Could Sadville break the internet with nakedness?
Look out - it's the virtual moral majority
Comment Second Life's introduction of adult zoning and age verification highlights an uncomfortable truth about the future of the web - as network function increases, so the anarchic free-for-all we are used to will be eroded further, and possibly abolished forever.
There is much frothing on Sadville forums over Linden Labs’ proposals to tackle the issue of "adult" areas. The virtual world that appears on visitor screens is made up from a collection of "regions" (also known as sims), each notionally 256m x 256m, fitted together into a "grid".
A user's avatar is located in exactly one region at any given time. Each normal region corresponds to a single CPU in the Second Life network, with tens of thousands of CPUs, deployed across multiple locations. When an individual moves from region to region, their avatar's data representation also moves from one processor to another.
Regions are further broken up into parcels – a little like subdivisions on a real world lot - and many regions are grouped together to create "continents". According to Linden Labs, areas containing genuinely "adult" content make up between two and four per cent of the grid.
However, a haphazard evolution of the grid has left some sims or parcels with truly "adult" content located a stone’s throw – or a camera pan – away from more "respectable" enterprises. A spokesman cited educators using Second Life for training. "Even if an entire class is over 18," he said, "you don't necessarily want to be confronted with adult content while you're trying to teach someone about the internal workings of the pancreas".
Critics have claimed that this is about freedom of speech. Linden sees it as more like real world zoning - when big business spends a small fortune on smart new offices, they do not want their visitors forced to walk past a grubby sex shop on their way in.
Re-zoning "adult" establishments on to a separate continent – called Ursula – is Linden Labs’ preferred solution, believing that in the long run, this will be good for the businesses that go there.
Slightly more controversial has been the way in which they are proposing to implement this solution. First is the question of how they will categorise areas and content as "adult": naughty words? Naked breasts? The presence of obscene poseballs?
One of the main methods, according to Linden Labs, will be the first of these. They are developing software to assess regional content on the basis of word search, and sims will find themselves relocated to the adult world. They are aware of some of the difficulties inherent in this approach. "Cock" is a word that tends to provoke filters set to US English, as this word has a predominantly crude association, and "rooster" is the preferred term when discussing poultry.
Such automated classification is likely to throw up many false positives. Linden is aware of this and working on it.
The second issue is an enhanced age checking requirement for anyone now wishing to visit Ursula. Ordinary members of Second Life argue that the project is already only meant to be accessed by those aged 18-plus – so why should additional checking be needed? Linden responds that the added requirement is not onerous, and no additional data is stored.
The real issue emerges as it becomes clear that in this one move, Linden is cutting through what has been the subject of years of argument on the web – and creating what is in effect a .xxx domain.
Practical Uses for Second Life
It's true that the current uses of Second Life are mostly socializing and adult activities. But there are practical uses for a 3D virtual world which is cheap for the user to set up. Today, flight simulators are used to train aircraft pilots because (a) flying real aircraft is very expensive per hour (b) training errors are even more expensive (crashing the aircraft). But even flight simulators cost millions to set up and run.
When you don't require the fidelity of a flight simulator, and the costs are much lower, there are many more simulations that can be done. Some examples:
Training for disaster drills - much less expensive than pulling out the real fire trucks and ambulances
Practicing operating room procedures
Training auto repair technicians (the individual user does not involve a high cost per hour, but there are a lot of them to justify developing the simulation)
Commercial real estate planning and client walkthroughs
With aircraft pilots, eventually you need to get in the real aircraft and fly it, and so with other things, you eventually need to do the real activity. But there is a stage between reading the manual and reality where using a simulation makes sense. And it makes sense in a lot more places when the software is cheap, and the tools to create the simulation are easy to use.
The disability dimension
Thanks for bringing this up. I write about SL because the technology fascinates me. I think the concept is currently flawed and slightly unbalanced by the (media) focus on strange sex. (Back in your box, LaeMi, in the nicest possible way!).
However, from visiting inworld, talking to people there - and also talking to people in what I guess we would call the real world "disability community" - it is worth underlining that "men dressed up as women" is not the only, or the main, bit of pretending that goes on in there.
One of my most chastening experiences was a lengthy, interesting and serious set of conversations with an av about modern literature and the influence of certain philosophical trends. At some point I remarked on how well read the individual was and how interesting their views on the subject were. I got back a slightly grumpy remark about how it was a pity others couldn't see that.
I followed up: the individual explained they had a serious disability, disfiguring their face, making speech difficult, and marking them out as "different". They had endured a lifetime of bullying and a general consensus that they were "thick". Only behind and through a screen was it possible for people to "see" the person first - the intellect, the intelligence - and ignore the disability.
I would love to be able to say that had I met them in real life, I would have been the exception. I have this rather guilty suspicion that I might not: that I, too, might have found the disability a barrier that was too easy to regard as absolute - and therefore have missed out on the person beneath.
It may be that I am wholly wrong about virtual reality: it may yet turn out to be a blind avenue in technological development. On the other hand, I remember being pretty much the sole advocate, back in 1997, for a major insurance company with which I worked at the time, to explore the internet.
"There, there", was the approximate answer, as everyone in the marketing area dismissed the internet as sci-fi gobbledegook: a place for geeks and sex maniacs. Within a couple of years, that had changed, and I listened in bemusement as born-again netophiles berated me for not being more enthusiastic about this new technology.
I don't think el Reg has an inworld presence - but my SL av is "Desiderio Blitz": those with stories to tell or serious conversations to have, please im... I don't bite...and I won't make you sit on any poseballs you don't wish to.
For a given value of real
IANISL (I am not in Second Life)
However, the key difference between Real Life (tm) and Second Life is that in the game of real life you have to play the exact hand you are dealt with. One chance. Even if your hand sucks.
In Second Life (or any other online world) you can pick most of the cards you want, and play with those. And if you dont like how it turns out, you can go around again as someone else.
Its not quite as real as getting dumped by your boyfriend or mugged in an alleyway, but its a more authentic experience than Eastenders or 24