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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
%d bloggers like this: