Airstream Futuropolis

Opening the Metaverse, grid by grid
July 14, 2008, 12:01 am
Filed under: Anarcho-capitalism, Cypherpunk, Metaverse, Second Life, Virtual economies

Neal Stephenson’s seminal 1992 cyberpunk novel “Snow Crash” coined the concept of the Metaverse, a networked, computer-generated world existing parallel to physical reality. Over the past few years, the ubiquity of the Internet has helped his idea come true.

Online games like EVE and World of Warcraft are rudimentary Metaverses, but they have clearly defined roles and rules for their users, unlike the open ideal of the Metaverse. Last week, Google jumped into the virtual world market with Lively, a service that offers cartoony, 3-D chat rooms embeddable in websites — another incarnation of the Metaverse idea.

But the closest analog to the Metaverse by far is Second Life, a virtual world with content created by its own users and a thriving online economy. In fact, the creator of Second Life was inspired by the Metaverse, and as graphics cards, internet connections, and processing power have grown faster and cheaper, Second Life has come closer and closer to a persistent virtual alternate reality.

The speed with which Second Life has gone from a crude, glorified chat room to a full-fledged Metaverse is remarkable. Consider this: in 2004, a year after launch, most of the world looked something like the image below — crude, angular, and a little grating.

Today, the most detailed corners of Second Life look more like this:

(via Mylena Aquitane)

See here for more stunning virtual locations. What’s more, this lifelike, often breathtaking Metaverse was built by its own users, who created the world piece by piece with an internal scripting language. And it’s not just the graphics that have spontaneously evolved into a detailed world through user interactions. Second life has a complex economy with a GDP estimated in the hundreds of milions of dollars and an emergent culture that’s even spawned a unique breed of online pranksters-cum-terrorists.

One event last week, however, may mark a turning point for the Metaverse. Tuesday, developers at Linden Labs, the creators of Second LIfe, successfully teleported avatars from the Second Life grid into an external world located on an OpenSim server, the open-source equivalent of Second Life’s closed system. That means that Linden Labs, the organization that has long set the rules for the Metaverse economy, controlled its virtual land, and hesitantly attempted to govern it, may soon exist alongside any number of competing, interoperable virtual worlds.

The Lindens, as the developers that serve as the world’s de facto ruling class are known, have been mostly hands-off about intervening to bring order to Second Life, making it something of an anything-goes libertopia replete with gambling, guns, and squirrel sex. However, as the world’s popularity has grown, the Lindens have caved to external pressure from users and real-world regulators and implemented a series of rules, including a ban on gambling, regulations for virtual banks, and a prohibition on simulated adult-child sex (although, curiously, not hot human-on-hippo action).

OpenSim offers an alternative to government by the Lindens, allowing users to change jurisdictions as easily as they can teleport outside the official grid. As OpenSim servers become more common, competition between virtual governments (or the lack thereof) could have all sorts of interesting effects on the Metaverse.

But will virtual worlds and virtual governments ever be able to compete with the real thing? Along with the Metaverse, “Snow Crash” envisioned a future United States of competing, decentralized sub-city-states called “burbclaves,” which could well be the result of OpenSim’s influence on the virtual world. A well-encrypted system of virtual burbclaves could potentially create an online anarcho-capitalist alternative to meatspace transactions (unless, of course, it’s regulated out of existence by real world governments).

An interoperable grid is a crucial part of creating an open, unregulated cypherpunk future — and considering the success of Second Life, it may arrive sooner than we think.