Humble Governance

Early this year, my good friend Hiro Pendragon pointed out that I’m no good at predictions any longer, because I happen to be so disconnected from Second Life® these days that I “lost touch” with it. At the time he wrote that, I was actually shocked. I have one job which is about development content and applications for Second Life exclusively, and, unlike many Metaverse Development Companies (who have dropped that moniker), ours is still 99% focused on Second Life — well, and OpenSim too, since it’s pretty much the same kind of development (although we have far more projects for SL than OpenSim). We don’t do Facebook apps, Flash applets, websites, iPhone/Android apps, or other types of development. We just do Second Life. Sure, the odd webserver has to be developed too — because these days most projects have a web-based backend of some sort, so we naturally know about web-based programming  (that’s the remaining 1%). We have plenty of projects to keep us going; no, we’re not millionaires, but we certainly haven’t stopped developing for SL! The market changed? Sure — nowadays, we get little requests for “media splash”, and it’s all about education, training, and simulation, but most of our customers are corporations, not necessarily just academics.

Besides SL, well… mostly due to taxes, which are terminally high these days in my country, I had to get two extra jobs to be able to afford to pay taxes. It’s silly, but that’s how it works — I get my earnings mostly from work done in SL, but what I earn is not enough to pay the taxes on top of that — and still provide me with enough income to pay my bills and eat! — so I have to work extra just to be able to afford to pay taxes. This is absurd, of course — the keyword describing early-21st-century economy is absurdity — but I’ll keep my own political views on the subject for another day 🙂

So that’s how I spend most of my time. The rest of it… I’m studying. I’ve decided to pick up on my academic studies where I left them in, uh, 1992, when I gave up on a Master’s thesis because I didn’t have time for it. I still don’t have time — and even less these days! — but universities are a bit more flexible than in the past century. And all my studies are about Second Life. That pretty much means that when I’m not actually developing anything for SL, I’m researching about what academics are doing in SL, and experimenting with rather esoteric things which only interest the academic mind 🙂 In the mean time, I’m still attending — and giving — conferences about SL, some in RL, some in SL. If anything, after some slower years in 2009/2010, 2011 has definitely gone back to the “golden era” days where everybody would be talking and doing things in SL. Well, almost. The biggest difference these days is that one cannot ignore the academic work, which is, by far, where Second Life shines, as an established platform. Corporations and non-academics cannot ignore Second Life as well, but are still struggling to find a good use for it. And they keep being baffled about what to do — websites are not “in” any more, so should they look into Facebook apps, mobile applications, or make the bold step to go into virtual worlds? (For me, of course, those are not “options”, they have completely different uses; but a marketeer spending money on application development sees them as “either/or” options)

So, more ever than before, I spend more time doing and thinking things related to Second Life. But, surprisingly, this means far less time spent in-world; which, in turn, means less time in touch with other residents and what they’re doing. I guess that was what Hiro meant: I’m simply not a “regular user” any more. Or, well, definitely regular in the sense that I log in plenty of times over the week; but just not the “usual” 4-6 hours per day that I used to log in.

And of course that means that I will never catch up with the novelties that are happening all over the place; I rely more and more on second-hand reports read on blogs than on first-hand experience. This means that every opinion I make (or, well, almost all) will be subtly tainted by the bias of the people I interact with; my own perceptions of Second Life are an amalgamation of perceptions of what others think and say; but frequently they might not even be my own perceptions at all. This, I think, is what Hiro meant by “losing touch” with SL: it’s when, due to circumstances, the view I have of Second Life is not even my own, much less the vision shared by residents, with whom I interact less.

When reflecting about this, I suddenly realised that I’m as bad as Linden Lab — because they happen to be in exactly the same position.

Democracy’s Pink Sunglasses

The classical example of how we’re clouded by our own perceptions of reality, and truly unable to see things as they really are, is the notion of wearing pink sunglasses all the time: the more people try to convince that the sky is blue and the snow is white, you will not experience those colours, because you have those pink filters permanently in front of your eyes. So no amount of “persuasion” will allow you to see the world differently, because, well, it’s not the way you see it. Reality, in fact, is having a bunch of people, all wearing differently coloured sunglasses all the time. The more astonishing fact is that in spite of this most of us can agree (even if just by consensus) on what we experience, because, fortunately, even though all glasses are differently coloured, they are similar.

We also have an extraordinary gift: we can, to a degree, imagine how others see the world, and are relatively accurate about that. This means that if I wear red sunglasses, I can imagine how someone who wears pink sunglasses sees the world. I cannot experience it, of course, but I can imagine it: I know that we both are not seeing things as they are and that both have our perceptions filtered in a slightly different way. But we can imagine how the world would like if we had differently-coloured sunglasses, mostly because we’re pretty good at imagining things.

Most people, however, never use this amazing gift. They just wear their sunglasses and stick to the unshakeable conviction that the world is really pink; if others don’t see it pink, well, it’s a problem with their sunglasses.

The point here is that to get a consensual opinion on things, you have three traditional approaches. The first is just to invite people with very similarly coloured sunglasses to emit their opinions. So even though their opinions might not be exactly the same, their respective sunglasses are so similarly coloured that the opinions about how they experience the world is not really different, and the details are too small to be noticeable to either party. The second approach is just to hand out sunglasses with the same colour to everybody and force them to use them, assuming (wrongly) that you can change people’s opinions by doing that. The problem here is that people are rarely, if ever, willing to use sunglasses they haven’t chosen for themselves, unless they really have no option.

Democracy (in the conventional, modern sense) is the third approach. It proposes that all people have different sunglasses, but that there is a majority that is prepared to agree with a certain shade, even though it might not precisely be the exact shade we wear. Under democracy, we postulate a certain world-view seen under a certain colour, with which a majority of people will agree; but we also defend the right to wear your own colour and emit your opinion (publicly) about what you think that is the best colour. There is no “perfect” colour: the shade varies according to the amount of people willing to adopt it as a “standard”, reference colour for everybody else. If a certain world-view, expressed by a specific shade, is accepted by the majority, then that’s the one that gets picked. For a while. Then we vote on a different one 🙂 Democracy means that we will never get the “best” colour, and very rarely the exact colour we would like to have, but that we have to work with compromises about what colour gets accepted by the largest number of people — and not discriminate against the ones who insist using different colours.

(A fourth approach exists: removing your own sunglasses and seeing things as they really are. This is in the province of spirituality, so I’ll drop that from the discussion now 🙂 )

Enough about sunglasses 🙂

One of the biggest criticisms I get when expressing my opinion in public is that I read too many opposing and conflicting opinions, and base my own on both — which often leads to paradoxes. In fact, I humbly admit being able to quote Prokofy Neva and, say, Morgaine Dinova, on the same sentence, and this sometimes shocks the audience, because they see it as opposing views and impossible to reconciliate; you’re either friends with one or the other, but not both. Well, I happen to be friends of both, but that doesn’t mean that I fully subscribe to all their opinions. To get back to the sunglasses examples, I recognise that Prokofy Neva uses blue shades, while Morgaine Dinova uses red ones — so their views will always be opposed — but I read their opinions as if filtered through purple sunglasses: a lot overlaps that way, and a lot of the more “extreme” views will be filtered out that way. If you wish to get an example from the real world, let’s get something dramatically extreme to make a point: when viewed through violet sunglasses, a certain sociopath and mass-murdering dictator of the 20th century and a Peace Nobel prize winner shared a lot of things in common: both subscribed to vegetarianism; both were fond of children and animals; both had little use for worldly goods and were ascetics. One was responsible for killing millions and throwing the whole world into a war; the other was responsible for preventing a war that could have killed millions. So, the point here is that there is “common ground” between even the most extreme examples. If you focus on the “middle ground”, you’ll always find some point where even the most opposing opinions will coincide.

Of course, this is just taking two examples. If you start adding more and more opinions, they will become more and more harder to reconcile until there is a special shade that will “fit” to all of them. I argue that there will always be something in common with all opinions (this is mostly because we are all human beings, after all, and there are things we all share), but it might not be relevant. Like in the extreme example above, when discussing the lives of both persons, it’s of little relevance that both were vegetarians, for example. Pointing at vegetarianism as the root of the problem would be pointless; it’s a piece of data that doesn’t support either opinion. Our dictator wasn’t more of a dictator because he was a vegetarian; our Peace Nobel prize winner wasn’t more peaceful because he was a vegetarian. In this case, the two extremes — and how they’re unrelated to the “middle ground” — are very easy to spot. In most cases this is obviously not so easy to do.

The point here is that looking at “opinions” from wildly different sources, and trying to find some “common ground” between them, in order to go ahead with the best option that will benefit the largest number of people, is very, very hard — specially if there are many opinions and most of them conflicting ones. But the first step is to accept that others have valid opinions, too — we just see them under a different light than they do, and thus reject them because they’re the wrong “colour”. But we humans are able to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” and imagine how they see the world, even if this amounts mostly to “imagination” and is not a guarantee of understanding exactly how they think. Again, as said, the only way to completely solve the issue is not by carefully picking an opinion that is consensually accepted — because that will always be impossible; there will always be someone with a slightly different stance on things that will not “fit” — but to look beyond the coloured sunglasses, but that’s not for the faint of heart.

No, instead, what we humans have come up with is representative democracy. In theory, we vote for people who have similar world-views as we do, which, in turn, collectively have a pretty much aligned world-view among themselves (on a party-based system), and, while it will be impossible for all representatives to agree with everything — since they come often with opposing views — they are able to work on compromises, and, when those fail, the majority will decide. Representative democracy is good for finding a “middle ground” for every type of opinion because of that; even abrupt swings towards extremism tend to get leveled out over enough time. In a sense, this is its biggest strength: the majority will always be moderate in their views, and it will be the moderates that will lead the opinions. But it has also a problem: deep structural changes are hard to do, usually because these rely on more extreme views (but which can push things ahead!), and for those, moderate approaches are not good. That’s why innovation comes mostly from corporations, which are not democracies; while safeguarding fundamental rights are the province of governments elected via representative democracies.

It can be argued that a direct democracy will take this “moderate” view to even higher extremes, since a further level of “filtering” gets removed that way. And, in fact, the only country in the world which is an example of a direct democracy (Switzerland) is a pretty conservative and moderate country. Representative democracies have a bit more agility in terms of pushing new ideas ahead, because the representatives (assuming they’re well intentioned — which, sadly, most aren’t) will not be exactly aligned with the people that voted on them. They will share similar opinions in the most important issue, but not on all — not even most. This means that a representative assembly, even one with a majority of moderate representatives, will have some flexibility in innovating and “thinking out of the box”. Not much, but just a bit. Enough to get things moving in a different direction than their voters expected them to move, and this, surprisingly, will push society ahead. If the expectations were high and the direction is too un-aligned with the voters’ wishes, then they have no chance of getting re-elected. But the slight change will nevertheless have happened. For better or for worse, but, as history shows, in most cases it has been for the better (or we wouldn’t be living under democracies any longer).

Representative democracy deals with the “pink sunglasses problem” neatly, by assuming right from the start that no single individual is able to be aware of everything in order to make decisions. Instead, a group of individuals are elected in order to keep track of the important things, by keeping in touch with the issues that are important to them. This is in stark contrast with direct democracy, where all individuals vote on all issues, no matter if they are aware of them or even have adequate knowledge of the relevance and implications of their decisions. A typical example is taxes: in a direct democracy, given the chance, individuals would almost always vote collectively to abolish taxes, since this is something that affects collectively the whole population, and nobody wants to pay them — it would be an easy choice. However, a few individuals might understand that abolishing taxes means that governments have no funding to run a country successfully — but they would be such a tiny majority that they wouldn’t have a chance to get a vote, no matter how persuasive their arguments might be. Representative democracy places some responsibility in the hands of the elected few who are supposed to understand why taxes are necessary, and even though they recognise the universal desire to keep them as low as possible, they would trade that off with the necessity of having enough money to invest on the collective good. This can be seen as a “filter” to the “wisdom of the crowd” (which I affirm that is inexistent; a mob’s collective intelligence is the lowest IQ divided by the number of its members…): “yes, we see what you want, but your wishes are not consistent with a working model, so we’ll try to do your best to respect your wishes while we maintain a reasonable infrastructure”. If we are so totally opposed to the way our views are “filtered”, we simply vote them out of office.

In this optimistic and idealised model (even I am not that naïve to believe it’s as simple as that!), what we have exchanged is the infinite number of shades of pink for our sunglasses to a selected, defined, pre-determined amount of colours, and elect a few to wear the sunglasses with the colour that most closely resembles ours. When we’re unhappy with those shades, we pick different ones. The “sunglass example” is flawed to a degree: we don’t wear always the same shade. And as we change sunglasses, we view and experience our surroundings differently all the time. Having a mechanism — general elections — to replace our representatives with a different set (with different sunglasses) is thus crucial. This is what representative democracy is all about.

Governance as a function of virtual worlds

Now we come to the very difficult example of Second Life. I secretly hope I’m very wrong about this, but I have this distinctive feeling that Second Life is way too different from anything that came before, and very likely, it will be very different from anything that comes next (if it ceases to exist). In a sense, I tended to make fun of Castronova when, asked about why he never studied Second Life as deeply as other virtual worlds, he’s rumoured to have answered that it held no interest to him because it was too similar to real life. He was after economic models without parallels in the real world.

Second Life is uncannily similar to the real world, but not quite, as I have so often described — an enlightened autocracy (where Linden Lab pretty much holds all the power, but benevolently refrains from exercising too much power) promoting laissez-faire capitalism with little or no interference (except for some manipulation of the L$/US$ price). This is pretty much what most European states had in the late 18th century and very early 19th century. Under this model, an aristocracy naturally rises and gets protection. We used to call them “the FIC”, or whatever fancy name was more adequate: a group of residents, that due to their nature, are “closer” to the “decision circle”, and, to a degree, may exercise some influence.

Second Life is also incredibly complex, so it’s not as if the same people influence all decisions — this is not even true at the Linden level except for their CEO. So it’s obvious that independent, volunteer developers who signed the required developer contract with Linden Lab, and regularly contribute code to the SL Viewer, are the ones more close to make decisions. This is even more fundamental than LL’s own employees, who, although generally worked pretty much according to their wishes (remember the Tao of Linden?… right!…), these days they have a bit more planning and even things closely resembling a plan with deadlines. But volunteers are still free to contribute code to do whatever they please, fix the bugs that they are unhappy with, and add the features they like. The needs of the whole mass of residents have little influence. After all, anyone can become a developer and work on what they like most, right? So if you dislike a bug and wish for another feature, just sign the contract and start adding code!

Of course this model is flawed. Just a tiny number of people (a dozen or two at most) actually have the knowledge, the experience, and the required time to become volunteer developers for Linden Lab. So these make all the decisions according to their wishes, to their perceptions of what needs to be done (either in fixing bugs or adding features). It’s nice to have that open collaborative environment between Linden Lab and the residents, but it’s hardly democratic, and absolutely not representative. At most, we residents can make suggestions, and these can be found on the JIRA and elsewhere.

The JIRA, as Prokofy Neva so loudly proclaimed years ago, is hardly “a democratic tool for governance”, and, to the best of my knowledge, it was not intended to be one. It was originally developed to keep track of bugs (and eventually features), but such tools are better used in a “neutral” scenario where bugs are found and reported. The “voting tool”, where users can somehow propose new features and show their support to fix certain bugs, have been erroneously seen as a “democratic” way of influencing LL’s decisions.

This is hardly the case, for several reasons.

First of all, Linden Lab has always said that they wouldn’t set their priorities by what the JIRA said. At best, it would give them pause for thought. Imagine that a feature is added on JIRA saying: “abolish tier”. With a bit of promotion, this could get millions of votes. But it would also lead LL to ruin (since their business model is so closely based on tier revenues). So clearly there are some features that LL would not mind to implement, but several others — many of them, in fact — would be completely pointless to implement.

Then this is a highly specialised environment, but open to non-skilled individuals. “Reduce lag” is naturally something which attracts millions of users, since almost all of us experience lag of some form. But this is not a single issue that can be fixed by simple technological measures; it’s as hard to do as forcing a government to pass a bill to “revert climate change” while scientists are still struggling to understand the complexities of climate prediction with conflicting models. So “reducing lag” is too vague; refining the issue to, say, “make Group IM chat messages come in the right order, no matter how laggy the sim we’re in” is far more feasible; similarly, in real life, governments might pass bills to “tax or fine CO2 polluters heavilly” or “make recycling mandatory”, which are concrete measures that might have a positive, desirable influence on “reverting climate change” while the complexity of the system is still being figured out. However, when the unskilled public is allowed to participate openly in those discussions, it means that they might be voting for “doing magic” in an area that is little understood. LL has no choice but to delete the feature requests for “abolishing lag” because they’re not rationally expressed in a way that a team can address the problem.

Next comes the lack of a “No” feature (Prokofy has for years protested on that). This is typical of a certain model of “democracy” which is just affirmative — the idea behind it being that “negativity has to be avoided” and similar philosophical crap. In truth, what it means is that you either vote in favour of other people’s ideas, or you abstain from voting. Thus, “abstaining” and “being against” are mixed together in the vote count, but they’re not the same thing, and it’s very dangerous to mix those two groups together! A JIRA without a “No” option is hardly a governance tool; it’s little less than a fan club (“Hey, I have this great idea, who is on my side?”). Strangely enough, a lot of organisations implementing governance tools seem to hate giving their users the ability to say no. But that ability is fundamental!

And finally… there are simply too many issues, and too few voters, spread among all the issues. If there were just, say, 50 or 60 issues, and everybody would be aware of the whole context of each issue, then, yes, we could vote in conscience, and Linden Lab could evaluate the results of those votes in order to set their own priorities. But this is not the case. There are perhaps 30 to 40 thousand JIRAs opened (between bugs, features, suggestions…) and far fewer residents than that regularly participating on the JIRA! So, on average, the majority of JIRAs just have a handful of votes, and perhaps some very few have a few hundreds. How “participative” and “representative” are those votes? If a JIRA is really addressing a very serious issue, and gathers 250 votes in a single day, should Linden Lab address it or not? Why should 250 residents influence the Lab’s priorities and affect all the remaining 25 million residents, just because, well, it just happened to be the only JIRA with more than 100 votes in the past month? Such is the problem with direct democracies. In the very few countries where direct democracy is indeed implement, governments struggle with that issue as well, as citizens are asked to vote every day on 3-4 issues; some, of course, will vote every day like good citizens. But the majority simply has no time for all that; which means that the few decisions which get enough votes are made by very few people (and usually always by the same ones: those that have plenty of time!), even though they might have biased opinions and totally lack the knowledge to make an informed decision.

JIRA is not the only way to participate in LL’s decision process. We also have office hours — which hardly allow many to come and have their say, since there is an avatar limit — and many other avenues for open discussion: forums, comments on the official blog, and so forth. And, of course, some “pressure groups” have separate, private discussions with the Lindens. Since LL is mostly a hosting provider — e.g. leasing server space is their core business — it’s natural that they routinely meet with their major clients (those leasing the largest amount of land and contributing towards LL’s income directly) and see how happy they are about LL’s policies. The “Council of Land Barons” is not a “Star Chamber”, it’s simply a corporation openly discussing what to do with their best customers. But, of course, LL being a private company, this happens behind closed doors. And becoming a member of the “Star Chamber” is incredibly expensive! On the other hand, LL naturally views it as “fair” that the biggest investors in SL — their largest customers — should also have a saying in how the virtual world should be run, while the opinion of the common resident, no matter how elegantly formulated and how clever and witty it might be, cannot be accepted if it runs against the interests of LL’s biggest clients. It might not be fair, but it’s hardly rational (for LL) to think otherwise.

Corporations are not democracies and cannot be run efficiently that way!

So now we have a complex “personality split” regarding Second Life. The few governance tools (and meetings are tools too) were designed for a corporation to talk to their customers. As a company, Linden Lab views Second Life as a product, and, as such, implementation of governance tools have to make a positive impact in Second Life as a business. This runs contrary to the other side of the coin, which is Second Life as a virtual social environment. The two have conflicting goals. But we have just one set of tools, biased and aligned to the first, and pretty much ignoring the second aspect of this virtual world. How can both be joined together?

I’m afraid that it might simply be next to impossible. Nevertheless, representative democracy has almost (at least at an idealistic, quasi-utopian level) managed to find an answer to the problem.

The voice of the residents

Consider again how our virtual world is so different than the real world. There is no mass communication: nobody can manipulate the opinion of the whole of Second Life. Interest groups are parochial, not global, because that’s how far their scope reach. Even the largest communities don’t represent more than a few thousands of residents. Residents with common interests might never come in touch with each other — they might even speak completely different languages! There are little tools for analysing people’s opinions — few companies do market analysis — and the few that are actually employed are hard to validate, because it’s very difficult to say if the sample is actually representative or not. Just consider LL’s surveys (I don’t know if they’re still active with Viewer 3) which ask residents if their experience with Second Life has improved or not. If that survey is in a language I don’t understand, I will probably skip the survey (or just randomly click on the answers, which make no sense to me). Since LL doesn’t publish statistics about the virtual world’s demography any longer, we can only extrapolate based on the past reports. Let’s imagine that there are a million Brazilians in SL, most of which barely understand English. How are they supposed to vote on a JIRA – or answer a survey? The few Brazilians which indeed participate in all public opinion polls are the ones speaking English fluently — however, how representative are they of their own language group? If all English-speaking Brazilians were merely land barons, and they were the only ones to meet with LL, keeping the remaining clueless about what issues have been discussed (or that they’re being discussed at all), how can any decision made by LL together with a handful of Brazilian land barons be “representative” or even fair? The short answer is that it simply can’t.

Limited, partial knowledge means making poor decisions, even though our brains are very specialised machines evolved to make reasonable decisions with partial data. The question is how fragmentary that data is. When we publicly claim that “Linden Lab is out of touch with the reality of Second Life”, the question is not really if LL is willing or not to be more active in figuring out the resident’s needs (which, as we know, seems to be the current swing of policy implemented by Rod Humble, a most welcome change!), but even if it’s realistically possible to gather enough information that validates those “needs” as being representative of the whole.

We’re always stumbling upon the very same word, “representative”.

When we look at all the ways that Linden Lab has to interact with residents, this is always the question: what can Linden Lab do to listen to ideas, suggestions, comments, and complaints that are more representative of the reality of Second Life? This goal seems to be unreachable because of so many constraints: the amount of avatars in a sim (preventing in-world meetings to have more than a few avatars at the same time); the available time for residents to answer emails, polls, surveys, or similar tools; the overall knowledge of the residents; the language or cultural barrier; and so forth. What this means that extending the willingness to “listen to more residents” will only mean that instead of a few hundreds that help and influence LL’s decisions, we might get a few hundreds more. Perhaps even a few thousands. Are those “representative” of the whole?

No.

Remember the sunglasses. When extending those “governance tools” towards more residents, what it means is simply that Linden Lab will encounter more people wearing different sunglasses. Instead of finding a convergence of opinions, which would certainly help LL to make better decisions, the reality is that Linden Lab will find a divergence, in the sense of getting in touch with conflicting opinions. Consider a panel of 40 land barons vs. a panel of 40 basic accounts who refuse to pay tier because Tier is Evil. How will Linden Lab conciliate both discussions? The first panel directly influences their income stream; the second panel might represent the opinions of millions and millions of residents (who might leave if they don’t like the results of the meetings, thus also influencing indirectly LL’s revenues…). How can both be conciliated? How can trade-offs be “negotiated”? Even if a “negotiation” is possible, why should a conciliation of those opposing groups, totaling 80 individuals, actually represent the wishes and expectations of 25 million residents, most of them not active any longer?

In the open discussions — on forums and blogs — the majority of opinions are towards an all-inclusive, direct-democracy approach, where each and every resident is called to cast a vote (or emit a short comment on their ideas on a particular subject). There are many ingenious ways of doing this with governance tools. Imagine that on the revamped login page we’d get every day a selection of, say, a dozen JIRAs to vote upon. Since a million users log in every month, and those are indeed the more active residents, we’d possibly get a million votes on perhaps 300-500 JIRAs per month, which would definitely make the JIRA more representative. However, the problem with this approach is that it draws conclusions based on unskilled opinions, not factual affirmations. Imagine that one of the questions is: “Do you like Viewer 3?” A large proportion of the builder community in Second Life hates Viewers 2 and 3 because they allegedly doesn’t address builders’ needs so neatly as Viewer 1. I’m no builder, so I’m biased, and love Viewer 3 — and the majority of residents aren’t builders, either. What this means is that a majority might actually prefer Viewer 3 (I know this is oversimplifying the issue), and the result of the vote could mean that LL would prevent Viewer 1 (and derivative TPVs) users to log in to the grid — that is, effectively shutting the builders out of Second Life. Without builders we will have no new content in Second Life. So while this question, answered democratically in the most involving way, might give LL a very good idea of what people think, ultimately the end result is a Second Life without new content, which will hurt everybody.

In that case, obviously that question should be excluded from direct voting! But that means that someone has to filter out the “good” questions from the “bad” questions. Who will be that “someone” and how will they know what is a good question as opposed to a bad one??

Well, we humans have answered that difficult dilemma by inventing representative democracy.

Under this model, if applied to Second Life, it would mean electing a set of representatives which would make the decisions of what kind of questions to address. In some scenarios, some questions would be set up as referendums (and I still think that the login splash page is the best way to put them, because it’s something we all will see when we log in to SL), but by a discussion process — which would be open to public scrutiny, of course — among the elected representatives. Since these will naturally have different opinions, majority votes would be required to figure out “the best fit” to a particular question. Interpretation of the results would ultimately lead to decisions by Linden Lab — but this time, those decisions would be based on perceived needs by the resident population as a whole, and not by merely consulting with some “selected groups”.

And obviously those groups of representatives would be re-elected every few months. This also poses some problems, of course, but nothing earth-shattering. Everybody would be allowed to run for elections and establish the ways to gather votes by publishing their decisions. Since we have no mass media, this will be a difficult process; but huge countries like India, where a substantial portion of the population doesn’t even have access to TV or can’t read newspapers, continue to be be successful representative democracies after so many decades, even though they have so many limitations — Second Life is like that: even though we’re so technological, we have few ways to disseminate information to everybody.

The size of the group will also be crucial. We have one big limitation: having more than 40-50 avatars in a single sim creates too much lag. On the other hand, cities with a million citizens usually have representative assemblies with about that amount of delegates, so the number might not be too little for a virtual world with “a million regular monthly users”. Even managing 40-50 people — and their different opinions — will be hard. Very likely, there will be committees for handling different aspects of governance: for example, a committee in charge of reviewing all new JIRAs every week and pick the ones attracting the most votes; a committee for content creation, another for land ownership, and so forth (replicating, for example, the interest groups handled by LL’s office hours, which this model might replace). Committees might just have 6-7 members, perhaps with a Linden as guest, but should be openly held in public and publish their discussions on some kind of public forum. Then, when reaching a decision, it would be discussed (but on top of a prepared document!) on a weekly General Assembly with all 40-50 representatives. The results of the voting would then be implemented — either as a referendum to the general population, or merely directed at Linden Lab for direct implementation.

Appeals to unpopular decisions — even bans and so forth — might also get handled that way. It would mean that simple disciplinary measures, as imposed by Linden Lab, would follow the usual route (think of the Lindens as “police”: if someone is caught clearly in the middle of an act which is a violation of the rules, the police can seize and arrest them). Further disciplinary actions, like banning and seizing of property without compensation (which is what LL does without questioning anyone), would require a vote at the General Assembly. This would at least protect some of the innocent which occasionally get kicked out without reason (granted, this happens far less commonly these days) and provide at least some form of resident-run arbitration facility with binding powers, and, most important for all, public release of all information pertaining to the decision process.

Why is this model “better” than what LL currently has? Even though no model is perfect, this governance model is based on a sound philosophy which works, and has proven to work for at least two centuries, to better capture the overall opinion of the population and assist decisions that affect us all. While we might still complain that this or that opinion expressed by a single individual (usually ourselves!) might still not be heard, at least we know that if we really want to be heard, all we need to do is stand for election and become a member of the General Assembly, and then we’ll be heard. Gathering enough votes for that is a measure of how important our tiny little opinion is for others, and it should adequately provide a “filter” of what really matters. That’s the beauty of representative democratic systems — it filters out the essencial and crucial, which is a more common worry and has highest importance, from individual unqualified opinions which might matter little or nothing to most, while at the same time allowing good common sense to be part of the discussion (instead of boldly voting against tier or similar measures that would utterly ruin Linden Lab and destroy Second Life).

Oh, btw, and this is not merely an utopian ideal; for seven years the community of the Confederation of Democratic Simulators (CDS) has been successfully employing a similar mechanism to run their own sims. Unlike many communities, where opinions only matter when they’re closely aligned to the ones of the sim owners, in the CDS people openly disagree with each other, sometimes very aggressively. But then things are put to the vote. The community as a whole survives, even if individuals do not engage in worship of the Glorious Leader (as happens on most communities). The idea that a community only works if everybody is nice to each other, all are friends, and all agree with each other is nice and idealistic, but in the real world, we know that this is hardly the case, except for small groups during a limited time; long-time endeavours require different mechanisms, and representative democracy works quite well in that case, since it fairly gives everyone a chance to “impose” their own opinions — but for a very limited time.

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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