Technology monopolies have conquered the web. As we move to virtual world, we should strive for openness
Picture: Daniel Stolle
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The global pandemic has pushed us all indoors and further online. We work, learn, live and play in virtual spaces and digital communities. We spend time with friends via a screen and a Zoom filter and explore fictional and ancient worlds on gaming or e-learning platforms. Video game worlds have become so much more than play, with players hanging out in lobbies and splurging billions on the latest skins and avatar mods, or enjoying concerts in virtual reality. Cryptocurrency-backed digital artworks – such as BEEPLE’s record-breaking Everydays: the First 5000 Days – witnessed a sudden boom, and burst into the mainstream. We are marching toward what author Neal Stephenson called “the Metaverse”: a global, interconnected galaxy of virtual worlds, avatars, online communities, and mixed reality. Stephenson first conceived the Metaverse in 1992 in his novel Snow Crash, now widely considered a science fiction classic. More and more, this concept is leaving the realm of sci-fi, and entering our current reality.
But curb your enthusiasm. As things stand, this new reality is already shaping up along the familiar, proprietary, monopolistic lines that have characterised – and dogged – the most recent phase of the internet’s evolution. The platforms where the Metaverse is being created have become walled gardens, increasingly centralised and controlled by corporate interests. Facebook owns WhatsApp, Instagram and Oculus, giving them ownership of our friends, our behaviour, our gait, eye movement and emotional state. Google, Amazon and Apple all are vying to build the next dominant VR and gaming platforms, hoping to build upon their data dominance and entrenched market positions.
That is no small risk. Our past reluctance to challenge the dangers of black-box algorithms, opaque curation systems and predatory privacy practices has already brought the world a splurge of disinformation and manipulation, the rise of pernicious conspiracy theories and the triumph of surveillance capitalism. As we enter the age of the Metaverse we are sleepwalking into a future where continuing to ignore these red flags could be catastrophic – where the true danger is not just that we are known, but that we can be led.
Virtual reality developers will be familiar with the concept of “redirected walking” – a clever technique to cause a player to walk in circles while thinking they are walking in a straight line. It allows you to explore huge dungeons in the comfort of your living room without ever walking into the wall, as you are nudged in the directions the game developers want you to take. It’s classic misdirection, and surprisingly easy to do – a little visual nudge here, an audio cue there and before you know it, you’re facing the way you came without ever realising you’ve been turned around.
In the same way, what we see, who we speak to, and what we learn is being manipulated every day, turning our opinions this way and that. Facebook decides which of our friends we keep track of and what news we see; Twitter and YouTube control who is recommended, who is monetised, and who gets de-platformed; Google orchestrates the direction and spin of our search results. As movement-tracking, eye-tracking, neural input and biometrics are integrated to “enrich our experience” in the Metaverse, these platforms will become even more deft at inferring our moods and use them to manipulate our opinions, sources of information and community – in real time.
As that data is collected, shared, sold and inevitably hacked, it will be weaponised by those seeking profit or new ways to hurt or intimidate – by ruthless advertisers, hateful trolls and malicious state actors. Social media and voice assistant data will allow predators to graduate from text-chat to deepfake videos of grandma Facetiming our children to have them unlock the front door. Today’s Twitter harassment pales against the future ability to target Jewish people with mixed-reality recreations of deathcamps in their front yards, or bombard sexual assault survivors with violent imagery on their walk to work. Automated, cross-reality illusions, tailor-made by using intimate knowledge of each individual’s life and mental states will take disinformation on a whole new level, destroying our ability to trust any source of information. If the rise of QAnon worried you, brace yourself for QAnon in VR.Most Popular
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There is, however, an alternative – a way of leveraging our shift towards virtual worlds in order to claw back the control we have relinquished to big tech. The convergence of new technologies and our rush to online living have made it possible to aim for an Open Metaverse, one that preserves privacy by design, giving us the tools to control the flow of information and make our own choices of what to trust. Properly applied, these advances would usher in the anti-platform – a web of spaces, software and users connected by open standards, portable identity and practices that put the user first. Spaces that use open governance solutions to create fair voting systems, community participation and digital public services, where everyone, no matter their background, may participate safely with an equal voice.
The promise of true internet anonymity that disappeared with the advent of surveillance capitalism can be restored with clever cryptographic advances such as Zero Knowledge Proofs, a technique that allows you to prove you’re a real human being, or prove your age or gender without revealing your identity. With their privacy genuinely preserved behind avatars, people struggling with their mental health could find virtual psychotherapy more approachable. Whistleblowers and dissidents could communicate without risking themselves or their families. Stay-at-home parents who contribute invisibly to society could safely sell data from their smartwatch, fitness equipment or baby monitor to researchers, government and product developers without fear of leaking information about their children. Those attacked for their gender, looks, voice or mannerisms could interact in the Metaverse under whichever guise they choose, safe from harassment by online bigots.
Self Sovereign Identity and Verifiable Credentials prove that it’s really grandma on the phone, or that you’re actually talking to the school principal or the police, without trusting a corporate platform’s ability to keep manipulators and trolls at bay. They create anonymity with accountability, allowing us to build virtual safe spaces for the marginalised or oppressed in any channel, website, game or digital world, and to control how and when we are known, and what information we can trust.
As the pandemic pushes us to the edge of the Metaverse, we must choose between the well-trodden path of corporate control, conflict and abdicated responsibility, or that of true user sovereignty with individual control, equal representation and a connected future that benefits people, not profit. To allow the incumbent social media giants to remain in control of our digital lives – or force them to play by our rules and ensure that we as individuals can make our own decisions, determine our own realities and benefit as a global society from the collective wisdom and experience of all those whose voices have up to now been kept in the background. The Metaverse is coming – and it should belong to all of us.
Ryan Gill is co-founder and CEO of Crucible. Toby Tremayne is co-founder and CTO of Crucible.
Source: W I R E D