Friday, 20 September 2013

Cyberspace? Well, sort of.

Nicholas Sheppard

I recently got around to reading Edward Castronova's Synthetic Worlds (2006). Around the time that Castronova was writing, synthetic worlds — notably Second Life — seemed like big news in the computing community of which I was a member. Major corporations, we were told, were opening offices in Second Life; newly-minted entrepeneurs were establishing successful businesses; and luminaries were giving press conferences. Reading Castronova's book seven years later, though, prompted me to wonder: where are they now?

The worlds themselves are still operating, and are presumably producing revenue sufficient to keep their operators in business. But I no longer hear much about them in the mainstream media, in technology media, or even from gaming friends. I don't feel like I'm living in cyberspace or The Matrix any more than I did in 2006, or even 1996. (I should note at this point that I'm one of those people that the computer games industry is at pains to show doesn't exist any more: a once-young man who, upon becoming older, grew tired of shooting up yet more pixellated baddies. So perhaps everyone has disappeared into synthetic worlds, leaving me alone on the outside wondering where everyone has gone.)

All of the above media, though, have much to say about Facebook and Twitter. And rightly so, to go by the numbers: Facebook has over 1,100 million accounts and Twitter over 550 million, according to Statistic Brain. The largest synthetic world, World of Warcraft, had a comparatively measly twelve million subscribers at its height. Of course twelve million customers is nothing to sniff at, and World of Warcraft is arguably a sounder business proposition in that its users actually pay to be there. Nonetheless, it's World of Warcraft and Second Life that have those ubiquitous "like me" and "follow me" buttons on their home pages, and not Facebook and Twitter with "fight me" and "visit second me".

At least part of the explanation for these numbers is that the population of synthetic worlds is fragmented across numerous distinct worlds catering for individual tastes like fighting dragons, exploring alien worlds or wearing outlandish costumes. Facebook and Twitter, on the other hand, try to appeal to a universal desire to communicate and to maintain relationships. 

Furthermore, communication tools exhibit strong network effects, in which the usefulness of a tool to one person depends on the number of other persons also using that tool. Network effects tend to create winner-takes-all markets in which the player with the greatest market share rapidly drives out all other players: the main reason to join Facebook is that everyone else has joined Facebook, not that Facebook is intrinsically better than any other communication tool.

In that sense, the market for synthetic worlds is a healthier one than that occupied by Facebook and Twitter: each of us is free to choose the world that best meets our needs and means, and entrepreneurs succeed or fail on how well they meet these needs and means. Castronova sometimes uses a metaphor of "migration" to or between synthetic worlds, following an economist's view that people migrate to the places in which they think they will be most happy. So just as I, a computer scientist, might find it attractive to migrate to a city in which there are many computers to be programmed, so might a dragon-fighter find it attractive to migrate to a synthetic world in which there are many dragons to fight.

There is, however, one world from which we cannot migrate. However much we might prefer fighting dragons or designing our own islands, we still need to eat, wash and procreate in the physical world. There's even a school of thought that, even if we could migrate into synthetic worlds, we wouldn't want to. In 1974, Robert Nozick posited the "experience machine", which would provide its user with any experience that he or she desired. Nozick asked: how many people would choose to live his or her life in such a machine? Nozick, and I'm sure many others, think the answer is "almost nobody".

And so to Facebook and Twitter, and, for that matter, older communication tools like telephone and email. To paraphrase a famous observation of Arthur C. Clarke, I imagine that our pre-industrial ancestors would find these tools every bit as magical as dragons, wizards and warp drives. Having augmented our existing world with such wonders, why bother synthesising a new one?

Image by Giampalo Macorig, made available by Creative Commons licence via Flickr.