The future is a foreign country

A post full of quotes today – the title itself is a fragment of a frequently used platitude, derived from the opening lines of The Go Between by LP Hartley, (not to be confused with JR Hartley, of course, who was simply an advertising gimmick gone viral, before the term had ever been coined). The full version of the misquote tends to be a variation along the lines of ‘The future is a foreign country: they do things differently there’, but it was another quote entirely – in fact, not even a quote, rather a blog post straight from the horses’ mouth – that starting the cogs spinning in my head. Here it is…

Philip Linden, 7th April 2006: “I’m not a gamer, and SL isn’t a game. From the start, we/LL observed that something like SL would have it’s first uses in entertainment, and then grow beyond those uses and people became more confident in the capabilities of the new platform/OS/whatever-we-want-to-call-it. So we focused on making SL very exciting and visceral and inspirational, but not on making it a game.

The future that we are all most passionate about is creating a new version of the world with a fundamentally different and better set of capabilities, and then see what happens when we all move there. This means we want SL to be able to reach everyone in the world, to be able to scale to 100’s of millions of users and millions of servers, and to remain an open decentralized system in which creativity rules.”

Any regular reader of this blog will be more than aware that i spend an inordinate amount of time wallowing in the past and i’ve found myself wondering why this should be. Why, when the sl that we have today, and in the forseeable future, has so much to offer do i constantly find myself harking back to the glory days of the past and bemoaning their passing? In part, i think that Philip’s words above, provide an answer to that question.

Just look at the vision; the incredible depth of feeling and passion for development, together with the potential envisaged for the future that is embodied in those words. If nothing else, look at the scope of those numbers… hundreds of millions of users and millions of servers; to reach everyone in the world! Stirring stuff… until i look at the reality of sl today.

My friends, when i read those words and think of the future of sl as it was imagined back in 2006, i simply don’t see anything that looks remotely like the original vision – it truly is a  foreign country, and now that the future is upon us, i find that they do things rather differently here. You may say – probably quite correctly – that Philip was being a bit of an optimist, (i’ve no doubt that the same has been said at some time about Da Vinci, Columbus, NASA, Gates and Jobs – but someone’s got to dream), but it wasn’t just one man’s vision that was driving this particular virtual juggernaut: Here’s Andrew Linden, in 2005 –

“Every person on Earth has some threshold of features/content at which point they will find SL useful and/or interesting enough to login. As SL grows more and more people will fall into the subset whose threshold has been passed. The grand plan is to push the feature set of SL and allow the population to expand until nearly everyone’s threshold has been passed.”

(i think it was the law in those days for everyone at the Lab to use lots of slashes/obliques whenever they wrote/blogged something). Again you see the breathtaking optimism/naivete, (got me doing it now!), with no hint of bluster or spin – yep, these people really believed the things they were saying and they were wholeheartedly committed to believing that they would see them happen. There’s something else i notice too, as i trawl through the historical literature of sl – the talk is all about ‘people’ and ‘population’, about ‘explorers’ and ‘artists’; no mention of ‘customers’ and ‘products’, which seems to be all the talk these days and, interestingly, in the ‘good old days’ nobody seemed to feel the need to talk about ‘the shared user experience’ – an obligatory phrase that seems to crop up in every official missive from the Lab lately… who are they trying to convince – them or us? Nobody needed to talk about the shared user experience back in the day – it wasn’t forced, it wasn’t implemented and it wasn’t used as a convenient blunt object to batter people over the head with, just for daring not to toe the Linden line – we just did it, and it happened naturally. There’s something else that i’ve noticed too – it’s a subtle but profound shift in emphasis – there was a time when the Lab would talk about sl, now the talk is always about  ‘Linden Lab’. You won’t often see ‘what’s new in sl?’ these days, instead you’ll get ‘what new things have Linden Lab been doing?’ – i think, more than anything, that shows a culture shift, reflected in the Lab’s priorities. In a similar vein, i’m seeing a lot more talk about ‘profitability’ as being a priority inworld… whatever happened to ‘creativity’?

As for Philip’s noble wish for sl  “to remain an open decentralized system in which creativity rules” – well, i’m afraid we’ve arrived in a country that is not just foreign; it’s completely alien – we don’t speak the language, the customs bemuse us and you get the feeling that the ‘locals’ really don’t want us messing up their tidy little dictatorship. i shall refrain from commenting on the ugly undercurrent of feelings that have been running high for quite some time now amongst a large cadre of the residents of sl. Similarly, policy changes, Lab decisions and political machinations have all been discussed – and still are – at length by more qualified and informed commentators than me but, from my vantage point with feet planted firmly in the aspirations of the past, i find it hard to equate the words from the quote above with the words i seem to run across with ever increasing frequency in the metaverse. Angry words like ‘stifling of innovation’, and ‘lack of communication’ – and these coupled with some of the recent events that have caused the sl community to rant and argue; events that fly in the face of words like ‘open’ and ‘decentralized’ paint a picture that is very different from that envisaged back in ’05/’06.

Even the man at the top recognises that the sl of today has lost an important element that was intrinsic to sl, right from the start:

Rodvik Linden, 1st March 2012: “Conversations with many old Lindens and Residents have led me to conclude that we have lost something of the old frontier feel.  Like we were exploring the world together…”

The solution to that is not to create a new mainland region, where we can all muddle together and bump into each other – as Rod has propounded, although it’s by no means a million miles off the mark: right premise, wrong solution. What’s needed is a bit of that old-time, open, de-centralized, creativity – a spot of getting to know the residents and what they feel. To be fair, he gave it a go – opened up the debate on last names to the masses… then summarily closed it, before knocking the whole idea on the head: “we wouldn’t do it. We couldn’t, so we wont”. Then, to compound matters, the promised ’round-table’ on the new region suffered the same fate, just days later:

Rodvik Linden, 5th March 2012: Hey folks, as I mentioned to some of you over the weekend I am going to do the next roundtable stuff in private one on one’s rather than as a free for all. That makes it more low key and doesnt turn it into something which is contentious. Thanks for all the feedback.”

Ouch! Remind me… how many frontier towns were established and grew without collaboration, teamwork and, (God forbid!), the odd bit of contentious debate and argument? Can you imagine the Magnificent Seven getting anywhere if Yul Brynner had decided he was going to go it alone without the rest of them? Coming to think of it, without the gunfight, the OK Corral would have had to be renamed the ‘Rather Dull And Boring Corral (Probably With Added Vampires)’.

Sorry – i wasn’t going to comment… got a bit carried away there. Back to my theme –

The plain facts are that – if the people with their fingers on the pulse, along with the multitudes of people who have their fingers on the people who really do have their fingers on the pulse, are to be believed – residents are leaving sl by the bus load (perhaps that why  usage stats have suddenly been abandoned?), showstopper bugs that have been around for years are still an issue, projects are being shoehorned into the platform before they even work properly, and open source is no longer the order of the day – 750 000 residents is a little short of the hundreds of millions originally envisaged, (don’t mock – Google+ is forecast to reach 400 million users in its first year and is gaining the equivalent of the whole of the sl population every day in new sign-ups) and, to me at least, sl currently feels like a bad bout of indigestion.

It doesn’t help that sl is pretty unique – yes, there’s competition, but it’s hardly a threat, (yet), so there’s really no incentive for Linden Lab to make any effort. Provided they can turn a deaf ear to people like me and about a zillion others moaning at every single thing they ever do, (or don’t), they can still turn a tidy profit and be moderately successful – but that’s a hell of a boring way to run a business!

One of Linden’s own – i’m assuming Torley will still be one of them anyway, by the time i publish this piece – flagged up what appears to be, initially, a rather arrogant quote from David Cush, CEO of Virgin America, but on further reading it is actually solid, insightful advice that LL really ought to take to heart:

“Measuring ourselves against the competition will not work because we are already far ahead of the competition,”

He goes on to qualify that: “We don’t measure ourselves against United or American Airlines. To improve the guest experience, we measure Virgin America against what we are doing already. We assume that whatever we are providing is not good enough. And we get better.”

That last sentence is crucial – it matters not whether you’re the very best or the worst in your field, but you always assume you can do better. Let’s face it, if your customers are saying you can do better, the figures in the books are less than pleasing and the Boss has come to the conclusion that something has gone wrong, then what is there to lose?

i’m an optimist. You may well criticise me, tell me i don’t know what i’m talking about and accuse me of looking at the past through rose-coloured spectacles – i accept that may be the case, but i’m still going to give you my opinion; you don’t have to agree with it… unlike some, i’m happy to get into the odd gunfight and thrash things out in the heat of a good old punch up argument. Even so, i remain an optimist – i firmly believe that sl can still be what it once set out to be but, for that to happen this ‘foreign country’ we find ourselves in needs to become our home-from-home. Tourists need to be made welcome, attractions need to be designed to appeal, they need to be accommodated, pampered and have the opportunity to be exposed to the culture and customs – then, and only then, will you see an influx of new people, eager to try out and explore this remarkable place, and as for the future… well, we’ll just have to wait and see!

s. x

And on the street tonight an old man plays
With newspaper cuttings of his glory days
Manic Street Preachers – If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next 

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This entry was posted in Linden Love, Philosophicalisticality, Rants, RL, SL, SLarcheology. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The future is a foreign country

  1. Yordie Sands says:

    It’s really a beautiful quote and a great theme. i’ll have to scout up a copy of book.

  2. Yordie Sands says:

    Reblogged this on Yordie Sands Notebook and commented:
    Mr. Crap’s link led me to this very insightful post about Second Life’s past and where it’s going. It has relevance to my quest to find the ingredients in SL’s secret sauce.

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