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Can SMOG help lift the fog?

Political discussions and research often focus on illustrating and pin-pointing the problems with our current societal organization; the social and environmental unsustainability of a system leading to the hollow unhappiness of the rich and the starvation of the poor. Yet, this mounting evidence has had little effect in the form of a concerted and coordinated effort to construct an alternative societal organization. Perhaps, what is missing is not a striking illustration of the existence of problems with the current societal organization – many, probably enough, people seem already aware of at least some of these, to the point of saturation and consequent desensitization. Instead, what is lacking is a clear alternative – how to mobilize civil society to construct a direction to walk and a way to start walking.

As to the direction, something like the model of Soviet communism is often talen as the only conceivable alternative – often with an added remark that this attempt certainly didn’t play out too well. The innovation society and capitalism is seen as the only other way to proceed; it’s not perfect – but we will have to live with its imperfections – something which is arguably somewhat easier to say for a Westerner who isn’t literally dying as a result of these imperfections.

Marcuse called this phenomenon, the inability to look outside the current reality and overcome its primacy, one-dimensional thinking. The current society actively discourages thinking of alternatives, and demands the focus to remain in the real-political vicinity of the current organization. Bizarrely, it is discussing and striving for an alternative that is deemed unrealistic, rather than desperately trying to turn around the sinking ship. Making matters worse, the problem of imagining an alternative societal structure is a problem of imagining a complex mass-dynamics. Any adequately adaptive societal system is by necessity exceedingly complex, consisting of myriads of interacting entities – and we as humans are simply not mentally equipped to handle such mass-dynamics, at least not without additional aids.

Imagine trying to convince an extraterrestrial that our production system is realistic and actually possible to implement, without pointing out that the system actually is implemented. Even with the description and discussion spanning days and nights, this would be extremely difficult or even impossible – especially since we don’t really know how the system works. (And, as the alien would undoubtedly point out, the system arguably actually doesn’t work, since it fails even the basic fundamentals, such as providing all its inhabitants with food, shelter and basic health care.)

The response to this problem from those who believe that the ship instead must be abandoned, mainly in the anarchist parts of the autonomous movement, is to create examples of the utopia today. Which often takes the form of building small self-sustainable (often with quite a broad definition of this term) communities. But these examples do not get to the root of the problem. It was never difficult to imagine 20 hippies living in a tent and consuming edible flowers, regardless of how completely horizontally organized and gift-based their economy, or how much in harmony was the singing of their shroom spirited songs. What makes the mass-dynamics of an alternative society intangible and difficult to imagine is the scaling-up. What is difficult is to imagine is a entire city or country – never mind global society – organized horizontally and harmonically.

A relevant rebuttal to this reasoning would be Marx’s aversion against today’s cooks planning the soup of tomorrow, and that the only way to find the soup is to, paraphrasing the zapatistas, askingly cook, tasting often and adapting to the flavors that emerge. While this is true, it leaves the problems discussed above unresolved. And it misses that the illustration of a possibility of another world is not equal to the planning of the coming world.

So, this begs the question: through what means can we communicate and illustrate the possibility of another world, in such a way that it becomes tangible and intuitively understandable?

One possible answer to this question could be serious massively multi-player online games (henceforth referred to using the evocative acronym SMOG). Much interest and research has been put in serious games during the last few years, perhaps primarily driven by the hype seemingly inevitably connected to new technology, rather than motivations based on genuine need of the features provided. One example of suggested ways to apply serious games, put forth e.g. during the recent MD kick-off meeting, is apply them to transfer values, such as solidarity and responsible resource management. However, I will argue that this is in fact a rather naive idea. We could never, almost by definition, compete on equal terms with the value dissemination efficiency of the products of the Innovation Society, especially not when our competition is one of the largest industries in the world. The products they develop are designed with the sole purpose of maximizing spread, and the values that they bring are only means of this end – however destructive the side-effects these means may bring. Furthermore, this approach misses the most important strength of SMOG.

A SMOG allows us to create an alternative world, populated by real humans performing actions in an existence that allows different norms and values from the real world. The architecture of this world is free for the makers to manipulate and the causes of such manipulations can be easily analyzed, since all data is available. Such an alternative world could illustrate through participation the possibility of an alternative way of societal organization, while at the same time informing on the ways of finding such alternatives. Such an game world could let even a one-dimensional man seeing and believing an alternative dimension.

Through this, the game would not simply represent a positive example in a undoubtedly losing struggle of opposing values, but rather a platform for research, a tellable tale of what could be and a way for anyone to look into an alternative world. By creating an online society that in all central regards is analogous to our own, this would also allow us to experiment and set up ICT scaffolding structures for organizing the online society. To be meaningful, the world would need to be very open-ended, dynamic and realistic, supporting for example: human needs of food and shelter, goods production similar to current systems, Innovation of new products, trade and decentralized coordination. Second Life provides a relevant example of how this can be done, by providing users the possibility of writing their own source code in a sandboxed environment inside the game.

A possible criticism from one uninitiated in the world of contemporary gaming, could be that the motivation in games necessarily must be grim competition between individualist characters. This is a valid point in so much that it describes the necessity of having a goal with any game. However, these goals needn’t be competitively individualist in nature, even through this foul feature permeates the contemporary society and thus also are the most common types in current commercial games. There are however notable counter-examples, such as the third most selling PC game of all time. In The Sims the goal is to increase the self-esteem and joy of the character that one controls, through for example having a good meal while sitting comfortably and being engaged in a deep conversation with another character.

To conclude, developing an online game such as this could be highly valuable, not only as an experimental platform for creating alternative world, but also to illustrate the possibility of such worlds. With the development of game development platforms such as WorldForge or BigWorld, it would be far from impossible to develop of such a game, possibly adding a much needed dimension to the discussions of our future societal structures.


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