A Luddite in Cyberspace — Part II

In his 1997 novel, “Idoru,” sci-fi writer William Gibson postulates a pending marriage between a real-life rock star and a virtual vamp. The bride is an “idol-singer” or Idoru. Although Idoru are computer-generated fantasies, “Some of them are enormously popular.”
The kids with whom the Idoru are “enormously popular” inhabit a virtual world that is more real to them than their own homes and families. In an early chapter, “They met in a jungle clearing. Kelsey had done the vegetation: big bright Rousseau leaves, cartoon orchids flecked with her idea of tropical colors…. Zona, the only one telepresent who’d ever seen anything like a real jungle, had done the audio, providing birdcalls, invisible but realistically dopplering bugs, and the odd vegetational rustle artfully suggesting not snakes but some shy furry thing, soft-pawed and curious.”
Less than a decade later, Gibson’s vision is here. In case you — like me — are not one of the 900,000 already enrolled, “Second Life” is a virtual world in which you can buy property and build a home, indulge yourself in a pseudo-career and… even conduct real business. [http://secondlife.com/]
Yes, in Second Life’s Linden City you can really sell stuff. Something close to half a million bucks exchanges hands every day in Linden, according to a recent Yahoo report on the Internet phenomenon. Concludes Yahoo, “The IRS is interested and Congressional economists are looking into how to tax digital assets accrued” in virtual worlds.
Is virtual taxation without virtual representation tyranny? Search me. Frankly, I’m more interested in issues such as blackmail. If Linden City citizen A threatens to expose some peccadillo of citizen B, where does jurisdiction over the crime lie? Let’s make citizen A a Brit and citizen B an American. Sure, both John Bull and Uncle Sam have an interest in the dirty deed. But where did the crime occur? In England, where the perp lives? What if he joined the website and made the blackmail threat while airborne over — oh, I don’t know — Uganda? And what if victim B joined the “game” and got the threat while airborne over Australia in an Air China aircraft?
Forget the geography. The crime occurred in Linden City, which falls under the jurisdiction of the state of Second Life. I guess that’s not quite the state of Grace. But for the religious the analogy is apparent.
For the record, our law enforcement apparatchiks can’t even cope with the Nigerian scams. A case on point: an international student recently decided to sublet a room or two in her condo, her family having returned to China. She advertised on the worldwide web. An offer came in via email from Africa. The offer was followed by four $500 American Express checks, an amount equal to a month’s rent plus the security deposit. The student deposited the doe. Next thing she knows, her new tenant is asking for half of the money back to buy a plane ticket. The student sends the money, not waiting for the four checks to clear. When the American Express checks prove to be counterfeit, she’s out a grand she can ill-afford to lose. Who can help her? Answer: nobody!
You see the problem, right? Mystics and new age twits talk of Gaia, an ecological theory that the living matter of planet Earth is a single organism. Who knows? What we do know is that the Internet — the worldwide web, more or less — is greater than the sum of its billions of parts. The Internet, one might fairly argue, is an entity which has passed beyond the control of any nation, any corporation, any set of statutes, even any international organization.
Anarchists and libertarians may applaud this state of global affairs. Those of us who have devoted our lives to the rule of law may justifiably feel differently.
Following World War II, we created the United Nations to bring all nations under one legal umbrella. We developed a canon of international codes, everything from crimes against humanity to international intellectual-property regimes.
Perhaps what is needed now is a virtual counterpart to the U.N. I wonder if Bill Gibson would agree?

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3 Responses to “A Luddite in Cyberspace — Part II”

  1. Blackmail: The same laws and jurisdictions apply whether you’re blackmailing in person, by parcel-post, over the telephone, by email, via instant-message, SMS or in a virtual world.

    You’re sitting in your chair, I’m sitting in mine. If one of us commits a real offense against the other, the medium in which it takes place is just circumstantial.

    Things primarily get blurry when the two people involved are in different legal jurisdictions, or when the relevant authorities have difficulty understanding the nature or magnitude of the offense (or trying to point out to a jury that the medium does not matter when real harm is done or intended).

  2. Good point. I’m reminded of the “old days,” actually not so very long ago… when the librarians at my university would get all worked up because somebody put a pornographic image on the screen of a public computer. The screensaver comes on… then the next used touches the mouse and, yipes, there’s the dirty picture. They wanted special safeguards. Fortunately, cooler heads successfully argued that this phenomenon was substantially no different than if the same “prankster” left a copy of a Mapplethorpe collection out on a reference room table, open to one of the more controversial photos.

    You also remind me that often, too, the issue isn’t liability but evidence. Proving “who dunnit” can be difficult at the best of times. When the deed is done on the www, the culprit can be darned difficult to finger.

  3. Absolutely, and that slight screen of anonymity acts on us a bit like alcohol. Some of us become a little kinder, more generous, more trusting. Others become more violent, bitter, heedless of consequence or the feelings of others. It exaggerates your basic personality, usually moving the personality away from the more moderate middle ground.

    Of course, some people’s personalities are naturally quite moderate. If you’ve spent time drinking with friends, people online react in all the same sorts of ways (without the physical loss of coordination, at least) and across the whole spectrum of degrees.

    It’s been said that “On the internet everyone knows you’re a dog.”

    We might not know *what* (your age, gender, job, RL name) you are, but it doesn’t take long for people to find out *who* you are, once you start to talk. Are you a kind person? A moderate? A bigot? A reactionary? A prankster? A thug? All of this comes through over time.

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