Emerald and the Death of Trust

Cracks in Emerald Viewer's reputation

The Emeraldgate incident, like most similar incidents, goes to the heart of one of the things that make the Internet work — trust.  Yeah, I know; Second Life is supposed to be a model for Net 2.0.  But even here, trust is one of the key things that rocks the planet.

Trust is one of the foundations of society.  We all trust each other that we’re not going to steal from each other’s houses, that our spouses aren’t going to cheat on us, that we won’t end up stabbed in our bed, that our bosses won’t simply fire us because they didn’t like the shirt we wore today.  Trust has glued civilization together since early men chose to work together to bring in the food on a hunt.  You just can’t get away from it.

Trust extends to computer systems as well.  The Golden Age days of computing, the era of the True Hackers of MIT and Stanford [1], provide one of the best illustrations of this.  If you’re unaware of such things, go and read Hackers:  Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy, and find out some of the fundamental history of these machines we’re playing with.  In the beginning, as opposed to the “batch-process” methodology used on most mainframe giants of the time (re:  IBM machines), these ancient heroes would cut their program on a paper tape — the preferred storage medium of the day; it was read in by a Teletype or tape reader — and then just toss the tape into a drawer near the machine, be it the TX-0 or the Digital PDP-1.  If someone else pulled it out and used it, no problem.  If someone else started rewriting it, that was cool.  Social pressure among the hacker community kept them from doing something malign for the most part.  The same philosophy carried over to when they moved to the more advanced PDP-6 and -10 and implemented a time-sharing system, allowing users to share the computer’s resources.  Their system, instead of segmenting access to files, allowed anyone to see anyone else’s files by default.  And, for the most part, it worked.

Unfortunately in some ways, we’ve moved beyond the joyriding days of original hackerdom.  98% of us today have probably never written a computer program; we’re users, not crafters.  We want our software to be ready to use when we click on the file icon and to do what it’s supposed to do.  And here again, we’re trusting the people who’ve written the code to give us a product that performs, performs well, and doesn’t do things it’s not supposed to do.

Now we have Fractured Crystal and the last version of Emerald.  Crystal’s program was a fine program at first — but then he broke the unwritten law of trust with his data-mining library, and with the DDoS attacks on a competitor’s Web site.  (I still haven’t figured out for sure which competitor it is; can someone help me out here?)  The result:  a strong migration of Residents away from Emerald, toward workalike viewer Imprudence, Emerald getting booted off the Third Party Viewer List by Linden Lab, and a climate of distrust for at least the immediate future toward any future builds of the viewer.  You can bet that their next build will be decompiled by several someones and the code examined with an electron microscope — forget the source code they’ll release for public view — and even then, there will be some who won’t trust the program again.

Ain’t it amazing what great fallout can come from such supposedly small acts…?

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[1] The term “hacker” is here used in the classical sense, as in the original Jargon File, later transported onto paper as The New Hacker’s Dictionary.  This meaning was lost when the mainstream media seized the term in the late Eighties or early Nineties and applied it exclusively to those who break into systems, especially for malicious intentions.  (That comes more under the term “crackers” today, according to some.)

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