The Forest for the Spoons

I wrote a brief article for Gamespot News about the oft-repeated "There is no spoon" comment from State of Play 2. I'll likely expand and further flesh out the arguments in future work -- I suspect that we'll all be debating this until the next SoP -- but since I thought that this was one of the most basic disagreements to come out of State of Play 2 that it was worth picking up.

The line from The Matrix, "There is no spoon," was first used during the conference by Yale's Yochai Benkler, but the phrase came up again and again. In various ways, its adherents argued that 3D digital worlds are text with 3D interfaces grafted on. They're Wikipedias with prettier graphics. Often, the "no spoon" argument was invoked as a precursor to discussions about property, regulation, or connections between the real and the digital worlds. It is a tempting shorthand, made all the more powerful by its association with The Matrix. It is also clearly wrong. There is a spoon, just not one that you can eat with. Digital worlds are very real places.

Also, the final version of "Escaping the Gilded Cage", which I wrote for NYLS after the first SoP is now up on SSRN. I've updated "A Piece of Place" and added "Aviators, Moguls, Fashionistas and Barons" which was originally written for Gamasutra.


Comments on The Forest for the Spoons:

Adam Miller says:

You come into my world, chop down my trees, get tools from my vendors, and using the skills I gave you, you build a virtual wooden spoon that is stored in my database.

Now, somehow that spoon is real and your property? There is no spoon!


Posted Nov 15, 2004 3:51:49 PM | link

Andrew Burton says:

They're Wikipedias with prettier graphics.

No, they aren't.

Posted Nov 15, 2004 6:04:05 PM | link

Scott Moore says:

Adam, is your comment part of an in-joke from SOP2 that the rest of us missed? Just because something is real does not automatically determine who owns it (or that anybody owns it).

Posted Nov 15, 2004 6:09:20 PM | link

greglas says:

Actually, fwiw (not a lot), I think I started the spoon meme during SOPI with my Powerpoint slides -- right about the time I said we all seemed to need obligatory Matrix references and that Ted has been channeling Agent Smith. But my next slide was "Selling the Spoon." My point was: isn't this odd? Even though the spoon (or sword or castle or whatever) does not exist in any real sense, that doesn't mean you can't steal or dupe one and sell it for cold hard cash.

Yochai's argument was very similar to his comment last year about how wrong it would be to legislate the writing of Harry Potter. Essentially, he wants to put the whole "worldness" of VWs into a "communications" category and have us theorize them as very immersive social software that isn't best described in terms of anyone's ownership (my reading, of couse). You should distrust that and get his position paper here.

Posted Nov 15, 2004 6:26:34 PM | link

Adam Miller says:

What I was getting at is this:

If I draw a spoon on a piece of paper, it is not a spoon. It is a representation of a spoon, ink on paper. Virtual spoons are just bits of data that when viewed a certain way, look like a spoon.

These are not real objects, they are representations of objects. These are just the virtual shadows of real things or ideas.

When you play in my virtual world, all you're doing is making interesting waves in my pond. Can you own the wave when I own the water?

Posted Nov 15, 2004 6:50:42 PM | link

greglas says:

Adam, no one is saying that these things aren't bits in databases. In a similar vein see this -- but what's interesting is that, as a purely non-legal and practical matter, I have the ability to sell the waves on the water you own.

Posted Nov 15, 2004 7:02:13 PM | link

blaze says:

This is all a misinterpretation of the buddhist religion .. which I'm not sure this blog entry is properly correcting.

Here's a useful link:

http://www.friesian.com/matrix.htm

So you see, the quote "there is no spoon" was not simply refering to The computer built Matrix itself, but rather that all existence is but an illusory world. The Matrix was meant as a metaphor for more than just a computer game.

There is no more a spoon in SecondLife than there is in your favorite text based mud or your local Denny's down the street.

Posted Nov 15, 2004 7:10:25 PM | link

blaze says:

Or, better yet, to quote myself - SL, like life, is just a game.

Posted Nov 15, 2004 7:12:13 PM | link

Brian 'Psychochild' Green says:

Personally, I think the whole "Is there a spoon?" argument is pointless. It's not the place that's important in our virtual worlds, rather the communities.

If I were to remove the concept of "rooms" from a game and let people communicate with each other freely, there would still be something interesting there, something we would recognize as a MUD in the most general sense. It seems a bit odd to argue about "where we are" when we send email or IM our friends, doesn't it? It's the community of the mailing list or the friendship I share over IMs that is important, not the sense of place.

greglas wrote, "[B]ut what's interesting is that, as a purely non-legal and practical matter, I have the ability to sell the waves on the water you own."

I also have the ability to sell you the Golden Gate Bridge (you can pay me money and then tell people you own it, which largely won't affect other people including the real owners), that doesn't mean that the sale was valid.

(BTW, I'm having a discount sale on bridges. Email me today for more information!)

Have fun,

-Brian

Posted Nov 15, 2004 7:42:59 PM | link

greglas says:

Brian wrote: "Personally, I think the whole "Is there a spoon?" argument is pointless."

Well, four words can never take you too far, but it is a koan -- which is how it is used in the film for Neo. It's just another way of saying "all is maya," which it is, in computer games. Again, Yochai is saying more than that, although I, like Cory, don't agree with him.

Brian wrote: "I also have the ability to sell you the Golden Gate Bridge (you can pay me money and then tell people you own it, which largely won't affect other people including the real owners), that doesn't mean that the sale was valid."

That's not a good analogy, though. Property ownership generally entails the right to exclude. Your customers can't exclude others from using the Golden Gate, but Julian's customer's who bought his spoons are free to lock them up in their illusionary castles. So selling the spoon isn't fraud, really, it's just trafficking in maya (and breach of contract most of the time).

Posted Nov 15, 2004 7:56:29 PM | link

Edward Castronova says:

A brief insert from economics: as far as market values go, nothing is objective. Markets can put a price on any thing that people are willing to recognize as a thing.

To the extent that all politics is ultimately utilitarian (A. Voting simply aggregates interests. B. Nonconsequentialist preferences are essentially random noise [being noncsonequentialist]. C. Adding up a bunch of random noise elements nets out to zero effect. D. Therefore only consequentialist ethics determine anything in politics), we could say that for politics too, any thing recognized as a thing can have political value.

The emergence of the thingness of something is its critical moment.

As for the spoon, that's already happened. Descriptively, there's nothing to argue about. There's a spoon.

But I thought that Benkler's point was not that there is no spoon, really. I thought he was saying that the thing we call a spoon is a prop or stand-in for a specific bunch of communicative understandings. That works for me.

Posted Nov 15, 2004 9:38:32 PM | link

Cory Ondrejka says:

Psychochild> It's not the place that's important in our virtual worlds, rather the communities.

Even more the property debate, it seemed to me that this was the heart of what Yochai was driving at. I've had this discussion with Raph as well, who is also of the mindset that the 3D world aspect doesn't fundamentally change the experience. I strongly disagree with that assertion, as I tried to briefly lay out in the article.

Interestingly, it was time spent with architects that really forced me to think about place and what it means. If we're lucky, we'll cross polinate SoP3 with some.

Posted Nov 15, 2004 9:43:12 PM | link

blaze says:

Oh, the 3D doesn't change the status of the spoons existence. It just makes the idea of a spoon more interesting.

I think if you did some drop shipping on eBay you'd have more of an appreciation for how little the existence of a spoon is important to anyone. What's important is the value that people have placed on that spoon.

But now we're talking about real life, where still, there is no spoon.

Posted Nov 15, 2004 10:11:14 PM | link

blaze says:

"But I thought that Benkler's point was not that there is no spoon, really. I thought he was saying that the thing we call a spoon is a prop or stand-in for a specific bunch of communicative understandings. That works for me."

Well that's a very cool idea :) But I really don't think that is what the wachowski brothers had in mind..

Posted Nov 15, 2004 10:22:34 PM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Edward Castronova>I thought he was saying that the thing we call a spoon is a prop or stand-in for a specific bunch of communicative understandings.

He may well be right. Trade in virtual objects can easily be couched in terms of services rather than ownership. I'm not buying ownership of a virtual sword from you, I'm paying you to have your character transfer the object into my character's inventory. The sword can still belong to the game developer in this situation, throughout the entire transaction. The players just call it "buying" an object as a shorthand for "paying you to transfer it to my inventory".

I don't see that this fits in with the spoon argument. However, that may be because I missed its being stated at SoP (I was being interviewed) and spent half a day hearing constant references to it without knowing what people were talking about.

Richard

Posted Nov 16, 2004 2:59:57 AM | link

greglas says:

Edward Castronova>I thought he was saying that the thing we call a spoon is a prop or stand-in for a specific bunch of communicative understandings.

Richard> He may well be right.

Yes, but let me add, then: there are no diamonds, there is no money. But Ted said as much a couple years ago.

Posted Nov 16, 2004 10:18:54 AM | link

mike d says:

re: buddhist spoons.

While I'm no buddhist, and there certainly are different variations to buddhism, I'm pretty sure that it is not the experience of the world that is the illusion, but rather it's the abstract idea of a physical world. The experience of the world is for the most part considered fact (in that it is complete in and of itself). It's the subject-object ideology that seeks to explain those experiences as being made by a someone who observes something, which is considered false (along with the related theories of a subjective world, or an objective world).

Basically, what comes first, the world or the experience of the world? The self or the experience of the self?

Posted Nov 16, 2004 2:56:51 PM | link

F. Randall Farmer says:

You have entered a room of people dressed up like bearded men, making weighty statements that you don't completely understand.

>Listen to beards

Mike D says, “Basically, what comes first, the world or the experience of the world? The self or the experience of the self?”

>Inventory

You are carrying:
A spoon

>Gouge Mike D’s eye out with the spoon.

You take the spoon out of your pocket.
The Oracle says “There is no Spoon!”
You attack Mike D with the spoon. Yeechh.
Mike D is dead.

>“Anyone else?”; ignore beards

You say, “Anyone else?”
There are a large number of objections and replies, which you ignore.

>reconfigure spoon
Opening source code editor…

Posted Nov 16, 2004 3:26:26 PM | link

Constance Steinkuehler says:

> Inventory

You are carrying: 1 spoon, 1 beard

> Equip beard

You wear a beard, despite the overlooked fact that you are a female.

Okay, so for you game designers here who say I am only making waves in your pond. Well what if I argue, echoing TL Taylor's talk from SoP here, that you originally got the idea of a spoon from me and my community in the first place, coded it into something, and then not only sold it back to me as part of a package but then told me that you always owned the spoon and that all I can take credit for is the swwooooosh noise it makes when I toss it across the room? Henry Jenkins is right. The only difference between folk culture in the past and fan culture today is that, today, a bunch of corporations are actually willing to argue that they own the fodder from which culture is made. Oh, and that the fodder is somehow more important or substantive than the culture I make from it.

>Equip spoon.

You are armed with spoon.

> Check item stats:

Spoon: +2 constitution, +4 dexterity, -3 charisma

Posted Nov 17, 2004 7:52:25 PM | link

Will Jordan says:

> Remove Beard

You can't. It is cursed.

> Inventory

You are carrying:
a -2 Beard of Pedantry (being worn)
0 +3 Spoons of Phenomenology (weapon in hand)

Cory's position is that 3d virtual world experiences are fundamentally different from other forms of virtual worlds such as text-based MUDs, wikipedias or IRC chat rooms, and that this makes the spoon somehow more real. He makes the following points in his article:

- People spend lots of time in 3d VWs.
- Humans are evolved to efficiently process three-dimensional visual information.
- A three-dimensional visual world is a 'space and place' within which humans can engage many more of their 'real-world' communication skills.
- Other online communities that are not structured in 3d coordinates 'don't necessarily predict the interactions of people in shared places'.

This is silly. It's true that a 3d world can theoretically convey a richer sense of place to humans because of a greater information density potential, but it is egregious to suppose that this actually matters in the shared creation of meaning. Most of today's 3d virtual worlds do not make much use of all that extra perceptual bandwidth anyway. Take for example the animation that the characters in SL perform when the user is currently typing, which AIM conveys this same exact piece of information through a small icon. Or, I recognize that I am probably in a minority here, I haven't yet seen the point of having strictly anthropomorphic avatars in a world where the lack of physical embodiment eliminates the need for a human body whatsoever and renders all the accompanying 'realistic' animations simply semantic in value. 3d virtual worlds are not worlds that are fundamentally more real and 'livable' than other community spaces, they are just most perceptually similar to the 3d environment we currently live in.

We can't simply ignore the myriad of linguistic methods we use to communicate information to one another and assume the sole supremacy of eye-candy imitations of 'meatspace' - it makes just as much sense to stop reading books and just watch movies instead. I don't see how the sense of space and place translates to a claim of the reality of virtual property, and I don't see how a superficial 3d graphics layer makes something legally distinct from other socially rich online worlds such as Neopets or MUDs.

Finally, be sure to check out Chris Crawford's old article, The Tyranny of the Visual, which is pretty relevant to this discussion.

Posted Nov 18, 2004 12:31:27 AM | link

blaze says:

Well, they are different in their social component. So, if the spoon was a social animal of some sort, then this discussion might be more relevant.

However, I don't see much difference between:

> drop spoon
You have dropped a spoon.

and

llRezObject("spoon", llGetPos(), ZERO_VECTOR, ZERO_ROTATION, 0);
spoon: Hello Avatar!


But, yeah, I might be in the minority as well.

Posted Nov 18, 2004 12:42:26 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Will Jordan (summarising Cory)>- People spend lots of time in 3d VWs.

As they do in textual worlds and in 2.5D or 2D worlds.

>- Humans are evolved to efficiently process three-dimensional visual information.

On the whole, men moreso than women. Humans are also evolved to process efficiently linguistic information; on the whole, women moreso than men.

>- A three-dimensional visual world is a 'space and place' within which humans can engage many more of their 'real-world' communication skills.

So is a textual world. So is a 2.5D or 2D visual world.

- Other online communities that are not structured in 3d coordinates 'don't necessarily predict the interactions of people in shared places'.

People don't conceive of worlds as 3D co-ordinates. They conceive of them as agglomorates of paths, districts, edges, boundaries and landmarks in a cognitive map they build up inside their heads (Lynch, "The Image of the City", 1960). They can build those images up whether the input is from visual information or symbolic (ie. textual) information. Famously, they can do it without either (eg. blind people).

>This is silly.

I wouldn't put it quite so bluntly myself, but I would say that yes, on the whole the argument that 3D graphical worlds are somehow a different species to textual or non-3D graphical worlds is an overstatement. They are certainly different, in the same way that movies with sound are different from movies without sound, but underneath there are so many similarities that they can't be considered independent. There is a very large intersection between the processes involved in designing and playing both kinds of world that they must be considered to be the same thing.

Clearly, the fact that graphical worlds tend to have more players is important, although some graphical worlds are non-3D and have many more players than SL (or EQ, if you count Lineage as a non-3D world). Also, there are genuine arguments that 3D graphical worlds allow for more immediate immersion than 2.5D or textual worlds. There's less to support the idea that you can't get as immersed in a textual world as in a graphical one (indeed, it may be that symbolic input leads to deeper immersion than graphical input as it's less mediated).

Is there a spoon? Is there reality? Who cares?! Everything falls into place so much more easily if you assume there is that the fact of its existence is pretty well irrelevant.

That said, whether it exists or not, the spoon for 3D graphical worlds and for other forms of virtual world is basically the same spoon.

Richard

Posted Nov 18, 2004 8:36:47 AM | link

Constance Steinkuehler says:

A scholar here named Katie Clinton is doing some fantastic work on if/how it matters that, in virtual spaces, we are effectively projecting our body into a space of information rather than projecting information into our bodily (ie. cranium) space.

Okay, I just slaughtered her basic premise. Here's a link to her last presentation on it.

Posted Nov 18, 2004 9:54:09 AM | link

greglas says:

Cool linky-looking non-links -- but can you try that again?

format is:
[a href="URL"] link text [/a]
replace the square brackets with the pointy variety.

Posted Nov 18, 2004 10:06:48 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Constance Steinkuehler>in virtual spaces, we are effectively projecting our body into a space of information rather than projecting information into our bodily (ie. cranium) space.

This is one one those areas that was descended upon by academics (well, post-modernists) in the past, picked over, then abandoned for the next fad. They didn't look at the psychological or neurophysical effects, but then why would they? Psychologists have looked into the field as an example of one part of what they call "presence", but (like so much theorising about computer games) usually to support their theories elsewhere rather than to develop theories specific to virtual worlds from the actual evidence.

Richard

Posted Nov 18, 2004 10:42:40 AM | link

magicback says:

Hmm, maybe I should start going back to sitting around the campfire with friends and strangers and do a few rounds of collective storytelling, games, and socializing.

Most of us around the campfire will imagine, create, and take home spoons of our collective work. Imagination is powerful.

Posted Nov 18, 2004 10:58:37 AM | link

greglas says:

Are these letters spoons?

Posted Nov 18, 2004 8:46:16 PM | link