Critique of “Virtual Diplomacy” workshop at GKP touches a raw nerve

My earlier post on the workshop on Virtual Diplomacy at GKP seems to have touched a raw nerve with, strangely yet tellingly, the folks from Diplo Foundation who moderated and organised the session far more than some of those in the panel itself.

Clearly, the prissy and defensive responses that are found in response to my post, which are markedly different from those I received (via email) from Joshua Fouts and Rita King from Dancing Ink Productions who were actually represented on the panel, reveal a desire to obfuscate facts surrounding the constitution and organisation of what I will maintain was not just the worst workshop I attended at GKP, but one of the worst I have attended in my life on ICTs and their application to augment real world processes such as public diplomacy.

A few salient points are worth noting. Diplo Foundation states that,

“The background on SL for the audience was available at the beginning of the session (the description for the GKP-publication was provided two months before the event). In order to properly address the audience, the session was moderated to provide basic information on Second Life and the list of main, mainly development-related, aspects of SL.”

Several questions arise in this regard. It would be fascinating to discover how the organisers were able to fathom the constitution and interests of the audience before the workshop in order to tailor the content of workshop for them. I certainly didn’t get any revised material before or after the workshop and neither did my Sri Lankan colleague who accompanied me to the worhsop. There was none at the entrance, none on the chairs, none circulated in print or electronic by the GKP secretariat or by the Diplo Foundation. Participants came to the sessions based on and with their GKP brochure, which irrespective of when it was printed, outlined what was to be the terrain covered by the workshop. That it was changed was only too painfully evident as time progressed. It was only upon visiting the Diplo Foundation’s site after I returned to Sri Lanka that I discovered how much the panel’s scope had dramatically changed from that which GKP’s brochure had us believe. “Properly addressing” the audience therefore would have been to first inform them of the changed agenda and scope of the discussions.

As I noted in my first post however, it wasn’t even the fact that the scope changed that was the issue, but that the panel’s submissions were most disappointing for those with significant experience in SL for public diplomacy and who expectations of this workshop was to learn more than what they already knew. The Diplo Foundation deliberately confuses basic with naive in this regard and my original post covers a range of issues that the panel did not even hint at.

Diplo Foundation’s monotonous refrain in its comment, that “This was not the theme of the session; see the above mentioned descriptions of the session” in reference to the points I bring up, ergo, has perhaps more to do with the dastardly organisation of the workshop, for which the GKP secretariat perhaps must take the greater share of blame.

Clearly however, better communication from and between GKP and the organisers of the workshop (given their penchant for spamming participant Inboxes) would have helped orient audience expectations better and alerted those of us like myself, with significant real world experience in the use of augmented and virtual reality, to stay away.

Diplo Foundation goes on to note, correctly, that the question I posed in my post on whether the Maldivian Embassy in SL would continue to exist if activists launched protests in it against the essential dictatorship of the Gayoom regime, was not asked in the workshop itself.

Mea culpa.

What I did point to in the session was the fact that governments and other institutions may initially take kindly to and look at with great interest the possibility of establishing a presence in virtual worlds without realising the potential for them to be embarrassed by avatars staging demonstrations against them. Elections in France and acts of virtual vandalism in Australia demonstrate what’s already been done in Second Life in this regard. Going further, my point at the workshop was that initial enthusiasm may in some cases give way to increasing levels of resistance to virtual worlds in light of the above.I fleshed out this submission further in an email I sent to the moderator of the workshop, Jovan Kubalija from Diplo Foundation, after my return to SL. I averred, inter alia, that

I enjoyed the panel on SL, but may I humbly submit that I thought some of what was proposed by the panel to be naive and a result of a limited experience with complex political emergencies (CPEs) and protracted ethno-political and intra-state conflict (which defines many regions in the world today).I have worked over 8 years in peace process design and ICT and my optimism is tempered to a large degree by the fact that I live and work in a country where, when I step out of my home, I don’t really know whether I will make it back home alive. There are worse situations and the challenge also is to get, for example, the SL Maldivian Embassy to welcome and regularly conduct open forums that challenge what is in South Asia the longest running dictatorship and a regime with an atrocious record of freedom of expression and assembly.

Jovan’s response was,

I agree that the personal experience is very important for grasping broader political concepts. it is especially important for understanding tacit, emotional and “non-recordable” aspects of conflicts. Unfortunately, like yourself, I and most of Diplo team have experienced “reality” of the conflict in the Balkans.

Eva Chan Tanner (who I assume is also from the Diplo Foundation, given the curmudgeonly tone) also makes some comments on my post.

The prospect of using the virtual environment to build communities, to promote actual constructive dialogue and, hopefully to lessen the social and physical barriers that so often overshadow any real efforts diplomatically and in our daily lives was what was actually said.

I agree – that’s precisely the problem. The potential for progressive communications and dialogue is there and is one I unequivocally recognise and support. The real potential for its anti-thesis – of the creation and / or exacerbation of real world differences through virtual environments, of which examples are many including outright murder – and the panel’s inability and unwillingness to address it, was where the central problem lay.

Eva goes on to note that “There was no place in this session to politicise or promote a cause”. Though from the tone and content of her submission and the one earlier I find it hard to imagine Diplo Foundation furthering significantly any political cause, the raison d’etre of public diplomacy is precisely that. To ignore (party) politics or shaft it aside as unnecessary and unimportant is what I referred to in my original post as the dangerously naive outlook of some in the panel.

Eva then avers that,

“More importantly, the session showed how different governments are using it as part of their way of reaching out to the world. Isn’t this better than nothing at all?”

This is, most politely put, a pedestrian argument. Doing something is not necessarily better than doing nothing. Certainly, the swank Swedish Embassy with streaming Swedish pop would be a cool place to hang out to find out more about a country many of us born to conflict wish we were citizens of. But the mere presence of Government’s on Second Life does not mean they are “reaching out” and does not mean they want any real participation that critiques official policies or questions their propaganda. A presence in SL may just simply mean that they see it as another way to promote their (parochial) interests through a different medium and in no way can it be assumed that a two-way, meaningful dialogue is engendered and sustained by the virtual creations and presence of real world governments and States in Second Life.

Another point is made in the defense of the panel’s submissions on Second Life’s low carbon footprint, which in my post I said was not a given. In an earlier post on Second Life and the environment I noted that,

If it means that in some way it’s use cuts down on carbon emissions through the reduction of air-travel, then I guess it’s all the more reason to promote it as a platform for serious work and collaboration.

The point however is that the jury’s out on the real benefits of using SL to save the environment, as Nicholas Carr’s post here fleshes out in some detail. The panel was unaware of this debate and simplistically said that using SL was more sustainable than real world interactions.

Sadly yet in a manner that colours our appreciation of her entire submission, Eva ends her comment on a rather juvenile note by saying that

“I highly recommend that you revisit your notes from the session. Perhaps for the next GKP event, it would be wise to submit a proposal to do a session on ‘the use of Blogs, the beauty of it and the beast within it’.”

Condescension is the last refuge of those unable to countenance anyone who challenges their established wisdom. Obstinately protecting the halo around their noses, the ivory towers that Eva and the rest of her ilk reside and revel in are too far removed from reality to acknowledge the significant work of those who, based on what was presented at this workshop, are a few years ahead of the Diplo Foundation in their use, understanding of and approach to virtual worlds and new media to facilitate and augment public diplomacy, understood by this author as dialogues, physical and virtual, in support of the reconciliation of difference, the transformation of violence and the celebration of diversity.

2 comments on “Critique of “Virtual Diplomacy” workshop at GKP touches a raw nerve

  1. Sanjana Hattotuwa
    December 31, 2007 at 4:31 pm #

    As was pointed to me today by Joshua, the excepts from the email from him quoted above, in response to mine, were from personal correspondence on the workshop at GKP’s GK III. It was wrong of me to have quoted it without asking him first to strengthen, as I saw it, the case I was making in this post.

    I am sorry.

    I still stand by my critique of the workshop and am pleased to hear that the Foundation is using this content in a study that examines new examples of an old game – diplomatic spin!

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  1. Second Life runs out of steam? « ICT for Peacebuilding (ICT4Peace) - April 26, 2009

    […] I am wrong to judge them by my own reality and access to technology. My concern however is that some of these initiative tend to get more than a little carried away by their own hype and forget completely just how atypical it is to have a PC and Internet connection able to run […]

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