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A New (Virtual) Frontier for Ethics

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The Ethics Resource Center, I must admit, did not sound at first like it would be the most exciting organization. But, they asked me to come speak at their Fellows Program about what Dell has done in Second Life, and I'll talk to anyone who will listen to me about the possibilities of virtual worlds.

 

I envisioned straight-laced, strict, rule-making (ok, boring) people who would be fretting about the dangers of this new technology. What I encountered was a diverse group of individuals who share a genuine desire to help their corporations, government agencies, non-profit organizations and educational institutions operate the "right way" for those they serve and those who serve with them.

 

And the conversations at the first evening's reception were anything but boring, as I found myself enjoying discussions that ranged from virtual worlds and social media, to the Four Levels of Happiness and Plato's cave.

 

The next day I was one of four speakers lending our insight into social media and virtual worlds, including: David Childers from Ethicspoint, Inc., Professor Deborah G. Johnson author of Computer Ethics, and Sean Kane a fellow past speaker at Virtual Worlds (now Engage! Expo).

 

My primary role was tour guide. Virtual worlds are hard to truly grasp until you actually go inside them. Snapshots in PowerPoint decks can't really do them justice, so I woke to a bit of panic when I saw that Second Life was going down for an hour of emergency maintenance right before my time on the day's agenda! Fortunately, I made it in and spent what turned out to be too short of a time taking the Fellows on a walking, and flying, tour of Dell Island.

 

We stopped near a gazebo to talk about our 2007 Earth Day event and discuss how we handled things when a protestor showed up. We dropped in at the coffee shop where our technical support guru, Esperto Dell, was hanging out to dispense customer assistance instead of virtual coffee. That provided an opportunity to talk about how Dell expects our employees to adhere to our real world Code of Conduct and policies such as our Online Communication policy when representing us in virtual worlds. A trip to the conference center brought a discussion of privacy issues that might arise when our employees hold meetings there.

 

Afterwards, the attendees broke up into three groups to discuss what ethics and compliance issues were involved in some real life scenarios, such as the virtual strike by IBM workers in Italy and whether U.S. minimum wage policies applied when paying in Lindens. A panel discussion between all the day's speakers and the audience followed with some thought-provoking dialogue amongst the group.

 

All-in-all, it was a great time of learning for everyone, including myself. While I still firmly believe that most virtual world ethical issues can be addressed with real world policies already in place, I'm more personally aware of some things such as the procedures involved in investigating harassment charges that could be difficult in virtual environments.

 

It is brave new territory we are venturing into and it's great to see groups like the Ethics Resource Center eager to learn about it and prepare their organizations to enter it on high ground.

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