Rita King on Governance in the Imagination Age
May 28th, 2010

The fact that Rita J. King’s bio included the words “dancing” and “imagination” was enough to make me reach out to her for an interview, and reading about her only confirmed my hunch. Rita is a storyteller, artist, writer, and the cosmic twin of André Blas (more on that below). She also happens to be the Innovator-in-Residence at IBM’s Analytics Virtual Center, a Senior Fellow at two think-tanks, and CEO of Dancing Ink Productions, a full-service creative company that performs research, develops strategy, and creates mixed-reality content for The Imagination Age. (See? Dancing and imagination.) The Imagination Age is a notion that the trajectory we’ve taken from the Agricultural to the Industrial to the Information Age will next transition into an age characterized by a premium on imagination as the most valued skill in society. Rita and other advocates argue that the rise of virtual reality will raise the value of imagination over rational thinking, which will in turn promote world understanding, reduce cultural conflict, and have a major impact on overall public policy. Given her belief “that technology is a prism held up to the bright beam of the imagination to create a new global culture and economy,” I’d situate Rita in the same tribe as self-proclaimed techno-transcendentalist Kevin Kelly and other digerati who see digital technologies as transformational societal forces, and are able to contextualize them within the longer arc of the evolution of life and consciousness. Rita graciously accepted my request for an interview at the Gov 2.0 Expo, what follows are some tidbits from our conversation.

Because Rita believes in the power of communication technology to cultivate cross-cultural understanding, I couldn’t help but ask what she thought of Chatroulette. Unsurprisingly, she’d already experimented with it, and due to her conditioning to ‘next’ men-only chatters for fear of being subject to lewd sexual behavior, she realized too late that she’d ‘nexted’ the Jonas Brothers. Which is precisely her source of contention with Chatroulette – that it becomes an “exercise in personal tolerance.” How many male masturbators will you endure to experience the rare pleasure of anonymous, random tele-intimacy? (And even this anonymity is being dissolved by Chatroulette Map, which allows chatters to see where other chatters are located on a Google map.) But, also unsurprisingly, Rita sees potential in the project, were it managed properly. If people registered ahead of time, for example as part of a worldwide multi-classroom activity, Chatroulette could be a communication technology mechanism for promoting cross-cultural understanding. When I asked about other existing mechanisms, she referred to the Harvard Negotiation Project, a university consortium developing theory and practice around negotiation and dispute resolution, and where Rita is experimenting with virtual world technology for that purpose, and to a partnership between Dancing Ink Productions and the British Council to develop a Global Collaborative Storytelling Game that I can’t wait to play.

Whenever I hear talk of a new, impending age or era or paradigm (or whatever), I can’t help but wonder: what comes next? When asked what comes after the Imagination Age, Rita quieted for a moment. “Imagination must lead to the real.” And then, feeling the need to explain further, “imagination is an attempt to collaborate and inhabit, so we can see more clearly what is not able to stick.” But I think I got it the first time: imagination as an incubator for reality, an incubator where we can experiment at low cost with low stakes before, as Rita would say, “leveling up” to a higher-cost, higher-stake (though no more ‘real’) reality.

And on that ‘no more real’ tip, like others promoting the transformative power of virtual world technology, Rita criticizes the virtual vs. real dichotomy, proposing instead a unified ‘meta-view’ that integrates the two. Her meta-view isn’t a descent into noetic flatness nor a conflation of real and virtual into one, un-differentiated sausage-like reality, but refreshingly, much more similar to my own thinking (from my interpretation of it): that the distinction between reality and virtuality itself changes depending on the circumstances. Sometimes the distinction is made sharp, as with the role-playing vampire who doesn’t go home and bite her kids, and sometimes it’s kept blurry, as with the curious teen exploring his sexual identity online in to help him ‘come out’ offline. It’s not that real and virtual are entirely discrete nor that they’re entirely continuous, which would make the distinction between them meaningless, but that they can be either/or. And this distinction exists at both individual and societal levels, rendering our quest that of being able to both individually and collectively maintain distinct and blurry boundaries, depending on our needs. We need to know both how to successfully live in the information stream, and how to create functional boundaries when necessary. Rita seems to think of this as a sense of intuition, that we should be able to feel when we’re “off balance.” That’s certainly an admirable ambition, though we have much digital literacy to learn in order to fulfill it.

Bringing it back to the Expo at hand, I asked Rita about her future vision of government, as it adopts 2.0 technologies and enters the Imagination Age. “A cat is bigger than a mouse, but not bigger than 3 million mice.” And although mice increasingly have access to tools that enable them to engage in collective action vis-à-vis the cat, the problem is that most mice only act individually. In other words, most citizens don’t care about engaging in collective action vis-à-vis their government. Rita’s commitment is to the balance between individual and society, parallel to the way bees (at least, for purposes of this semi-mixed metaphor) balance their behavior between their individual needs and the needs of the hive. I suggested the notion of a holon – something that is simultaneously a whole and a part of something larger than itself – as a way to think about citizens in the Imagination Age. She liked that. Virtual world technologies that give birth to the Imagination Age do so by fostering shared values, “metavalues that preserve the diversity of the human condition.” These metavalues help individuals to identify with the collective, and allow the government of the Imagination Age to become, as Tim O’Reilly says, “at bottom, a mechanism for collective action.”

Finally, given my inclination towards tele-intimacy – like this and this and dreaming out loud about dancing (versus merely talking) with holograms – I asked Rita if she ever engages with a more playful, entertainment-oriented side of virtual world technology. She described a ballroom in Second Life for American soldiers in Iraq, where they can dance virtually with their wives back home. She also told me about WebCitizen’s André Blas, who she met at a conference and developed a strong friendship with via daily videoskypes, though she saw him in person only at chance conferences, like the Gov 2.0 Expo. When I met André at the Expo, he informed me that he and Rita are cosmic twins, and since he and I happened to have the same business card holder (which we traded), we decided I was his cosmic cousin. (Oi primo cósmico!) Which makes me cosmically related to Rita.

Oh, but the best part of our interview: seeing Tim O’Reilly mount a sculpture of a donkey and pretend to ride it. We were too slow on the draw with our cameras, but we saw someone take a photo, so there’s definitely one out there. And surely if we leverage our smart mobby skills, we can get it released to the wilds of the web…..

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