real social life. Remember telehubs, and flight altitude limits which were created, as the Lindens themselves admit, (see wiki) to force people to communicate and see each other’s houses.

It is plainly obvious that the original design document focused far more on the the technology than it did on the social aspects of what would be going on. The world envisioned would be the world where people would play in their own parcel and build stuff, then occasionally visit each other for tea. Sometimes they would form clans that build jointly, but such clans would never get bigger than ten or twenty people. For such a world, that technology would be quite sufficent. Nobody thought about scalability because nobody thought people would actually want to — gasp! — talk, and just adding more and more servers with more and more land would forever be enough. They imagined unspecified miracles and failed to imagine the obvious and inevitable.

People don’t work that way, or at least, they don’t work that way once a critical mass of people is reached. They don’t need virtual houses unless they can have guests over, otherwise the whole experience is pointless. They want to go to parties. They want to look pretty, and they want to know that others know they look pretty. They want to have live music. They want to have hair that actually looks like hair, and skin that actually resembles skin, yes. And these desires will expand to fill the entirety of the available volume, as far as the laws of virtual physics allow. They want to have a certain level of privacy, otherwise they will feel uncomfortable even though they very well know it isn’t their “real body”, because, well, it moves sort of like a body, it looks sort of like a body, and the reaction of associating it with the physical body is instinctive. I am very, very certain that nobody imagined having a skybox in the original design document.

This is why the “first hour experience” is such a pain that third parties were brought in to make something sensible of it — the original design document was written by someone who had very specific, and largely wrong, ideas about people — what they want to do, how they do it, and why they do it. This is why Second Life has no knowledge, no real manual — instead, it has lore, taught to disciples by gurus.

Erich Shelman, my musician friend (whom I still hope to get to sing live in SL one day) didn’t take Second Life seriously until I invited him to the fireworks Marianne McCann gave at the closing of Burning Life. For a few days after that, he would mention how shocked he was when he realised, that he has an illusion of presence in the virtual world, with the fireworks exploding around him, while his speakers are actually turned off. But I digress…

What I wanted to say is, Second Life isn’t out to get us, it just wasn’t meant for what we’re using it for. Lindens don’t actively hate the community — they simply don’t know what one is. They apparently still have that shiny gleaming mental image of Second Life as Internet of the future, which is so shiny and gleaming that it’s very, very fuzzy. That’s why they want to sell their shaking platform to corporations — it worked for the Internet, didn’t it?

And while I see numerous theories that openspace fiasco is a dastardly plot of some sort — some of them well-founded! — I am willing to bet it really is not. Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity, and don’t see complex economic strategising when it’s plainly obvious they don’t know where they are going.

If nothing else, it’s grounds for forgiving them, and forgiveness is good for the soul.


5 thoughts on “The Little Engine that Could

  1. The issue is – “can you really replace the engine of something using (or distributed) so widely” – without declaring Flag Day, shutting everything down, forcing each and every user to update his client software, loosing some backward compatibility with Ye Olde Script Lore — simply speaking, without tickling all the heisen- and shroeden-bugs possible?

    I mean, this outta be mother of all pains in the arse. Rika, they _won’t_.

  2. A. They just did issue a global forced update for security reasons and it went ok. People didn’t like it because the new client was worse, but if it was better, I expect they wouldn’t be so angry. They do server updates every few weeks, too.

    B. I’m not arguing for a complete rewrite, either. But it’s monstrously suboptimal, and I’ve already posted about a few things where it could be optimized. Sure, I might be wrong, but there’s definitely potential for more. Second Life’s original sim software can support 15000 primitives. OpenSim server clone can do 45000 with the same client. Even though it still doesn’t do everything it should do, I expect it’ll come out with a 100% performance lead in the end.

    C. The real issue here is not technical problems as such. Technical problems are a legacy of prior generations, many of them are due to wrong design decisions that can no longer be changed. But technical problems can eventually be fixed. The problem is that Linden Labs have shown themselves to have no capacity to predict what can happen and support it, and they continue doing so, with heavier and heavier consequences each time they do something pointless instead of what would really make people happy and bring Lindens more money.

    The existence of a technical problem is a consequence of a people problem.

  3. People space. Yes. I need to de-swap lotsa structuralist, post-structuralist and, well, sociological books.

  4. You are absolutely right, I don’t get their lack of vision towards human interaction. What IS the point of having a house if not for having friends come over?

    It reminds me a quote from ‘Into The Wild’

    “Happiness is only real when shared”
    — Alexander Supertramp

  5. Pingback: To reiterate « Through the Broken Looking Glass

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