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From Second Life to the Metaverse to the Estonia E-Residency: Public Administration in the Virtual Realm

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Bill Brantley
March 7, 2022

I had been a resident of Second Life for about a year when the University of Louisville’s Delphi Center bought a Second Life virtual island. The Delphi Center recruited professors to develop classrooms on the island, including one professor who built a virtual medieval castle to host their lectures. We even had a workshop from a prolific Second Life educator from the University of Indiana at Bloomington who wrote a blog about effective teaching in the new Metaverse. 

There was much excitement around the Second Life experiment, but it quickly died down. Second Life was an exciting novelty, but the teaching potential was lacking compared to in-person classes. A telling moment for me was when I attended a lecture in Second Life where I watched my avatar sit in a virtual classroom watching a virtual PowerPoint presentation. Having my students run a city in SimCity had more educational value than flying around Second Life, especially when the “griefing” began. 

Governing Second Life 

Peter Ludlow in the Northwestern University’s Department of Philosophy wrote about the griefer problem in Second Life. Griefers are “game players (stereotypically adolescent males) who engage in transgressive online gameplay to disrupt the online experience for others. The transgressive behavior might range from profanity, scatological behavior and racism to the writing of programs (scripts) that tax the servers of the virtual world to the point where it goes offline.” (Warning: the link contains racist images and language) 

Dr. Ludlow writes about the rise of racist griefer groups and groups formed to fight the griefers. The opposing groups caused members to be banned and led to the deletion of Woodbury University’s virtual campus because some students were associated with griefer groups. Second Life came under fire for not properly policing the communities. There were many ideas for better management of the Second Life community, including this intriguing article that advocated for “applying a local government management structure to Second Life.” 

Enter the Metaverse 

In recent years, artificial reality technology has rapidly advanced. Instead of the two-dimensional experience of watching avatars move around in Second Life or other virtual environments, the Metaverse promises a more realistic experience. Imagine being inside and surrounded by the virtual environment rather than viewing it from the outside. The Metaverse shows a great deal of promise, but just as much potential for harm. Tom Wheeler of the Brookings Institute’s Center for Technology Innovation writes, “[t]he development of government-overseen behavioral standards protected consumer, workers and competition in the industrial revolution—while simultaneously enabling a vibrant and growing economy. The digital revolution requires similar government-overseen standards.” 

The same idea was echoed by participants at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation’s 2021 AR/VR (Artificial Reality/Virtual Reality) Policy Conference when they advocated that “crafting public policy for the metaverse should be a collaborative effort among policymakers, industry leaders, civil society and current and potential users across diverse communities.” AR/VR technology touches on many areas, including privacy, security, safety, education, commerce and labor. In response to the potential impact of the Metaverse, the U.S. Congress has passed several acts to address AR/VR, including the VR TECHS Act, which deals with using “reality technologies” in the Federal government. Issues surrounding the breakdown of Second Life communities have encouraged policymakers to be proactive with the Metaverse.  

Becoming a Virtual Resident of Estonia 

The rising number of e-residents adds a wrinkle to the challenge of public administration in the virtual world. For example, I recently became an e-resident of Estonia so, I can start a European Union-based company and manage it remotely from anywhere in the world. I have an independent consulting company in the United States chartered in Wyoming. With my e-residency status, I can form a subsidiary of my company in Estonia and compete in the European Union market. It will be interesting to juggle the different tax laws and business regulations of both the United States and the European Union.  

Imagine if a nation created an e-residency program in the Metaverse. What would the public administration implications be for that country and the residents of that corner of the Metaverse? We may soon discover, as Seoul, Korea, became the first city to establish a digital twin in the Metaverse. Seoul citizens will interact with city officials in the virtual reality environment while receiving both physical and virtual public services. Watch this video to see Seoul 2.0 and get a glimpse of the future of public administration.  

Author: Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Louisville and the University of Maryland. He also works as a Federal employee for the U.S. Navy’s Inspector General Office. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the views of his employers. You can reach him at http://billbrantley.com. 

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