You'd think the French would be the last people who would get involved in something like this: Molly Moore of the Washington Post reports that all four major candidates for president of France established campaign offices in Second Life, a web site that describes itself, redundantly, as an "online digital world." The site's tag line is "Your World. Your Imagination." This sounds suspiciously like George Bush's political credo, but the French seem to be taking the politics of Second Life very seriously. The French are the second largest group of Avatars, as the inhabitants are known, after Americans, and there have been some lively political skirmishes in Second Life. What would Montaigne say?
I'm not sure what to make of this. In online world terms, I'm still stuck in its text-based prehistory. Back in the 90's I signed on to a MUD upon the recommendation of some grad student friends. The MUD was supposed to be a discussion group of some kind--something serious like cultural studies. I entered the first room and was immediately greeted with a one-line text message: "Welcome. Let me give you a hug." I immediately bolted from the room and never returned to a virtual world. Since then online worlds have come a long way, of course, and Second Life is generally regarded as one of the best of its kind. Online digital world technologies may soon break out of their fantasy-world confines and into the business world, which is already in the same neighborhood as the fantasy worlds. Developers and investors are looking into applying Second Life technologies to virtual offices. Someday soon we'll gather around a virtual conference table and discuss SOX controls--dressed in dark cloaks, I hope. But if I end up in another damn cubical in a Second Life office, I'm going to be pissed.
Anyway, the French electorate is having a good time in Second Life. They're squabbling over the presence of the National Front on Porcupine Island, a shopping mall. Some gullible Avatars are devoting hundreds of man-hours to maintain Ségolène Royal's campaign headquarters, which is made of wood to express her concern for the environment. (I hope her headquarters isn't made of wood from rare species in the virtual Amazon.) Three Democratic presidential candidates--Clinton, Obama, and Edwards--have established campaign offices in Second Life. According to reports, however, the American political sites are moribund compared to the French ones, although someone took the trouble to vandalize John Edwards' headquarters--one of his fired bloggers would be my guess.
Somehow something must be wrong with a polis located in a fantasy world. Or maybe you could say that virtual world politics are consistent with Montaigne's reaction against Machiavelli stripping the world of value and enchantment. Since Montaigne's solution was generally sunnier than Shakespeare's reaction to the same predicament, perhaps the French are more at home in a virtual political world than we are. After all, for six years now Americans have endured a government that's been operating in the same kind of mytho-Christian dream world as many of the online virtual worlds. Live in the virtual world too long and it begins to look worse than the real one.