Kenya Wiley is an adjunct professor in Georgetown University’s communication, culture and technology master’s program.
As the internet has revolutionized our way of life in the last 30 years, the metaverse is poised to shape our future by seamlessly connecting our digital and physical worlds. The metaverse is virtual film and fashion, VR workrooms, new online communities and more. But these new spaces, if left unchecked, could amplify existing crises around racial inequity, digital privacy and threats to American democracy. Election misinformation remains a huge issue online, and decentralized metaverse communities make it easier to spread. As the Jan. 6 hearings remind us, another attempted insurrection is possible if we don’t lay careful foundations to prevent it.
Now, while the metaverse is still in its infancy, it is critical to protect our civil and human rights in these new digital spaces.
Anyone who has lived through the pandemic has likely experienced metaverse technologies — whether that’s through virtual backgrounds or makeup filters during Zoom meetings, avatars on social media or VR for guided workouts or gaming. The next phase of the metaverse and a decentralized Web3 internet will take us further, as we’ve seen through the rise in NFT art, virtual sneakers linked to physical pairs and token-gated shopping for special perks and products.
Tech talent will craft every part of these virtual realms and immersive experiences, yet an inclusive metaverse will remain elusive without diverse creative and tech teams. However, real change in diversity, equity and inclusion in tech remains elusive. Big Tech only increased Black representation in technical positions 1% between 2014 and 2021, with Black talent representing only 3.7% of technical roles overall, the 2022 State of Tech Diversity report by the Kapor Center and NAACP found. Support for Black startups is also low, providing fewer opportunities for creative entrepreneurs to partner with established brands on metaverse activations. Black founders received 1.3% of $288 billion of venture capital between February 2020 and February 2021, according to the report.
Data privacy is an even bigger challenge in the 3D world. Twenty minutes of VR can generate 2 million unique data elements, and immersive experiences in the metaverse will magnify the amount of data collected — including not only online behavior but also eye-tracking and movements of other parts of the body. No wonder that 69% of consumers expressed concerns about privacy in the metaverse, according to a recent industry report. Those concerns are now heightened by the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade, because prosecutors and anti-abortion activists can scrutinize personal reproductive health and location data in states that have criminalized abortion.
Building equitable and inclusive metaverse communities will require thoughtful collaboration between academia, industry and government. Here are some suggestions:
Teach the humanities. Universities must equip students with skills that go beyond tech. Tomorrow’s graduates must think critically across disciplines and be great problem solvers. In this way, they will be able to develop innovative solutions and include talent from different backgrounds as they create experiences and products in both the digital and physical worlds.
This starts with a solid foundation in the humanities, even for students in STEM fields. I always begin the semester for my fashion law and social justice course with readings and a learning conversation on how the labor and land of enslaved Africans and Indigenous communities, respectively, built American fashion. These early discussions set the foundation for our later class sessions on the intersection of fashion tech, civil rights law and privacy.
Recruit and retain more people of color. Brands entering the metaverse must proactively recruit talent from underrepresented and marginalized communities as they build their Web3 teams. It’s crucial that companies offer equitable pay and a safe space for talent to feel welcome and included. As the Great Resignation has shown, employees will leave if they are not valued and respected.
Brands must also ensure that they protect consumer privacy by being open and transparent about their data collection practices and keep data safe and secure. Companies collect and analyze vast amounts of data today; data collection will continue to surge in VR and virtual stores and throughout the metaverse ecosystem. If companies are to lead in Web3, they must make racial equity and data privacy key components of their environmental, social and governance (ESG) programs.
Congress and the White House must take action to address the civil and human rights challenges plaguing America. The Supreme Court has made it clear that our basic civil rights are at stake by prioritizing guns over humans and by gutting privacy rights in its opinion to overturn Roe. The metaverse will accelerate virtual experiences layered over our real lives. If you think the quantity of digital ads and cyber breaches are bad now — to say nothing of the use of stolen data to influence elections — imagine a future where we spend most of our work life in VR and companies surveil and sell data on your every facial move without real privacy protections. House lawmakers are currently advancing comprehensive federal privacy legislation, though it is very unlikely the bill will pass the Senate. Our only hope at the federal level is for the Federal Trade Commission to propose privacy rules.
The creative and tech sectors are taking us into the next digital revolution of blockchain technology, NFTs and Web3 — building exciting opportunities in fashion, sports and entertainment. But first, we must commit to protect our civil and human rights and provide equal access to everyone if we are to drive the metaverse and humanity forward. All that is at stake is our future.