Barnett in Second Life

crowd overviewBarnett answering questionsclose-up with heckling

On Wednesday I attended Thomas P.M. Barnett's appearance in the virtual world Second Life.

Images: an overview of the gathering crowd; Dr. Barnett answering my question about the ICC; close-up with mild heckling. Click on the images for larger versions.

Summary: a significant event; a brave experiment; a qualified success; lessons can be learned.

A Significant Event

Online 3D virtual worlds are progressively becoming mainstream; in many ways, the game worlds (Lineage, EverQuest, World of Warcraft etc.) are mainstream gaming, with millions of subscribers. The non-game virtual worlds like Second Life therefore have a credibility gap to get over where most people are concerned: many people (both subscribers and non-subscribers) view then and talk about them as if they were "just" games, referring to users as "players" and so on.

This has started to change recently partly thanks to lots of coverage of Second Life from the non-gaming press (two from many: RocketBoom, Scotsman Magazine). There have even been author events in Second Life before: however, although I rate his work highly I can't rate an appearance by a science fiction author such as Cory Doctorow in Second Life as particularly significant: after all, as a professional speculative thinker and well known member of the nerdocracy he's exactly the kind of person I'd expect to run across in a virtual world.

What will turn the corner for virtual worlds as "platforms" (as Philip would say) or more simply "places you go to do stuff" will not be their adoption by pure technologists like myself or techno-futurists like Doctorow. It will be their acceptance as sensible places to go to do ordinary things by people who don't already have a bias towards the geeky coolness of this kind of solution. A presentation and Q&A by a best-selling current affairs author as part of a book tour for his new book is significant for Second Life because it is just the sort of thing he would have been doing anyway… but virtual. If and when we get to the point where authors of all stripes (even ones that don't blog a torrent of words every day) are prodded into including Second Life as part of their publication tour, I suggest that we're well on our way towards integrating Stephenson's metaverse into our everyday life. Similarly, when people with serious public policy ideas start using places like Second Life as just one more of the venues they can use to reach a global audience, we'll know the credibility gap is closing. Dr. Barnett's session was a bit of both of the above, and therefore doubly welcome.

Widespread adoption will of course bring two problems in its wake. Firstly, existing residents of the virtual worlds will have to weather their own version of the September that never ended. More of a problem is that "Second Life" will no longer make sense as a name, and Linden Labs will have to rename it. Perhaps (semi seriously) they will be able to buy metaverse.com from Adam Curry.

A Brave Experiment

Although briefing some strangers on the internet can't possible compare to the (in my mind) sheer horror of standing up and telling a room full of Pentagon flags that they're doing the wrong thing, trying something like this must have caused a certain amount of trepidation. I didn't have any fears for Dr. Barnett's ability to deal with hecklers but I was impressed that his main reaction to the experience was one of exhaustion.

Barnett's publishers were brave enough to allow the importing of a decent chunk of the new book into Second Life to be given away as working virtual books at the event. The result is a really nice working book made by Falk Bergman that you hold in your hand and read while sitting, complete with page turning sounds. Inevitably I now want to own the real one, although I'll probably wait for the paperback and try and actually read my dust laden copy of Leviathan in the meanwhile.

It was pretty brave of everyone concerned to schedule this for two days after a major software release in Second Life. Although the new version is supposedly better with large gatherings, I still had issues and a fair number of people in the audience couldn't see the slides change. Plus, the lecturer was naked for a few minutes at the start for many viewers. I guess that turns the old "imagine the audience in their underwear" tip on its head.

A Qualified Success

With the exception of some technical glitches, I think the event itself went extremely well. You can see a complete transcript of the brief, along with all the slides and the subsequent Q&A session, at the Second Life Future Salon blog entry. Hamlet Linden, in-world journalist, has coverage starting here.

A fair number of people in the audience disagreed (vocally or behind the scenes) with the ideas presented. Of course, there is hardly any point in briefing a group of people who already agree with everything you say; that would just be cultism. On the other hand, at least some of the comments seemed to arise from misunderstandings: a perceived disrespect for the UK military, for example, which from a reading of The Pentagon's New Map I find hard to attach to Dr. Barnett.

The audience was an international one, but I'm far from sure I agree with Hamlet Linden's perception that "most of the deepest skepticism to Barnett's ideas seemed to emanate from the European Residents". I think the phenomenon is more that Second Life residents are generally a pretty lively bunch; the person who suggested to me that Tom's avatar should have come equipped with horns wasn't European; they simply disagreed fundamentally with the proposals being made. Similarly, the review of Blueprint for Action that Hamlet quotes characterises "most intellectuals" (in Europe) as having a "hatred for America"; from where I am sitting in the UK this sounds improbable unless you choose a particularly selective definition of "intellectual" or rather a low intensity definition of "hatred". Certainly, it would be hard to reconcile any supposed general European hatred of America with residence in a virtual world overwhelmingly populated by Americans.

Where I think there is a concern is that the mode of presentation in Second Life (essentially typing with a few slides thrown in) currently provides orders of magnitude less bandwidth between presenter and audience than Barnett's normal one, which avowedly involves the audience "drinking from the firehose" of information. I can't help but feel that this meant that without some background some people were left behind and started drawing unintended conclusions.

Lessons Can Be Learned

The most obvious lesson to be learned from this event is, I believe, that virtual spaces like Second Life have real promise for this kind of use. The sense of physical presence is there, which leads to a sense of connection with the speaker that I don't think is present in "just chat" or even in televised events. You even have, built-in and used by everyone, the kind of side-channel audience messaging that in the physical world only happens at tech conferences where a laptop-equipped audience can use tools like IM or SubEthaEdit to become more than just an audience of individuals.

There are still many rough edges, though. For example, on arrival at the venue I experienced a factor of 50 or so drop in frame rate to about 0.3 frames per second, making it impossible to move fr several minutes. I solved this in the end by logging out and selecting different rendering options, but someone new to Second Life, who has perhaps joined to attend this event, would have been incapable of doing this. We obviously need the software to be more adaptive in this kind of situation so that it degrades more gracefully under the strain.

Similarly, when I finally got to my seat I missed the introduction and Tom's initial remarks because my seat happened to be outside the range of the public address system. The way this is currently done in Second Life, there will always be "dead spots" because it is impossible to perfectly fill a venue with a series of repeaters each of which serves a 10m spherical volume. It is probably possible to be more careful in the design of venues to address this in the short term, but a longer term solution must lie with the platform developers: it doesn't seem unreasonable to allow the person addressing a large gathering to have a "voice" which carries further than usual.

Other than the platform level issues, my main observation is that public speaking in Second Life in particular is very different to public speaking in the real world. One (in retrospect) obvious aspect of this is that whereas in real world speaking the audience hears your words as you speak them, text "speech" in Second Life is transferred in bursts whenever you hit the enter key. If you use very long bursts, corresponding to sentences or paragraphs, the audience spends most of their time watching the "I am typing" animation and this can cause their attention to wander. Experienced public speakers in this new medium tend to simulate the rhythms of normal speech by using smaller, more frequent bursts; of course this means that you can't go back on what you've already said, but this shouldn't be a problem for someone experienced in real world presentations. I predict that the profession of "virtual public speaking coach" will be coming into existence pretty soon.

In Conclusion

Everyone involved in organising this event seems to have concluded that it has been worth doing. I certainly feel the same for my part; I came out with a little more understanding than when I went in and that's always worth my time. I certainly hope Tom Barnett feels that the time he spent with us was intriguing enough for him to to take up Jerry Paffendorf's offer to keep in touch. After all, if there is one part of his thinking that all Second Lifers can appreciate, it is that connectivity is key.

I'd suggest, though, that he get himself an alternate account in case any of those nasty Europeans with the virtual tomatoes catch up with him in a dark cyber-alley…

Disclaimer

This is a technical blog, not a political one, so I have tried to write the above without talking much about Dr. Barnett's actual views, or my own. For the record, I reckon that I buy perhaps 75% of what I understand from The Pentagon's New Map, including most of the main thrust of the argument and the conclusions he draws. I do disagree with him on the role of the ICC, but his answer to the question I asked at the event (as "Alexander Daguerre", you can see it at the end of the transcript) at least helped me understand the internal rationale for his views even though it didn't convince me of them.

Comments

I agree with the premise of your post that Tom Barnett's "appearance" on SL is a precursor for offering the SL platform as a another medium for the intro and book tour for best selling authors.

In conjunction with his alter ego and tech wizard, Critt Jarvis, Tom has said that the integration of his blog and the blog audience with his authoring of the Blue Print for Action not only made the book easier to write(adopting many suggestions from his audience of readers of his first book the Pentagon's New map) but helped him reduce its "time to market" dramatically.

I have been a fan of Tom's for several years and recently had the pleasure of interviewing him live at the Future in Review Conference - I can see now how we could have integrated an SL audience in real time as a part of our conversation.

I had already made contact with Robin "Linden" at
Linden Labs to follow up on the opportunity for bringing popular ( or emerging) authors onto the SL "stage" - and I think Tom's trailblazing debut on SL will incent others to give it a try.

If you would like to discuss the evolution of this process, particularly the augmentation of your suggestion for a virtual public speaking coaching process, I would enjoy continuing the conversation.

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