Digital frontiers, digital cities and the metaverse

It has been a long time between drinks, my friends. I haven’t blogged for quite some time. However I have finally hit a piece of experimental thinking that needs to be expressed in a fluid free form rather than something targeted to particular audiences. If you like it, then you are my audience. At the very least, I write here to be creative and to write for me, for my thinking.

Of recent times, my research practice and writing has been focusing heavily on Web3 spaces, but also on the digital city. You can see my latest work on digital infrastructures for the city here. For a recent speaker slot at the LawTech Summit, I was invited to speak about Web3 and the Metaverse. In the digital infrastructures report, the discussion of the metaverse and its potentials was led by Kelsie Nabben, whose excellent work on the topic can be found here.

As I researched thought around the topic, I’ve realised that there are so many different visions and angles into what the metaverse is and what we can use it for. I thought a great write up with a slightly different angle to Kelsie’s essay was presented by Hatch Quarter on the topic. This essay is useful because it navigates well through the extended environment discussion and signals that it is not only e-commerce, socialising and the gaming industry that is pushing the metaverse, which was well highlighted by the Grayscale Research report on the concept, but also education and fitness.

I thought about all the different discussions and writing that I’ve had and done over the last 6-8 months while working on the Digital CBD project and also on the NFTs, DAOs, cryptocurrency and blockchain technology (decentralised ledger technology) we cover. I started pondering what a sociologist of technology would speak to in this environment… or more particularly, me, what I would speak to.

My research practice was begun in researching the digital community surrounding reptiles and snakes, aka ‘the Herpers’, that I researched and wrote about for my PhD research, then my book. This is my first book and it profiled a community, who were also early adopters of the internet, and how to research such digital communities. Since this book, I have articulated different aspects of research interest that include the study of the communities surrounding cryptomarkets and cryptocurrencies. These frontier socio-technical spaces are highly experimental.

I’ve also built a collaboration with wonderful scholars surrounding digital pleasures that articulate another type of digital frontier more focused on the human-technology encounters aspect. Thinking of the body as a digital instrument that is played through digital media to achieve altered states has been a wonderful creative space. This centering of the body and pleasure has also hooked into my emerging interest in play and gamification. You’ll need to keep up with me on this because these themes resurface when I begin thinking about what the metaverse is and what it could be for us as a built (build) environment.

The notion of digital cultures of care and care more generally has pervaded my work and provides an intellectual link, in some ways, between the digital pleasures research and the EyeStory project.

A research collaboration that has been going on for quite a while now that focuses on play, is the EyeStory project. This project has involved digital storytelling and an interdisciplinary collaboration that has allowed my research to extend to working with children, app design and collaborating with researchers whose expertise is in animation research, game design and optometry.

These projects have all involved some form of ethnographic practice and I have had the pleasure of winding them together into a book chapter on ethnography and digital society that will come out in 2023 in this Sage Handbook on Digital Society. But how do all of these threads weave together in my most recent work? For the digital city report, I foregrounded the importance of play and creativity for enlivening the vibrancy of a city, alongside the more traditional analysis of work and innovation as drivers of a city’s engine.

I am now starting to feel ready for my second book and I can see it forming along the lines of how we can incorporate insights from my research into digital frontiers into a diverse range of research. My most recent affirmation that my vocabulary and conceptual thinking had value to work beyond internet scholarship was at the very inspirational Creative Cities Symposium at Biella Italy. Aside from being incredibly inspired by the venue, the Cittadellarte, I was deeply engaged by the research into Creative Cities, Creative Industries and their links with urban regeneration and social policy. I went there to present from the Digital CBD survey, a city-wide survey led by Annette Markham and a collaborative program of research drawing together DERC and BIH scholars. The discussions I was able to have that helped urban geographers, social scientists and policy researchers to move their thinking into digital frontiers relevant to the focus of their work were really serendipitous.

This was my first international conference after the long lockdowns. I went for many reasons, but one of them was to pop my head out of the Australian bubble and see how Europe had faired through the pandemic. In many of our discussions, the pandemic impacts loomed large and it was enlightening and of course traumatic to hear how different countries and people had faired. I still have no words for this, but believe deeply that until we have begun moving through the grief and trauma of the pandemic, we will struggle to imagine a different future and to shape the future we have incoming to be conducive for us to thrive in.

This thought and point takes me to my LawTech Metaverse presentation, because here I am actively saying the next wave of our future is incoming and we need to engage and shape it. For me, the metaverse is the next logical step that we will take, or something of its ilk. We are currently operating our social life and digital lives largely through the relational spaces of social media. These platforms shape social connection and eCommerce through what they afford. Digital environments are now deeply embedded in our physical environments and we use a range of technologies to connect across place and virtual space. For example, our smartphones are pocket computers that allow us to overlay digital information onto physical environments, we can locate ourselves through them, visually record space and sound, connect with people and do so many other activities. When we game online, we can also experience immersive environments through VR technologies. So what will this mixed or extended reality space of the metaverse look, feel and behave like?

I don’t think we’re really looking at much new to start with, as most of the technologies, including AI/ML and IoT are in-play and starting to mature as a connected ecosystem. Web3 is adding specific affordances through technical infrastructures such as payment networks, decentralised finance, sovereign goods, decentralised governance and portable identities. The GrayScale Research report I linked to earlier provides some really helpful discussion on this, but also the recent McKinsey report on Value Creation in the Metaverse seems to be getting some good air-time on this topic. These are some of the highlights in the report if you want the TLDR version. I’ve also been inspired by the 20 day Web3 festival being held by the House of Beautiful Business, which has pulled together some great thinkers on the topic and fascinating metaverse companies, such as Journee.

So, what do I have to add to all this fantastic thinking? I thought I’d keep it focused and look at the implications for people, data and what risks were involved. It seems that demystifying this area and the terms used for a Web3 version of the metaverse would also be useful. Now I do not pretend to have technical expertise here, but I have the fantastic opportunity to engage with the latest developments and events in the Web3 space through my work colleagues at BIH. So, I’ve got a bit of a handle on the basics. But I’m not going to do that work for you here. If you’re an industrious active kind of reader, then the trail of links I’ve provided in this text will take you where you need to go.

For the presentation I used Kelsie’s Metaverse essay linked above to produce a word cloud that should get you started on the associations that this term has with digital life and the city. I’ve popped it here so you can have a dig through the grab bag of words that are usually associated with the topic.

My first provocation was to ask what questions we need to ask when thinking about people and the metaverse. I started with the ones that we’re asking right now on the social impacts of social media. For example how we are being conditioned in these digital spaces through social engineering, distraction and dopamine responses. We already know that social norms are evolving through our digital interactions, with my recent media engagement on friendship and social media for international friendship day speaking loudly to this. Not to be a prophet of doom, I like to keep things balanced and ask questions about playful and pleasurable interaction in the metaverse, particularly given that online gaming will be a bit motivator of metaverse adoption. Drawing back to the digital pleasures research, I was inspired by conversations with my collaborator, Naomi Smith, about ASMR and how we are now looking at multichannel experiences of it. When you bring in our work on binaural beats as digital drugs… you can see the amplification of pleasure and play moving into another experiential realm. Place these visceral body experiences in an immersive environment, and up the sensory input, and you are really starting to look at digital pleasure experiences in a very different way.

For me, the next significant area of focus is on the rich/thick data that is produced by both human and non-human actors in this environment. Sentience needs data through which to interpret and learn, as much as interactivity and liveliness produce data. I want to know who owns the data we would produce in such spaces and also, who uses it and what we can learn from it. In my thinking around data, I really enjoyed unpacking the question of how we remember in the metaverse, specifically in terms of archiving. Because if you can’t remember, you don’t learn and you can’t generate wisdom. So the knowledge holding in this space is a public utility that is crucial to our ability to build conducive strategies for thriving into the future and for adapting the space to meet our needs and contain our excesses. The internet has the internet archive, and with its wayback machine. Online communities, particularly those I encountered in the cryptomarkets space, publicly archived their own spaces, but they were also actively archived by researchers and no doubt by law enforcement.

Finally, in the talk, I pondered the risks in a Web3 Metaverse. The risks that I highlighted reflect my research wanderings. I kicked off with the key point working the Web3 space now and a persistent question for the early cryptocurrency communities that I encountered during my research in the dark net/cryptomarket space. This question is around how we deal with the grey zones that arise within policy and regulation around emerging technologies. It also links into the second question as to how we seek accountability but allow for experimentation in business models that plagues Web3 start ups and their reputation. The words scammy and Ponzi scheme are thrown around regularly in the web3 space, so I decided to play a little with the work of one of my favourite scholars in the space, Lana Swartz, on networked scams. She built this understanding of scams in the Web3 space through the Wild West context of ICOs in 2017. From her work, I covered off the two basic scams – the ‘exit scam‘ and ‘pump and dump‘. The exit scam I already new from the crypto market space. What I enjoyed about Swartz’s work up of the networked scam is this sense of a scam as sometimes being overt, and legal, business practice or just more mundane.

Swartz observes that ‘scams are capitalism out of place: what gets called a scam is used to perform boundary work that delegitimates certain forms of economic activity (and exploitation) and legitimates others.’ I love this definition and feel that it is appropriately slippery and embracing of the smoke and mirrors nature of this space.

As she observes, and I have heard many times, most blockchain projects are vaporware and punters are attracted to cryptocurrencies and DAO projects in part to make money – the get rich quick hustle. I’ve written a little about this culture here. The next point Swartz makes on this outs a piece of crypto argot that I continually re-encounter in everyday discussions with people who trade, invest in or speculate around cryptocurrencies, hodl.

She quotes a common refrain that ‘it’s not a scam if you hodl long enough’—which she interprets as meaning ‘that if enough people hold (or “hodl,” in crypto argot) their investment long enough, if they believe or suspend disbelief long enough, the promised future will rush to meet reality.’ However, the contradiction that these traders and speculators sit in is that, as Swartz points out, ‘no one wants to be the only one holding a worthless asset that has already been dumped; no one wants to be the only one holding out for a future that will never come.’

I would usually paraphrase these quotes but in this case she writes it best. I can assure you this is an authentic sentiment that I hear expressed on many an occasion.

I finished off the presentation with the point that as we move forward and commercially viable use case are generated for the metaverse concept, we can either have more of what we have now, with a Meta version of the metaverse, or we can embrace and shape a more diverse ecosystem with social values that we care about. These being, in my mind, a sustainably and socially, environmentally and economically regenerative future that appropriately harnesses the inclusive affordances of a digital environment whilst managing and mitigating for its risks and unintended consequences.

Now, this was a long essay. So I’ll be very impressed if you stayed with me to the end. Sadly, I don’t know what kind of world we are going to create through these technologies, but I would like to engage you in a call to arms to actively shape it. I am telling you now, it is happening. I want to see you care enough to engage.