[iDC] Labor in Second Life

Stephanie Rothenberg info at pan-o-matic.com
Thu Jul 9 17:25:08 UTC 2009

On Jul 9, 2009, at 12:33 AM, Michael H Goldhaber wrote:

> Scott,
> This is certainly an entertaining report, but what of its wider
> context?
OMG is it art? But maybe it's more about the "construction of value  
through immaterial labor" specific to SL?

> 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?
What does it mean to maintain the "purity" of staying within the  
confines of one medium or world similar to an ethnographic study in  
order to fully explore and attempt to understand it's parameters and  
culture? And how does it change the cultural context of each when the  
two converge and create a recombinant mashup style virtual labor pool?
> 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?
For the most part builders in SL take SL seriously and treat their 2nd  
lives with the same integrity as their first, or shall we say their  
"real" lives. As Scott stated they adhere to the puritan work ethic.  
Maybe that can be considered the "gaming" aspect of SL. No cheating –  
unless you impersonate Madoff and get away with it.
Jeff Crouse and I experienced this ethical mind set throughout the  
Invisible Threads project. Workers wanted a good, decent job doing  
work they could feel proud of and our little sweatshop factory  
provided that (with all it's contradictions). Most recently I've been  
trying to work different types of jobs in SL that mimic real world  
jobs (nurse, sales associate for wedding planners) to gain a better  
understanding of these RL/SL intersections with regards to skills,  
values, behaviors and ideologies. I'm still curious as to why someone  
would want to "work" in a place sanctioned for play and furthermore  
"work" the same job in SL as in RL unless they are making their RL  
livelihood off it.

I just started an interesting book called "Coming of Age in Second  
Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human" by Tom  
Boellstorff. Tom teaches at UC Irvine and predominantly researches  
sexuality in Indonesia but spent the past 2 years in SL. What I find  
interesting is how he applies his training/methodology as an  
anthropologist to the world of SL. It's a great resource as most of  
the books I've come across are more anecdotal and personal essay and  
don't offer the theoretical framework and analysis that "Coming of  
Age" does.



> 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? )
> Best,
> Michael
> 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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Stephanie Rothenberg
Assistant Professor
Department of Visual Studies
University at Buffalo

stephanie at pan-o-matic.com


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