Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Using and Abusing the Internet

An interesting discussion on the Second Life VR platform:
Let me tell you of the sad reality of Second Life. In case your not familiar with Second Life its a virtual world where ├╝ber good looking people in tank tops and fishnet stockings run around having virtual sex, virtual lives and virtual Buddhism. In this virtual world there exists a few Buddhist Sanghas.

The author, someone I consider a good e-friend, goes on to tell how he broke into someone's "home" and got ejected for trespassing, here:

http://buddhisttorrents.blogspot.com/2009/11/second-life-how-about-first-one.html

and elicited some responses, here:

http://www.openbuddha.com/2009/11/16/how-to-miss-the-point-of-sl-and-the-dharma/

Personally, I agree with some of Leaf Dharma's criticism, but not really the methodology used in expressing it - it sounds like Leaf did the equivalent to barging in on someone else's IRC chat or phone conversation... to me that's the key - if you're going to talk about reality, we have to see that this is only a platform, not a world; thus, barging into someone's "private home" is no different from interrupting any other conversation medium. Not cool.

But the argument stands in my mind; I've mostly left Second Life because of the intensity of the illusion... it's one thing to use the platform as a teaching tool; it's another to turn it into a life where you have fantasy relationships and alternate personalities and can somehow pretend that you are practicing the Buddhadhamma because you watch a bunch of pixels sitting in the lotus position. I'm still confident that our private OpenSim project will avoid this sort of thing by remaining more of a platform than a world in this sense... we will not be renting out houses in Buddhaverse.

In the end, if it helps people access Buddhism from places where it may not be readily accessible otherwise, then that is a good thing, I think. But more to the point, if the platform is used properly and limited in scope to the task at hand, it can also serve to help teachers help their students; virtual reality can be a great tool to make student-teacher interactions much more meaningful than, say, email or even voice chat, as the environment sufficiently simulates a genuine personal interaction enough to keep the prolonged interest of the student, thus making the job of the teacher that much easier.

Simply put, virtual reality is close enough to reality to serve as a substitute for face-to-face communication when the latter is not available. After all, what is the difference between the beams of light reflecting off someone's physical face and those reflecting off of their virtual face? Pixel quality, I suppose. While I agree that Second Life is a silly game, I would still argue that the platform used to create Second Life has great potential.

Or such is the theory we are testing :)

15 comments :

  1. leafdharma11:59 PM

    Suffice to say I behaved badly in this fake world. I don't hang out on IRC chats, I dont interact with people via Fakebook or any of the thousands of other pseudo communication venues. Apart from gmail. I also don't play games, so taking all of that seriously is really hard. The fact that I walked into some ones house with emotionally disturbed real world people is just bad timing. Using that environment for group talks is fine, however the people that build little fake houses in there and customize there fake reality's really gets my goat. If people choose to socially interact in that environment its no different than video conferencing with a friend halfway around the world. However, I don't hide my identity when I do that, wear clothes that reinforce my ego or pretend that a long distance relationship is anything as intimate or real as people I see on my street.

    Practically speaking I think SL is just another excuse to not meditate. No different from thousands of other diversions the computer provides.

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  2. I hear you... difficulty in taking it seriously is a serious problem in SecondLife... they have a name in SL, "griefers", for people who cause grief. I suppose there is something to the Buddha's teaching that grief springs from that which is loved, not from other people who take it away from you.

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  3. albill6:35 PM

    What makes communication online part of "pseudo communication venues" to you? As I told you in your blog before you banned me and then banned all comments, communication is communication. The medium does not make it any more or less "real" communication. That's like saying people in the 19th century who were friends through letter writing were not really friends. Face to face communication is excellent and the standard but that doesn't make other communication less real, just possibly less rich or having less depth.

    As the comment from one of the other participants in my blog noted, you walked in on a person who *actually* had his father pass away. He was scheduled to meet friends online so he did so and was dealing with his grief when you walked in and started mocking him (I've read the transcript of his conversation with you that he captured). I don't know if you had a parent die but I have. Once you receive the news, there often isn't much to be done for a day or two and you wind up sitting around, dealing with feeling overwhelmed and with grief starting to hit you when the reality of it sinks in. Calling friends on the phone, sending an e-mail to them, or even talking to them in real-time online are ways to deal with those feelings. They aren't things to be mocked because you didn't like the fact that the two people weren't literally in the same room as each other.

    Your comments on this generally seem to show a lot of anger or seeming resentment towards others who use the Internet or make friends via the Internet. That isn't about other people, that's about you.

    For myself, I've been using the Internet since the late 1980s, long before most people had ever heard of it. I've made many friends online, many, if not most, of which I met later in the flesh and we continued to be good friends over the decades since that time. So, I tend to be rather disbelieving of dismissive comments that pretend that the relations one makes over the net are not real or do not need to adhere to the same guidelines taught in the Dharma as other relationships.

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  4. albill6:42 PM

    As for the Buddhaverse, I still think what I thought when we tweeted back and forth about this: you aren't going to get many people to show up. Just as Dillinger stated that he robbed banks because "that's where the money is," one should do talks and the like in Second Life, not a private sim (if one is going to do them online that way at all) because that's where the people are. In SL, you can get a random sampling of people who have a casual interest in the Dharma and are already there, so the barrier of entry is pretty low. Expecting people to go through the less than trivial process of setting up their client to connect to a private sim and then show up just for a talk or a chanting event seems to be a higher bar than you are likely to get. Sure, you'll probably get a small group on occasion but I think that you were better off in Second Life, where people were willing to donate space to you as a monk, than setting up an entirely new sim. I wish you the best on it but I don't really expect it to succeed (just as most Buddhist web forums, chat places, etc. don't succeed without an existing critical mass).

    You're always welcome at Kannonji from what the operators have told me.

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  5. Hey Al, thanks for the comments. I can't wait to prove you wrong. We haven't even opened the place yet, and already we have over forty registered users. I'm not concerned with numbers of people... I just needed a platform to teach over the Internet. Buddhaverse is already a success to me - our test sessions worked great, and with our dedicated team of people who actually have an open mind about the project, I can't but expect greater success when we open in January. Kannonji has never contacted me about teaching there, not that I am really interested. The future is OpenSim. I think if you were to just give it a chance, you too would see the benefits.

    For someone who claims to promote Open Source software, I thought you'd be all over this. How can you defend Linden's closed source multimillion dollar waste of money?

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  6. albill1:36 AM

    Unlike many open source zealots, I am, ultimately, practical. If I have a choice of a free (and free is important) platform filled with thousands upon thousands of people or of creating my own from scratch and having to pay all of the constant infrastructure and bandwidth costs, I'll take free. This is all the more true if I have to convince people to take part in it. This isn't teaching someone to use a web browser. The complexity is a bit higher and I've known plenty of people (like me in years past) who thought it wasn't worth the bother.

    The open and closed source issue is not clearcut in Linden Labs' case anyway. They have opened up their client code, though I don't think they are taking contributions, which is why alternative clients like Emerald (which I run) can use their code. As far as I know, they have also opened up the server code or at least stated that they are going to do so. I'm not sure how it is a waste of money when use is free though. I'll have to ask them about the source the next time I run into a few of their people (which isn't uncommon here in the Bay Area).

    I've mentioned you to Kannonji and I was told that that they would love to have you but you'd already said you were quit of SL and didn't respond to my suggestions to contact them via twitter. They have their hands full getting various Zen teachers situated with avatars, etc. so I doubt they are going to track you down to convince you to come *to* them. :-) That said, they are open to actual Buddhist teachers in SL and supporting them, not simply Zen ones, and have set aside space for a Nichiren temple and teacher, for example.

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  7. So, wait, you want me to go ask them if I can teach at their center? That's weird.

    And saying SL is free is also weird... how much does Kannonji pay for their island? $250/mo is standard, and that still limits you to one sim and 15,000 prims. I can probably pack 50,000 in our nine sims and we pay $60/mo for a dedicated server. Either one is free for people to use. All I ask is you open up a little bit and look and see... you'll find the benefits are real. The biggest benefit to me, though is avoiding the thousands upon thousands of people, mostly there for cheap thrills and fake lives.

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  8. albill7:59 AM

    Well, if you want a space without paying for it, yeah, I expect that you would talk to them about it, not expect them to come to you. How is that weird? Why would they come contact you? When people have made it clear that they are Buddhist teachers looking to teach in Second Life, Kannonji has gone out of the way to help them, gratis. I mentioned you to them when you left and they mentioned that you should come around and talk to them but that was that. I haven't exactly found anyone there to be less than completely friendly and helpful.

    SL is free to me and to all regular users. It is only not free if you want to have land. So, for the normal seeker, it is a free space. I have no idea what Kannonji pays and they haven't asked any of us for payments for the use of their land. The costs are between them and Linden Labs. They make space available to teachers in order to help spread the Dharma. Their interest is largely Zen but non-Zen teachers have been welcomed.

    I believe that there is a Dharma talk both Saturday and Sunday by teachers there this weekend.

    Why would you want to avoid the thousands upon thousands of people? That's the whole point if you're trying to teach the Dharma: to reach people, not to avoid them. Expecting people to come and log into your server instead of making yourself available where people already are asking questions strikes me as a bit backwards.

    My mind is open but I also have no interest in joining a new sim. I'm not a Theravadan practitioner either. I'm a Zen priest. While I am interested in all forms of the Dharma, I'm not looking for a Theravadan teacher or to spend more time chanting sutras. I have quite a bit of that in my daily practice as it is. :-) I'm happy that you're doing something interesting to yourself and others. I do wish you the best. I just know that the barriers to starting and maintaining a new service/forum/whathaveyou are pretty high and most fail.

    Personally, I'd be interested in hearing more about the technical side (as a professional software geek), such as who you are hosting on, what server software you are running, etc. in case I ever wanted to try to do the same but I'm disinclined to do so at the moment without a driving reason.

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  9. I guess we differ on our respect for teachers and teachings. It is incredible to me to think that I should go out of my way to ask a Zen center for permission to give talks at their center.

    Kannonji pays for their sim by renting out space, is that not correct? This is the reality of closed source software - you pay their prices and make sacrifices. You are confusing issues; both OpenSim and SL are free for users*, the difference is that SL costs an arm and a leg for the people who run the show. Buddha Center has a store, Kannonji is a rental agency, Zen Retreat almost shut down when the owner had financial difficulties in real life. None of this is necessary with OpenSim. OSGrid is a perfect example of what SL could be. At 30,000 users, it is pretty impressive for Alpha-stage code. Once people realize what they could be doing with this platform if they weren't crippled by the insane rental costs, I think we will see a real shift.

    * Free is not totally true for an SL user. Every time you upload a texture, animation, or sound you pay 10L. Starting a group costs 100L. And when you want to build, you need land. And land costs $30+ for 10,000 sq ft. and <1000 prim limit.

    Besides freedom from the thousands and thousands of uninterested people who wind up as griefers more often than students, things like the ability to create megaprims, free uploads (many people upload 100s of textures for their projects), full control over the working of the sim, full access to the database, Skype linking, IRC chat linking, no prim limits, no space limits, the ability to connect to other grids on the fly, pull regions up and down on the fly, use multiple scripting languages, etc., etc. there are many reasons to prefer OpenSim over SL. And this is while it is still in the alpha stage. I think the problem is you are still only involved on a superficial level with the workings of SL; once you see the true price of it, as with all closed source affairs, you should be able to see the point. I invited one of the owners of Buddha Center to visit Buddhaverse. She was literally amazed at the potential she had been missing. I gave her an entire sim to work with, something that, in SecondLife, would have cost her $1,000 US to buy and $250/mo after that to rent the sim she had bought. And even then she would not have all the power over the sim that I can give her.

    As a professional software geek, I think you'll like OpenSim a lot; it sounds like you just have a bit of an attachment to Kannonji :) Maybe we should move this conversation to email...

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  10. albill6:33 PM

    "Kannonji pays for their sim by renting out space, is that not correct? "

    This is not correct. They aren't a "rental agency" as you state. That is factually incorrect. They do have a store for stuff if people choose to purchase things but it is away from the Zendos. They don't charge anyone rent though they do take voluntary donations if people choose to give them. Frankly, money just never comes up in conversation. There is a donation box in places and sometimes various efforts to raise money but they aren't directly hitting people up for cash. This weekend, they just made a Zendo for the Boundless Way Zen Sangha in preparation for Rev. James Ford speaking there. As far as I know, they put the time and energy into doing this (because Rev. Ford is not a SL geek) for free.

    I am "attached" to Kannonji because I respect the amount of work that the people involved have put into it and have put into supporting a variety of teachers in SL. You seem to simply dismiss it as somehow a money making agency with the talk of it being a "rental agency." Have you even *been* to the Kannonji space?

    I also think that it is a lot of work to run and maintain your own sim. I have a tech job already. Outside of that, I have my practice, my study, and I have a marriage. I'm not really interested in the time and energy it takes to start a sim from scratch and maintain it when I can use an existing infrastructure for free (to me) and it is free (to the other users).

    Personally, as someone who works professionally in Open Source, I think your arguments above are a little skewed. Open Source is not about free as in beer but free as in speech, as they say. It's about source code, not whether some corporation makes money working on it or running it. If that were not true, then the company I work for, Mozilla, or Canonical, who makes Ubuntu, wouldn't be open source companies, by definition, since we make money and pay employees. Linden Labs can do a better job opening up the code but they have done a significant job going down that path from what I've seen during the last couple of years.

    "I guess we differ on our respect for teachers and teachings. It is incredible to me to think that I should go out of my way to ask a Zen center for permission to give talks at their center."

    *shrug* It is incredible to me to think that you wouldn't have to talk to someone and that it would just be magically handed over without any discussion. They aren't going to come to you, tracking down your e-mail, hat in hand and ask you to, pretty please, give a talk. Why would they? I know you're monk but from our point of view, you aren't any different than any of the Zen priests who do talks there. Some of them have been approached by Kannonji and some have done the approaching themselves. I'm not sure why you think that it is disrespectful for you to initiate the conversation. In any case, since I'm neither you nor an actual representative Kannonji, it isn't really my business at the end of the day so I'll stop trying to sell you on it. You clearly are resistant to the idea and it really makes no difference to me. I'm not a Theravadan after all but a Mahayana practitioner with my own teachers. I simply thought that making you aware of the opportunity would be helpful and that you might sincerely follow up on it.

    Good luck with your sim.

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  11. I guess I misunderstood the whole part about Leaf going into someone's rental house in Kannonji. Yes, I've been to Kannonji, and it looks alot like a sim full of rentals to me. Does Kannonji own the whole sim, or just a part of it? Anyway, as you say, it is really none of your business, or mine.

    I think you misunderstand my arguments about Open Source. The reason Linden is able to charge such prices as they do is because it is Closed Source. OpenSim is changing that. I assumed you were into promoting the values of open source software... if it is just a professional interest, then that is different. I see it as a part of my Buddhist practice to support such things, and I appreciate the benefits, cost being only one of them, of open source software.

    I never expected Kannonji to invite me to teach, it is you who seem to think that I should leap at the opportunity to ask them to let me teach there. If I were truly interested in teaching in SL I would approach the Buddha Center first; we agree that I am not a Zen teacher, I don't know why you get the idea that the rest of us should come and be a side show to the main Zen attraction...

    Thanks for the well wishes... it was never my intention to encourage you to start your own OpenSim server, just open your mind to the idea that it might not be such a dead end road as you originally thought.

    Good luck with Kannonji.

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  12. albill2:32 AM

    See, I wouldn't expect you to use the Buddha Center because they have been outed as being full of frauds. The teachers there are often not what they seem so I honestly didn't expect you or anyone else to associate with them.

    I am interested in open source as a principle but I think you might be slightly confused about how closed source Linden Labs is. After all, how do you think that all of the open source SL clients exist? In any case, I will just drop this now.

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  13. caspian inglewood10:55 PM

    Hello yuttadhammo :-)

    I am the founder of Kannonji, and am glad to see you have started up a new forum for Buddhist teachings with Buddhaverse. I hope it goes well for you.

    It is true that we have rental homes on the sim. These amount to three in all, although we have five homes altogether. The house which was at the center of this silly drama was not a rental, however. Sapien, who calls the space his own, is a benefactor of the sim and the home is simply his. He doesn't pay rent for it in the traditional sense. The rentals are actually a very small portion of how we offset our monthly costs, and they are located on the other side of the sim far from all of the temples. The same can be said for the store. The only reason we have the store is to offset the cost of running the sim. The bulk of our sim costs are offset by our group of more than twenty owners and monthly donations. We will be ordering a Homestead in the coming months to move our homes to next-door, making way for more temples for RL organizations on our main sim (which, yes, we own all of).

    True, the name of our sim (Kannonji Zen Retreat) implies we are leaning more toward Zen Buddhism. That isn't entirely inaccurate, though Al is right in that we are actively seeking to bring other teachers there from a variety of traditions. In fact, Ken McLeod of Unfettered Mind, Kalu Rinpoche's translator for many years and a lama with the Karma Kagyu, is giving a talk here on Sunday, December 13 at 4:00 PM. I have also contacted some Theravaden teachers, mostly from the Insight Meditation Society side of things.

    "While I agree that Second Life is a silly game, I would still argue that the platform used to create Second Life has great potential."

    I found this statement a bit perplexing because it would seem to me that Second Life literally is *just* a platform. So yes, one can easily do gaming in Second Life. But, for me anyway, Second Life is not a game. Kannonji is dedicated to offering Buddhist teachings in a nonsectarian way and is providing visitors with a variety of speakers from a range of traditions the way it should be offered---freely. Those of us paying the cost to bring that to others do so happily.

    Caspian (Adam Tebbe)

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  14. Yes, the same has been said of Kannonji people. I know all the people who run BC and they are nice enough. What I like most is they are non-denominational, something that puts them in another category from the other Buddhist sims. And, I did say "if", since it's largely a moot point. Buddhaverse is best :)

    No, you are the one who is either confused or just trying to create confusion... we were never talking about the client, it is the server that is closed source. Nice of Linden to OS the client, though, since that allowed reverse engineering required to create OpenSim. I don't blame them for trying to make a buck off their product, but I don't feel like supporting them in it either.

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  15. Thanks for your kind and open-minded post. It is refreshing. Indeed, I wish you the best for your work as well.

    Second Life certainly is not just a platform, just as Skype or MSN Messenger is not. It is an implementation of a platform, namely VR, to create a specific fantasy world with its own laws and norms and economy, etc. The platform behind it is the server software which is only accessible to the owners. When compared to OpenSim, an open platform for creating virtual reality spaces, it is easy to see this. For someone who has become immersed in the world of Second Life, I can see how it would be difficult to tell the difference.

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