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Novel:
vCity 1.0
by Dr. Adam L. Gruen

20 days in the life of a 21st century virtual city simulation.

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vCity 1.0
Chapter 17

"It is difficult to draw a man out of his own circle to interest him in the destiny of the state, because he does not clearly understand what influence the destiny of the state can have upon his own lot . . . . Local freedom, then, which leads a great number of citizens to value the affection of their neighbors and of their kindred, perpertually brings men together, and forces them to help one another, in spite of the propensities which sever them."

-- Alexis de Tocqueville --

The referendum of the Exon Inspiration site is now eight days old. Almost six million vCitizens have now cast their votes -- about 10% of the vCity customer base -- and about 80% of them have voted to keep it where it is. Which means the yes vote is gaining in terms of growth rate.

A few days ago I might have been able to predict the outcome based on previous voting statistics. Now I am not so sure. There are too many "wild card" variables that could dramatically affect the result -- it's sheer chaos theory at this point.

This isn't the only referendum that is active and on the ballot, of course, merely the one that is currently getting the most attention. Sites are banned all the time because they don't fit within the rules of the simulation.

The "ballot" is automatically updated each day. It is maintained by the Goodwill Division and consists of a simple 2D web page listing the sites in question. Each site, with its own URL (Internet address), is "hotlinked" so that all the vCitizen needs to do is click on the "hotlink" and take a look. Then they go back to the ballot page, and vote either no (to keep the site as it is, where it is, and registered as is) or yes (to remove the listing of that URL from the city registry, and return that City Coordinate or Zoning Volume to the next available customer). Our browser allows people to freely access both HTML and VRML-based Internet content.

Each vCitizen may also post an e-mail message to the Goodwill Division relating to a specific site, explaining what s/he thinks the problem is and what ought to be done about it. That is to say, a site may be banned not because its content is objectionable, but because it simply has some conceptual or programmatic VR flaw in it that could be easily corrected. In this way some of the banned or not actually exiled permanently to the Great Beyond; they are merely set back a few weeks and relocated. The vCitizens call them "the shunned".

A quick check of the GD Paradigm & Aesthetics Vote List (which is known among veteran vCitizens as The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, and even more obscurely as "Reboot Hill") reveals that there are 126 referenda underway.

When the vCity was very young, in its first few months of activity, we used to call a referendum on any site that was inactive. In other words, if one of the members of the Zoning Council came across a bad link (like a phone number disconnected and not merely a "busy" signal), we'd try to get rid of it. The 20-day grace period was established to give the owner of the server and of the VR files time to get back into operation or solve whatever the problem might have been.

This system broke down as the vCity population grew. We just couldn't keep up with the explosive growth, and more and more parts of the vCity were turning up blank. So the boys and girls down in Network Services came up with a program that was similar to a "link checker" used for Internet reference indices. In other words, we ran a program that would automatically go through every CC in our registry, randomly testing to see if the link was good or not, retesting it over a three-day period. This program did not examine content, merely if the Internet address was still valid. If it was no longer valid after a 72-hour period of re-examination, the CC registry was wiped clean, and the CC was left open to be filled later.

This worked pretty well with only a few problems. Since most people stored their files on servers owned and operated by someone else, a few thousand citizens were dismayed to find out that they had been wiped clean off the vCity map through no fault of their own. We tried, whenever possible, to work with people to get them back to their old haunts within the registry. Some Zoning Volumes, alas, were permanently crippled -- the vCity version of taking a magnificent lot and subdividing it into postage stamps.

One guy went ballistic. The server he was using suffered a power outage and was down for four days. Our program, unable to recognize the difference between an obsolete address and one that is inaccessible because it is off-line, cleaned his URL off the vCity registry. He had spent a lot of time designing his VR milieu to fit exactly within the Zoning Volume he had originally registered. By the time the situation was brought to our attention, part of the ZV had already been reassigned. He refused to redesign his VR files to fit the new, slightly smaller ZV. This created an annoying situation where two virtual masses were occupying the same virtual volume, which is an aesthetic no-no of the first order. The Goodwill Division wonks pleaded with him to rectify the situation, but he refused. We were very reluctant to call a referendum, since he was an important vCitizen, but under the rules of the vCity, it was a clear violation. The Zoning Council even offered an entirely new ZV, identical in all respects to the original, in a nearby city block if he would relocate. He refused. So we called the referendum, and after 20 days, his site and the persona he created were banned.

He threatened to sue our corporation, which was ridiculous. He also threatened to e-mailbomb me (overload my vCity e-mail account), which was not so funny.

I told him, "Fine. You do that, and I'll pipe the Mole rats on you."

Deciding that perhaps discretion was the better part of valor, he re-entered the vCity as a new persona ten days later, and resumed a normal vLife in the vCity. As a matter of fact, I like his new residence in Foothills Park much better than the old one, which still exists somewhere in the Great Beyond, just a mouse click away.

 

I knock twice on the hard, polished wood surface of the conference table. It is the last Friday of the month. It is 08:37 EDT, we are in corporate headquarters out in the planned community of Reston, Virginia. What an appropriate milieu for a discussion of virtual city zoning policies. Old R.E.S. would have approved.

"Okay, this meeting will come to chaos. Welcome to the 57th Zoning Council Change Board meeting. Does everybody on-line have a good connection?"

"Atlanta is go," says a disembodied voice from a speakerphone.

"Bay Area is go," says another voice, this time from a PC speaker. Her face isn't up on the screen yet. I'm not surprised; she's probably still half asleep and looking rumpled at the moment.

"Cape Town, go," says a third.

"London, on-line," says a fourth.

"Seoul is good," says a fifth tiredly. Teleconferences are always hard on our PacRim rep, who is 12 hours ahead.

"Tel Aviv is go," says the last, a bespectacled white face staring with an unchanging listless grin on the videoviewer.

"Okay, great. Please check your security codes from time to time. Here in Reston USrealspace we have Chairman, Network Services, Business Services, Personal Services, Government Services, Information Services, and OGC. That is a full council."

The first order of business is new business, and first up to bat was the councilrep for Government Services, Cindy Martin.

"Okay, GS, Item One, what've you got?"

"It's a request from the U.S. Army to set up several free range zoning volumes in the outlands for tactical weapons training and doctrine testing. As you can see on page six, they're asking for quite a bit of volume. About twenty thousand square kilometers in total spread out over eight ecosystems."

A confusing babble breaks out on-line and in the room.

"Whoa Nelly! Chairman recognizes Atlanta, go ahead."

"This is Atlanta, why does the Army need to use our simulation? They've got enough VR technology to choke a herd of horses."

Cindy leans close to the speakerphone unnecessarily; it automatically compensates for over or undermodulation. "GS in Reston, they want to connect to the vCity for the same reason everyone else does, to gain access to our customer base."

The debate saws back and forth for a while: technically there is no reason why we can't assign this much volume to one client, although it's never been done before; do we really want one client to "own" that much of the vCity? Not a problem, says Network Services, we can expand the outlands outward; we could even set up a whole new continent just for the U.S. Army and people could just beam there, or "fly" in from one of the airports.

The argument isn't technical, it's political. No one has ever brought VR weaponry into the vCity before. At least not that we know of, runs the counter; maybe somebody in Belowtown has, that's not a sector any of us frequent with any regularity. Besides, says someone else, so what if there are weapons in the vCity? They're just art design, they're not actually harmful to anyone. Bullshit, says someone else. If pornography is obscenity, than surely murder is even more of an obscenity? Who said anything about murder, this is just tactical weapons training and doctrine. The Army wants to see how futuristic weapons could be deployed in different terrains under wargame conditions. Nonsense, chimes another voice. The Army would not reveal military secrets in open kriegspiel, unless it were deliberately trying to spread misinformation worldwide about its operations. This is purely a public relations gimmick designed to entice teenagers into enlisting into the U.S. Army when they turn 18. Worse, says someone else. It could be an attempt on the part of the U.S. Army to pre-determine who is most adept at handling nolo battlefield weapons. Wasn't there a movie in the 1980s about space aliens who did that using video games?

"Who contacted you?" I ask Cindy, after the debate simmers down into an uneasy silence. "Was it someone from the St. Louis command center, or someone from the Pentagon?"

"Pentagon."

"Well, that's a clue. How much are they willing to pay us to lease volume?"

She stares at me blankly. "Pay us?"

"Yes. Cash up front, of course -- U.S. government cheques are always suspect this late in the Fiscal Year."

"He didn't mention anything about payment."

"Oh, well get back to him then, and ask him. If he mentions any figure at all, then he's a PR weenie and its coming out of their advertising budget."

"You don't think this is a legitimate request?" asks Stan Mead, the OGC representative, nervously.

"If it isn't advertising, then it would be a sole source services contract, wouldn't it? There are twenty-two other internetworking corporations that would bend down and spread their knees for a U.S. Army contract. So you want to spend the next five years in litigation defending a sole source? I sure don't. If they're serious they'll put out an RFP on it, then we'll seriously consider it."

"So what if it is advertising?" asks the Business Markets rep, a young guy named Darrin with a buzz cut wearing a suit and tie, looking faintly ridiculous. "We're in business to make money, aren't we?"

"Absolutely yes," I reply. "Therefore we must keep the customers that we have. So let's see what kind of rate the U.S. Army recruitment office had in mind. Judging from the conversation that just took place, I'd say that the entire thing would last twenty days before it was banned. So in effect we'd be running a paid advertisement over the Internet for twenty days. It would upset a lot of people, especially our foreign national customers. It would probably make a mockery out of the vCity concept. So it had better be worth a lot of money to us, don't you think?"

"I don't get this," says the Network Services rep. "I thought that it was our policy to give away zoning volumes, for free."

"It is," I reply. "We do. If the U.S. Army wants free advertising, give 'em an office in Midtown somewhere. Let them have people link to a recruitment web page. But there's nothing that says that we have to donate huge chunks of virtual wildlife refuge to a government so that sixteen year olds can play battlefield simulations against each other. We have the future to think of, after all."

"But we could create a whole new entertainment simm on a different server," he said. "Call it vBattlefield or something."

"Expensive," I say. "Dilutive to the vCity concept. But possible." I look over at Cindy Martin. "You want to try that out on them?"

She hesitates. "How expensive?"

"Speaking patriotically as a U.S. citizen, I'd say about twenty times their initial offer or five million dollars, whichever is higher."

"That's profiteering."

"Not at all. If they don't like the price, let them go to some other corporation offering a virtual city simulation."

"But nobody else has one with sixty million customers."

I shrug. "What is the just price of nails?"

"Huh?"

"The Apologia of Thomas Keane? Never mind. Next Item. Cape Town?"

"Right," says the videoviewer speaker. The quiet, lean black face of Bobby Jenko stares at us from the display. "Page Ten. A Johannesburg-based corporation wholly owned by Saul Pietersoon wishes to establish a virtual reality stock market."

"Okay," I say, leafing through the material in front of me. "What's the problem?"

"No problem. He just wants help setting it up."

"Bay Area here. He wants help setting what up? A web page? World files?"

"No, no. A real stock market."

"Wait a second, I'm confused," says Stan Mead. He scans the hard copy before him furiously. "Does he want a virtual reality site that acts like a stock market?"

"Yes, exactly," replies Jenko. His face is now smiling on the display.

Stan looks dumbfounded. "You mean, with real world money?"

"Yes, exactly."

"We can't do that," replies Stan automatically. He takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes tiredly.

"Why not?" asks Jenko.

"Well, I mean technically it's possible. However legally that is very murky ground. It would need to be sanitized through about half a dozen agencies here in the U.S."

"I disagree," says Jenko. "The content and files would all be located on servers in South Africa. Money exchange would be handled by wire transfer with all the usual record keeping and security measures. No different than a real stock market."

"Bay Area here again. Cape, I'm missing something here. If this guy wants to create a new stock market, then what does he need the vCity for? I mean, isn't this just a straightforward contract for an electronic finance & transmission package?"

"He wishes to establish an exchange to buy and sell stock in simulated corporations that are located in the vCity. There are over six thousand of them currently."

Stan leans back in his chair and exhales. "Holy cow."

"Cape, this is Chairman in Reston. Does Mr. Pietersoon understand that, well, that simmcorporations aren't real?" Even as I ask the question, I feel stupid.

"Yes of course," comes the irritated reply.

"Well, then help us all out here, Bobby. Why would anyone pay real world money to purchase stock in a company that they know doesn't exist? I mean I can understand why someone would want to sell stock in a company that doesn't exist. Generally speaking if we find them, however, then we throw them in jail."

"His idea is to establish a pre-IPO stock market that would gauge the actual market interest in futuristic products and services prior to their actual development," said Jenko. "University political economic theory classes already do this. Each student pays in $100 to a common fund and purchases virtual shares in real world listings, or politicians, or anything. Then they trade among themselves. Stock in a losing politician, for example, cannot be redeemed. The idea is that when people are allocating their own real money, the results will be more accurate in predicting the outcome than if they were choosing stocks or whatever on a risk-free basis."

"But there's no inherent value in a simmcorp," I reply, boggled. "No assets. What you're saying is that a vCitizen would be transferring $10, for example, for a share of something that has no actual value, only subjective value. It could sink to $1 or rise to $100 instantly."

"Yes, true. But as more people join the simulation, the average price of stock would rise."

Stan snorts derisively. "That's a Ponzi scheme."

I look at Stan and suddenly the light bulb flicks on. "Of course. Bobby, this Mr. Pietersoon, what does his corporation do?"

"Saul Pietersoon? You have not heard of him before?"

"Afraid not."

"He builds and operates casinos. One of the most famous men in all of South Africa."

"I see. So, he wants us to help him set up a telegambling operation."

"In a manner of speaking, I suppose that's true," replied Jenko. "Strictly speaking, all stock markets are forms of gambling."

"So what's his double zero?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"How does he stand to make a profit?"

"Brokerage commissions, of course," replies Jenko, puzzled. "Look, this is really no different from any other stock market in the world."

"Except that the shares are valueless," I say. "They can't be redeemed for anything."

"Not true. His corporation would redeem shares for full par value at any time."

"Oh. So a $10 share of Ivan's DomDirigible Repair Shop is always worth at least $10?"

"At least."

"Assuming that Pietersoon's corporation doesn't go bankrupt, of course."

"Yes, there is that risk," replied Jenko. "As you can see on page twelve, however, the total par value of simmcorps vShares sold would not exceed the total value of his real world assets."

"I still don't see why the value of vShares would rise. They have no dividends, their value is not tied to any actual, real world outcome."

"Ah," said Jenko, a mysterious smile on his display face. "That is the beauty of this idea. Real world corporations could themselves assign some value to virtual shares. For example, to use your example, if Ivan does, in the future, develop a DomDirigible Repair Shop, he could offer to accept a vShare as worth perhaps $25 off a total repair bill. Like an advertising discount coupon. So indeed it would be possible for virtual shares to acquire real world value in the future."

There was a moment of stunned silence punctuated by an electronic crackle from one of the speakers.

"That's interesting," said Darrin, the BS rep. "A corporation whose projected business does not exist today could issue virtual shares for a simmcorps redeemable in the future by a real subsidiary set up to reproduce the product or service first showcased in the vCity. Pietersoon makes money on commissions and interest income. The real world corporation gets an accurate gauge of consumer interest and possible future revenue for the price of a what amounts to an advertising coupon, both of which could be leveraged for investment purposes. The vCitizen has an opportunity to win money over time. The only person who loses is the unwise bettor who bets on a product or service that never makes it, but his loss is limited to the brokerage fee, the difference between par and market value, and lost opportunity income. I like it."

"Cape, can you take care of the details?"

"No problem," said Jenko. "What should we charge to set it up?"

There was more to the meeting, of course. I won't bore you with the rest of it.

next chapter

 

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