The Metaverse As A New Frontier For The Internet: Verity McIntosh

Following on in the series, Digital Democracies:Voices, Practices, Stories, Futures, curated by Donna Close and Prof Helen Kennedy, is an interview with Verity McIntosh about the metaverse as a new frontier for the internet.

The series aims to offer diverse perspectives and amplify underrepresented voices, hearing from women who are working on the frontline of the metaverse as it’s being developed.

Donna Close: Hi Verity, can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Verity McIntosh:  I’m Verity, I’m a senior lecturer in Virtual and Extended Realities at the University of the West of England, in Bristol.  I teach the Masters course which is a brilliant industry-led practice based opportunity for people from all possible disciplines and from a range of backgrounds and interests which provides a safe space for the messy conversations about this emerging sector.

Image credit:Verity McIntosh

I also do research into various different areas and recently that has been about the Metaverse as a sort of new frontier for the Internet.   As part of this research I’ve been working with a range of industry partners to simulate and compare safe and unsafe spaces in VR in order to better understand the human needs in those simulations.

I used to run the Pervasive Media Studio, which is Watershed’s hub for bringing together people from arts, technology and research. When I was there, I was a commissioner and producer for our ‘Playable City’ strand, which looked at how we can leverage technology in different ways through the lens of arts and audience in public space so that people had the opportunity to encounter some of the magic and mystery of technology in their everyday lives.

Prof Helen Kennedy: What do you think might be the problems that we face in the current direction of travel in the development of the Metaverse?

Verity McIntosh: In the immersive sector VR and AR are often bundled together and they are such different animals. VR is about leaving your physical reality behind to an extent, traveling to somewhere else and being someone else; and AR is so much more about taking everything that you already experience in the physical world and finding ways to digitally augment that. When we come to this idea of the Metaverse, these two things are continuing to be quite divorced from one another, and it’s hard to have coherent conversations about both.

Currently with Meta the Metaverse is seen as a VR-thing, but as more companies get involved it may become very different: The Apple Metaverse will be different from the Zuckerberg Metaverse.  Sticking with this current VR-centric version the immediate problem is access. The hardware is expensive and often found to be really lacking in terms of product design for different bodies and privileges those who are affluent and tech-confident. Whilst this is the case the development continues to be forged with a particular user in mind and then that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Image credit: BBC News

Many of the current VR social spaces can be adolescent and heteronormative and very good at self-policing. So, this notion that it can be a kind of a space for everyone to play is not being played out in the design of how these places function.  It feels like we know enough about the inherent challenges in toxicities of the dominant culture of the last 20-30 years of web and mobile to know better than that now, and I’m constantly hopeful that we do know better and that we will make better space for difference.

Donna Close: In public space safety is often assured through regulation. What are your thoughts about freedom of space versus regulation in the Metaverse?

Verity McIntosh: When I produced Playable City I became a hyper specialized expert in which bits of City Council you need to talk to get hold of a lamppost or a bin or a bridge or engage with the municipal infrastructure.  What I discovered quite early on is that what I thought of as public space was very often not public space. It is managed by someone, whether it be a civic organization or a private organization and as such has some really thickly layered permissions structures that you have to try and uncover and spend time figuring out.   From producing Playable Cities all over the world, what we learned was that it is important to demonstrate value to those stakeholders and once you’ve done it once or twice and you can use those examples, then it becomes easier. These kind of civic moments are really hard to get done once and then (assuming the people and politics don’t change – which of course they do) it can be really easy to get it done 10 times.

An example is Hello Lamp Post. This was a piece of work which enabled all of the city infrastructure like bins and lampposts and bus stops and postboxes to become conversational objects through text message. You could talk to them by texting them they start to chat back to you. This piece has now gone all over the world.

What’s allowed it to keep moving is that the work produces a certain amount of anonymized data about how people behaved, where people speak to objects and what are the most popular areas in your city. It became a kind of a data dashboard for civic engagement.

Image credit: Hello Lamp Post, Pan Studio

Another interesting aspect is that we were worried that people might abuse the text with hate-speech of some kind.  We put a lot of time and attention into how we were going to monitor and control that. And then what we discovered in doing it because Sam Hill, who wrote the script for all the objects, is a beautiful, charming human and had characterised the objects as naive, playful and adorable objects, that people responded in kind. People would be very sweet to these objects and treat them like toddlers.

So you can in the design of something, encourage behaviour and you can set the tone for a space. And I think one of the challenges with what we’re seeing in the metaverse is that the tone that’s being set, deliberately or otherwise, is encouraging really specific behaviours. There’s a kind of Wild West libertarianism that’s very anti-difference.  This is bringing over certain behaviours from online gaming that might be considered ‘banter’ but which can be experienced quite differently in embodied internet forums. We are seeing quite a lot of harassment in these open, unmoderated VR spaces, particularly when avatars and voices are female-presenting which appears to be quite a an instant trigger for abuse.

Image credit: Sunday Times

There is a limit on how much control a creator can have through the initial design.  Metaverse spaces evolve and are co-designed by the people that use them so can we leave it to these communities to self-police? That’s not working well so far.  In the material world, public space is notionally maintained by civic authorities and private spaces are maintained by private individuals and they all have obligations around health and safety and legality. If you encounter difficulties, you have some legal recourse. You might assume your civil liberties transfer into digital space, but they don’t.  I don’t quite understand how we are where we are now, where if you report an assault in a virtual space. There is no authority that can do anything about that.

There is an organization called the Centre for Countering Digital Hates that makes a point of trying to report those things to the proper authorities. And they just report hundreds and hundreds and never hear anything back because there are not structures in place that can deal with these, not just to look after the victims, but also to make changes and hold different platforms accountable.

Prof Helen Kennedy: Are there other kind of grassroots interventionist projects that you’d want to name check that are doing interesting work in this space?

Verity McIntosh:  Nina Salomon’s XRDI do really wonderful work in intersectionality, diversity, inclusion and exclusion in digital technologies. Also XRSI which advocates for representation and safety and things like the right to mental privacy.

One of the issues that is getting closer all the time is that wearable technologies such as virtual reality headsets and controllers give tech companies access to phenomenal amounts of personal behavioural data. That’s one of the reasons Facebook/ Meta are in the game because rather than clicks and likes, they can now access fantastically useful information about where people go, who they meet, what they say, where they look, even what makes their pupils dilate. This incredibly revealing psychometric and biometric data, and is quite harvestable with the current user agreements.

We can talk about our right to be present in a space and to be represented in the democratic system, but actually we’ve never had to defend our subconscious before. Research suggests that our subconscious can be really well interpreted by these devices so the right to mental privacy should be cooked into every piece of legislation.

The IET report is now out which covers quite a lot of this – https://www.theiet.org/safeguarding-the-metaverse

Donna Close: How do we co-create physical and digital spaces of shared humanity through which to inspire a duty of care to each other?

Verity McIntosh:  I think one of the challenges in the next 10 years is going to be whether or not there is a sort of an open Internet version of data layers or if they will be quite heavily gate-keepered through proprietary software

Currently people are bonded to specific devices and specific publishing platforms so it’s quite challenging already for people who sit outside of the expected terms and conditions of that to make work. For example, some app stores are banning any form of nudity or sexual content for morality reasons, but it’s really inhibiting what artists might want to create for these platforms and presuming that there’s a sort of immodesty agenda. So yeah, some sort of open addressable framework that is much more born of the 80s and early 90s approach to the Internet – that everybody has an equal right to publish at no cost point, and to express a range of opinions. That would be great.

Skills are such an important part of this too – the arts community are amazing polymaths and an incredibly versatile community who will always seek to explore how the dominant technologies of the moment can problematized, unpacked and held up to the light.   For lots of reasons, it’s really hard to do that with the metaverse. There’s a presumed high learning curve to get to grips with some of the foundational technologies. It’s not mega easy to prototype using these tools. It’s not terribly easy to get stuff to an audience just to try things out. I think it’s really troubling how much the opportunity to engage with these things currently manifest as hack days and at weekends with middle class white men who are able to spend a weekend doing a games jam.

There are lots of amazing people who are being cut out of the conversation and of that process.

It takes effort to make space for people who have more complex lives. If it doesn’t happen now, then we’ll have to battle it back later. There are a few of us, yourselves included, who are trying to take on that challenge and come up with pathways in because, once people have a little hook in it gets easier. Access to basic technologies and some fundamental skills training is really hard to come by and it needs to be easier.

Image credit: Verity McIntosh

It wasn’t that long ago that the ability to code was suddenly understood to be a really valuable tool but only available to certain disciplines and that’s cooked in much earlier into secondary school education. Younger students are much more confident – they often know some HTML, they may know about coding and have a grounding in digital media literacy. Older people won’t necessarily have had the same basic technology skills and foundation modules in these are hard to come by. We need the same approach to support the next generation to engage skillfully and critically with the Metaverse.

It also feels really important that teachers and parents have access to robust information in order to help children negotiate these spaces so there’s a whole there’s a whole process of upskilling that needs to happens now.

Prof Helen Kennedy: What do you think are the possibilities for individual collective acts of real grassroots protests and activism within these spaces?

Verity McIntosh:  We are in a weird conversation in the tech community where the options are either free speech or censorship and state surveillance and people polarize into these camps.

There are some really wise humans in the middle of that, who will point to the fact that for decades and millennia we’ve been talking about this paradigm between free expression and censorship, and that it’s not a one or the other situation.  Things don’t suddenly magically become different because we’re using some pixels and some cables: its human beings doing the same stuff and asking the same questions.

The potential for anonymity shifts the game a bit but we know we know a little bit about that now having lived with the Internet for a period of time and I think having some grown up conversations about the different cultural understanding about what constitutes free speech and what constitutes hate speech.

We just have to acknowledge that these conversations continue to travel into digital spaces and part of that debate is the space for resistance and peaceful protest, to be able to congregate and to organize against perceived injustices.

So what does a protest look like in digital space? You know, it may not be a bunch of avatars sitting on the floor and singing. It might be denial of service, a hack or a space getting taken down by people who disagree with their policies.  Recognizing that the behaviours might look different, but that they come from similar places needs to be spoken about now rather than just criminalizing everything.

Donna Close: Can you give your vision of the future?

Verity McIntosh:  We need to move away from this idea of a default human personage which in fact is such a teeny tiny niche. It’s such a small vision of what humanity is. If we can throw some spotlight on that by enabling the ‘cacophony of the other’ and actively seeking out and platforming voices from elsewhere, from the global South or from the disabled community, or LGBTQ voices for example. About 51% of us are women. It seems kind of ridiculous given the numbers that we’re talking about that we are still often positioned as a minority in the tech sector because we don’t always fit into that niche persona that is dominating the discourse at the moment.

Exposing the nonsense of that gives us the potential to grow a 21st century understanding about local citizenry and digital democracy that discards some of the misogyny and the racism that we inherited from the 20th century. That means some people getting out the way, and some people getting in the way.

I would like one country, it can be the UK, it can be anywhere, to declare that public digital space is public and that anything else has to be negotiated. The default position would be that nobody but you has a right to your data and the rights and protections that apply in publicly owned public spaces are presumed to apply to digital space and behaviour.

So rather than this kind of weird gold rush that we’re seeing to go and own all the space and to put digital billboards wherever the hell you want because, that’s the way it is. Imagine that everywhere is publicly owned and private use has to be negotiated and consented. That would make a huge difference.

Donna Close: Thanks Verity. Our next conversation will be with Nina Salomons, keep an eye out next week when it will be released.

Image article links:

BBC Image strip club Image of a VR Chat virtual strip club taken from a series of articles Catherine Allen and Verity McIntosh worked on with journalist Angus Crawford earlier in the year https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-60415317

Image excerpt from The Sunday Times article Catherine Allen and Verity McIntosh worked on with journalist Louise Eccles earlier in the year https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/my-journey-into-the-metaverse-already-a-home-to-sex-predators-sdkms5nd3

Verity McIntosh, Senior lecturer in Virtual and Extended Realities at the University of the West of England, in Bristol.