Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Tragedy of the Commons in Second Life

Mohave Biker
Location: Mojave Desert

I've been wanting to take my virtual car for a spin in the open desert of Second Life, before a lot of open space vanishes. I got to what had been empty desert last week (with a nice parcel for sale). Now there are clubs and a HQ for a virtual motorcycle gang. I was told, politely, that no cars were allowed...I don't own a chopper, so I went somewhere else to drive.

Though this region is not one of the "Openspace" areas that must abide by new rules (very soon), the restriction I found there, where only a lonely road and desert were a few days back, got me thinking. The debates, even revolt, over pricing changes to Openspace regions in Second Life began to make sense from an environmental perspective.

"Environmental" may sound odd for a place that can be remade at will and where, in-world at least, pollution is mostly an aesthetic feature of post-apocalyptic regions like The Wastelands.

Yet the end of Openspaces as they previously existed illustrates rather nicely a seminal concept from the environmental movement in Garrett Hardin's 1968 essay, "The Tragedy of the Commons." Like the herders Hardin describes, who recognize the utility of adding a cow here, another there, to the herd, the process of adding more prims and avatars to a region designated as Openspace did not, at first, appear to hurt anyone. Even though it violated the rationale for such low-cost spaces, who was hurt?

In a real ecosystem, everyone hurts. In the worst cases, we know what happens when too many cattle, or people, pile up: the system usually collapses or the population makes a series of hard choices, if they are people. Other organisms work it out another way though the brutal forces of natural selection and, for many in the population, die-off.

In Second Life, however, it's only Linden Lab's bottom line that took a beating. I'm not one to defend the Lab overmuch. Their way of announcing the new policies and then backpedaling was awkward, and it did not give residents much confidence that the next crisis would be handled any better.

The Lab noted in March 2008 that the regions were intended as:
a type of private island intended for light use countryside or ocean. Unlike normal regions that effectively get a CPU to themselves on the server, there can be up to four Openspaces on a single CPU, sharing the resource (hence them being ‘light use’).

Those of us in SL for any length of time know what happened. "Light use" became virtual subdivisions full of rental properties. This led to lag and region-wide crashes.

It would be akin to letting visitors to a National Park manage it themselves, without any rangers on hand to police rules about fire, hunting, or timber-harvesting. The results are easy to imagine.

I suppose that the Linden Lab staff did not anticipate the greed that motivates enough individuals, when a watchman is not present.

In 1968, when Hardin sounded his warning, only a few science-fiction writers like Philip K. Dick were imagining virtual worlds. In Dick's case, the gateways to make-believe reality were pharmacological, not cybernetic. Now we have worlds like Dick's online, without the need for mind-altering chemicals. And in these irreal places people become fiercely attached to virtual property as both virtual playground and source of real income.

And we are in the process of working out exactly what a "commons" means in a virtual world, and how much abuse it can take, without collapse.


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