: Code 2.0



LambdaMOO is a text-based virtual reality. People from across the world (today close to six thousand of them) link to this space and interact in ways that the space permits. The reality is the product of this interaction. Individuals can participate in the construction of this reality sometimes for upwards of eighty hours a week. For some this interaction is the most sustained human contact of their entire lives. For most it is a kind of interaction unmatched by anything else they know.

In the main, people just talk here. But it is not the talk of an AOL chat room. The talk in a MUD is in the service of construction of constructing a character and a community. You interact in part by talking, and this talking is tied to a name. This name, and the memories of what it has done, live in the space, and over time people in the space come to know the person by what these memories recall.

The life within these MUDs differ. Elizabeth Reid describes two different styles[29] social-style MUD and an adventure or game-style MUD. Social MUDs are simply online communities where people talk and build characters or elements for the MUD. Adventure MUDs are games, with (virtual) prizes or power to be won through the deployment of skill in capturing resources or defeating an enemy. In either context, the communities survive a particular interaction. They become virtual clubs, though with different purposes. Members build reputations through their behavior in these clubs.

You get a character simply by joining the MOO (though in LambdaMOO the waiting list for a character extends over many months). When you join the space, you define the character you will have. At least, you define certain features of your character. You select a name and a gender (no gender is an option as well) and describe your character. Some descriptions are quite ordinary (Johnny Manhattan is tall and thin, pale as string cheese, wearing a neighborhood hat).[30] Others, however, are quite extraordinary. (Legba, for instance, is a Haitian trickster spirit of indeterminate gender, brown-skinned and wearing an expensive pearl gray suit, top hat, and dark glasses.)[31]

Julian Dibbell broke the story of this space to the nonvirtual world in an article in the Village Voice.[32] The story that was the focus of Dibbells article involved a character called Mr. Bungle who, it turns out, was actually a group of NYU undergraduates sharing this single identity. Bungle entered a room late one evening and found a group of characters well known in that space. The full story cannot be told any better than Dibbell tells it. For our purposes, the facts will be enough.[33]

Bungle had a special sort of power. By earning special standing in the LambdaMOO community, he had voodoo power: he could take over the voices and actions of other characters and make them appear to do things they did not really do. This Bungle did that night to a group of women and at least one person of ambiguous gender. He invoked this power, in this public space, and took over the voices of these people. Once they were in his control, Bungle raped these women, violently and sadistically, and made it seem as if they enjoyed the rape.

The rape was virtual in the sense that the event happened only on the wires. No bodies touched, as Dibbell describes it.

Whatever physical interaction occurred consisted of a mingling of electronic signals sent from sites spread out between New York City and Sydney, Australia. . . . He commenced his assault entirely unprovoked at, or about 10 p.m. Pacific Standard Time. . . . He began by using his voodoo doll to force one of the rooms occupants to sexually service him in a variety of more or less conventional ways. That this victim was exu. . . . He turned his attentions now to Moondreamer . . . forcing her into unwanted liaisons with other individuals present in the room. . . . His actions grew progressively violent. . . . He caused Moondreamer to violate herself with a piece of kitchen cutlery. He could not be stopped until at last someone summoned Iggy . . . who brought with him a gun of near wizardly powers, a gun that didnt kill but enveloped its targets in a cage impermeable even to a voodoo dolls powers.[34]

Rape is a difficult word to use in any context, but particularly here. Some will object that whatever happened in this virtual space, it has nothing to do with rape. Yet even if it was not rape, all will see a link between rape and what happened to these women there. Bungle used his power over these women for his own (and against their) sexual desire; he sexualized his violence and denied them even the dignity of registering their protest.

For our purposes, whether what happened here was really rape is beside the point. What matters is how the community reacted. The community was outraged by what Bungle had done, and many thought something should be done in response.

They gathered, this community of members of LambdaMOO, in a virtual room at a set time, to discuss what to do. Some thirty showed up, the largest meeting the community had known. Some thought that Bungle should be expelled toaded, as it is described, killed for purposes of the MOO. Others thought that nothing should be done; Bungle was certainly a creep, but the best thing to do to creeps was simply to ignore them. Some called on the Wizards of the space the creators, the gods to intervene to deal with this character. The Wizards declined: Their job, they replied, was to create the world; the members had to learn to live within it.

There was really no law that governed what Bungle had done. No real-space law reached sexual pranks like this, and neither did any explicit rule of LambdaMOO.[35] This troubled many who wanted to do something. Invoking real-space ideals about fair notice and due process, these people argued that Bungle could not be punished for violating rules that did not exist at the time.

Two extremes eventually emerged. One side urged vigilantism: Bungle was a miscreant, and something should be done about him. But what shouldnt be done, they argued, was for LambdaMOO to respond by creating a world of regulation. LambdaMOO did not need a state; it needed a few good vigilantes. It needed people who would enforce the will of the community without the permanent intrusion of some central force called the state. Bungle should be expelled, killed, or toaded and someone would do it. But only if the group resisted the call to organize itself into a state.

The other side promoted just one idea: democracy. With the cooperation of the Wizards, LambdaMOO should establish a way to vote on rules that would govern how people in the space behaved. Any question could be made the subject of a ballot; there was no constitution limiting the scope of what democracy could decide. An issue decided by the ballot would be implemented by the Wizards. From then on, it would be a rule.

Both extremes had their virtues, and both invited certain vices. The anarchy of the first risked chaos. It was easy to imagine the community turning against people with little or no warning; one imagined vigilantes roaming the space, unconstrained by any rules, toading people whose crimes happened to strike them as awful. For those who took this place less seriously than real space, this compromise was tolerable. But what was tolerable for some was intolerable to others as Bungle had learned.

Democracy seemed natural, yet many resisted it as well. The idea that politics could exist in LambdaMOO seemed to sully the space. The thought that ideas would have to be debated and then voted on was just another burden. Sure, rules would be known and behavior could be regulated, but it all began to seem like work. The work took something from the fun the space was to have been.

In the end, both happened. The debate that evening wound down after almost three hours. No clear resolution had found its way in. But a resolution of sorts did occur. As Dibbell describes it:

It was also at this point, most likely, that TomTraceback reached his decision. TomTraceback was a wizard, a taciturn sort of fellow whod sat brooding on the sidelines all evening. He hadnt said a lot, but what he had said indicated that he took the crime committed against exu and Moondreamer very seriously, and that he felt no particular compassion toward the character who had committed it. But on the other hand he had made it equally plain that he took the elimination of a fellow player just as seriously, and moreover that he had no desire to return to the days of wizardly intervention. It must have been difficult, therefore, to reconcile the conflicting impulses churning within him at that moment. In fact, it was probably impossible, for . . . as much as he would have liked to make himself an instrument of the MOOs collective will, he surely realized that under the present order of things he must in the final analysis either act alone or not act at all.

So TomTraceback acted alone.

He told the lingering few players in the room that he had to go, and then he went. It was a minute or two before 10 p.m. He did it quietly and he did it privately, but all anyone had to do to know hed done it was to type the @who command, which was normally what you typed if you wanted to know a players present location and the time he last logged in. But if you had run an @who on Mr. Bungle not too long after TomTraceback left emmelines room, the database would have told you something different.

Mr_Bungle, it would have said, is not the name of any player.

The date, as it happened, was April Fools Day, but this was no joke: Mr. Bungle was truly dead and truly gone.[36]

When the Wizards saw this, they moved to the other extreme. With no formal decision by the citizens, the Wizards called forth a democracy. Starting May 1, 1993,[37] any matter could be decided by ballot, and any proposition receiving at least twice as many votes for as against would become the law.[38] Many wondered whether this was an advance or not.

There is a lot to think about in this story, even in my savagely abridged version.[39] But I want to focus on the sense of loss that accompanied the Wizards decision. There is a certain romance tied to the idea of establishing a democracy Kodak commercials with tearful Berliners as the Wall comes down and all that. The romance is the idea of self-government and of establishing structures that facilitate it. But LambdaMOOs move to self-government, through structures of democracy, was not just an achievement. It was also a failure. The space had failed. It had failed, we could say, to self-regulate. It had failed to engender values in its population sufficient to avoid just the sort of evil Bungle had perpetrated. The debate marked the passage of the space from one kind of place to another. From a space self-regulated to a space regulated by self.

It might seem odd that there would be a place where the emergence of democracy would so depress people. But this kind of reaction is not uncommon in cyber-places. Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon tell a story of the emergence of a widget called the FINGER command on UNIX, that would allow users to see when the last time another user had been on the computer, and whether she had read her mail. Some thought (not surprisingly, I should think) that this command was something of an invasion of privacy. Whose business was it when I was last at my machine, and why should they get to know whether I have read my mail?

A programmer at Carnegie Mellon University, Ivor Durham, changed the command to give the user the power to avoid this spying finger. The result? Durham was flamed without mercy. He was called everything from spineless to socially irresponsible to a petty politician, and worse but not for protecting privacy. He was criticized for monkeying with the openness of the network.[40]

The values of the UNIX world were different. They were values embedded in the code of UNIX. To change the code was to change the values, and members of the community fought that change.

So too with the changes to LambdaMOO. Before the balloting, LambdaMOO was regulated through norms. These regulations of social structures were sustained by the constant policing of individual citizens. They were the regulations of a community; the rise of democracy marked the fall of this community. Although norms would no doubt survive the establishment of a democracy, their status was forever changed. Before the democracy, a struggle over which norms should prevail could be resolved only by consensus by certain views prevailing in a decentralized way. Now such a struggle could be resolved by the power of a majority not through what a majority did, but through how they voted.

Ive romanticized this bizarre little world far more than I intended. I do not mean to suggest that the world of LambdaMOO before democracy was necessarily better than the one after. I want only to mark a particular change. Like CC, and unlike AOL, LambdaMOO is a place where norms regulate. But unlike CC, LambdaMOO is now a place where members have control over restructuring the norms.

Such control changes things. Norms become different when ballots can overrule them, and code becomes different when ballots can order Wizards to change the world. These changes mark a movement from one kind of normative space to another, from one kind of regulation to another.

In all three of these cyber-places, code is a regulator. But there are important differences among the three. Norms have a relevance in CC and LambdaMOO that they do not in AOL; democracy has a relevance in LambdaMOO that it does not have in CC or AOL. And monitoring has a relevance in AOL that it does not have in LambdaMOO or CC (since neither of the latter two use data about individuals for commercial purposes, either internal or external to the organization). Code constitutes these three communities; as Jennifer Mnookin says of LambdaMOO, politics is implemented through technology.[41] Differences in the code constitute them differently, but some code makes community thicker than others. Where community is thick, norms can regulate.

The next space in this survey is also constituted by code, though in this case the management has less ability to change its basic architecture. This code is net code a protocol of the Internet that is not easily changed by a single user. At least it was not easy for me.

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