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?

Second Life avatars aren’t as eco-friendly / carbon neutral as first thought?

Anuradha Vittachi’s presentation at the United Nations OCHA +5 Symposium mentioned that each flight killed a child. She then went on to demonstrate the potential of Second Life to cut down on air travel by meetings in sims and showcased OneClimate Island that will have virtual events running in parallel to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, 3 – 14 December 2007. As noted here, is supported by Cisco Systems. Adrian Godfrey, Director of Corporate Affairs at Cisco, says: “We are delighted to be supporting as a global initiative that brings together Cisco’s commitment to tackle climate change and to utilising the power of the human network to make a difference.” links directly through to OneClimate Island, built by OneWorld within the 3D virtual world of Second Life.

“It will come into its own when the United Nations meets on December 3-14 to hold its Climate Summit. We will be opening a virtual window on events in Bali for anyone in the world who can access Second Life. But unlike its Real Life equivalent – and appropriately for a climate change conference – it will produce no travel-related carbon emissions.

Emphasis mine.

On the other hand, in Avatars consume as much electricity as Brazilians, Nicholas Carr writes:

So an avatar consumes 1,752 kWh per year. By comparison, the average human, on a worldwide basis, consumes 2,436 kWh per year. So there you have it: an avatar consumes a bit less energy than a real person, though they’re in the same ballpark.

Now, if we limit the comparison to developed countries, where per-capita energy consumption is 7,702 kWh a year, the avatars appear considerably less energy hungry than the humans. But if we look at developing countries, where per-capita consumption is 1,015 kWh, we find that avatars burn through considerably more electricity than people do.

More narrowly still, the average citizen of Brazil consumes 1,884 kWh, which, given the fact that my avatar estimate was rough and conservative, means that your average Second Life avatar consumes about as much electricity as your average Brazilian.

In a comment on this post, Sun’s Dave Douglas takes the calculations another step, translating electricity consumption into CO2 emissions. (Carbon dioxide, he notes, “is the most prevalent greenhouse gas from the production of electricity.”) He writes: “looking at CO2 production, 1,752 kWH/year per avatar is about 1.17 tons of CO2. That’s the equivalent of driving an SUV around 2,300 miles (or a Prius around 4,000).” 

So while Anuradha was correct to emphasise the fact that meetings in OneClimate Island in Second Life will not result in any travel related carbon emissions (which is not to be scoffed at), it also seems to be true just using Second Life has a very real environmental footprint.

Or does it?

Carr’s findings are hotly contested in the comments and read in particular the comment by Markus Breuer on May 19, 2007 at 5:49 AM.

Whatever the case, I’ve long since argued that Second Life holds great potential, in the right circumstances, for Online Dispute Resolution (ODR). 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.

Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) in Second Life

eJustice Centre

e-justice centre (get Second Life coordinates / slurl here)

From Bill Warters comes news of a superb new ODR initiative in Second Life. Created by  the Portuguese Ministry of Justice in cooperation with the University of Aveiro and the Faculty of Law of the Lisbon New University, this tour de force pushes the envelop in ODR in its use of Second Life.

The e-justice centre provides mediation and arbitration services for avatars resident in Second Life, focusing on conflicts deriving from consumer relations and contracts signed between parties. More on the process it employs to resolve disputes here and below is a 9 minute video of the centre:

As I said would be the case with mobile phones and ODR way back in 2004, Second Life as a platform holds great potential for ODR systems, dealing with both real world disputes as well as in-game / sim disputes.  A presentation I gave at the 5th International Forum on Online Dispute Resolution in Liverpool, England earlier this year explored these ideas in more detail (I was the only one in the entire Forum who spoke about Second Life and its potential for ODR).

Combine this with aspects of sims conducive to dispute resolution as brought out in my post Second Life – Business, ODR, Language and Peace and you begin to see the potential of Second Life to foster ODR mechanisms.

The e-justice centre follows in the foot steps of Harvard’s CyberOne, which also uses Second Life, though the emphasis of CyberOne is on teaching (there are also other examples of similar initiatives)  whereas the e-justice centre is a fully functioning dispute resolution presence within Second Life.

To me, this is a harbinger of things to come that I hope will be picked up and explored in more detail at the up coming  6th International Forum on Online Dispute Resolution in Hong Kong.

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