Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Moonlit Ars Simulacra

Allowing the world to influence us is a slow process. I'm grateful to everyone who keeps the process alive by sharing their own progress in it. I see now that most things that move me are simply artifacts of others' experiments in self-knowledge, their failures and successes, and the unintended consequences of the significant efforts expended. Thank you, Misprint Thursday, for another brief reminder.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Finding us

Here is the SLURL to the Chilbo Road Press, the home office of the Chilbo Art Foundation:

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Milton's Paradise Lost

"The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven."

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Fernando Pessoa

"In point of fact, we possess nothing more than our own sensations; within them, therefore, and not within what they see, we must found the realities of our lives."

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

New pavillions at Chilbo

CAF is building two special exhibits pavillions. They currently house two charming 19th century images. Come by!

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Six Episodes in the Cultural History of the Metaverse

We constantly hear about the newness of the metaverse, this interactive 3-D world that is opening before our eyes. We are often reminded of the immediate precedents -- chat rooms, pen and pencil role-playing games, and the fiction worlds of Wiliam Gibson and Neal Stephenson. Today I'm looking at a few cultural transitions of the past four centuries, with the rough thesis that virtual space has come to us through a long and fairly continuous evolution.

1. Diaries and the Novel
Medieval texts, even the most adventurous, were written as allegories for the moral imagination, to serve the spiritual improvement of the reader. Secular literature developed the very different role for the readers imagination that we know today: the reader was to actively put themselves into the scenery of the book and interact empathetically with the characters as peers. Diaries, validating the everyday experiences of the new middle class, are inseparable from the birth of the novel. With widespread education and industrial printing techniques, the novel became a hugely significant virtual space, opening up to philosophical and political debates of the day, and transforming popular culture and the popular imagination.

2. Realistic Art and Photography
Perspectival geometry and illusionistic painting techniques were available centuries before their widespread use. Most medieval art was religious in purpose, and symbolic and allegorical in function. The popular imagination had to evolve, opening up secular and scientific 'uses' of art and a way of seeing that put value on the reproduction of the visible world. Similarly, much of the technical apparatus of photography was available before the first camera. Pinholes, mirrors and reflective spheres were used by painters to help capture scenes. The ideal of versimilitude and the accompanying way of seeing had to become widespread enough to inspire the first camera. Photography then went through a long adolescence, while the culture caught up with the idea that the 'space' of a photograph could be a worthy place to exercise the artistic eye and the imagination.

3. History Writing
When did the past become a place? The modern view of history makes it a world of reconstructed detail, a world that we can imagine and occupy. With the advent of archeology, history writing became a scientific pursuit presenting tableaus in increasingly vivid and visual language. This kind of history serves to help us visualize new information, but it can also serve a persuasive purpose, engaging our emotions in political narratives such as nationalism.

4. Wilderness and the Foreign
Wild lands in the European imagination were not thought of as 'places' -- they were simply the realm of danger and terror. The Romantic expression of terror as a form of the sublime, or possibly even of beauty, opened up the land between settlements as a place appropriate for the imagination to roam, and thus appropriate for physical exploration. In similar vein, most early cultures described themselves as "the people" or "the center of the world" and dismissed other cultures quite straightforwardly as barbarians. There was little motivation to see other countries as understandable places, or other cultures as equivalent variations on ones home culture. With the Enlightenment, foreigners were promoted from being simply uninteresting (or dangerous) to being exotic. This sort of curiosity was often mutual, such as between China and Europe from the 16th century forward. and it has taken over a century of post-colonial cultural exchanges and advances in transportation to bring us to the level of mutual respect and interchangeability of cultures we enjoy today.

5. The Counter-Reformation
The churches of the counter-reformation can be described as the first multi-media immersive virtual spaces. They combined illusionistic architectural perspective, realistic painting, theatrical sequences, and elaborate meditative exercises to build a vivid map of the eternal life in the parishoner's imagination. The result was not a static image but rather a detailed sequence of vignettes, following the passion of Christ, and the progress of the believer's soul in the afterlife. I can't resist also mentioning here the elaborate private cultures of the Masons, Odd-Fellows and other brotherhoods -- clearly the first role-playing guilds -- who combined religious symbolism with borrowed scenes from exotic cultures.

6. Mozart
Mozart and his generation brought a new kind of symbolic language to music. There are many stages in the emergence of secular music, but with Mozart one sees music treated as a virtual space, where elements of the social and natural worlds are presented in quite literal terms. The listener is invited to actively imagine each person, place and event they appear in the auditory 'space' of the music. And if that isn't vivid enough, then of course there are the operas, stuffed with visual cues, dialogue and dramatic sequences.

We know that something quite new has happened -- technology advances have made it possible to build immersive, multi-sensory virtual spaces shard by individuals around the world. But I would like to think that the long cultural history of the virtual balances out the novelty in important ways. First, we benefit from the fact that our senses and imagination have been trained to make sense of virtual experiences -- we are ready for this. Second, we have a ton of content that we can easily import into this new space, like opera, fiction, photography, etc. Certainly this new space will open up new forms, but it can't hurt to have the old stuff there, too. And then there are all those fears to be overcome -- will the metaverse destroy our social lives, our local cultures, maybe our souls? Maybe, but if so, four centuries of popular culture and new media have probably done most of the work already!

Clearly this is a quick blog post, not an academic paper. You might enjoy these books, though, which are probably among the sources of my thoughts on the subject.

D.W. Robertson. A Preface to Chaucer
Erwin Panofsky. Perspective as Symbolic Form
Susan Sontag. On Photography
Roland Barthes. Empire of Signs
Edmund Burke. Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful
Wye Jamison Allanbrook. Rhythmic Gesture in Mozart

Monday, September 17, 2007

Some thoughts on the values of virtual property

Let's step forward for a moment to a time a few years from now when virtual spaces are almost completely integrated into the lives of anyone with a computer. Second Life is but one of many platforms and sim hosters, and there is no 'novelty' value to owning virtual property or having your virtual 'stuff' accessible by the public. What values, then would a virtual presence have, and what sort of economy could these values support?
The thoughts in this post concern virtual land and its value. Land is not the only fundamental in an economy, but I would submit that it is the signature point of distinction between a 'real' and a 'virtual' economy. Who, what, where, when and why: although each of these undergoes some interesting tweaks in passing through to a virtual world, it is really the 'where' that is the defining factor. Of course, the metaverse is more than a "mirrorworld" in that many cultural and cognitive patterns of spaciality are open to significant transformation here, but its status as a place or places is still central.
Of course, there is a class of people who have their own private uses for virtual real estate, and are unconcerned with the problem we are looking at, i.e. valuing virtual property. They and their friends or visitors already know what, where and why, and they just show up and get on with it. I think as the metaverse expands, this group will shrink, or in any case will continue to be unconcerned with the 'value' of their properties, and if the cost to provide these backwater places is close to nothing, they will perform an important marginal function in the larger system.
It is easy to suggest that Linden Labs or other hosters can just mint new land like paper money, and that we will be awash in cheap places with no value. We already know our way around this issue -- blogs too are free and easy, but we only read ones with a certain critical momentum. Virtual real estate, (much like RL real estate, in truth) has little inherent value, but is made valuable by context and by the networks of people that come to visit.
It is also easy to suggest that one can just search for what one wants and visit it with a click, making context and proximity irrelevant. Certainly we have experienced this on the Second Life grid and indeed with the internet generally. But when we look closer, and especially considering the exponential scaling coming to us in the near future, this a-topic idea falls apart and reveals some significant values that successful virtual properties must hold. We know about this from Google. Earlier search engines bogged down under the weight of simple keyword searching, and Google pioneered searches based on context, proximity and reputation. These turn out to be reliable for searching purposes because they are real, inherent values held by the sites being searched.
It has become common recently for people to arrive in Second Life and set up shop, often at a grand scale, and assume that we will all rush toward their islands for the sake of the experience or the products. Skipping from Web 1.0 to Web 3.0, they fail loudly and blame the platform. When we look at YouTube, Myspace, Twitter and company, the attraction isn't the interactive features in themselves, but the open-ended possibility that it might actually be fun, and that user-created content and relationships will surpass the original functional values of the site.
Virtual land, then, has some basic values, like being findable, accessible, and useable for the intended purpose. Almost any or all immersive digital destinations will have these values in some measure, and it is likely that they will be commonplace and nearly free in the near future. But virtual land will have a second tier of values, including community, proximity, and reputation. These higher values will vary widely and will be the basis of an economy that can be studied and nurtured in mostly conventional ways. But I must insist, in response to Robert Bloomfield's comment during his Metanomics 101 presentation, that this will not be an economy based on scarcity. (We have to move past the cold war 'opposites' of Marxism/Capitalism. I would look to Ivan Illich and the appropriate technology and sustainable community movements for some leads here.)
In short, I believe that certain virtual properties in the near future will be immensely more valuable than others. Whether held as common values, supporting stakeholder communities, or whether commodified and held by stockholders, the value of these properties will be a fundamental of our 'blended reality' economy.
In community, in social interactions, in rituals of obligation and generosity, people satisfy needs and desires of a spiritual depth than economics cannot reach. In virtual worlds, social interactions bring value and meaning to places that is irreplaceable by any other means. The metaverse is a symbolic space where objects 'function' at a semiotic and psychological level, and meaning is overwhelmingly dependent on social context. The balance of power between space and time has been adjusted here; values are much more ephemeral and event-based, but place still has the role of holding the memory of past events and holding open the occasion for events in the future. 'User created content' is an awkward phrase covering the idea that 'places' in virtual worlds are really defined by the living now of creative activity, whether it is building, acting, writing, or simply enacting the fabric of the everyday. And creative acts in a virtual world are fundamentally generous acts -- contributions to the richness of the other's experience.
Geographic proximity still matters in virtual worlds. There is still a spillover effect, where visitors to adjoining properties walk or fly around to satisfy their curiosity. There are also intact cultural patterns such as courtship walks, rituals of escape and return, and demonstrating one's worthiness reflected in the neighborhood. And colocation is a straightforward way of representing network proximity.
Network proximity groups things in clusters by affinity, and is organized by a searchable indexes and group affiliations. A valued destination will be 'near' other similarly valued properties in the 'space of appearance' of group listings, advertisements, sponsorships and publications, even if it is not geographically near.
Reputation covers a group of values that help us find and choose among places to go among the millions of alternatives we will soon scale up to. Highly valued places will not only be characterized by the quality of their neighbors and affiliations, but also by their contacts in the 'vertical' supply chain. A club, for instance will be valued not just by the class of other clubs it belongs to, but by the quality and reputation of the photographers, furniture suppliers, DJs, designers and scripters it uses, and by the quality and social networks of its clientele, the businesspeople who use it for events, and the penniless writers who reference it in tommorrow's bestsellers.
I've avoided specifying land values as communal, commercial, or private, because the values underly the specifics of who uses a place and to what end. Virtual worlds will only further blur these distinctions, in that the lower frictional costs make virtual worlds more ephemeral, and the connection of place to use will depend much more critically on the interactions of private and common activities. For instance, I think very few corporate sites will be able to survive without the active participation and user generated content of an affiliated 'residential' community.
It will take much more anthropology to create and maintain an effective corporate presence in a virtual world, or indeed to monetize or commodify any aspect of the 'life' of a virtual world. Our virtual lives are light-footed and light-hearted, and can more easily shift to new locations and alliances. Business models will have to follow suite, and will always lag a bit behind the creative evolutions of our values. But we will adjust to this world, and find ways to standardize, risk-assess, and commodify the enduring values of community, proximity and reputation. We will arrive at a balance between the untrammelled creativity of a community based on generosity, and the necessary and stabilizing influence of capital.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Some thoughts on contracts and agreements

The lack of legal structure in Second Life, while sometimes frustrating, is actually a great opportunity to get back to the essence of contracts. Having an authority to enforce contracts is a last resort, not the moral or ethical basis of a contract. Two people agreeing on something and keeping their word is the basis, and in SL that becomes visible again because it is all we have.

A small group here have been building a community in Chilbo, a fairly ordinary mainland refuge for regular people. We've written about a dozen plain language contracts with people, mostly along the lines of "buy this parcel from us but agree to sell it back if you leave". We have published community standards that people agree to respect. We have even done purchase options, where the buyers agree to pay the land fees, but delay the purchase price for several months.

I think these sorts of contracts offer people a refreshing alternative to the libertarian frontier culture that is the majority of SL. SL can be mechanical -- you can either push a button and get something to happen, or you can't. Like any other voluntary community, once you agree to some form of private contract with another resident, you've put your reputation up as collateral, and following through on the contract becomes personal. And that's why people come to a virtual world -- to put their personal values into play, and demonstrate them to others.

Our contracts don't make any major transformations to the culture or economy of SL. But collectively they are creating a civil space that is attracting an interesting and thoughtful group of people.

I can see a system of law emerging from this sort of grassroots level precedent, but I don't think that any authority can speed it along. People have to have an appetite for liberty and responsibility -- you can't just layer it on. And some innocent people would get hurt if, for instance, Linden Labs endorsed these sorts of contracts but didn't follow through with creating courts of appeal and so forth. The best medium-term outcome I can imagine is if these kinds of contracts were to become commonplace in the culture and etiquette of virtual worlds, the sort of thing newbies would ask about, get varying answers, and then go try out for themselves.

Joshua Fairfield has a nice post on Terra Nova that talks about the limits of contracts and the need for community law. One distinction that I'm pretty sure didn't come up in the discussion is this: community law has two aspects -- one is that it is an explicit statement of commonly held values, and the other is that it spells out what the state or authority may do as an enforcing body. The first is 'spiritual' in that it asks you to look inward and see if your values coincide with those of the group. The second is 'material' in that it could have real consequences, such as putting you in jail or taking your property.

Virtual worlds I think will always stay toward the 'spiritual' side of this divide. Although people have property and livelihoods in SL, what happens here will probably not make them hungry or homeless. There is a role for an enforcing authority, but I think emphasizing that will always miss the point -- people are here for the experience of exposing and testing their personal values. In Chilbo, we believe that a system of contracts with a light touch is an important part of the social dynamic, (not a power dynamic) that makes more nuanced interactions meaningful for people.

For me the real distinction is between community ethics as the basis for law, and the 'modern' idea of a social contract as the basis for law. The American system starts with some elements of ancient British law, but then 'pasteurizes' it all, and puts it into a social contract package (one of the best, I might add). Considered from a cultural perspective, rather than a legal one, the social contract paradigm falls short in creating a persuasive model of why we should conform to community values -- it fails to describe our ethical motivations for following the law. The gap can be filled by any number of fundamentalisms, but it is also a promising area for acts of imagination and renewal that reveal or restore our most basic sense of obligation to eachother. The same gap appears, vastly magnified, in the relatively safe space of virtual worlds. And the same creative opportunities for community-building are here as well.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Burning Books comes to Chilbo

RL indie publisher Burning Books is partnering with Chilbo Road Press to bring their unique perspective to Second Life. Check them out at and look for an small exhibit on our second floor.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Chilbo Thursdays

The Chilbo community is pleased to announce that we will be holding an 'open house' every Thursday from 4 to 7 pm PST.
This is not so much a formal event as a regular time to expect to find people here. We will announce some special guests, field trips and show-and-tells for some Thursdays.
If big groups aren't your thing, feel free to wander off in ones and twos -- but expect the rest of us to drop in or tag along during open house hours.

Friday, August 10, 2007

April Town Hall Meeting Minutes

On April 12, 2007,Chilbo held its most recent Town Hall.
Fleep Tuque presented a draft of the Chilbo Philosophy for review.

The minutes are published here.

The Chilbo Philosophy

"Second Life represents a unique opportunity to explore ourselves as individuals, neighbors, business persons, and friends in a new world with new possibilities for creation, expression, commerce, education, and much more.

To that end, the Chilbo Community Building Project was begun in October of 2006 to explore the possibilities of creating a real sense of community in a virtual neighborhood. Residents of our neighborhood help each other succeed and prosper in our individual pursuits in Second Life, in Chilbo, and beyond.

Members of the project, either as tenants, landowners, or visitors, are all committed to the general concept that it IS possible to have a positive impact on one another through this virtual environment. Through cooperation, honest and open conversation, and mutual respect, great things are possible.

Welcome to Chilbo! We invite you to explore our neighborhood and what we have worked to create here, and we hope you enjoy your visit!"


Fleep Tuque
Chilbo Community Building Project

Last updated by Fleep Tuque 02.03.07

Friday, July 27, 2007

Orhan Pamuk -- Nobel Prize in Literature

Orhan Pamuk, a writer from Istanbul, is the winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature.

You can read about the prize here.

Or you can read a short piece Pamuk read on the occasion by visiting the Chilbo Road Press.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

A new title available at La Bicyclette

Visit Virrginia Tombola's shop in Caledon to see the exhibit about this remarkable woman, the first to bicycle around the world.

La Bicyclette, Port Caledon (73, 173, 22) Caledon/73/173/22/