Bostonians should be engaged in first life

by Beacon Staff • December 12, 2007

Our View: The Internet excludes too many from true civic duty.,As if Boston city officials weren't living in enough of a dream world, a tech-savvy sect of city employees-with the help of Emerson students-recently began building an elaborate digital model of the City on a Hill for the Internet "community" Second Life.

The simulated "Boston" is being touted as a space where "digital environments and networks[...]strengthen real-world spaces and relationships," according to the project's Web site, dubbed "Hub2."

The project is presented as an innocuous foray into a burgeoning online community. But at its most basic level it makes assumptions about community involvement that betray an elitist mentality.

Simply put, the venture is like too many public projects of late; it is designed for Internet users, and only these users will ever see its meager benefits. Though Forbes last year put Boston at number 13 on its list of "Most Wired Cities," broad swaths of the Boston population are still without home Internet access. The people who most desperately need representation in public works projects won't find it here, because they can't afford broadband.

A word, for those Bostonians and others among the uninitiated, about Second Life. The host of Hub2 is a four-year-old Internet network, like Facebook or MySpace, but more detailed. Its users are represented not by drunken party photos, but by complex digital recreations of themselves.

Of course, these avatars are often modified to be thinner, blonder, more attractive stand-ins which are allowed to interact as real humans would, but in a digitally-enhanced physical terrain.

Second Life's users, or "residents," as they prefer to be called, create that terrain themselves and govern it as they see fit. Proponents say that this is the ultimate realization of democracy in action.

Surely, some would say, there's nothing more American than democracy, and no city more American than Boston.

Essentially, Hub2 is Boston's attempt to create an avatar for itself.

Its aim is to forge a body double for the entire city in which government officials will have a clear blueprint of the public vision for a perfect Boston, based on how users see the collectively-imagined Utopia.

What Hub2's engineers fail to realize is that, even if the digital vision is ever completed, it will represent only the collective will of a remarkably small group, limited not only to wired Bostonians, but to those who want to take the time to meaningfully participate.

The project is further evidence of a peculiarly American epidemic, one whose victims can't seem to untangle the Internet and the real world. For a generation coming of age in a digital environment, a counterfeit simulacrum of a city seems good enough. But then again, if the online world at all correlated to reality, Tila Tequila would be President of the United States.

So what does come out of an initiative like this?

At least two things: a class full of Emerson students get their feet in the door of Boston government, and a clutch of Hub officials get to give themselves a thorough pat on the back.

Because Hub2 is to true community action what Second Life is to reality: a weak, illusory duplicate, built to placate people who will never get a chance to contribute anything substantial.