NYC Opera Cosi fan tutteWent to see City Opera’s Cosi fan tutte tonight (you know, the version without Natalie Portman). The 85 year-old Rudel, the original director of the NYC Opera, has returned to direct a short run of the familiar opera, and the house was packed. We had a great pair of seats, with thanks to the anonymous benefactor!

It comes at an interesting time, since we have spent the week in both classes discussing the question of anonymity, pseudonymity, and trust in virtual environments–which is one of the core themes of Cosi. This follows on Reid Cornwell’s attempt to create a virtual crowd of supporters, and discussions over whether anonymity of authorship in wikis like Wikipedia leads to or takes from its credibility. In Cosi, of course, the anonymous act is the common conceit in a lot of farces (leaving aside the question of whether Cosi is a farce): an attempt is to test the faithfulness of two young women to their betrothed by pretending to be someone else and wooing them. In other words, pseudonymity–deception–is employed in order to discover a deeper truth.

One of the arguments that often comes up is that it doesn’t really matter whether a character is “real,” what matters is the reputational capital that person has built. So, even if we do not know the “true name” of someone contributing to Wikipedia, for example, the fact that they have behaved in a particular way in the past represents some suggestion of how they are expected to behave in the future. Their personal integrity is tied not to their body, but to this pseudonym. Arguably, one’s reputation has always been a particularly valuable piece of social capital (“The purest treasure mortal times afford, is spotless reputation”), but it seems that folks have only recently been taking in particularly seriously as something that may be used, traded, and exchanged for other kinds of capital (i.e., selling out).

Does a person who assumes a name enter with no reputation at all? That is not the case. We take on virtual bodies: the way we write, our email domain, the design of our blog (uh oh!). All of these are analogues for ways of stereotyping someone’s character when we meet them in real life. However, the ability to assume a new person’s identity online is, possibly, more easily done than in the physical world. And so, it is possible to take on a persona that may easily be killed off (“Defend your reputation, or bid farewell to your good life for ever”) as a kind of “extra life.”

All of this comes to a head in the discussions over policing Second Life. For those who have not been tracking on the issue, a sort of Philosopher’s Stone has made its way into the virtual world and is playing havock with the virtual economy. (Are all economies virtual? I suppose. The explicit creation of artificial scarsity, however, seems to make the economy in virtual worlds more virtual.) Using a tool called a CopyBot, anyone can retrieve a complete object and store a copy of it for themselves. It’s the equivalent of walking down a street, seeing a nice car, and giving yourself a copy of it. Obviously, Mercedes isn’t going to be happy about this.

The question is “How do you stop it?” If this sounds like a common question, it is. It’s the same question people ask about intellectual property in lots of different forums. There has been some suggestion that Linden Labs would employ the DMCA as a way of seeking out damages from those who violated the rules of the world. But this requires knowing exactly who everyone is, because suing an “extra life,” means that the person merely bankrupts that fictitious identity.

I suspect that the solution in Second Life, and in many analogous situations, is the creation of explicit social contracts in walled off communities where extra policing is available, and where anonymity is outlawed.

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