Reflecting on last week’s Metaverse event at Eyebeam, it seems to me that one aspect that was barely touched upon was the idea of the metaverse as a new form of civic space. The virtual agora, if you will. Prokofy Neva got closest, talking about the need for gathering places and a common rule of law. But beyond that, most of the talk centered on creating opportunities for new forms of business and reaching consumers better, rather than new forms of democracy and engaging citizens better.
This is unfortunate, since there are a number of interesting Second Life experiments that show the potential for civic engagement online. Most are specific to particular causes, to get people mobilized to be more active on a certain issue. I.e.:
- The recent sit-in and interactive maze sponsored by Global Kids on the issue of child sex trafficking
- The virtual Darfur refugee camp
- The "3d-wiki" on Democracy Island to engage citizens in planning a new public park space
- A real world political campaign with a virtual headquarters in Second Life.
More generally, there are the different ways that the Linden Labs, the owners of Second Life, use technology to solicit the views and suggestions of the SL population. Among the wide range of input mechanisms they offer are their frequent community roundtables, Town Hall meetings, their Linden blogs, the discussion forums (now being phased out), and feature voting.
Really, Second Life is fertile ground for political scientists to study how this new world confronts issues of democratic engagement, free speech, inter-group conflict, the management of public goods, and other government-like functions. Is it a benign dictatorship, a corporation with a heart or something closer to the United Sims of Secondlandia?
And beyond that, how do real world citizens self-organize using these virtual spaces in ways that move beyond traditional party functions and even other web-enabled organizing? Does civic engagement in virtual environments echo the same political, nationalist, gender, ethnic and socio-economic divides that characterize our non-virtual public sphere? Or is there an emerging virtual civil society that transcends those divisions?
I have been been through many struggles trying to get traditional NGOs and advocacy groups to move from pre-Internet organizing and strategic modes to a more net-centric, broad-based style of mobilizing. Getting them to realize that online engagement is more than just a static web page and an occasional email blast has been like pulling teeth from tiger. Bringing them into a 3D virtual environment will be exponentially more challenging.
That of course creates opportunities for new kind of organizations and new forms of civic engagement to emerge outside of mainsteam civil society. In the end, groups stuck in 1980s-style "We are the World" type organizing will find themselves increasingly irrelevant as more digitally-engaged activists emerge.
6 thoughts on “The Metaverse as Civic Space”
rikomatic, it’s pretty unfair to say that I got “closest” but that I didn’t reach “beyond that” when this entire meeting was set up NOT to talk about democracy and civic spaces — stuff I definitely wish to talk about! but which the organizers, and some of the very vocal audience members who don’t *like* democracy and civic spaces, don’t want on the agenda.
They don’t think it “fits” or is just a minor topic that will “take care of itself” with things like “direct voting features”.
I’m not the one who chose to talk about business opportunities and reaching consumers; that’s the organizers who wish that and then frankly Walker’s concept of engaging me in a public meeting only by having me talk about what it’s like to run rentals on the mainland.
If you can’t see that *running rentals on the mainland IS about civil society and democracy* I don’t know where to start. I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think it’s the essence of how to start to study these very deep issues.
I’ve had many, many years of RL experience in the area of non-profit work and now lots of light-years of SL experience. For now, I conclude that SL is of minimal use for actual rational and reasonable non-profit work (of the non-wooty let’s-get-all-giddy-about-new-tech sort) not only due to its costs and technical limitations but because of the built-in difficulties of non-profit causes in general these days — they have a shrinking base of support from foundations, governments, and citizens and there are lots of good reasons for that which bear studying.
Starting lame assemblyman campaigns using SL is not going to teach you a thing about virtual worlds and democracy. I asked my local assembly-man hopeful to go in SL — he looked at me blankly, he might try it some Sunday afternoon, but he and I both know that unless he gets my building complex of 4,000 votes behind him by going to the community center for hours and hearing people’s housing and transportation difficulties f2f, rather than flying around in a costume in a virtual world, he will not get elected. Do the math.
Neither is a public park project whose main problems of being bogged down in RL local and even racial/ethnic politics are going to be saved by Second Life. Second Life cannot save your wilting non-profit cause from RL any more than the Internet can. It either has to be about something only enhancing an already-robust first-life cause, or about starting something utterly different that has to do more with inner space than outer space.
Nor is a very complex cause like Darfur, which really needs to move from being the mindless and stupid sloganeering of “Save Darfur” by trying to get Bush to do this or that (when he’s the least of the direct problems affecting the situation, and U.S. action in the world in general is often seen as counterproductive), and it has to be more about “Safe Darurians” — trying to help real individuals practically — and reaching the Arab world, China, and Russia about these and related issues just as much, if not more, than banging on Bush.
Child sex-trafficking is also one of those mindless, feel-good causes that people adopt because they haven’t really grappled with the harsh economics of societies with families in them that sit with the choice of growing and selling opium and entering the dangerous drug trade or selling their daughters into sex trafficking, and pick life over death.
Leftists and Democrats out of power in the last 20 years got behind a lot of single-issue causes, like rights for this or that specific minority, or this or that theme like environment or sex-trafficking or small arms or blood diamonds. These single issues were the only way they could find to move forward their more radical political programs. They’re a pretty flimsy fig leaf for their real aspirations, however, which often include impractical and wacky utopianist and Marxist agendas, and they’re going to have to mature into more reasonable and rational third-party movements to influence the only two parties we’re likely to see in the U.S. any time soon.
In fact, in general young people, if they aren’t attracted to the loony left and reading Chomsky and Howard Zinn and pasting mind-memes to each other, are busy ignoring politics and insisting it no longer matters.
The meeting was mainly about *the technology*. That’s what these meetings always are and why I find them frustratingly content-free. Which wizz-bang golly WOOT thing is being offered where, and how much money is it making — the two always go hand-in-hand, and technology, especially by tekkies who think they are utopian and beyond all that, is almost always a discussion about business, too, on the 3-D Internet.
To that was added the debate between Walker and me, essentially “web or world” which is about whether the technology should move toward “making everything like the Internet,” which is what the most sophisticated tekkie types around SL want it to do, or “making it more like a world,” which is what some SL residents want, and which people in places like WoW want and have, which is why the more nasty of the debaters tell people in SL to “go play those games over there” and “SL is not a game” — even as they bitch about how there’s no Havoc 2 and there’s lag on their game-within-game sim they’re building at which they hope to get customers. Irony abounds.
The discussion about democracy/rule of law/civil society definitely needs to be had, and has been had at SOP I, II, and III, but from what I hear, IV is going to be in Singapore. So that means many of us simply can’t get there.
One of the problems with the “let’s have civil society in Second Life” stuff is that what some people mean by that is “let’s have the kind of civil society I like and is my favourite political cause.” They have no broader concept than that, and can get very aggressive in fact with their little sect.
This mirrors a RL tendency to capture the word “civil society,” which has a long political tradition spanning centuries, with writers like Gramsci and de Toquevill and all the rest, but particularly decades in Eastern Europe where it was used to delineate the space in society created by people versus the state. Later, it got a lot more messy as a term when states themselves began to see themselves in the business of funding and creating other peoples’ civil societies.
The projects you’ve listed are actually pretty wan and pale examples. That’s because you’ve insisted on only taking “real life examples” — and they are pretty limited because SL itself is limited for taking on RL causes — you can’t justify the manhours, horsepower of DSL lines and graphic cards, when you have causes as serious as trying to stop mass killings. If somebody has used it for that to do some kind of experimentation or awareness-raising, that’s great, but most people in serious non-profit work will reject the idea that they have to substitute virtuality for reality when most of their work is about getting people who are in a virtual form of their own reality to look at real reality and do something about it.
The 1980s “we are the world” type organizing indeed sounds increasingly unsophisticated and even stupid. I see this at the UN all the time where the old ’60s fellow travelling type of groupies and the ’80s type of movements get up and rant about “empowerment” and “the man” and “sisterhood is global” and all that other kind of sloganeering, where what is needed is far more fine-tuned and expert advocacy, like “we need a gender adviser in this peace-keeping presence here who will have the following mandate and funding”. It’s more micro-oriented because the big picture of “all human rights for all” has already been grasped and what’s needed then is the operationalizing of these principles. It’s not demonstrable to me that virtuality helps operationalize, given its costs and limitations.
If you think there’s an emerging digital civil society that transcends social and ethnic divides, rikomatic, then you are guilty of the same hippie dope-smoking 60s and 80s type of “we are the world” thinking you just criticized. There’s no such thing. That is, sure, you can make digital Cominterns of the handfuls of people like tekkies and leftist/lunatics/liberals in any society who can band together and hold hands and go down together singing Kumbayah, glub, glub, glub.
But they haven’t reached beyond themselves and are doomed to sectarianism and hortatory rants against other people. Less orthodox types will probably have to appear as bridges, and the task won’t be masking or minimizing conflict that is real and legitimate but in managing it, and managing it so as not to obliterate meaningful local differences.
Interesting points, Prok, as always. I think you are probably right that what we are seeing now are just the glimmers of what is to come. And much of it is lots of “metahyperbole” rather than actual political action or change.
Still, we need to carve out public interest spaces in these semi-public spaces like SL or they risk becoming just endless malls and gambling halls. (Not that I’m against malls or gambling.)
Let’s pressure Jerry to put on another SL show, this time on civil society / democracy stuff. I’m sure we’d get a large turnout of students, professors, activists, as well as the geekerati.
There is indeed an emerging global civil society, at the least around discrete issues like landmines, child soldiers, and internet governance. Naturally its mostly a coalition of the willing, but that group is turning browner by the day.
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