Online self-government

Another Clay Shirky article that is fascinating, eloquent, insightful, and at heart, deeply wrong. Clay ponders the emerging mechanisms of self-governance in online game communities, and probes the differences with 3D communities.
One difference is that in the real world, we have a mechanism for changing the rules — it’s called legislation. This takes Clay to explore Nomic games, where changing the rules can be a move in the game.

Another big difference, posits Clay, is that in the online world, somebody else owns the server. At the end of the day the server owner can always pull the plug, so governance defaults to dictatorship. Clay explores models of server co-ownership, which would remove this barrier to self-government. In making citizenship a function of property-ownership, Clay is back with the Athenians and the US founding fathers, who found it self-evident that property-owners can self-govern, and others can’t.

Take the thought experiment a few steps forward; imagine a virtual world in which one can sell one’s server shares. Soon, game players down on their luck will sell server shares to refresh depleted life scores, entrepreneurs will amass oligopolistic ownership of the servers, and property control will be stronger than it is today, because the owners feel that they earned it by the divine invisible hand. Liberty, as political thinkers concluded in the physical world, is not a property of property ownership — it’s a property of being human.

In the long run, the solution to the problem isn’t collective ownership of servers — although that suggests some interesting and fruitful models. The solution to the problem is itself political. Denizens of virtual worlds can demand self-government, and can use the physical-world political system to get it. Think about it. A landlord doesn’t have the right to kill tenants at will (not since feudal times), nor to destroy a tenant’s furniture. If it is important to enough online game-players to demand tenants’ rights, this will happen. Big owners have the ability to buy physical-world government, but the oligopoly isn’t omnipotent — a large enough, vocal enough voting population can win a populist issue. It seems counterintuitive now — it might take a generation to make the point — but it could happen.

Clay rightly points out that a second scarce commodity is software and coding skill. The programmers can choose to unilaterally change the rules of the game. This is an artifact of the social system. Law-making is also a relatively scarce technical skill, but legislators are seen to be employed by the people. Programmers are currently employed by game companies. What if programmers were employed by game-players? Programmers would implement the rules that game-players wanted, or they’d be out of a job. Game-players will demand rules that guarantee easy wins, you might argue. It’s the same argument against democracy itself — government by the people will “naturally” result in bad laws. We use representative government to ensure some continuity, and avoid government by mob; similarly, programmers might be elected for a term, and voted out of office.
The scarcity of programmers and game platforms is an artifact of the immaturity of the games industry. Given a decade or more (think about how long it took for Linux to emerge and become popular), there may well be a set of free, open source game platforms, large populations of developers and power users, with open standards for virtual cities, virtual property, and scores. When this happens, communities or players will be able to move more easily. The condition of a game-player today is like a medieval serf, who is bound to his land (the virtual world), and has painfully few rights. A combination of changed economic conditions (greater mobility) and changed political beliefs (government by the people), could transform the relationship between players and game hosts, just as it did between rulers and ruled.

Clay’s conclusion that the solution to game world tyranny is only fractionally right, and misses deep principles about the nature of self-government. But, as usual, his articulate framing of the issues invites broader discourse, and thoughtful disagreement. Thanks as usual, Clay.

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