The metaverse has been hyped as an existing virtual frontier of unimaginable possibilities. But given the biases inherent in our actual world and the troubling track record of the tech industry leading the development of the metaverse, many observers fear it also could be a breeding ground for bigotry.
The Emerging Concept of the Metaverse
The increasing growth, development, and popular awareness of the so-called “metaverse” has created ongoing excitement, but also some trepidation from those who fear the biases of the real world may leach into the emerging virtual world.
First, let’s provide some context, as metaverse is a somewhat vague term with varying definitions. Here’s how Eric Ravenscraft describes the term in an article for WIRED.
Broadly speaking, the technologies companies refer to when they talk about “the metaverse” can include virtual reality—characterized by persistent virtual worlds that continue to exist even when you're not playing—as well as augmented reality that combines aspects of the digital and physical worlds. However, it doesn't require that those spaces be exclusively accessed via VR or AR. Virtual worlds—such as aspects of Fortnite that can be accessed through PCs, game consoles, and even phones—have started referring to themselves as “the metaverse.”
In short, the metaverse is a broad term encompassing a variety of digital representations of our actual world, some more fantastical and fictional than others. But any metaverse is necessarily built in the image of our actual universe; what stays the same and what changes depends to a great degree on who is building out the metaverse.
And this is where many tech observers are expressing concerns.
How Bias May Impact the Metaverse
What if some of the aspects of our current universe to make it into the metaverse are our biases and prejudices? After all, the tech industry is not exactly known for its stellar DEI track record.
“The tech industry’s disappointing track record on issues of diversity could have serious consequences when the metaverse comes along,” writes Tom Huddleston Jr. in an article for CNBC. “For years, tens of millions of people of color have endured unwelcome experiences on social media platforms built by mostly white and male tech CEOS, including harassment and hate speech. Many users have also had their contributions regularly ignored or copied without attribution. If those issues follow users into the metaverse, a concept championed largely by those same mostly white and male tech CEOs, today’s online abuse could become significantly more visceral and damaging.”
Many of the biases and attitudes that observers fear could find their way into the metaverse are unconscious biases—attitudes towards groups, people or ideas that sit just below the surface of our awareness. A major step in keeping such attitudes out of the metaverse must be promoting unconscious bias awareness and training into those tasked with developing the new digital universe.
As your company considers the implications the metaverse may have for your company and its key stakeholders, what steps will you take to minimize the potential of transferring bias to the metaverse? Whether in the real world, or the virtual world, our exhortation remains the same: be inclusive!