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<nettime> For any reason or no reason - on virtual (extra-)territorialit
linda hilfling on Tue, 29 May 2007 09:34:50 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> For any reason or no reason - on virtual (extra-)territoriality

For any reason or no reason 
- on virtual (extra-)territoriality

"Second Life is an exciting development of the     
virtual world.  A country that wishes to show that it
at least has the ambition to be at the forefront of
development of course has to be in it"[1]
     Swedish minister of foreign affairs, Carl Bildt

The 30th of May, Sweden will be the first country in the world to
open an official Embassy within Second Life, the online 3D multi user
environment owned by Linden Lab. The project is initiated by the
Swedish Institute[2](a culture and marketing department of the Swedish
ministry of foreign affairs, and according to the official blog even
Sweden's "road warrior for peace" the minister of foreign affairs as
well as former head of state, Carl Bildt, himself will attend the
opening[3]. But what happens when a specific mode of representation is
transferred to a new context? In this case a building for bilateral
governmental representation is transferred to a private corporation.

I'll use the Embassy in Second Life as a case study of mediation
between global web-based corporations and the notion of participation
in a time where privatized service platforms are becoming a standard
that most people (in this case even states!) uncritically are
subscribing to.

My starting point will be an examination of the embassy and its
representation, from an architectural perspective in relation to the
Swedish Government's Politics of Architecture on state representation
as well as from the point of view of the conflict between conventions
of diplomatic missions and the terms of use regulating the virtual

P o l i t i c s   o n   r e p r e s e n t a t i o n

According to the Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic Missions from 1961
embassies are established on mutual consent[4]. The function of an
embassy is to represent one state in another state by negotiation
between governments and protecting the interests of the sending
state and its inhabitants within the receiving state[5]. This is
achieved through reporting on the conditions and the development of
the receiving State to the sending State and by creating friendly
relations and developing the two States economic, cultural and
scientific relations[6].

In 1998 the Swedish government adopted a new policy on architecture
politics[7]. The Proposition was the first initiative to establish
a politics of architecture with an integrated plan and law on
architecture, crafts and design. The changes touched on a variety of
levels from the establishment of infrastructure, to city planning and
individual buildings.Basically this meant the addition of strings such
as 'aesthetically shaped' and 'should be aimed' into the existing
laws[8]. One chapter, though concerned the representation of the
public sphere and the state, "Public Sphere as Exemplary - the State
as Exemplary" [9], focusing on the importance of confirming the
role of the State through its representation. This also concerned
embassies, which are representations of the State in other States.
The new architecture politics added a new aspect to the embassy.
It was not enough to be an institution with the main function to
represent the State, now the institution itself (including its
own representation) had to be representative of the State - the
representation of the representation became representative. In this
way a Swedish Embassy would have to architecturally express what
Sweden stands for[10]- or at least what Sweden would like itself to
stand for.

A   H o u s e   o f   S w e d e n

The virtual embassy in Second Life will be a copy[11] of a real world
embassy: The House of Sweden, situated in central Washington DC next
to a big park and a river. The embassy was developed as a consequence
of the new politics on architecture. A competition was announced by
the Swedish National Property Board (SVF) in 2002 and the winning
proposal, designed by Gert Wingårdh and Thomas Hansen opened 2006[12].

House of Sweden is a concept developed in collaboration between the
Swedish National Property Board and the Swedish Ministry of Foreign
Affairs[13]. The house is a conglomerate that besides the actual
embassy consists of corporate apartments for the business industry and
an event center with conference rooms and exhibition space.

The building stands as a postmodern paraphrase of Scandinavian
modernism. It is a wooden glasshouse. Its facades consist of backlit
opaque glass with printed patterns of pressed wood and the interior a
romantic/nostalgic choice of materials associated with Swedish nature
and traditional Swedish craft like wood, granite and water[14]. The
reception desk is made of glass and a massive wooden door is opened
whenever the embassy is open for visitors[15]. Also it is possible
for 'anyone'[16] to rent the exhibition center and the conference
rooms of the house for events. As House of Sweden describes themselves
in a pamphlet with information about the building: "Some have said
that this type of open embassy is what the Americans themselves
should build, but cannot. [...] modern American embassies are instead
usually large, closed-off buildings located a safe distance from
everything else. Despite its openness, the House of Sweden has the
same level of security as other Swedish embassies, neither lower nor
higher."[17] - Open and relaxed, though under control. This is the
House of Sweden, the building as well as the concept marks itself in
opposition to the traditional embassy with openness, relaxation space
and an interweaving of the arts and the business world. Although it
is obvious the art is but a layer of the design branding the concept
of Sweden and the business environment. As a matter of fact even the
diplomatic mission itself seems to be there, in order to brand the
corporate apartments which take up most of the space in the whole
building[18], with apartments at the size of 70-250 m2 and a rent
of 40-60 USD/m2. The renters include Volvo group, Saab and Lars
Thunell, the vice president of World Bank[19]. A Swedish embassy's
original function was to take care of governmental negotiations,
official representation and the protection of Swedish people and their
interests within the USA. House of Sweden mirrors a shift in the role
of diplomatic missions, where the new embassy is rather an official
high end 'tourist bureau'. It serves the function of an exclusive
promotion platform - a show room for the darlings of the Swedish
business industry.

A   S e c o n d   H o u s e   o f   S w e d e n

The original embassy is designed for the human scale in relation to
the use of the building, the surroundings, the economical framework
and the politics of cultural representation. The final layout of
the floor plans and the materiality of the house reflect these
conditions[20]: office spaces are situated along glass facades in
order for people to enjoy the view of the park and the river, interior
stairs are covered with sound absorbent maple[21], elevators are
integrated for disabled people and things to move unhindered between
the floors, and the exhibition space is especially designed so that
big vehicles are able to enter when setting up a new exhibition[22].
In this way the entire building may be seen as a narrative product
of human scale and experience interweaved with the above mentioned

By shifting the medium or context from the real world to a 3d
simulated environment presented on a computer screen the elements are
changing. Even though the user is represented by a (if she wishes
humanlike) figure - the avatar, any navigation within the environment
is reduced to the four arrow-keys on the computer's keyboard and
the world is experienced through the screen with the image of one's
avatar's neck in the foreground[23]. One perceives the environment in
layers of resolution according to the graphic card and the capacity
of the processor of the computer that is being used. Patterns of
movements are radically different. The avatar itself doesn't get
exhausted, it is rather like a goal-less torpedo in constant pace as
long as the arrow-key is pressed down, it is only when the user behind
the screen gets tired that it stops and 'falls a sleep'. This makes
the planning of experience within the virtual embassy rather different
than from its real-world model. In the real House of Sweden, breaks
and pauses are implemented in the house according to the function. An
example is the sculpture of running water greeting you as you exit the
conference space[24], placed there in order to somehow refresh your
mind. In Second Life it is not the avatar who would be tired or need
a break after a long seminar, but rather the user behind the screen
and keyboard. An equivalent break could therefore be an interruption,
letting the screen go black and thereby forcing the user to shift
perspective from second to first life.

Compared to traditional closed off and mono functional embassies
the "real" Swedish embassy in Washington DC surprises at a first
glance by its openness allowing new activities to unfold within the
house and by being a glass house[25]. The glass house has a strong
tradition in modernism. It is an almost supposedly invisible trespass
between the outside and the inside. On the one hand it is a monument
of building technology's victory over nature's forces and modernism's
reaction against Victorian style, but on the other hand it is also
implementing an openness that paradoxically signifies control and
surveillance. The glass house offers the insider visual access and to
a certain degree the illusion of being part of the outside while at
the same time being protected from it. It gives the outsider visual
access to the inside, stating: "there is nothing to hide here". Using
the representation of glass in a virtual world though, is merely
pointless. In a virtual world there is no difference between interior
and exterior. One needs no protection from any weather situation
or nature forces and intrusion is not about closing the access by
building a wall or a window, but rather to alter and implement the
security into the code behind the representation. As a matter of fact
this is very easy in Second Life: Different security options are
incorporated into the 'land'. The land owner is able to decide which
level of security is active on her property,for instance making it
possible for the avatars to 'die', denying other users to build or
move objects on the property, or denying any access to the property
without permission. So if the owner i.e. wishes to give other users
only visual access to at part of her property she doesn't need to
build any transparent simulation of glass, but can implement this
in the code. A glass building in a 3d world is rather clumsy and
annoying: when trying to navigate through it and accessing visible
things, you constantly bump into the transparent walls.

One aspect of the original House of Sweden which might have a chance
to be more successful in a 3D online environment is concept of making
the embassy a platform for different events and activities. This
might be a case where the virtual world has an advantage since it
overcomes the difference of time-space in information technology by
allowing users who are spatially separated to experience the same
environment together in real-time. In Second Life most places give an
impression of being empty, but by establishing in-world events this
is exactly what the Swedish institute wants to avoid[26]. It is worth
noting though that the emptiness in Second Life is not only due to
a lack of visitors, but rather is connected to the scale of the 3d
environment and its relation to the capacity of the servers. Due to
server restrictions it is only possible to be 40 people at a time on
each island[27]. House of Sweden in Washington DC is 7500 m2 large.
The rooftop terrace alone is built to host 200 people at a time - just
for a cocktail party[28]. The diplomatic activities takes up 30% of
the spatial area of the house which has 50 people are working there
daily[29]. But considering the fact that only 40 people is capable of
accessing the whole island at a time, all of the employees wouldn't
even be able to meet in the virtual embassy. No wonder why SL feels
like suburbia - it is suburbia. The low density is exactly the same
problem that suburbs are struggling with. Considering the scale of the
building, no matter how many events they make the embassy will always
feel empty until a solution is found for increasing the capacity of
the servers and thereby making it possible for more people to access
it at the same time.

T h e   D i p l o m a t i c   B a g   m a y   n o t   
b e   o p e n e d

"The premises of the mission" are, according to article 1 of the
conventions of Diplomatic Missions" the buildings or parts of
buildings and the land ancillary thereto, irrespective of ownership,
used for the purposes of the mission including the residence of
the head of the mission"[30]. The actual premises of the Swedish
mission in Second Life will be a chunk of data stored on Linden Lab's
servers. The servers are computers physically placed in the state of
California, USA[31]. Visitors of the embassy will be able to access
the premises of the Swedish mission, the data on the servers via a
viewer (also called the client). This is a piece of software that
the users download and install on their own computers enabling them
to access data on Linden Lab's servers real time together with other
users, and thereby accessing the virtual diplomatic mission and the
rest of Second Life. But in order to access any aspect of Linden Lab's
Second Life the user has to agree with the terms of service[32] - a
virtual layer to the virtual world.

Second Life's Terms of Service consists of a 7000 words document
presented to the users as a click and agree contract after having
downloaded and installed the viewer and just before accessing the
service for the first time. The contract is un-negotiable. If you
disagree with parts of the terms you'll have to disagree with all by
clicking disagree at the end of the document. This in return means
that you are not allowed to enter the service at all. The code behind
the world is generating the environment, setting the parameters for
it and thus being the world. While the Terms of Service rather is a
regulative framework defining what-could-be or what-shouldn't-be, thus
governing the company in order not to be able to hold it responsible
for anything that might occur within its framework and giving it
absolute control of in-world decisions[33]. This is not necessarily
to be understood as a police state which wants to keep the control by
controlling anybody anytime. The control is rather latent 'in-case-of'
control, where the company in case something unexpected happens can
wash its hands saying "Oh, no! This is not our responsibility" or
"This was not our intention." The Terms of Service text is dense, the
document would take an average reader about 35 minutes to read[34],
which makes most people skip reading and just agree in order to access
the service immediately. General Director of the Swedish Institute,
Olle Wästberg describes his idea of establishing the embassy in Second
Life as the following: "I got myself a user account, this avatar as
it is called and logged in and it seemed to be a good marked place
for us. In collaboration with the ministry of foreign affairs we have
now decided to open an embassy"[35]. In the process of logging in
Olle Wästberg properly skipped reading the terms of service, because
if he would have read them he would have been aware that agreeing
with the terms of service is to violate the Vienna Conventions of
Diplomatic Missions and thus making it impossible to establish any
embassy whatsoever in Second Life.

There are three aspects of the Conventions for Diplomatic Missions
which are violated by Second Life's Terms of Service: (i) the first
regards the inviolability of the Diplomatic Mission itself, (ii) the
second is the inviolability of the premises of the Mission including
its property, furniture, archives and documents and (iii) the last
concerns the inviolability of Diplomatic Agents.

(i) A Diplomatic Mission is inviolable[36]. It means that the
receiving state is not allowed to enter the embassy without
permission. The receiving state is even obliged to protect the embassy
as best as it can. But in Second Life any kind of data stored on
Linden Lab's servers (for instance the embassy itself, accumulated
items like Linden dollars, content, scripts, objects, account history
or account names) are subject to deletion or alteration at any time
for any reason or even without a reason in the sole discretion of
Linden Lab[37].

(ii) Premises of a Mission are "immune from search, requisition,
attachment or execution"[38]. But in Second Life the user must
authorize Linden Lab to disclose any kind of information the
corporation finds "appropriate to investigate"[39] to "private
entities, law enforcement agencies or government officials"[40]
Furthermore Linden Lab has the right to follow, track and record
any of the user's activities within the service[41] this includes
activities taking place within the premises of the virtual embassy.

(iii) "The person of a diplomatic agent shall be inviolable. He shall
not be liable to any form of arrest or detention. The receiving State
shall treat him with due respect and shall take all appropriate steps
to prevent any attack on his person, freedom or dignity[42]." In
Second Life the user is represented by an account name. It is the name
of the character that represents the user and whereas the character
itself can be changed and remodeled immensely the account name is
static. The account name is equivalent to the representation of a
diplomatic agent, and "Linden Lab reserves the right to delete or
change any Account Name for any reason or no reason"[43]

By being located within the Linden Lab Corporation the Swedish embassy
in Second Life is subordinate to the terms of service conducted
by Linden Lab and thus breaking with the conventions related to
diplomatic missions. This is recursive since any future visitor of the
embassy will be forced to do the same[44]. In this way the notion of
participation in this kind of virtual world is uncritically accepted
and without getting acquainted with the conditions that the users
are agreeing with in order to be allowed to participate. There is no
consular service provided at the embassy in Second Life, instead it
will link to 'real' web-sites where you can get info about how to
obtain visa etc. But why do the users need to access second life and
subscribe to the terms of service in order to exit Second Life to get
the information that the virtual embassy provides?!

F o r   a n y   r e a s o n   o r   n o  r e a s o n ?

In order " to make sure it [edit: the virtual Swedish Embassy] exudes
"Swedishness""[45] the Swedish Institute has hired the design bureau
Söderberg A/S to manage the layout of the virtual copy of House
of Sweden and its surroundings in Second Life. But is it really
possible for a design bureau "to manage the overall look and feel of
the sim (or "island")"[46]for it to signify Swedishness? According
to the architecture politics the answer seems to be yes, and the
initiators are obviously thinking of the look of the Swedish nature.
But is Swedishness only a semiotic layer wrapping up the structures
by making a realistic simulation of the Swedish landscape? Doesn't
the representation go beyond the aesthetical layer and isn't it
rather a matter of inscription into context? Let me give an example:
In the official announcement the Swedish Institute is motivating
the set-up of the virtual embassy by the following:"Reaching out
internationally, to an increasingly selective crowd, calls for an
inventive and progressive way of working with communication. It is
of great importance that we find our target groups where they are
most likely to be open to our information, in their own context."[47]
But it is certainly difficult to imagine the Swedish government
approving any kind of set-up of an embassy within a real world private
corporation - a Disney-like amusement park, no matter how well any
designers would have managed to give it an overall look and feel
of "Swedishness", or no matter how good a market any Disney world
whatsoever would be for targeting progressive individuals where they
are most likely to be open for Sweden's promotion.

It is obvious that the Swedish Institute is not familiar with the
structures they are inserting the virtual embassy into. At the
official announcement at their web-page the description of Second Life
says: "Second Life is a 3-D virtual world and is built and owned by
its residents."[48]It is an exact copy of how Linden Lab describes
themselves in "What is Second Life?" [49] on their webpage. But as we
have already seen Second Life is not owned by its inhabitants. It is a
private space owned by the corporation Linden Lab. The users are able
to create content with reserved intellectual property rights within
the environment, but any content stored on Linden Labs servers (which
every part of the users environment are) are according to the terms
of service owned by Linden Lab and subject to deletion. The empty
phrase is adopted by the Swedish Institute without reflection. The
establishing of a diplomatic mission in Second Life is a continuation
of the pattern that the House of Sweden already is a part of - an
embassy as a show case for the Swedish brand, the nation state in
competition with global corporations. So far Second Life has been the
arena of big global corporations as MTV, NIKE, Reuters, but now the
state is trying to compete with the corporations as if it itself was
a corporation - a brand. From August 2006 to January 2007 the media
coverage related to Second Life had increased by "nearly 150%"[50]
and when the Swedish Institute in the end of January announced their
intentions of opening the virtual embassy they immediately got
worldwide media coverage everywhere, from BBC News to India news[51].
But the Swedish Embassy in Second Life is a media stunt with very
little critical reflection behind it. Eventually the Swedish Institute
is surfing waves of a media attention, which finally most of all is
branding Second Life itself.

A kind of excuse for this argument is be found on the blog of Second
House of Sweden where Stefan Greens writes: "Ironically, once concern
we had was that the decision to go ahead with the project amid the
hype might make it look like we were taken in by the hype, when in
fact we were going in despite the hype, because we felt we really
wanted to figure out now how to use virtual worlds as a place to tell
people about Sweden."[52] Virtual worlds have been around for more
than 15 years. Already 7 years ago the environment Online Traveler had
sound[53], an aspect which Linden Lab is just now trying to develop.If
the Swedish Institute was interested in using virtual worlds and had
decided to take a political stand point with an awareness of the
user's position within these worlds, a non-profit open source version
as for instance Croquet[54] would have been an obvious choice. Of
course there would not be so many users or so much hype around it, but
maybe Sweden could have started a discussion related to the public
sphere of information technology. However there is no reason for
establishing embassies in an open source network.

A b r i d g e d   s o   f a r

Second Life is a centralized structure. It is a closed network of
servers all under the domain of Linden Lab, much like a state. Second
Life and Sweden are separated entities. The usual way for a state
to establish relations with another state is for the sending state
to create a representation of itself within the otherness of the
receiving state - the embassy. But in an open source structure where
the servers are connected in a distributed network it would not
be necessary for Sweden to enter this otherness and establish a
representation there, rather it could create its own server, with
its own set of rules interlinked with the other servers - much as a
country, but not as an embassy.

Now is a time where standards are introduced, people are inhabiting
the net. This should be done not by establishing embassies, but
through critical discussion and reflection on and understanding of the
public sphere which is possible within the information structures.
A sphere which is being hi-jacked by private corporations without
anybody noticing. The Sweden which eventually will be represented in
Second Life is a state where all critical reflection is put aside
on the behalf of elevating Sweden's profile - and no matter how
well designed it might be, it is but a brand lacking any content
- since the representation is not representing any thing but the
representation itself.

/Linda Hilfling - MA Media Design Student Piet Zwart Institute ,
Rotterdam, May 2007

R e f e r e n c e s:
[1] From Carl Bildt's personal blog  from the 30th of
January 2007. The blog entry was Bildt's response
after for the first time acquiring the news about the
Swedish embassy in Second Life via a BBC-news article.
The entry is called 'Heja Olle Wästberg" and is aimed
at the director of the Swedish institute Olle
olle-wastberg/   [my translation from Swedish]
[2] Official announcement by the Swedish Institute,
Jan 2007:
[4] Article 2, Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic
Missions, 1961:
[5] Article 3.1a; 3.1b; 3.1c - Vienna Conventions on
Diplomatic Missions,
[6] Article 3.1d; 3.1e, Vienna Conventions on
Diplomatic Missions, 1961:
[7] Handlingsprogram för arkitektur, formgivning och
[8] Suggestions to alterations of existing laws
Framtidsformer -
Handlingsprogram för arkitektur, formgivning och
design, pp 5-9
[9] "Offentligt som förebild - Staten som förebild"
Framtidsformer -
Handlingsprogram för arkitektur, formgivning och
pp 25-3 -
[10] "New expectations for future embassies" -
Background material - House of Sweden, page 2
[11] Official announcement by the Swedish Institute:
[12] "The architecture competition" - Background
material - House of Sweden, p 3
[13] "A new concept is born" - Background material -
House of Sweden, p 2
[14] See photo of facades:
type=image/jpeg  - more photos from interior to be
found at:
http://www.wingardhs.se/php/flash.html | under
projects - 2006
[15] "The various parts of the building - a tour" -
Background material - House of Sweden, p 4
[17] "The various parts of the building - a tour" -
Background material - House of Sweden, p 6
[18] All together the house consists of five floors of
which 1½ floors belongs to the embassy, 1½ floor
belong to the event center and 2 floors makes space
for 19 corporate apartments. This means that 70% of
building is reserved for activities related to
business and events, and only 30% of the space of the
whole house is related to traditional diplomatic
[19] "The various parts of the building - a tour" -
Background material - House of Sweden, p 6
[20] Floor plans:
[21] "The various parts of the building - a tour" -
Background material - House of Sweden, p 5
[22] "The various parts of the building - a tour" -
Background material - House of Sweden, p 4
[23] If not 'mouse look' is enabled, which is an
alternative navigation mode where the mouse is used
for all navigation and the user have first perspective
view, but this mode is rather difficult to control
with a mouse and is probably better suited for a
[24] "The various parts of the building - a tour" -
Background material - House of Sweden, p 5
[25] Compare for instance with the photos of different
American embassies published at Wikipedia:
[26] Stefan Geens at:
[27] Alvar C.H Freude: "Warum Second Life kein Web 3.0
ist" p.24 - a power point presentation
[28] "The various parts of the building - a tour" -
Background material - House of Sweden, p 7
[29] "The various parts of the building - a tour" -
Background material - House of Sweden, p 5
[30]Article 1, Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic
Missions, 1961:
[31] General Provisions - Terms of Service:
[32] First paragraph - Terms of Service:
[33] The string "no liability" appears 3 times, "any
reason or no reason" appears six times and "sole
discretion" appearing 17 times in the Terms of
[34] According to http://mindbluff.com/askread.htm#5
[35] Olle Wästberg as quoted by in Alexandra Hernadi
in Svenska dagbladet -
[my translation from Swedish]
[36] Article 22.1 and 22.2 - Vienna Conventions on
Diplomatic Missions, 1961:
[37] 5.3 Terms of Service. See also similar statements
in 1.4; 1.6; 2.6 and
3.2b: http://secondlife.com/corporate/tos.php
[38] Article 22.3 and 24 - Vienna Conventions on
Diplomatic Missions, 1961:
[39] 6.1 Terms of Service:
[40] 6.1 Terms of Service:
[41] 6.2 Terms of Service:
[42] Article 29 (see also 30.2) - Vienna Conventions
on Diplomatic Missions, 1961:
[43] 2.3 Terms of Service:
[44]  Second Life's Terms of Use, first paragraph:
http://secondlife.com/corporate/tos.php as of 29th of
April 2007
[45] Stefan Geens at
[46] Stefan Geens at
[47] Olle Wästberg quoted at the webpage of the
Swedish Institute -
[49] http://secondlife.com/whatis/
[50] Factiva: Percentage increase comparisons of media
coverage about Second Life between months of August
2006 and January 2007 as quoted by Joel Cere:
[51] BBC:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/6310915.stm ; India
[52] Stefan Geens at:
[53] We used Online Traveler in 2000 as a platform for
online access to the electrohype2000 conference in
Malmö, Sweden:
[54] In croquet both server and client are open source
in opposition to Second Life which only has opened the
source code to the client - the viewer, but not to the

p d f - f o r m a t:

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