Sunday, February 24, 2008

Urban Mayhem

We think of cities today as high population densities, places where work and needs can be easily found. We think of limitless opportunity and success and concrete and glass canyons of downtown coupled with high crime and poverty in slums. Lots of people, lots of cars, lots of smog and haze. The best and the worst of humanity in six square miles.

The city today is a state unto itself. I believe there are more people living in New York City than Wyoming and a few other states combined. A city can be the majority of a state itself. Pennsylvania is described as solely Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Illinois is Chicago.

Is it sheer size that confers such authority and notoriety? Not likely. There are three cities in Texas with populations over one million. People can readily tell Dallas and Houston. What is the third? San Antonio, but you don't hear as much about it. Indianapolis has 700,000 people but most people think of it as nothing more than a football club. Clearly size, while an important part of a city, is not the sole determining factor.

An important question which may go into solving this question is what a city is supposed to do. Why is the city there in the first place? And this is really what makes a city. The most obvious answer is that above all else, a city provides a concentrated job market. People gather into a city because that is where the money is. As an example, examine Detroit. Not only is it positioned conveniently on the Great Lakes which are easily accessible through the St. Lawrence Seaway and other ports on the Lakes themselves, but for some time it was an industrial hub. People came to Detroit because the factories needed labor, and the people needed wages. Manufacturing plants converged on Detroit as a port for exports and as a rail hub for domestic business. Even before this, Detroit served as an importance crossroads on the Great Lakes. It was were the jobs were.

Compare that to Okely Township, Ohio. Have you heard of Okely? Not many have. Why is that? Because there's nothing in Okely. The only jobs in Okely are a small police station (fire station is managed by the county), the local school, and a shop that sells seven bladed razors and other assorted oddities. The people drive to other towns because there is nothing in Okely. Why do people live in Okely? Because it is peaceful and quiet. They can afford to live in a place they otherwise wouldn't be able to manage.

But some people can't afford that either financially or for other reasons. Perhaps for convenience. A fifteen minute commute by subway is much faster than an hour drive down an interstate. And that is where the city again comes into play. I'm looking for a job, perhaps I can't afford a car. A car is necessary to live in Okely. I can't live in Okely, or anyplace similar. So I find an apartment in a city. And the city grows.

There aren't any farms in a city. How will I eat? Well, grocery stores obviously. There you go, more jobs, more people, and the cycle goes on and on. It seems the job market makes or breaks a city. In these days, anyway. Cities today are radically different than in the past. We've seen that cities of today are hubs for employment.

But long ago, in the past, cities weren't seen as such. They were protection. A city would shore up behind a wall (which became today's concept of city limits and boundaries) and have some guarantee of safety from vandals, goths, and emos. Cities usually were the entire nation. Think of Rome. Or Athens. Jerusalem. All fortresses. Cities were the center of government and military power. In those days, they usually sprung around water sources (no aqueducts in those days, although the Romans pioneered the innovation) and so oasis, rivers, and lakes became the sites for most of these early cities. Sometimes this also doubled as a port which only boosted its importance.

Over time, it was realized that cities made terrible fortresses. Sanitation was poor. In the event of a siege it was worse, and food and drink could not be brought in. Some cities were starved to death by invasions, as Sparta did to Athens. With the advent of cannons, city walls were nothing more than symbols of defense, they became too easily breached. It was realized that cities were just too large a target and too hard to defend. Keeping the populace calm under a siege was all but impossible. And so we had the rise of separate forts and such, but that is tangential to our discussion.

These days, cities are jobs. Modern warfare dictates that you avoid the city. If you have to defend a city, you do so inside instead of trying to stave off the enemy at the border. Drag it out like the Battle of Berlin or Stalingrad. Terrible but effective.

As much as we'd like to think SL is oh-so-different, sometimes it follows real life, because what's good for the goose is good for the gander. In Second Life, sometimes things are different and sometimes they almost exactly mimic real life trends.

People wonder why SL has no large cities. And there are multiple reasons for this. The first is the limitations of the software itself. The most I have ever seen a sim hold is 80 avatars at once. If we adjoin four together into a box (with four corners), that means we can cram 320 avatars with varying results. There will be lots of lag and clients will crash. People will not want to stay. Look at all rentals. They are usually in quiet and smooth-running sims where a person can sit and do whatever they want in peace, far from the laggy clubs and griefers (which are becoming exceedingly rare).

And the other half of the equation is that there is no incentive for people to congregate into cities. There are no location specific jobs in SL. I can work on whatever I want where ever I want. If I have to build, say, a home, I don't have to travel and get lumber and hire workers and assemble it all into one spot. I can rezz the prims in a sandbox or on my land and slap it together right there. If someone hires me to script, I don't have to come to their shop and write it there. I don't have to ever meet them in person! I can shuttle it by giving inventory. And because of this you don't see people get together in cities.

There is a Linden sponsored city that follows the four corners idea and that city is almost perpetually deserted. Someone made something similar in Kissling with similar results. Cities in SL are doomed to fail until the software can handle greater amounts of people and there develops an incentive for people to gather as such. There is just no reason. And people don't want to be crammed, they want their privacy and peace.

Which is why I find it silly when people want to create a city in Second Life despite the examples mentioned above. I was at a Linden office hour where someone advocated using the new Department of Public Works to erect a new city for SL. It's doomed to failure. People will come to gawk at it and then it will be forgotten. Lost to the mists of time to be remembered only by historians and the occasional lost newbie. It's a waste of time and energy that could have been better spent elsewhere.

What would a city in Second Life accomplish? Nothing that would serve the residents. The Lindens want a city because as stated above a city is a landmark. It holds lots of people, and the build up it generates is a symbol of economic growth. The Lindens want a city for a trophy piece. Why do these residents want a city? Maybe they want to explore that style of building. Maybe they are urbanphiles and really want some street. The Department of Public Works is a salaried position, and the longer it would take to build something the more one would earn, and building a city with all the trappings of civilization could be a ceaseless task.

The Department of Public Works itself is something of a mystery as to how it will work. The Lindens have been taking suggestions on how it should be directed, but it has started arguments over whether to build infrastructure or content. One group advocates roads and park, and the other toys and such. What is public content? Building roads and parks and community areas would only take so much time and I'm sure it would not take long to pave the grid. On that same level, how can we make sure that the Linden approved content does not devalue the fruits of our labors?

Let's say someone in the DPW decides to make hair, so the newbies don't have to endure the default Linden hair. And it comes out beautiful. If the builder made a whole series of such as freebie content, you'd destroy the hair market in SL. Why am I going to pay for something that's coming for free? Anything these people make will destroy some small aspect of the SL economy. It would generate a mad rush as people try to get into the DPW just to maintain a living since it would be going around destabilizing markets. It wouldn't be some innocent newbie selling freebies. Newbies like that are chump change to the bigger stores. No, this would be like Anshe releasing tons of content for L$ 10 big (which you don't hear much about today, guess it wasn't that big a deal).

How would DPW go about making a city? They can't. They can make a build that looks like one and make objects that you might find in a city, but a fully functioning town is beyond their grasp. YOu just can't social engineer people into a city. It has to be a willing movement, because once you start forcing people into it, they'll leave. It won't be worth their time to be aggravated by the crappy fps they'd get in a city.

The DPW itself is something of an odd beast. As I said, no one has an idea of what kind of content to create. The Lindens ask the residents, and the answers are mixed. I think in the end, what is going to happen is that we're going to get whatever the whim of the DPW employee feels like at that moment. Heaven help us if one of them decides we need some more HUDs to make SL easier to learn. There's already enough of those to trip newbies up for the next century.

Taking polls from office hours is going to generate a limited view of SL in any case. The people at office hours are usually few, and usually the same crowd over and over and over again. Would you want me to dictate what content you'll see on your land? Because that is what's happening at these office hours. The Lindens are taking suggestions from these fifty or sixty people, and this is going to affect the entire grid of a hundred thousand or so people. I think a much better solution would be to do what they did for voice and have a poll when you log into Second Life. Put a box, and ask "What kind of Linden Lab sponsored content would you like to see?". That would represent the community much better than asking those few.

Linden Lab usually suffers from this lack of communication. They are working on it and it is much better than it used to be (when these kinds of updates would always seem to nail us on a Friday), but it's still a long way to go. I think the most important thing is we need to wean LL off this stupid 'community' idea. There are lots and lots and lots of communities. And don't hand me that "but all of SL unites into one community!!!1!" crap. That is like saying the Earth is a community.

I hear this crap from the Lindens all the time. "The community has spoken", they will reverently say, when in fact, no one gave a flying pig which way or the other. The only ones who cared were the seven dopes around the Linden office hour, so removed from the actual SL residents themselves that once, I think it was on the SLInsider, they honestly tried to say that only 5% or so of SL was about sex. The logic was that only the poseballs really were involved in sex. The bed, sheets, skybox, L$ exchanged for the 'escort', avatars, and clothes weren't made with sex in mind per se. And while that may be true (I highly doubt it), it doesn't disguise the fact that de facto they're being used in such a manner.

Once again, we see this fundamental disconnect from reality in Second Life. About the only thing the Lindens have nailed is ad farms. Ad farms were right to be banned. There is no freedom being stifled, because the definition is, I think, fairly clear and the only ones speaking up and protesting about this ban are mostly the ones who erected the stupid things for cash anyway. It's like complaining that the US government is taking away my right to yell fire in a crowded room, or my right to end someone's life.

The epitome of this disconnect with reality is manifest in their desire, or hope, or encouragement of a city in Second Life. They hold out hope against all the facts against it. Granted, they've laid off of the concept for a while now, because those sims are about as traveled as the oceans. I think that one four corner city they sponsored is pretty dead, and LL owns most of that land or subsidized it, so it cannot be making as much as land selling and tier on a normal parcel or island.

I wonder, honestly, how this Department of Public Works is going to play out. If the past record of Linden blessed things is any indication, it has a slim hope of any success.

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