A Note on Second Life and Political Participation

The Danish blogger and journalist Henrik Føhns talks some sense about the hyped virtual world Second Life as it is in a commentary on the newspaper Information‘s online community Luftskibet. Here is a translation of a key passage that speaks directly to the issue of political participation:

“Why would someone spend time logging into a graphic world that moves slowly and in fits, flying in slowmotion with a badly drawn persona towards a screen, when one can get the same information considerably faster via an ordinary web site? [he is writing about Reuters on Secondlife] Because we are suppossed to meet other avartars and socialize with them … The problem is, however, that the four million users either haven’t logged on or are currently preoccuping themselves at a strip club or a nudist beach having some sort of kinky sex. Those places happen to be the only places where one can find more than two avartars.”

The bleeding obvious but hugely important criticism of idealizations of the technical possibilities for participation in any media, on any platform, is that it not only takes the mediation that constitutes the participant as such relative to something that she participates in, simple interactive technology. It also takes participants if it is to be political, as in ‘collective action in concert’. Otherwise, it is just you and the state, more akin to E-government (‘have you talked to your state today?’) than E-democracy (‘have you done something with other online citizens today?’). This is one of the dangers of the proliferation of hundreds of interactive and purportedly participatory initiatives online and offline, hosted by state, regional, and local government – it can fragment the critical mass that citizens engagement takes to become political. If everything is interactive, designed like the door in Kafka ‘just for you’, and every site and institution tries to pull you (person of the year, not ‘us’ or some other group) into a sticky, participatory techno-culture, you won’t find sustained and consequential engagement anywhere.

In a sense, this is an even more tragic scenario than the mass media one where Neil Postman feared we where ‘amusing ourselves to death’. This is one where even those who get engaged does so to the detriment of their potential for actually making a difference, gets siphoned off into fiddling even though they really set out to put out one of the fires burning in Rome. It is more akin to the ‘tyranny of participation’ some argue is rampant within development policy. You get a lot of para-ticipation (as in para-normal), and no participation.

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