A devil's accountant comes to Second Life (originally published here)...
Everything you think you know about your world is a lie. You may believe you live in a free society, but it’s really controlled by an elite upper class that has shaped its development from behind the scenes since its inception. You assume you have a fair shot at making a decent living or having your legitimate grievances heard through democratic redress, but the system is rigged so the elite ever has its way. No real dissent is possible, either, because the elite controls the media—rather, the media is part and parcel of the elite— and through it, all protest is marginalized, all consent is manufactured.
This summarizes, more or less, Noam Chomsky’s sociopolitical analysis of America, as expressed over nearly four decades as one of the country’s most notorious iconoclasts, through copious essay, innumerable public talks, and worldwide media appearances.
It also happens to summarize, more or less, Prokofy Neva’s sociopolitical analysis of Second Life, as expressed through innumerable posts on Second Life’s official Forums. Until, that is, after several months of accusation and acrimony, Linden Lab permanently suspended Neva from the Forums.
Mr. Neva still retains his in-world account, however, where he is an established landholder and businessman. Citing a policy of subscriber confidentiality, Linden Lab declined my request to explain the reasons behind the suspension from the Forums, the motives and fallout for which have been already speculated and argued over on numerous Resident-run SL blogs. Rather than rehash those here, or tread into the quagmire of pitting Neva’s perspective against Linden Lab and the other Residents he clashed with, leading up to his exile, I’ve decided to devote my coverage to Prokofy’s theory of the Feted Inner Core, and its relation to Second Life.
For the record, Neva vehemently disdains being compared to Noam Chomsky.
"I don't reject the analogy of myself as a dissident," he tells me, "but I think Chomsky
in real life is far more left wing, rigid, and extreme in his views
than I am in the equivalent Second Life context.” As it turns out,
Prokofy (who describes himself as someone who lived and worked in the
Soviet Union for some years
an émigré from the former Soviet Union) has actually met Noam Chomsky in person, he says, at a left-leaning scholars conference on the East Coast.
“In person, Chomsky seemed very quiet and geeky,” says Neva, “with kind of a geeky look of ‘uncool haircut’ and plain button down shirt and chinos. Not at all fiery in his in-person rhetorical style… he actually comes across as a bit mystical and religious with the stare off into the far distance, the pauses, etc.— it's a little creepy, he's definitely a persona.” But that didn’t prevent Prokofy from taking him on face to face, he tells me. “I expected him to put up more of a real feisty fight when I argued with him about the Soviet Union, but he was very mild and almost regressive. My memory of him was that he just sat there and didn't respond much as I talked about the horrors of the GULAG, listening to some inner angel choir.” He laughs at the recollection.
In any case, Prokofy Neva doesn’t buy the analogy. “In fact,” he insists, “I merely represent a liberal critique to the hard left like Ulrika or the hard right like Enabran and Chip and Cristiano, the burghers of Second Life.” (Enabran Templar is a successful robot manufacturer, Chip Midnight, a custom-skin designer, Cristiano Midnight, owner of Snapzilla; Ulrika Zugzwang is one of the founders of Neualtenburg, a kind of kibbutz-style worker-owned collective, modeled after a Bavarian mountain town.)
Further, he sees the Chomsky/Neva comparison as my clever strategy to de-legitimize his dissent.
“See Hamlet,” he informs me, “you'd like to position yourself as the ‘normal middle liberal voice of reason’ and have me on the wacky left or right, but frankly, I view myself as the normal middle liberal voice of reason and you all on the wacky left or right, and in that, I think most people in American society, looking at the tekki wikinistas, would agree.” (More about “wikinistas” below.)
But I do think the comparison illuminates. Foremost is the divisive impact both have had on their cultures. It is impossible to understand the American political scene, certainly on its liberal-left sphere, certainly in its most fractious moments, without being familiar withChomsky ’s influence. (Impossible as well to understand America as it is perceived by Europe, where he is generally revered.) In a similar way, Prokofy Neva has, for good and ill, had an enormous defining impact on Second Life culture. While he has his defenders, his theory also provokes strong social satire (examples here and here), and self-protective spoofing. (Many established Residents now cheerfully describe themselves as “FIC”; indeed, a planned visit by several dozen Residents to Linden Lab’s San Francisco office is dubbed “Planned RL Invasion of Linden Lab by the FIC”.) If it didn't exist before, the very resistance to the concept has almost dragged the thing into reality. (As Resident Elle Pollack recently noted and ironically self-styled FIC member Aimee Weber more or less assented to.)
In a recent New Yorker profile of Chomsky, a peer described him as “the devil’s accountant.” Meaning— depending on your point of view— a demon of conscience who keeps ruthless track of a nation’s sins, to damn it, or a deceitful, self-serving inquisitor who sees only sin and corruption, even in the most virtuous actions. With his derisive contempt of his opponents and his relentlessly inflammatory rhetoric,Chomsky represents the furthest extreme of intellectual dissent possible in a free society. As such, he also represents what is perhaps an inevitable challenge to the very concept of an open community and its ability to foster free speech, when that speech practically clamors for its dissolution.
Others may perceive other parallels, but for now, I’ll leave it at those.
If there’s any key difference between the two (and here I speak from some experience, having criticized Chomsky in past writing) it’s Prokofy Neva’s willingness to suggest tangible solutions to his pessimistic diagnosis. And to offer empirically verifiable predictions that might confirm or refute his analysis. (For example, whether Second Life's population begins to plateau at 40,000.) We’ll check back in a year to see if his prophecies are more Cassandra than crackpot.
For now, for the historical record—and more key, stripped clean of the personal scorn which were consistently threaded through Neva's Forum version, and Residents’ replies to them— the theory that accompanied Prokofy Neva’s rancorous rise and fall from the Forums.