On September 8 at the Oâ€™Reilly Gov 2.0 Expo, Rita J. King will be discussing â€œDigital Diplomacy: Understanding Islam through Virtual Worldsâ€ as part of the Government as Peacekeeper section.
Iâ€™ve been studying the cultural effects of digital anonymity since 1996, but when I discovered a Muslim woman in a virtual Jewish synagogue in Second Life in 2006 I realized that global culture had entered a powerful new realm. The idea of â€œavatarsâ€ is polarizing. Some people instantly see the benefit of this new form of identity and community construction while others, believing that avatars dehumanize people, are appalled. I was not a gamer, nor did I ever expect to be mesmerized by the virtual world of Second Life after a friend of mine who works at IBM suggested that I check it out. I was reading Joseph Campbellâ€™s â€œThe Power of Myth,â€ and I searched on temples, synagogues, churches and mosques during my first few hours and days in Second Life, which was how I found myself at prayer services in a virtual Jewish synagogue speaking to a Muslim woman.
My company, Dancing Ink Productions (DIP), was founded in 2006 (at the request of IBM) to document the evolution of the companyâ€™s Virtual Universe Community. Since that time DIP has worked with numerous global companies, universities, think-tanks, not-for-profits, individuals and government clients toward a new global culture and economy in the Imagination Age.
My collaborator Joshua S. Fouts has spent the last fifteen years conducting research and strategy and directing projects that explore how the Internet is changing the landscape for cultural communication, identity, foreign policy and public diplomacy. When Joshua (who is now the Chief Global Strategist at DIP) and I began collaborating in 2007, DIP began to focus on catalyzing the shift in government toward dialogue and collaboration through immersion and exploration of the digital culture for real-world benefit. We have worked extensively within the United States and Canada as well as in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Europe to contextualize the collective shift toward greater understanding. Joshuaâ€™s perspective and experience have been instrumental in my path to Gov 2.0.
The military has always been a leader in exploring available technology and continues to do so now, bolstered by a massive budget. Only a fraction of the funding exists for the same level of implementation in the foreign policy world, which could greatly benefit from improvement via Web 2.0 tools. This was documented by Kristin Lord at the Brookings Institution in her report, â€œVoices of America: US Public Diplomacy for the 21st Century.â€ Anyone on the front lines of cultural engagement, from a public affairs officer in the Army to a public diplomacy officer in the State Department, can benefit directly from deeper, real-time communication with the people of the world.
Cultural engagement, which includes identifying new leaders, making connections and building relationships with them, is now as likely to occur on the streets of Kabul as on an island in Second Life. Many people scoff at the cartoonish appearance of avatars just as many once did at the appearance of horseless carriages. Sure, cars could take you sixty miles away in an hour, but nobody had any business sixty miles away from home back then, so it didnâ€™t matter. Itâ€™s the same now with avatars teleporting between virtual environments, only thereâ€™s no jet-lag and the travel is instant and requires far less resources.
Technology enables individuals and groups to embody a local physical place and at the same time to participate in a world-wide conversation that is not yet globally inclusive but can and should be. Collaborative imagineering enables greater risk-taking at lower cost for maximum benefit.
Apps wax and wane. Each of the apps that have gained major mainstream visibility and a few more obscure ones have contributed to the emerging Gov 2.0â€™s toes in the water, but a single killer app in isolation wonâ€™t topple bureaucracy as usual. Gov 2.0 needs to be exceptionally adept at managing the advent of apps as part of an overall strategy of best practices.
Of the current environment, there are many powerful apps, with Twitter at the top of the list, that offer myriad opportunities to transform government. Virtual worlds, which can incorporate almost any and all other platforms and further offer the ability to create oneâ€™s own identity and community, are a vastly rich tool for use in this effort.
By way of example, in our project Digital Diplomacy: Understanding Islam through Virtual Worlds we chronicled the story of a 21-year-old Syrian woman living in the UAE who entered Second Life to explore her identity as a Muslim and became the head of a thriving mosque community that she designed and constructed. People participate in this community to collaborate on thoughts of what it means to be a Muslim, and particularly a Muslim woman. We attended some very provocative discussions that took place within this community, which meets routinely and has particularly compelling discussions at critical times, such as during the rise of conflict in the Gaza strip.
One of the benefits of virtual environments, particularly Second Life, for conducting sensitive conversations among earnest participants is the ability to communicate with people from multiple countries across a variety of channels, including group chat, private instant messages and voice communication. All of these can be modified through muting or banning incendiary speakers, which permits a conversation to continue despite various levels of disruption. Groups collaborate on the tone of a conversation intuitively, with each participant contributing in his or her own way.
Increasingly sophisticated layered physical realities will continue to manifest as technology continues to permeate the physical environment. I find it extremely exciting to be a part of the transformation of government at such a pivotal time in the evolution of human consciousness. The chance to overcome bureaucratic stovepipes and antiquated paradigms and infuse and/or replace this structure with a culture of creativity, accountability, transparency and entrepreneurialism is challenging but at the same time, great fun.
It is my belief that peace is not the absence of conflict, but conflict needs to be productively channeled in order to prevent violence from taking the place of progress. This seems to be the most important kind of work that government can be doing.
Because physical violence is impossible in a virtual environment, revelatory conversations based solely on intellectual contributions result from the absence of gender, ethnicity, age and other obvious markers of cultural or economic hierarchy. Well-designed environments spark thoughtful participation and can go deeper in a collapsed time frame in the absence of any physical intimidation whatsoever.
Meta-threats such as climate change, pandemics, disaster prevention and recovery and the continuous development of weaponry loom even as wars, poverty and disease rage. In order to combat all of these challenges, as well as to create the most effective plans for domestic issues such as health care, transforming education from an Industrial Age model and infrastructure development, â€œGov 2.0â€ must embrace sophisticated use of available technology and human creativity to escape many of the current quagmires and find solutions that are based on actual human need, not perceptions created along party lines and values.