Sunday, June 24, 2007

Against Rights, Part 1: Freedom of Speech

Freedom of speech (in the United States) is a misnomer. In reality, we start with "freedom of speech" and have all sorts of legislation henceforth limiting that freedom.

Obviously, in the private sector, you aren't free to speak your mind - if you go into a private sector area and speak your mind, you'll be arrested for trespass. But even in U.S. governmental functions, most communities now have eliminated public comment periods in council meetings. If you go in as a private citizen to a meeting of elected officials and begin speaking your peace, you will be removed and possibly arrested for disruption.

Collectively, most real-life laws pertaining to this are called "time and place" restrictions, and they've been vetted by the U.S. Supreme Court. In fact, they've become so inhibited that U.S. state and national parks now have - again, law-tested and approved - specific areas set aside for freedom of assembly and freedom of speech labelled, appropriately, "freedom of speech areas." Go outside that bound with your freedom of speech, and... you're arrested. In addition, your freedom of speech is now curtailed not only by national legislation, but by community standards.

Is this the result of 1984 governmental creep? No. There's good and valid reasons for it. In essence, we been creating a separate right for people - freedom from speech. As the United States has become more densely populated, and the bounds of thinkable thought (to crib from Chomsky) have expanded, as well as speech distribution methods, we have begun finding that blanket freedom of speech increasingly endangers civil society.

As a public, unherded by government policy, we have begun deciding that freedom of speech is for the birds. Reference Isaiah Washington and Don Imus. We are no longer, as a public, nearly as concerned with people's right to say what they want, as opposed to our freedom to "pursue happiness" and secure space for ourselves where we hear what we want to hear. Reference the FCC and its limitations imposed on network broadcasts.

Now, as bleeding-edge technology professionals and academics, we can lift our snifters of wine, stick out our pinkie fingers, doff our hats at the door and say, "Well, people should be more accepting of oppositional viewpoints." That's the equivalent of closing your eyes and plugging your ears and screaming "NANANANANAAAAA." It is obvious what the will of the public is, and the public does not like freedom of speech in its unadulterated state.

We have to realize that the public's mindset in this arena has changed and it now want lots of adulterations to freedom of speech. There are even worse problems with freedom of speech in virtual worlds.

Space within virtual worlds is created by private dollars to be populated. As opposed to real life, there are no spaces that are set aside with the intent of the ability to find privacy. Every nook, every cranny, is purposefully designed to be populated and accessible. In addition, in our current mindset of linear-progression games, almost all areas are required to be accessed to advance one's character. Thus, there is no "escape" from speech, which is now a publically accepted desire.

Beyond that, as I said in the preamble to this series of posts, virtual worlds are driven by someone's money. If we continue to want those someones to pony up the money to create these worlds, we can't expect to throw up their hands and allow people to lambast them within their own creation. You can't come in my house and call me a prick (well, you can, and then you'll get a load of buckshot in your ass,) and I only see it as reasonable to expect the same principle to apply to anyone financing and building a virtual world.

I find that most of the desire for freedom of speech in virtual worlds these days comes from folks interested in Second Life. But it's important to note that as much press as Second Life has received, the public has overwhelmingly chosen structured, more restrictive advancement games, a'la World of Warcraft, over this free-form distant cousin. Is this because the public's "stupid and wrong"? Get off your elitist horse. Like it or not, if you want to see virtual worlds grow, you have to accept the will of the public and its desires.

As the academy, if we push this issue, this is a sure-fire way of ensuring virtual worlds remain small and ultimately fail in all of the lofty visions we have for it. Real-world laws come about for real reasons. Clamoring for freedom of speech in virtual worlds, in effect, ignores two-hundred years worth of limitations we have collectively decided are good ideas. Even if the statement were made more inclusive of the limitations we've decided are good ideas, you simply can't make a readable entry for freedom of speech in virtual worlds without it extending for ten pages at a minimum.

The much more reasonable position is to sit back and let marketplace selection determine what rights individuals like. Again, Second Life has found a marketplace position, and a profitable one at that, by expanding the rights given to its users. If the marketplace finds a given virtual world too prohibitive, it will use another. If the marketplace finds a virtual space too free... it will use another. Nothing's inherently wrong with this. It is, in essence, a fascinating ability to choose a virtual nation.

Different worlds require different policies. Amen. Let's practice what we preach.

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