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What is “real”? Virtual Chainmail vs. Doggie Day-Care

I very much enjoyed class this afternoon, and in particular the turn of conversation into the inevitable question of reality. One of my earliest experiences in virtual communities was in a web-based discussion board where one of the longest-running threads tackled the question, “Is this talking?” In trying to find that thread just now in order to link to it, I saw the names (or at least pseudonyms) of people I’d spent many hours with ruminating over everything from trivia to philosophy; a group that drifted apart, came back together on 9/11/01, and has since drifted apart yet again. I haven’t “seen” many of them in a while (one is now a law professor btw), but the feelings I have for them as I write about them now are certainly real.

By way of background, I spent the last four years working in legal aid with poverty lawyers whose clients struggled with the basic necessities of survival. I have struggled mightily with the question of whether the basic subject matter of this class is “real,” as in Keepin’ It Real real. And from the perspective of trying to survive, perhaps nothing distinguishes selling virtual chainmail from swapping fart videos on YouTube. According to Benkler, finally the means of production is available to the masses… but the means to produce what?

Recently there have been a spate of media articles about high-end dog care (e.g. yesterday’s NYTimes). People are sending their dogs to day camps where they get massages, orthopedic mattresses, and bedtime stories. Meanwhile, millions of people around the world live without limbs, homes, and literacy. As our last commentator from today perhaps suggested, many Americans left reality behind a long time ago.

So does Benkler describe a fantasy world built on top of the very real toiling of very real people, made possible by skimming the profits of our day jobs to feed our Second Lives? On the one hand it seems this new world fufills Marx’s hope that we would one day transcend capitalism, become our essential productive/creative selves, and “fish in the morning, hunt in the afternoon, and write criticism in the evening.” On the other, are only we, the privileged, able to experience that freedom precisely because we’ve succeeded in squeezing our luxury-time from others? When we look at the new New Economy and imagine a decentralization of power, are we merely looking at a new form of slacktivism in 3D incarnation?

I hope not, though I haven’t developed a coherent explanation to justify my feelings. I do believe that human achievement is built not only on material but also social advancement, and that therefore if the relationships I’ve developed online are real then the potential to create real communities capable of instigating change must also be real. I welcome any thoughts on this topic.


  1. Peter Hess

    September 28, 2006 @ 5:28 am


    Here’s a data point on how and why Americans may be out of touch with reality as it is perceived by the rest of the world that is either amusing or appaling depending on your current Necker Cube perspective (does anyone else find themselves reaching for the Necker Cube analogy a lot recently?), and also makes a comment on the mass media that could be taken to support some of the things Benkler says. (By the way, the page linked to above doesn’t render properly in current Firefox.)

  2. Norm Platt

    September 28, 2006 @ 8:02 am


    Thank you for the referral to the NY Times article about people’s “real” infatuation with “real live dogs”. The following comment from the article explains it well; :The trend “highlights the profound love that many of us have for our dogs,” said Patricia B. McConnell, author of “For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend,” published this month by Ballantine Books.

    That love “has not been critically examined as much as it deserves to be,” said Dr. McConnell, who has a doctorate in zoology. “It’s a biological phenomenon. Hurricane Katrina reminded us that people actually risk and sometimes choose to lose their life over their dog. That’s a biologically amazing fact.”

    The word “biologically” says it all. Our family pet, “Marley” is an 85lb. German Shepherd/Black Lab mixed breed, and he has become a “sibling” in our family. He gives “real kisses and warm hugs” and lies peacefully next to my bed at night while I sleep, and at at times I can hear his rythmic breathing. Marley hears everything, and let’s us know when strangers approach. He is a “gamer” and a “protector”, and gives us more than he takes. This is a two-way relationship.

    Comparing our relationship with Marley to that of a VW Owner/Cyber Dog relationship as found in “Nintendog” (see, one can quickly understand the difference between “reality/physical” and a “mythical/spiritual world”. I would think that both relationships are “healthy” and each has advantages and disadvantages. It sure beats being “alone”.

  3. Ansible

    September 28, 2006 @ 12:15 pm


    It seems to me that the underlying idea about communities in cyberspace or deciding what is real, goes back to things we read in Charles Fried’s Modern Liberty — that we choose our own experience, our beliefs, what we consider real. This is the power of self-governance, which then adds to the power of the court of public opinion.

    I’m with you, Peter, when you say that many things remind you of the Necker Cube. I felt much the same way regarding all the opinions voiced in the classroom the other day. However, I expanded a bit more on a concern I had about one of the ways in which people looked at virtual worlds, especially the immigration issues at

  4. jobezone

    October 18, 2006 @ 2:24 pm


    This coment is unrelated to this blogpost, but I’m in the middle of watching 10-03-06 lecture, and would like to point you to a presentation done by the developers of freenet (, on how they applied the “small-world” idea into the new 0.7 alpha release of their anonymous, encrypted, decentralized P2P (or F2F, friend to friend) network. It’s available as a web-page flash video at , or with better quality and for download at .

    Since that video was made, the developers are going to make freenet a mixed Opennet + Darknet network, which means that initially users installing the software will automatically get in touch with other nodes, but will encoraged to create conections with those they trust, and the system will preferencially route information through those “trusting” conections. The reasons behind this change is to make the software more popular, which is easier in a opennet fashion, like other common p2p networks, where nodes are visible to everyone, and gradually transform it into a global darknet, of millions of smallworlds interlinked. It’s quite a ambitious goal.

    I would encourage you to show the more interesting clips of the video in a class, or, even better, tease the students (and even, perhaps, invite the at-large audience to the experiment as well), to try the software in the small world, friend to friend way: only conecting to their friends, and using the network to transfer information. Then see how it goes, how reliable is the network in transfering information from nodes (peers, people) which don’t have a direct conection (aren’t friend); and see how it evolves over time, how big does their initially small world network get as some of them connect to others outside the class.

    I have _some_ experience with trying freenet, the first time having been in beginning of this century, although I’m not a power-user of it, so if you are interested in this idea, and would like to know some tips and things I’ve learned about it, you can ask me (through e-mail, or here in the comments). If you go through with this, you might want to contact the freenet developers through their mailing list, as I’m sure they’ll take an interest in your experiment, and could advise you. Also, the freenet website has a wiki with documentation on how to install freenet, create trusted conections, insert information on the network (either via freesites, the equivalent of a website but in freenet, or direct files), etc.

    P.S. – I found this course through Democracy Player, the same way I’ve found the freenet video I linked above, so I would like to thank you (all which made these lectures, and their public publishing possible) and them.

  5. jobezone

    October 18, 2006 @ 2:29 pm


    P.S.S. – Sorry again for posting this without any relevance to the blog post. I did find your post interesting, and in fact, one of the most important things to have in mind regarding the massification of technology: How to make these empowering technologies available and truly empower the general population, and not stay withing specialized classes, as it happened with the scientific “revolution”.

  6. jobezone

    October 18, 2006 @ 2:31 pm


    P.S.S. – Sorry again for posting this without any relevance to the blog post. I did find your post interesting, and in fact, one of the most important things to have in mind regarding the massification of technology: How to make these empowering technologies available and truly empower the general population, and not stay withing specialized classes, as it happened with the scientific “revolution”.

    P.S.S.S. – Could you pass my previous comment to the place where it probably should have been sent 🙂 ? Thanks.

  7. jonny

    November 12, 2006 @ 3:13 am



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