Heretics & Mega-prims

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There are two controversies currently causing apoplexy and distress in Second Life. One has been bubbling away for some time although it has now appeared on SLED, the Second Life Educational list; the other is at the top of most people’s blog agendas.

On the surface the controversies are unrelated, but they have certain structural features in common, and I believe that they raise broadly similar issues concerning what the Second Life experience actually is; about how people learn about it; and about the relationships between what people learn and objective reality. (This, of course, in turn raises questions about what on earth I mean by “objective reality” which, later on, I shall try to neatly sidestep while appearing to answer.)

The lesser controversy concerns so-called mega-prims. (The larger controversy concerns a so-called copybot, but I will write about that later.)

Originally in Second Life prims, the basic shapes from which all objects are built, could be any size. Some time in early beta it was decided to impose a maximum size of 10 metres in any direction. Any larger object, such as a long wall, now has to be made by placing prims next to each other.

I have yet to find a definitive answer as to why the limit was introduced. The most likely explanation that I have heard is that it was introduced to facilitate dividing land into small plots for resale. (The smallest plot of land for sale in SL is normally just over 20 x 20 metres.) Another reasonable contender is that it was introduced to prevent griefing: to stop virtual hooligans from smothering an entire region with a huge block of soap, or a giant bubble.

A Second Life resident called Gene Replacement discovered a bug in the scripting language, and was able to break through the 10m limit and create enormous prims. The Lindens told him to stop, but also said that they would not remove any existing mega-prims from the world. Now someobody else is selling them on SL Exchange, and an underground group has been formed to give them away.

I have what I consider a legitimate use for them. The group that I am part of have a private island and want to cover an area with meadow. We would rather use four prims than forty. Therefore I set about reading all the background information that I could find in blogs and discussions groups. What surprised me was the sheer lack of background knowledge that many of the posters exhibited, and the fact that this did not hold them back from adopting extreme and fiercely defended positions. There were a lot of posts like this:

the main problem that lindens have consirn for is the fact due to the imesise size of them their hard to select once rezed and because of that its hard to return objects cause of it and its also causes camera control problems and loading problems for textures

and this

SLexchange should remove this already. I have came into contact with these prims before, and they are buggy, infact they can cause your SL client to crash.

These products can be used to cause the worst form of griefing possible, it would be easy for someone to use the largest prim in this and spam it everywhere, causing major lag.

Unless a Linden posts here, or makes an announcement, I will not believe they are allowed. Them not being able to remove them, and them declaring them legal are not 1 and the same.

To be fair these posts were contradicted by others who posted reasons why the prims were highly unlikely to cause problems unless deliberately set up to do so, but these were then subjected to further name calling, and misinformation.

I am reminded forcefully of medieval Europe, where there was often little difference between news and rumour, and between facts and what was commonly believed. In many cases the King was the arbiter of what was true, as it appears is also the case here. (Unless the Lindens proclaim it so “I will not believe they are allowed”.)

I am not intending to denigrate the people that I am quoting, nor any of the other participants. Rather, I am interested in how information becomes knowledge in arenas like Second Life, and how what is held as knowledge comes to be acted upon. Many people have no understanding of what makes Second Life work, just as I have no understanding of a wide range of issues. This is akin to times when most people had no understanding of how disease spread, or what caused crops to fail, or storms to damage houses.

During those times hundreds of thousands of women were burned as witches because what was (wrongly) held to be knowledge was indeed acted upon. Now, fortunately, the effects of ignorance about the mechanisms that power SL are tiny in comparison, even when they are acted upon. The mechanisms are similar though, and from the perspective of somebody exploring the idea of simulated culture I find this fascinating.

In the “real world” people stopped burning witches because a process of discovery, and education about the results of discovery, slowly made witchcraft a less and less tenable explanation for anything at all. Instead people came to see what they could do to protect themselves, their crops and their houses. Perhaps there will need to be a similar process of education inside “worlds” like Second Life.

Perhaps there is too much superstition in Second Life at the moment, because the system encourages it through its lack of transparency. We may need an in-world Galileo and an in-world Newton to break this open so the “objective truth” becomes more widely understood and used as the basis for action.

Oh, and the object truth (in this specific case) is the detailed information about how the Havok physics engine works, and how the Linden programming uses the engine, alongside other routines, to render the world; and what this does and doesn’t mean for how things are in the world.

Posted on November 16, 2006