Why Parliament needs a Second Life

Last October, the popular television series, CSI NY, broke new ground, virtually, by embracing the increasingly popular online universe, Second Life. In many ways the episode was a success, as it was both entertaining and intriguing to watch television characters create new versions of themselves – called Avatars – in a plot that weaved back and forth between realities.

For those with BlackBerries and little time to spare, Second Life is a ‘3-D virtual world created entirely by its residents.’ It’s a bastion of free expression and creativity, and the latest online nightmare for parents (rendering all but futile the traditional punishment of grounding, unless accompanied by virtual restrictions). This world has over ten million residents and counting, but how that translates into real persons, well nobody really knows.

Last year, several Dutch politicians made history by undertaking the first formal delegation into Second Life, in the run up to the November 2006 national elections. Candidates – in their respective Avatar forms (complete with real world partisan identification) – toured this new world and engaged in discussion forums and a press conference with virtual residents (each representing, one presumes, a real voter).

There is an easy-to-find video on You Tube that showcases this experiment. In a further sign of the times, Berlin became the first city to replicate itself in three dimensions on Google Earth, and many cities are following suit.

One intriguing aspect of Second Life is the absence of democracy. The world is antithetical to dictatorship however, since people interact freely, create what they want, and more or less do as they please. There are communities to join, there’s land to buy, and there’s commerce – plenty of it. Many real companies have even turned to Second Life for opportunities such as retail advertising and employee recruiting.

Yet, there really is no politics to be found. Perhaps, then, this column should be entitled, Why Second Life needs a Parliament. Although why Avatars need a Parliament is not, for the moment anyway, obvious. At least one member of the European Parliament has opened a Second Life office and readily admits that few people come, but adds that in time every politician will set up shop – virtually.

The more important matter at hand is what Second Life says about our future in real-time, where the functioning of our democratic institutions matters greatly.

Is Second Life a harmless distraction from the real world or can it, and other online venues, be leveraged to reenergize political life?

The only way to answer this question is to ask ourselves how our current Parliament must adapt to an increasingly networked and multi-dimensional world. A small minority might counter that no such question is required, that throne speeches, spin doctors, and politicians showing up to not vote against what they are against are all features of a system in no danger of losing legitimacy. Many others may beg to differ.

As a consequence, democratic experimentation with new technologies and virtual realities is growing, and becoming the focus of more serious attention. British think tank, the Hansard Society, recently released a report on the Parliament of the Future, exploring the digital potential to revive and strengthen democracy. The project is based on an incubator group of 100 organizations from all sectors who freely contributed ideas and proposals.

British Parliamentarians are already beginning to respond in kind. An all-Party Commission released a report earlier this year calling for a shift away from traditional forms of mass communications in favour of new forms of online engagement based on social networking tools.

The first Ministerial blog is set to begin in early 2008, and the next election will likely bring into the House of Commons a growing cadre of younger members keen to embrace more digital experimentation.

Such changes hardly amount to a revolution, but retooling is a start. Other countries like Estonia and Japan have gone much further in rewiring (or de-wiring, as the case may be) not only government agencies but legislative processes as well.

In the future, in order to confront global issues such as climate change, virtual Parliaments will play an important role in enjoining elected officials and citizens from different countries to dialogue, learn, and craft collective strategies.
For now in the real world, as in Second Life, the space for democratic innovation in Canada is hard to find. Perhaps 2008 will offer a new beginning. Until then, best wishes for the holiday season.

Jeffrey Roy is associate professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University: Contact him at [email protected]

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