Metaverse - How do we build a fairer digital world?


The Metaverse - digital worlds that await us at the tip of our fingers. This may sound like a distant, futuristic world but the Metaverse is already upon us. Our digital and physical lives are intertwined in ways that generations before us could never imagine. I call people that I’ve never met in real life, my ‘friends’, and I travel across the world to live and meet up with people I met through Twitter and Discord. The Metaverse makes the world feel smaller. However, as the Metaverse and our physical worlds are starting to converge, the problems from our physical universe are beginning to bleed into and shape the Metaverse. Building the Metaverse is an opportunity for technologists to create a new world free of discrimination, abuses, and capitalistic desires that plague our physical world. However, to do so, we have to stop trying to imitate the physical world and dismantle the structures that shape current society.

Many digital worldbuilding platforms were created to replicate our physical world. Metaverse technologies have recreated shopping experiences, holographic concerts, virtual offices, and all aspects of daily life in the digital world 1, but this comes with dangers that we’ll imitate societal problems in the metaverse as well. Some extreme examples of this include Metaverse workplace and strip clubs. Working from home in a Metaverse environment means you may lose the right to privacy with sensors, monitors, and cameras being pointed at you to create a realistic virtual world2. If immersive Metaverse workplaces become mainstream, “it will allow surveillance of employees who will have no choice but to consent”2. Furthermore, unlike the physical world where (responsible) bouncers will turn away underaged from entering strip clubs, with our current technology, strip clubs in the metaverse are unable to reliably verify age and identities and can create environments where sexual abuse and harassment run rampant 3. Even seemingly harmless games like Club Penguin and Minecraft, what some argue to be the first iterations of the Metaverse4, replicate social and economic hierarchies that exist in our physical world. “The haves [are] the cooler kids [with] access to a credit card to purchase … in-game currency. The have-nots didn’t have the approval of a parent to purchase virtual clothing and avatar upgrades”5. Those with the means to purchase in-game currency or premium memberships can work less for more benefits. In her comparison of childhood games to a capitalistic metaverse, she recalls that she “was gated from having the power to purchase goods that were reserved for the elite.” When building a more inclusive Metaverse, we must re-imagine a world that's not driven by capitalism and worlds built on the backs of those less fortunate.

Metaverses have the power to reshape what borders mean. Without the constraint of physical borders, theoretically, users can buy and sell goods, interact with one another and have access to services not limited by their geographic regions1. However, the lack of physical borders does not prevent the emergence of digital borders. In the web3 world, token-gating has started to gain tremendous traction. In short, they are a way to ‘gate’ communities by requiring members to own a certain amount or type of tokens to access a community. Unfortunately, most of the literature surrounding token gating present this phenomenon in an overwhelmingly positive light with few mainstream critics questioning this practice. They describe token gating as “a great way to control sensitive information, certain web pages, exclusive video and audio content, chatrooms, and virtual and physical events”6. However, Tokens can be extremely expensive such as the Bored Ape Yacht Club NFTs or Friends with Benefits tokens which cost thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars to purchase. These tokens formalize the requirements for who can and cannot engage with and join communities – essentially mimicking physical borders. Token gating has the potential to be just as problematic as our world’s current physical border system due to how high the barrier to entry is between communities with an emphasis on wealth and connections to gain entry to communities. To ensure that people in the Metaverse have equitable access to opportunities, the token-gating trend has to be rebuilt with financial and social accessibility in mind.

A unique benefit of engaging in the Metaverse is the general expectation that users may leave their physical and “real-world” identities behind them in favor of pseudonyms and avatars 1. However, discrimination based on identity still runs rampant even when people adopt alternative identities. Naturally, people gravitate towards avatars that remind them of themselves7. So it’s no surprise that many popular NFT (non-fungible token) creators launch humanoid-like avatar collections that have different skin tones and features to appeal to a wide range of audiences. Avatar projects like Crypto Coven and CryptoPunks, “lighter-skinned avatars on average trade higher than the mid-and dark-skinned ones, while male avatars trade higher than female ones”. Studies like this show that the biases we hold against people of certain skin color and traits have been carried over into the Metaverse. To prevent identity-based discrimination in the Metaverse, perhaps we have to adopt an entirely new paradigm of avatars – ones that do not reflect humanlike properties. Avatar trends like aliens, animals, and cartoons have started to take over the Metaverse with users adopting visual identities that do not depict humans. While these projects are typically not built with diversity and inclusion in mind, they may be the right step forward in leaving behind identity-based bias in the Metaverse.

Many visions of the Metaverse include clunky augmented reality headsets and expensive holographic equipment1. This creates a financial barrier to even access the Metaverse, let alone engage with it. Moreover, experiences that able-bodied people can enjoy in the Metaverse may not be transferable to disabled populations. “Virtual reality and augmented reality technology is already more than sufficient to bring disabled people into virtual worlds; the challenge is in fine-tuning that technology to best serves those with disabilities”. As more of the world starts to intertwine daily activities with the Metaverse, it will be increasingly important to ensure we are not leaving marginalized groups behind. Financial, mental and physical accessibility must be priorities for corporations and technologists developing Metaverse technology.

The Declaration of Interdependence of Cyberspace eloquently declares that “We claim to build the “Metaverse,” yet we have trapped our wisdom within walled gardens, trafficked human connections for advertising dollars, and imposed our technocratic value system onto our diverse cultures”. When we design and build the Metaverse, we have the opportunity to create a world that is not bound by the same limitations as the physical world. We can create a world that is more inclusive, more accessible, and more just. But in order to do so, we must be intentional about the systems we create. We must design with inclusion in mind, and we must build with the understanding that the Metaverse is for everyone. Only this way may we dare to create “open digital spaces of collective autonomy and shared ownership”.

I've been thinking about what life in the metaverse could look like for a while. In my tech ethics class, one of the essay topics was related to the Metaverse and how discrimination and injustices from our physical world could manifest in the digital world. This is the result of that exploration.

  1. Ravenscraft, Eric. What is the Metaverse Exactly?
  2. Desai, Shweta. Metaverse problematic in work environment, warns Facebook whistle-blower
  3. Crawford, Angus and Smith, Tony. Metaverse app allows kids into virtual strip clubs
  4. Thompson, Clive.  The Metaverse Is Already Here — It’s Minecraft
  5. Zuo, Nancy. capitalism in virtual worlds
  6. Token-Gating is like a Bouncer for your Exclusive Online Community
  7. Singal, Jesse. What Do People’s Online Avatars Say About Them?

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