Tuesday, January 30, 2007

SPECers (or how Second Life was created)

"The past is never dead. It's not even past.", Faulkner


When my daughter asked me how Second Life has been created in the first place, I instinctively had those neurons of Philip Rosedale, Linden Lab and Startup firing up, a sketch of a story being already under construction. But then some uninvited images burst into the scene, depicting some strange submarines, black-and-white spaceships, illustrated helicopters and the face of a known children books' author, and so I ended up telling my daughter a completely different story.

"Do you remember those Jules Verne's books you've read?" I asked her. She hesitated a bit, then said "Five weeks in a balloon? Captain Nemo?"
"Exactly", I said. "Now, you know that when Jules Verne wrote about Nemo, balloons and spaceships to the moon none of that actually existed. But when his books got published thousands of children from all around the world read them, enjoyed the stories and retained their images. Some of them grew up and became scientists, probably just because they had an implicit desire to realize those childhood's memories of a submarine, a spaceship or a balloon".

“And?” asked my daughter.
“And… they built those submarines and spaceships! Yet here's what I want you to see – they've built those machines exactly in the spirit of their fictional designer, as if once Jules Verne described a submarine, no one could come out and say Hey – I've just finished building a submarine, unless it had the look and feel of what Verne had described".

“I still don't see how all that is related to Second Life?” she said.
"I’m coming to that. But even before – do you know how do we call those people today? Jules Verne, Leonardo da Vinci and all those authors and artists who’ve described artifacts that didn’t exist at their time?"
“No”, she said, “How?”
“We call them prophets. We say that they predicted the creation of those things. But I think it’s a wrong description of their capabilities. They were much more than passive visionaries; they were actively designing our future, providing us with a specification and a blueprint. And because those blueprints were so fascinating, vivid and exciting, some people decided to realize them, and in exactly the same spirit suggested by the blueprint's designer”

“Dad”, she said, “I lost you long ago. If you don't get to the point now - then... forget about my question".
"But that's it - we're there. You see, just like Verne, there is an author named Neal Stephenson who wrote a novel by the name of Snow Crash - first novel I'll give you once your English is good enough. And in this book, Stephenson is actually providing a spec, a blueprint for Second Life describing not just the platform, but also how people interact with it through their avatars and some other spacial equipment; the way cool/nerd avatars look, their clothing, their movements; the social classes that get developed around in-world programming skills - and so forth. And this book, which was published in the early 90's was probably read by some guys and girls who decided to make it real, to realize the spec. And that's, I believe, how Second Life was created in the first place".

My daughter liked it. She was probably thinking about her future as a spec implementer, fantasizing the re-engineering of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, having a dream-world in black, brown and white just for herself (and probably also for some of her secret best friends).

And just to make sure that she got the idea, I also showed her:

1. The Catalog of Nautilus Desgins - which is a historical collection of Nautilus models made by designers who have re-engineered Verne's specification. Our modern submarine looks familiar...
2. Phillip Torrone's Flickr set presenting a Gargoyle's design (In Snow Crash, Gargoyles are always-on humans, wearing special information processing clothes, goggles etc.)
3. The Matrix – one of the specs of our future. But that would already be my next post.


Q: This is a deterministic description of reality, of evolution: a SPECer designs and future generations implement. Where’s the free will? Where’s randomness?
A: Not all designs are implemented. Each design is a potential and only few get realized. Why certain designs are picked by a certain generation – is it the free will of individuals, the free will of a society or sheer randomness - I don’t know.

Q: What is our role in the story?
A: I think we have two critical roles:
1. Picking and implementing the right designs
2. Designing for the future

Q: What’s a “Right” design?
A: I don’t know.

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