Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Future of Virtual Worlds: A Prelude

My last posts discussed how Linden Lab's Enterprise-focused business strategy between 2008-2010 helped derail Second Life’s fast-track growth and contributed to the subsequent history of grid contraction and active user stagnation. Before I look at possible futures, I want to provide some contextual background, inspired by Marshall McLuhan, on how new mediums evolves over time.
The Evolution of New Mediums

Modern Times
We can’t fully understand or foresee the ramifications of new technology when it arrives. From the invention of the motion pictures to the introduction of the computer, we first view new mediums within the context of what came before. That’s why new mediums are often christened with two-word names like “motion picture,” “horseless carriage,” and “smart phone.” Each appellation presents the new technology in the light of the previous paradigm. As Marshall McLuhan wrote, “ We look at the present through a rear view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”

For instance, people first thought of cars as essentially faster horses. In retrospect, we now see that the automobile eventually changed the world, helping to spawn technical, commercial and cultural revolutions including mass production, suburbanization, fast food, integration, woman’s lib and the oil industry.

Each new technology must travel through an evolutionary process to reach its potential to change people’s lives:
  • An ecosystem of supporting infrastructure must be developed and institutionalized before an innovation can push a new medium into mainstream use. For instance, the power of the automobile to transform society was only actualized when the highway system was put into place. Standards must be set and supply chains developed. Laws must be created or adapted, like the 1900 ruling that each frame of a film did not need to be copyrighted individually, but could be protected in a single submission.
  • A psychological transformation takes place over time as creators and consumers break out of conventional thinking and begin seeing the new medium outside the context of what came before. For instance, after the introduction of the motion picture, filmmakers began to push the medium beyond the constraints of photography and theater. Techniques like panning, zooming, cuts, montages and flashbacks were developed over time and were initially confusing for viewers. It took time for viewers to develop fluency in the visual language of filmmaking.
Iterative Advancement

Although a new medium may be popularized by a single product, it advances over time through a series of improvements and refinements from multiple product and content providers. For instance, the introduction of the iPhone was revolutionary, but many of the apps and features we use most today were developed over the last seven years, not only by Apple, but by makers of Android phones, network providers and third-party application developers. The initial breakthrough may come from a single source, but subsequent improvements are the result of iterative advances, in formal and informal collaboration between creators and consumers:
  • new capabilities are developed and distributed by product and content creators
  • users figure out innovative ways to apply them while competitors and business partners jump into the market spawning new innovation
The cycle continues over decades through an ongoing feedback loop between creators and consumers of technology. Initial leaders such as AOL and MySpace may end up on the backwaters of mediums they helped invent and popularize.

I’ll continue next time with a look at how the generic process for new mediums applies specifically to software-based technology and virtual worlds. Then, I’ll offer some thoughts on how Linden Lab might move forward with Second Life informed by that perspective.


Derek said...

"Nobody yet knows the languages inherent in the new technological culture; we are all technological idiots in terms of the new situation. Our most impressive words and thoughts betray us by referring to the previously existent, not the present."

"We must invent a new metaphor, restructure our thoughts and feelings. The new media are not bridges between man and nature; they are nature."

"Environment is process not container. Technologies begin as anti-environments, as controls, and then become environmental, needing the endless spawning of new anti-environments as controls."
"COUNTERBLAST indicates the need for a counter-environment as a means of perceiving the dominant one."

etc, etc, etc...

Marshall McLuhan, COUNTERBLAST, 1969

Botgirl Questi said...

Derek: Marshall McLuhan is one of the main influences on how I think about virtual worlds and technology.