A lot has changed since I first came online. It’s been almost three decades since I started migrating, making a home for myself on the vast open expanses of the budding metaverse. It was an exhilarating place to be, one where I could freely craft any identity for myself and define myself by my actions rather than my physical appearance. As a young internet radical, I imagined a bright future where the breaking down of geographical barriers and redefining of identity would usher in an age of increased understanding, productivity and peace.
Back then we were a small group of self-taught internet pioneers, congregating in obscure chatrooms to explore virtual worlds and novel social hierarchies together. Jocks hadn’t made it here yet, nor had bankers, influencers, or my mom. The internet used to be a very different place, for better or worse, but it was a place because that was the space it occupied in our minds. When I read Snow Crash in my teens in the early 2000s, I already felt like I was an early settler in the metaverse.
Communication was real-time, in pseudonymous chatrooms and invite-only voice lounges. People were present. We inhabited a different and more immediate state of consciousness together, compared to the asynchronous nature of today’s social media, and that sense of presence helped make the internet a place. We sat together in the blue display glare of the early cyberspace campfire, present in each other’s company although worlds apart. A moment in space and time.
As a behavioral engineer, I can’t help but wonder if we haven’t forgotten something very important in our blueprints for the metaverse:
The metaverse is a state of mind. It’s not a new technology.
Plato’s cybercave vs the Villages
As any avid meditator will know, our day-to-day experience of consciousness is very much colored, if not entirely defined, by where we place our attention. Successful new technologies bring about new human habits, making small imprints on the human psyche over time. By now we have learned of some of the consequences of Notifications, Like buttons, Recommendations and interstitial ads. We have disappeared and dived deep into our phone screens during meals and events, and grown accustomed to the constant little interruptions from our handheld window into cyberspace.
But it doesn’t feel like a space anymore. I can lose myself in my phone, but I can’t find myself somewhere else. Communication is now asynchronous by default, our minds darting between distractions and parallel tasks while the other is typing out their reply. We broke down geographical barriers but erected new inhuman barriers of time and attention, disappearing into our personalized caves of soothing and addictive distractions, where the real world beyond is cast as a distorted shadow by the Algorithm.
The metaverse, if anything at all, has to be a state of mind, one where we feel present in and with the medium, and with our fellow inhabitants. Digital worlds feel real when we can inhabit them together as a space, in real-time. The intersubjective quality of such a space lends it an anchoring gravity that keeps us present and together.
As the architects of tomorrow’s experiences (and consciousnesses) we have to ask ourselves if we are looking to build more personalized caves to disappear into, or social villages where we can live, work and love together.
Big Brother and the Digital Twin
I believe that augmented reality is inevitable technology, because it is driven by the same fundamental desire that gave rise to our language. The coming years and decades will accelerate some incredible changes to our behaviors and psyches, and it would do us well to take a moment to examine where we are headed.
Just last week we saw Google release its impressive Geospatial API, having turned billions of streetview photographs into a three-dimensional replica of the world. This digital twin and its accompanying SDK allows camera-enabled devices to visually place themselves in the world with greater accuracy than the GPS. It is a tremendous feat of engineering, a triumph for Google, and a testament to human ingenuity, but it also tells us something very dark about the future that big corporations want us to inhabit.
GPS is not precise enough to serve as a foundation for augmented reality, or for many other future use cases, so big companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft, but also smaller but powerful unicorns like Niantic, have been busy building and buying technology that allows for the creation of digital twins and visual positioning. It’s the intuitive solution to the problem of positioning, but one that has many challenges and shortcomings. Chief among them, perhaps, is the implied assumption that is strategically never spelled out:
You will walk through the future world with a camera on your face.
AR devices navigate the world using SLAM, a camera-based orientation system, and Apple, Google and the others are envisioning further reliance on the presence of a camera for AR devices to know where they are in the world. This means that your future AR glasses will have a camera on them, one that will have to be on for your to orientate yourself, and one that will send data back to Google, Facebook, or whoever else owns the data you’ll inevitably have to sign away.
This is already happening. Last year John Hanke, CEO of Niantic, explained on stage how thousands of locations have been mapped out by the players of Ingress and Pokémon GO. It’s happening now.
You are expected to wear these camera-enabled devices on your face, while wearing a smart watch that measures your heart rate, and some reports indicate that even Apple, privacy-centered as their marketing might be, is placing eye-tracking cameras in their upcoming VR/AR headset. They will know where you are, where you are looking, and how you feel about it. This is a Black Mirror episode that is already under construction. Are you paying attention?