Thursday, August 13, 2009

CAQTUS Collaborative - Exploring Virtuality

At a meet organized at the University of Texas- Pan American (UTPA) in August 2009, Professor A. Fuat FIRAT and associated scholars launched the CAQTUS Collaborative. The goal of CAQTUS Collaborative is to initiate, support, and critique studies of Culture, Business, Markets, Consumption, Organizations, Globalization, and related topics from poststructural and cognate perspectives. In addition to A. Fuat FIRAT, Nikhilesh Dholakia, Romain Laufer, Cory Wemberly, Alladi Venkatesh, Amy Wendling, Jorge Rocha, Salavador Trevino Martinez, and Mohammadali Zolfagharian attended the founding discussions of the CAQTUS Collaborative.

Among the initial topics that CAQTUS Collaborative will focus on are these:

- Paradoxes of Value, Contradictions of Capital

- Bureaucracy, Legitimacy, and Emancipatory Possibilities

- Cultures of Migration, Migrating Cultures

- Dynamic Reshaping of Needs, Wants, Desires

- Technology, Culture & Experience

- Cultural Embeddedness of Business Frameworks

- Rhetoric, Symbols, Strategies, Subversions

- Marketing as a Desire Machine

- Appropriation, Reappropriation, Exploitation, Liberation

Friday, March 23, 2007

Second Life: Midlife Crisis or End of Life?

When we exit from first/real life, the exit is final. Yes, religions and cosmologies and philosophies talk of the afterlife, the next life, heavenly abodes, nightmarish hells, limbo, 64 virgins and harp music, and so on. But deep, deep down we all really know -- it's over when it's over.

In metaverses such as Second Life, things are different. Not only can we exit (or be ejected unceremoniously by Big Brother-Big Sister bouncers), we can reincarnate or multiply in the form of several avatars.

But there is a bigger issue.

There are possibilities, of course, of our real-life world as we know coming to an end -- dramatically through a comet collision or nuclear holocaust or slowly through global warming. But these possibilities are so remote that we relegate them to the realm of "unthinkable" and use them as sci-fi movie fodder to amuse ourselves. Not so with Second Life and other simulated worlds. The chances of these metaverses folding suddenly or dying a painful death via massive exodus are finite and reasonably large.

There have been rumblings of poor performance and limited capacity about various metaverses, including Second Life. Unlike the first/real life, Second Life is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.

In March 2007, Second Life Herald writer with the screen name Onder Skall posed these questions: (1) If Linden Lab [the creator-owner of SL] created a separate, completely rebuilt-from-the-ground grid and client (Second Life v2) that was essentially the same but could handle much higher loads, would you cash out, leave the old grid behind and switch? (2) Do you think the corporations will?

He got an interesting array of responses. Excerpts from some of these responses:
  • "...Yes, sure if ANYONE would come up with a more stable, faster, better graphics version of SL, I would leave in a heartbeat..."
  • "... Would I? Yes. Corporations? Of course. SL is, imo, a nice experiment. It's inevitable that something more compelling will replace it. Whether that's SL 2.0 or some other application, who knows?..."
  • "...To make the metaverse into what it needs to be... requires massive investment... There are only a few companies on this planet that can make the sort of investment needed to create the kind of world we'd all like Second Life to become..."
  • "... yes, i would move. as to whether the corporations would move i care not a wit..."
  • "... I have been in SL since 12/05. According to may bank statements, during this time, I have spent about $6000 US in game, and about $7,000 US for a gaming set up tweaked for competitive prize fighting. That is a fair amount of houses, weapons (I play in a Gor sim), clothes, what have ya. Having said that, I would start from zero in a heartbeat for a vastly improved SL type experience..."
  • "...Yes I would... assuming the only thing I could take with me are the textures I made myself..."
So, the "End of the Universe" in metaverses in not proclaimed by bearded guys in long togas bearing placards about "The End is Near". It is triggered by hordes of committed techno-savvy residents/players jumping ship.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Corporate tip-toeing inside Virtual Worlds

There is growing evidence of corporate tip-toeing inside and around virtual worlds. Corporate brands are testing the waters of YouTube, Blogs, Mataverses, Online Games, and such. The new virtual spaces are growing, in population and popularity. If left untouched, the savvy competitors may steal a march on you -- in the virtual world. In political marketing, the risk tolerance of some players is high. The outlier political candidate can hope to create a stir not just in the new but perhaps in the mainstream media by opening up a front on Second Life (SL) or similar space.

For major corporate brands, the risks of being in the virtual spaces are as high, if not higher, than the risk of avoiding such spaces. After all, a common denominator of the new virtual spaces is user-generated content. In virtual spaces, corporations run the risks of their brands being smeared, attacked, parodied or worse. But not playing is risky too, especially for the Merchants of Cool. In SL, BMW and Pontiac have experimented with virtual billboards or kiosks, sometimes as a way of giving the e-cognoscenti a peek into new models or future technologies.

Maverick creators of virtual objects, of course, enjoy a great latitude in their marketing strategies on SL. They do not have to worry about their SL objects being unfaithful to, or less capable than, the real life brands they represent.

For example, the virtual morphing vehicle Elemental received a far more spirited coverage and discussion in Second Life Herald than the review of BMW site on SL (and the interview with the BMW corporate executive screen-named Munich Express, virtual champion of the brand in SL). In fact, the discussion of Elemental turned virulent at times, with gamers and creators and sideline watchers pitching in with their animated views of that particular object and other similar virtual vehicle-like objects. By contrast, the comments about the BMW presence on SL were tame and unexciting, a bit like BMW's virtual SL representations.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Eternally Young Avatars

Whether the other side of the keyboard has a nine or a ninety year old, the SL avatars are all... OK, mostly... young, slim, broad-shouldered (if male) and nicely busty (if female). There are of course the occasional ones on the Help Island who are robot-like or dragon-like but these are exceptions. The SL world is a land of eternal youth, exuding the mechanistic, staccato charms of a jelly-motion 20-something party.. Appearance and clothes seem to be a big concern, even for newbies... comments on each other's hair or costumes are frequent objects of typed comments. Even newbies have been asking questions about where to shop for more exotic or dramatic costumes! And asking where to get money to get stuff! The Linden dollar cash registers should start ringing...

Thursday, March 15, 2007

SL Herald: News, Insights, Shades of Yellow Journalism

As a part of our research on "Consuming the Unreal", we are going to take occasional dips into The Second Life Herald, a copious online rag that looks at a variety of facets of not just Second Life but metaverses, games, simulations and such things in general.

The tongue-in-cheek disclaimer on the sidebar states: "The Second Life Herald is in no way, shape or form associated with Linden Lab (the company that operates Second Life), nor with Electronic Arts, nor any other aspect of the Dark Side of the Force."

Founded by philosophy professor Peter Ludlow, the initial aim of SL Herald (rather, its precursor The Alphaville Herlad) was "to observe, record and study ...the legal, social, and economic implications... of life in the virtual world". There were tussles between online world companies and Ludlow, leading to the termination of Ludlow's avatar. But, like Phoenix rising, SL Herlad grew out of these disputes and has now become a major reporter, commentator, rabble-rouser and insight provider for Second Life.

The irreverent style and oft-sensational headlines make it an interesting read. The stuff may appear breezy, but it is being taken dead seriously by mainline media... and I presume by Second Life creators and owners. There are incisive insights interspersed in the mass of rants and flighty reportage. The left bar provides a reasonably good categorization and organization of the vast content.

SL Herald is true to its advertised claims... After all, the tag line for SL Herald is "Always Fairly Unbalanced."

Monday, March 12, 2007

Second Life Capitalism - First Look

As a newbie, I do not have great experience with Second Life capitalism... but there is evidence that it is thriving. Today, on the non-official site Second Life Herald, I read that the SL identity of one of the succesful fashion designers of SL was stolen, along with L$400,000 (that is four hundred thousand Linden dollars, about 1,500 dollars in U.S. currency) in this person's SL account. That is no mere petty larceny!

While I still have to encounter various means of making money and doing business on SL, one thing seems amply clear... the voluntary efforts of SL residents keeps this metaworld going. Sure, the basic stuff has been created and put in place by Linden Lab, the company that owns SL, but most of the different objects and trinkets that appear in this environment are created bySL users or residents. In fact, the whole system is one of growing spaces and objects and encounters, all designed to bring revenue to Linden Lab coffers while also providing some incentives to the builder-workers who are able to monetize their wares. Not too different from the mushrooming, self-fuelling expansion of capitalist markets...

But wait, in capitalism, the workers are paid wages -- and rising ones in situations where they are able to bargain collectively or are able to exert pressure on capitalists via regulations. In SL, workers work for free...

Is this feudalism under Lord Linden? Or worse, slavery under Master Linden? But it cannot be... slaves do not pay to be that way, they are coerced into labor. This is more like fetishism, a voluntary submission to please Mistress Linden -- along with payments to her; and she allows the subjects to trade stuff and make money on the side, especially if such trade brings more avatars in her servitude!

Friday, March 9, 2007

Big Brother - Big Sister Linden

After floundering a few times, I ended up on Help Island. This is where the SL creators want newbies to start and cut their teeth. The scenery and architecture are not much different from the Orientation Island where you are (okay, okay your avatar is) plonked down after the first sign up. But the purpose and ambiance are very different. Help Island is where the Big Brothers and Big Sisters of the SL-owner company Linden Lab provide guidance. All these invisibles (haven't seen any of them yet) talk to you in honey-smooth voices. There is New Age-ish music, often with lyrics that sound like adult versions of Sesame Street lyrics.

These invisible owner-gods all carry the last name Linden. The Big Brothers Linden (BBLs) and the Big Sisters Lindens(BSLs) are there to gently coach you and cajole you -- into becoming productive SL workers (oops... "creators", "builders"... even Wal-Mart calls their workers "associates"... and this is the super-sophisticated world of SL) and spenders and consumers. There are tutorials, instructions, gentle voice-over urgings to upgrade to premium pay-as-you-play accounts, even some freebie goodies to make you feel happy ("here's your gift balloon and a rattle").... they (the BBLs and the BSLs) all talk in soothing, radio-personality, modulated voices.

On Help Island, you can learn to use the SL tools in the Sandbox (BBLs/BSLs guiding, us toddlers playing/learning). The hope is that we will graduate into workers (oops..."builders") with varying levels of skills, and help build the new SL Pyramids and SL Great Walls and SL Helicopters and SL Spaceships... and pay for the privilege of performing this labor, or for enjoying the fruits of others' labor!

I wonder what avatar persona K. Marx is using on SL...!!