Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Meta Rules in Cyberspace?

I just came across an interesting Croquet-related post on http://amsoapundit.blogspot.com. This is likely from someone I met in Washington D.C. earlier this year while giving an invited seminar at the Institute of Humane Studies, an organization that assists undergraduate and graduate students worldwide with an interest in individual liberty. It turns out that a former Accenture analyst, Max Borders, who was familiar with my earlier work at ViOS thought that the institute would find both my past and present work to be of interest. Now, if your anything like me, you might be wondering why a libertarian organization would be interested in hearing me talk about my work with ViOS and Croquet. Well, consider that the creation of "open" and globally scalable social computing spaces can cause some to ask the following: To what extent will we need to impose "rules" on peoples behaviors in such spaces? What types of "rules" are necessary? Who will come up with such "rules" and how will they be enforced? How can we find a balance between personal liberty and the need for regulating behaviors in "open" cyberspaces? All very interesting questions - and as it became clear to me during my seminar, they are especially so to libertarians. Here are some quotes from the posting:

"The future is here, and I've seen it. Today I met with Julian Lombardi, a director of technology of some sort at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A few years ago Lombardi ran a start-up, ViOS, that aimed to create a new way of navigating, creating, and accessing content on the internet. This is a pretty lame description. In fact, ViOS, and his newer, and much more robust Croquet system are new ways of living on the internet. Think Neil Stephenson's Snow Crash.

At its basic level, Croquet - a pre-Alpha version of which I saw demoed today - creates a new way of navigating the internet by creating a virtual world that can be populated by all kinds of content - from webpages (with static, audio, and video content) to avatars that represent users to objects that operate according to scripts.

Croquet is massively extensible and scalable - meaning it could eventually support billions of users creating billions of worlds. The worlds are huge - I do not know in detail the theoretical limits of world sizes, but since users can instantaneously create new worlds, there seems to be no practical limit. (Incidentally, some of this stuff is really metaphysically interesting. So what does it mean to have a virtual world that is essentially infinitely big, but also infinitely small - meaning that one can get from one point to another instantaneously? I don't know, but it makes meatspace seem a whole hell of a lot less attractive. Oh, also, scarcity in this world is going to be reputational and not linked to spatially-oriented issues as it is in the real world.)

Croquet allows virtual-real-life social interaction with voice-over-IP and the full range of content interaction that currently exists. Croquet is fully stateful and deploys a language called Squeak that is GUI-driven and allows even fairly unsophisticated users to create objects - from virtual buildings to animals to representations of physical objects - and share those objects in Domain Name Server-like servers around the world so that other users can use and modify existing objects to create even more complex features of the world.

Ok, so that's all very cool. Imagine if documents on the web were arranged spatially so that you could "walk" or "teleport" to a coordinate on this world to access documents AND around those resources would be resources offered by other people or organizations that appealed to you because of your shared interests. Ok cool enough.

But there's something even more fundamentally different about this technology and that is the ability for users - simple users, not corporations or governments - to create virtual worlds and exist within those virtual worlds and invite others into those virtual worlds and have those virtual worlds be only subject to the limitations of the technology and the RULES created by that owner. In other words, a fully privatized virtual space for every single user wherein every single user could establish the rules for social interaction within his or her world.

Why is this important? At a basic level, this technology allows us to test out rules of just conduct to find out which sets of institutions, norms, and rules operate most effectively online AND, by extension, in the real world. I can imagine social science, for instance, being made much more rigorous by testing out certain propositions about human interaction on humans, or at least, representations of them.

But at a more concrete level it makes the world(s) far more efficient. Let's imagine we have 10,000 worlds each created by 10,000 users (there could be many more). I create my own world which features very strict rules against blaspheming god. These rules require Avatars when they enter my world to pray to Jesus and to watch a video extolling the virtues of Southern Baptism. I forbid swearing, do not allow sex-oriented behavior or talk, and forbid the posting of advertisements in my world that are pro-choice.

My world, it turns out, is very popular for Christian homeschoolers because, in addition to having those rules, I also have featured lots of resources (much of it authored by other people, but filtered by me) for that audience. Other Christians in the real world find out about my world and, through some identifier akin to a domain name, know how to find it among the 10,000 other worlds out there. It's very popular among that audience. But curiously, metrosexuals find it all off-putting (incidentally, I realize metrosexual is so 2003). Fortunately for them, there are other worlds tailored to their tastes, preferences of social interaction, and so forth. If you can imagine such a world - all graphically sophisticated and easily modifiable by a fairly novice user - you can begin to see the power of Croquet.

Incidentally, authentication will be built into the croquet system which is essential to preventing abuse (worms etc.) and encouraging the development of social norms so that, for instance, the Christian world owner that I described above can exclude people from his world who violate his sets of rules. Croquet is stateful, meaning that your "connection" to the world persists. (On the web, your connection to a website does not persist. You request a webpage, your browser gets that page, and that's the end of the interaction. If you click on a link, your browser gets that page, but that second interaction is distinct from the first. Web technology attempts to mimic statefulness through the use of things like cookies that retain information about interactions, but it's a poor kludge)."

"This is super cool technology. One of the questions that Julian Lombardi had today was essentially about the kind of meta rules that ought to govern the worlds and the commons. My argument to him was that the meta rules should only be limited by the technology and that he should not, under any circumstances, limit the number of domain names. ICANN is a creation of corporations and government designed to limit our freedom on the web by liming the allocation of domain names and it is supremely inefficient, political, and authoritarian. But the internet didn't have to be that way - it's an artificial result of a failure of the initial designers to anticipate the popularity of the web and to fiat in 10,000 top-level-domains.

So my advice to Julian was:

1. Make sure people can be fully authenticated - allowing the evolution of social norms.
2. Allow people to fully create, share code, even code that essentially is not anticipated by the Smalltalk on which Croquet is based.
3. Allow full, exclusive ownership of worlds."

"I really do believe that Julian and his colleagues have done something truly remarkable and that 10 years from now when we're living in these world(s) virtually, we'll have him to thank. As for me, I'm going to learn Squeak, the high-level language that allows one to create experiences and objects in this new virtual world so that I can be ahead of the curve when the crush for the next generation of "web-designers" comes.

It was thrilling to see the technology. One of the disheartening aspects was that I have very little to contribute intellctually to a project like this. It seems to me that sufficiently interesting things have been written about the evolution of norms - by Hayek and others - about transaction costs and the unimportance of the initial distribution of "property" in the world - by Coase and others - and about existence in a world like this might be like (by Neal Stephenson).

This is really pie-in-the-sky, but could SUFFICENTLY meaningful social interactions in the virtual world make the real world somehow less contentious? In other words, if people can act out aggressions - real aggressions - in the virtual world, will they do that less or more in the real world? I don't think there's going to be a problem of people getting sucked into this virtual world - there's somethign about physical existence that can't be duplicated - but I do think it could profoundly alter how we interact with each other face-to-face."

1 comment:

Johnny Canuck said...

I can relate to that post. Finding the right domain name these days is more challenging and definitely more critical to getting good search engine positioning.

I really enjoy your blog, keep us posted.