RITA KING AND JOSH FOUTS'S "UNDERSTANDING ISLAM THROUGH VIRTUAL WORLDS."
Comes word from Joshua Fouts* at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs that he and fellow fellow Rita J. King have some long-awaited work products from their "Understanding Islam Through Virtual Worlds" project.
They've either created or toured various Muslim-centric worlds within Second Life, made friends, conducted interviews, and concluded that virtual-reality worlds like this can be excellent venues for low-risk communication and collaboration between East and West.
Plus they've got the YouTube video, policy recommendations (PDF), and even comic book (PDF) to prove it.
There's a lot of potential to be mined here, particularly since the new U.S. administration is clearly more tech-savvy than its predecessors.
At this point I would make the same points I usually do whenever I hear anyone trumpeting the Internet as a key to international citizen-to-citizen communication: On a global scale, almost no one is on the Internet--barely one person in six, if you believe Wikipedia. There are especially few online in the Muslim world, and those tend to be disproportionately wealthy and well-educated.
Then I would normally ask, What's the point of trying to use Second Life to reach and communicate people who already have access to the Internet's massive buffet of information and opinion?
But then I remember that Cold War public diplomacy was not just focused on radio and other mass media as tools to reach foreign publics; there were also the U.S. cultural centers, touring jazz bands, speaking tours by prominent Americans and so on, all of which were almost unavoidably aimed at wealthy elites in other countries.
Seen through that light, virtual projects like "Understanding Islam..." should get serious examination by policy-makers as an additional arrow in the PD quiver, not to mention funding. Particularly since Dave Brubeck is now a bit too old to travel.
*Full disclosure: I worked for Josh and his former employer, the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, at a public-diplomacy conference in early 2006.