How can the metaverse be more human?

Design thinking & digital worlds

Emerging Tech

by Paul Simpson — May 11, 2023

How would you feel about a future in which your facial expressions are monetised? If you were watching a piece of content in the metaverse, software could scan your face to detect how interested you were. In principle, the more engaged you were, the more money the provider could charge a sponsor of – or advertiser in – that content.

This is not science fiction. It is probably already technologically feasible and could, experts warn, just be the start if, as predicted, millions of us immerse ourselves in the metaverse and the worlds of Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR). As Micaela Mantegna, an expert on ethics, AI and the metaverse says: “We can move into a situation where all this really intimate biometric and physiological data is being radiated from our bodies, and captured by technology in a way that infringes our fundamental neural rights.”

The four questions that trouble many – even some advocates of this technology – are:

  1. What data will be collected?
  2. Where will that data go?
  3. How will that data be used?
  4. Who will make money from that data?

The answers to these questions will help decide whether the metaverse creates the kind of dystopia that heroes in sci-fi movies flee into virtual worlds to escape from, or actually enriches the lives of billions of people rather than primarily enriching its creators. In this struggle for the very nature of the metaverse, the discipline of Design Thinking, as taught at London’s Design Thinkers Academy London, needs to play a pivotal role.

Let’s start by clarifying what we mean by the metaverse and Design Thinking.

How many metaverses are there?

The first thing we need to do is recognise that the definite article before the term ‘metaverse’ is misleading. Neal Stephenson, author of the 1992 novel Snow Crash, which predicted this future (and is now required reading in Silicon Valley), sums up the difference between metaverses succinctly: “The purpose of VR is to take you to a completely made-up place. The purpose of AR is to change your experience of the place you are already in. They are completely separate and almost unrelated.”

Stephenson’s definition suggests that there will be two metaverses. In practice, there may well be many more than that. At present, companies such as Meta (the rebranded Facebook), Apple and Niantic (which developed the platform that supported the Pokemon Go AR game), have very different visions of this technology.

Some developers talk of virtual worlds built democratically through crowdsourcing, yet in some instances – notably Meta, which has pledged to invest $10bn a year in this technology – the rationale is more hard nosed and commercial. As the Chinese and Russian governments’ management of the internet has shown, authoritarian regimes may create their own hermetically sealed metaverses or monitor these worlds so intensely that citizens would be afraid to experience them.

The pioneers of the metaverse may have different motivations and business models but there is one thing they agree on: some level of interoperability is essential so that users can switch seamlessly between different worlds. (The alternative, and unsatisfactory, scenario is that we end up in a similar place to gaming, where users owe allegiance to specific brands of the metaverse.) To justify all the money being pumped into it, the metaverse needs to be as widely available and accessible as the internet is today. Defining the industry-wide standards will be a multi-billion dollar debate and reaching agreement will be tough, especially because serious discussions haven’t really started yet.

Putting people first

So what role can Design Thinking play in all this?

The clue’s in the name. The discipline unites the designer’s traditional concern for the aesthetics, utility and effectiveness of a product or service with a way of thinking about the world that aims to meet needs and solve problems. As the smartphone has proven, these needs can be ones that we don’t even know we have.

One of the core tenets of Design Thinking is putting users first :

“User-centred design is a method of turning ideas into value, of linking creativity and innovation and achieving outcomes that are good for business, people and the planet.”

David Kester
Managing Director, DK&A

So, if we consider the metaverse through this lens, it is imperative that our role as individuals is not primarily – if not exclusively – generating lucrative data, which is how many existing digital platforms treat us. The critical question for developers is: how will the metaverse improve people’s daily lives?

Nick Kelly, interaction design lecturer at Queensland University of Technology, fears that corporations and states will “use the metaverse to prioritise economic goals over human lives. This is not about traditional authoritarianism but rather about what the French philosopher Guy Debord refers to as “the diffuse spectacle”— controlling us in ways we’re not aware of, changing the essence of who we are, what we desire from life, and our internal concepts.”

In Kester’s view, successful Design Thinking balances business success, human needs and technological innovation. At the moment, Kelly says: “The metaverse, as the large tech companies are trying to build it, is not about solving problems that ordinary citizens currently have. It is about having even more of our everyday human experiences mediated by technology. The owners of those platforms can sell predictions about what you will do, manipulate your behaviours, or make money from transactions that occur within them as a marketplace. The calculus is simple: the more of your experiences that happen within their platform, the more money they can make.”

The proponents of the metaverse are, Kelly adds, promoting it as “giving you a spatial presence, more lifelike interactions with other human beings, and new possibilities for things to experience. Such features might be useful in some cases but these are not problems most people need solving.” This is why, he believes, the tech sector will spend huge amounts of money to stimulate demand. That is why open standards are so critical and also why, tech executives predict, much of the hardware we need to enter these worlds – such as AR glasses – will virtually be given away.

Imaginative failures and unintended consequences

Let’s be clear, the metaverse is not inherently evil, but it is inherently problematic. As Kelly argues: “The trouble is that our collective imagination is rarely up to the task of imagining the new accidents that a new technology will invite into our lives. We saw this back in the 1920s when radioactive toothpaste, containing thorium, was promoted as a miracle remedy, and we’ve seen it more recently with social media.”

The law of unintended consequences is reflected in the way the internet, initially hailed as a guarantor of democracy, has become the most effective means for disseminating disinformation in the history of humanity. It also explains how social media, promoted as a platform for making friends, has evolved into an arena for insulting strangers.

In the past, Silicon Valley’s business model has been driven by technological determinism: the belief that new technologies will reshape our society. Yet the opposite is also true: society can choose which technologies it wants to embrace.

As Kelly says:

“It serves corporations well to ‘move fast and break things’ but it would serve citizens far better to ‘move slowly and regulate new technologies conservatively’”.

Nick Kelly
Interaction design lecturer, Queensland University of Technology

And now for the good news

It is worth reiterating that it is possible to envisage many iterations of the metaverse that make our world(s) better. Learning a foreign language might well be easier if students could virtually meet native speakers. The metaverse could spur innovation by facilitating the iteration of virtual prototypes of products and services. It could foster communities of like-minded people – not just gamers, but Taylor Swift fans and historical re-enactment societies. It could even, John Hanke, CEO of Niantic believes, inspire us to “stand up, walk outside, and connect with people and the world around us, which is what we humans were born to do.”

A human-centred approach to the development of the metaverse would also factor in one particularly fundamental need we all share: a world to live on. A fierce debate is still raging over the environmental consequences of building the infrastructure to support the metaverse. Some of the statistics are alarming. Intel predicts that we will need a thousand-fold increase in computer capacity. It has also been estimated that developing one AI model to interact in the metaverse will produce five times as many carbon emissions as a typical car will emit during its lifetime (and that includes those produced during the vehicle’s manufacture).

With the metaverse still in its infancy, it is important not to take such figures out of context but, at the very least, the tech sector will need to be much more transparent about its carbon footprint than it has been to date.

The future of realities

What we don’t know about the metaverse is exponentially greater than what we do know. One social, moral and philosophical question hangs over its development: if most of us choose to spend most of our time in our own augmented and virtual realities, will societies still exist? And, indeed, will reality?

The question is: how much metaverse will we want? Will, as Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg dearly hopes, billions of us choose to immerse ourselves in it on a daily basis? The pessimistic view is that ultimately the metaverse finds its niche as a much higher form of online gaming. Yet others, notably Elon Musk, are investing millions in the belief that we will want to hook up our minds to it by computer. There are also some indications that Western societies have become less excited by this technology since the cost of living crisis began to bite: Google Trends data shows that interest has fallen globally by 75% since Facebook became Meta in October 2021.

The truth is that we have the time, creativity and opportunity to imagine a future state in which the metaverse serves us all, whether we are developers, owners or users. We can define a blueprint for reaching that future state – even if that blueprint goes through many iterations along the way. If we apply the principles of Design Thinking – and keep asking ourselves how this technology can improve people’s lives – we have a chance of creating better worlds.

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