Virtual avatar, realpolitik

You may have heard of Thomas P. Barnett; he’s a foreign-affairs wonk whose influential latest book is The Pentagon’s New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-first Century. He once worked for Donald Rumsfeld, yet is a lifelong Democrat who briefed John Kerry on his foreign policy during the last election. Barnett has an interestingly geeky way of describing politics. He calls the American style of government the “source code” for democracy; he argues that democratic countries need to form an armed deployment that will operate as the “SysAdmin force” to help negotiate peace and trade worldwide.

Perhaps because he’s so tech-savvy, Barnett recently agreed to a really unusual public event: He appeared as an avatar in the online game-world Second Life, and conducted a speech and Q&A session on his ideas. Avatars logged in from all over the world, including France, Britain, and China — many of whom hurled catcalls at him and threw tough questions. Wagner James Au, Second Life’s official in-game journalist, hosted the event — as his avatar Hamlet Linden — and he’s blogged the transcript. Here’s a sample moment from the Q&A:

HL: OK, this one from Hank Hoodoo. “What, if anything, should the SysAdmins in Iraq be doing differently right now?”

TB: Not a whole lot, given the reality that we didn’t have the numbers or the spread of “civilizations” that we should have had at the start. Most of the mistakes we could have prevented way back when by doing the SysAdmin right are now past that… particular fix.

Hank Hoodoo [from the audience]: Yes, that was what I was afraid you’d say.

My favorite part is at the end, when Barnett’s kids arrive home and begin distracting him (“…in my face like you wouldn’t believe!”) and his paragraphs become shorter and shorter until he’s almost typing in point form. This stuff couldn’t be more Snowcrashian if it tried. I love it.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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