The Atomic and The Digital World

Governance in the digital world

So we come at last to virtual governance opposed to real governance. It’s undeniable that as civilisation advances, and technology allow us things that were impossible generations before, and — globally — people are more educated, have more access to knowledge and are able to make more richer decisions (beyond their immediate needs), society should adopt different forms of governance. It doesn’t mean that we are always pushed to develop new and more models just because we can. Some things work well for Humankind since it became self-aware — a silly example: we always wear clothes (at least in the temperate regions) no matter what our society looks like. However, fashion (and technology!) dictates the change on fabric, colours, or styles. But we haven’t abandoned clothing!

Similarly, representative democracy was invented 2700 years ago, and it is still a good idea for the current societies. However, the ancient Greeks definitely had a different model for democracy: it mostly encompassed only literate males from a certain class in society. The rest was excluded and deemed worthless to participate in self-governance, because (they argued) of a lack of knowledge, interest, or available time. This naturally has changed in the 21st century — at least on the western world, almost everybody knows how to read and write, almost everybody has gone through a decade of education in a school, and almost everybody has a TV (or at least a similar vehicle of information). This means that everybody is quite able to possess an opinion, and cast a vote based on that opinion — and that’s why we have democracies with universal suffrage for all its citizens.

But there is certainly more. These days, you can not only remotely attend sessions at your country’s Parliament (either via TV or even Internet-based video streaming), but you can get transcripts of past (or even current!) sessions. The amount of data available to any of us is the same as to our representatives. We do have indeed equal opportunities to make decisions concerning our own society as have our country’s elected representatives. This was simply not true a generation ago — at the very least, to attend a parliamentary meeting, you’d have to travel to the capital and spend a lot of your personal time to attend the meetings and keep up to date with all that went on. You could do it — you had the choice — but it was hardly easy for everybody to do that, if not straight-out impossible. The current level of technology, however, eliminated all that. Information is, as Bill Gates would say, literally at our fingertips — and it’s the same information our representatives have… and we can watch the proceedings live on TV. Naturally, this will mean that at some point things will have to change: people will very likely start demanding that the representative members are logged in to the Internet (or a virtual world!) and get instant feedback from their electors — in real time. Instead of waiting for letters to arrive by the mail (or even emails!), they might open IRC channels (or meeting rooms in SL) while a session is under way, and chat with common citizens and ask their opinion: “Guys, you’ve elected me, and you’re listening to what the opposition is saying; what should I do? What would you recommend?”

This is the kind of model of participative democracy that can actually be pretty well done inside Second Life. Yes, one can call it role-playing, or just playing (remember, though, that playing is what young mammals do to learn skills useful for their later life!… we can’t avoid “playing”, it’s part of our genetic heritage). However, for me, it’s just redefining and testing new models of governance, and see how well they work. A few things actually become very quickly apparent: even in SL, a moderately-sized community will work better if it uses a model of representative democracy instead of direct democracy (try it out on your own for a few years, and you’ll see what I mean). In real life, we have no way to experiment with those models and come to any valid conclusion (unless, of course, you’re willing to go over to Switzerland for a few decades, apply for citizenship, and live under a direct democracy for a while). In Second Life, however, this is quickly figured out — specially if there are high enough stakes, that is, people’s money or virtual land is at stake, thus people require a commitment that affects their lives (atomic or digital; it’s irrelevant, so long as it does, indeed, affect them).

So, it can be used to study, after running an ‘experiment’ for a few years, how people react and think; how some models do not work in practice when subjected to the harsh test of “reality” (people start dropping out of projects, or figure out that losing money & virtual land at some point far outweights the cost of remaining inside a flawed community). But the issue of “instant information” and “being as informed as your representatives” naturally will push people to devise a slightly different model of representative democracy, which is quite unlike what we have in the real world, and far more removed from Athenian democracy, of course.

But does that affect, in any way, the real world? You bet it does! The media definitely influence the way government works; but even the most Ludditean commentator will grudgingly admit that these days blogs also wield political power, although they’re outside the sphere of influence of the “traditional” media (which, at every day, becomes less “traditional” anyway). Bloggers change the world, too. They affect it by their opinions. They can indeed also help to save Darfur by requesting donations on their pages. And all these work; I forget which US politician claimed to have received more Internet-based donations than from any other source.

Sure, the Web and the Internet are things that we are actually very familiar with. But it’s also interesting to see that the Internet-as-cyberspace community will demand something in return. If you do a donation through a website set up by a political candidate, you also expect them to promote the Internet as well. If the politician refuses (or forgets) to do that, they won’t get any more money the next time, and will be flagged by the whole blogosphere as an “opportunist”. Now we find all of this perfectly reasonable — we expect politicians that use and abuse the Internet to give something in return for the support coming from their Internet fans — but try to explain this to an audience in 1994 and you would be laughed at.

Second Life is just a way richer environment than, say, a 2D web page with comments signed by nicknames like “asdf019876”. The richness of the environment brings completely new and unsuspected issues into play. Second Life, in that regard, having things like an economy, allowing anyone equal opportunities to become both a content producer and consumer, and allowing full personalisation of our own digital self and our envrionment, brings an overwhelmingly new set of question and issues that required to be addressed.

Let’s try with a simple example. Internet advocates in the 1990s strongly demanded that an email was considered a valid document, and that an attachment could be used instead of a photocopy of a document in any situation requiring. This was considered completely insane. People would never trust a document created in digital format (so easy to change) although they happily would accept a photocopy (also easy to change — but remember that our parents would be unable to use a photocopy or fax as a valid document in their youth!). These days, I just log to the website of my country’s revenue service and print out a PDF to show the police that I have paid all taxes for my car. It takes seconds. It’s printed on a normal printer. It’s easy and legally accepted — and my Government encourages that actively (less queues, less time wasted…), as do western governments all around the world.

But Second Life does raises quite a new set of issues. I wish to conduct business under my avatar name, and I also wish my avatar name to be granted legal recognition in any document I sign — digitally or in ink — anywhere in the world. A notecard sent with the Creator tag set to “Gwyneth Llewelyn” should be as legally binding, in any court of law, as a piece of paper with an ink-based signature (in fact, the former is way more safe and far less prone to forgery…). It ought to be irrelevant if I commit to a business deal by (paper-based) letter, a phone call, an email, or a notecard (or even IM) — and this requires, politically, that some laws definitely change, at least in some countries (in common law systems all it takes is for a successful lawyer to establish in court the legitimacy of a SL notecard as a valid contract). These and several issues are still laughing matter in 2008. Rather a lot of metaverse development companies that I know, who have been in the business for quite a long time, providing virtual presences for their corporate customers to do training, promotion, and virtual meetings, are quite reluctant to enter a business deal if they’re unable to meet with the client in-the-flesh or at least call them on the phone — which seems not so much backwards, but actually highly ironic (if they don’t believe their own sales pitch, how do they expect to succeed as a business creating virtual environments for businesses?). Nevertheless, they’re the first to accept email-based contracts, NDAs, or invoices — and the latter get paid through digital means (PayPal, bank transfers, automatic plastic card debits), not cash.

Now all of those — and probably quite a whole lot of new ones — are serious issues, truly related to “living in a virtual environment”, that were never asked before (at least not outside academia), and definitely not experienced every day in our lives (both online or offline). They are, in fact, quite similar to the early issues about using the Internet for “serious business” in the 1990s, or using the phone for “serious business” in the 1920s, or sending telegrams to replace the “serious business” of writing letters in the 1860s — and, of course, with each technological innovation, you can go back centuries and even millenia, perhaps to the point in time where “cash” was invented as an alternative to barter, and the implications it had on the first civilisations that coined money and started to use it.

Obviously, I’m totally in favour of discussing — or even pushing! — those issues ahead and make them part of the whole promotional efforts of virtual worlds like Second Life. These are certainly things that need to be addressed. They are unique to virtual worlds, and the digital “way of life” (which does certainly exist and is not just wishful thinking by a selected few researchers hidden in a lab somewhere in an obscure university campus) would not be possible without those issues to be addressed and, like so many issues before them, answered by our societies and our governments. So I’m not shrugging them off and think they’re irrelevant. Rather the total opposite: my experience in the past years, for instance, shows me that a potential client that refuses to meet in SL to discuss a business arrangement — but insists on meetings in the flesh, paper contracts signed in ink, phone calls, and other things that we associate with the “atomic” world — will almost always give up on SL. They haven’t made the required leap to understand that the digital life has its own rules, issues, and demands — but they have to absorb these first in order to broaden their experience to encompass the digital as well.

On the other hand, a true augmentationist will always argue that these issues are not relevant — “business (or personal relations) has been conducted in the flesh since the dawn of time, so why should it be different in 2008?” Here I have to side with Soph. We’re not in the Middle Ages or any other historical period. We don’t build Gothic cathedrals any more. Things have changed — in a sense, as our societies advance civilisationally, they become more abstract (“written words” carry as much weight as a person physically saying them; “money” being probably the second abstraction that ever appeared to “represent” the potential of ownership of goods and services; a “signature”, representing a person’s will to agree to a contract, has followed pretty closely)— and “living in the 21st century” will require a change as new abstractions are introduced (ownership of virtual land and virtual goods; the avatar as a person’s signature). How massive that change is, we’re only barely imagining; but we have a glimpse of the future by trying to imagine how people lived in 1980 without email or a mobile phone (although they certainly had cars and computers!). We can go back three decades by visiting a seriously undeveloped country (even so it’ll very likely have some mobile phone coverage…) and try to catch up on our emails, try to buy something with a plastic card, or keep in touch with friends and family with a mobile phone. It quickly dawns on us how strange the world was just a generation ago — but it certainly was a technological society as well, one that allowed people like William Gibson or Bruce Sterling to imagine a future extrapolated from what they experienced in “their” atomic world.

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About Gwyneth Llewelyn

I’m just a virtual girl in a virtual world…

  • Jen Shikami

    Just read all 3 pages. Interesting post. I agree with you on almost all points… so much of these debates about immer/aug will be moot later. Just a question of how it goes to actually get there. Even then, in The Future, there will be a lot of range of people interesting in privacy vs. integration with RL…

    I think the question of whether digital issues will be considered important will be self-solving — as digital worlds become more important to more people, then of course it will be considered important to them. Just like digital privacy is important to a set of people now.

    Miraculously I can’t think of a super-long comment to swamp your blog with beyond this, so I’ll just leave it at that!

  • Hi Gwin,

    I think I agree more with you than with Soph here. The line between digital and physical worlds will blur and disappear as technology makes virtual reality more real and physical reality more virtual.

    I must say, and some people here will not like it, that I see no fundamental difference between SL, email, IM, videoconferencing, phone or snailmail. They are all useful communication tools that help us do more things and faster. Some are, of course, way more efficient than others for specific applications.

  • This was a great piece and clearly shows the intelligent thought being put to the questions we face.

    Coming first to SL out of curiosity, I too soon began to derive “real” income from atomic world companies. And my relationships with a number of the people I met became more than just SL relationships, meaning we use real world names.

    Yet as I continued to do consulting there is a great deal of hesitation on the part of others with a different view of SL. If they do not identify themselves and I can not reach them outside of Second Life, doing work for them was not possible for me. I had been burnt by one such relationship and so am now understandably am hesitant.

    Yet I’m on the board of a charity that has a SL presence and one of my questions is what is our mission here and how is it different than our mission in the physical world? How is it changed by the fact that it’s perceived by some as being less personal while others would claim that it’s even more personal – or with totally different personas or aspects of our selves?

    Thanks for the thought provoking piece. And for providing a forum for talking about this sort of question.

  • Hi Gwyn! Thank you for engaging so thoughtfully and comprehensively with the issues that I raised!

    I agree with just about everything you say on your second and third pages, but I have to disagree in part with your depiction of my own views.

    Your analysis of how a society comes to integrate a new technology into itself is terrific, and it’s an apt depiction of how digital worlds will come to be generally used in the coming decade.

    But your analysis presupposes a unitary culture, and overlooks a key difference between digital worlds and the other technologies you address.

    What separates SL (and in time other worlds) from the telephone, the automobile, from currency, is that it establishes *place* and *embodiment*. The telephone, the automobile, did not create new social, economic and political *places,* but rather erased the barriers between them.

    I think the analogy between SL and the opening of a new physical place for settlement – Antarctica, say, or a space station – is a strong one. They are all new places for living in, beginning as blank vessels to be filled with culture.

    Now, there are two approaches to entering into such a space. One is to import all the culture – the laws, the economic relations, the fashions, the architecture, the sexual customs – of the society people came from, and just extend the old culture into the new space, absorbing the new space as part of the old.

    That’s called colonialism.

    The other approach is to try new things, to create a synthetic culture taking into account local circumstances, consciously choosing the best among available alternatives, tried and untried, and creating a new place apart from the parent society.

    That’s called settlement, and it has two great values. It can offer a better life to the people who settle, by replacing ineffective, unpleasant or downright evil traditions with newer, better systems. Its other value is as an example to those living under the old order, an existence proof that better ways are possible.

    Whether synthetic worlds will be colonies or settlements is a question still very much up in the air, though the colonialists tend to be louder (myself excepted!) and to get most of the press.

    I’m a digital nationalist, an anti-colonialist, but by no means a separatist: I see the “magic circle” as potentially a national border, one which allows a vast amount of free exchange of goods, ideas and people, but does provide some level of protection for the development of a national culture and institutions which may diverge from the dominant political consensus.

    I hope that experiments with economic and political systems can thrive in SL, face tests in use, and evolve naturally, without being IMF’d out of existence by that dominant political consensus.

    I think that’s a goal we both share.

  • Hm. I can’t say that I agree that Second Life is some wonderful magical other-world that deserves to be kept completely separate. If nothing else, it’s all running on real-world (or, as you might prefer, atomic-world) servers that use real-world electricity that generate real-world bills.

    So I have to agree the barrier is wishful thinking, at best, and yet not wholly impractical. There are already such things existent, after all. BDSM parties. Historical re-enactment. Live-action roleplayers. All of these are situations which say, “within these bounds, the rules are different”… and that’s cool.

    If you want a place where you can be your ‘secondary’ and not deal with your ‘primary’ and all the rest of the extropian jargon, get yer own simulator and post the rules. No different in general principle than running a nudist colony… but kindly don’t ask that anyone else follow your lead elsewhere. I keep a modicum of seperation between meatspace and virtual, but I’m more or less the same person in both; the only difference is I have a touch more freedom of self-expression in a virtual world.

  • Susan, I’m flattered that you considered my article worth reading… thanks for the kind words!

    Soph, if we did learn something from recent history, is that human experiences (extending to society and politics) are contagious. In the currently wired world — covering around a third of this planet’s overall population, which is amazing to say the least — ideas and concepts spread like wildfire and they are almost impossible to contain (even China is dropping their firewalls!).

    Although I understand your point between “colonialism” and “settlement”, I think that we’re past an age where the concept still applies. The digital era makes everything smoothly uniform, as concepts spill over all barriers — distance, culture, national borders. It’s unavoidable, like so many autocratic RL governments have found out. The more connected a population is, the more it is exposed to all different kinds of ideas. If you wish, you can call it a “cultural colonialism” of a sorts, in the sense that everyone who is online gets affected by it.

    We can still artificially raise barriers, like the RIAA still tries, but ultimately these will all fail. Thus, as time goes by, the clear division of what “colonialism” and “settlement” is will definitely blend and merge — and specially so on virtual worlds, which are inhabited by human beings who are used to live in the digital age.

    Just look at what the major influences were on Second Life when it started: it absorbed the leftist culture of the young Internet, used by the early adopters — the “share everything” and “information ought to be free” attitude, and the “I wish recognition, not payment” reward methodology. Not many years afterwards, Second Life was immediately “infected” by the second wave of Internet adopters (the mainstream pragmatists): rampant capitalism. Both were attitudes developed outside virtual worlds, but quickly adopted and implemented in Second Life; of course, having a far larger number of people, the second wave was predominant. But we’re certainly living in a Second Life which is the result of a “colonised” environment that adopted the prevalent attitudes in the digital era. They were even little changed; things like spam and scams became commonplace in SL as they are on the Internet. Not surprisingly, “mature content” also has a similar degree of adoption in SL (about a fifth of all content is mature) as it has on the Internet.

    I would be very surprised that we will consistently encounter “a synthetic culture taking into account local circumstances, consciously choosing the best among available alternatives, tried and untried, and creating a new place apart from the parent society”. In fact, what is happening is rather the contrary: the “parent society” (our planet, Earth) influences directly what the culture looks like, with just a few exceptions here and there (which obviously also exist in the physical world: we still have pockets of counter-culture on Earth, and these will not disappear). I’m hardly shocked: after all, the people are the same. We don’t leave our brains out of the door when we log in to SL. Well, at least most of us don’t 🙂

    However, that doesn’t mean that the emerging culture in SL is an exact copy of the one in the “parent society”. Just like democracy in Europe changed subtly when it was “adopted” in the US — but both kinds are still democracies! — several things will be slightly changed inside virtual worlds. A good example is something as simple as the basis of enforcement: in the physical world, we can die violently, so governments enact a monopoly on violence (this basically means that acting violently on your own is illegal). But avatars don’t die. Instead, they own land. Thus, enforcement in SL is done not by violence, but by withholding the rights to land. Nevertheless, a democracy based on land will be fundamentally similar than one based on the monopoly of violence. Both will allow people (“citizens”) to self-rule themselves through electing members of government via a popular vote, and apply laws that affect their common lives. Just the method of enforcement will be different.

    This naturally will extend to almost all areas of human culture and society inside a synthetic, digital world. We have SL-specific art inside SL, too, but that does not mean we have gotten rid of art critics: they do exist and fullfill the same role as in the atomic world. We learn and teach SL-related skills just like in the atomic world we learn about acountancy or computer software or common law. We gravitate towards personalities; we lobby for things we deem important; we assert our intellectual property rights, but instead of filing our creations with a Trademark Office or the RIAA, we just click on checkboxes to disallow transfer. And we even pay taxes! (it’s just called “tier” 😉 )

    I’m afraid I have to side with Aliasi on this. We can, indeed, isolate ourselves from the “mainstream SL culture” and create our own pocket of utopia, and refuse to be “contaminated” by either our parent society or even by the mainstream SL culture. This happens all the time, and there are quite a lot of examples of those (proportionally speaking, far more than in the atomic world). But ultimately these will be tiny exceptions in the vast ocean of what virtual worlds are going to be.

    What I also believe is that there will be “cross-contamination”. Things done well in SL (or any other digital, synthetic world) will influence the atomic world in a slight degree. I take an example which is dear to Linden Lab: education/training and in-world meetings (including seminars, workshops, presentations…). SL residents, in both cases, have successfully demonstrated that things like “physical presence” (e.g. face-to-face discussion in the physical world) are of little importance — even less in SL than, say, on the Web (and eBay and Amazon certainly are the best examples on how the lack of a physical presence does not affect commerce in any way!). Just right now we’re experimenting with new tools and methods that allow marketeers to do consumer profiling in ways that are simply not possible in the physical world (inside SL, you don’t only know how many people visited your location — you know their names, too!). Good or bad, virtual worlds will allow a certain degree of experimentation which will also transform the atomic world — whether right now people accept that or not. But in 1900 nobody would imagine that City Halls would be regulating car traffic in the future or force architecture to take into account the need to park cars on streets and garages. Or that homes would be redesigned to allow some space for the family to watch TV together.

    I’m quite sceptical myself that virtual worlds will really show us that “alternative” ways of building societies are possible. These will be swallowed up, as always, by the mainstream, which is ruthless and unforgiving. The best I can hope for is that a few good ideas escape back to the physical world, and, through these few good examples, fullfill Linden Lab’s mission of “improving human condition through virtual worlds”.

    It’s a bold aim, but I gather that the impact will be larger than we all might think. After all, nobody predicted how quick the change was once 2 billion human beings had access to computers, and 3 billions have mobile phones in their purses (or pockets). There was a change. We just absorbed it into our mainstream culture and never thought twice about it any more.

    Unless we change the way humans think and react to other humans, exploring virtual worlds will just be like exploring anything else where humans have gone: after settlement will come contamination by the mainstream. I cannot think that virtual worlds are “safe” from that contamination, although I certainly think that new ideas that will shape our society — blending the virtual and the physical so that there is no real difference between both — will definitely pop up and grow more than we currently believe.