In a few years, our evenings will be spent on the couch, perhaps a good portion of our weekends too, luxurious headsets nestled comfortably over our eyes for hours. Occasionally we’ll get up to swing at something in the metaverse, hit the coffee table and end up in ER getting stitches. Which will be okay since we’ll have our headset on to distract us from the pain. Afterwards, we may create an NFT from an image of the stitches in our shin to help soothe our bruised ego and buy something in the metaverse. Thanks to the decentralization of Web3 however, it was hard to find the right channel to sell the NFT. Next time.
You might be forgiven for thinking this will be the case. It might be. The reality is, we have no real idea what the metaverse will end up looking or behaving like or Web3. If there will be one mega metaverse and then a bunch of spin-off mini-metaverses, or just a whole bunch of metaverses controlled by various large tech giants, perhaps some that don’t exist today.
The truth today is that both concepts are a complete mess. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps the big question, however, is how do we keep it human? Followed by, what does it mean for either to be human-centric?
The ideas for what the metaverse could and should be are as many as the stars in our galaxy right now. Some say it will be decentralized heaven. Others that it can only be centralized. Some that it will just be a forest of games and NFT art galleries and musical events. There will be cryptocurrencies and thus wealth beyond imagining. Others propose a dystopian system for digital oligarchs.
The claim that it will bring us closer together is highly circumspect. Social media have wrought greater divisions in societies around the world and where it was supposed to essentially wipe out authoritarian governments, it didn’t. It made them stronger. Hopefully, we will get through this phase and figure it out. But that requires society to engage with governments and businesses. At a global scale. Solving the issues around social media is a human problem. Not a business or technology problem.
Underpinning this whole metaverse idea is of course, Web3. The pundits tells us, and some very large Tech Giants and venture capitalists, that it will be decentralized and usher in a whole new era of consumer choice, capabilities and control. It will be decentralized, so the centralized say. It is, some say, what will be the very fabric that makes the metaverse possible. for some they’re mutually intertwined, for others something else. Decentralized apps and services. Driven largely by cryptocurrency, an idea that is currently one of the most mistrusted issues in society. Most think it will be devoid of the Tech Giants. This is a nice idea, but wishful thinking.
Keep in mind that both Web3 and the metaverse (ideas only, neither yet real) need infrastructure to work on. A global fibre optic network, satellites, routers, switches, hubs, data centres, energy plants and lines, computers, smartphones, tablets…all are operated by centralized companies. They are not run by volunteers. They are not manufactured by volunteers.
So how do we keep it human? For now, the dialogue on both these ideas is largely being driven by technologists and capitalists that decidedly do not like decentralization. Capitalism, when properly applied, such when the consumer has the power, is elegant and superb. Unfortunately, capitalism has turned a bit dark of late. The product is the dividend delivered to the shareholder, not the product a consumer benefits from. Technologists have paid little heed to the fundamentals of humanity, hooking us on dopamine in the absence of sugar, salt and fat. Humans are easily addicted to things.
For the majority of consumers and citizens out there, they barely understand what the metaverse is, few care. It is an intangible idea. VR headsets aren’t selling well. More are being sold, but the market remains infinitely small compared to smartphones and computers. That is an indicator of market desire. Or lack thereof. Fewer people yet understand what decentralization even is or means, and it too, is an intangible.
To be more human-centric would be to have some considerations for the potential outcomes. To engage sociologists, cultural anthropologists, artists, educators, LGTBQ+ communities, philosophers, teachers, students, writers and ensure engagement with multiple faiths, races and cultural representatives. We know what happened with social media, we’ve seen the good and the bad. We know that Artificial Intelligence has gender and racial bias. We know that all technologies, even though they’re neutral, can be both good and bad. There are always unintended consequences. We can’t know all of them, but we can do better preparing. Especially for those we now know.
The metaverse and Web3 will not foster a utopia, nor a full on dystopia. But if they evolve in an inclusive manner, they could foster a protopia. Something more balanced. When a technology is driven by the wrong side of capitalism, it is guaranteed to be centralized. When it is purely driven by technologists, we get the bad side social media and something less human.
These platform technologies will be global. If they move beyond the mess they are today. We should think of them in the context of a global society, not a single country or culture. Having studied social media globally for over a decade as a digital (cultural) anthropologist, I’ve seen more than I’d like to have seen. I’ve worked with the UN to understand how online hate speech translates to violence in the street and with foreign affairs in democratic countries to understand gender violence in developing nations through social media. I’ve worked with international non-profits and IGO’s studying digital communities and the impacts of social media on societies and cultures. The way social media products and platforms were designed was not for a global society. The application layer of social media over the internet was so new, we could not have foreseen 95% of the potential consequences. But we know enough now to make better decisions and calculations.
I also see that we can do better than the mess that’s in front of us right now.
If we’re going to adapt as a species to our digital world, it’s time to think of technologies like this from a human-first viewpoint. To ask what it means to be human in the Cognitive Age.