Humble Governance

Caveats

Every time I present any ideas regarding democratic procedures in public, my own audience cringes in terror. At the light of the past few years, where democracies world-wide are suffering under the crushing power of the megacorporations — specially the financial ones — it became crystal-clear for the public that the “democratic” model is too much under the power and influence of third parties who have absolutely no interest in the general good, but serve only their own greed, at the cost of making billions suffer. And, unlike in the past, governments are powerless to prevent them. In fact, even more than in the past, mostly thanks to strong outsourcing policies which became so popular in the 1990s (because they effectively reduced costs and allowed taxpayers’ money to be better employed in more efficient services), governments are now mere puppets in the hands of a few selected interest groups and handcuffed by them to make sure that passed laws do not interfere with their pursuit of more money. We’re entering a new era of laissez-faire capitalism (or perhaps suffering from it), but one that is subtly different from the preceding ones — today, as never before, governments are too weak to act as counters to the institutionalised powers, even with full support of the population. As a result, honest politicians know very well that they have either the option of “going with the system” (meaning discarding all pretenses at honesty…) or, well, abstain from participating in politics — with the result that only the greedy, easy-to-manipulate corrupt politicians are willing to serve in office, for their own private ends.

In this scenario, it’s very hard to present convincing arguments that, in spite of everything, representative democracy is the best model we have to counterbalance such extremes. Representative democracy, for instance, is what allows freedom of expression to be widely circulated — and thus indirectly make us all aware of all the above paragraph. Under a more restrictive form of government, we had no way to know what was really going on, and even if we figured it out, we’d be unable to transmit that information to others. Freedom of expression is what counterbalances abuses of power when all other measures — legislative and even judicial ones — fail.

Similarly, if we had any clue to what Linden Lab is discussing with “selected residents”, we would have a fair chance to emit our opinions about those decisions, well before they’re implemented, and, in a sense, make our approval or disapproval known. On the other hand, knowing fully well who those “selected residents” are, why and when they talk with Linden Lab and about which subjects, what their relationships are, and what they stand for, makes for a far more transparent model.

The usual anti-democratic stance is that only corrupt people are willing to run for office; and politicians will almost invariably cause drama, tell lies, and manipulate people (and be in turn manipulated by those who can afford to “buy” their “opinion”, or rather, their vote), and that Second Life overall would be much better off without them. Also, Second Life has survived for eight years without politicians, why is there a “need” to have them now?

While obviously politics sadly attract a certain type of individuals, democracy, as a concept, is favoured by many: what most people think is that democracy would work fine if there weren’t any politicians! But here we have an opportunity to “start from scratch” in the sense that knowing how easily certain types naturally gravitate towards positions of power because they’re eager to get corrupted and to manipulate others, we can devise mechanisms to lessen their effects: for example, a General Assembly that is mostly consultive but has no power to “force” Linden Lab towards any decision (because ultimately Linden Lab is a company that answers only to its shareholders) will leave out the kinds of people that see this as an opportunity to “decide policy” on behalf of others. Instead, it might attract just the kinds of people that are willing to open the Lindens’ minds towards a more widespread range of opinions. Since there is some volunteer work to collect and summarise those opinions — and substantiate them with valid arguments, so they can be carefully reviewed and considered by Linden Lab — this sounds too much like “work” in exchange for — what? Definitely not money and no real “power”. Certainly certain “pressure groups” are going to lobby those elected for a General Assembly to “push” their opinions and influence the outcome of any reports presented to Linden Lab — but using a model of transparency, it will be easy to see who is representing what pressure group, and in subsequent terms, those people will very likely be voted out of office, no matter how charming they might be in public.

I think that there was always a need for mechanisms to represent residents’ opinions in a systematic and inclusive way, and that the “fear of corruption and drama” has been just a convenient excuse to avoid a democratic forum. The consequence of this way of thinking is that it’s far easier to blame the Lindens for making the wrong decisions instead of organising a grid-wide method of aiding their decision process. The problem here is that anything “grid-wide” has to be sponsored by the Lindens. Lacking mass media, it’s impossible to create a way for public opinion to be massively disseminated, discussed, and presented. Even the largest website (allegedly Treet.TV, reaching 250-300,000 users) is not inclusive; it leaves a lot of people out of the discussion, and doesn’t reach everybody. Only a Linden-sponsored mechanism can reach everyone, and we don’t have that. So, although I’m very fond of grassroot movements where people spontaneously get together and make their voices heard, few organisations in Second Life can claim to represent the opinion of more than a few hundreds or thousands. So often hundreds of SL organisations are presenting exactly the same opinion and ideas (as an example, think of the many artist organisations and groups in SL!), but have no clue about each other’s existence. This fragmented method of dealing with the dissemination of opinion and information is just a sad consequence of an unwanted (and unplanned) “divide and conquer” method: keep all those groups separate and without being in touch with each other, and in that way no coherent picture of the residents’ opinions emerge as a whole. It’s also very easy to pick individual groups and claim that others are defending the exact opposite, and thus Linden Lab sensibly acts in the only way possible: ignoring both opinions.

It’s the debating nature of democracy that allows opposing opinions to be publicly expressed and discussed, and either a consensus found, or one opinion gathering the majority of support, while still fully recording the minority view. It’s also true that another caveat is “excessive debating”, to the point of using endless discussions for the only purpose of stalling a decision — this might be specially the case if elections happen quite often (the experience of the CDS shows that terms of 4 months are too small and 6 months are more adequate to at least enable some work to be done; more than a year is awfully long in terms of Second Life, as most people give up interest in SL after 18-36 months).

Like in real life, I do not expect that a governance model implemented by the Lindens will have a huge participation. It might, for the first elections, because of the novelty — or the fear that “the wrong people” seize the process and control and manipulate it. But after a few elections, what will happen is that there will be a far wider perception of participation in democratic procedures will be viewed as a duty — something disagreeable that requires volunteering time to read proposals, gather opinions, and discuss them publicly — than a power — something used to manipulate and control others. It’s expectable that a high degree of drama will occur during the first months — I would be very surprised if the exact opposite happened! But after a few years, it will just become routine; less people will participate; but opinion-gathering and discussion will be more sophisticated and professionally done. People will still vote regularly on referenda affecting the virtual world, since this might happen regularly when they log in to SL every day. They will still write articles, blog posts, and discuss on forums — like they always did — but this time, all those opinions will be collected by resident representatives who will propose and suggest policies, debate them, approve them, and finally present them to Linden Lab for implementation.

The idea is that Linden Lab might ignore the forums, blogs, or in-world discussion groups — because there are so many of them and it’s impossible to keep track of all — but they will not “ignore” an elected body of representatives of all citizens. They might, of course, not respect the decisions made by them, of course — it’s their product, their software, after all — but at least it means that they will be aware of the issues and deliberately and consciously refuse to implement them. This is quite a different attitude than simply being unaware of any issues and thus not addressing them because they’re hidden somewhere on the SLogosphere and impossible to retrieve (because they might even be written in a language that LL doesn’t speak!), and, even if they might be “interesting” enough (in the sense of being worth to be discussed at the Lab), they hardly have any idea on how “representative” they are.

Well, enough of philosophising over democracy and its virtues 🙂 In my opinion, the first step is to discuss governance in the virtual world — what issues are to be considered, how should these be addressed, what models are worth to implement, what systems and methods are to be avoided or accepted. To do that, I’m currently organising a series of in-world events, which will, for now, be held at the Old Bowl Theatre, in the Alpine Meadows region (I profusely thank the AMUA group which maintains that space and is willing to allow it for public use), every Monday at 3 PM SLT. If there is enough interest, I promise to held them on different hours on different places.

There is also an associated website, which at the moment is still relatively empty of content: http://virtualgovernance.tk/. I just jotted a few notes to give an idea on the kinds of themes that will probably be discussed. It might get a companion forum, assuming there’s enough interest. The discussion will usually have a topic — for September 5, the topic will be pseudonimity and reputation in the virtual world, addressing some of the issues raised during the ongoing Nymwars (see also this very interesting timeline for the Nymwars as an interesting reference to pretty much written so far on the topic). Second Life is in a privileged position to discuss the Nymwars, since we’re not affected by it; it allows us a certain detachment in looking at Internet trends and discuss them in the comfort of our Linden-sanctioned pseudonymity 🙂

My personal interest in this is simply that something so huge and powerful as the whole of the Internet is completely outside the sphere of democratic participation in the conventional sense of the word. But reaching out to 2 or 3 billion users is way too hard. After seven years of dealing with democratic participation at a very tiny scale — never much more than a hundred people, each with their own opinion on how a set of regions belonging to a community should be run — it’s time to put the experience and knowledge gathered during that period to attempt something at a larger, but still manageable scale: the whole of Second Life. A next step might be to include OpenSim grids as well; from there, going towards other virtual social environments, and slowly building up the reach of the idea. Until it reaches the whole of the Internet, it make take at least one decade, and more likely two decades, or even more. But everything has to start at some point. Why not start it here and now?

Maybe starting in a humble way is the way to go. And with Humble at the helm of Linden Lab, and willing to make not-so-humble decisions that will carry Second Life forward towards its second decade of existence, this might be the time to help him out in figuring out our needs, our worries, and our complaints, in a systematic, inclusive, transparent, and, most important, a democratic way.

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