Filmed on Thursday November 30, 02006

Philip Rosedale

'Second Life:' What Do We Learn If We Digitize EVERYTHING?

Philip Rosedale is founder and CEO of San Francisco-based Linden Labs, which brought "Second Life" to the public in 2003. An expert in streaming media, he was formerly CTO of RealNetworks. He has a physics degree from UC San Diego.

Philip Rosedale is the founder of a burgeoning Web phenomenon, the massive multi-player substitute reality called "Second Life." When the scheduled speaker for this month, Francis Fukuyama, was suddenly sidelined by a motorcycle injury, Rosedale sprinted from the bench to take his place at the podium. He'll be improvising; he has a scintillating world to improvise with.

2nd Life takes off

What is real life coming to owe digital life?

After a couple years in the flat part of exponential growth, the steep part is now arriving for the massive multi-player online world construction kit called “Second Life.” With 1.7 million accounts, membership in “Second Life” is growing by 20,000 per day. The current doubling rate of “residents” is 7 months, still shortening, which means the growth is (for now) hyperexponential.

For this talk the founder and CEO of “Second Life,” Philip Rosedale, tried something new for him— a simultaneous demo and talk. His online avatar, “Philip Linden,” was on the screen showing things while the in-theater Philip Rosedale was conjecturing about what it all means. “This is a game of ‘Can I interest you more in what I’m saying than what’s going on on the screen?’”

He showed how new arrivals go through the “gateway” experience of creating their own onscreen avatar, explaining that because intense creativity is so cheap, easy, and experimental, the online personas become strongly held. “You can have multiple avatars in ‘Second Life,’ but the overall average is 1.25 avatars per person.” The median age of users is 31, and the oldest users spend the most time in the world (over 80 hours per week for 10 percent of the residents). Women are 43 percent of the customers.

The on-screen Philip Linden was carrying Rosedale’s talk notes (handwritten, scanned, and draped onto a board in the digital world). Rosedale talked about the world while his avatar flew (”Everyone flies— why not?”) to a music club in which a live song performance was going on (the real singer crooning into her computer in real time from somewhere.) The singer recognized Philip Linden in the on-screen audience and greeted him from the on-screen stage.

“More is different,” Rosedale explained. People think they want total and solitary control of their world, but the result of that is uninteresting. To get the emergent properties that make “Second Life” so enthralling, it has to be one contiguous world with everyone in it. At present it comprises about 100 square miles, mostly mainland, with some 5,000 islands (all adding up to 35 terrabytes running in 5,000 servers). Defying early predictions, the creativity in “Second Life” has not plateaued but just keeps escalating. Everybody is inspired to keep topping each other with ever cooler things. There are tens of thousands of clothing designers. Unlike the aesthetic uniformity of imagined digital worlds like in the movie “The Matrix,” “Second Life” is suffused with variety. It is “the sum of our dreams.”

The burgeoning token economy in “Second Life” is directly connected to the real-world economy with an exchange rate of around 270 Linden dollars to 1 US dollar. There are 7,000 businesses operating in “Second Life,” leading this month to its first real-world millionaire (Metaverse real estate mogul Anshe Chung). At present “Second Life” has annual economic activity of about $70 million US dollars, growing rapidly.

As Jaron Lanier predicted in the early ’90s, the only scarce resource in virtual reality is creativity, and it becomes valued above everything. Freed of the cost of goods and the plodding quality of real-world time, Rosedale explained, people experiment fast and strange, get feedback, and experiment again. They orgy on the things they think they want, play them out, get bored, and move on. They get “married,” start businesses with strangers— “There are 40-person businesses made of people who have never met in real life.” Real-world businesses hold meetings in “Second Life” because they’re more fun and encourage a higher degree of truth telling.

Pondering the future, Rosedale said that every aspect of the quality of shared virtual life will keep improving as the technology accelerates and the number of creators online keeps multiplying. (”Second Life” is now moving toward a deeper order of creativity by releasing most of its world-building software into open source mode.)

Real-world artifacts like New York City could become regarded like museums. “As the fastest moving, most creative stuff in our society increasingly takes place in the virtual world, that will change how we look at the real world,” Rosedale concluded.

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