An uneasy calm hangs over Second Life this morning after two days of protests over the appearance of the CopyBot replicator. Yesterday, as many as 600 shopkeepers closed their stores in protest, demanding that the online world’s owner, Linden Lab, take action to protect the integrity of their virtual property. The striking merchants, according to Information Week, waved signs scrawled with slogans like “Stop Buying. Stop Selling. Start Protesting” and “Linden Lab once again did hurt our world.”
Meanwhile, outside agitator Cory Doctorow, of Boing Boing, raised the specter of an outright revolution in which residents would seize control of Second Life from Linden Lab. “Second Life’s management is doing an exemplary job of coping with this,” wrote Doctorow, “but benevolent dictatorships aren’t the same thing as democracies. If a game is going to declare that its players are citizens who own property, can the company go on ‘owning’ the game?”
Raph Koster, too, sees the CopyBot dispute as signaling a larger struggle: “what’s happening is a small-scale social crisis that brings into sharp relief the split between the hacker-ethic-libertarian-info-must-be-free ethos that underpins much of the technology of virtual worlds, and the rampant commercialism that has actually enabled its embodiment. What we have here is a case of bone fighting blood.” He concludes, darkly:
As long as Second Life creators are relying on creating content like textures and models … they will continue to face the same dilemmas as any other content industry. They will be copied. They will be ripped off. They will find their market prices falling. They will agitate for DRM. They will form lobbies with the analogue to a government, and argue that they are in fact the primary cultural contributors in the system. They will, in the end, come to embody everything about the broader, commercial Web that they fled to Second Life in order to escape.
But the arrival in Second Life of the CopyBot replicator hasn’t just produced a commercial and a political crisis. It’s brought an existential crisis as well. Because CopyBot can clone entire avatars as well as their possessions, people fear losing their virtual selves. Their sense of what I’ve termed “avatar anxiety” is deepening. Writes resident Harle Armistice in a comment on the official Second Life blog:
I’m sorry, but this isn’t just about sales … I have a unique av that I made for myself. It’s me, it’s my work, it’s part of my persona. I’ve been wearing it for ages and I will be wearing it likely until the day SL either goes down or I can’t log in anymore. Or I would be, under normal circumstances … I am terrified to wear my own content because there’s a script out there that any random user can run to steal my stuff if I do.
Business Week is reporting that “savvy CEOs” are beginning to “hang out in Second Life,” “orienting themselves around what could emerge as the corporate environment of the future.” IBM chief Sam Palmisano, for instance, proudly declares, “I have my own avatar.” In fact, the magazine notes, Palmisano has two Second Life avatars, “a casual Sam and a buttoned-down one.”
What’s going to happen, one wonders, when a CopyBot-armed anarchist comes up to one of the “real” fake Sams and replicates him? It may be a dream of CEOs to be able to clone themselves for posterity, but would they be happy about being cloned by someone else, someone who might then inhabit their virtual identity and use it to spread mischief and confusion? I can’t imagine a captain of industry being sanguine about seeing a copy of himself flying through the air wearing only a g-string or emerging from a virtual sex shop bearing a mammoth Steely Dan. I would recommend that, until the situation becomes clearer, any CEO entering Second Life bring along bodyguard avatars to fend off any possible replicator attack. No company wants to find itself saying, “An imposter avatar did hurt our world.”