Feb 27, 2012

Get Real

A cynicist, an optimist and a pragmatist walk into a bar… #SecondLife


I get accused of being cynical about virtual worlds more times than I can count, and it never ceases to wonder if anyone knows what that word means. Cynicism is looking for the worst case scenario for the simple purpose of being vindicated when that scenario plays out. Optimism is when you are only looking for the best of any situation while disregarding any negative view to the contrary. Being a realist (pragmatist) means you’re doing everything you can to see that the optimists aren’t disappointed, even if you have to deal with the ugly things that the cynical people are rooting for. Cynicism, at the root, essentially means you’re being jaded or mistrusting of the intentions of others or a situation with no indication it will be as bad as the cynicist makes it out. This is what makes me the pragmatist, in that I have many years of indications and experience to see where things are likely to go wrong, and that the motives of people in certain situations rarely differ unless thoroughly provoked otherwise.


A pragmatist, therefore, embodies a practical, matter-of-fact way of approaching or assessing situations or of solving problems. It is neither optimistic nor cynical in nature unless such is actually warranted.




Aeonix February 27 2012_001



I'm a realist. I travel the path down the middle where I look for what is wrong for the sole intention of making it better. Unlike cynicism, I don't want the worst case to play out - in fact, I want very much for the best case to play out at all times. When things are good, I also shower praise when it is due, but that praise is earned just like anything else and I’m not going to blow smoke.


Calling me cynical is like calling the guy who wants to avoid driving over a cliff cynical for pointing out the end of the road and saying we should make a left turn instead.


An optimist would instead tell that person that the bridge will be there by the time we get to it and ask the guy why he's being so negative. Just have faith that the construction crew will work diligently to complete the bridge as we're barreling down on the cliff. I mean, how would I know if they weren’t intending to have that bridge ready by the time we get there? You’ll have to pardon me for pointing out that the bridge is out and the workers are on union break.


If you want to make anything better, you're not going to do so by playing off or ignoring what is wrong and surrounding yourself with people who will tell you nothing is wrong at all, because that's a recipe for disaster. If you need an analogy, think about Fukishima - there's at least one person who demanded those water retention walls be made higher than was "needed", and for years he was called cynical and obsessed. He was accused of wasting money and time over a period of years, when "good enough" would have sufficed. He was told he was worrying over things that wouldn't happen, and he needed to relax.


Funny thing is, he was a realist. When the earthquakes hit off the coast of Japan, and wiped out huge amounts of towns and villages, causing one of the worst disasters in Japan history, his village went untouched. He wasn't saying the worst was going to happen and wanting it to - he was saying the worst was going to happen and he wanted to avoid it at all costs - because his village meant everything to him, and so did the people living there.


This is what I want from virtual worlds, including (but not limited to) SecondLife:


I want a system that is open ended, a sandbox, where the participants of that system not only make the environment and the content in it, but are treated with respect and admiration for the magnitude of their accomplishments. After all, you are the people who have literally created an entire virtual world and ecosystem from absolute scratch. That is no small undertaking, and you don't get enough credit for it. A system by which the company responsible understands that their greatest asset is not on a server, but in the community itself - and that unfathomable amounts of ingenuity, innovation, and a organic nature stems from the ability to live by the words "Your world. Your imagination."


What I want from virtual worlds on the whole is an inherent understanding of what it means to provide a fully astonishing social medium that allows its participants to remake their digital reality into anything they want, even if it is different than what others are making. There is no single vision for a virtual world, because it is a shared hallucination, as it was so succinctly put in Snow Crash.


My view of the Metaverse may very well be different than your own, and I celebrate that in every way - even encourage it. I want virtual environments to do the same, instead of looking for a one size fits all mentality. I expect virtual environments to excel in their niche' and not to settle for second best. I expect they will not impose that second best mentality on its participants, or stifle legitimate innovation to suit their own needs. I expect that the shared experience is different from person to person, and that no individual experience should be taken as the homogenized experience of all. The virtual world represents many different things to many different people - and no single view is going to encompass that. If anything, it is naive to think it will.


I expect a lot more than I have seen over the past 15 years. From virtual environments as well as the population that uses them. In many cases we have virtual Stockholm syndrome, and refuse to speak honestly about what ails our virtual worlds, opting instead for blind optimism and devotion. This is a line that should never have been drawn to begin with.


In every case where something is wrong, I aim to make it better to the extent of my ability. We cannot fault the mother for wanting to protect their children from danger, or to warn them. We cannot fault them for wanting to make things better. They are not cynical, they are realists trying to impart a bit of wisdom, and trying to save a world of pain and regret from happening.


If I were purely cynical, I'd be encouraging that world of pain and regret instead. I'd feel absolutely nothing for you, the most underrated content creators in history. If I were cynical, I'd actually take pleasure and glee from your demise or the demise of a virtual environment. Clearly I do no such thing. If anything, it saddens me to no end to see the worst things play out time and again, because they are entirely avoidable. Seeing Blue Mars crippled was avoidable, and I believed they were onto something big if only they would exercise caution and understanding of their ecosystem and virtual world history. Watching Active Worlds go from the darling of media and touted as the future of the Internet to barely a blip on the virtual world radar, while whomever is left as their supporter (a few hundred in the main universe) stand by in increasing isolation as their countless builds turn into digital ghost towns, frightens me. Watching SecondLife rise to the darling of media and the "future of the Internet" invoked deja-vu because I knew what was going to happen next - the unavoidable decline.


When I stated originally that Blue Mars was making serious mistakes in the beginning, I was accused of being cynical and bitter. The truth is, I wasn’t bitter or cynical at all, but instead pointing out that they were making the same mistakes as Worlds Inc with similar structure and operation, while betting the farm on an overkill of graphical potential. For the time that Blue Mars was in popular operation, even representatives from Blue Mars thought I was being harsh – until the day they announced a majority of their staff was being laid off (including the CEO) and that they were running on borrowed time at best. Was I being cynical and bitter? No, I was pointing out that there was a cliff and that they needed to make a left turn.


Similarly, I had the same realist attitude about Active Worlds in its heyday, in that I forewarned of a massive decline, aging technology, and a dwindling user base in the future if they weren’t willing to keep up honestly. I was called cynical and bitter then, as well. I was even banned from their forums indefinitely (and that ban still stands today). I was laughed at, and my credibility was called into question as people decided I was just an angry person.


Today, Active Worlds boasts roughly a few hundred co-current users in their flagship universe, and on average that number is under 100 on a good day. This is from thousands of users in its heyday, where the virtual world was always hopping and something was always happening somewhere. The remaining population has virtual Stockholm Syndrome in that despite the virtual world continually in decline, they choose to stick around in hopes that Active Worlds will come out with something amazing again, to rekindle what it had. Those are the sad optimists who stick around, and will defend ten year old technology vehemently like an Apple fanboy.


All that time and effort poured into Active Worlds, hundreds of thousands of hours of model creation and in-world building over the course of years, and now it’s a virtual ghost town.


Where once Active Worlds was hailed as the future of the Internet, and the darling of the media (they even had articles in PC Magazine at the time), the hype initially didn’t stand up and that was the beginning of the decline to where it is today. This is why I’m worried about Second Life, because it’s following in the footsteps of the worst trends of virtual environments – first hailed as the future of the Internet, massive hype, all the major brands having a presence, and tons of media exposure and praise – only for that hype to burst and those brands pulling out in droves.



Aeonix February 27 2012_002



I speak not as an alarmist, but as a guy who has seen this all before, and want to warn people that we don't have to let it happen again into perpetuity, or at the very least not to be so blind to the very real possibility that it will happen again. We're not going to stop that vicious cycle by pretending nothing is wrong or refusing to speak about it. We're going to win that fight by actively shining the harsh light of truth on every flaw we see, and burning those dark spots away so that nothing is left but something far better than we have today.


All of these things I want to avoid going forward. I don't want to see virtual world enthusiasts pouring their hearts and souls into any particular platform with optimism only to have history repeat itself. It is heart wrenching to see over and again. Ask the people who were all in for There.com and sat in shock when they announced they were closing their doors. The virtual worlds graveyard is far larger than the virtual worlds roster today.


That does not mean I want anyone to abandon a particular technology. By no means do I believe all virtual worlds are wholly inadequate, either. They all have their strengths and weaknesses. I’m simply not the one to ignore the weaknesses, because I believe they can all be much better than they are today. I’m not one to bullshit you, either, and tell you a particular technology is adequate for something it is not when there are far better options to be had.


Case in point, Second Life, by nature, is not a robust games development platform. Yes, you can make games in there, but those games are nothing compared to what you could accomplish outside of Second Life. Yes, Second Life supports mesh upload – but by no means am I going to accept this as some sort of great achievement. This is standard fare literally everywhere else, so why on Earth should I be expected to act like Linden Lab isn’t ten years behind and just now catching up to what is common knowledge in the industry?


That doesn’t mean I’m cynical, it means I’m telling it like it is.


Now, if we want to take an honest look at the situation and tell it as it is -


Linden Lab hasn’t finished their implementation of Windlight. It has been on the shelf since 2007 and ignored to the point that TPVs had to create a work around to implement things that weren’t on the table (Parcel Windlight). Mesh implementation was half baked at best (pun intended) and it was the community raising the funds to hire an ex-employee of Linden Lab that gave us Mesh Deformer so that clothes and attached Mesh items would at least attempt to fit right and not be broken. It was the TPVs that started the body physics with Breast Physics, and it was the TPVs that innovated in ways we’ve become accustomed to today, with features that aren’t in the main viewer.


Please don’t tell me how great Linden Lab is. I hold the community in higher regard than the company they are benefitting at every turn. Second Life is a great advancement, and I agree to that. But that doesn’t give it a free pass to ignore all of its shortcomings to be an idealist. Likewise, I’m not going to be a yes-man when that company starts acting against the best interest of the community or the devs that played an enormous part in making Second Life what it is today.


The truth remains: Linden Lab is a company that has burned through three separate CEOs on four occasions, and has at least once skirted the edge of bankruptcy. A company that had to lay off a large percentage of its employees worldwide. A company that had the adoration of the whole world, and brands handed to them on a silver platter, only to burst the hype bubble and lose that standing. I’m not making this up, or seeing bad things that aren’t there – I’m stating fact.


As a matter of fact, I don’t want that situation to get any worse. If I have to point out when the problems are arising so they can be acknowledged and addressed, so be it. Somebody has to, and it sure as hell won’t be the optimists constantly praising Second Life who will do it until it’s too late.


What that means is this:


I want a better Metaverse, and that means acknowledging when we've gone wrong so we can make it better for ourselves, and for the generations that will come after us. That means that there are people in the world (real and virtual) who will tell us all to make that left turn, or acknowledge when a particular system isn't up to par for a particular use. It means that I will also be one of the few voices in this industry not "drinking the kool-aid" but instead not afraid to say when even a company is being underhanded or making a mistake that can lead to severe losses in the long run.


I've seen it before, and it is not pretty. Watching scores of content creators pour their hearts, money and time into a platform for it to tank is heartbreaking - especially when they're so positive that it's the place to be.


It means that I'm not cynical, but I'm also not going to be sunshine and rainbows optimistic, either. I'm going to simply tell it how it is, and if that happens to be wildly good or bad, then so be it.


That's called honesty, and we all need a dose of it now and again in our virtual worlds.


My job in life is to be the rain on your glitter parade when you’re marching over a cliff. If everything is all clear, I’ll be the one passing out the poptarts and having fun with you. I think of contingencies so you don’t have to, so you can afford to be an optimist.


Don’t hate me. Simply understand my position, and that it is not against you.


  1. What I wonder is this: if Linden Lab is determined to fade off into a slow decline; is opensim in any sort of position to save the platform as a whole?

  2. @Han Held I don't think Linden Lab is determined to fade off into a slow decline, but that depends entirely on how you define that. I'd say more like trying to "re-invent" Linden Lab into something it originally wasn't to appeal to a demographic it never had. This means, for the most part, I'd say they are in the process of dumbing down Second Life considerably.

    As a result, there will still be a Second Life but I don't think it's the one that the current community will want to be a part of, though this is just my own speculation. I can't really speak for the community, only read a likely reaction.

    In regard to Open Sim, I don't think they are in a position to save the platform, as you put it. Not unless they get their asses in gear and start hauling ass to code up a storm.

    But don't worry. The thing that I didn't mention in the article was that the other trend I've noticed is that when one "future of the Internet" falls on its face, another one invariably springs up for another round. So, if Second Life/Open Sim aren't the solution, I'm certain whatever comes next will leapfrog that technologically and give the SL population a better home.

    That last bit of disturbing observation that I've managed to note about all of this is that any mainstream virtual environment sandbox "metaverse" seems to have a predictable lifespan of about 10 years or less. Every ten years, we see the resurgence of virtual worlds after the last wave came and went.

    So, if we look at ActiveWorlds, they came up about 1995 and by 2005 they were well on their way to transitioning from a flagship virtual environment to subsisting on purely licensing the technology as a white label to survive. Blue Mars seems to have managed that burn-out transition a lot quicker, There.com similarly, and Linden Lab is at that ten year mark now doing the transition after skirting disaster a couple of times.

    Personally, none of this actually matters to me other than as interesting footnotes that I need to be aware of for other projects I deal with. Thus should be read as: Things I shouldn't do myself going forward.

    I'm mostly under the impression, though, that what Second Life is going to become as a result of this transition is likely the reason Philip is no longer CEO. he couldn't bring himself to do that to the community - so whatever it is, it caused a crisis of conscience for Mr Rosedale.

    And that... can't possibly be a good thing.