Monday, March 27, 2006

Democracy Island: A World of Boat People?


Democracy Island is a group of islands in Second Life, a privately owned, virtual world created in 2003 by San Francisco-based Linden Lab. People enter Second Life (SL) using "avatars," digital representations of themselves that may or may not bear any resemblance to their real appearance. (Some avatars have antennae or wings). Although the graphics look like those of a sophisticated computer game, a spokesperson for Linden Labs noted that SL is not "a video game, we call ourselves a platform.... It's a creative tool to build and do whatever you want." Although access is free, people must pay to buy land in SL and there are certain hardware requirements and software downloads necessary to enter the virtual world.

Democracy Island was first opened to the public in 2005. It is a creation of the Do Tank, a program of the Institute for Information Law and Policy at New York Law School. Democracy Island seeks to overcome some of the difficulties of civic participation by offering an online space that can be conveniently accessed from home or work to create a virtual town hall or fair ground where civic groups, citizens, and government agencies can meet and discuss public issues.

However, who will Democracy Island's visitors actually be? Will visitors to Democracy Island be active real-world citizens who learn how to navigate SL because they are interested in the island as a civic tool or will visitors be high-tech enthusiasts already familiar with SL who are only mildly interested in democracy? More importantly, although system requirements for SL are now "more in line with new [personal] computers that are coming out," how many people who are not already immersed in high-tech will feel comfortable entering a virtual world?

This problem becomes more grave when one considers the developing world, arguably the place where innovative democracy-building tools are most needed. Current statistics tell us that outside Europe and North America, internet penetration rarely rises about 15% of any given population. However, anecdotal evidence indicates that, with the help of internet cafes, citizens of developing countries are ever increasing their acess to the internet. This is particularly true of young people in urban areas where, even in very poor countries, teenagers have e-mail accounts and use internet chat programs. Even if their access is much less frequent than in developing countries, they are still part of the internet generation.

In addition, most countries that are developing economically are also developing politically. It is in these countries, especially those with limited freedom of assembly, where a digital space for political meetings would be extremely useful. In countries like Iran or Cuba, which harrass opposition organizers, an anomymous digital space to hold meetings and meet with sympathizers and supporters from other countries would be invaluable.

However, to download the program and access SL it is necessary to own a new-model computer, no great feat for a citizen of the developed world, but a relative rarity among most of the world's citizens. What a great tragedy it will be if the revolutionary potential of Democracy Island remains inaccessible to the people who would benefit from it the most, if the few of the rich world are able to participate and the rest of the world's citizens are religated to the position of "boat people," kept far from the island's shores by the program's hardware and software requirements.

Certainly part of what makes Democracy Island exciting and innovative is the quality of the SL digital world, which necessarily has certain requirements for cache, RAM, etc. However, can the kernel of the Democracy Island idea be transferred to a more accessible space, a simple website, for example? The loss of image quality and animation complexity would correlate directly to an increase in accessiblity for the majority of the world's citizens, and then Democracy Island really could change the world.

Sources:
Do Tank's Democracy Island Homepage
Online Virtual World Is Part Fantasy, Part Civics Experiment in InternetWeek
Avatars Among Us in Wired
Second Life on Wikipedia
Internet Usage Statistics by Internet World Stats


categories: redefining democratization_, the "developing" world_

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