The deafening sound of virtual existence

Here is a story, a propos virtual existence, my late granny used to tell (thanks to JG for reminding me): there was a poor tailor whose shop was next door to a very upscale French restaurant. Every day at lunch time, the tailor would go out the back of his shop and eat his black bread and herring while smelling the wonderful odours coming from the restaurant’s kitchen.

One day, the poor tailor was surprised to receive an invoice from the restaurant for ‘enjoyment of food’. So he went to the restaurant to point out that he had not bought anything from them. The manager said, “Every day you sit outside and enjoy the smell of our food, so you should pay us for it.”

The tailor thought about this for a second or two, then stuck his hand in his pocket and jingled the few coins he had inside, “here you go,” he said.

“What is the meaning of this?” asked the manager

The tailor replied, “For the smell of your food, I’m paying with the sound of my money.”

Virtual existence means that all people, places, items and currencies involved do not exist in ‘real life.’  Take, for example, Second Life, a 3D virtual world that is created and maintained by its residents.

Second Life (SL) is a Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG). This virtual universe has a complex geographic landscape of a continent and its surrounding islands, complete with urban and rural sections, and filled with inhabitants (called ‘Lifers‘) who share needs, wants, aspirations, hopes and demands. Online characters are known as Avatars – users can create their own avatars, down to the smallest details, and let him / her operate as SL Lifer. Since all of Lifers are virtual; they can interact with other denizens socially and professionally.

They can also buy, sell, and trade with each other. Second Life has its own currency – called the Linden Dollar, which can be exchanged any time for US dollar at any virtual exchange outlet. The Linden trades at around 300 to the US dollar.

Don’t be fooled by the fascinating social aspects of SL — this is mostly about money. According to The Telegraph, 360 million US dollars were exchanged for Linden Dollars each year. In addition, life on SL is not free — a small private island of about 16 acres costs as much as $1,675 for the land and $295 as monthly maintenance fee.

Second Life aims to operate on ‘classic’ economic principles: all land, properties, commodities and currency are handled as if they were real – there is supply and demand, there is a natural flow of buyers and sellers — and the economy thrives! Far from being a cleverly conceived digital version of Monopoly, Second life is a viable, thriving community. With ten million reported Lifers, the virtual tail has been wagging the dog and, increasingly, people have been paying attention.

Media-worthy examples include the fact that Reuters has a fully staffed office in SL, complete with a fully accredited (virtual) bureau chief named Adam Reuters as part of its economy desk, as does Sky News.

US Democratic Party Presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have been running campaign offices on SL. Another Democrat, John Edwards, had his campaign offices bombarded with virtual turds by unhappy Lifers. Big businesses like Coca Cola, BMW, and Microsoft, have Second Life offices, and Sweden has an SL embassy. Recent special entertainment included a Suzanne Vega live virtual concert. Last year, SL produced its first millionaire, when a female Lifer made a fortune from developing and trading in SL property. (Source: The Telegraph.)

Unfortunately, along with social growth and financial prosperity came pathologies, with their corresponding ethical debates. Early this year, German police investigated allegations that paedophiles are using SL for virtual sex with children, and a case of virtual rape has been opened by Brussels police. There is an ongoing debate if virtual sex with minors, virtual rape or virtual non-consensual sex is in fact a crime.

Money, sex-crimes, politics, entertainment and the media – virtual worlds have all it takes to grab our imagination, just like the real thing, or better / worse. According to research by the Gartner Group, 80 percent of active Internet users will be participating in nongaming virtual worlds, such as Second Life, by the end of 2011.

Soon, the sound of virtual existence may become deafening.

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PS: In November this year, Dutch police arrest a 17 year old and charged him with stealing online virtual furniture – this is the first known arrest for virtual theft. The furniture, valued at about 4000 Euro, has been removed from a Habbo Hotel.

Habbo is a popular SL-type virtual world that is very popular with teenagers. Back on the (virtual) farm, SL has been rocked with scandals involving software automates – or ‘bots’ – who stole possession from their rightful owners.