27 November 2006

Interview with Second Life's Philip Rosedale, Part I

As I mentioned, last week I had an article in the Guardian about Second Life and the concerns over the CopyBot program. This was largely based on an extensive interview with Linden Lab's founder and CEO, Philip Linden, conducted on 6 November, 2006, together with email follow-ups.

One of the frustrating things with articles for hard-copy titles like the Guardian is that space is always at a premium. This means that there were only a limited number of quotations that I could use from the interview, and that a huge amount of interesting material remained unprinted. Happily, blogs can function as an adjunct to traditional publishing, offering all kinds of supplementary material.

So I'm making the full text of the interview available here. I've tidied this up only minimally, since I was keen to preserve the incredible energy and enthusiasm that Rosedale transmits in his speech. This first part concentrates on the roots of Second Life; the second and final part, looks at its current state and possible futures.

Glyn Moody: When did you first start thinking about creating an imaginary world? What was the attraction of the idea?

Philip Rosedale: I'd say there are two things about me that probably made me so passionate about what we are doing. The first was that since I was a little kid I was interested in physics, and also in how things worked. I was doing doing electronics when I was really young, and started programming computers as soon as I had enough money to get one.

I think the second thing about me that made me have the particular bent on Second Life that I did was that I was very creative. Sometimes you get that, you get somebody who's fairly artistic and creative but they get into science and technology. I'm definitely one of those people. I am left-handed, and I'd say cognitively I'm really left-handed.

Glyn Moody: You've mentioned books as being very important to you as a child, and the fact that they represented an early form of virtual reality: to what extent is your work with virtual worlds a kind of authorship or creativity for you?

Philip Rosedale: I think there's an important differentiation. I think there are people who played a lot in Dungeons and Dragons, and read a lot of books, and immersed themselves in the fantasy world that can be constructed through the simulator that is your brain, by reading books. And I think there are lot of people who went in the direction of saying, Well, can't I create a book in a computer that is my own vision for a particular kind of world? And then you, the user, can wander around in my vision. I think that there are a lot of people in history who have done a lot of really interesting projects that fall into that category. But it's really important to note that Second Life isn't one of those.

The difference is that Second Life is not under my control, and it was never my fantasy to be the Dungeon Master of Second Life. I was very, very passionate from the earliest times about the idea of creating a place that re-implemented the laws of physics in a simulation. But once that was done, I like everyone else would be free to play however I wanted with those Lego blocks, where the Lego blocks were atoms in this new world.

I point that out because there is a real upper limit to what one creative person can do when they are the only artistic input into the structure of a world. And I think there is also an experiential upper limit: World of Warcraft or Everquest can only be so interesting so long as all the content is basically laid out by a first Michelangelo who draws out the world. Second Life just was never that way - it was just dirt at the beginning. I never tried to create anything beautiful, I didn't want to make a book.

Glyn Moody: So in a way you had the same intuition as the free software people about collaboration being a much richer avenue for creation?

Philip Rosedale: I was excited by the idea of being able to build things and show them to people. And I wanted those other people to build things and show them to me. The ability to communicate with great sophistication and to externalise one's thoughts – about my intentions, my thoughts, my designs – those were the two foundational things that I was trying to enable in building the environment.

Glyn Moody: With 20-20 hindsight your career looks as if at every step you've done things in order to achieve your final goal; to what extent did you consciously say: I'll do this and then this in order finally to build my virtual world?

Philip Rosedale: When Snow Crash came out in 1992, my wife bought me the book for my birthday and said: Oh, you're going to like this, another one of these crazy people like you thinking about this simulation stuff. So by then amongst my friends I was well known as the guy into this digital world idea.

I used to do a presentation on the mythology of the Metaverse. Movies often present you with a picture of a future that's mature, and then they try to suggest in some either really detailed or minimal way how things got to be that way. And I always laughed about how the mythology of the Metaverse was always wrong.

People would always say, Well, it all started because businesses wanted to visualise data in 3D and time went by and now we have people walking their dogs and dancing – that's baloney. It never happens that way. New mediums are always used by creative people for play first. And they're not used by big businesses to better imagine their data. The same thing was true of instant messaging, email, television, radio, the Web itself – all of those mediums were used initially for entertainment and just for people who wanted to goof off. They were not trusted; and then as time went by they became trusted, and then people began using them for business because they were in the vernacular by that point.

In the mid-'90s I was already telling my friends this Metaverse thing isn't going to work until it's really sexy and exciting, and it's not going to be with the computers that are around. All these companies and projects are going to fail, and that's going to suck. Because we're all dreaming this dream, and all these people are getting companies funded to go after it, and I want to do that too, but I know that it isn't going to work.

I said to people: video compression over the Internet – this is 1995 - however, will work, and that's a powerful communication enabler. And besides that, I wanted to get some experience writing programs for Windows. So I said, OK, I'll write a program that does multipoint video conferencing – a solvable algorithmic problem if you're just trying to do 2-way 28.8 modem communication of video streams.

So I built this product called FreeVue. Rob Glaser saw it, asked me to go to RealNetworks. I didn't want to move to Seattle; the big final decision that I made to go to RealNetworks was that – and I told my friends this – I'm going to go to Real Networks because I'm going to get a great engineering management experience because this project is going to be a big project – this virtual world thing.

In mid-1999 networking got fast enough, and Nvidia released the big 3D card, the GeForce2, and I said, Man, I'm out of here, I've got to start this, it can be done. But the "it can be done" was always contingent on the idea that it had to be playful and fun and chaotic and just crazy for the kind of vision for the Metaverse to take off.

Glyn Moody: I believe that originally Linden Lab was going to be a hardware company: could say a little about those early days – what you were trying to do, and what happened to change your mind?

Philip Rosedale: In '93 I was trying to imagine a way to put multiple cheap monitors around one's head. For $300 you could buy pretty good monitors. If you wanted to create an immersive display where you could really have the world all around you, you could put three of these things right next to each other – or more, but three was good – but you had to hold your head 15 inches from the screen to be immersed in the image. All these companies were trying to build head-mounted displays so you could look around, but that was dumb because you couldn't build LCDs that had anyway near the quality of a monitor, even for $30,000.

I was sitting one night just totally obsessed with this problem, and thought: God, you know, what would be really cool would be if I didn't have to move my head - I can't move 40 lb monitors around: what if I didn't actually move my head at all? What if I couldn't move my head at all, but when I tried to look to the left and right, there was something that could feel me trying to look to the left and the right, and would move my view around. And I realised this was a powerful idea.

Fast forward six years. I had some money, and I had time. I said: I am going to get a shop and a welder and a milling machine and I'm going to build this thing, because it's going to cost 50 grand to prototype. So this is '99 to late 2000 - and we actually got it working: we have it here in the office. There's all our machine tools and stuff at the back and you can try it out. They call it "The Rig": our users have heard about it, most people don't know what it is. But it's really, really a cool idea, and we want to get back to it.

There were probably four or five of us in the office by the time we were fiddling around with this prototype, and I remember saying: you guys, even if we build this haptic rig, and you can literally walk into a virtual world and hold your hand up in front of your face and look at it: Where are we going to go with this thing - Doom? It seemed like a pretty paltry use for such revolutionary technology.

Obviously, even in '99 we had been prototyping some of the simulation layers of Second Life, but we had this realisation: the much bigger problem is the software, the hardware's easy. You can use any number of interfaces for this stuff, but the thing that matters so much here is the place. The place that we're all going to go is the hardest problem from a technology perspective and also probably the best business. So that was it.

Glyn Moody: In April 2003, you made a major change to Second Life when you decided to allow residents to keep the intellectual property rights to the things they made. I've come across a couple of explanations for what led up to that, including de Soto's book, The Mystery of Capital, and a meeting involving Larry Lessig and Edward Castronova: could you untangle what exactly led you to make that change, and why it was important?

Philip Rosedale: In 2002 a guy named Doug, who works here, gave me that book, The Mystery of Capital, and he said: You've got to read this. It had a terrible front cover, and I don't have much time for business self-improvement books, and I remember looking at it and thinking: oh god, this is one of these books that some academic wrote because he needed to finish his degree. But Doug's a really smart guy, and I was like, OK, if Doug says to read it, I'll read it. Those first 15 pages it reads like – I don't know what it reads like – it reads like the Gettysburg Address – it's just moving. Basically I read that, and I was like, man, oh man, that's so convincing.

There's a book I read before that, though, that we were talking about a lot, which really informed our design, and that's Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities. That was one of the most important things because it was in 2001, 2002, that we got into this idea that the way online games worked was just completely inconsistent with what we're trying to do, and that Everquest or online games of the time were what Jane Jacobs was talking about when she said that planned cites all failed.

Then you read Death and Life of Great American Cities, and what that says is that it all has to be random. The randomness gives way to overlapping behaviours where some people are walking to go to the store, some people are walking to their home, some people are walking to go to work. Those people all run into each other, there's a kind of a commons behaviour where they'd like to just double click on their work and get there immediately, but they can't: they have to walk. That means they entertain each other: some of the times you're the one being entertained, and some of the times you're the entertainment, that's kind of what Jane Jacobs said. And we were like, oh yeah, that's exactly what we want. Because if the world is just created by everybody, then you'll have this very haphazard, crazy kind of feel to it, and that'll be incredibly powerful the way New York is.

The Mystery of Capital was like a follow on to that, because it said for people to build that way everybody has to own their own intellectual property - including of course physical real estate - in a very explicit way with alienability and all that stuff.

Then we had this little Star Chamber, with Larry Lessig, Ted Castronova, Julian Dibbell, Mitch Kapor. We all sat down and looked at what was going on and those guys were like, yeah, you've got you're thinking exactly the right way, you've got to let the economy be free running and real.

Glyn Moody: Around the same time there was something of a revolt among the residents of Second Life over the tax system then in place: what exactly happened?

Philip Rosedale: That was us doing dumb stuff and getting reminded of it. We were never misaligned with people's creative intentions – the idea of no taxation without representation. Our initial economy wasn't very real – the economy more or less worked the same way, but you couldn't convert things back and forth to dollars. We always intended to make it completely real, so that people could use those tokens of value, transferable in any way they wanted. That went back to some of the 2001 thinking about how people that owned property or whatever in Second Life would be the operators of Second Life, and that at least some of them would want to make money doing that.

The whole tax revolt thing was very funny because what we were trying to do was balance the public commons - resources that you access in Second Life like scripting and land and how many prims you could build and whether they had lights on. We built this taxation system that every Monday would automatically tax you according to how much stuff you had in the world and how big it was. It's still fundamentally a good idea; the problem was this tax bill that you got every week that was so algorithmically complicated that no human, us included, could estimate what their tax would be. It was terrible. So people just had a horrible experience with that.

It was kind of chance that people were so pissed off with the prim accounting system at about the same time we switched over to allow people to own land. The other thing was, in the initial economy you couldn't pay more and get more land – you had to earn more money within the economy to buy more land. When we made that change at the end of 2003, we said, look look look: this is just land, this is just property. If you want to buy more of it, you can buy it with dollars, we're not going to stop you from doing that.

That pissed off people too, because they said: Look, we want it to be a pure meritocracy. If you're successful in Second Life you cannot use US cash to get more land, you have to please other people. And in principle, I think that's lovely. But the problem is you've got a sort of "water seeks it's own level" there around design; arbitrage always exists. So it seems foolish to be a big central "we're going to catch you if you're cheating" organisation and try to keep people from selling those credits, those Linden dollars on the side. So we said, screw that, we're just going to open the system all the way – you can buy land and turn Linden dollars into dollars.


internetfuzzi said...

Great interview, many thanks =)

Promising Insights, and I like to wish Philip Rosedale and the Metaverse all the best =)

Anonymous said...

In effect, land tier is the defacto tax which hides the mathematics behind the elder tax system. He stopped just short of saying that. :-)

Glyn Moody said...

True: but at least it's progress of sorts...