Digital Diplomacy, January 2009
Findings from Understanding Islam through Virtual Worlds Project
“Elevating humanity’s most distinguishing feature: the imagination.”
February 2, 2009 — After a year of research across the Internet and four continents, Dancing Ink Productions’ Rita J. King and Joshua S. Fouts, senior fellows at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, have released the findings from the Understanding Islam through Virtual Worlds project. The project was funded by a grant from the Richard Lounsbery Foundation.
The findings include a trilogy of actionable reports including policy recommendations on the potential use of virtual worlds for public diplomacy to be submitted to the Obama Administration; a mini broadcast quality documentary produced in collaboration with Ill Clan Animation Studios; and a graphic book chronicling the journey. By releasing three versions of the report Fouts and King hope to make accessible what is still a very new medium. Digital versions of the findings can be found here.
“With this report, Josh and Rita have illuminated a new path–a definite intelligible plan–for practical public diplomacy in an area of supreme urgency. Furthermore, they have done so by elevating humanity’s most distinguishing feature: the imagination,” said Joel Rosenthal, President of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.
The idea for Understanding Islam through Virtual Worlds project was hatched with a very specific idea in mind: How could people learn about other cultures in an authentic, experiential space — specifically, how could they learn about cultures that self-identified as Muslim? King and Fouts chose Second Life for many reasons, among them that it is the best international platform — more than 70% of its users are from outside the United States. Their goal was to to see what they could learn about Islam — not by inviting particular people with particular perspectives into Second Life, but rather to follow the trail of what was already happening culturally in the space that might yield new insight about Islam.
“Belief systems overlap now in ways that would have been unthinkable millennia ago when many of the conflicting ideas still governing human behavior today were created, but immersive virtual environments offer the perfect medium for assessment of concepts of self and community,” Rita J. King told the audience at the Carnegie Council. “It is not just a good medium, passable amid a sea of other equally effective options. It is the perfect medium, at least as an initial training ground to teach the digital culture how to engage in difficult and sensitive conversations involving real-world challenges in the complete absence of any possibility of physical violence or even any trace of intimidation. Additionally, virtual environments offer a deeper level of candor, which is necessary for true understanding.”
“Earlier this week, President Barack Obama launched the first public diplomacy campaign of his presidency by granting his first international interview to a non-US satellite television news station, Al Arabiya,” said Joshua S. Fouts in his January 29, 2009 remarks at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. “In doing this he effectively went over the leaders of the Middle East and spoke to the people. ‘All too often,’ President Obama said, ‘the United States starts by dictating … so let’s listen.’”
This project at its foundation is about storytelling which is about understanding something new about the human condition. Public Diplomacy, Cultural Diplomacy or Strategic Communication as it is also known, are efforts by governments, NGOs, and civil societies to tell their story to foreign publics. Too often public diplomacy is criticized for being too preachy and not listening. With this project, Fouts and King listened to, and documented the narratives of, people from all over the physical world who either practice Islam, or want to further understand those who do.
Digital copies of all of the Understanding Islam through Virtual Worlds reports can be downloaded here.
For more information, see DIP’s Dispatches from the Imagination Age and the Dancing Ink Productions homepage.