INTERVIEW WITH JOSEPHINE GERVES
We hear the word "equity" more and more often today. While equity and equality are not yet archived in the real world, we start ideating how to reach them in the virtual one. Should we obtain a more fair world in reality first, or attempt to build a new equal society in the metaverse?
Equity means being offered a seat at the table. But it also means taking responsibility for your success and happiness. To me, equity means empowerment. And that is why it is important. As a society, we have outgrown the times in which the only way to move forward was to follow a strong leader. When you look at the young generations, like Y and Z, they don’t easily submit to a hierarchical structure without questioning it. Movements like “BLM” or “me too” have proven that loud voices will be heard, and they have paved the way for new movements around the world. Look at the brave women in Iran or the thousands of people in China standing up against oppression and inequality at the moment. In these countries, demonstrations are frowned upon, and yet protesters risk their freedom so that they and the generations to come can live better lives. It shows that equity is something that is not just given to us but is worth fighting for. Because when we achieve equality, we can live self-determined lives.
Web2, the internet as we use it today, is dominated by the five tech giants Amazon, Apple, Alphabet (Google), Meta (Facebook), and Microsoft. Due to a lack of regulations, they can exercise their power almost unchecked. While these giant corporations present content and collect data, consumers are left with the option of consuming predetermined products and services. The shift to Web3 – and with it, the metaverse – opens up new and, above all, border-crossing possibilities. Innovations such as the blockchain, cryptocurrencies, and NFTs help to return the power of tech giants to individuals in the form of ownership. And ownership is easier to be achieved in the metaverse than in real life. The community-first approach behind Web3 thinking is not only driving the democratization of the internet. It also opens entirely new doors for self-realization, diversity, and inclusion. One example: as of 2020, 2 out of 3 properties in Germany are still purchased by men. The reasons for this gender inequality are manifold, but Web3 reshuffles the cards: to buy a property on a virtual platform like The Sandbox, Decentraland, or Somnium Space, there is no need to negotiate with banks, the land registry, and the notary’s office – all hurdles that can be large and daunting on the way to buying a property. Real ownership on Web3 is much easier and more anonymous to obtain here: with money in the form of a crypto-currency.
When we look at how people portray themselves in the metaverse, there is another potential big win for equality: Your avatar shows people what you want them to see. An example: Imagine having a job interview in the metaverse. It does not matter how you look, where you live or whether you can afford a fancy home office. Your skills are what matter.
With a new world opening, new lands are being explored. Or in other words: A football match without all the players agreeing on the same set of rules and without a referee making sure the rules are followed will most likely end in mayhem. We need to make sure the metaverse will not be ruled by anarchy. At the moment, you can find codes of conduct and terms of service for how to behave in the metaverse, but they all differ per platform.
And also, these platforms are still learning. What I would love to see is a universal ethics board, with all big platforms present but also creators, users, artists, and so on, regularly discussing what needs to be done to allow as much freedom as possible while securing the safety of every user and then imposing these regulations together.
To be inclusive to those with disabilities, the metaverse needs to see improvements first in how it can be accessed. It’s about entering with which many people with disabilities face the greatest hurdle and denies them access to take part in society. A way to improve that would be for example for deaf people to develop captioning systems or for people, that are visually impaired to have audio descriptions following them all along, and let them experience the metaverse in their way.
I believe it is a weird way to phrase things but I get the idea. “You can't understand someone until you've walked a mile in their shoes.”
However, in general, I believe the metaverse has the chance to be a race-model-free world.
There are a few unions that I think are interesting, like the World Metaverse Council, founded in October 2022, which is promoting “the dialogue for an equitable and inclusive life in the metaverse”. These models are still relatively new, and they need to prove their value and authority. Without representatives from the big tech companies and platforms, I am afraid these unions will have a tough job putting their strategies into practice.
But there are initiatives I like that aim at promoting women in tech, for example. In 2020 and 2021, just 5 percent of NFTs sold came from female creators. Organizations like Unstoppable Women of Web3, World of Women, Women in Immersive Technologies or wom3n.DAO want to make the currently male-dominated Web3 more inclusive and empower women in its co-creation. On these platforms, they have the opportunity to connect, exchange, inspire and learn from each other.
Meta Festival has become a global happening that celebrates Web3 and bridges the gaps between people, brands, and technology. The festival combines work, play, connection, and fun. From Asia to Europe to the Americas. In each timezone, we feature special content, from live entertainment to mind-blowing talks. Bringing together the key players and discussing with them the future of the metaverse has made it a unique experience. I created Meta Festival together with Thomas and Mio, the two founders of Journee, and with the help of an amazing team at DEPT. Last year we decided to not have any paywall at all and make quality content available to anyone joining. The experience was super accessible, and every visitor was able to create their own non-binary avatar.
This is a brilliant question! My answer is: Probably not, BUT…
We have already seen it with AI and machine learning – we as humans transfer our cognitive biases onto the data sets, which then results in biased and discriminatory artificial intelligence. We now see the same problem with ChatGPT: The text-based tool, which has reached 100 million users within two months after launch, the Guardian says, can only work with the data it is trained on. So when there are inequalities at the beginning of the creation process, these inequalities will be reflected in the results.
Within the metaverse, the issue is much more complex. The concept itself is as inclusive and equitable as it can be: While tech giants monopolize Web 2.0, Web 3.0 is trying to break these structures. This means that decentralization (with all its facets, from technological solutions to intellectual property to assets) is an essential part of the metaverse. The blockchain and NFTs are already examples of power to the people in their basic concepts! In theory, we can all be part of the metaverse, build it, even own parts of it and shape its future.
In practice, it is not that easy. To give you an example: We say that within the metaverse, you don’t only have to consume content, you can become a real creator of experiences. To create a game on Roblox, the user needs to invest quite some time and needs to become familiar with the Roblox programming language (even though Roblox coding is not as difficult as other coding languages). So tech skills are kind of required. But who is able to code? In the US, a study found that in 2021 only 21 percent of IT/tech team members within companies are female, and only 16% are ethnic minorities. And for black women, the share is below 5 percent. So it is fair to assume that there is no fair diversity amongst the creators and coders and people working for the tech companies (the people literally creating the metaverse). So we are facing the same problem that we created with AI – only more complex.
But let me end on a positive note: Creating a new world is not an easy thing to do. But a lot of talented people around the world, all with different backgrounds and good intentions, are working on further creating the metaverse, and every day every one of us can join. It is precisely this community-first approach that enables co-creation and co-ownership, which also builds a strong mindset of sharing, democratization and mutual support. The power to create excellence does not lie in the know-how of one individual, but in the collaborative creation of people with diverse backgrounds and ideas.
Now is the right time to learn from the mistakes of Web2 and to recognize and use the great potential of Web3. But boundaries will only be redefined if people commit to change. Power is only redistributed among those who fight for it. We are all invited to help shape the Internet of the future. Let’s not miss this opportunity.