From accidentally deleted term papers to canceled massively multiplayer online games to vanished Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan sites on Geocities, the modern internet is a world of impermanence. Forums disappear, Facebook accounts are erased and when an internet user decides to buy rather than illegally download music and ebooks, the virtual products have invisible strings attached so they are not owned but rented. Confusion over the rules that govern virtual space and a hothouse environment of experimentation, innovation and frequent failure have served to create an online culture where is instability is expected. The ensuing unease and a corresponding lack of investment and sense of proprietary ownership among many internet users have inhibited the development of the stable structures and frameworks that can turn digital space into its own separate world rather than functioning as the shadow of the physical world. The result is an internet that is developing on a culture of accepting impermanence rather than seeking persistence and stability.
To make a historical parallel, consider the popular idea of the American frontier, if not the actual sequence of complicated events that made up Western expansion. The early adopters of the internet created systems and structures that to the uninitiated seemed complex and perhaps dangerous, just as American pioneers pushed into territory that was seen as daunting and dangerous by the general public. As with all trailblazers, many of the internet’s first denizens were a mix of individualists, adventure seekers, technologically savvy explorers and fringe elements willing to take risks, which continues to be the case as new ideas such as Bitcoin develop. However, unlike the American frontier, the internet was not positioned spatially at a safe distance from “normal” life nor was it beyond the reach of most people. The ability to access the internet quickly became a part of daily life but the internet was and is still in many ways an undeveloped space. Users face an online world of fragmented rules and unfinished frameworks that labor under the constant specter of failure and consignment into the land of 404 errors.
A prominent example of this situation is the Mt. Gox meltdown. In February 2014 nearly half a billion dollars in the virtual currency Bitcoin was found to have disappeared from the trading website Mt. Gox. The announcement did little to dissuade the Bitcoin faithful but to the average internet user it played into concerns that the entire concept was unsafe or at least not yet ready. In a fierce debate on the website for The Economist, a poster described Bitcoins as “the currency equivalent of unicorns.” Another poster commented if people can lose their live savings in, “a local internet bank they can touch, visit and see, how on earth can they ever expect to quantify the risk of putting their money in an online institution situated across the world from them?” Even governments have yet to decide how to respond to cryptocurrencies, just the latest in a long line of new legal dilemmas posted by the internet. In response to the Mt. Gox crisis Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso stated, “We do not clearly know what bitcoins are, so we have to start studying it.” He also added, “We don’t know if it was a crime or just a bankruptcy.” The hothouse environment of the internet is generating new developments and structures that would have previously taken decades or been able to develop in a smaller, less public arena.
Perceived instability and attention grabbing failures are two elements driving a culture of impermanence. Another is the question of ownership over virtual items and digital space. In late January 2014, an unpaid bill in the massively multiplayer online game Eve Online led to the one of the costliest conflicts in gaming history. Players in two coalitions rallied to the defense or to the attack of a backwater system, eventually committing thousands of virtual ships worth hundreds of thousands in US dollars. The unpaid bill that started the wild and costly melee was for maintenance of sovereignty over B-R5RB–unpaid rent, in essence. Despite controlling the virtual system and possessing a substantial military force, the player run corporation H.A.V.O.C. did not own the lonely red star and dead worlds of B-R5RB. Under the rules of the game—both inside and outside of the virtual world of Eve—the non-player authorities had final claim as to ownership. While much has been made of the real money lost as digital starships exploded in a virtual war, the causes of the Battle of B-R5RB illustrates the current track towards conceptualizing ownership of digital space and the objects contained within. Notions of property and control over space have been redefined online and often companies have seized the initiative from individuals. The move towards monetizing digital space and controlling the objects within can hardly be seen as surprising, nor is it inherently detrimental to the development of the internet. However, for the long term growth of digital space as its own world an rather than a mirror to the physical world, removing the connection that ownership allows both robs a user of a sense of investment while instilling the kernel of doubt that it can all be taken away at a moment’s notice. Many will ask why bother adding to a sand castle.
In related amusing or ominous incident depending on your point of view, online giant Amazon remotely deleted copies of George Orwell’s seminal novel 1984 from Kindle devices. While the ensuing uproar forced Amazon to promise it would not remotely erase books again, the simple fact remains that digital products are typically licensed to a user and not owned. Consider too, the web site that hosts this article. While the photos and material on it may be owned or claimed by individuals, the virtual space it occupies is licensed and rented on a yearly basis by ICANN. Failure to pay the associated fees means the site will vanish, as uncounted others have disappeared over the years the internet has been in existence. The often unread terms of service that come with just about any digital product clearly defines the issue. The terms of service for the Amazon Kindle specifies that, “content is licensed, not sold, to you by the Content Provider.” Blizzard, developers of the highly successful game World of Warcraft, operates on similar lines. A player’s Warcraft account is licensed, not owned. Paid virtual items such as in-game pets are also licensed to the player rather than owned outright. For those who manage to scroll through the wall of text that is presented with every major patch or when first installing the game, a relevant section of the terms of service states: “You agree that, except as set forth in a Game EULA, you have no right or title in or to any such content, including without limitation the virtual goods or currency appearing or originating in any Game, or any other attributes associated with the Account or stored on the Service.”
A final element to the culture of impermanence is that sites and services often vanish. Web sites can be shut down, often rapidly, despite the wishes of all the users. Geocities, a pioneering effort in personal web site development, was shut down in 2009 after over a decade consigning millions of sites to oblivion. (Geocities coincidentally used language similar to that of American Western expansion such as “homesteading.”) The now vanished Geocities are a modern day lost city, where only now and then artifacts and memories emerge from forgotten corners of the internet with a small portion rescued by digital archivists. The online games Star Wars Galaxies and the Matrix Online were discontinued and their servers shut down. Even Facebook and Amazon have yet to truly stand the test of time. In the radically Darwinian internet forums appear, thrive and then disappear. Web sites come into vogue and then fade as newer competitors arrive. Authors lose interest in their web sites and Twitter accounts. Even simple reconfigurations of pages present unwary internet users with the dread 404 Page Not Found error. In the physical world spaces and objects persist. It’s not always the case online.
While digital goods and services may be the most prominent indicators of an developing internet where nothing is truly owned or permanent, the way online spaces are conceptualized and online culture itself has contributed towards creating a mentality where such a state is acceptable. Yet without a proprietary stake by internet users, the construction of stable, enduring structures is hampered. Perhaps one of the great consequence of an impermanent world is the loss of history. As digital domains disappear, they take with them arguments, debates and photos–the very stuff of a people’s history of the internet. Despite the best efforts of some groups, archiving everything is impossible at this point. In the physical world spaces persist. Even if the coffee shop where a person’s parents met is torn down and replaced by a supermarket, the location still exists. A father can take his daughter to the old site of Shea Stadium. The Imperial Palace in Japan, annihilated by firebombs in the dying days of World War Two, still exists today as a physical space. As a piece of history, as a location a player could take her children to in thirty years and tell them this is where she had her finest hour as an online gamer or where she met her future husband is eradicated. The impermanence of today means the past is constantly threatened with erasure and the future is uncertain.
To commemorate the Battle of B-R5BR a permanent in-game memorial named the Titanomancy was created by CCCP, the operators of Eve Online. The memorial invites those players who venture to it to consider their own mortality as they fly between the kilometer long wrecks of ships destroyed in the conflict. It is fitting that the question of mortality is an essential element of the commemoration as in terms of the digital world the permanent memorial will only last until the the day CCCP decides the game is no longer worth running. Then the Titanomancy, the virtual universe it is located in with all its ships and worlds will vanish at the flip of a switch and leave not a (server) rack behind.
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