[iDC] Virtual Worlds, Education, & Labor

Trebor Scholz trebor at thing.net
Sat Mar 3 23:28:03 EST 2007

After the OurFloatingPoint event at Emerson College, over some green string beans and tofu, I talked with the organizers about the value of Emerson buying an island in SecondLife
(SL) for a thousand dollars in order to build a representation of their First Life campus. (Monthly service costs are about $250.) I still don't quite get it.  

Emerson and Harvard replicated their First World architecture in SL. [1] SecondLife simply becomes a novel Public Relations interface. By re-creating our existing institutions in the
virtual world, we loose a chance to re-think these knowledge factories untied from the restrictions of economical restrictions. Nevertheless, Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet &
Society uses their SL campus to offer courses open to the "public" and Emerson even experiments with 3D modeling classes and authors artworks. 

Berkman's use of its campus for long-distance learning ("courses open to the 'public'") is not interesting for me as there are only few examples of this kind of "e.learning" that made
sense to me. Years ago, I used to take classes into Habbo Hotel in order for the students to get to know each other in this environment. That worked well, but why do we need to buy
our own turf? Why do we need a replication of our own campus? Why not rather build a Black Mountain College with a Bauhaus Annex? Why teach in this virtual environment? Will
SecondLife become a 3D version of Wikipedia, a virtual knowledge bank that offers a playful and fun interface to participant-generated content? Will students simply demand such
playful access to knowledge?

Josephine Dorado's Kids Connect project nicely illustrates some affordances of SL. [2] Avatars add a bit of social bandwidth and I respect Josephine's argument that SL offers a sense
of connectedness that is hard to measure. Brian Holmes warns us that many fantasy scenarios are "deeply instrumentalized, and most often in the service of powerful agendas, put
into effect by groups which have the ability to manipulate the basic parameters of our environments, be they 'virtual' or 'actual.'" I agree; the biggest problem with SL is that it is a
proprietary space. 

The creative *labor* of the very very many financially benefits the very few. Monetary value is created in many ways (mere presence à la attention economy, creation of profiles,
production of 3D objects, import of media content). Labor, with the Italian philosopher Paolo Virno, has become performance, the act of being a speaker. Labor is tied to speech acts
and communication systems. [3] To paraphrase the old saying: The greatest trick that capital ever pulled was convincing the world that labor didn't exist. Labor, with most physical
production work (except service, of course) now moved to the global south, becomes a "casualized," often distributed, immaterial activity that is even mistaken as leisure or plain
"fun." It took peoplea while to realize that online architectures reflect the political post-Fordist structures of First Life. In 1992, for example, Digitale Stad was set up with the idea to
"design a complex, multi-layered system that operates largely on the basis of the city metaphor." The experiment did not work out. 

Today, online architectures do not just simply mirror "First Life Capitalism," but the absence of awareness of servitude* is radically new. The Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert
Marcuse put it well: "All liberation depends on the consciousness of servitude." This holds more true today than ever; many people in the US actually think that they are "happy" and
perceive this distributed labor of the sociable web as a fun leisure activity. "We would do it anyway." The community becomes the product. I opened up these questions at Emerson-- 

"(Un)ethical Capitalism and Sociable Web Media" (video cast, download m4b file, 11.4mb-- open in Quicktime, resize, duration: 40 minutes)

What do YOU think about the exploitation of labor in sociable web media and virtual worlds in particular? Are there alternatives? Already after a short look at the demo of Solipsis, "the
pure peer-to-peer system for a massively shared virtual world" (and potential alternative to SL), it seemed rather disturbing in terms of its US-centrism. [4]

I imagine SecondLife, currently in its early stages, as a useful place for a kind of rapid prototyping also in activist contexts. On the other hand, there is the danger that Second Life
could just become a valve for social tension that should rather be played out in First Life, I partially agree with Charlie Gere. (A virtual speakers corner.) SL is ecologically harmful, I
welcomed Julian Bleeker's reminder that there is no SecondLife without the materiality/resources of First Life. Giselle Beiguelman points to the cinematic "observation of the second
order,” with the avatar a step removed from us. This site could be a liberating place for experimentation with identity. What SL will be, remains to be seen; for now it requires the
same kind of skill set that other participatory cultures call for; a toolbox that allows us to handle these environments in a way that serves our best interests and is aligned with our
values and aspirations. 


[1] Harvard's Berkman Center in SL

[2] Kids Connect Project


[4] Solipsis

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