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Why virtual identities are real to some of us

By Dave Birch posted Mar 8 2010 at 8:23 AM
[Dave Birch] The real world is a horrible place, especially near where I live. No wonder that I prefer to sojourn in cyberspace. Is this because I am a geek, an outlier? No, it's because I'm normal.

There’s a fairly strong argument that internet is, in fact, much, much better than the entire “real world”. It’s just easier being a human being there — not surprisingly, given that human beings invented it for human beings to be in; unlike the world, which we did not and are, let’s face it, still busking our way through.

[From Goodbye cruel world, I’m moving to the internet | Caitlin Moran - Times Online]

A few years ago, I wrote a couple of pieces that touched on this theme, including an article on "Opening a Branch in Narnia" for Financial World magazine after Alex Krotoski, Richard Bartle and I ran a seminar on virtual worlds for the CSFI. In this I noted that

One could imagine a flight to virtual communities, where mathematics (in the form of cryptography) provides a defence against crime and disorder that the metal barriers of a gated community cannot. If the community decides on a new law—no swearing in public places, let’s say—then they can enforce it instantly and 100% effectively by downloading a software update. If there are members of the community who don’t like it, they can go to another community instead.

[From Opening a Branch in Narnia An edited version of this article appeared in Financial World magazine, July 2006.]

Building on the Lessig-amplified "code is law" meme, I pointed out that whatever (in that case) Tony Blair might want for the country, he couldn't just change a couple of parameters and reboot. The real world doesn't work like that.

But the virtual one does.

And you have a choice. So, as an educated, middle-class professional I can either engage with the roaming gangs of feral youths that haunt our land, perhaps go down the local pub (where a cordon of chain-smoking tattooed thugs hold illegal dogs on chains -- and the men are just as bad) or perhaps go for a night out on the town and risk being beaten up by drunken gangs... or I can blog, twitter and potter on the Net, meeting up with friends and family and finding enjoyable new pathways to meander alongside the information superhighway. My kids can Facebook their friends and rendezvous online to play World of Warcraft with each other, or go to the local park (where a friends' son was attacked and beaten) or hang around in the town centre with the drug-addled products of our edukashun system.

It strikes me that there's the equivalent of the middle class flight to the suburbs going on again, only this time it's across the digital divide. One particular reason why all of this interests me is that there is a clear relationship between the "barbed wire" of security technology and the economic space that it creates. As has been clear since the earliest days of the web,

The absence of such defensible space in cyberspace is one factor that inhibits commerce on the Internet.

[From Gated Communities In Cyberspace]

I have always maintained that this is a crucial point, which is why the technology roadmapping work that we do for customers always gives great importance to the "disconnection technologies" (to once again steal Kevin Kelly's phrase). Gates create property, and therefore economic activity. Obviously the analogy isn't complete, because real property cannot be cloned, whereas virtual property can, but the economic activity is real nonetheless. For many people, it will become a rational choice to invest their energy in their virtual selves rather than their physical selves. In fact, with the news that Second Life's economy has grown yet again, I'd say that some people are already doing this.

Second Life economy totals $567 million US dollars in 2009 - 65% growth over 2008. Gross Resident Earnings are $55 million US Dollars in 2009 - 11% growth over 2008

[From Second Life Blogs: Features: 2009 End of Year Second Life Economy Wrap up (including Q4 Economy in Detail)]

I am not a politician, and I am not making a political point, so whether the government should "do something" about this flight from atoms to bits I'm not sure, although it does occur to me that income and tax revenue will surely follow people into cyberspace just as they follow people out of the inner cities, which probably won't make for a harmonious co-existence.

Should we try and help people to flee into EVE Online or should we make them stay in Glasgow? After all, they might find work in the virtual world that is better than the option available in the real world. This is already true for inhabitants of other poorer parts of the world.

The digital money guru Dave Birch has calculated that Chinese gaming enthusiasts who mine gold in online games such as World of Warcraft (in order to sell it to Western players who want to surreptitiously advance their own positions in the game) earn up to 10 times as much as actual gold miners in China who work in a highly dangerous industry.

[From Victor Keegan: No escape - virtual reality is here to stay | Technology | The Guardian]

What does all of this mean? It means that the "Digital Britain" idea of our government should be about more than cutting people off of broadband for downloading an unauthorised copy of Cliff Richard's 1958 hit "Move It" (otherwise known as the first English rock and roll record). For people to have a defensible space in cyberspace they need to have an identity in cyberspace and that should have been the central principle of the Digital Britain vision.

These opinions are my own (I think) and are presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]

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