Rumours of my death are slightly exaggerated, I’ve only spent some time in hospital. On which I should mention that Russia probably deserves a Darwin award as a whole, but that’s hardly interesting to anyone who’s still a reader of this blog. So instead, I’ll try to say something that I’ve been meditating on while on the hospital bed, as the mood I’m in now is just the right shade of melancholic.

If you study anyone’s work committed over the course of many years, be it a scientist or a fiction writer, or anyone else whose trade involves telling people things creatively, you shall inevitably find the single most important idea of their career. Most people only ever get one such idea, but even a single one can earn one a place in history. While it can typically be expressed as a single, short paragraph, it’s explaining what this paragraph means that takes years.

This one is mine, or rather, a half of it. I have mentioned it previously, of course.

No such thing as a virtual world exists.

This is a topic that requires much elaboration, because I, and pretty much everyone else who speaks about virtual worlds anywhere, constantly slip into treating them as some sort of separate reality, which they in fact aren’t, or aren’t quite. It’s easier to talk about it this way, but it’s a fundamental untruth that needs to be constantly kept in mind. So let me spend a few pages explaining what it means.

I constantly see people saying things like ‘it’s just pixels’, or ‘rich in space pixels’, or, for a non-Eve example, ‘pixel sex’.1 The obvious implication is that pixels are not ‘real’ and therefore, can and should be discounted from any serious consideration. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Naive definition of reality says that only things that physically exist are real. This is called naive materialism, and it’s a very common point of view, usually held by people who have not yet had time or opportunity to devote much thought to it’s failings. For these same people, in their everyday life, the grand majority of objects they deal with present themselves only as data, independent of the substrate used to store it, or things such as obligations and expectations — even more ephemeral by nature than data. That includes money, which is actually a system of social obligations, friendships, which is a system of social expectations, social status, which is nothing but an expression of same, and numerous other things far more critical to everyday living than, say, the Moon, which, while physical, produces little more influence on that same everyday living than shifting gravity pull. The ephemeral nature of human world goes quite a bit deeper. There is nothing inherent to a table or a cup that makes these objects a ‘table’ or a ‘cup’. A table is something you put things onto, a cup is something you pour liquids into for drinking them, but take away that ascribed meaning and you will end up with a few pieces of wood or a piece of glass arranged into a specific shape. Their ‘tableness’ and ‘cupness’ are properties ascribed by people, and are not ‘real’ in the same way as the matter they consist of.

While it can be argued, that, being the result of neurons firing in people’s brains and data shuffling about in computer networks, these same things are essentially material anyway, you can only safely say that you assume so. Even with the best tools available today, like fMRI, we’re just as powerless to make general conclusions about these issues as we are powerless to make conclusions about HTTP data in a network by plugging an Ethernet cable into an oscilloscope. Even if we had such tools, it would, for quite a while, remain impractical to get into the brain casing of sufficient people to produce proof positive of the existence of those social ephemeral entities, and we’re left with studying what we assume to be their effects. While everyone’s brain normally includes a more or less coherent image of their social environment, without which daily life would be simply impossible, they have no way of rationally ascertaining that what they believe about it is in fact true.

When this is understood, the conceptual divide between a constructed virtual reality of any kind, be that a pure fictional universe in the form of text,2 an online game, or a forum community, and the social reality that exists outside these mediums disappears completely. The only thing that is truly different between them is their ‘mass’ which determines how many people’s lives they actually affect and in what way, but that’s it — they’re both equally intersubjective otherwise. That is, they exist between people. It’s all a complex web of things from which it’s a long, long way down to the actual turtle the world stands on.3

The human reality does it’s best to distance itself from the material substrate it exists on.4 We have always lived in a world that is virtual as far as our eyes can see, people naturally build it wherever they go, it’s an inherent part of sentience as we experience it. Whoever said that "That which is real doesn’t stop existing once you stop believing in it." was simply wrong. Some very real things do disappear when you stop believing in them, they vanish from your image of the world and have nothing truly objective to back them up, only their intersubjective essence. Dismiss it, and they’re gone.5 When you remember that it’s just pixels, you should also remember that there’s no end to examples that prove the reality of pixels. From wars fought over pixels, both representing things that physically exist and created from scratch,6 to divorces over Facebook postings.7 Pixels can be more ‘real’ than weather.

If we actually accept that it’s all equally real, we are then forced to conclude that an injury during a friendly boxing match needs to be treated in exactly the same manner as a similar injury inflicted on the street, which is obviously nonsense, on the same level as a carebear in Eve threatening to sue for the destruction of his ship. So what’s actually going on here?

It becomes clearer if we think of it in terms of contexts.

Just like with turtles, every subculture and every community stands on the shoulders of yet another one. The social tapestry includes numerous layers of intertwining social contexts. Each of them prescribes certain behavioral norms acceptable within it’s sphere of influence, certain values, and acceptable means of seeking those values. Some may be institutionalised as codified organisations, like governments, or visible as large scale national cultures. Others may be as vague as "that’s the way we do things around here" with here being a neighbourhood coffee shop. Some are only active at specific times and places or with specific groups of people, others are universal, or at least claim to be. It remains to be proven if a truly universal, constantly active context actually exists,8 and less universal contexts will often strive to insulate themselves from the influence of higher level context, and build a world of their own, if only for the duration of an activity. Any given person belongs to multiple contexts and behaves according to their rules — some are active constantly, others are active only part the time, yet others are ‘entered’ and ‘left’, and at any point more than one will typically be active.

Many such contexts produce what is best described as ‘gamelike space’ through self-insulation, but not all of them are games, or typically thought of as games. Online games and a resort town in particular share many such properties — they define procedures for entering and leaving a space they typically treat as separate. You stay for a vacation, or come for weekends, go under an assumed name, use the local currency, partake in local entertainment, have a resort romance which is over the moment you go your separate ways. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas for some things, but breaks straight out of Vegas and onto a nationwide rap sheet for others9 — no matter how hard a context might try to be independent, the insulation is never perfect.

As a context provides norms, it also implicitly defines deviant behaviour. The whole context itself may be treated by a higher level context of the society above it as deviant.10 To avoid being imposed onto by a more powerful context, the isolation is maintained by introducing explicit norms that ‘keep what happens in Vegas in’. Boxing happens on a specially made ring and makes participants wear protective gear, Monopoly is played with tokens explicitly worthless outside the game even though they’re called ‘money’ and work in a similar fashion, et cetera. You don’t talk about the Fight Club. Generally a complete isolation is impossible, even Eve has it’s own special gray areas, where the boundary breaks easily, but more often than not, it works.

So when you meet a mission runner flying a faction fitted ship, gank him, and then laugh as he rages on in local and calls for an internet lawyer, what you really have is a context collision problem — you’re not even actually in conflict, you’re acting in radically different contexts, which somehow coexist when they normally would not.

Which of you is the deviant here is actually an open question. Eve is, for various reasons, mechanically ambivalent about which context to support, and it’s long history of patching social environment with game mechanical rules has left the issue muddled beyond all reason. But there’s a more interesting question here: Why such radically different contexts actually coexist, and why, for as long as I remember Eve, discussions on this topic continue to revolve in circles?

Hopefully, I will come back to this topic at a later date, when I see how Crimewatch 2.0 and bounty system changes pan out. If my hunch is correct, we should see some change after that.

  1. Happens far more often than you’d think even in the most unsuitable environments.

  2. Among other important contributions to semiotics, Yuri Lotman wrote a lot about texts as thinking entities using the processing power of human brain to do their thinking. Richard Dawkins actually went on so far as to say that every thought is a replicator entity doing exactly that, so it’s less farfetched than it might seem, even though that view is often considered a bit extreme.

  3. And I’m honestly not sure it’s not turtles all the way down from there, but I’ll leave the simulationism and the Ryan North argument for some other time and place.

  4. "If the facts are against us, too bad for the facts." is more than just a statement of hypocrisy, it’s also the declaration of human world over matter. Which can be pulled off because people are so interdependent for their survival, that opinions of other people are often more important than factual truth of the material nature.

  5. As an exercise, disbelieve that your best friend actually is your friend. Every action of his that you previously interpreted as a sign of friendship now becomes getting into your good graces with a sinister ulterior motive. Friendship has disappeared, because you stopped believing in it, there’s very little he can do to convince you of his good intentions now… if he still wants to.

  6. Remember the unrest in Moslem countries, whenever someone in Western media comes up with a particularly disparaging portrayal of the Prophet? Happens once every few years, many of such portrayals were nothing but pixels. Interestingly, in most cases, the most offended people haven’t actually seen the pixels either.

  7. And yes, some of these are over pixel sex, I’ve seen a few examples firsthand.

  8. Signs point to yes, since it’s clear that at least certain contexts, particularly those acting within the domain of social psychology, became calcified back when the primitive hominids lived in Africa. However, there’s no clear proof, and with the way even a single counterexample can cast doubts on universal applicability, finding that proof is kinda impractical.

  9. This is readily apparent with Second Life, which even looks like a resort town by the sea full of shopping malls, in part because of women being the majority of the population. It’s far less obvious with Eve Online, but I am pretty sure that if men had the opportunity to build a resort space station, it would be very much like Eve.

  10. One can be doubly deviant, by the way. "Honour among thieves" naturally emerges when enough thieves congregate.