What The Metaverse Can Teach The Paraverse: Don’t be boring!

Sun, Nov 11, 2007


Last Saturday I went to the Book Party (and after hours party) celebrating the launch of, “Second Life Herald, the Virtual Tabloid that Witnessed the Dawn of the Metaverse” by Peter Ludlow (Urizenus Sklar in SL) and Mark Wallace (Walker Spaight in SL).

The book, a history of the Second Life Herald which began in 2004 as The Alphaville Herald in The Sims Online, comes out at a very interesting moment.

The sun is rising higher on the metaverse(s) and there is much speculation about a bright day to come in some quarters (e.g. Ugotrade), more skepticism and a wait and see approach from others (e.g., Gartner), and fears of a “high noon” kind of show down between a “bottom up” user generated creation culture versus “top down” corporate control (e.g. Second Thoughts). For a thoughtful look at “Do virtual worlds liberate us?” see Ren Reynold’s post on Terranova.

Ludlow’s and Wallace’s book not only looks at a crucial time for the metaverse, its birth, it is also a study of some of the most important questions about the metaverse’s expansion. One question that motivates my own writing is quoted by Ludlow and Wallace in their intro. Legal scholar Lawrence Lessig in his 1999 book, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace:

the very architecture of cyberspace is up for grabs: “Depending on who grabs it, there are several different ways it could turn out.”

Ludlow/Wallace’s approach to this challenge is very different from my own. I focus on the blurring of virtual and real worlds and how this access and control to data and meta data that will certainly empower business and government can also be available to benefit people and the planet. Also I try to keep people who do not yet have access to cyberspace in the conversation where possible. Ludlow and Wallace, on the other hand, focus on stories from some of the first people who began living much of their lives in the metaverse and “the conflicts between the owners of virtual worlds and their users, and between groups of users, and between individuals.”

I found myself aware of The Herald’s “mission” very soon after I began blogging about Second Life. Prokofky Neva, with a typically irreverent Herald turn of phrase, dubbed me “the chirpy whitewasher from Ugotrade” (here ) for taking too lenient an attitude, apparently, to a notorious griefer. And, in the body of the post, I was lumped fairly and squarely in the camp of the chief Herald antagonist, Philip Linden, (aka Philip Rosedale, CEO of Linden Lab) who got a wicked Herald tongue lashing for what was described as his “granola crunching fatty huffing way” of dealing with the same griefer.


For those of you who were in Second Life during the time this book covers hopefully it will bring up narratives and memories that you might have otherwise forgotten. For late sleepers who missed out on the “dawn,” Ludlow and Wallace provide an opportunity to catch up (also see LA Times Review).

For me the book provides an opportunity to look deeper into the question of what the metaverse has to teach the paraverse and visa versa by providing an intimate “Herald style” history of a metaverse, Second Life, that has truly succeeded in creating communities around user generated content.

Zha Ewry, a key metaverse architect and thinker I met in the Architectural Working Group in Second Life, said something that I have really taken to heart recently. Though Zha herself said it with a *chuckle*:

I sometimes, when I am feeling.. difficult.. assert that I don’t really trust the judgment of anyone who has never

1) Lived in Second Life or Everquest Online, or The Sims Online long enough that they can get 20 or 30 residents who count them as someone they know by name and behavior

2) Cracked at least half way up the level structure in World of Warcraft, Everquest, or similar

3) Managed some sort of small social community (wiki, bbs, moderated maling list..etc)

The Ludlow and Wallace team have done all of these three things and done them deep. So when Ludlow and Wallace talk I prick up my ears. On the left Urizenus Sklar and on the right Walker Spaight at his wedding to Destroy TV.


The Metaverse and The Paraverse

Exactly how and when the metaverse(s) and paraverse(s) like Google Earth and NASA’s World Wind actually evolve (and likely merge) to become a phenomena that millions or rather billions of people participate in is unpredictable at this juncture. But the consensus is that is will happen soon.

My own optimism for the future of the metaverse is based on an underlying proposition that the blurring of the lines between “virtual” and “real” worlds can be an exciting and liberating juncture for humanity and the planet (see many previous posts). I asked Peter Ludlow the same question I asked Cory Doctorow in London (see previous post):

1) What happens when Virtual Worlds become flooded with data from “real life” objects, geo- positioning, etc., and extreme life–logging enters virtual worlds? Or as Cory D. rephrased it: “What happens when cyber space everts?”

Peter Ludlow:

well, the blowback of info from RL might be useful for some applications of virtual worlds, but I always found virtual worlds to be fun and interesting precisely because the bandwidth of communication with the real world was *narrow*. I don’t want that crap coming into my virtual space — it kills the atmosphere and sense of presence.

I don’t doubt that massive info blowback will have a role in virtual worlds, but that is the point where they aren’t really virtual worlds anymore but just boring communication devices — information rich telephones.

So if the blurring of the virtual and the real is inevitable (which in my view it is) and I agree with Ludlow that mere blowback of data into virtual worlds is potentially a boring phenomenon: “What can the metaverse teach the paraverse?” And, “How do virtual worlds avoid becoming just another boring communication device?”

“What is most likely to become boring when the lines between virtual and real worlds blur is the physical world.”

As David Orban pointed out as we chatted in skype:

My view actually of the blurring is not that the online worlds will be invaded by the physical worlds’ data but absolutely the other way around. The richness and variety of the online worlds will explode into the physical via interfaces and mashups and we will look back and see the physical world as boring and static.

“Huh, a tree that doesn’t even tell its own species?” without the augmentation, or “How could you meet people who didn’t send ahead their v-agents?”

“If you can drape real information across the physical world there is no reason why you can’t drape imaginary information over the real world.”

Mike Liebhold from the Institute for the Future said this in his presentation at the Stanford University’s Metaverse Meetup (much more on his presentation later in this post).

This room may be a conference room in Wallenberg Hall. But with a click of a mouse or a flip of a switch, I could convert this room into a meeting room on Starship Enterprise. Or right outside the walls in the quad in Stanford you could have a Medieval Tournament going on. You can drape total fantasy, total fiction, total imaginary reality on the physical world.

He showed an example of some dramatic new thinking in the world of video games – a mock up of a game idea from a Nokia sponsored research program in Finland. And Liebhold noted, this is only a hint of the kind of ideas people are working on.

How Not To Be Just Another Boring Communication Device.

And even if cyber space everts it will not become just another boring communication device if the read-write culture that has defined the metaverse (exemplified by Second Life) continues to flourish.

Again I refer to the brilliant Larry Lessig who in his TED talk points out that read only culture was ushered in with the telephone. Lessig demonstrates how the digital age has created new opportunities for read write culture again, even though many of our laws are at odds with this.


In my view, whether virtual worlds remain the heart of a reemergence of read write culture or turn into “boring communication devices” is not so much about “massive info blow back” itself, but more about how the culture that has arisen around social networking and user generated content, again the great exemplar of this is Second Life, is worked out in the confluence of metaverse, paraverse, and meat space.

My interview with Peter Ludlow was conducted by email because the book party was too much fun. I could not ask one of the hosts and a man in demand to retire into a quiet corner. The book party was also a metaverse meetup and packed with Second Life movers and shakers including, Nathan Freitas of Cruxy, Joshua Fouts, Rita J. King of Dancing Ink Productions (Eureka Dejavu in SL – see her blog for more on meetup), Marvel Ousley (see he post on SLNN), Andrea Foster of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Eric Reuters, Jessica Segal (aka Pica Paperdoll, Electric Sheep Company, Andy Fundiger, Marshall Sponder (see his post), Morton Swimmer, California Condor, Donald Schwartz Image Link Productions, Dean Pence, and many many more. I posted some pictures to Flickr.

Notably the party was held in 3rd Ward the artists/entrepreneurs city in a warehouse that is home to WelloHorld – the start up that is the brainchild of co-author Mark Wallace, with Christian Westbrook and Jerry Paffendorf. They are on stealth mode so Mark declined an interview until their launch. But I did snap this chart pinned to their office door that might give some clues to their direction.


The after hours party that Peter hosted back in the Marriot by the Brooklyn bridge was also too entertaining to interrupt. It included both a screening of Peter’s screenshots taken through “dawn of the metaverse” and a very rock ‘n roll drama with the hotel security who were bent on ending the party early. In the picture below Ron Blechner (aka Hiro Pendragon) talks with Peter Ludlow about Peter’s early experiences in Second Life. Mark Wallace is on the left and Boris Kizelshteyn of Combined Story (aka Adonis Bussy in SL) is seated on the couch.


Interview with Peter Ludlow.

I collaborated on questions for Peter with my friends Gwyneth Llewelyn, David Orban and Hiro Pendragon. I will indicate which are their questions.

1) Who/what will be the future competition to the SL – based metaverse?

As you probably know, there are lots of alternatives to second life under development, but I continue to believe that ultimately Trevor Smith of Ogoglio has it right: the metaverse is not going to take off until we have widely available web 3.D development tools in the hands of tens of thousands of website designers. When that happens we will each be building our own little corners of the metaverse and supporting them on our desktop computers. Communications protocols will govern how we move between these worlds and what we can take with us.

2) Your current work is in RL on Philosophy of Language? The new book you are working on – is it a collaboration with the Prof. from NYU I met briefly at the party?

There were a couple of profs from NYU at the party. I’m not collaborating with them, however David Velleman has interesting things to say about narrative and avatars and agency, so I recommend that your readers check out his web site.

Right now I’m working on a book on the philosophy of generative linguistics, which has to do with conceptual puzzles that arise in computational/representational linguistic theories like Chomsky’s. Basically I’m obsessed with that at the moment.

3) What is the future of the SL Herald as an SL institution and what will be your role in it? Will the Herald go the way of SL Insider and start to cover 20 other MMOGs like Massively. That is will it become the Metaverse Herald? (This question was suggested by Gwyn)

In the past the Herald has covered other MMOs, but in the way that a hometown paper covers other towns. Typically we would only cover events in other MMOs if they involved a political protest or some dispute with the game company.

The Herald will stay in Second Life at least until our readers and the people we report on move elsewhere. That is, we aren’t really reporting on Second Life so much as a community that currently resides there. We followed them from TSO, and if they go nomadic on us again we will follow them.

4) What is the relationship between Peter/Uri -similarities/differences? Do you have alts and avatars in other verses? (Hiro’s question)

We all have many different avatars that we use in everyday life. We dress and act differently depending on whether we are conducting business, socializing or whatever. If you think of these ways of acting and dressing as modes of presentation, then you see that it is the same as using an avatar to present yourself or mediate your social interactions with others. Like you I have lots of different alts and avatars even in the real world. You’re talking to one of them now!

5) The digital doesn’t fossilize in one out of a billion specimens, but allows perfect preservation of time-sequences, in the changing metaverse. This means that unavoidably in time it is going to become richer than the physical world itself. How are we going to equip ourselves in coping with this? (Question from David Orban)

it can’t become richer than the actual world because information has to be encoded in physical states of the world. That having been said, I’ve never been impressed by the preservatory aspects of the digital so much as the fleeting and fragile aspects of it. This has been made salient to me by my years in Second Life. I’ve seen so many interesting builds and groups come and vanish. Part of the project of our book was to preserve some of this history. But rereading the book yesterday I was reminded of a lot of events that didn’t make it into the book and may be lost forever.

More generally though, digital media does not give us perfect preservation. You can’t fight the second law of thermodynamics. High entropy will trump low entropy, and there will be lots of bit rot between now and the heat death of the universe.

6) Are we living in a simulation? (David Orban)

There’s a philosopher at Oxford who says that there is something like a 75% chance that we are. But I’m going to go out on a limb and say “I don’t think so.” Actually, I know we aren’t, but if you want that story you have to take my course on skepticism.

7) What is the future of identity and IP in the open metaverse? The call for identity authentication grows louder by the day.

Identity shouldn’t be a problem. It should be possible to establish identity even for avatars using a version of public key encryption for digital signatures. IP is another matter. Technologically, preserving IP is getting close to impossible, but on the other hand if the US Congress keeps passing draconian laws that “give” IP rights for patents like crustless peanut butter sandwiches well then maybe it can be preserved by old fashioned meat space head cracking. Zero tolerance for crustless peanut butter sandwiches. Sell one and you go to prison. The only question is how much of that kind of crap people will put up with. When they finally figure out it is a scam (of if they do) then that will be the end of IP.

8) Is the blurring of the lines “between us and them” – human and machine the “high noon” of the metaverse? Or as Ben Goetzel writes here in his post on Global Brain Memes. ” I think this ties in with Ray Kurzweil’s point that by the time we have human-level AGI, it may not be “us versus them”, it may be a case where it’s impossible to draw the line between us and them…” (Also see David Orban’s Conversation with Ray Kurzweil on YouTube).

I don’t buy this for a nanosecond. First of all, is there even such a thing as “general intelligence”? I’d be surprised. “intelligence” is just a covering term for a basket of cognitive abilities that we prize. If you are impressive at enough of those abilities we say you have intelligence. It’s like athleticism. There is no single property of athleticism, there are rather lots of different physical abilities that we prize. If someone has enough of them we call that athletic. When we say something is “intelligent” we are just saying that we are impressed by it. I remember when playing tic tac toe counted as “intelligent” in AI. It doesn’t anymore because the problem is too easy. We aren’t impressed by it anymore.

Now, on the question of whether we are becoming indistinguishable from machines (and I can’t help but think of Blade Runner here) I am also dubious. First of all, I seriously doubt that we will ever see a machine that can pass the turing test for any significant amount of time and broad range of contexts. But that just goes to the question of whether we could be fooled in conversation. The real question is whether machines are actually like us, and here the real problem is that we have no idea what *we* are like. We have just a glimmer of a picture of the nature of our cognitive architecture and zero idea how that architecture supervenes on our wetware. Well, if we don’t know what we are like, then it is difficult to know how to build something like us. It is not an engineering problem. It is a basic science problem. If we knew *what* to build I don’t doubt we could build it. But what to build?

The State of Play

If you are unfamiliar with the state of play between paraverse(s) and metaverse(s) Susan Kish has an excellent roadmap. My friend VJ also has a nice collection of paraverse links tagged in Delicious. In her report, “Virtual Worlds: Second Life and The Enterprise,” Kish notes, “The combination – whether a Google Life or a Second Earth or another similar entity – could be the ultimate enterprise in Virtual Worlds.”

The question is also: Will this confluence be as important and beneficial to non-profit centered enterprises. For example, the notion of is a social software entity that Bruce Sterling evokes in Shaping Things.

And, of course, very importantly, the question that Peter Ludlow raises – will the confluence NOT be boring.

3D Data For Real Virtual Worlds

I was fortunate to attend the very inspiring presentation of Mike Liebhold from the Institute for the Future titled, “3D data for real world virtual worlds” at the Stanford University’s Metaverse Meetup organized by Henrik Bennetsen. The meetup was streamed into the International Spaceflight Museum in Second Life last week. It was an amazing lens into the state of play in the paraverse. Henrik published the talk abstract before the event:

Abstract 3D data, maps, and software will change the way we compute and interact with spatial services. Moving beyond simple texture mapped terrain and boxes, new 3D mapping frameworks are rapidly evolving into platforms for real world virtual world media, interaction, commerce, and science. In this talk I’ll review work of various groups who are building different components of a 3D Geoweb. I will first describe how their 3D data and software will work as a platform for a 3D real world virtual world, and then, what kinds of new applications and user experiences might be developed on these platforms, and then finish with a brief discussion of prospects and mechanisms for data interoperability allowing users to create, discover, use, and exchange 3D data across platforms.

And Leibhold truly covered everything outlined above! The fascinating talk will hopefully be posted to the web soon here. But there is a very entertaining and thought provoking post up on Wrxli FlimFlam’s Second Life blogSecond Front already. I chatted a little with Wrxli who is a performance artist with Avatar Orchestra Metaverse during the meetup and look forward to more conversations.

Highlights of the talk – Leibhold’s responses to some of the questions.


Once again I asked the question that came from call to action that Cory Doctorow made in my previous post:

1) How can the kinds of data visualization and aggregate statistical information about the world that are frequently only available to big companies and used by them in order to realize profit and control also be put into the hands of individuals?

Leibhold’s response was concrete and detailed but due to the sound cutting out in parts I will have to refer to the recording myself when it is posted here later this week for all the details. But Leibhold mentioned several examples including police crime maps that were increasingly available, and the sensor web project at Microsoft where they have networks of all kinds of environmental sensors out there available freely in GRSS format on Microsoft Virtual Earth. Leibhold pointed out the sensor web architecture at Microsoft is built on common standards will work on a variety of sensors. He continued:

We are also seeing a lot of sensor data collected by life scientists and physical scientists available. A lot of biological information and weather information is going to come on line. There are citizen sensing projects Eric Paulos at Intel Labs, Berkley who has being doing all kinds of things using mobile phones as sensors. There is a group at UCLA called CENS (Center for Embedded Network Sensing) that has a whole project to allow citizen sensing. And Nokia has a project called Sense Web, I think. And they have sponsored research programs at about ten universities world wide to come up with interoperable standards and mechanisms for ordinary people to create and share 3D sensor information and to visualize it as well.

Another very interesting point he made re a larger vision of interoperability was that:

while there was division between the worlds of geospatial standards, the worlds of scene rendering and Hollywood, the video game worlds, CAD, Google will prosper. And Google is creating defacto standards around KML and Collada that we are all going to have to live with.

But when I raised the notion that Second Life’s expansive vision for a new open grid architecture might mean noting that, in my view, “Second Life is also the furthest along re open sourcing of the 3D immersive worlds” (someone from Sun disputed this assertion pointing out Project Wonderland has been open sourced top to bottom since March, and I realized I should have limited my assertion to previously closed immersive virtual worlds). But Leibhold’s response was interesting:

I would dispute the fact that Second Life is furthest along. I think that quite frankly I believe that any day now Google is going to announce avatars and avatar based social networks for Google Earth and the rumors are rampant that they have already tested it. And if that is the case they are farther along. There are structural problems with the computer server architecture in Second Life that restrict the kinds of applications you can run. I think that Second Life is one of the greatest social experiments but technically I think they are going to be eclipsed.

I had IMed Ginsu Linden at the start of the meetup to offer him a TP (teleport) if he wanted to attend. But unfortunately he was busy. But, of course, immediately I shot off an IM to him reporting this prediction of Second Life’s eclipse by Google’s imminent launch of avatar based social networks for Google Earth! Ginsu sent me back this reply:

[8:32] Ginsu Linden: Thanks Tara5. I am actually really looking forward to Google’s entry into the market. Will give people something to chew over.

Yes, it will! And IMed my friend Zha Ewry too reporting this prediction of Google supremacy. In response she pointed out how much depended:

19:25] Zha Ewry: on how Google approaches things,and how much freedom they give their residents, if they are even at all residents, not merely transitory avatars. It will interesting to see how they do at running it.

And of course there is the Linden Lab initiative to restructure the Second Life grid to be watched and participate in through the collaborative effort of The Architectural Working Group.


To return to the theme of this post:

The very architecture of cyber space is up for grabs, and: “Depending on who grabs it, there are several different ways it could turn out” (Lessig).

Don’t Miss the Next Stanford Meetup!

The event is taking place on Thursday, November 29th, 2007 from 6:00pm – 7:30pm SLT/PST and to attend via Second Life you go here: e/Spaceport%20Bravo/66/74/184/

Physically it is at:

Wallenberg Hall, Stanford University

Jamais Cascio writes about the intersection of emerging technologies and cultural transformation, focusing on the importance of long-term, systemic thinking. His work regularly appears both in print and online, and he has spoken around the world on issues such as the global environment, technological transformation, and political change. In 2003, Cascio co-founded, the Utne Independent Press Award-winning website identifying models, tools, and ideas for building a “bright green” future. In March, 2006, he started as his online home. Cascio presently serves as a research affiliate at the Institute for the Future, as the Director of Impacts Analysis for The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, and as a founding fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.

Talk abstract: The Metaverse — what does it include, where is it going, and how will it change our lives? Based on my work for the Metaverse Roadmap Overview, I’ll look both at the underlying technologies of the Metaverse and at the social, cultural and economic impacts it could have.

categories: Augmented Reality, crossing digital divides, Metarati, Metaverse, Mixed Reality, Mobile Technology, nanotechnology, open source, Second Life, social gaming, social media, Virtual Citizenship, Virtual Worlds, Web 2.0, Web 3D, Web3.D, World 2.0

5 Comments For This Post

  1. Prokofy Neva Says:

    I had quite a different take on this same book party:

    There really aren’t any “blurring of the lines”. What happens is that some people who live a kind of detached meta-life *anyway* as so-called “intellectuals” (not feeling the world beneath their feet, as Mandalshtam put it) naturally seque into a “metaverse” provided by online chat/immersion. That shouldn’t be mistaken for some sort of amalgam of man and the machine. Nothing of the sort.

    For one, men are pretty mechanical themselves. This was discovered by the Sufis, and propagated by figures like Gurdjieff in All and Everything and P.D. Ouspensky in In Search of the Miraculous. Of course those culty takes on mechanicality have just as mechanical a concept to get out of mechanicality as anything else.

    Ugotrade, like a lof of liberal white do-gooders, imagines that she is a caretaker and gate-keeper of bringing in third-worlders into the conversation. In fact, what happens is they walk around her and log on all by themselvse!

    The open architecture is a kind of grand metaphor, a kind of market-block, to put down a marker saying “we’re going to be here in this space”. None of it is ready. None of it works. And at a certain point, it works so poorly that you just pick up the regular landline…

    One thing is certain (thank God!) Lessig is *not* going to get to grab it. Nor are the Terra Novans and their convulsions about whether Virtuality can help them establish socialism lol.

    While everybody at this party imagines they are making the Metaverse — and I’d like to think they/we are — and Uri is laughing and riffing about crustless peanut-butter sandwhiches, fact is, the Metaverse is getting made — Second Verse, Same as the First — over in …. a Brooklyn courthouse…where Stroker Serpentine/Kevin Alderman is taking to court a fellow named Rathe Kenso/Thomas Simon, whom he alleges has stolen his sex beds in Second Life.

  2. Prokofy Neva Says:

    >and fears of a “high noon” kind of show down between a “bottom up” user generated creation culture versus “top down” corporate control (e.g. Second Thoughts).

    BTW, Tish, this really is pretty *retarded* because there is no “fear” here in these writings. The fear comes from the dinosaur media that is on its last legs. I sure don’t have anything to fear. User-generated culture is forcing the change in the technology. The technocrats are playing catchup. They are the ones who are afraid. Not the user generators. Pushed out from one space that gets commercialized, they go to another. And there’s no “high noon”. It’s a 24/7 battle and will be going on 365.

  3. Tish Says:

    There are many great things happening in Second Life, Uthango Social Investments, Virtual Africa in Second Life are working on bringing internet access to communities in South Africa. Also One Laptop Per Child at have started a buy one – give one program. I can’t wait until everyone on the planet has the opportunity to just log in!

  4. larryr Says:

    the end of IP?
    childish notion.

    IP is about the only growth “product” in post industrial nations for the last 40 years. Everyone in that room- including the book peddlers are selling Intellectual Property, not cans of spam- well maybe they are..


  5. Prokofy Neva Says:

    Log in and…do what, Tish? Logging in isn’t something you artificially create for a society in abstraction; it’s what people do when they have something to do that organically grows out of other things they have and do. That’s why this “One Laptop Per Child” is such gross idiocy, and “one living wage per adult” would be a much more helpful, even if less “sexy” project for all these wild utopianists in the West.

    No doubt there are interesting projects for Africa in SL. I don’t see them being run by Africans or covered in African media yet…however you can educate me : )

    And of course there is absolutely nothing wrong with intellectual property, private property, and capitalism, which a lot of people in your beloved Third World try to establish in the face of harsh resistants from socialist bureaucrats and kleptocratic tyrants.

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