This seminar will equip us to critically analyse the rapidly advancing technologies of digital representation, interaction and economic trade.
As radical anthropologists the lives lived by 'internet natives' online and in the Metaverse, is the landscape we will inhabit, excavate, and the population we will study.
We will examine the particular rituals of exchange, inclusion, hierarchy, representation, iconography, sustenance, algorithmic mediation, conditions of possibility, decentralized technologies of trust, collective digital labour. As well as analysing gender balance, cultural appropriation, structural bias, we will examine whether these spaces live up to the promises of the progressive possibilities promised by the internet and more currently by decentralized blockchain technology.
The tools of our trade are critical theoretical thinking and analysis but also acquiring hands on skills with all the digital tools that are needed to live and function side by side with the inhabitants of these spaces. We have all heard about algorithmic and software bias. This is nothing new in technology; when Kodak first produced colour film in the 1950’s its colour and contrast range was predicated on the reflective value of white skin,
70 years later, the digital world and the Metaverse have been built in the same mould. By and for white heteronormative middle-aged men, with the proprietary instincts of earlier colonies.
This is the most immediately visible and actively vocal evangelical population of the Metaverse. The seminar will seek to challenge this missionary zeal, to invent, and create alternative narrative and practical strategies in and for the virtual. Here are some of the current expressions of digital migration into the virtual and questions with which we will try to grapple:
‘The underlying philosophies of Decentraland is for the people to take back control of the internet and decide in which directions it goes in.’
‘Decentraland allows its users to purchase virtual property and then develop them as an online, virtual business. There are a number of different buildings or attractions that can be built on the plots of virtual land, and those can then be monetized or simply sold to others for a profit.’
Welcome to GPT 3 an unprecedented Ai Language based artificial Intelligence model that is linked to 150 billion neutrons and includes the entire internet for a start.
‘Exactly what’s going on inside GPT-3 isn’t clear. But what it seems to be good at is synthesizing text it has found elsewhere on the internet, making it a kind of vast, eclectic scrapbook created form millions and millions of snippets of text that it then glues together in weird and wonderful ways.’
‘Yet despite its new tricks, GPT-3 is still prone to spewing hateful sexist and racist language.’
‘GPT-3 is what artificial intelligence researchers call a neural network, a mathematical system loosely modeled on the web of neurons in the brain. This is the same technology that identifies faces in the photos you post to Facebook and recognizes the commands you bark into your iPhone.’
The Metaverse is the term is typically used to describe the concept of a future iteration of the internet, made up of persistent, shared, 3D virtual spaces linked into a perceived virtual universe. There are a number of Metaverse digital lands. Decentraland, Cryptovoxels and Somnium Space etc. These offer an opportunity for us to test the limits of positive human interaction that has a shared purpose, such as caretaking others in society and our planet, using the power of technology.
Our Question: If we take the vision and mission from the white papers of these environments we can see the that the purpose is primarily for trade and commerce using very similar economic models from the financial markets we see IRL. The core ethical structure is one of libertarian politics and hyper capitalism. The idea of an ethical, inclusive society is not to be found in these white papers.
On the basis that these Metaverse lands have been built largely by those identifying themselves as heteronormative white males, we can argue that those moral rights and obligations around diversity and inclusion that are lacking in the physical world are very unlikely to enter the Metaverse by osmosis. The Metaverse being created currently reflects the real world back to the real world.
Meet the MetaHumans, ‘digital Humans’ built by Unreal Engine that have unprecedented realistic looks and movement and are rendered in real time. A ‘new tool that will empower anyone to create a bespoke photorealistic digital human, fully rigged and complete with hair and clothing, in a matter of minutes.’ Easy.
Our question: Lajuné MacMillian, a colleague and collaborator, calls this an obvious case of “digital black facing”. Software designed predominantly by white men to allow us to animate and inhabit BIPOC bodies.
Our Question: Do the ethics of inclusivity and equal right apply to software and artificial intelligence too? As more people enter the Metaverse, via their avatars and interactions, the more removed diversity and inclusion will become. This is expressed in an article entitled, “Meta Ethics for the Metaverse”. Edward H. Spence sought to demonstrate that “insofar as avatars can be viewed as virtual representations or modes of presentations of real people (at least with regard to some virtual worlds in which the virtual agency of the avatar can be considered an extension of the agency of the person instantiating the avatar in the real world) and thus can and must be perceived as virtual purposive agents, then they have moral rights and obligations similar to those of their real counterparts.”