Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Chamber Muzak

Yesterday, as The Los Angeles Times describes in "House panel takes a whirl in virtual world," the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet held a session in Second Life. I wasn't there, unlike Virtualpolitik pal Sarah "Intellagirl" Robbins, but I did watch archived video of the hearing, although I was disappointed that they only showed the "live" RL version of the footage. Chairman Edward Markey opened the hearing by recognizing a group of cerebral palsy patients who were using the virtual environment to "run" and "fly." Markey also listed a range of areas in which Congress may eventually have regulatory interest: commerce, communication, education, and culture among them.

Unfortunately, many other members of Congress rehashed some of the same generalizations about digital culture that were trotted out on an almost weekly basis during the period of Republican control. For example, those who remember the "SonicJihad" fiasco in Congress, may find the statements of Jane Harman familiar.

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice) expressed fears that the virtual worlds -- which attract members from around the world -- may provide cover for terrorists looking to recruit members. She cited a British newspaper report, published last year, that suggested that radical Islamic terrorists may be infiltrating Second Life.

"There's a huge plus side to this, and then there is a huge possible downside to this," she said. "I am not advocating censorship, but I am asking what we can do in clear-eyed fashion to make certain that these glorious tools are not abused."

Harman also talked about her "virtual office" on her website, which I have written about in the forthcoming Virtualpolitik book, in ways that indicate little understanding of interactivity and procedural rhetoric. She also mentioned online language-training programs for soldiers like Tactical Iraqi, which I have also written about. She seemed to confuse SL with MMO games like World of Warcraft, as did Congressman John Shimkus, who compared it to Runescape.

There were also familiar anxieties expressed about Internet "addiction" expressed by Bart Stupak.

Republican Congressman Cliff Stearns emphasized the potential for "egregious" criminality in virtual worlds and suggested that his Democratic colleagues may wish to stay in the digital environment forever and cede power to their opposition. Although Stearns did post video from the hearing on his website, he also didn't include any of the screen capture from in-world.

Not surprisingly, I suppose, little was said about the proprietary character of this software. Only Representative Doyle pointed out that there were virtual worlds that might compete with the Linden Labs product and controversies about digital rights, bandwidth, and -- by extension -- net neutrality.

None pointed out SL's problems with communitarian or political organization, which those who complain about its "emptiness" as an urban environment often do.

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