Insights from two panels questioning the definitions of the metaverse and the prerequisites for artistic development within it
In the dystopian novel by Neal Stephenson Snow accident, which comes in the aftermath of a global economic collapse, the the metaverse was a parallel virtual world only accessible to the techno-elite. People escape their harsh reality into the metaverse wearing glasses and headphones and appearing as their own personalized avatar. Sounds familiar? This metaverse has been overrun with corporate advertising. Stephenson warned of the changing worlds of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs).
During the Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival & Symposium in October 2021, the MIT Open Documentary Lab and Immerse has teamed up to present two panels titled “Making the Metaverse”, based on the theme of this current issue. The first panel, “Case studies”, led by Immerse editor Abby Sun, featured three pioneering designers describing their latest projects. Sparsh Ahuja presented on the awareness activities of the Dastaan project, reconnecting migrants from the India-Pakistan partition of 1947 to their ancestral homes via 360 VR. Violeta ayala showcased their digital gallery Cryptovoxels, where their collective, KOA.xyz, exhibits information about their projects, including VR animation Prison X. Recently, Robert hernandez, shared his Jovrnalism project, which uses emerging technologies to produce digital journalism with his students at USC Annenberg. This dialogue set the stage for the following panel.
Moderated by Sarah Wolozin, Director of the MIT Open Documentary Lab and part of the Immerse editorial collective, the second panel brought together writers and journalists who shed light on the challenges of current debates on the metaverse and tried to make sense of our current locus. The panelists were: Jesse damiani, a writer who spoke about the potential of journalists to cover this new space. Kathryn Karaoglu Hamilton addressed the issues of control, representation and access. And Andrew Wang, shared his experience of community creation within the NFT ecosystem.
Here are three takeaways that have been shared between the two panels.
Sarah Wolozine: The metaverse is difficult to define. If you ask fifty people, you might get fifty definitions. These are virtual worlds, virtual reality, augmented reality, games and the interaction between virtual and physical worlds. In addition, it is about new decentralized financial property systems, blockchain, new identities and new communities.
Abby sun: From a technological point of view, the priority is identities, avatars, objects, history and payments in free movement, but what about the movement of people, memory, dignity and time ?
Jesse damiani: It’s like a wave. It moves, it evolves, and it will be a tsunami.
Violeta ayala: I will define the metaverse as I want to define it, and it will be a place where I can protest and where I can express my ideas.
Robert hernandez: We found that what was really powerful is to democratize this technology [Snapchat Lens Studio] which is often owned by companies with great resources and is viewed with corporate dollar signs, and we want to make sure that our diverse voices are included in this reality.
Violeta ayala: If I want to share my trailer with someone, I just give them the exact coordinates [for the Cryptovoxels gallery] and they can click on the trailer. It has real 3D representation and you can look at it and feel like you are sitting in a place. The audience can understand a bit more where I’m from and how we create all the projects and characters.
Sparsh Ahuja: [I care about] the extent to which any of the digital assets can be used without the individual user having to own a particular device. They could be projected onto public spaces without necessarily needing a specific headset or phone or specific software. I think that’s the challenge of democratization – not everyone has a helmet. So can we create the metaverse in such a way that the individual user doesn’t need to own it?
Robert hernandez: My framework is how affordable and accessible it is. Who can buy this software? How can I get a free or cheap version? And when I create something there, can I upload it and put it on my own website or production platform?
Violeta ayala: For me, decentralization is the future. In a decentralized world, I am very optimistic.
Jesse damiani: There is a need for different types of stories to be told on the Metaverse. There is a lot of technology, both from a hardware and software perspective, like cloud infrastructure. I also think it’s important to start to reframe our way of thinking about the metaverse as a human first thing. Finally, in an ideal future, non-human and post-human entities could coexist in these spaces with us.
Kathryn Karaoglu Hamilton: I think Jesse is absolutely right that we have to tell different kinds of stories. It’s not a story of technology, it’s a story of culture. But the people who say so are mostly technical journalists. How do you allow different people, from anthropologists to social critics, to access this space? Otherwise, the stories will continue to be a little cranky, because they will come from one point of view. The demographics of the space are predominantly made up of white, English-speaking men from Western Europe and the United States. What is the technological barrier to entry for hacking and glitching in this space? Is the technological barrier to entry so high that we, the majority of people, will become consumers in a very superficial way rather than actually being able to access the underlying structures of this space?
Andrew Wang: The idea of yearning for the vast and endless sea is what the Metaverse looks like right now. I think we still have a long way to go, but it’s about building a community on this drive to create a better society where people who have been marginalized can finally be centered. We have a chance to do it and to do it right.
Whether we’re champions or skeptics of the Metaverse, it happens. When Wolozin asked the panelist about the role of journalists and non-fiction storytellers in this emerging country, Damiani said he noticed a “knee-jerk reaction [from writers] to just ignore it because it’s part of that sparkling hype space. “He thinks this is a missed opportunity because” this metaverse discussion is an opportunity to make sense and tell stories, which journalists and documentary makers can do in unique ways … Let’s address these critical questions, let’s try to understand these social communities. Instead of trying to define the metaverse, Damiani encourages us to start making sense of “this moving and messy collective experience that unfolds in real time”.