Mon 14 Jan 2008
Shawn Graham got the ball rolling with his discussion of applying Second Life as an instructional platform for archaeology. It seems to have had some resonance with other archaeo-bloggers (see ClioAudio, and ArchaeoGeek). ArchaeoGeek noted some fascinating work attempting to link GIS-type capabilities in Second Life. They even have an elaborate model of downtown Berkeley, including BART station.
Shawn also rightly discusses some concerns that people have voiced. These comments show some worry that we’re in danger of putting our data eggs in one basket, aand becoming dependent on yet another commercial platform (as in my previous discussion of Google, and how much we’ve come to rely on it). Given all the data preservation problems caused by closed-proprietary file formats and software, these are valid issues.
However, Linden Labs is pretty good in this regard, and I wouldn’t put Second Life in the same realm as Microsoft or even Google. Mitch Kapor (of Lotus fame, and now Second Life’s major investor) recently gave a talk at the UC Berkeley ISchool about Second Life (link to podcast). He talked about how Linden Labs is doing much to open up its infrastructure, and has “open sourced” both its client and will do so soon with its backend infrastructure software. Others will soon be able to run a Second Life server on their own. I think portability of the data in virtual worlds makes using Second Life and investing some effort in playing with it much more worth while and less risky.
In any event, while reliance on any one system is probably dangerous, there are good immediate and practical reasons for avoiding such digital mono-culture. Certain systems are best for certain types of applications. Second Life is great for visualization, and offering rich and shared experiences. But it’s probably not the kind of thing I’d use to run a statistical analysis of pot-sherd distributions. That said, Second Life doesn’t have to do that, because Linden Labs is making it easier to integrate with systems that do offer such capabilities.
I think a lot of interesting things will happen in systems like Second Life (and GoogleEarth). However, I think the most interesting things will happen between and among such systems that work together as an ecosystem exchanging data. The capability to draw upon a diverse array of powerful web services (delivering XML-encoded data, or similar formats like JSON) from data providers such as Nabonidus, Open Context, Freebase, GoogleDocs, the Portable Antiquities Scheme and others.
Of course, all this leads directly into standards questions. I tend to favor simple, incremental (or “gracefully degradable”) standards, since this approach seems like the most feasible way of exchanging at least some data. I’ll write some more on the standards question shortly.