Virtual Worlds are Reshaping How Indians and Pakistanis Think, Act and Socialize

Taj-mahal-3d-screenshot-1_reference You may not be familiar with The Hindu, India's national newspaper. I recommend it to anyone who wants to read some insightful work from an up-and-coming world power.

A fascinating article by The Hindu's reporters looks at how the technology powering virtual worlds is evolving, and how the way people communicate is evolving with it.

Pixels and Policy takes a look at why India has such an interest in virtual communication, and what their research tells us about the importance of the Metaverse across cultures.

Building a Virtual Life, India-Style

India is far from where it once was as a nation. As a consumer culture, India is reaching developed-world levels. But many in India are left behind, and both poverty and illiteracy tend to hit young women more than any other group. Though boosted by a booming service sector and an increasingly mobile generation of well-educated engineers and health specialists, India has far to climb.

It's little surprise, then, that the idea of being anything one wants is a powerful draw to young, wired Indians:

The virtual world arena opens tremendous
opportunities for being whoever you want to be, meeting people from
across the globe, living the lifestyle you always dreamed of,
performing the feats that you are otherwise incapable of performing.
People who participate in it live, not as who they are, but who they
would like to be.

The synthetic world therefore offers you a virtual life which is not
a product of your circumstance. Most of all, it may make some of you
feel like you have erased everything in your past and started all over
again. Kind of like a second chance at life.

A second chance at life is a powerful offer in a culture where an entire class of "untouchable" Indians still faces de facto discrimination over everything from access to education to job placement. With easy-access internet cafes and accounts in free worlds, some Indians suddenly have a sense of control

The Hindu wonders whether the availability of posh virtual lifestyles might make young Indians long for something better. This longing could promote real social and cultural change.

The Hindu notes with worry that the newest generation of tech-savvy Indians might depart for greener pastures after having a taste of the digital cornucopia available around the world. From the article:

Our current young workforce is a generation that grew up
on video games and its consequent blurring of lines between games and
real life. This is also the generation that grew up on Star Trek and
the notion that Space is the final frontier.

In other words, workers raised on the ethic of possibility inherent in virtual worlds won't sit around and listen to government excuses for why education is poor, infant mortality is high, and jobs are scarce. As companies like IBM begin to offer call center jobs in virtual worlds, many Indians are leaving the traditional office in favor of the comfort of their homes. The status quo simply won't suffice anymore.

Rich Experiences, Poor Communities

I was invited by a few
Pakistani friends to attend what they called a "comedy night" in the
virtual world of Second Life. You can excuse me for not knowing these types of
events existed, as every time I log in I'm confronted with a sea of idle
players soullessly grinding against each other in a slew of identical
nightclubs. I jumped at the chance to talk shop with friends in the virtual

Pakistan's laggy, unreliable internet
connection has been a problem for serious virtual worlds users since at least
, when the Musharraf regime made a real effort to expand
broadband access. But still they come to see comedians like Sami Shah, a
breakthrough Pakistani stand-up artist who bucks the nation's conservative
religious trends through pointed observational comedy.

Shah is one of a growing
number of world-minded Pakistanis turning away from the schizophrenic political
state of their nation in favor of the idealism of virtual reality. In Second
Life, Pakistanis – anyone, for that matter – can access a universe of over
600,000 active players for nothing more than the cost of an internet
connection. Once inside, the possibilities are limitless.

But the virtual world isn't
just for stand-up comedy. Ambitious avatars from developing and wartorn nations
in the Middle East and South Asia have constructed replicas of Baghdad's city
streets, photorealistic mock-ups of a spacious Middle Eastern market, and the
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Yes, theentire Kingdom. 

Virtual Worlds: Upending the Communication Paradigm in Pakistan

As I could tell from my
experience at the night club, the citizens of developing nations will find ways
to connect. Whether through internet cafes or priated Internet, the feeling of
uninhibited interaction is an addiction not easily shaken. The virtual
nightclubs where Sami Shah performs his routine are rare in Islamabad, where
freedom of speech has waned over the years.

In other parts of Pakistan,
notably its tribal West, wearing a shirt open at the collar and riffing on the
Taliban can be dangerous to one's health. But discussions in Second Life run
the gamut from comedy to philosophy and politics. Even the heavy weaponry some
players wear is more theater than threatening – there is no death in the
virtual world.

If the history of previous
tools of communication is any guide, Pakistanis could soon see their desire for
communication leak across the virtual boundary. The advent of mass printing and
the telegraph changed written communication by greatly expanding the pool of
literate citizens.

This literacy blossomed into
books and messages of all types: Political awareness entered a Renaissance at
the same time creative fiction and journalism entered the households of
millions. Expanding communication through virtual communities is the next
logical step in literacy's long evolution.

Empowered by their idealism
and encouraged by their successes in building virtual communities like Second
Life, young Pakistanis will increasingly question why so many seemingly basic
infrastructural and political fixes are met with government dithering. A young
Pakistani who successfully prototypes a public water system in a scale model of
his village will be less likely to accept her government's claim that such
engineering feat simply cannot be done.

Building Virtual Community in Rural Pakistani Regions

The shared sense of purpose
and community created by virtual worlds will give rise to the same groupings of
concerned citizens that printing presses made possible.

Public interest groups could
easily span Pakistan's wide and rugged terrain when tribal leaders who may live
hundreds of miles apart no longer need to be physically present to speak with
each other.

In a community where only one household may own a computer,
enabling such long-distance conferencing with visually familiar representations
of tribal leaders or government officials may create substantially more
interaction and teamwork than now exists.

Once many young Pakistanis
from across the nation are connected in one visual, virtual community, old
dependences on an ineffective central government will melt away in favor of
group problem solving.

In other words, Second Life
and virtual worlds may well streamline and improve Pakistani government not
because it allows Pakistanis a means to protest, but because it gives them an
alternative to potentially corrupt government: They now have each other, and as
the network grows, so does the potential for the group to take on ever more
ambitious problems.

Whether letting their hair
down in virtual comedy parlors or showing Western visitors the ropes of virtual
Islam, Pakistanis – and those across the developing workd – have a larger
cyberpresence than ever before. If the governments of developing nations fail
to satisfy the growing desire of young, wired citizens for national
modernization, it is entirely possible that the old ways could fall to the
wayside. We can hope.