Second Life: Platform or Sieve for Africa?
The lessons we learn in virtual worlds, social networks and new media: This is what came to mind when I decided (at last!) – 12 days into 2008 – to title my first post for the year. Simply reflecting back on 2007 and the challenges faced since we entered Second Life (R) late March 2007. And then I changed my mind, as it happens in this fast-paced environment. Virtual worlds have a unique culture infused by tech-savvy, free-spirited professionals in a minute-to-minute Twitter-styled way, and changing your mind is therefore not only allowed, it is embraced…
I am now settling on another theme related to ‘relationship economics’ that captures the essence of Uthango’s ‘in-world’ time (the term used by those in the know, those who have created an avatar described by Wikipedia as ‘the incarnation (bodily manifestation) of a higher being (deva), or the Supreme Being (God) onto planet Earth’). However, before introducing the broad-stroked theme of my first entry, I am forced in this defining moment, to pause with the entire concept of an ‘avatar’ – confronted with my own beliefs, my spirituality and the creation of a pixeled animated being that represents some aspect of my personality and our business. For some, these ‘little people’ (thinking about Gulliver’s Travels’) truly act as if they *are* the incarnation of a Supreme Being, or at least ‘an untouchable’ and able to mess around and then create another account. I am sure, the platform creators, Linden Lab, also have to battle daily to shed the perception that their little Linden avatars are divine, super-human and omnipotent to miraculously fix the cracks that a creaky platform (under sheer weight!) is increasingly facing. 2008 will be the year of Second Life’s second life… in my opinion.
There is indeed ‘virtual existentialism’ then in this virtual space, when you start asking (as an avatar!): Who am I and what do I stand for? Also, what am I capable of!? This is what happens in virtual worlds: the self-reflection, the corporate analysis and then, the retention or the exit.
And then, on the other side of the spectrum, where virtual and real world integration is on the periphery of importance, you find the digital beings – like Sophrosyne Stenvaag of places such as Extropia - telling Uthango quickly and decisively that our own agenda of bringing real world (Africa) into virtual worlds and creating real world benefit (to Africans) is not at the heart of their interest to create a meaningful digital future for futuristic, digital people. Nevertheless, their support for our efforts resulted in a donation of almost L$100 000! It happens: Some avatars managed, with different measures of success, to ‘disconnect’ from their real world selves and now lead weird and wonderful separate lives in pixels, like Ina Centaur, one of the first builders/scriptors and artists I have met in Second Life and involved in the sLiterary initiative. I have enjoyed her personal reflection tremendously and yes, “Life is not only what you make out of it, but it is what you *actually* get to make!” (IC):
It is no small significance that Ina is planning a ‘year of seclusion’ for 2008 – in her own words from IC Enterprises blog: “My “Year of Seclusion (YoS)” is a social experiment wherein I remain housebound for an entire year accessing everything from grocery shopping to business meetings and conventions from the Internet”.
So, returning to introduce the real title of this post, of my thoughts: Developing an Economy of Relationships; tapping into African Sociology… and specifically, how we manage to weave our best efforts in conversation (‘listening’), technology (appropriate ‘tools’) and global awareness (‘social cohesion and social investment’). We are finding ourselves increasingly immersed in a connected world, with human interaction and networks defining and predicting our ability to cope and to progress in local and global markets. This happens daily in the lives of our clients living in poverty – this notion of ‘ubuntu’ – where ‘I am who I am, because of who we are’ and I can cope with my terrible circumstances, because we are all in it. We all cope. It defies explanation, but relates to the synchronized heart beat of development practitioners that continue to do what we do, because we are in shared conversation(s) constantly, and not always in words… but mostly by being connected invisibly through humanitarian driving forces. (It makes sense then, that an operating system with the same name is emerging to bring increasing value to Africa’s IT challenges – “Ubuntu is a community developed, linux-based operating system that is perfect for laptops, desktops and servers” and we continue to watch its development with interest, especially in relation to virtual worlds and open-sourcing”).
I read about Doc Searls, author of “The Cluetrain Manifesto” and although intended in a different context, it sounds exactly (!) like the real world I know – the local economies of Guguletu, Cradock, Masiphumelele, that we assist at grass roots level, “These markets are conversations. Their members communicate in language that is natural, open, honest, direct, funny and often shocking. Whether explaining or complaining, joking or serious, the human voice is unmistakably genuine. It can’t be faked. Most corporations, on the other hand, only know how to talk in the soothing, humorless monotone of the mission statement, marketing brochure, and your-call-is-important-to-us busy signal. Same old tone, same old lies. No wonder networked markets have no respect for companies unable or unwilling to speak as they do.
So it stands to reason: Social networks can learn a lot from African communities – at its roots, in its practices. We have seen this ‘connectedness’ in our development programmes when sixty (60) enthusiastic members of a community can mobilise more than 10 000 to inform a particular development process, at the drop of a hat with mobile and grapevine word-of-mouth street meetings.
Yet! Africa is still very much excluded in developing a global (networked) relationship economy. Resources from Africa used to build the developed world are not yet returned in the form of social and technical capital; and a scaled effort is needed to set up sufficient infrastructure and access – not only to virtual worlds (hear this please!) but to digital networks that could benefit greatly from local intelligence and could in return add much to refine local solutions. The term ‘economy without walls’ was used as title of a book on ‘relationship economy’ written by Rodget Hamlin and Thomas Lyons and I could not agree more with the synopsis: “A pragmatic, non-ideological approach to mixed economic systems is becoming the order of the day, blurring the lines between public and private, and referred to here as the “economy without walls.” Their work attempts to “synthesize an understanding of the economy without walls, distill the implications of this economy for local communities, and apply knowledge of those implications to guiding communities’ development”. I am excited to read this book, and see where/how Uthango’s experiences in local economic development match their thinking! Even more, does the community development processes in virtual worlds differ fundamentally?
I guess, not… as my own experiences have indeed been ‘blurred’ and personal relationships and connections have developed where mutual organisational gain is at stake. Professional distances had to be defined collectively (still are!)… An inability or social ineptitude to manage these intricate public/private relationships could so easily result in a malfunctioned ‘relationship economy’ and partnerships – or the potential for collaboration – fail miserably. Traditional corporate games also often raise their ugly heads and deceit (with ‘fake’ relationships with non-suspecting professionals) happens at a grand scale at the expense of the in-experienced or under-resourced. This, I have seen as well.
On the flip side, you find those relentless individuals and professionals working for themselves, in small businesses or in the corporate sector, but ‘finding their own creative voice’ on Second Life, like Grace McDunnough (SL) who inspires us with her Musimmersion vision, her touching music and her story. Grace was also the first person to sponsor a real world bicycle, made by Shukran Fahid (SL) for our [e]bizikile project and highlighted here by Yxes Delacroix (SL) of SLCN, who has been very supportive and energizing. Or iYan Writer (SL) and iAlja Writer (SL) who are pioneers in building a gateway and orientation system to virtual worlds for the people of Slovenia and assist whenever they can. Or Cybergrrl Oh, who gives so generously of her time and expertise, and deeply understand about women, business and (public) relations! These are the people that weave the hope for all of us – of collaboration and good will, or just, by being interested. There are so many individuals, that mentioning them would be a risky business – like at a wedding, where you are bound to insult some elderly aunt in a front row seat. Yet, not to start making notes may be worse… so over the next few posts we will continue to flag those special connections that make our virtual journey meaningful, and gives Uthango direction in pursuing an African Metaverse, like our interaction with JenzZa Misfit (SL) and Valradica Vale (SL) of Muse Isle or Neo Prinz (SL) of Remeta. Not to speak of the builders, artists and scriptors that assisted us in ad hoc ways to create our presence in Second Life, like Johnny Austin (SL), Eshi Otawara (SL) and Andy Enfield (SL). Or PennyWhistle Cameron who donated african wildlife (prims) to us so easily and freely, and we have had zebra and giraffes wandering on the open sim…! And last, but first in many ways.. Inworld Productions of Germany, the developers that will give life to the first phase of our Virtual Africa sim(ulated) space in Second Life in the early parts of this year.
Why an African Metaverse? Simply, because it is what we know best… the spirit of Africa, as described in ‘The African Way‘ by Mike Boon:
“The umhlangano (loosely translated as interactive cultural forums) is a community gathering, so participants can have a lot of fun. But it is also a place where they can have deep discussions. More than perhaps anything else, it is a mechanism that will drive personal accountability (to the group)…In the umhlangano one argues to build and strengthen what is being created”. Does this sound familiar? This practice *is* in my humble opinion, the African version of ‘open source’ collaboration!
This entry has a personal tint, and for good reason: The development of a relationship economy *is* in fact, personal. Very personal. There is a distinct paradox of registering an avatar to drive our ‘conversations’, our mutual resonance – be it with music, dance, building, scripting, art, chat, playing, workshops, machinima, or whatever else link us with others. These shared experiences merge with our professional agendas and we are called upon to become sense makers… or we fail and exit to find an easier way to achieve traditional bottom-line return on investment. For after all, how *do* you measure the social return on investment, the relationships formed and networks established over time?? The theory I am starting to shape in my own mind is that those companies and professionals that truly place people central in their values and operations, are able to make a smooth transition into virtual worlds, and those that are fixated on numbers (often at the expense of people) have a tough time to find the benefits of being in a virtual world. ‘Bottom-of-the-Pyramid’ companies will therefor do exceptionally well in virtual worlds. More about this much later!
Maybe this people-centered focus is the reason why the educational community is thriving and educationalists such as Maggie Marat (SL) and Fleep Turque (SL) could probably relate many examples about the way their own personal visions were enhanced serendipitously by similar-minded professionals joining from the side, creating mutual benefit. (As an aside: I have experienced Serendipity at almost every corner of my walk in Second Life and have met amazing individuals in extraordinary ways). I discovered a great picture on Fleep’s blog, referring to the Social TechnoGraphics completed by the market research company Forester:
There is certainly scope to look at the participation of Africans in comparison, and also investigate the uptake of new media in Africa. We are keen to be involved in such research study.
In my opinion, it is the values that make the educational community so strong (more than 160 institutions I am told), and the straight-forward tool of an Educators’ Digest email distribution list suggests that inclusion and access to information are some shared values. To be accepted by a community, values (defined loosely by Stephen Covey as ‘the way things should be’) need to be created and shared by a community and the educational groupings such as ISTE do an amazing, committed job to bring together people sharing (and creating!) values. I have seen the same sharing in the writers’ communities, such as The Written Word of Jilly Kidd (SL) hosted on Cookie Island, and owned by arts patron, Thinkerer Evans (SL) and also, at Athena Isle where Cybergrrl Oh (SL) gathers together the Second Life Writers Club with “weekly events with experts to help writers enhance their writing careers”. I am waiting for all of these groups, including sLiterary and others I have not heard of, to gravitate towards each other at some point in the future. It just makes sense – despite the differences in style and approach. Or, is is a question of values that differ? Or maybe, the relationships work in a way where people associate loosely with all?
In all honesty, at some level, the phrase ‘economy of relationships’ does not sit well with me; although the principle is understood and endorsed. Maybe it is related to possibly minimizing the value of people and their interactions in its purest form, and the potential to exploit these sincere humane inter-connectedness in a calculated way for personal, corporate gain or (hear this!) gaming gain. This I have seen, as well. Experienced, even. And now I know, there is a big difference between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ companies and museums, and in the future, the defining question in any of our collaborative conversations that will surface politely at some stage, will be: Who are you really?!
Yet! There is little denying the fact that these diverse relationships in networks drive the speedy progression, and that these relationships are very real and have value, even monetary value. Social networks add value due to the fact that they increase the social capital of a company and “more social capital increases productivity through higher levels of collaboration”. (Ref. Powerpoint Presentation by Volker Seubert, Sun MicroSystems 2007)
The social networks that emerge in these virtual worlds, and in networked applications such as FaceBook and social engagement tools such as Twitter, offer merely a kaleidoscope with an ever-changing view of the present and the future. Companies and organizations are socially organised and the emergence of a new form of economy, focused on relationship-building and respecting communities does bring exciting possibilities to the table. Least of these is the shift towards civil society facilitators, such as our own company, Uthango Social Investments, in order to build and engage with communities in the real world. And we are playing this role, with our passion as community engagement – allowing local voices to be heard beyond their own geography and their own plight or joys. Now the questions remain, as always: Who will listen? No. Will developers of virtual worlds listen to Africa’s plea for participation, and connect the dots between real world social networks and virtual networks? And why?
Social networks are not new to Africa. Developed countries are re-discovering age-old thruths about human connection. The dependency that Africans have always had on each other also ensured that networks are alive and well. Virtual worlds are not on the radar at all – at least not as it could be, and should be… Why? If we are creating a globally-connected metaverse, and if we are setting the scene for the next generation of platforms based on interoperability, should these socially-infused networks not be created (from the onset) with global input in terms of shared values and cultural acumen? After all, there is an entire continent that is rich with resources and in this case, not gold and diamonds or agricultural wealth, but our people – the soul of the new ‘relationship economy’. Excluding Africa (unintentionally, mostly) is building an elitist IT-driven economy in a global world; perpetuating information poverty and socio-economic disparity. The impact will be felt in a greater way in virtual worlds itself – where the world we created and the communities we belong to, have limited access to dissimilar thinking, world-views and cultural experiences. This in itself, constitutes information poverty – leading to an inability to make critical, informed decisions with regards to matters of global importance, such as political stability, global warming, international trade, intercultural understanding and above all, poverty. We have the opportunity to shape virtual worlds now… and not only at a technical level, but fundamentally as part of the philosophy of drawing on the wisdom of crowds. We have offered to collaborate with some institutions and corporations and implement pilot projects as case studies, and we hope to experience that the relationships we forged in 2007 are respected and nurtured….
After a Virtual Worlds’ Community Builders session, I shared the following insight: “In African philosophy, siriti means shade or shadow and is seen as the life-force identifying a person… the aura… it is in essence the energy or the power that makes us ourselves and unite us in a personal interaction with people around us…in Second Life, in my opinion… one’s seriti (moral weight …influence) is demonstrated so well because we are all reliant on the character and behavior of those around us… and many superficial boundaries fall away and we become a community so much more”. Indeed, an economy without walls…
So, is Second Life a platform or a sieve – when it comes to Africa?? Linden Lab and the ‘residents’ (citizens) of Second Life did in fact create a space where Africans *could* theoretically be creating as well, or Africa content be represented or the continent’s development goals served. However, it is not that platform yet… for numerous reasons – not least of all the broadband challenges faced by ordinary Africans. It *could* instead be a sieve where Africa’s interests drizzle through the little holes, straining away. Unless… we all focus attention on equaling the playing field and build relationships that benefit the continent and its people constructively by setting up a thriving virtual economy and society *and* breaking down walls – some technical – in the real world.