Paul Dundon’s Weblog

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A little cheese and a little whine

Joining in with Sony Home

I’m not a great believer in conspiracies but even the most cynical mind has to admit that those with power and influence will sometimes do things which are in themselves inoffensive, and which follow quite naturally from what has gone before, but which at the same time open up the possibility of something more sinister. In the present case I refer, of course, to Sony BMG’s “Home”.

Home is a virtual world for the PlayStation 3. Virtual worlds are not new (Second Life, for example, has recently featured in the news) and much of what I’m about to say applies to many virtual worlds and not just Home. If Home is a special case it is because its delivery on the PS3 means it stands to become the most popular (there are currently about 17 million PS3’s worldwide and the number is set to increase signficantly over Christmas). The other advantage Home has over other virtual worlds is that it looks so gosh darned pretty.

So what’s the problem? Well, essentially that Home is a Fascist state. There is no governance distinct from the corporation (Sony) who own the property. Sony decides who can enter the Home world and what they can do there; they have access to everything that is said and done. There are, from Sony’s point of view, no private spaces. Each participant has an apartment, which seems private, although that only extends to excluding other participants. Participants can furnish their apartment in any style – so long as that style is one of those provided by Sony.

There is no possibility of violence or verbal abuse in the environment because of the way Sony has limited the interactions of participants; that is to say, the state-corporation guarantees not only physical safety but also a certain level of good manners by enforcing a zero-tolerance policy with respect to (in the strong sense of rendering impossible) any digression. There is a city square where you can come to meet other participants. You can sit next to the pond, and at the tables where you can play chess or chequers, but you can’t sit on the walls. There’s no prohibition relating to the walls; it’s just impossible to sit on them. You certainly couldn’t write on them.

To take part in a virtual world, you build an avatar, a model of a person which will represent you to other participants on screen. Home makes it possible to create an avatar which is overweight, badly dressed, and unattractive, but of course, no-one does. Rather, everyone chooses to look like a more than averagely attractive 20-something. This uniformity is exacerbated by the limited possibilities for dressing one’s avatar, which mean it isn’t uncommon to have five or six people on screen with completely identical outfits. Your avatar can do a number of things on your behalf – wave, smile, blow kisses and even dance. But of course, it is your avatar that does these things, and not you, so everyone smiles in the same way, blows kisses with exactly the same degree of flirtatiousness, and dances just as well as everyone else.

The result is that everyone in Home is good looking, well-dressed, well-behaved and utterly indistinguishable from everyone else.

My partner was invited to participate in late Beta trials of the environment and I made these observations as he spent the first couple of hours wandering fairly aimlessly (like most participants) through the Home world. Starting a conversation with other participants is a little clumsy, so there wasn’t much interaction going on. Then, after a couple of hours, something novel occurred: at one end of the town square, where you can hear music playing, a group of about six people started to dance together in a sort of stationary conga line. The group quickly grew as more participants (including my partner) joined the line.

I was reminded, a little cynically, of one historian’s description of proto-Nazi Germany as “one big society of joiners-in.” Of course, in a world where everyone participates as an atomic consumer and conversation is clumsy, joining in is the key to success: being part of the crowd is the only way to make social connections. Going with the flow. Not sticking out. Conforming.

I was about to dismiss these thoughts as unreasonably dark when I saw that one participant started doing his own dance, near the front of the line but not in it. Then one of the others approached him, and told him to get into line. Even in cyberspace, it seems, one must have ordnung.

Now, many of the points I’ve raised are arguably necessary consequences of the technological limitations of virtual worlds (in fact all of them could be overcome but the commercial value of the work involved is debatable). Others, like the impossibility of violence, are just good policy for online communities. As I implied in my introduction, everything in Home follows naturally from what has gone before and is, in that light, entirely reasonable. And I do not wish to argue that those participating in Home are unable to distinguish it from the real world or that it will become some sort of breeding ground for Fascist thinking.

I do want to suggest though, that Home is the present-day equivalent of the utopian novel (and it is, I repeat, extremely pretty). It may be, for some of those who participate, a partial replacement for the “real world” they live in but it is for everyone a model of a possible world, and it is a seductive one (not least because nobody labours), especially for those for whom joining in is a more natural instinct than independent thought. The demographic of those exposed to Home will tend towards young and more affluent. Home is, in other words, exposing the demos of the future to a subtle sort of Fascist propaganda: if we let corporations control the world, monitor and censor our behaviour and control the economy, there will be dancing in the streets and we will all be beautiful.

I don’t suppose for a moment that the next round of elections will see candidates from the Home Party standing in this country or anywhere else, but I will lay odds that over the next eighteen months, as economic problems breed discontent with incumbent governments, we will see, in blogs and chatrooms across the West (those same blogs and chatrooms which helped deliver the first black president in the US) the thought that things might be better if we let corporations run things. Just like Home.

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Filed under: Politics

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My Bookshelf

The Golden Bough
The Value of Nothing
The Fire
A Wolf at the Table
Devil Bones

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