Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Extropians' Delayed Democracy

The Extropians are one of Second Life's newer communities and have been one of the fastest growing. They launched with their first sim, Extropia Core, in November 2007 and have since expanded to six with more in the pipeline. The Extropians are united by a belief in a positive future and excited by transhumanist concepts such as the Singularity and the potential for technology to extend and enhance our lives. Prokofy Neva, droll as ever, has labelled them "the brain-uploaders". Extropia launched with an Avatar Bill of Rights, a Covenant and the promise of elections and a 'limited constitutional democracy'. It hasn't gone quite like that though and I don't think we can say that the Extropians have joined the community of democratic virtual micronations, at least not yet. But the reasons why they have not taken this path are fascinating in themselves and present questions that the Confederation of Democratic Simulators (CDS) and others need to consider.

I'll confess I have a soft spot for the Extropians. I like their positive attitude towards the future and the possibilities that it holds. It's refreshing to meet people who think that things will actually be better in the future and who reject the dystopian projections of much sci-fi. They're also a refreshing antidote to the apocalyptic environmentalists who tell us that the planet is going to burn if we don't all adopt a hair-shirt lifestyle, right now! I've recently read Michio Kaku's "Parallel Worlds" on the back of his BBC 4 programme "Visions of the Future" and I find his enthusiasm for technology and the potential benefits to humans to be very infectious. So, I was intrigued to see that the Extropians would be forming themselves along democratic lines. This was especially interesting to me, as a citizen of the CDS, because it appeared that the Extropians had never heard of us! I'd always imagined that other democratic communities would come out of splits within the CDS; to find a new one emerging with no knowledge of our past was pretty exciting.

Their original plan was that each sim would elect a 'Node' who would primarily have dispute-resolution powers. I was never entirely clear what else the nodes would do or what their relationship to the Board of Directors would be but, it seemed like a start and the beginnings of a form of government that could evolve in a more democratic and participatory direction. But the Extropians have not taken this path, the nodes won't be elected any time soon and 'benign dictatorship' - the dominant model of government in Second Life - seems to be the result that the community has asked for.

I spoke to Sophrosyne Stenvaag, creator of Extropia Core,  Director of Marketing & External Relations/ Acting Director of Citizen Relations who told me that the fact that there were problems with their planned model emerged at their first Town Hall meeting. The vast majority of residents wanted the unelected Board to get on with making decisions and expanding the sims and did not want to put time and energy into elections etc. One or two residents disagreed and wanted there to be a formal, legalistic democratic structure; they ended up leaving the project, the only departures so far.

I think it's fascinating that democracy ended up detracting from the Extropians' mission and was ultimately rejected by the community, at least for the time being. The majority felt that a political process, and the consequent division into factions and an adversarial format for decision-making, would be fatal at this early stage in their development. The Extropians have understood, perhaps subconsciously, that they need to consolidate their 'civil society' institutions first and truly build a community before they entertain the trappings of a formal political process which will necessarily involve division and some disagreement.

Extropian civil society is certainly quite well-developed. Sophrosyne's Saturday Salons have attracted a number of stimulating speakers and a substantial audience. Last Sunday's lecture on Religion, Spirituality and the Avatar with guest speaker Robert Geraci/Soren Ferlinghetti managed to be both self-referential in the way that many SL events are while also connecting to a real life 'big picture' issue - religion - and intelligently examined the potential for cultural exchange in both directions. A science fiction book club is about to get off the ground. Civil rights are protected to some extent by the Charter of Civil Rights (which acknowledges its debt to Desmond Shang's Caledon).

I think this raises some interesting questions for those of us who are committed to democratic self-government in virtual worlds. Is democracy invariably 'a good thing' or is it possible that it is more appropriate at a later stage in community development rather than at the very start? If so, how does one make the transition from benign dictatorship to genuine democracy? Do communities need democratic self-government to fulfill their purpose or does it sometimes get in the way? Is it important to develop a thriving civil society first and then make the transition to democracy? I can see why this latter approach would make sense. A community that has learned to work together and play together without the disputes involved in 'politics' is one which is more likely to have high levels of trust among the participants. Trust is vital if people are to work together and yet it is such a fragile commodity in a virtual world where pseudonymous avatars meet on the internet - you may well not be who you say you are and 'you' may be several people who all pretend to be different.

It also confirms for me that, within the context of Second Life, there's a question mark over democracy as the ends rather than the means. In the CDS we have tended to see democracy as our purpose rather than as a means for making decisions and resolving conflicts. That has meant that we have occasionally been 'Democracy Sim' - a special type of role-play sim where (some) residents play at being legislators and debate the ideal Constitution. Over two years of active participation in the CDS political process I have observed far more energy being put into this kind of discussion than into expanding the CDS territory or taking the community forward in other ways.

Other communities have adopted a different path with democracy clearly identified as the process rather than the goal. In future articles I want to explore their experiences and draw lessons from them. In particular I want to consider the Cedar Island community, which has used a form of consensus decision-making to guide its development, and the academic and government entrants to Second Life such as SciLands, which use a democratic board structure to govern themselves.

I also wish the Extropians well. It would be great to see them evolve democratic institutions when they feel ready for them and to see what a future-focussed, ultra-modern democratic process could look like. It could be an opportunity to rethink the democratic process using the tools available to the 21st century rather than the 18th century and innovate in ways not considered before.


dyerbrookME said...

Ugh ugh ugh.

See how Extropianism infects young minds? Patroklus, go and drink a cup of simmered milk, half tsp of baking soda, 1 tbs of honey immediately, you have been poisoned.

You would think these grand ideas are "new" and not...Bolshevism.

Real life has any number of real examples of people thinking just these silly things. Oh, the Chinese for example. "Let's not have democracy, let's have industry and economic reform first, and then weave democracy in later."

Or, the Russians. "Let's pull back on this negative free media and manage democracy and build up the country and put in democracy later, when we have the luxury."

This "democracy deferred" argument is used thousands of times a day in Africa, Asia, and even in American public schools or offices. "Give the new boss a chance to get his sealegs before making any employee demands, he must first establish peace over troubled waters."

East Timor. Sierra Leone. These are all stories of "let's not have too much justice and human rights and prosecution, let's have peace first then weave that stuff in later."

But process is important. This happy little group of brain-uploading campers have a cult, not a civil society. It's easy to get people in a little grouplet with cultic ideas to be very mobilized and gungho. I mean, the North Vietnamese, the North Koreans, the Cambodians, the Belarusians, the whoever in their day, could mobilize wild-eyed populations to "build the society" and kill people along the way.

Mobilizing people to build something isn't civil society. Civil society protects minorities, is tolerant of other viewpoints, does not prosecute dissent, has a plurality of voices. To pretend you are building civil society by having your grouplet raise a barn on a sim is hopefully naive and frankly even destructive, because it makes people take a falsehood for a lie. It's not civil. It can't talk to people unless they are coerced into being in the tribe.

Your lovely friend Sophrosyne pre-banned me, before I even knew who she was, in hours-long meetings ,in which she decided, in tribal fashion like a queen bee, that if I was critical of her big friend Duranske, also a brain-uploader, that she must ban me. Silly, insecure freaks.

Neultenberg had strong personalities like Gwyn and Ulrika to keep the tribe together, and there wasn't much adversarial there to deal with at first, and they had factions eventually, and it still collapsed. Any society that isn't under the rule of law with separation of powers and liberal democracy with accountability will indeed follow the same route.

The idea that you "build a community" because you build a sect, a commune with sectarians, is hugely destructive. Communes are not communities. Communities are people who have learned how to manage differences and protect minorities.

Prokofy Neva

Ashcroft Burnham said...

Starting with a solid non-democratic community with a thriving economy and then making it democratic in increments worked for the UK; it might also work for SecondLife, too, both on the micro and macro levels.

Vidal Tripsa said...

Thanks for an interesting article, Mr. Murakami! It is a shame, however, that a gentle exercise in... well, play, I suppose, manages to get so misunderstood at times. I refer to Mr. Neva's comment, not your article, mind.

We started out with a system just like you said, although experience suggested over time that it may be more fun to let things progress a bit more organically. A balance somewhere between our own visions and those that new and interested residents come to offer, I suppose.

I'm not especially politically-minded, and so have little to say on the ins and outs of what our governing system may appear to be. However, one thing becomes painfully clear in comments like Prokofy's - there's a line between creating a world for people to be a part of (by that I mean something that's not just a Grid co-ordinate for people to meet at), and pushing for some genuine movement for change with, say, transhumanism as one possible medium.

For one thing, we're not active transhumanists. We're glad of the SL Transhumanists' presence here, as after all it refers to one future of many. On a personal level, though, I have no intention of 'uploading my brain', and nor do I wish for anyone to think coming to Extropia means signing up to go through with this. Many have come to Extropia and found sound ideals in trnashumanism thanks to the consultations and meetings here, but these are not what the world as a whole is about. Our goals are broader than that.

Put simply, I believe Extropia is an experiment in many things, and doubtless the way it is governed will mould and remould over time too. This is, I suppose, part of the reason I often don't have a clue what to say when asked how it 'works' here. I can say this, though: all that unites us are the principles you mentioned: positive future-thinking, having fun in a place where digital identity is good enough for us, and providing places for others to join in. Whatever political system may best it around that is what I hope we can adopt should we need to. We're exploring these new ideas just as much as anyone else.

~ Vidal Tripsa, Extropian

Sophrosyne Stenvaag said...

@ Patroklus - Thank you for this insightful and even-handed review of our progress. I enjoyed our conversation immensely, and I think our dialog will enrich our community as it develops.

@Ashcroft - That's an interesting analogy, and it accords with a thread that came out of my conversation with Pat.

I think it especially holds true in an environment without the politics of resource allocation, and with free movement: community in SL isn't based in the forced circumstance of being neighbors or in the forced need to allocate limited resources, two of the key bases of atomic-world political entities.

*Wanting* to be a community from the experiences of working and playing together seems to be a natural precursor to efforts to *manage* the community, absent those pressures.

I encourage you to attend our Salon this Saturday, March 22, at 1pm SLT - our guest will be DavidOrban Agnon of Vulcano, a very laissez-faire community of creatives that's doing some fantastic work.

Vulcano's a very different model from either Extropia or the CDS, and their experiences should be enlightening.

dandellion Kimban said...

good post, you raise a lot of importat questions here.

As a citizen of Extropia I am not about to play modern democracy. As long as the board is doing a nice job of managing the sim it is waste of time and energy, both citizen's and theirs, to make elections and all the other modern democracy processes. After all, I came here to have a base, place to sit, meet friends, organize small event, build or whatever. Not to play voting game with twenty more people.

It is much more efficient to spend that time in keeping in touch with citizens and do some real work. Sure, that's easy to do when citizens count a dozen or two. Even if there was a hundred citizens, everything is easy to be organized in classic democracy way. make a regular town hall, or agora, and let reasonable people make the best decisions.

There is one more thing that has to be taken into consideration. Unlike meatspace country, SL communities are private enterprises. Somebody is paying LL for the sims. And, if that enterprise is not run well, nothing stops me or any other resident to pack its prims and move elsewhere. Community leaders are silently blackmailed. make enough bad decisions and you'll left six (or more) empty sims to pay tier for. Whoever runs a community have an obligation to do it good. Not only to its residents but for themselves.

After all, SL is a great place for experimenting. We are experimenting with modern democracy in first life. And, let's be honest, we are going that way just because we cannot think of something better, or, at least, less bad. So it's nice to use SL as a sandbox for some other ways that might spring ideas. Sure, we have to have in mind all the differences. SL, beside being private enterprise, offers possibility to easily move and even to start own community and try one more way to lead it.

Patroklus Murakami said...

Dyerbrook/Prok -
I agree that the 'democracy deferred' argument is a lousy one in the real world. It is the argument used by despots the world over to justify the monopoly of power by an elite and should be condemned. But a lot of the features of the real world do not apply in Second Life - it's far easier to up sticks in Extropia and settle elsewhere than it is to emigrate from China. The Extopians' delayed democracy really puts them in the same camp as Caledon or your own rental company Ravenglass - a certain set of rights are granted by the owner of the land along with limited use rights in return for money.

One of the lessons I drew from their experience was that in virtual communities it may make more sense in the initial stages of community formation to focus on activities that unite a group before taking the step of 'going democratic' (presumably at some optimum group size) and involving everyone in the formation of factions and division along ideological grounds. I can see some sense in that as the Neualtenburg>Neufreistadt>CDS experience has been that if you start with democracy as your purpose you fight all the time and spend a hell of a lot of time 'doing democracy' when you could be doing other things. (BTW the CDS is still going strong, it hasn't collapsed. We're at three sims and planning a fourth).

CyFishy said...

SL is not a nation-state, it's an internet service. That's something you always need to keep in mind when discussing these sorts of things.

I personally see SL as a way of 'testing out' certain forms of governance the way one can use SL to 'test out' the architecture of a building. It can give you kind of a feel for it, but it won't be a one-to-one correlation because SL does not perfectly match reality (nor should it.)

I mean face it, citizenship is entirely voluntary, can be rescinded at any time (by the Resident or by Linden Lab) and one can stop an individual from entering your 'country' without needing any kind of barrier or police force.

It seems a bit silly to be wailing "help, help, I'm being repressed" when the worst possible consequence is that your account isn't allowed to go in certain locations. It's hardly the equivalent of being jailed, beaten or killed for opposing the government.

There's also the fact that, if I understand correctly, the delay in self-governance was dictated by the people rather than to them.

Velicia said...

One thing I'd point out is that Extropia, in terms of the number of citizens, is still on the small side. It's still very easy to take concerns directly to the board, so I'm not sure if there is a need for a mediator just yet.

Project Summary said...

It would be sad indeed if "democracy" would be reduced either to a "voting game" or to "confrontational party-politcs", as some here seem to suggest. Open deliberation, inclusion of all those who wish to participate, and active community involvement in activities, events, and decision-making processes are as necessary to a modern democratic system of self-governance as elections and voting. SL political parties mirroring real-life ones are not only ineffective in SL, but downright counterproductive and, frankly, anachronistic. The true promise of SL is that of experimenting with new, more creative, more open, more efficient systems of governance -and certainly not of recreating RL institutions which emerged hundreds of years ago in Western Europe and North America and which are no longer able to fulfill their legitimating and governing functions in the real world - never mind in SL.

The problem of scale remains critical. While representative democracy may be necessary (but not sufficient) for communities with tens of millions (or even tens of thousands) of members, the same does not hold true in a community of a few dozen - or even a few hundred citizens. Delegating all decision-making power to half-a-dozen individuals and excluding the rest from meaningful participation is neither efficient nor democratic. It reduces a community into service providers and managers on one hand, and service users and consumers on the other. In an age when the economic paradigm is still dominant this is not in itself a surprising development - but it has little to do with democracy, community building, active participation and equal citizenship rights.

The Al-Andalus Caliphate is slowly but surely implementing a different, more organic model, drawing both on non-western historical models of governance and on universal principles of democracy, human rights, dignity and equality - with, as purpose, the development of creative and innovative structures of governance which can reconcile both the needs of diverse cultures and histories, and the requirements of universal principles of justice and equality.

As a first step, we have re-created a unique, historical city -Alhambra, in Al-Andalus-, with some of the best builds in SL, to both attract visitors and future citizens, and to re-create a deep sense of place and history. Al-Andalus stands now as the modern symbol of what once was the must pluralistic, multicultural, and tolerant society of the early Middle Ages. Based on this historical heritage, we have already attracted, over the past 9 months, over 260 residents and over 40 citizens with incredibly diverse national, linguistic, and religious backgrounds, who all find something unique and desirable in Al-Andalus (residence, commerce, education, entertainment, friends) - and are therefore willing to work together with others with whom they may otherwise disagree profoundly on various matters in order to advance to common project. We are currently trilingual (English, French, Spanish) and comprise five main faith-defined groups: Muslims, Christians, Jews, a Fourth group including other faiths / beliefs, as well as one Humanistic-atheist group. This allows us to both meet as equal citizens in matters pertaining to our common project, and preserve and promote our differences (cultural, religious) when it comes to specific activities and practices.

This structure draws heavily on Islamic principles of governance where the existence of an overarching Ummah (community) not only did not preclude, but was based on, the existence of non-hierarchically structured parallel groups defined by religion and ethnicity. In this manner, rather than creating a forced and false division between a public sphere which treats all citizens as equal and similar at the expense of their very real socio-cultural differences, we encourage meaningful discussion and debate across national, cultural and religious lines and greater openness and cooperation between various groups.

At this initial stage of our existence, where our community is still in a consolidation phase, where we still get to know each other and learn how to communicate with each other, and where we still only have barely 40 citizens (founders, landed, landless, merchants, volunteers), we have begun meeting in a Citizens' Council based on another Islamic principle of governance - Shurah (the assembly of all community members chaired by community founders), where issues are discussed and debated by all citizens and decisions are made by all - a form of direct democracy that allows for maximum community involvement, participation, and motivation. Starting from the bottom up, and adopting a grassroots based, non-hierarchical structure of governance, we will eventually develop, as a community, both a diverse, multicultural civil society, endowed with the institutions, procedures and values that best reflect its nature, and a system of governance that will be legitimate and effective enough to drive forward our activities and growth.

We may well set up, as we grow, our own dispute resolution institutions and even representative structures of governance to supplement (not supplant!) our direct democracy procedures; only time will tell. What is certain, however, is that we are, from the very beginning, recasting the notions of democracy, participation, diversity and citizenship in entirely new ways - meeting our present needs by drawing upon our historical past and being guided by our values and vision of the future. In this way, we hope to add a new dimension to the various self-governance experiments currently being practiced in SL (CDS, Caledon, ROMA, Extropia) and re-imagine what it means to be an active citizen in 21st century democracies shaped by both unity and diversity, equality and difference, legitimacy and efficiency, democracy and development.

Patroklus Murakami said...

"Open deliberation, inclusion of all those who wish to participate, and active community involvement in activities, events, and decision-making processes are as necessary to a modern democratic system of self-governance as elections and voting. SL political parties mirroring real-life ones are not only ineffective in SL, but downright counterproductive and, frankly, anachronistic. The true promise of SL is that of experimenting with new, more creative, more open, more efficient systems of governance -and certainly not of recreating RL institutions which emerged hundreds of years ago in Western Europe and North America and which are no longer able to fulfill their legitimating and governing functions in the real world - never mind in SL."

Hi Michel :)

Michel Manen said...

Hi Pat. Why not join Al-Alandalus and make a positive contribution? You don't need to buy land to become a citizen if you don't want to; join as a landless citizen paying a citizenship fee, as a merchant citizen renting a stall to sell your creations (I love your Japanese table and cushions!) or even as a volunteer citizen or artist citizen by volunteering some of your time and skills to the community. I'll make believer of you yet! ;))

Patroklus Murakami said...

Thanks for the offer Michel. I had intended to consider Al-Andalus later on in this series of posts so I'll be in touch to learn more about how things have worked out for you.

Michel Manen said...

Thank you. Actually, Al-Andalus has been chosen as Sim of the Month by Prim Perfect, SL's most professional magazine. You can access this month's PDF format here:


It has half-a-dozen articles on Al-Andalus: its architecture, its builders, its vision. Enjoy!