Yesterday I argued that the "augmentation/immersion" debate is about the source of what really matters: what's true and legitimate. But why argue over a point of metaphysics? Because truth and legitimacy are the foundations of trust, and trust is essential for personal and business relationships.
So, this is pretty obvious stuff: the noob asks for A/S/L (age, sex and location) to establish your trustworthiness. When your atomic friends ask, "wait, you pay real money for virtual clothes and land?" they're asking you if and why you think those transactions are real and legitimate. Same thing, of course, with sex and relationships.
I'd never understood the American Great Depression as an historical phenomenon: the factories were still on the ground, the knowledge and skills in people's hands and heads, so what was the problem? The problem was an immersionist one: the intangibles had lost their reality and legitimacy, and the atomic assets of factories, buildings and workers were valueless without them. The same thing is going on now in the atomic economy, of course: your house still keeps you as warm and safe as it did a year ago, but the intangible, the digital asset, that it's merely a token for has lost much of its reality and legitimacy.
So how does this play out in digital worlds?
This is interesting: people don't apply their own algorithms for dealing with the atomic world to their digital-world behaviors. They apply tribal, not even medieval, ones. And, they import atomic frames of reference.
There's been a lot of debate the past couple of years over trust in digital worlds. Lots of people (yes, that's code for "I'm too lazy to look up links") have said that they'd never do business with someone whose verifiable atomic identity information wasn't available. Gwen cites Hiro Pendragon saying he'd never do business with someone he hadn't spoken to on the phone (Please read Gwen on business trust, on page 6 of her essay).
That's a tribal standard: trust involves taking "the measure of the man." But for several thousand years people in the atomic world have done business anonymously. The problem is, our emotions haven't caught up with 2500 years of anonymous commerce.
- Who do you give your paycheck to every week? What's the name of your local bank branch manager? How many kids do they have? Who's the CEO of the holding company that owns the bank that owns your branch?
- Who do you buy your food from? What's the name of the parent company that owns the supermarket chain that owns your corner grocery store?
- Where does your drinking water come from, and who gets it from the source to you?
So, yeah, I think I've made that point. But I want to talk about something more interesting, and that's how credentialling systems undermine trust and effectiveness in digital worlds.
Credentialling systems work by outsourcing trust. Nobody can possibly verify the trustworthiness of everybody they deal with - that was the point of my questions. So, either you take things on blind faith (and most all of us do for most all of our important interactions, as those questions showed), or we place our trust in someone else to verify the trustworthiness of others.
Obviously, that's what credit reports are about: I can't check the trustworthiness of every customer (I'd never get my actual business done if I did), so I pay a specialist business to do that for me. Schools do that: it's even a more important part of their service than imparting knowledge to students. What's the difference between a degree from Harvard and one from Mediocre State U., that's worth paying an extra US$50,000 or more for? Yes, there's some better quality in the product, but most of what you're paying for is a higher trustworthiness rating from a trusted rating agency. "Oh, she has a degree from Harvard? She must be smart." She may be less smart than any particular person from Mediocre State, but she has a better brains-credit rating.
Okay, so the atomic world, which has to deal with problems of immense scale (billions of concurrent users), outsources trust verification. That makes sense. So what's the problem in digital worlds?
Right. We don't apply atomic-world algorithms to our dealings in digital worlds, we apply tribal algorithms.
I'm going to tell you a story about trust and credentialling, to show you how the issue plays out. The point isn't to pick at or mock the other people I dealt with, at all, it's to show a conflict of expectations. That conflict was amicably resolved, and led to a fascinated enjoyment of the issues we'd raised.
The Tribal-Atomic Clash
Last Summer I attended a conference in a digital world. There was a lot of interest in keeping the group together afterwards, and the attempt to build a digital community raised some interesting issues.
The conference had been fascinating: two of the three sessions were run by academics with little experience in digital worlds events. They tried to run them like a classroom, with lots of "sit down and shut up!" Digital worlds events don't work that way - they remove the podium privilege, putting the speaker and the audience at the same level. People used to the deference of the classroom can have trouble adapting to the collegial free for all of a digital-worlds event. Of course, this also involved credentialling systems: the moderators seemed to think that their high-level credentials entitled them to deference from the psuedonymous masses around them, a point beautifully mocked by a very clever griefer-heckler on the first day.
So. Events after the conference took a natural digital worlds turn: a democratic, collaborative desire to create the basis for an ongoing community. I contributed a little organizing - networking people to projects, and providing a few ideas for events.
One of the conference organizers, who had been away for a bit, returned and emailed me, politely asking for my credentials. That's where things got interesting.
- Digital Person: Here's my bio. Here are links to my portfolio, my project website, my dozen or so digital presences - business blog, personal blog, business and personal Twitters, business and personal Flickr sites. Here's a list of references in business, academia, and government that I've done project work for. I was applying a tribal standard: look, here are the elders who can vouch for me, the assets I've acquired, the measures of my standing in my tribe.
- Atomic Academic-Affiliate Person: I don't understand or value any of this. What I need to know is your atomic name, and the names of the entities that verified your intelligence and employability (your schools and corporate employers). That's what will let me determine if you are generally real and trustworthy. He was applying an atomic standard: don't tell me personal crap, give me your brains and dedication credit ratings from agencies I respect.
I argued that the information that "AAP" wanted would in no way tell him whether I could run a digital worlds event, but that the information I provided him demonstrated the highest levels of credibility for the task at hand - running digital worlds events.
He argued that he wasn't about to jeopardize his atomic trustworthiness credit rating by doing business with someone whose atomic credentials weren't on an appropriate par to his. I hadn't demonstrated credibility for the task at hand - adding value to the atomic credibility of the people involved.
That's the immersionist/augmentationist dispute. Remember where we started? We said the dispute was over the source of reality and legitimacy. For me, reality and legitimacy were digital, and I was involved in a project that would affect my digital reputation. For AAP, reality and legitimacy were atomic, and he was involved in a project that would affect his atomic reputation.
What happened? AAP and I talked it out, had a good laugh, and settled our personal dispute. A friend of mine with an outstanding reputation in both systems created an alternate community, that I joined. The digital community around the conference flopped.
Why did it flop? I think, because nobody was willing to stake their digital reputation on its success, after I left. The payoff to atomic reputation for building a succesful digital community in no way balanced the amount of time and skill needed - it was a sucker bet. So, applying atomic credentialling standards ensured that no digital work would get done.
Here's another terrific example, an article from Wired: "Voice Chat Can Really Kill the Mood on WoW." The author had been in an effective raid group in World of Warcraft: he worked for a leader he regarded as "confident, bold and streetsmart" - someone who had demonstrated digital trustworthiness - the reality and legitimacy of his skills for the task at hand. But when the conversation moved to voice, the frame of reference for establishing trust swtiched from the digital to the atomic. The skilled warrior "really was" a punk child; the wide-eyed recruit "really was" a mature professional adult. Atomic credentialling - age, experience, possibly social class - destroyed the effective digital relationship.
Here are my conclusions, from my own experiences and what I've seen of others:
- Atomic credentialling undermines effectiveness in digital worlds. It imports irrelevancies which change the value equation of digital work to make it unlikely that good digital work will take place. It also empowers wankers, who're more interested in bragging about the tickets they've gotten punched than in doing the work at hand. Atomic identities are difficult to verify (see Gwen's hilarious discussion of her attempts to determine whether a voice on a phone was actually an authorized AT&T agent) and easy to game (see this week's corporate financial scandal or identity-theft story).
- Pseudonymity maximizes trust in digital worlds. It removes irrelevancies and forces people to demonstrate their trustworthiness within a tribal, face to face context. A digital identity is rich, easily verifiable and nearly impossible to game. It's hard to build digital legitimacy: you can't buy it, as scores of corporate island builders in SL learned, and it takes a lot of work to maintain visibility (as I've proven by withdrawing from most reputation-building work). The exception is the issue of alts - but, alts are a direct parallel to limited liability companies. And that's the problem with them - they introduce something like an atomic technique to enable anonymous commerce into the tribal community of the avatar-to-avatar digital world.