: Code 2.0

Borders

Borders

It was a very ordinary dispute, this argument between Martha Jones and her neighbors[2]. It was the sort of dispute that people have had since the start of neighborhoods. It didnt begin in anger. It began with a misunderstanding. In this world, misunderstandings like this are far too common. Martha thought about that as she wondered whether she should stay; there were other places she could go. Leaving would mean abandoning what she had built, but frustrations like this were beginning to get to her. Maybe, she thought, it was time to move on.

The argument was about borders about where her land stopped. It seemed like a simple idea, one you would have thought the powers-that-be would have worked out many years before. But here they were, her neighbor Dank and she, still fighting about borders. Or rather, about something fuzzy at the borders about something of Marthas that spilled over into the land of others. This was the fight, and it all related to what Martha did.

Martha grew flowers. Not just any flowers, but flowers with an odd sort of power. They were beautiful flowers, and their scent entranced. But, however beautiful, these flowers were also poisonous. This was Marthas weird idea: to make flowers of extraordinary beauty which, if touched, would kill. Strange no doubt, but no one said that Martha wasnt strange. She was unusual, as was this neighborhood. But sadly, disputes like this were not.

The start of the argument was predictable enough. Marthas neighbor, Dank, had a dog. Danks dog died. The dog died because it had eaten a petal from one of Marthas flowers. A beautiful petal, and now a dead dog. Dank had his own ideas about these flowers, and about this neighbor, and he expressed those ideas perhaps with a bit too much anger, or perhaps with anger appropriate to the situation.

There is no reason to grow deadly flowers, Dank yelled across the fence. Theres no reason to get so upset about a few dead dogs, Martha replied. A dog can always be replaced. And anyway, why have a dog that suffers when dying? Get yourself a pain-free-death dog, and my petals will cause no harm.

I came into the argument at about this time. I was walking by, in the way one walks in this space. (At first I had teleported to get near, but we neednt complicate the story with jargon. Lets just say I was walking.) I saw the two neighbors becoming increasingly angry with each other. I had heard about the disputed flowers about how their petals carried poison. It seemed to me a simple problem to solve, but I guess its simple only if you understand how problems like this are created.

Dank and Martha were angry because in a sense they were stuck. Both had built a life in the neighborhood; they had invested many hours there. But both were coming to understand its limits. This is a common condition: We all build our lives in places with limits. We are all disappointed at times. What was different about Dank and Martha?

One difference was the nature of the space, or context, where their argument was happening. This was not real space but virtual space. It was part of what I call cyberspace. The environment was a massively multiplayer online game (MMOG), and MMOG space is quite different from the space we call real.

Real space is the place where you are right now: your office, your den, maybe by a pool. Its a world defined by both laws that are man-made and others that are not. Limited liability for corporations is a man-made law. It means that the directors of a corporation (usually) cannot be held personally liable for the sins of the company. Limited life for humans is not a man-made law: That we all will die is not the result of a decision that Congress made. In real space, our lives are subject to both sorts of law, though in principle we could change one sort.

But there are other sorts of laws in real space as well. You bought this book, I trust, or you borrowed it from someone who did. If you stole it, you are a thief, whether you are caught or not. Our language is a norm; norms are collectively determined. As our norms have been determined, your stealing makes you a thief, and not just because you took it. There are plenty of ways to take something but not be thought of as a thief. If you came across a dollar blowing in the wind, taking the money will not make you a thief; indeed, not taking the money makes you a chump. But stealing this book from the bookstore (even when there are so many left for others) marks you as a thief. Social norms make it so, and we live life subject to these norms.

Some of these norms can be changed collectively, if not individually. I can choose to burn my draft card, but I cannot choose whether doing so will make me a hero or a traitor. I can refuse an invitation to lunch, but I cannot choose whether doing so will make me rude. I have choices in real life, but escaping the consequences of the choices I make is not one of them. Norms in this sense constrain us in ways that are so familiar as to be all but invisible.

MMOG space is different. It is, first of all, a virtual space like a cartoon on a television screen, sometimes rendered to look three-dimensional. But unlike a cartoon, MMOG space enables you to control the characters on the screen in real time. At least, you control your character one among many characters controlled by many others in this space. One builds the world one will inhabit here. As a child, you grew up learning the physics that governed the world of Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote (violent but forgiving); your children will grow up making the world of Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote (still violent, but maybe not so forgiving). They will define the space and then live out the story. Their choices will make the laws of that space real.

This is not to say that MMOG space is unreal. There is real life in MMOG space, constituted by how people interact. The space describes where people interact much as they interact in real space no doubt, but with some important differences. In MMOG space the interaction is in a virtual medium. This interaction is in cyberspace. In 1990s terms, people jack into these virtual spaces, and they do things there. And they turns out to be many many people. As Edward Castronova estimates, an absolute minimum figure would be 10 million but myguess is that it is perhaps 20 to 30 million participating in these virtual worlds[3]. The typical user spends 2030 hours per week inside the fantasy. Power users spend every available moment[4]. As one essay estimates, assuming just average contact time among these 9.4 million people, subscribers to virtual worlds could be devoting over 213 million hours per week to build their virtual lives[5].

The things people do there are highly varied. Some play role-playing games: working within a guild of other players to advance in status and power to some ultimate end. Some simply get together and gab: They appear (in a form they select, with qualities they choose and biographies they have written) in a virtual room and type messages to each other. Or they walk around (again, the ambiguity is not a slight one) and talk to people. My friend Rick does this as a cat a male cat, he insists. As a male cat, Rick parades around this space and talks to anyone whos interested. He aims to flush out the cat-loving sorts. The rest, he reports, he punishes.

Others do much more than gab. Some, for example, homestead. Depending on the world and its laws, citizens are given or buy plots of undeveloped land, which they then develop. People spend extraordinary amounts of time building a life on these plots. (Isnt it incredible the way these people waste time? While you and I spend up to seventy hours a week working for firms we dont own and building futures were not sure well enjoy, these people are designing and building things and making a life, even if only a virtual one. Scandalous!) They build houses by designing and then constructing them have family or friends move in, and pursue hobbies or raise pets. They may grow trees or odd plants like Marthas.

MMOG space grew out of MUD or MOO space[6]. MUDs and MOOs are virtual worlds, too, but they are text-based virtual worlds. There are no real graphics in a MUD or MOO, just text, reporting what someone says and does. You can construct objects in MOO space and then have them do things. But the objects act only through the mediation of text. (Their actions are generally quite simple, but even simple can be funny. One year, in a MUD that was part of a cyberlaw class, someone built a character named JPosner. If you poked JPosner, he muttered, Poking is inefficient. Another character was FEasterbrook. Stand in a room with FEasterbrook and use the word fair, and FEasterbrook would repeat what you said, substituting the word efficient. Its not fair became You mean, its not efficient.)

Although it was easy for people who liked texts or who wrote well to understand the attraction of these text-based realities, it was not so easy for the many who didnt have that same fondness. MMOG space lifts that limit just a bit. It is the movie version of a cyberspace novel. You build things here, and they survive your leaving. You can build a house, and people walking down the street see it. You can let them come in, and in coming into your house, they see things about you. They can see how you construct your world. If a particular MMOG space permits it, they might even see how youve changed the laws of the real world. In real space, for instance, people slip and fall on wet floors. In the MMOG space youve built, that law may not exist. Instead, in your world, wet floors may make people slip and dance.

The best example of this space today is the extraordinary community of Second Life. In it, people create both things and community, the avatars are amazingly well crafted, and their owners spend hundreds of thousands of hours building things in this space that others see, and some enjoy. Some make clothes or hair styles, some make machines that make music. Whatever object or service the programming language allows, creators in Second Life are creating it. There are more than 100,000 residents of Second Life at the time of this writing. They occupy close to 2,000 servers housed in downtown San Francisco, and suck 250 kilowatts of electricity just to run the computers about the equivalent of 160 homes.

But here we get back to Martha and Dank. In their exchange when Martha blamed Dank for having a dog that died with pain they revealed what was most amazing about that particular MMOG. Marthas remarks (Why do you have a dog that suffers when dying? Get yourself a pain-free-death dog, and my petals will cause no harm ) should have struck you as odd. You may have thought, How weird that someone would think that the fault lay not in the poisonous petals but in a dog that died with pain. But in this space, Dank did have a choice about how his dog would die. Maybe not a choice about whether poison would kill a dog, but a choice about whether the dog would suffer when it died. He also had a choice about whether a copy of the dog could be made, so that if it died it could be revived. In MMOG space, these possibilities are not given by God. Or rather, if they are defined by God, then the players share the power of God. For the possibilities in MMOG space are determined by the code the software, or architecture, that makes the MMOG space what it is. What happens when is a statement of logic; it asserts a relationship that is manifested in code. In real space we dont have much control over that code. In MMOG space we do.

So, when Martha said what she said about the dog, Dank made what seemed to me an obvious response. Why do your flowers have to stay poisonous once they leave your land? Why not make the petals poisonous only when on your land? When they leave your land when, for example, they are blown onto my land why not make them harmless?

It was an idea. But it didnt really help. For Martha made her living selling these poisonous plants. Others (ok not many, but some) also liked the idea of this art tied to death. So it was no solution to make poisonous plants that were poisonous only on Marthas property, unless Martha was also interested in collecting a lot of very weird people on her land.

But the idea did suggest another. Okay, said Dank, why not make the petals poisonous only when in the possession of someone who has purchased them? If they are stolen, or if they blow away, then let the petals lose their poison. But when kept by the owner of the plant, the petals keep their poison. Isnt that a solution to the problem that both of us face?

The idea was ingenious. Not only did it help Dank, it helped Martha as well. As the code existed, it allowed theft[7]. (People want reality in that virtual space; there will be time enough for heaven when heaven comes.) But if Martha could modify the code slightly so that theft[8] removed a plants poison, then theft would also remove the plants value. That change would protect the profit in her plants as well as protect Danks dogs. Here was a solution that made both neighbors better off what economists call a pareto superior move. And it was a solution that was as possible as any other. All it required was a change of code.

Think for a second about whats involved here. Theft entails (at minimum) a change in possession. But in MMOG space possession is just a relation defined by the software that defines the space. That same code must also define the properties that possession yields. It might, like real space, distinguish between having a cake and eating it. Or it might erase that distinction, meaning you can eat your cake, but once its eaten, it magically reappears. In MMOG space you can feed a crowd with five loaves and two fishes, and it isnt even a miracle[9].

So why not craft the same solution to Martha and Danks problem? Why not define ownership to include the quality of poisonousness, and possession without ownership to be possession without poison? If the world is designed this way, then it could resolve the dispute between Martha and Dank, not by making one of them change his or her behavior, but by changing the laws of nature to eliminate the conflict altogether.

Were a short way into this not so short book, though what Im about to say may make it a very short book indeed (for you at least). This book is all about the question raised by this simple story, and about any simplicity in this apparently simple answer. This is not a book about MMOG space or avatars. The story about Martha and Dank is the first and last example that will include avatars. But it is a book about cyberspace. My claim is that both on the Internet and in cyberspace, we will confront precisely the questions that Martha and Dank faced, as well as the questions that their solution raised. Both on the Internet and in cyberspace, technology constitutes the environment of the space, and it will give us a much wider range of control over how interactions work in that space than in real space. Problems can be programmed or coded into the story, and they can be coded away. And while the experience with gamers so far is that they dont want virtual worlds to deviate too far from the real, the important point for now is that there is the capacity to make these worlds different. It is this capacity that raises the question that is at the core of this book: What does it mean to live in a world where problems can be coded away? And when, in that world, should we code problems away, rather than learn to work them out, or punish those who cause them?

It is not MMOG space that makes these questions interesting problems for law; the very same problems will arise outside of MMOG space, and outside MUDs and MOOs. The problems of these spaces are problems of the Internet in general. And as more of our life becomes wired (and weird), in the sense that more of our life moves online, these questions will become more pressing.

But I have learned enough in this business to know that I cant convince you of this with an argument. (Ive spent the last 12 years talking about this subject; at least I know what doesnt work.) If you see the point, good for you. If you dont, I must show you. So my method for readers of the second sort must be more indirect. Proof, for them, will come in a string of stories, which aim to introduce and disorient. That, again, is the purpose of this chapter.

Let me describe a few other places and the oddities that inhabit them.


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