Saturday, January 3, 2009

I'm (Virtually) Speechless

According to the Washington Post (O Brave New World That Has Such Avatars in It! Arlington Among Entities Making a Virtual Presence, Arlington County, Virginia, has geeks hard at work creating a virtual world of government bureaucracy. As if government isn't already surrealistic enough.

Some quotes from the story:

The virtual world Second Life, a landscape of primping avatars, ballroom dancing bears, space stations and vampire castles, has a new -- and maybe even more surreal -- inhabitant: the Arlington County government.

The county's cyber-office, on the first floor of a virtual glass-and-steel tower, sits behind tinted sliding doors, across from a vending machine that sells digital Cheez-Its and Pop-Tarts. Visitors can take a seat in swiveling office chairs and scan understated orange and gray promotional posters ("brainpower: arlington's alternative energy") as they wait to meet with an economic development official.

- snip -

While the setting is cyber, the economic development official behind the site is real. John Feather, 53, has been volunteering his time to create Arlington's online presence, which he hopes will give the county another way to sell itself to tech-savvy businesses.

"People can come and get a real sense of not only what Arlington is now, but of what Arlington will be," Feather said. "If we are at least here struggling with everyone else, that kind of says something about us."

-snip -

[T]he Washington area has become home to creative efforts to move government toward such realms.

The Bethesda-based National Library of Medicine, for instance, has created in Second Life a potentially noxious world of everyday health hazards called Tox Town, where clicking on a tower in a dusty construction site produces a list of the chemical properties of neighborhood runoff.

At the University of the District of Columbia, criminal justice students practice investigations and patrols and deal with such imaginary perp behavior as the attempted theft of Professor Angelyn Flowers's pink convertible. Other designers have created in Second Life a virtual Capitol Hill, where plans are afoot for a white-tie inaugural ball Jan. 20. Instructions are forthcoming on how to find a good tux.

"There will be music. There will be dancing. There will be socializing. There will be virtual punch," said Steve Nelson, executive partner of Clear Ink, a Berkeley, Calif.-based Internet firm that built the cyber Capitol Hill. "The idea is after they leave [the ball], they actually feel like they participated somehow."

- snip -

What could the county do with its space? One idea is hosting a job fair in the virtual world for defense workers who don't want to move from Arlington as part of a massive realignment of Defense Department jobs. The anonymity of avatars could be very useful for those who wish to job hunt discreetly.

So, I could enter Arlington County's Second Life virtual world and ... do what? Go to a job fair, attend a meeting with a government official, research toxic chemicals and so forth? That's the kind of thing I do all day in Real Life. Why should I do it in Second Life, as well? I prefer to spend my virtual time doing more entertaining things, such as crashing cars in Grand Theft Auto or going a few rounds with my kids in Wii Boxing (where the Old Man can still deliver quite a cyber beat down).

The whole idea of virtual government seems like something out of the 22nd episode of The Simpsons ("They Saved Lisa's Brain"), in which a Mensa group took over the city of Springfield. The Comic Book Guy - who is exactly the type I would expect to find populating Second Life - rewrote jury duty notices to read something like:

"You have been selected to join the Springfield Justice League. Rendezvous with us at 8 AM Monday in the Municipal Fortress of Vengeance (formerly known as the Courthouse)."

Virtual government would make perfect sense to the Comic Book Guy and his cohort of online role-playing obsessives - oh, by the way, enjoy that virtual inaugural ball, guys - but I suspect it would leave everyone else flummoxed.

Assuming Arlington County doesn't just give the whole thing up as a bad idea, I have a suggestion for its virtual world. They ought to allow people to fight parking tickets in a virtual traffic court, complete with Second Life lawyers, cops, and judges. If I know my Comic Book Guys, that could easily be as entertaining as any computer game.

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