Thursday, October 28, 2010

Mitch Kapor's 2008 "Closing of the Frontier" Moment

Location: On the hunt for a new frontier

image: "Spirit of the Southern Frontier" Web archive at University of Richmond

During the celebration of Second Life's 5th birthday, Mitch Kapor gave a keynote talk that reminds me of Frederick J. Turner's famous 1893 address at the Colombian Exposition in Chicago, a World's Fair that ostensibly (and a year late) marked the 400th anniversary of Columbus' voyage to the New World.

Turner's "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" created quite a stir in news outlets and, gradually, in the popular imagination.

The ideas are too closely linked for Kapor to have not drawn upon Turner. That's a good thing, in fact. Turner's idea was a shocker to a nation that had an expectation, in spite of all empirical evidence, that "free land" was infinite. I suspect we'll look back at Kapor's remarks in the same way about our (to borrow Diogene Kuhr's term) "ephemeral frontier" in Second Life.

So here are part of Kapor's talk. Have a look, two years on, and see if he was right about the post-2008 era in SL. You can find the entire transcript of his talk here. What do YOU think? Is the frontier era in SL gone? What will replace it? Here's Kapor:

The pioneer era in Second Life is beginning to draw to a close. It has been five years and we are at the beginning of a transition and I think it is an irrevocable transition. And I am hoping what you see now is a slide of a technology adoption curve, a classic bell curve that shows early adopters on the left and then a set of pragmatists as we move from left to right and so on all the way over to the right edge of the curve, we show the laggards. This technology adoption curve is well known for the way to characterize the adoption of these disruptive new innovations. [asks for next slide]

When you see this [rezz in], you should be seeing a big red vertical arrow just at the margin between the early adopter phase and the pragmatist phase. That is really where we are today and I think that has some very important implications and I want to talk about that for a minute. So the first is, in the earliest wave of pioneers in any new disruptive platform, the marginal and the dispossessed are over represented, not the sole constituents by any means but people who feel they don't fit, who have nothing left to lose or who were impelled by some kind of dream, who may be outsiders to whatever mainstream they are coming from, all come and arrive early in disproportionate numbers.

It was the way the west in the U.S. was settled. It is the way Second Life has been settled. And in fact those early pioneers find a very arduous environment. In the early days, you really have to want to be here because life in certain ways is very very difficult, in fact too difficult for most people. It is unavoidable in some sense that there will be a very high attrition rate in the early years while a platform is being built out. It doesn't stay that way of course, it can't, but the difficulties of conditions cause those who stay to really bond together, have something in common.

And that sort of arduous frontier conditions really give these environments their charm and their character, but also their challenges. Ad all that is changing as we speak because people are in the process of discovering that virtual worlds have very pragmatic values to them and this is especially true and will be true in the enterprise sector, as businesses seek to be more productive, be more efficient, utilize the latest technology and then you will find lots of pragmatic users off of virtual worlds, in the same way that in the early years of the internet businesses were not big participants, but they discovered in the mid-1990s that it was actually necessary to be on the net in a whole variety of ways in order to be part of the global market system.

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