I've been puzzling Constance's worry: are MMO's and virtual worlds distinguishable outside of their pragmatic constraints - whether they be technical, business, or research. In other words, is there a message beyond the medium...
Kevin Kelly in his latest piece in Wired Magazine (We are the Web) suggests a perspective from recent history. His suggestion is that visionary (and technical) foresight got it wrong about the World Wide Web:
We all missed the big story. The revolution launched by Netscape's IPO was only marginally about hypertext and human knowledge. At its heart was a new kind of participation that has since developed into an emerging culture based on sharing.
Yes, some of the language feels exaggerated, some of the extrapolations gushing. And so while I may not entirely believe that the last decade of wrangling the details of machine, network, protocol, and information and knowledge exchange with all their myriad and clever transactions, to have been outside the big story... yet, I might do.
If the impact of inventions lies not with their trajectory or the force behind their direction, but instead lies with some future emergent cultural fashion... Yes, magic, but not a magic entirely of technology.
What does this say of the current technical vision of virtual worlds?
Sure, it is likely to be wrong. But more wrong than if it were wrought from a source liberated from the mire of the insight of mechanism? Or is true insight only possible when grounded in the art of the possible?
Perhaps a vision of the future, however flawed, is best approximated by lots of blind folks groping the elephant and sharing notes.