Virtual Property, Rights, Riots and Governance

“Virtual property” popularly refers to virtual goods – items purchased for use or display within virtual worlds, online games, and social networking platforms (like Facebook). The term could equally apply to other cyberspace assets, like land in Second Life or Entropia. Even items acquired through the investment of time or expertise (rather than a specific currency exchange), like my Sea Turtle. If you use such simple definitions, property does not influence rights or governance: The virtual environment doesn’t substantively change anything in law. Contracts can still control the relationship between the people and organisations involved. Copyright still protects the underlying electronic and creative concepts. What’s all the fuss about?

The utopian ideals of some of the early internet pioneers are long since forgotten. More recent debates about the rights of avatars have been steam-rollered under “the tyranny of the End User Licence Agreement” (quoting Andres Guadamuz – although perhaps such an agreement is still more democratic than a unsigned contract with society). So who cares? Read More

Behind a Royal Wedding

Zara Phillips enters Cannongate Kirk.

Zara Phillips enters Cannongate Kirk.

The marriage of the Queen’s granddaughter, Zara Phillips, to Rugby player Mike Tindall has been widely reported, especially by the celebrity press. It has been referred to as “the other” royal wedding, for its stark contrast with the marriage of William and Kate (the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge) a few months before.

That contrast isn’t just in the status of those getting married – Zara being 13th in line to the British throne, William 2nd. William and Kate’s wedding was a public spectacle, with all the pomp and ceremony of state, while Mike and Zara’s was a “quiet” family affair. Unfortunately the later wedding still generated significant public interest, and the result was a bizarre clash of family and celebrity, privacy and publicity. Read More

Thoughts on the Resolution of Nothing

I ponder nothing. Endlessly. Nothing in the intangible sense – the increasing dominance of things without physical form in society and economy. Nothing in the sceptical nihilistic sense – the “meaninglessness of existence”. Even the nothing inherent in the stupidity required for cleverness.

Nothing isn’t new. The problem baffled thinkers for much of the 20th century. In the 21st we may finally be being overwhelmed by it. Possibly without realising. How society resolves a potentially uncomfortable relationship with nothing is important. And intriguing. It’s possibly the most difficult problem to resolve, yet underpins many contemporary issues.

This article introduces 3 approaches to resolving nothing. They are an attempt to summarise various different articles I’ve written over the past year. Broadly:

  • Tangible Renaissance: Physical representations of nothing. Idols to communicate abstract values. Belief in certainty.
  • Virtual Illusion: Virtual consumerism. An economy base on nothing, happily sustained in the denial of the meaninglessness. Belief in who cares?
  • Post-Existential Skepticism: Understanding built from nothing. Presumption of illusion. Belief in uncertainty.

This text is poorly researched, incomplete, and, well, uncertain. But it might be an interesting summary of the extent of my current confusion. This is written from a Western, especially British-American perspective. Keep these quotes in mind: Read More

Turning the Health World Upside Down

There’s a growing acceptance of the links between health, wealth and wider society. Not just the impact of wealth inequalities on measures like life expectancy. But the importance of fixing the underlying social causes of medical problems, rather than just administering the medicine and wondering why the patient doesn’t get better.

It’s convenient to frame this as a Third World problem. And while it is, it’s also a problem within and between developed countries. For example, people from one area of Glasgow (in Scotland) live a decade longer than people residing in another area of the same city, in spite of (theoretically) having access to precisely the same medical expertise.

A most basic analysis of Great Britain (and much of the developed world) reveals an organizational chasm, which most people are not prepared to cross: For example, medical services and social care provision are completely different activities – separate funding, differing structures, responsibilities, professional bodies. Even though individual “patients” shift seamlessly between them. It’s an organisational situation made worse by the difficulty both groups seem to have integrating with anything – in my experience (largely failing to integrate public transport into health and social services), a combination of:

  • The intrinsic (internal) complexity of the service itself, which leaves little mental capacity for also dealing with “external” factors.
  • The tendency to be staffed by those with people-orientated skills, who are often less able to think strategically or in abstract.
  • The dominance of the government, with a natural tendency towards bureaucracy and politicized (irrational) decision making.

Complexity is the biggest problem, because it keeps getting worse: More (medical) conditions and treatments to know about, higher public expectations, greater interdependence between different cultures and areas of the world. Inability to manage growing complexity ultimately threatens modern civilization – it will probably be one of the defining problems of the current age. So adding even further complexity in the form of understanding about “fringe issues” is far from straightforward.

Beyond these practicalities lurk difficult moral debates – literally, buying life. Public policy doesn’t come much harder than this.

Into this arena steps Nigel Crisp. Former holder of various senior positions within health administration, now a member of the UK‘s House of Lords. Lord Crisp’s ideas try to “kill 2 birds with one stone”: For the developed world to adopt some of the simple, but more holistic approaches to health/society found in the less developed world, rather than merely exporting the less-than-perfect approach developed in countries like Britain.

To understand Crisp’s argument requires several sacred cows to be scarified: That institutions like the National Health Service (which in Britain is increasingly synonymous with nationhood, and so beyond criticism) are not perfect. That places like Africa aren’t solely populated by people that “need aid” (the unfortunate, but popular image that emerged from the famines of the 1980s). That the highest level of training and attainment isn’t necessarily the optimum solution (counter to most capitalist cultures). If you’ve managed to get that far, the political and organisational changes implied are still genuinely revolutionary: To paraphrase one commenter, “government simply doesn’t turn itself upside down”.

While it is very easy to decry Nigel Crisp’s approach as idealistic, even naively impractical, he is addressing a serious contemporary problem. And his broad thinking exposes a lot of unpleasant truths. This article is based on a lecture Crisp gave to a (mostly) medical audience at the University of Edinburgh. And the response of his audience. The lecture was based on his book, Turning the World Upside Down: the search for global health in the 21st Century (which I have not read). Read More

Poor Gina

Comments on my original WeeWorld article continues to provide a fascinating insight into tweeny online society. Not just that so many people think I can help them, when I cannot. But that users are now as likely to be concerned about “stolen” user accounts, as they are about the social injustices of paying for points:

“Hi my name is Gina… I’m nine years old… I brought a prepaid card then some one hacked me for no reason… The username is *****… I used a fake e-mail and I don’t know how to get it back =[ Can you help me? PLEASE!”

I removed the 200 redundant characters Gina had added to the final word, that conveyed the true extent of her desperation. Literate, for such an apparently young US citizen, she also reveals some child-like confusion in causality and logic. Not that most adults could solve her problem: A “recovered” password can only be sent to the email address associated with the account – yet to receive the message, the email address cannot be fake. Further help is locked away on forums which can only be read by users who are already signed in. Signed in, using the password they can’t recover…

For a 21st century child, this is much closer to a science-fiction nightmare than adults might think: Inadvertently being locked out of a part of society by the flaws of an infallible machine. A part of society, because this stuff genuinely matters – often as much as traditional “playground” relationships. Substantial time (and often Dollar money) is invested in a user’s account. Huge networks of friends are built. The ability to start again, or start again somewhere else, is poor consolation indeed.

We can argue that having one’s virtual avatar hacked into is a “rite of passage” into the digital economy. A necessarily painful lesson that, long-term, will make adult activities such as online banking much safer. After all, this is only a childhood game, isn’t it?

Yet Gina’s short plea contains a lot of unpleasant truths, that adult society seems reluctant to address.

This article explores how the law, as experienced by the generation practically born online, differs from law as previous generations have learned it. Worlds where everyone is at least 13 years old, even if they aren’t. Where wrongs are not righted, because they’re not in the contract. And copyright legitimises a new, almost feudal social structure. A selective, but slightly unnerving, insight into a generation that may grow up to believe that law is for something else, because it so obviously isn’t for them. Read More

Difference and the Same

‘Blogosphere luminary, LarĂ­sa, thinks I’m smart. In capitals, because the word itself evidently lacks sufficient emphasis. Her implication, that this is a good thing.

Yet it’s driving me mad.

This article tries to explain why. It defines aspects of intelligence as difference from average, and then quantifies this as degrees of shared reality. The article provides a model where genius and stupidity are almost identical, where the closer someone is to the join, the closer they come to insanity – the “reality of one”.

It explains why wider human society continues to believe extremes of intelligence can be a positive attribute, in spite of the social disconnection associated with this. The article shows how perception-based, consumerist social structures have built reward structures upon this delusion. The nature of illusion is then considered, with particular reference to aesthetics, and the role of empathy in maintaining illusion among humans.

The article lastly introduces the concept of social gravity – the tendency of humans to the same – and then challenges the idea that everyone should be dragged back towards that single point of gravity: Rather, by maintaining multiple illusions, a social structure emerges where multiple extremes of difference can be maintained, while still averaging to the same.

Like some of my more abstract writing, this isn’t terribly well researched. Equally, the topic so broad, it isn’t practical to consider every counter-argument or divergence of thought within the text, and still maintain some form of readability. It may be helpful to first read Michael Gazzaniga’s Science of Mind Constraining Matter, which provides the rationale for some of the statements made in this article. Read More

Michael Gazzaniga on the Science of Mind Constraining Matter

Michael Gazzaniga. Can neuroscience explain it? You know – consciousness, being, the number 42. And if everything you thought you were transpired to be nothing more than an easily deceived heap of neurons, would that trouble “you”?

During October 2009, Michael Gazzaniga gave a fascinating series of Gifford lectures exploring how our brains process the information that gives us our sense of “I”. Gazzaniga drew extensively from neuropsychological studies of people with “split brains” (explained later) to develop the notion of a single “interpreter” within the brain – a part of the brain that analyses all the data available for meaning.

Michael Gazzaniga then attempted to rationalise the interpreter, concluding that our focus should be on the interactions of people, not the brain itself. This logic was then expanded to wider society – social structure, interaction, and law. Those later thoughts raised many more questions than were answered.

This article attempts to summarise the key themes in a non-technical manner, with a few naive attempts to interrogate the theories developed. This is my interpretation of 6 hours of lectures. Interpretation, because I tend to recreate Gazzaniga’s conclusions by re-analysing the information presented. With a complex topic such as this, it is likely that some of my interpretations will differ from his. Sections titled “Interlude” are entirely my analysis. Read More

Optimism

As I write, the United Kingdom is in the midst of a national election campaign. A month during which politicians vie to confuse the electorate with big numbers. Politics is suddenly ravaged by intangibility, because the national economy is unable to sustain the usual tangible proxies for a better life – “more schools and hospitals” – and because the tangible results of fixing that economy tend to be unattractive – “less schools and hospitals”. So the best political strategy is not explaining the consequence of choices in a language ordinary people can understand.

Do you like the sound of £100 million ($150 million)? Can I tempt you with £160 billion? Expressing these figures per person in the population can be useful. The first figure is one bar of luxury chocolate for everyone. Doesn’t sound so big now, does it? The second figure is like everyone having a £2,500 bank overdraft (loan). Strange that, because indirectly, we do.

Unfortunately, applying the economics of household groceries to major items of government expenditure introduces certainty. The idea that one can visit a store where luxury chocolate bars are sold for precisely £1.70. Yet many large elements of government expenditure are akin to ordering a chocolate bar years before it can be eaten, for a price that transpires to be somewhere between £1 and £5.

Larger businesses will be familiar with this concept. It’s called risk. Such businesses are often far more interested in what “it might cost” (£5) than what “it will cost” (£1.70), because what it might cost might lead the business to bankruptcy.

The national economy is chaotic in its complexity, but overall, things should average out. So long as all the assumptions are broadly reasonable: Ultimately some will earn/cost more, some less. Short-term in-balance can be solved by (basically) printing more money, and then down-grading future assumptions until everything is back in balance.

However, this breeds a form of arrogance. A sense that government doesn’t need to consider the possibilities. That we can deliver a radical new policy – that has never been done before – and, in spite of it never having been done before, we know precisely how much it is going to cost. Just like a bar of chocolate.

Unfortunately, assumptions tend towards optimism. On average, projected costs are less than actual costs. This isn’t just a problem for accountants. It means that decisions are taken which do not reflect reality. Potentially leading to a Disneyland scenario, where everything is affordable until after the decision is taken, when suddenly everything has become too expensive. It ultimately challenges the validity of decisions, and in doing so, the moral authority of those that take them.

This article uses the Edinburgh Tram project to demonstrate the inherent uncertainty of large government infrastructure projects. It discusses the role of optimism in planning, and the methods used to reconcile planned optimism with subsequent reality. The article describes how the involvement of the private sector in public projects has evolved over the last 20 years, and the highlights the different time-scales applied to private investment and public choices. It concludes that optimism is not only unavoidable, but necessary. Rather, the true problem lies in tendency of people to demand certainty from the public sector, while accepting uncertainty in the private sector. Read More

Animal Farm

Pandaren Monk We finally have some reliable figures for the commercial value of “minipet” micro-transactions in the game, World of Warcraft. Specifically, the sales of just 1 item: In November and December 2009, at least $2.2 million worth of Pandaren Monk pets were sold. 220,000 at $10 each. We know this because “50% of the purchasing price” was donated to charity, and “more than $1.1 million” was donated (via WoW.com).

Over 220,000 sales to a market of about 4-5 million potential customers (only active WoW players can use the minipet, and the pet does not appear to have been sold in China or Taiwan). Roughly 5% of potential customers spent $10 on an ostensibly useless vanity item: A small pet that follows you around, looking cute.

Like most virtual goods, the cost of making and selling this pet is marginal: Primarily some additional art and marketing time, all built on the back of existing systems (store, staff, world). The first 2 months of Pandaren Monk sales will have made contributions to Blizzard’s profits of about $1 million. That’s only around 1% of the business’s turnover in that 2-month period. But that 1% is “free money”. Blizzard (-Activision) would be doing a dis-service to its investors if it did anything other than continue to milk this virtual cash cow.

Apply a healthy bit of European cynicism, and it is easy to conclude a scam. Tobold‘s:

“Send me $10, and I promise to send $5 of it to charity.”

Of course, Europeans fundamentally don’t understand US philanthropic culture: The idea that it’s fine to exploit your fellow human and make outrageous amounts of money, so long as you give some of it away in the end. Some philanthropy is able to take a somewhat rational, balanced view of what is good for the world. But there is a tendency to support visually appealing issues, such as charities servicing the needs of children.

The purpose of this article is not to argue that a European, government-centric re-distribution of wealth is preferable to an approach lead by personal responsibility. (I’m not sure it is.) The problem emerging here is more fundamental: That virtual goods are replacing trade-able value with non-trade-able value. Non-trade-able value that, by definition, can not offset inequality in (game) society. Donating part of the price of sales to charity is pure irony. In true Orwellian style, we’re sleep-walking into a potentially broken social structure with the best of intentions.

This article started as a box during my Adventures in the Invisible Tent, but has been expanded here in much greater detail. This article describes what a minipet is, highlights the role of money to balance inequality in society, and explains the problem with virtual goods. Read More

Valuing Nothing

In 2007 I wrote some introductory Thoughts on a Socio-Economic Environment based on Nothing. This article continues to explore the value of things in a highly intangible, knowledge-based economy. It wanders through internet-based payment systems, economic structure, role of government, organisation of information, community, and society, before disappearing into the realms of philosophy. It contains no answers, but may prove thought-provoking. Read More