Second Life runs out of steam?

Highlighting the Second Life, the BBC noted recently that,

It was once the most talked-about web development on the planet, but it has gone very quiet of late. After the gold rush of companies seeking to establish virtual premises in the 3D world, many have now pulled out or left their digital empires to mothball.

Echoes what Time magazine said of Second Life over a year ago. Augmented reality on mobile devices, which seem to hold far more potential in my mind than virtual reality on PCs, even if Second Life was (unofficially) ported to run on some mobile phones last year.

And as I’ve noted earlier,

… I have my doubts about using SL (and this is the vital point) to achieve some of these goals which may well be done better, cheaper, for a wider audience, in a more accessible and sustained manner, in more languages and with more interactivity and responsiveness. I guess it’s revealing that most of the social and political activists who propound the use of SL as a viable platform to galvanise action, even in the real world, come from the US. And perhaps 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 SL.

Second Life now on your mobile phone

As CNET notes, Second Life is now available on your mobile phone which indicates that the SL platform seems to be plodding along despite Time Magazine’s deliciously wicked pronouncement that it tries too hard to be hip earlier this year.

The mobile client seems to run on most N-Series Nokia’s and many 3G phones, including my old E65 that I exchanged for the 3110C a while ago. And no, this does not tempt me to go back. As I noted in a post in March,

I have no doubt that web and Internet activism influence real world change. Indeed, it is increasingly the case that the web and Internet are the only domains and last refuge of those who are at risk and persecuted.  But experiments with SL in countries like Sri Lanka have been a failure, simply because we do not have the necessary connectivity to use it to even a fraction of its potential.

And that’s a real pity.

Though it’s not stopped some from making simplistic assertions about, inter alia, Facebook and public diplomacy, Second Life remains inaccessible in its present PC form to many of us. The new thin client for mobiles may change this and going by their demo video alone – which seems to be running on a Motorola phone – the Vollee solution that does all the heavy crunching on the server end looks very impressive indeed. 

Here’s a hint to Vollee – get a iPhone / iTouch client out soon and watch your numbers of mobile Second Life avatars soar. 

International Justice Center in Second Life: A wasted effort?

So there’s a new International Justice Centre in Second Life. Another great idea geared to service the few who can use Second Life. 100% useless for most of us who cannot.And let’s not forget what Time Magazine had to say of Second Life.

I am yet to be entirely convinced that Second Life repositories of knowledge and information are somehow more desirable and worth supporting than say web based portals. As the video from the event shows, the high profile launch was sparesely attended and even featured one streaker. I guess this is activism and awareness raising for some.

I don’t want to be too negative. For those who can use SL, it’s immersive and interesting to be surrounded by content on the workings of the International Criminal Court, the world’s first international human rights tribunal, designed to investigate and try those accused of committing some of the worst violations of human rights, including genocide, mass rape and war crimes.

Of course, the point is that the country in which the International Justice Centre is located in is also a country that does not recognise the ICC. The United States of America was one of only 7 nations (joining China, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Qatar and Israel) to vote against the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court in 1998.Wonder if the IJC wil stimulate any discussions in this regard.

To their credit, Global Kids has engaged in discussions on how best to use the new IJC in SL. Among the suggestions and ideas that came out of the forums:

  • Education about the International Criminal Court should be the first priority. Many people don’t know what the ICC is, or have misconceptions about it.
  • Integrate educational content into the environment. Immersive experiences can galvanize people to action.
  • Aesthetics matter.
  • Virtual demonstrations can have real world impact.
  • There’s already lots of activity on social issues, but dispersed across the grid.
  • Bringing real world events into SL is attractive to people because it enables them to attend events that they normally could not, and the backchannel conversations enhance the experience.
  • It’s difficult to demonstrate and measure real world impact of virtual builds and experiences.
  • Hold mock trials with different teams of university students
  • People want to have fun. Integrate entertaining activities to draw people, like music festivals, art shows, etc.

These are vital, urgent and significant goals and I sincerely hope that they succeed in all this. However, living in a country where human rights abuses are rife and with my own significant experience in using technology to support peacebuilding, I have my doubts about using SL (and this is the vital point) to achieve some of these goals which may well be done better, cheaper, for a wider audience, in a more accessible and sustained manner, in more languages and with more interactivity and responsiveness.

I guess it’s revealing that most of the social and political activists who propound the use of SL as a viable platform to galvanise action, even in the real world, come from the US. And perhaps 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 SL.

That said, what I found the most inteteresting in the video of the IJC launch above was not the event itself, but the art of defiance showcased in it. The sculpture with cameras for example reminded me of every single time I’ve visited Britain where even the Queens corgis seem to have CCTV cameras up their royal posterior. It is after all the country with the most amount of CCTV’s though it doesn’t seem to be doing much good. It’s great that people with a desire for social and political transformation are using all the tools possible in virtual domains like SL to raise awareness on real and vital issues such as Darfur, Myanmar and China and even the gross human rights violations by the US itself.

In Avatars and Politics: Using Second Life for political activism? I point to articles that are essential reading for anyone who is interested in the larger implications of initaitives such as the IJC.

I have no doubt that web and Internet activism influence real world change. Indeed, it is increasingly the case that the web and Internet are the only domains and last refuge of those who are at risk and persecuted.  But experiments with SL in countries like Sri Lanka have been a failure, simply because we do not have the necessary connectivity to use it to even a fraction of its potential.

And that’s a real pity.

Also read:

Second Life for Humanitarian Aid and Peacebuilding?
Strong Angel Island videos – From the Strong Angel III sim for Second Life
A Second Life for Journalism?
Second Life – Business, ODR, Language and Peace
Online Violence : Take 2

Time magazine on Second Life

Second Life

Time Magazine recently ran a piece on five of the worst websites that mentioned Second Life as one of them. Not entirely sure why – since Second Life isn’t a website, but the article begins:

We’re sure that somebody out there is enjoying Second Life, but why?

and ends,

The corporate world’s embrace of the place as a venue for staff meetings and training sessions does seem to lend Second Life a layer of legitimacy. But maybe it’s a case of some CEOs trying too hard to be hip. 

Ouch.

But perhaps it’s time we recognised Second Life for what it is – (yet another) software platform that fails to leverage virtual reality for serious purposes and also that it has only hitherto been propped up by a multimedia marketing campaign that now shows signs of failing.

And yet there are still some of us who will continue to think that Second Life actually provides scope for more meaningful interactions to take place, say in the world of public diplomacy, peacebuilding or political activism. I’m not entirely convinced, but I would like to believe that perhaps Second Life is ahead of its time. What’s cool today is augmented reality on mobile devices, which seem to hold far more potential in my mind than virtual reality on PCs.

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.

Virtual Diplomacy Workshop at GKP GK III: A missed opportunity

I attended Diplomacy Goes Virtual: Opportunities and Limitation of Virtual Diplomacy, a worshop at the recently held Global Knowledge Partnership GK III conference in the hope that I would learn more than I knew and had already done using tools, mechanisms and platforms such as blogs, Skype, mobile communications, the XO laptop and Second Life, to further inter-cultural understanding, reconciliation and peacebuilding.

I was very, very wrong.

The panel was, by far, not just the worst I attended at GK III, it was one of the worst and most ill-informed I have ever attended in my life.

Perhaps it was on account of the gross mismatch between what the audience expected from reading the description of the workshop in the official GK III brochure (as reflected here) and what the panel turned out to be, which as noted here concentrated exclusively on Second Life.

I could have even endured a discussion on Second Life if it was anchored in the socio-political and cultural dynamics of countries and regions outside of North America and Western Europe – for example, those with repressive regimes that clamp down on fundamental freedoms, or those that were embroiled in Complex Political Emergencies (CPEs) and protracted ethno-political conflict.It was not to be.

The panel, that did not have a single Asian on it or anyone with experience in using MMORPG‘s / virtual worlds / Second Life for real world complex political negotiations, focussed entirely on the simplistic uses of Second Life to bring people together for genetic research and other mundane and relatively uncomplicated tasks. The unique and extremely challenging demands of virtual diplomacy shaped by and responding to violent conflict or where not at all covered.

The panel repeatedly pointed to the existence of Embassies of countries such as the Maldives in Second Life as proof of the coming of age of virtual diplomacy. My challenge to the panel was to map out how long the Maldivian Embassy on Second Life would last if there was a concerted effort to demonstrate against the essential dictatorship of the Gayoom regime in its virtual space.

It was a question they could not answer.

Even with Second Life, they did not cover at all the potential of conflict within sims, real world conflict spilling over into virtual interactions (or vice versa), alternative dispute resolution mechanisms within Second Life (such as the E-Justice Centre in Second Life), evolving notions of justice and peace within Second Life, how media reporting within and on Second Life influence the manner in which avatars interact or how sims in Second Life could be used for future scenario model based simulations in support of conflict transformation processes.

Further, the panel did not address the challenges posed by new media, such as blogs, to diplomacy and diplomats, as brought out in my post Diplomacy and blogs (on Jan Pronk’s behaviour in Sudan) or critical discussions on how the United States State Department is now using blogs to further international relations.

The panel also scoffed at the environmental impact of using Second Life, even though there’s no agreement that using Second Life is as environmentally friendly as it is often made out to be.

In fact, the panel did not address even a single point on the potential and challenges of using Second Life for dispute resolution, collaboration and civic participation I had made earlier at the 5th International Forum on Online Dispute Resolution in Liverpool, England.

On the positive side, the panel did discuss the urgent need for and developments towards interoperability of virtual worlds and the need for open standards and open source based access to and development of various sims and MMORPG‘s. A representative of Linden Labs who connected virtually made the exciting announcement that Second Life would be connected to (and perhaps even accessible from) mobile devices.

Regrettably, the constitution of and terrain covered by this workshop was the anti-thesis of what was expected from a global knowledge exchange as envisioned by GK III. Not only was the knowledge imparted through this workshop US and Western Europe centric, dated, passe and extremely blinkered, it was also at at times, dangerously naive.

To say nothing, especially when speaking, is half the art of diplomacy said Will Durant, the American writer and historian. In light of the overwhelming insignificance of this workshop’s presentations, one can compliment them all on mastering half the art of diplomacy.

I sincerely wish however that GKP invites, the next time around, non-diplomats who would invariably make for more meaningful and interesting discussions!

UPDATED: Please read Critique of “Virtual Diplomacy” workshop at GKP touches a raw nerve

Journalism in Second Life – CNN enters the fray

First it was media such as The Metaverse Messenger. Then Reuters. Now CNN enters the world of journalism within Second Life by opening an iReport centre in Second Life:

Just as CNN asks its real-life audience to submit I-Reports — user-generated content submitted from cell phones, computers, cameras and other equipment for broadcast and online reports — the network is encouraging residents of Second Life to share their own “SL I-Reports” about events occurring within the virtual world.”The thing we most hope to gain by having a CNN presence in Second Life is to learn about virtual worlds and understand what news is most interesting and valuable to their residents,” said Susan Grant, executive vice president of CNN News Services.

Also check out CNN’s blog on SL iReports here. In a previous post on journalism in Second Life, I ask:

There are a number of interesting questions that crop up for reflection. Do real world standards of journalism apply in publications such as The Metaverse Messenger? Are consumers of The Metaverse Messenger rising even as subscribers to newspapers decline? In the future, can we envision communities who may be more interested in news of online / virtual events more than real world issues? How do media such as The Metaverse Messenger fit into the social / new / community media paradigm? If the year-on-year exponential growth in MMORPG’s continues, the millions of those who inhabit the worlds of these games may create media that is only understood by fellow inhabitants – using new media (podcasts, blogs, mobile content etc) to communicate issues that may only exist online?

But most importantly, how is the media industry going to address the challenges of audience fragmentation between real and virtual worlds?Reading through The Metaverse Messenger is an eye-opener. This is not some school magazine trying to look and sound like a mainstream newspaper, this is actually news of worlds, lives, issues, events and business that exists in virtual domains today.If the future of media is to be explored, publications such as The Metaverse Messenger and indeed, the plethora of new media on MMORPG’s and the lives of those who treat them as seriously as real life need to be examined in far greater detail.

Second Life journalism – hype or a harbinger of things to come?