Code is law: metaverse worlds as the ultimate sovereign states

Paul Raven @ 09-11-2010

A disappointingly brief interview piece at New Scientist has Greg Lastowka talking about the subject matter of his new book, Virtual Justice. I say disappointingly because there’s whole raft-loads of fascinating implications behind the bits that made the cut; I guess I’ll just have to buy the damned book (which was probably the entire point of the interview, to be fair).

Carping aside, Lastowka is talking about law and governance in virtual worlds… or rather the need for such. Thing is, it looks to me like he’s also implicitly conceding that trying to enforce such legal frameworks from without (i.e. from meatspace reality) will be, at best, an uphill battle:

NS: Surely technology has always influenced law. Are things fundamentally different today?

GL: Yes, I think so. To an extent, technology is displacing law. A virtual world owner has a choice between law and technology as tools to further their interests – and they are generally turning to technology first. In 1999, Lawrence Lessig used the phrase “code is law”, and it applies to virtual worlds today. If you control the very nature of the simulation – how gravity works, how a person walks, where they go, what they can say – then you have the power to govern the environment in a way that no sovereign in real space can.

NS: So virtual law could end up being quite powerful?

GL: The government can do a lot of things but it can’t reverse the direction of gravity. Owners of virtual worlds can do an amazing number of things with regard to surveillance and interpersonal interactions.

If they so choose… and bear in mind the market value of being one of the worlds that chooses not to.

But it’s this final line that carries a whole book’s-worth of interesting implications… and probably a trilogy’s-worth of post-cyberpunk plot hooks:

In a sense, technology has outpaced the law. Any owner of a technological platform essentially has the ability to regulate society.

Seriously, think about it: that last sentence there is just huge, saying so much in such a short space. Just as the geographically-defined nation-state begins the final process of withering, the non-Euclidian geography of the metaverse steps in to offer a space over which your control can be more gloriously totalitarian than the greatest despots of the world ever aspired to!

Problem is, if your citizens can emigrate by simply hitting Ctrl-Q and signing up with someone else, how do you encourage them to stick around? Godlike control over the local laws of physics and commerce sounds pretty sweet at first, but unless you want to be godking of a sandbox empire populated by the twenty-five deluded cranks who read your Randian blog back in the noughties (ahem), you’d better start figuring out a legal (and metaphysical) framework that has some sort of appeal to potential digital ex-pats. Money-laundering and tax-haven status might be a good place to start.

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3 Responses to “Code is law: metaverse worlds as the ultimate sovereign states”

  1. scottbp says:

    Sure your citizens can emigrate by just quitting, but when that means abandoning months or years worth of building in-world assets, the cost is far higher and the choice much harder to make.
    Then there is the community aspect as well, if your village is in a particular world and you depend upon them for your living, or your social life then leaving will be very difficult. Unless of course you can take your village with you when you go.

  2. Wintermute says:

    How does a Matrix Overlord get their peons from being brain (+eyballs) drained away?

    I think we’ve run this dystopic guantlet before, in different drag. It’s not even the 3D Stephenson peddling fanatic-run “Virtual World” attempts at manifest futurishness that we really need to be concerned about, these are mostly delusions of grandeur/fantasy gaming escapism made of industrial light, Skywalker sound, and vertex shaded fury. Even the millions of “e-citizens” of these new “countries of the mind” pale in comparison to the myriad hordes of the real Overlords sitting right under our noses, literally, glowing with harmless looking cute little logos (they even outright inform us that they aren’t evil). Take a guess at where the average user actually spends most of their online time. Better yet, take a second, type someting into your URL bar and see what your little silicon brain prosthetic tells you what it is you “want to do next”. Yes, that sound is the chorus of 500 million users tapping iPhone screens, hitting an F5 refresh for another breath of virtualized social life air as vital and inescapable as petroleum, doled out by the oxygen tanks of a Master Node that’s achieved true network lock in, and run by a borderline sociopath angry nerd in the shadow of the many Puppet Masters of the Universe weighing their bankster billions down upon him like the Emperor’s Wormwood whispers in the ear of Darth Vader, “Monetize! Strike them down with your angst! Sell to the highest bidder the personal information of these stupid, weak-brained jocks who stole your high school sweetheart and your transformation to Ultimate Power will be complete!” It’s the sound of three billion queries typed, soon trode-read into the prosthetic Cloud memory dispersed over quadrillions of closed, proprietary electron synapses connected by equally proprietary neurons of cell phone towers and Antarctic superserver barges, informing the increasingly obsolescent and purposeless meat brain – crowded out by the “growing omnipresent artificial and collective intelligence” – what music it wants to listen to, what coffee it wants to drink, who it wants to love, what thoughts it wants to think. And taking a hint from the 20th century oligopolies, they will have of course contingencies in place for the systemic anomaly of choice. Hot Topic rebellion. Placebo freedom & democracy. You choose, text in your votes now! Which network-empire-world-mixed reality would you like to live in: Veroogledom or iFaceLand? Coke or Pepsi? It’s a free country, have it your way!

  3. jt says:

    Wow, Wintermute. I’ve never seen so many meaningless buzzwords crammed into a contiguous block of text that size before.