Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Congratulations to the New Secretary of State: Michael Morhaime Edition


In the first chapter of his latest propagandist tome, Hot Flat and Crowded, Thomas Friedman addresses the issues arising from increased security around embassies. He writes about moving the US Embassy in Turkey from the city center, where it existed for over one hundred years, to a remote location, encircled by impenetrable walls. The original embassy was in the crowded town square. The new embassy was far removed from the population and very much resembled a prison. In his words, it could have been used as location for the filming of the Turkish prison film, Midnight Express - you know, the one with the tongue scene. He referenced a number of diplomats who explained how difficult it is to convey anything other than negative thoughts about their country from behind walls. When diplomats are allowed to walk out the door to get a cup of coffee and invite citizens into the building, they get a sense of the culture. When everyone is locked out, they get a sense of the people running the government. More importantly, they lose the ability to talk to people. As Friedman points out, it is harder to be enemies with someone you know. The walls remove the ability to know.

I was thinking about this on the morning of the announcement of Hillary Clinton as our new Secretary of State and realized how wrong the designation really is. You would think our first cyber President, the guy who is already speaking to us on Youtube, would realize effective diplomacy is already happening. World of Warcraft is played in 119 countries, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Congo, East Timor, Lebanon, Isreal, Micronesia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Tajikistan, among others. These are countries we don't do a very good job reaching. Contrast this with the 80 countries in which the US has US Commercial Service offices with business and trade specialists, coupled with the easier access to WOW and you can start to imagine the impact. People in those countries learn about us through the media - often state controlled, the Web - often censored, and now WOW. Which provides the most favorable introduction? Trade missions, embassies and even tourism results from discussions, negotiations and least visas with hosts of restrictions. WOW drifts over borders like a fragrant phermone and invites players to join a community. While all of these citizens of the world are not necessarily playing on the same servers, or interacting with other, their interaction with their friends is being facilitated by an American export.

I am not advocating the type of propaganda of not very well hidden messages of war time films, or the insertion of messages to the players. These tactics would be no better than dropping leaflet bombs and would quickly detract from the integrity of the game. Our historical unidirectional messaging through media allowed the world to see what we want, but other than through their dollars, they couldn't tell what they want. With the dissemination of WOW, everyone can hear what everyone else has to see in a manner even more powerful than through web 2.0 tools. We can use this tool not only to talk, but to listen. The lecture turns into a discussion. No special messaging, no government controlled input. Just people, talking to people while they whack at rattle cage skeletons.

Web 2.0 lets people communicate with each other and there is no question it is a revolutionary tool, but WOW let's people play together. To Friedman's point, if you are friends with someone you can't be their enemy. It is tough to be enemies with someone after enjoying a four hour round of golf with them. WOW is the new golf course. People from all around the world are playing with and against people they would otherwise never meet, and in many cases not even speak to. But in the virtual world of WOW, the person's character - maybe the pun was intended - is not determined by where they live by accident of birth. Can you hate the guy who stood by you in battle or hung out with you at a festival? The power has already been recognized by the Chinese government. After realizing the influence Chinese MMOs have over the younger generation, the government, in a very Chinese way, started to regulate not only the number of new MMOs allowed to be released in a year, but the content of the MMOs. They want it to be Chinese.

Friedman points to a time in history where Richard Nixon came to the same conclusion. Not our most popular president, but after you read this you may consider him to be the true first cyber president. In the famous kitchen debates with Nikita Kruschev in 1959, Nixon and Kruschev were arguing about relative technology capabilities. Nixon conceded the Russians were more advanced in harnessing the power of rockets, but the US had better color television technology. It sounds kind of silly on its face, even smacks of American consumerism, but when you dig down, it is very smart. Rockets are used by governments and televisions are used by people. The televisions can connect people. Nixon so much as said this when he invited Kruschev to send more of his content and himself to US citizens through color television and suggested America should do the same into Russia. Of course it never happened, but it makes me wonder whether the cold war would have been so cold if we actually heard directly from each other rather than through the filters of domestic news and governments.

WOW provides the communication platform directly to the generation of people who drive the culture in each nation it touches. We invited the United Nations to America because we wanted to host the platform to facilitation communication among world leaders. Now we are on the cusp of providing a platform for modern communication among the world's citizens. What are we going to do with it?

Admittedly, this post is kind of over the top, but as I've said before, in the words of Peter Parker, "with great power comes great responsibility." WOW didn't set out to be anything more than a game. While relationships and communication are arising on the periphery, they are incidental and not by design and the secret to peace in the mideast has not yet been divined from the game. But when considering the unlimited potential of this platform, we must acknowledge it's not just a game.






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