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, 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.