I wanted to share some thoughts on the concept of a metaverse. Not just the one that Mark Zuckerberg announced recently, but to speak to a broader concept. I consider a tech project to be “meta” if the intent is to push current boundaries and establish technology as the primary or even sole medium to share information.
Back in July, Zuckerberg told employees about the new initiative to build an interconnected set of experiences rather than a loose collection of social media platforms. This “metaverse” is highly immersive and, as Zuckerberg explains, “instead of just viewing content — you are in it.” My thought is that every conceivable activity, whether it’s dating, dancing, or exercising, can be done in the metaverse.
Tech spaces tend to speak boldly about initiatives and worry about the details later. Whether it’s fixing traffic gridlock or creating commercial space flights, the goal is to let ambition and tight deadlines spark innovation. Eager investors and early adopters will then meet you halfway and power your idea to the mass market. You may recognize this model as the way tech startups work. And while the results can be dynamic, they can also leave lasting questions about labor, access, and privacy.
Those questions can be found in the metaverse. How can we ensure that a metaverse—interconnection across physical and digital spaces—is inclusive? The Internet does not intuitively increase tolerance and understanding. While marginalized groups along racial, gender, and cultural lines can find accepting communities, there are still atrocities that play out on the national and international level.
Differently abled persons struggle with current iterations of technology. A court ruling back in April suggests that “websites are not public accommodations that must be accessible to blind customers” unless certain thresholds are met. With smartphone ownership, which some may perceive as a fairly ubiquitous piece of tech, there is a sixteen-point percentage gap between those who identify as being disabled compared to able-bodied Americans.
These issues center on tolerance and compassion. Who, or what, will facilitate these conversations? Government regulations are sometimes absent, and there are limited efforts to build inclusive internet spaces. In most instances, we must rely on technologists, chief information officers, and CEOs to push the conversation forward. Perhaps there is an expectation that technologists, as experts in their field, should have a deeper understanding of these issues than the average consumer. Should we expect them to consider the debates on equity and access?
That is why conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion are so meaningful to me. The metaverse, whether it’s the one Zuckerberg is trying to build or another iteration, must include diverse voices from the outset. Some of the debate will center on whether a metaverse is even a good idea. Other phases of the debate will emphasize features or design structures to avoid because they are exclusive to differently-abled persons. Without leveraging those voices, we are in danger of creating an even more exclusive space that leaves people behind.