Tuesday, 17 February 2009

CDS Chronicles Part 1

When I took a long break from the Internet last fall, I became out of touch with events in my virtual homeland, the Confederation of Democratic Sims (CDS). I missed the highpoint of the CDS year, the OktoberFest (see the photos here), which I sorely regret. I also remained oblivious to the ongoing political and personal conflicts that continued to wrack the small democracy - the missing of which I regret less.

As I ease back online, I need to catch up on the past half-year of activity within CDS. In writing this post about that period, perhaps I will help other less active CDS citizens to catch up as well.

Going through the Representative Assembly Transcripts

I've tried to learn about recent events in CDS by talking to participants, but the results are hit and miss. I could try to read all of the relevant posts on the CDS forum, with their voluminous comment threads, but experience has taught me that this is a never-ending task.

The best way to catch up on past CDS activity is to read the transcripts of the Representative Assembly (RA) meetings, which are posted for public consultation on the CDS forum, under the heading Representative Assembly Announcements.

So I dug in for a bout of reading the chat logs of the RA meetings, supplemented by an occasional glance at relevant forum posts or related blogs and websites. But I quickly got bogged down in tracing back the antecedents of the RA discussions. In short, I should begin by trying to summarize past political struggles within CDS.

Background on CDS Politics

CDS has often been racked by conflicts. This is normal, because democratic government brings with it liberty of expression and the airing of differences. In dictatorial or totalitarian systems, the population seems to be in unanimous agreement with the government, simply because no one is free to disagree. Vigorous conflict is the litmus test of a healthy political system.

I personally arrived in CDS only about a year ago, in December of 2007. Fascinated by the experiment, I studied such CDS history as I could find on a few specialized websites. My perception is that in the four years since the founding of Neualtenberg there have been three or four major cycles of conflict within the realm, depending on how you count them.

The first major conflict was the split between the elected majority of Neualtenberg and the founder of the community, Ulrika Zugzwang. This split began in late 2005. During the first half of 2006 it degenerated into a bitter battle complete with destruction of online content, forum closure and avatar banning. It ended with the departure of Ulrika from Second Life, and the transformation of Neualternberg into Neufreistadt. I briefly recapitulated that story in one of my first posts on this blog.

The second major conflict in CDS arose with the group that formed around Ashcroft Burnham, who cooked up an ambitious scheme for bringing a judiciary system to Second Life, starting with Neufreistadt. Ashcroft's Local Government Study Group (LGSG) wanted to create a professional judiciary in Neufreistadt. More generally, it proposed legal "tools" for use by any local governments within Second Life. These included mechanisms to enforce contracts by taking away land as a punishment for offenses.

The conflict between Ashcroft's group and the rest of CDS, who preferred to keep the local government simple, came to a head in mid-2007. It ended with the departure of Ashcroft and friends to form Metaverse Republic. I gave a brief summary of Ashcroft's trajectory on my blog post about Building a Country, under the heading "Enter the Lawyers."

The third major conflict was between the Citizens’ Alliance for Rights and Equality (CARE), the faction driven by Michel Manen, and the left-leaning Citizen's Social Democratic Faction (CSDF). The reasons for this conflict are rather less clear to me. They seem to have hinged on Manen's vision of a strong presidential regime following the US model, as opposed to the more European set-up of CDS, and on Manen's call for CDS to pursue aggressive expansion and commercial development. Since CSDF also supports expansion and commercial development, the conflict may have been caused more by Manen's strong personality than by actual differences of principle. At any rate, the virulence of the dispute can be seen in this thread on the CDS forums, towards the end of which Manen announced his departure from CDS on December 25th, 2007. He then concentrated his energy on the Al Andalus sims , another Second Life experiment in virtual democracy.

After Michel Manen's departure, the CARE faction was reconfigured as NuCare under the leadership of ThePrincess Parisis. The NuCare faction lead by ThePrincess vigorously carried on the conflict with CSDF during the first half of 2008. Should this period be considered as a continuation of the third conflict initiated by Michel Manen, or as a separate fourth conflict? To the extent that the conflicts of Michel and ThePrincess seem to have originated more in their personalities and heavy-handed approaches than in their principles, the period dominated by the presence of ThePrincess could be seen as a separate major conflict, making it the fourth main cycle of dispute in CDS history.

ThePrincess tended to reduce politics to the level of personal antagonism. Her harassment drove CSDF representative Patroklus Murakami to resign from his position as Leader of the Representative Assembly (LRA), leaving leadership of the RA to ThePrincess and her allies. CDS was polarized into two warring camps. I've told my version of this story in my blog posts Swept Away and CDS Election Update. The reign of ThePrincess ended with her getting ejected from her own faction in early July 2008, which disqualified her from running for the second semester elections. This leadership crisis within NuCare gave CSDF an easy victory in the 2008 mid-year elections, but the conflict with ThePrincess continued in another form.

The July 2008 Elections and the first Representative Assembly of 3 August 2008

The mid-year CDS elections were held during the week that began on Saturday July 12th 2008. The election results posted to the forum were as follows:

*The CSDF faction had a Borda score of 61 and was awarded 3 seats, filled by Justice Soothsayer, Arria Perreault and one more representative "to be named"
*The DPU faction received a Borda score of 54 and was awarded 3 seats, filled by Rubaiyat Shatner and two more representatives "to be named"
*The NuCARE faction received a Borda score of 29 and was awarded 1 seat, filled by Bells Semyorka

The CDS election results are calculated using the complicated Borda count, which is supposed to be more consensual that a purely majoritarian election. Also, in CDS a faction may apparently win more seats than the number of candidates it has presented, in which case the additional RA representatives for that faction are "to be named" as soon as possible.

The first RA meeting of the new semester was held on 3 August 2008. The meeting was chaired by Justice Soothsayer, who had received the most votes among the candidates of the winning party (CSDF), and thus automatically became the Leader of the Representative Assembly (LRA). The elected representatives were sworn in, as were additional representatives newly named by their parties: Gwyneth Llewelyn for CSDF and Flyingroc Chung for DPU. Another additional DPU representative, Pip Torok, was sworn in at the next meeting.

Jamie Palisades, who had served as LRA during the latter part of the previous semester, was selected by the Representative Assembly for the position of Chancellor, head of the CDS administration.

A few items of business were dispatched at this first meeting. Moon Adamant announced that the new CDS sim Locus Amoenus had been purchased and was already adjoining the CDS territory. The terraforming was done, and road building was in progress. Publius Crabgrass was named as RA archivist. Gwyneth Llewelyn was named head of the Electoral Commission that had been set up during the previous semester. Arria Perrault reported on the progress in setting up a new CDS web portal, and in migrating the legal archives to it.

In the absence of the ThePrincess the new RA thus started off in a mood of general consensus. This was quite relaxing compared to the fireworks of the previous RA – and almost a little boring.

The Representative Assembly of 17 August 2008 and the Commerce Bill

The main issue at the RA meeting of 17 August was the Commerce Bill. This was a controversial issue left over from the previous semester.

The Commerce Commission was in fact first proposed by Patroklus Murakami in a post on the CDS forum dated February 12th 2008. Pat's proposal provided for the formation of a Chamber of Commerce, made up of volunteer members holding commercial land in CDS, with the aim of "revitalizing the shopping areas of our sims." The Chamber of Commerce would "consider how non-functioning or empty office and shops in commercial areas can be prevented from continually occupying space where new commercial initiatives could prosper instead."

MT Lundquist, RA member and online husband of ThePrincess, volunteered to chair the Commerce Commission. The RA officially named him to this role. MT posted his proposals for a Commerce Commission Bill on the CDS forum on April 10th 2008. MT proposed that commercial lot owners whose property failed to draw a minimum traffic of 3 visitors per week be required to sell the lot back to the CDS government for market rate.

MT's proposal provoked public outcry, including an overly-excited reaction from Danton Sideways, who owned two properties in Colonia Nova, including a shop near the plaza. My shop was starkly empty, but I had definite future plans for it - which I have still failed to implement. In Second Life time and projects follow their own logic, which can be far different from that of real life.

I use my other property near the Colonia Nova plaza as my SL home. I had the mistaken impression that this lot was within the commercial property zone. In fact, the commercial zone covers only part of the plaza area, and my house was outside of it. But my misunderstanding led me to fear that even my house would be taken away. This is an example of how any system, and CDS is no exception, tends to develop hierarchies of knowledge which leave ordinary citizens in a state of relative ignorance. Insider groups coalesce among those who have the time to follow the legislation, the committees and the social events. Knowledge is power. I'll come back to this in later posts. For the moment let me just note that this question of citizen knowledge is related to Ivan Illich's philosophy of conviviality: the average citizen needs greater access to information. A free press is one of the "tools" that provide such information, and the present blog article can be seen as a contribution to greater public knowledge in CDS.

But let us return to the Commerce Commission Bill. Under public pressure MT posted
modified recommendations on the forum on May 31st. The new recommendations were: "That following one month of non commercial activity, commercial 'rents' paid to the CDS should have a rent surcharge of 100% beyond the otherwise applicable rent." In other words, the owner of an inactive commercial plot, instead of losing the plot, would have the rent doubled, which is still a quite heavy penalty.

This version of the Commerce Commission Bill, with a few minor amendments, was approved by the RA on June 28th. The four "aye" votes were from MT Lundquist, ThePrincess Parisi, Sonja Strom and Jamie Palisades. There were no "nay" votes and no abstentions. In short, the supporters of the bill profited from the absence of any opponents to force through a controversial piece of legislation. Jamie seems to voted aye only after having obtained amendments which delayed the bill's effectiveness until after the elections – at which point the new RA could always overturn it.

In the tentative final text of the Commerce Bill posted by Jamie Palisades on September 1st, there is the following additional clause, about the next steps after the rent has been doubled: "Thereafter in each subsequent month, the rents shall be doubled until such time as the land is returned to commercial use, at which point it reverts to the standard land rental for the plot." It is unclear to me when and how this clause was added, since it was absent from the bill that was voted on June 28th. On first reading I thought this clause meant that rents would be doubled exponentially from month to month, but on reflection I conclude that this is just a problem of wording.

As could be expected, the Commerce Bill became a hot topic following the election of the new RA. On August 14th Jon Seattle posted a comment noting that unlike the New Guild and other "NGOs" with an official function, the charter of the Chamber of Commerce had not been approved by the RA. Jon was also worried that membership, which at that time had to be requested from either MT or ThePrincess, was limited to "commercial vendors" in the sense of retail shops, and seemed to exclude service businesses and any non-profit enterprises.

The following day, on August 15th, two days before the before the RA meeting of August 17th, Jon Seattle posted a proposed Commerce Clarification Bill . Jon's new bill suggested that the Chamber of Commerce should be required to follow a charter approved by the RA, and that it should provide voting rights to all CDS citizens who maintain business offices or non-profit organizations in CDS. Jamie reacted strongly to Jon's proposal, suggesting that the new CSDF-dominated RA was trying to take the Chamber of Commerce away from MT, whose hard work had earned him a legitimate position as its leader. As usual on the CDS forum this discussion blew up into the type of long intricate thread which few citizens have time to read to the end.

At the RA meeting, MT commented in detail on Jon's proposal. He stated that for the RA to rule over a commercial organisation seemed to him like a communist system where the state rules all activities. He also maintained that "commerce" under the original bill had a very wide definition, and that no one would be discriminated against. Finally, he claimed that the part of the bill dealing with penalties was supposed to be administered by the Chancellor's office, not by the RA.

The discussion of the Chamber of Commerce dragged on, and there was no quorum to vote anyhow, so this item was tabled. This blog post is also dragging on, and getting longer than I intended. I'll adjourn my account of further RA meetings to the next blog post, which will be called "CDS Chronicles Part 2". I've only covered two RA meetings so far, but then I had to spend time setting the stage. Still, I wonder how many parts this serial post will require before I catch up to the present.

The Locus Amoenus Opening Ceremony

The next RA meeting would be held on August 31st. Before that, on Friday August 28th, the CDS community held an Opening Ceremony for Locus Amoenus, the fourth CDS sim. The rather elaborate ceremony was held in the Naval Theater constructed in the exact center of the Locus Amoenus sim. The ceremony consisted of letting each citizen put an offering inside a large upturned hemisphere, as shown in Lilith Ivory's bird's eye photo. The downturned top half of the hemisphere was then lowered onto the bottom half, sealing the offerings within a hollow globe. The citizens presented offerings representing their real life countries. However, Danton put into it the pinwheel he was given at WWF Island, which to me represented the global environment rather than any one country.

After the ceremony, which was complete with the sacrifice of sacred cows and the release of a flock of doves, the citizen's danced on a nearby lawn, as shown in a video posted by Gwyneth Llewelyn. Events like these cement the community together, and temporarily put the petty squabbles into the background.


Jamie Palisades said...

That's a pretty good summary, Danton. SL events often do not benefit from the perspective of sunlight and a dispassionate third party take. I look forward to reading more.
One thing that might come from your narrative, over time, is a helpful second take on my own sense of the overall tone of CDS. To me, the "chamber of commerce" tangle you described was just one instance of a long pattern of unnecessarily personal attacks on attempted contributions in SL.
Of course, people are welcome to disagree on the merits of how an NGO should be formed. But it's hard to separate policy from personalities, when vindictive and draconian tones abound, and people immediately and unthinkingly line up with their buddies ... as too often happens.
At times CDS has suffered from an excess of people who love the battle, and prefer to tear down others, rather than build anything themselves.
Our viability depends on being a place that people feel WELCOME to contribute, so this is a serious problem. (Probably the risk is increased by the baroque complexity imposed on our itty-bitty little government of 80-some people, by constitution writers who apparently loved pompous titles, and read much more science fiction than political science. A simpler system might be more approachable, and give less opportunity for mischief from gameplayers and rulemongers.)
To me, as a CDS leader in CDS this last year, it seemed that I spent MOST of my time encouraging people who want to contribute. Largely, this consisted of finding ways to facilitate their goals ... trying to keep the playing field fair ... and fending off attacks by ego-driven noncontributors.
Multiple factions and otherwise rational people too often indulged in that kind of negativity. We risked a growing outside impression of CDS as an immature rooster-fighting pen. I have no love, or time, for people who want to play "student government" games, and destroy or take over things they haven't done, heedless of its effects, and if they have nothing to offer themselves.
However, things are better now, as you suggested. It has taken us several changes of government to get there.
But that's my own internal and biased narrative! It's extremely easy to see one's self as an avenging angel and in the right. (grin) Whether there was a bad pattern there, as I suggest, and whether it has improved for the better, probably is better evaluated from a distance. So it will be fun to see how a third party view corroborates or corrects those impressions.

Regards JP

HeadBurro Antfarm said...

Hiya Danton - Good to see you back and thanks for these huge catch up posts. The CDS* still sounds as insane as ever, but what an entertaining read!

* Caveat: To an outsider with little to no interest in politics. To many, my love of the zmobie shooting game Left4Dead is equally insane.

HeadBurro Antfarm said...

One question, if I may? I work (RL) in local gov. Not in the politics side, rather in the admin of politics side - essentially I'm employeed to ensure the things elected officials have agreed to are being done.

In the CDS, who does my job? When the bill was passed for the shop rent thingy, who then administers and tracks that?

Danton Sideways said...

Hi Headburrow, nice to hear from you. Sorry I took so long to answer - I've been swamped by my real-life job for the past month or so.

The administrative branch of CDS is run by the Chancellor, who is elected at the first meeting of each new Representative Assembly. In the period covered by these Chronicles, the Chancellor was Jamie Palisades.

The Chancellor is helped by a crew of "stipended" civil servants (the stipend is of course just a pittance), such as the Public Information Officer (or Officers, when there are two), who helps organize events and otherwise promote CDS.

CDS thus does have a full-fledged administrative branch, in addition to a legislative branch (the Representative Assembly) and a judiciary branch (oddly named the Scientific Council), which is empowered to assess whether legislation conforms to the Constitution.

The limitation on how well these governmental branches work is less the simplicity of their structure, as the difficulty residents have in finding time for their functions. Jamie was obviously devoting enormous amounts of time to CDS - which showed in the results achieved during this period.