I want to preface this post by saying I'm not trying to attack SecondLife, nor any of its supporters. My sole intention is to identify what I see as some important issues that need to be addressed when individuals and organizations investigate moving into SecondLife. There are many people doing very cool work in SecondLife, and I respect them for it. I now pull on my asbestos underoos…
I've been following much of the SecondLife cheerleading over the last year, watching as it got hyped higher and higher as The Next Big Thing That Will Change Everything. And I've been getting more and more nervous about it. As a piece of technology, SecondLife is really amazing. It's a seamless integration of multiple virtual realities, providing ways for individuals to come together and interact, create, and play in a pretty impressive 3D environment. My issues aren't with SecondLife, per se, but its elevated status on top of the hype pyramid as something that will revolutionize business and education.
Imagine! My campus can have a virtual space, so students can get together and learn in virtual reality! My company can have an immersive online store experience, where shoppers can walk through the product line and buy stuff right there! This is going to change everything!
Except, it isn't. It's just a shiny 3D environment. That's all. We've had that before. VRML. HotSauce. Both of those where The Next Big Thing in Virtual Reality, over a decade ago. eWorld was supposed to change the way we interact with networks and communities. Heck, even Gopher was hyped (albeit with less fervor) as The Next Big Thing (20 years ago). I remember playing with each of these as they came out, and the feeling was quite similar to the excitement around SecondLife today.
But what, really, is SecondLife? It's an economic system with the sole purpose of driving revenue to the company that owns it, Linden Labs. That is the only reason for SecondLife to exist. All other aspects of the system serve this goal. Including education. It is not open, nor Open. Yes, you can write scripts, as long as you stay within the boundaries imposed by Linden Labs in order to protect the economic viability of the system. Copybot was an attempt to bypass the artificially imposed economy of scarcity, with one based on open abundance.
So, as long as we're willing to colour within the lines, and behave according to the laws mandated by Linden Labs, then we're able to use SecondLife. Which is fine, except you need a place to hang your hat "in world" and that costs money, both in "Lindenbucks" and real hard cash. This can range from $5US to $195US per month to rent a parcel of "land" to build your home on. If you want your own island, as many companies and organizations do, it'll cost you $1675US to create the island, then $295US per month to keep it.
So you could wind up spending thousands of dollars to essentially rent some drive space on a Linden server somewhere. Which means only the rich will be able to own land, setting up a nice class or caste system. Rich landowners get to make the rules, homeless paupers get to wander from region to region until they find a place that works for them. Even things as simple as choosing your own in-world name can cost you money. There are stores to buy new skin, hair, clothes, even coffee. You can actually pay real money for virtual coffee.
Now, LindenLabs has made a giant leap in releasing the code for the SecondLife Viewer application, making it possible for the community to enhance and extend the functionality of the SecondLife interface. But, they haven't opened up the server. We can modify the source for the client application, but we're still chained to their economic engine if we want to do anything with it.
Linden is essentially building a new 3D world wide web, controlling the entire network themselves to maximize profit to the company. They control the horizontal and the vertical. And we're welcome to play (and pay) as long as we follow their rules.
For interactive 3D environments, especially for education, I am much more interested in the Croquet Project – an open source platfom that allows anyone to create their own world(s) for free, and to easily create hyperlinks between them. Anyone can run their own server. Anyone can run the client, and create anything they are willing and able to create. For free.
Sure, the Croquet system isn't as mature as SecondLife. It's not quite ready for prime time, but it's getting closer.