[iDC] Labor in Second Life

Scott Kildall scott at kildall.com
Wed Jul 8 17:58:30 UTC 2009

Hi everyone,

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  
down people.

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  
most people.

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  
the thought.

I am curious to hear the thoughts of others on this.

Scott Kildall

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