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April 27, 2007

My so-called second life

It's a passing fad. It's all hype. They've got good PR. Only sad, pathetic people with no real lives would be interested.
All things that were said about the Internet 12 years ago. All things being said now about Second Life today. Wrong about the Internet. Wrong, too, about Second Life.

Hanging around a virtual world dressed as a cartoon character isn't normally my idea of a good time, but last weekend Wired News asked me to attend the virtual technology exposition going on inworld, and so I finally fired up Gwyndred Wuyts, who I'd created some weeks back.

Second Life is of course a logical continuation of the virtual worlds that went before it. The vending machines, avatars, attachments (props such as fancy items of clothing, laptops, or, I am given to understand, quite detailed, anatomically correct genitals), and money all have direct ancestors in previous virtual worlds such as Worlds Away (Fujitsu), The Palace, and Habitat (Lucasfilm). In fact, though, the prior art Second Life echoed most at first was CompuServe, which in 1990 had no graphics except ASCII art and little sense of humor – but was home to technology companies of all sizes, who spoke glowingly of the wonders of having direct contact with their customers. In 1990 every techie had a CompuServe ID.

Along came the Web, and those same companies gratefully retreated to the Web, where they could publish their view of the world and their support documents and edit out the abuse and backtalk. Now, in Second Life, the pendulum is swinging back it's flattened hierarchies all over again.

"You have to treat everyone equally because you can't tell who anyone is. They could be the CEO of a big company," Odin Liam Wright (SL: Liam Kanno) told me this week. " In SL, he says, what you see is "more the psyche than the economic class or vocation or stature."

Having to take people as they present themselves without the advantage of familiar cues and networked references was a theme frequently exploited by Agatha Christie. Britain was then newly mobile, and someone moving to a village no longer came endorsed by letters from mutual friends. People could be anybody, her characters frequently complain.

Americans are raised to love this kind of social mobility. But its downside was on display yesterday in a panel on professionalism at the Information Security conference, where several speakers complained that the informal networks they used to use to check out their prospective security hires no longer exist. International mobility has made it worse: how do you assess a CV when both the credentials and the organizations issuing them are unknown to you?

Well, great: if the information security professionals don't know whom to trust, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Nonetheless, the speaker was wrong. The informal networks exist, just not where he's looking for them. When informal networks get overrun by the mainstream, they move elsewhere. In the late 1980s, Usenet was such a haven; by 1994, when September stopped ending and AOL moved in, everyone had retreated to gated communities (private forums, mailing lists, and so on). Right now, some of those informal networks are on Second Life, and the window is closing as the mainstream becomes more aware of the potential of the virtual world as a platform.

Previous world were popular and still died. But Second Life is different, first and foremost because of timing. People have broadband. They have computers powerful enough to handle the graphics and multiple applications. Their movement around the virtual world is limited only by their manual dexterity and the capacity of the servers to handle so many interacting simulations at once.

Second: experimentation. At this week's show, I picked up a (beta) headset that plugs Skype into Second Life (Second Talk). People (Cattle Puppy Productions) are providing inworld TV displays (and extracted video clips for the rest of us). Reallusion, one of the show's main sponsors, does facial animation it hopes will transform Second Life from a world of text-typing avatars into one of talking characters. You can pick up a portable office including virtual laptop, unpack it in a park, and write and post real blog entries. Why would you do this when you already have blogging software on your desktop? Because Second Life has the potential to roll everything – all the different forms of communication open on your desktop today – into a single platform. And if you grew up with computer games, it's a more familiar platform than the desktop metaphor generations of office workers required.

Third: advertising. The virtual show looked empty compared to a real-world show; it had 6,000-plus visitors over three days. The emptiness was by design to allow more visitors while minimizing lag. Nonetheless, Dell was there with a virtual configurator on which you could specify your new laptop. Elsewhere inworld, you can drive your new Toyota or Pontiac and read your Reuters news. Moving into Second Life is a way for old, apparently stuffy companies to reinvent their image for the notoriously hard-to-reach younger crowd who are media-savvy and ad-cynical. There is real gold in them thar virtual hills.

Finally, a real reason to upgrade my desktop.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

April 20, 2007

Green spies

Some months back I blogged a breakdown of the various fees that are added on to each airline ticket and tagged it "What we're paying." A commenter took issue: society at large, he wrote, was paying a good deal more than that for my evil flying habits, and I shouldn't be going to Miami anyway. He had a point. What's offending one niece by missing her wedding? I have more.

The intemperateness of the conversation is the kind of thing smokers used to get from those who've already quit.
Just how acrimonious the whole thing is getting was brought home to me this week when Ian Angell surfaced to claim that it is not really possible to be a privacy advocate and an environmentalist at the same time. Of course, Angell was in part just trying to make trouble and get people arguing. But he says he has a serious point.

"The green issues are providing a moral justification for the invasion of privacy," he says, "and the green lobby must take it on board as part of what they're doing. And the fact that they're not taking it on board makes them guilty."

I wouldn't go that far – I do not think you can blame people for unintended consequences. But there are a number of proposals floating around in the UK that could provide yet more infrastructure for endemic surveillance, even if the intention at the moment is to protect the environment.

For example: the idea of the personal carbon allowance, first mooted in 2005 with the notion that it could be linked to the ID card. Last July, environment minister, David Miliband, proposed issuing swipe cards to all consumers, which you'd have to produce whenever you bought anything like petrol or heating – or plane tickets. That at least would give me ammunition against my blog commenter, because other than flying my carbon footprint is modest. In fact, we could have whole forums of moral superiors boasting about how few carbon points they used, like we now have people who boast about how early they get up in the morning. And we could have billboards naming and shaming those who – oh, the horror – had to buy extra carbon points, like they do for TV license delinquents.

Or take the latest idea in waste management, the spy bin fitted with a microchip sensor that communicates with the garbage truck to tell your local council how much you've contributed to the landfill. Given the apparent eagerness of manufacturers to enhance their packaging with RFID chips, this could get really interesting over time.

This is also a country where the congestion charge – a scheme intended to reduce the amount of traffic in central London – is enforced by cameras that record the license plates of every vehicle as it crosses the border. Other countries have had road tolls for decades, but London's mayor, formerly known as "Red Ken" Livingstone because of his extreme left-wing leanings, chose the most privacy-invasive way to do it. Proposals for nationwide road charging follow the same pattern, although the claim is that there will be safeguards against using the installed satellite tracking boxes to actually track motorists. Why on earth is this huge infrastructure remotely necessary? We already have per-mile road use charging. It's called buying fuel.

Privacy International's executive director, Simon Davies, points out that none of these proposals – nor those to expand the use of CCTV (talking cameras!) – are supported by research to show how the environment will benefit.

Of course, if there's one rule about environmentalism it is, as Angell says, "The best tax is the tax the other guy pays." Personally, I'd ban airconditioning; it doesn't get that hot in the UK anyway, and a load of ceiling fans and exhaust fans would take care of all but the most extreme cases of medical need. It certainly does seem ironic that just at the moment when everyone's getting exercised about saving energy and global warming – they're all putting in airconditioning so cold you have to carry a sweater with you if you go anywhere in the "summer".

So, similarly, when Angell says there are "straightforward, immediate answers" he's perfectly right. The problem is they'll all enrage some large group of businesses. "You could reduce garbage by 80 percent by banning packaging in shops. We are squabbling about tiny little changes when quite substantial changes are just not on the cards."
And then, he adds, "They jump on airline travel because you can bump up the taxes and it's morally justified."

I am convinced, however, that it's possible to be a privacy advocate and an environmentalist simultaneously. This is a type of issue that has come up before, most notably in connection with epidemiology. If you make AIDS a notifiable disease you make it easier to track the patterns of infection and alert those most at risk; but doing so invades patient privacy. But in the end, although Angell's primary goal was to stir up trouble, he's right to say that environmentalists need to ensure that their well-meaning desire to save the planet is not hijacked. Or, he says, "they will be blamed for the taxation and the intrusion."

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

April 13, 2007

Let's make rules

In London there is a Chinese restaurant that is so famous for the rudeness of its staff that anyone who lives in London reading that can already tell you its name and location: the Wong Kei, in Wardour Street. The food is cheap, quick, and pretty good, so it's always crowded. Last year, I was told they're all polite now. I will never go there again.

Last month, at the Emerging Technology conference, Kathy Sierra, whose talks many people eagerly anticipated, canceled because of death threats and other nastiness on her and several other people's blogs. Not knowing the people of course doesn't stop me from having an opinion, which is that posting her considerable distress on her blog was more likely to feed the troll than to dissuade him. He must be really important and powerful to make a woman cry on her blog that she is too frightened to leave her back yard. Yeah, ME! That kind of thing.

To me, the best response to something like that is to show the death threats to the police if you're seriously concerned but otherwise go on as though the troll is insignficant. What appears to be hatred specifically for you is in fact unlikely to be personal; the troll is looking for someone, anyone, who will respond with fear. In the forums I've been involved in running, you can only get rid of trolls by ignoring them. This requires an enormous amount of discipline, and it's difficult to do because you have to enlist the cooperation of everyone in the forum. But it does work. They get frustrated and go off to find more responsive targets.

Rules don't help much in such a situation. Most people don't need them; the troll gets its rocks off by flouting them. Rules' one usefulness is to be able to point to them when someone crosses the line so you can discipline or ban them without rage and protest on the part of your other users. They, not the troll who's getting all the attention, are the ones who matter because they are your community, your fans, your volunteer helpers, your paying customers…whatever, depending on what kind of forum/IRC channel/Web board/blog/wiki you'are running.

Given that Sierra pulled out of an O'Reilly conference, it's understandable that Tim O'Reilly, coupled with Jimmy Wales, who's had well-documented disciplinary problems of his own lately, would feel impelled to produce a draft code of conduct for the blogosphere. This is wrong – not, as apparently many bloggers have howled, because it's censorship, but because it's irrelevant.

If you doubt this, have a look here. That is Gene Spafford's early 1990s attempt to create a set of rules to civilize Usenet. Usenet: the online area everyone thinks of now as a sinkhole. Did it work? No.

It isn't censorship, in any case, because what it's aimed at controlling is not speech but behavior.
But it does ignore the pre-eminence of community standards, which vary all over the Net and for good reason: we're all different. Some people are unhappy in any gathering that doesn't adhere to the rigid politeness of the Queen's reception rooms; others feel uncomfortably constrained anywhere they're not allowed to tell people to fuck off if they feel like it. Every type of political correctness breeds its companion political incorrectness, and vice versa. And one reason many people love the Net is that it is an open, unconfined antidote to the corsets of everyday life and other media.

Now: the rules. Death threats are illegal, no matter what medium they're made in. We already have real-life rules and community standards about that, and they're remarkably consistent. Whether to allow anonymous or abusive postings must remain withn the discretion of the site owner, who effectively is God in his own little world. As the EFF has maintained for more than a decade now, online anonymity can be extremely important in allowing people to talk about personal problems freely or in cases of corporate whistleblowing.

More important, the draft rules are binary: you're civil or you're not, according to your logo. But this isn't how the Net works because this isn't how people work. The snake-phobics forum might ban all discussion of snakes but still allow people to curse each other out. The polite-language-only forum might allow explicit discussion of how to commit suicide. And the tennis forum might not care whether you mentioned snakes, suicides, or cursed freely – but might delete everything not actually related to tennis because the worst sin in that forum is being off-topic.

Even more important, these rules would not have prevented Sierra's situation. Applying them to her own blog would not have changed the two other blogs on which the death threats against her appeared. And it seems unlikely that the death threat posters would sign up to them. Go to the police; get someone technical to investigate the source; by all means educate the kids coming online about where the line is between legal and illegal behavior.

Sierra herself seems to have decided that the only way to decrease the hatred coming at her is to decrease her visibility. The Net-wide discussion of the threats against her makes that unlikely.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

April 6, 2007

What's in a 2.0?

"The Web with rounded corners," some of my skeptical friends call it. One reason for going to Emerging Technology was to find out what Web 2.0 was supposed to be when it's at home in OReillyland and whether there's a there, there.

It's really surprising how much "Web 2.0" is talked about and taken for granted as a present, dominant trend in Silicon Valley (OK, etech was in San Diego, but its prevailing ethos lives about 550 miles north of there). In London, you can go to a year's worth of Net-related gatherings without ever hearing the term, and it doesn't seem to be even a minor theme in the technology news generally, even in the 49 states.

The cynical would conclude it's a Silicon Valley term, perhaps designed to attract funding from the local venture capitalists, who respond to buzzwords.

Not at all, said the guys sharing my taxi to the airport. For one thing, you can make assumptions now that you couldn't in "Web 1.0". For example: people know what a browser is; they use email; they know if they see a link that they can click on it and be taken to further information.

To me, this sounds less like a change in the Web and more like simple user education. People can drive cars now, too, where our caveman ancestors couldn't. Yet we don't call ourselves Homo Sapiens 2.0 or claim that we're a different species.

There also seems to be some disagreement about whether it's really right to call it Web 2.0. After all, it isn't like software where you roll out discrete versions with new product launches, or like, say, new versions of Windows, where you usually have to buy a new computer in order to cope with the demands of the new software. (The kids of the 1990s have learned a strange way to count, too: 1.0, 2.0, 3.0, 3.1, 3.11, 95, 97…)

Instead, Web 2.0, like folk music, seems to be a state of mind: it is what you point to when you say it. But if you figure that Web 1.0 was more or less passive point-and-click and Web 3.0 is the "semantic Web" Tim Berners-Lee has been talking about for years in which machines will take intelligently to other machines and humans will reap the benefits, then Web 2.0 is, logically, all that interactive stuff. Social networking, Twitter, interactive communities that leverage their members' experience and data to create new information and services.

Some examples. Wesabe, in which members pool their anonymized financial data, out of which the service produces analyses showing things consumers couldn't easily know before, such as which banks or credit cards typically cost the most. The Sunlight Foundation mines public resources to give US citizens a clearer picture of what their elected representatives are actually doing. The many social networks – Friendster, LinkedIn, Orkut, and so on – of course. And all those mashup things other people seem to have time to do – maps, earths, and other data.

The thing is, TheyWorkForYou has been mining the UK's public data in one form or another since 1998, when some of the same people first set up UpMyStreet. OK, it doesn't have a blog. Does that make it significantly less, you know, modern?

None of this is to say that there isn't genuinely a trend here, or that what's coming out of it isn't useful. Mashups are fun, we know this. And obviously there is real value in mining data or folks like the credit card companies, airlines, supermarkets, insurance companies, and credit scorers wouldn't be so anxious to grab all our data that they pay us with discounts and better treatment just to get it. If they can do it, we can – and there's clearly a lot of public data out there that has never been turned into usable information. Why shouldn't consumers be able to score banks and credit card companies the way they score us?

But adding a blog or a discussion forum doesn't seem to me sufficiently novel to claim that it's a brand new Web. What it does show is that if you give humans connectivity, they will keep building the same kinds of things on whatever platform is available. Every online system that I'm aware of, going back to the proprietary days of CompuServe and BIX (and, no doubt, others before them) has had mail, instant messaging, discussion forums, some form of shopping (however rudimentary), and some ability to post personal thoughts in public. Somewhere, there's probably a PhD dissertation in researching the question of what it says about us that we keep building the same things.

The really big changes are permanent storage and all-encompassing search. When there were many proprietary platforms and they were harder to use, the volume was smaller – but search was ineffective unless you knew exactly where to look or if the data had been deleted after 30 days. And you can't interact with data you can't find.

So we're back to cycnicism. If you want to say that "Web 2.0" is a useful umbrella term for attracting venture capital, well, fine. But let's not pretend it's a giant technological revolution.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her , or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).