[iDC] Labor in Second Life
scott at kildall.com
Wed Jul 8 17:58:30 UTC 2009
On the topic of immaterial labor, Trebor has prodded me to discuss a
specific work called "No Matter," which is a collaboration between
myself and Victoria Scott and was part of the Mixed Realities
commission by Turbulence.org in 2007.
The No Matter project looks at the concept of the "imaginary object"
-- these are shared objects of the mind, which appear in myth,
fiction, impossible objects, thought experiments and more. Popular
examples include the Trojan Horse, the Holy Grail, Schrodinger's Cat,
the Yellow Submarine, the Time Machine and many more.
We constructed these in Second Life, a space of pure imagination, and
extracted these as "digital plunder" (Second Life being a proprietary
environment) and then reconstructed them as high-quality paper
The project is at www.nomatter.org
To make these objects in Second Life, we hired builders and artists
from that environment, with our commission dollars. Part of the
reasoning here was a practical one: neither one of us is a skilled
builder. But, we also wanted to do a study on the construction of
value through immaterial labor. Here, we found many startling surprises.
First, that negotiating prices was much like real life. I had a "five-
point" pitch which began by scanning through publicly-available groups
of builders, finding people with a suitable profile. Then, I had to
make sure they were actually online (people generally don't respond to
offline messages) and then I would initiate a conversation.
By step 3, I had them in my "imaginary objects showroom" which housed
the first set of objects (Excalibur, the Book of Love, the Brain in
the Vat and the Wheel of Fortune). At the end, if they were still
interested, we had agreed upon a price for a completed 3D imaginary
object typically with a one-week deadline.
Often, I was an exploiter of labor and several times they exploited my
lack of knowledge of how long it took to make something. I joke here,
because the build costs were $1.50 to $12 per object. The objects took
as little as 10 minutes for simple things such as the Monolith from
2001 and as long as 40 or 50 hours for some of the more complex
objects such as the Trojan Horse (built by a student in Mexico City)
or the Wings of Icarus (built by an industrial designer in Slovenija).
The final joke was on Victoria and myself, as we spent countless hours
cutting, folding and gluing the paper sculptures. We ran out of time
and hired a real-life assistant at $15/hour, which didn't feel like
exploitation at all.
But, several aspects of labor in Second Life emerged that I think
would be of interest to this list:
1. A severely undervalued economy. People are willing to do labor for
very low wages and there is no minimum wage. Part of this is an
unwillingness to transfer money in from your credit card, adhering to
a ethos that you need to make money in SL to furnish your lifestyle,
pointing to an irrational behavior (in the sense of logic of capital)
and rational (in the sense of logic of addiction).
2. Lack of accountability created huge labor management problems.
Avatars often disappeared. If they were not in-world, then they could
not be reached. I was constantly tearing my hair out trying to track
3. Interpersonal management. To get things done, in SL, I had to do a
lot of talking and chatting and learned about people in Second Life. I
found doing strange things, like riding in a virtual car race in a
custom-designed racecar by one of the builders who was a 'woman from
Paris' out of sense of obligation. I would also have multi-threaded
IMs going on at the same time. Sometimes I typed things in the wrong
window, blowing my cover, but this, I discovered is a common mistake.
4. Very little interest in IP issues *outside* of Second Life. Even
though we were making physical objects based on the builds done by the
members of Second Life, essentially minting art currency, hardly
anyone cared or asked about this. They liked having their information
on our website, but the physical constructions didn't seem matter to
In the end, I found that anonymity created a unique situation which
can be summed up in one word: boundaries. If someone is in-world, you
can negotiate and talk with them. Otherwise, there is no way to
contact them. The money flow had a wall -- despite the press that
people are making oodles of money in Second Life, I certainly didn't
see this happening. My observation was that this was a hobby for most
people, but a hobby because they enjoyed the idea of negotiating under
a false identity in a micro-economy.
All of these interactions differs greatly from the user-generated
content model, since this is essentially an economy within a UGC
operation. What would happen if we had Facebook Dollars? I shudder at
I am curious to hear the thoughts of others on this.
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