Recently I was contacted by the programme officer of a UN agency for advice on how they could best use the virtual world of Second Life to promote their organization’s goals. As an activist with more than ten years of experience with various international campaigns and coalitions at the United Nations, and an active Second Life resident, I think that I’m in a unique position to evaluate the potential benefits and pitfalls of using virtual environments for international political action.
Here are some thoughts on how the UN might strategically use virtual worlds to promote the global issues and causes they espouse.
The United Nations has a mostly poor history of uptake of new information and communications technologies (ICTs), as I examine in my book e-Democracy and the United Nations. From internal information management systems to radio programming to video webcasting, the UN has lagged far behind industry, governments and the non-profit sector. There are good reasons for this, from budgetary restrictions to bureaucratic inertia, but the reality is that the UN has not been able to fully benefit from new media or even many old media technologies.
Some signs of innovation and experimentation have come from a few odd corners of the global institution. Notably, the UN’s World Food Programme in 2005 created the UN’s first video game entitled "Food Force." Shockingly, the game did not suck. Combining fun game play with informational cut-scenes, "Food Force" surpassed all expectations with more one million downloads in the first six weeks of launch. More importantly, the game created largely positive media buzz about the work that the WFP was doing to feed hungry people around the world.
More recently, the UN Millennium Campaign launched a "Stand Up Against Poverty" initiative within the virtual world of Second Life. This project is the virtual counterpart to a real-world effort to get millions of people around the world to stand up at the same time on October 14, setting a new Guiness World Record and hopefully putting pressure on governments to do more to end grinding poverty and hunger.
Some critical voices have asked what is the point of having avatars "stand up." Isn’t this just the veneer of social action without any of the commitment, constructive contribution or engagement with those suffering?
Indeed, these largely symbolic gestures are perhaps not the best uses of these virtual environments. Getting millions of people around the world to gather in town centers and stand in unity against poverty is one thing. That can be seen as a true demonstration of political pressure, if there is enough media attention. But getting a few thousand avatars to "stand up" is a demonstration of… well, no one really knows.
So what are the strengths of virtual environments that the UN could leverage to boost attention and action on issues of global concern? I contend that at least part of the answer is public education and
Education on Global Issues
Major academic institutions, from Harvard to USC to the Alliance Library System, are creating virtual presences, betting that this is the new frontier of distance learning or e-learning. Everyday students and teachers are developing new methods of knowledge transmission using the tools provided by these virtual worlds, from simulations of a person in the throws of schizophrenia to simulated ecosystems that grow and die based on variations of sunlight, rain and soil.
If the United Nations is going to find support for its objectives of combatting HIV/AIDS, sheltering refugees, protecting human rights and monitoring cease-fires, it is going to have to educate new generations of people on these issues. Education is the first step to generating political will, the most precious of commodities in policy circles.
Given the tech focus of many of the denizens of virtual worlds, the UN might consider organizing virtual courses on its ICT for Development agenda. Or perhaps focus on its technical coordination work on meteorological, climate, geological, and astrophysics data. Imagine engineering or biochem or agricultural science students learning directly from UNDP or WMO program officers, teaching from their cluttered desktops in New York and Geneva.
Beyond technical issues, there are a host of important political issues that the UN could educate and affluent and largely untapped market of Western virtual world users. The Second Life Darfur Camp is a great example of an immersive virtual environment where people can come closer to understanding the reality of what is happening in the that terrible conflict and its impact on the Sudanese. Similar 3D simulated environments could go a far ways in powerfully demonstrating the challenges of election monitoring, humanitarian aid provision, and diplomatic negotiation.
Which makes me wonder, why has no one conducted a virtual Model United Nations yet?
Beyond education, there is the larger question of how does the global body involve the global public in its deliberations and policy-making. Every year, the UN is faced with the difficult challenge of how to engage with the 5,000 plus "non-governmental organizations" (NGOs) who are accredited at the UN. Despite the rhetoric about the importance of democracy and "civil society," the reality is that the world’s governments are loath to let these un-elected advocacy and education groups have any part in the oldest of the "old boy’s clubs."
Even more difficult is the question of how to allow the general public to get even a flavor of what happens at the UN. Just observing over the years the guided tours of UN headquarters – that bring in about 400,000 tourists a year — you can see how much people want to witness the actual debates take place. Sadly, few of the actual critical decisions made by the Security Council or the General Assembly are ever viewed by the general public in any fashion.
My old boss Bill Pace of the World Federalist Movement has long supported the idea of a "global C-SPAN" TV channel where citizens could observe what their diplomats were doing at the UN. In Bill’s view, the closed door nature of the organization means that often governments will claim to be "defending human rights" and "protecting the environment" but will do the complete opposite at the UN because they think no one will find out. A television channel accessible around the world that broadcast the deliberations of the UN in all their mind-numbing glory would address that, according to Bill Pace.
But in my opinion creating a one-way channel of communication from the governors to the governed would simply perpetuate the image of the UN as a distant, ineffective, gigantic bureaucracy. And it would have the worst ratings in television history.
More interesting is the idea of organizing virtual forums where citizens from around the world could gather at the same time as a major UN conference, such as the World Summit on the Information Society that took place in 2005 or the Millennium Summit in 2000. The UN already gathers for these summits some of the world’s leading experts on critical subjects like terrorism, peacekeeping, human rights and women’s rights. But their expertise often falls upon jaded diplomats ears as they horse-trade away the most progressive language in these global agreements.
I contend that by hosting some portion of these meetings before a global audience on the web and in virtual environments, and having the negotiators engage with people directly using these interactive spaces, you can potentially upset the diplomatic malaise that often characterizes these closed-door meetings. At the very least, it would be a great educational tool for how global policy is actually made.
The United Nations, at least as it is currently constituted, is never going to be a place where citizen’s truly have a vote. Their muted voices only comes through the thin channels of their selected diplomats and the few NGO representatives who can make it to New York, Geneva or Vienna.
I would argue that by leveraging the impressive convening and educating capacities of virtual worlds like Second Life, you might change the political calculus enough to alter the outcomes in profound and beneficial ways.