A few posts ago, I decided not to attempt to write about slavery in SL, as a friend of mine had done a better job on the subject than I could hope to. Well, whilst I still hold this belief, I have decided that I do want to say something about the matter.
I apologise for lacking screenshots in this post - I did not want to implicate any sims or sim owners in this subject, as it is not meant to be an attack on such, but the start of a discussion of.
It would appear that the terms "sci-fi" and "human slavery" are synonymous in SL, and I suppose that the notion arises out of the anxiety over controlling something as unfathomable as space. There are plenty of areas on our own planet that we have difficulty in policing, and it is easy to imagine how such a problem might multiply as humans stretch out onto other planets. Many of the most popular sci fi sims appear to be through-points - space hotels, markets or truck-stops, designed to cater to the (temporary) needs of those passing through. As such, they can be read as liminal spaces, the nature of which is defined by whatever community happens to be gathered there at a time - soldiers, slavers, salvagers, clones, exiles, whatever. Taking into account the size of such sims, it is possible that the nature of the sim will be constantly in flux as new avatars teleport in, and resident avatars hop out. Given how easy it is for an SL user to change their avatar's clothes, it is possible that I could be the captain of a ship one minute, and a space hitch-hiker the next (I always have a towel ready in my inventory for such a purpose).
That these sims locate themselves on "the outer rim" - on the edge of the known, mappable universe, as it were, suggests a desire to be liberated from police-able systems. In terms of role-play, that is understandable, as it destabilises previously accepted social norms and makes possible a wider range of simulated activities. If the fear of punishment - albeit a questionable fear - is removed, how do humans behave? What governs them - and how strong is that governance? I think it is fair (if a little general) to say that, as a race, we are fascinated with the breakdown of society. We want to see what happens if we take on board the philosophies of, say, those in "Trainspotting", or "Fight Club", and SL offers a space in which we can do this without fear of permanent death.
Slavery works to challenge notions of equality, and represents for us, I think, the ultimate image of a person devoid of agency. Perhaps it is the closest we can come to the idea of "Hell on Earth", and I don't think it would be beyond reason to suggest that we (as society) view slaves as the lowest of the low. Are there any rungs left on the ladder to slide any further down at this point?
To return to "Trainspotting" and "Fight Club": it seems to me that many of the rules these films present to be done away with by their characters are rules concerning social responsibility. In becoming a slave, your actions become devoid of responsibility because you are no longer the one controlling them. When you place that situation into a world such as SL, it opens up a space of freedom that might begin to look attractive to inhabitants of a real world in which we are encouraged to constantly be aware of the consequences of every action we take.
Slavery is a fact of life in most parts of the Rim and Deep black, and arguably in most parts of the ‘verse. Slaves in the Rim and Deep black are acquired by many means. Slaves have a legal status, as property but with limited rights to care for their health and welfare. - "Slavery in the Outer Rim and Deep Black ver b-02" (a notecard available in SL)
However, when human trafficking and slavery is a fact of the real world, and we hear on the news stories of hundreds of victims the world over being forcibly removed from their home country and forced to work in another as labourers or prostitutes, where does that leave us? Suddenly, the social responsibility denied to a real slave becomes doubly encoded upon the virtual - and I am talking here, of course, of those who consent to allow their avatars to work as slaves, however temporarily, in SL. Bringing the word "freedom" into the discussion, on the side of the slavers, seems morally repugnant. Does the virtual world or, indeed, any world, have the right to take such an atrocity and turn it into a form of entertainment?
I am not suggesting, by any stretch of the imagination, that slavery as recreated in SL is anything akin to the kinds of slavery that go on in the real world, and nor am I saying that SL must become a site of protest for every ill that transpires in the realms of the palpable. But do we have an ethical responsibility, if we are to engage with slavery in SL, to stage some kind of political statement? Do we have a moral duty to denounce such practices and those that get direct enjoyment out of them - to de-eroticise what has arguably become a fetish?
The subject becomes difficult when you take into considerable the consensual nature of SL. Nothing can be done to your avatar without your consent, and so the "plight" taken on by those in the virtual world is one that, for whatever reason, they have chosen to take on. It is not slavery, and not even a representation of slavery. It is the aesthetic, perhaps, of slavery - it looks like slavery but, actually, most of the agency lies with the slave. Ultimately, even if you feel as if you have been forced into slavery in SL, you can press the "escape" tab and the whole virtual world will vanish from your view. Your avatar will be wrenched out of that life instantly.
Now, I do not engage in slavery, in SL or anywhere else. I have never dressed or cast Kitti as a slave, nor a slaver, and I do not frequent slave markets. I did try to free a slave character in a role-play scenario once, the subject of which became interesting when the slave had been conditioned such that she didn't quite want to be free, and Kitti had to begin imposing her own will upon the poor woman. It was an interesting situation, and one that, true to my maxims of role-play, was very difficult to write; but in agreeing to participate in this story, was I condoning slavery?
In visiting sims, sci-fi or not, that contain slave markets and holding cells and which encourage human traffickers to pass through, are we condoning the mimicry, the attitude, and, in a wider sense, the cause? I am not even talking, here, about sims designed purely for that purpose, and in several of the sci-fi sims I have in mind, the slave markets and quarters are hidden beneath the floor or down lengthy tunnels that is difficult to get to. It is not, necessarily, out and open, on display. But is that, in hiding the truth, as it were, making the situation worse?
Should we boycott them, all?
It is food for thought, and I'm not one hundred percent sure how I feel about this one.