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Solving Real World Problems in a Virtual World: The World Economic Forum in Second Life

As the World Economic Forum comes to Second Life on January 26, yet another cultural milestone will be broken. Maybe it will even translate to real world positive results, and who can argue with that?
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As the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland comes to Second Life on January 26, it's time to embrace the creative side of the next digital divide and realize--for better or worse--that an irrevocable change in global society has taken place. The theme of this year's forum is "Shaping the Global Agenda: The Shifting Power Equation," and so it isn't surprising that Second Life would be included in the four-day power summit.

"The idea that the world is in transition is not new, but in 2007 we can see much more clearly the dimensions of change and the consequences for business," said Ged Davis, Managing Director and Head of the Forum's Centre for Strategic Insight. As a result, the organization will expand the conversation to include the blogosphere, internet and virtual reality, which contains the seeds of an elevated form of communication, free from the perceptions and misperceptions created by race, gender, age and relative beauty, among other factors.

The truth is that when people join forces for any new venture, problems arise immediately, and that has been true recently of Second Life, which is a mishmash of anonymous avatars acting out their fantasies and creating new "lives" as well as actual people, such as the intellectual, political and business leaders who will be interviewed in Second Life regarding the World Economic Forum. How are reporters supposed to effectively cover Second Life news when so many issues regarding identity are still in question?

How it all plays out could have a lingering effect on the journalistic ethics of covering "virtual reality," where real people are meeting, conducting business and coming together to discuss global crises--as well as to play games of sexual dominance and submission, test-run their dreams, and overcome the constraints of the physical self. It's a mixed bag, just like real life, and that might be part of the reason why Second Life (unlike, say, the far more popular World of Warcraft, which is clearly a "massively multiplayer online role-playing game" and not a user-created parallel reality) has failed to take root in the mainstream even while increasingly sophisticated cultural milestones continue to be broken on a consistent basis.

Journalists have already started to explore the ethical dilemma associated with an avatar's privacy, thanks to a recent debacle involving one of Second Life's most famous residents, Anshe Chung, who attempted to bully journalists into eliminating all references to her past as an escort before she became the world's first virtual millionaire, she claims, by selling developed virtual real estate to avatars.

The electronic conflict that ensued (I was one of the journalists on the receiving end of Anshe Chung's pointed missives) raises a serious question: Is there an identity split between an avatar and the person who creates it? Anshe Chung, like a handful of other avatars, doesn't have the benefit of anonymity enjoyed by almost all avatars in Second Life. She is the avatar of Ailin Graef, wife of Guni Greenstein (avatar of Guntram Graef), and has become a public figure who doesn't want the real people in her actual community to know about her history as a virtual escort.

Second Life, for those of you who don't know (three months ago I'd never heard of it myself) is a virtual world, where you create and control every aspect of your "avatar," which is a character that represents you, rents or owns property, creates friendships and castles and, in theory, makes your dreams come true--virtually. In real-life you might be in a wheelchair, but in Second Life you can become a tennis star. There's a path from point A to point B and so on, just as in real life. You can't just wish for something to happen--you have to invent or discover a way to make it so.

Most curious explorers, having read about Second Life in a magazine or on the internet, visit once or twice but their virtual lives never take root in this strange new land of simulated Amsterdam and sex clubs. So what? It doesn't matter what most people aren't doing. Those pioneers who are pushing Second Life to the next level are operating in strange and fascinating ways, and their work is worthy of thoughtful investigation.

Reuters was quick to grasp the complexity of this new frontier, and Adam Pasick (the journalist behind the avatar Adam Reuters) was named Reuters' SL Bureau Chief. He rapidly saw the appeal of the assignment, he told me while visiting my virtual home this week. He said he has "never looked back."

During the World Economic Forum, Adam Reuters will be conducting interviews in Second Life with world leaders and other notable figures, including Arianna Huffington, whose avatar, Arianna Hera, visited my virtual home the very day she was born into Second Life to discuss the world of possibilities presented by this intriguing new three-dimensional medium.

Of course, the worst characteristics and darkest undercurrents of human nature abound in Second Life--but the potential for significant advancement should not be discounted simply because some aspects of virtual reality are difficult to reconcile with real worldviews. The sexual element, naturally, tends to steal the limelight at unexpected times, such as when Anshe Chung's story took its controversial turn.

I spoke with several journalists, including Stephen Hutcheon of Australia's Sydney Morning Herald, who recently squared off with Anshe Chung and her husband, both of whom are furious because they don't believe that journalists and columnists should discuss her past as an escort (or touch an incident during which "griefers" successfully stopped a CNET interview by means of a replicating phallus).

Hutcheon pointed out that Anshe Chung's history is well known in Second Life, which presents, for her, the kind of problems young job seekers might face when prospective employers find their former MySpace posts about drunken sprees--complete with photographic evidence.

Role-playing is a major part of Second Life, especially for those who aren't tied to their real-world identities and have the opportunity to create a persona--a luxury enjoyed by Anshe Chung before she was famous. The habit is widespread. I've interviewed corporate executives who are slaves not only to progress, but eventually to virtual masters as well. Several have claimed that it's almost necessary to start off in Second Life learning how to dance on poles and laps in order to move like an actual human and not an animated robot. Great escorts are adept at seamless role-playing, which requires the special skills that form a foundation for the evolving creative process.

Philip Linden (the avatar of SL founder and CEO Philip Rosedale) told me that people get fascinated at first by the sexual elements of Second Life but many swiftly move to more intellectual and creative pursuits. This seems clearly true of Anshe Chung, who reacted to the pressure of scrutiny by contacting attorneys and then firing off outrageous emails that could damage her real reputation far more than anything her avatar might have done in the past.

The question of virtual anonymity is captured perfectly in the cautionary tale of Anshe Chung. But is the warning meant for the avatars or for the journalists who write about them? Xeni Jardin of BoingBoing (who also faced off with the Chinese entrepreneur) established contact between various journalists so we could discuss this unusual situation and try to make sense of it, not only because of Anshe Chung's reaction, but because this won't be the last time the boundaries of fair (or even lawful) reporting will be ambiguous. As serious global issues such as the World Economic Forum begin to appear in Second Life, these questions aren't just merely frivolous.

Is an avatar's life really private? Every conversation can be saved. Video can capture every move. A Linden Lab spokesperson, speaking on behalf of the company that founded Second Life, has suggested that the taking of pictures and video in Second Life be governed by the same rules as those taken in real life.

In some cases, it's plausible that an avatar might have a completely different value system than the person who created her. An avatar might be so deeply entrenched in the game of role-playing that assigning ownership of her actions would be like arresting someone for playing Colonel Mustard if it turned out that he was the candlestick-brandishing murderer in the library during a round of Clue. Second Life is a user-created "reality." Why should you bother showing up as yourself? But then again, why shouldn't you?

Is Second Life just a game, or is it an unprecedented opportunity for serious individuals looking to expand social and creative consciousness?

If can be both, which would really do wonders to sever one of the heaviest shackles on humanity: repression. Geographical barriers, already undermined by electronic communication, could be eroded. But it's going to take a whole new way of thinking in order for meaningful communicate to bloom into true liberation of the spirit. In a fearful world of war, corruption, religious conflict, culture war, ignorance and climate change, it's refreshing to see a glimmer of intimacy and true connection between an offbeat band of creative thinkers hoping to approach, as well as contribute to, the world in a brand new way.

As the World Economic Forum comes to Second Life on January 26, yet another cultural milestone will be broken. Maybe it will even translate to real world positive results, and who can argue with that?

Read more from Rita about Second Life at www.eurekadejavu

For more Davos coverage -- including news, videos, and blog posts -- visit the Davos Conversation site.