Thursday, October 24, 2013

We the People: Digital Civilizations

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By Greg Bayles, graphic remixed from Luc Legay
I've been getting more and more interested in the idea of digital civilizations, so I wanted to throw out some of the thoughts that I've had over the past couple of days. Earlier in the week, I completed a book preview on Jane McGonigal's Reality is Broken, and while I found a lot of really useful information, I think the most influential for me has been just a couple lines from a NYT book review. William Saletan remarks, "The Internet isn’t heaven. It isn’t hell, either. It’s just another new world. Like other worlds, it can be civilized." Now obviously my interest in digital civilizations predisposed me to be way more excited about this than perhaps the average person, but for me, Saletan's words came as a powerful reminder about a concept that I've held dear for years: we are the creators of our realities.

Now, this idea wasn't necessarily anything new. In a recent blog post, I wrote about the digital world as the "new frontier" or awaiting civilization and suggested that virtual civilizations are the heirs apparent to the cultural wealth of the American 'Empire.' I'm not sure that I really explained what I meant, though, with regard to this idea of a terra nova. In short, I think there will be a time when digital states evolve on the Internet. We're already seeing some inchoate forms of government and some rather developed and interesting economies, and if Jane McGonigal is right in saying that reality is broken, then it's only a matter of time until people start resorting to virtual arenas in pursuit of rights and expression. What that means is that we'll see the development of formal online government, civil offices, ownership laws (copyright and virtual property ownership), judiciary bodies, and a number of other essential elements of government. Obviously, there are still some wrinkles to iron out conceptually, like the incapacity to punish criminality or to protect the physical livelihood of virtual citizens, but in other regards, the foundations are already in place for the emergence of virtual civilizations that transcend physical borders and unite like-minded people from around the world.

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By Greg Bayles, graphic remixed from Wiki Creative Commons
Some of my recent research has, in fact, revealed that the idea of virtual nations is already taking root in certain communities. For example, on bitcointalk.org, one Bitcoin user suggested that in maintaining a currency distinct from other world currencies, the Bitcoin community had already defined itself as an independent nation (as distinguished from a state). He wrote, "Currencies have always represented a nation and I think that we ARE a nascent nation, albeit a virtual one, a legitimate one nevertheless." Another user on the same thread spoke of Bitcoin users as virtual "homesteaders," and the aforementioned user later called for "native products" and "national industry" as means of stabilizing the volatile virtual currency.

Other online communities, like those of EVE Online and the Entropia Universe, have complex political and social systems. EVE, for example, has a real-life elected council that meets with the game designers twice a year to address player concerns and wishes, and within the game itself, there exists an intricate system of factions, political parties, and interest groups. Aside from that, it boasts an NPC (non player character) police force in addition to various factional player police forces and has it's own historical records that chronicle the fictional and real-life history of the galactic universe. The point is, the foundations of governance and social order already exist in many of these digital worlds, and the citizens of these virtual civilizations have shown their grit in carving out cities and nations and intergalactic federations from the digital wilderness.

Rather than anathematizing video games and virtual realms as base and 'savage,' we need settlers who will actively shape the digital frontier for good. Rather than complaining that digital worlds are mindless and violent, maybe we need to be the ones to find out how we can make them thoughtful and exalting.