OUTSOURCING THE METAVERSE
In a country once ravaged by war, tyranny, and poverty, a virtual niche emerges in the new world economy
The man behind the avatar known as "taelin Ng" begins his mornings
in District 8 of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, in the small apartment he shares
with his mother. He only lives with his mother, because taelin's other
parent died in the notorious re-education camps constructed in the wake of
To get to work, says Ng, "I ride bike, just like others." The
streets of Ho Chi Minh teem with mopeds, in numbers far eclipsing cars, or even
pedestrians; it's seemingly an entire city that transports itself on two
wheels, even if that means several people squeezing themselves onto a single
bike. (It's not uncommon to see an entire family of four or five on one
moped.) Like Ng, most of them are on
their motorbikes to get to work, because while the hourly wages are paltry (minimum
Swarms of moped-bound workers veer off toward garment and shoe factories, while other wheeled phalanxes make their way to semiconductor assembly plants, or to the docks where all those goods are loaded onto massive crates that are craned onto the mouths of behemoth cargo ships which, once engorged, lumber off to the ports of developed nations across the globe.
Not that Ng particularly likes the commute by motorbike. "I hate it," he tells me. "My butt hurts."
When he arrives at his office, his own role in the global economy is waiting for him on a glowing screen. Like many of his fellow citizens, Ng works at a factory that outsources goods and services to the developed world’s consumers at bargain rates. It’s just that his production line involves the assemblage of cubes and spheres into a miniature city of vaulting towers and glass domes that cut through the fog of a digital sky.
Ng works on a private Second Life island actually called The Illusion Factory
(direct portal here), and it’s the outpost of a multi-service film/TV
production studio and special effects house based in Southern California. The CEO (known in-world as IrightI Shirakawa) envisions the company’s SL
presence as a multi-tiered entertainment and education center that will also
showcase projects for the company’s entertainment and corporate clients.
“We will work to become an intellectual mecca in the metaverse,” IrightI
tells me, with
On my visit, Shirakawa strolled with me on lush garden walkways, and we flew on hoverboards in between soaring spires that suggest a civilization that’s managed to merge technology with magic. Though still under construction, the exquisiteness of the Illusion Factory’s architecture and the finely conceived layout already rivals some of the best builds in SL’s history.
“They are all visual effects people,” Shirakawa tells me, nodding to our surroundings, “so they learned the interface and built this in two months.
“Give us a year... look out!”
IrightI Shirakawa says the Vietnamese outsourcing of his Second Life
presence was a happy accident that came through a staffer’s family background. “My head of visual effects [in
He means taelin Ng, who learned his craft in 3D graphics at an American
university in the
Taelin Ng is the Illusion Factory island’s designer, while Cat acts as the Vietnam office’s general contractor. (Like Cat, his commute to the metaverse is moped-borne, from the city’s Binh Thanh District, and like Cat, has family griefs of his own. “My grandfather too died after the reeducation camp.”)
For his work at the Illusion Factory, Cat Clapper gets $1000 a month. “That is quite a lot of money as salary here,” Cat tells me. (Having visited Saigon a few years ago, I can confirm you could live quite comfortably on that.) “Our living standard is low,” he goes on. “About $300 a month can be said OK.” For their work in the metaverse, other Illusion Factory staffers earn more than that: “Some are $600 month, some are $400 month,” Ng tells me. The staffers are paid not in Vietnamese Dong, nor Linden Dollars; IrightI Shirakawa pays his employees by wiring US dollars to the Illusion Factory bank account in Ho Chi Minh. (“We got official permission from the Vietnam government,” Shirakawa explains.)
The upshot of all this is a virtual world metropolis created on a professional level, built at hourly rates far below those 3D graphics designers and programmers based in the US and the EU would expect to earn. Now that so many of them are earning thousands of dollars from corporations and other real world organizations to create a presence in Second Life, this point is not a trivial observation.
I put that point to IrightI Shirakawa plainly: “[T]he community might object to having to compete with builders in a developing nation who require a lot smaller income than they do,” I ask him. [See sidebar below] “What would you say to that?”
“For us it was not about using offshore,” says Shirakawa. “It was about helping my friend/employee reunite with his mom after 20 years of not seeing her. The offshore was a side benefit that came to me for doing a nice thing.” In addition, he sees far greater advantages. “If we bring some wealth back to the countries that the US has ravaged,” he reasons, “we are bringing good karma to the planet and back to the US where it is so needed. So much of what we are bringing to Second Life is free. It is my hope to bring more good things to life, not to compete at all.”
And so a particularly lovely portion of Second Life keeps growing, emerging from
a place many in
“We work on about 10-12 or 15 [hours a day],” Taelin Ng tells me. “Depend on the day. I'm here all the time in the office.” They both love the work.
“I think this is the future of the world,” Cat Clapper tells me. “I mean virtual space. It may evolve or change in some way but finally, the world need a virtual space like this. The real world may pose some limit. The virtual one can solve them. Like we are talking right now and partly see each other just in several minutes.”
Cat grins at me from
Sidebar: Top content creators, on outsourcing Second Life
I asked ten of SL’s best builders and scripters (most of whom make some or all of their living through content creation in Second Life) if they were threatened by competition from creators in developing nations. Nine replied:
Catherine Omega: I get requests for bids every day, simply because people know my name. From my point of view, that's what matters, not whether I can put in X hours coding. In fact, I could just outsource it to someone who COULD provide it cheaper.
So I think that globalization in that sense is a very good thing, as it builds other nations' tech bases.
SignpostMarv Martin: SL is a nation, and outsourcing work to other nations is bad for the unemployment level of the root nation. Work should be given to the people of a nation first, then the people of other nations.
Eggy Lippmann: Well, that's [my] whole plan. Portuguese people [like me] are cheaper, so we charge about half of what Electric Sheep Company does. As for people coming from even cheaper nations, that's great. It means I can hire them.
Relee Baysklef: I don't know if there would be much difference between content made in Second Life by a Westerner and something made by a team of exploited people in some barrel of codemonkeys… I'm not particularly worried about getting edged out by a barrel of codemonkeys, though. Even big businesses in SL become small businesses that have to compete with other small businesses, and people who make things for free.
Chip Midnight: Most of the time when people commission art or content their decision is based on reputation or individual style, and when it's not I think most people, even from developing nations, will charge what the market will bear.
Dane Zander: I would feel threatened, yes.... but also have the opportunity to subcontract them for any projects I undertake. [laughs] So it's a two edged sword, I guess.
Neil Protagonist: I bill what I think I am worth based on my
needs and the client's budget… if they want to save a buck by outsourcing, that’s
wholly their business, not mine. If anything I am in favor of Second Life being
a global marketplace. If SL can enable people in
Stella Costello: I don't know, Hamlet, you won't see me with some picket sign shouting "Scab". Most content developers should know they are damn lucky for the opportunity they have. Someone will always be willing to work harder, faster, and with more zest for less money. They might even be more thankful than you, too.
Aliasi Stonebender: The majority of content creators-- with a handful of big-name exceptions-- are practically giving things away as it is. Perhaps a creator from a developing nation would find the barrier to actually making a living using SL lower, due to an overall lower cost of living... but in the end it doesn't personally bother me; creativity isn't Nike shoes. [grins] People who want my stuff and my outlook on matters ain't going to find it elsewhere.