[iDC] Labor in Second Life

Michael H Goldhaber michael at goldhaber.org
Thu Jul 9 04:33:05 UTC 2009


This is certainly an entertaining report, but what of its wider  
context? As  Marx's famous observation about the bee and the architect  
suggests, virtually everything any human purposely makes was made  
first in imagination. Most imagined objects probably do not get beyond  
this stage, yet many of these are shared, such as the unbuilt  
buildings in any well-known architect's portfolio — Frank Lloyd  
Wright's mile-high skyscraper comes to mind — or a working  
thermonuclear reactor. Nearly every object in  any work of fiction  is  
also in this category: Madame Bovary's handkerchief, or Lady  
Windermere's fan. Your first example, by the way, the Trojan Horse, as  
far as I know could well have been really built by attackers of Troy.  
In any case, working models of the horse were probably made for the  
various movie versions, and no doubt others by children and adults for  
purposes of free play or  purely amateur theatre. This would also be  
the case for Excalibur, and many of the others. In other words, lots  
of people have made replicas of this sort, in the real world, for  
free, out of love of playacting, or for the attention, or both.

My main question, then, is why did your builders in Second Life insist  
on being paid anything at all, even in Linden money? Is that a  
constraint of SL itself, an artifact of your pitch, or a statement of  
who takes part in SL? Did you ask for collaborators for  your project,  
or even for volunteers? Did you try to explain your purposes in  
compelling ways? I see you acknowledged the builders on your website,  
and they wanted that.  Could it be they wanted the attention that  
would bring?

A second question: Did it occur to you to advertise on Craigslist for  
SL builders? Wouldn't that have simplified the work you had to do, or  
is the difficulty part of the work?

Finally: I am unsure how "Excalibur" might be distinguished from any  
fancy sword, or how Schrodinger's cat could be represented as  
different from any old cat. (The important thing about this cat  
depends, of course, on its being invisible to the observer, in the box  
with the rest of the probabilistic contraption, so that it would have  
to be thought of as in a superposition of being dead and being alive,  
all of which Schrodinger meant ironically. )  Can you explain, or does  
this not matter? If it doesn't, couldn't you simply have "plundered"  
any "object' already found in SL? After all, as virtual objects they  
were already part of SLers' shared imaginary objects, or weren't they?  
If the virtual is different from the shared imaginary, what delimits  
the virtual? Would detailed verbal description or a set of blueprints  
not count as virtual as well? If so, what about a a more minimal  
description or a simply drawn sketch? (After all, a time will surely  
come when the now current state of SL will seem far cruder than the  
then available Virtual Reality sites. If present-day SL would still  
count then as VR, why not these others? )


On Jul 8, 2009, at 10:58 AM, Scott Kildall wrote:

> 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
> sculptures.
> 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
> www.kildall.com
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