SecondLife

2007-09-26

I am in London today, pitching our extension of the famous online gaming platform “SecondLife” to the mobile phone to JM Frangos, in charge of technology and innovation at BT. I already know Jean-Marc from a few years back, when he had given me the opportunity to pitch VoIP to Pierre Danon, then CEO of BT retail. JM now tells me that this was a turning point in convincing BT to go VoIP, which ultimately lead to the 21st Century network initiative… I wish it was true 
This time the meeting takes place in the amazing office of BT group’s CTO. A very good place to pitch SecondLife: with its plasma screen walls and giant multi-time zone world clocks, the place is a bit surreal. Several techie toys are also on display, including the famous 100$ PC.

Today the Internet is so central to our societies, but in very different ways depending on where you stand in the social scale.

In developing countries, the Internet is a fantastic means of education. You can learn almost anything on the Internet, and the courses in fast moving domains like IT and telecoms are more current than most university lectures. On the Internet, you also learn to learn by yourself, which is perhaps even more important. I am amazed by the capacity of our Russian customers and partners to adapt to new technologies: I believe this is due to a combination of excellent school programs in fundamental domains like Mathematics, and an ability acquired on the Internet to keep up with applied technology using online courses and gathering all the knowledge that is a few easy Google searches away.

I often hear that growth in countries like India or China can go on virtually forever, as it is primarily based on a cost competitive advantage that is not likely to go away anytime soon, because of the hundreds of millions of poor people willing to take low income jobs. This is a scary thought for developed economies, but is it really accurate?
In fact there are many issues that make such long term growth very problematic. First of all you may imagine bigger and bigger crowds of poor workers commuting to ever expanding factories, but this requires building more roads, investing billions in public transportation systems, solving the issue of skyrocketing housing prices near business centers, etc. Even if this can be solved, modern automated processes become more efficient than even the lowest paid worker, and are the only way to reach the level of quality required by most manufacturing processes. This means that what you really need to hire in the mid term is a skilled engineer in automation processes, not a horde of uneducated workers starved away from their homes. Without massive access to the Internet and online self-training, education on such a massive scale would take a lot of time -you need to train the teachers before they can train the next generation-, and ultimately become a limiting factor for growth. The absolute size of the population is perhaps not so important, what really counts is the fraction of the population that is educated.
This is why the 100$ PC is so important to emerging countries, as this is a way for them to scale their education system and ensure that their growth can continue in the long term.

Now in developed countries, the Internet can of course be used for education purposes as well, but their education system didn’t wait for the Internet to be able to bring entire generations to the level of education required by the economy. In developed countries, the education system teaches you, learning is –almost- a passive process. I noticed that engineers hired from developed countries have more difficulties to learn online, they are not used to it and would rather ask their company to buy a formal course in a training center: their natural tendency is to go back to the comfort of the ‘passive learning’ model. The only thing that you are not really taught in the developed world is to ‘learn to learn’…

Now coming to SecondLife, I believe that this is another example showing how much our societies have reached a paradoxical ‘comfort zone’. People play on SecondLife because they are bored with their regular life. “The system” makes sure that they live an acceptable life, no hunger, decent housing, etc. You are bored to death and you escape to a virtual world. Anyone that can propose a way to bring some excitement, even totally useless or harmful, in our bored lives makes a fortune: it can be SecondLife, gambling, or sophisticated derivatives!

Apparently there are endless possibilities to use your time in a more positive way, renovate your house, learn, teach your kids. Why are people not doing it? The paradox is that as our societies grew more protective and better organized, the less space they gave to initiatives. You want to build a better house? You can’t: need to buy land first, need to get a permit, etc. You need some time to learn? You can’t, your job requires you full time until you get back home, unable to do anything but zapping on your sofa.

Our developed world is referred to as a free society. Yes, opinions can be expressed, initiatives can be taken, but the weight and pressure of the system on people has become such that actually exercising those rights becomes de-facto very difficult without risking being excluded from the system. Most people give up, leading to a boring, hopeless life : the system feeds you, but it is also a prison. The Internet becomes an easy escape route, a light drug.

The 100$ PC, a way to live a better life away from the slavery of underdeveloped economies.
SecondLife, a way to live a better life away from the slavery of overdeveloped economies.

I believe the very success of SecondLife is the signal that our modern societies do have a serious and rather fundamental problem that is not really recognized in the consciousness of mainstream politics. This probably is the real driver behind many of the ‘alter’ movements, a form of rebellion from the unconscious of our societies.

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