Here Comes the Metaverse: Designing the Virtual and the Real

A metaverse is coming. This metaverse offers a vision of a fully integrated, fully immersive, virtual digital world that we enter to work and play; a new digital space in which we can build new social systems, commercial horizons, and infrastructure projects; a digital terra nullius.

Does this sound like the stuff of science fiction? It's not. The metaverse already animates a corporate vision of what the next stage of digital life might be. Mark Zuckerberg, the poster child of this vision, proclaims the metaverse to be the future of Facebook and their VR headset company Oculus. "We want to get as many people as possible to be able to experience virtual reality and be able to jump into the metaverse.” As a social future, he tells us you’ll “feel present with other people as if you were in other places, having different experiences that you couldn’t necessarily do on a 2D app or webpage, like dancing, for example, or different types of fitness... In the future … you’ll be able to sit as a hologram on my couch, or I’ll be able to sit as a hologram on your couch, and it’ll actually feel like we’re in the same place, even if we’re in different states or hundreds of miles apart.”[1]

Visions like this of a blended digital and material reality are becoming the touchstones for what the next stage of digital life might be. Decentraland is another an example.[2] Built on blockchain technologies, Decentraland claims to be “the first fully decentralized virtual world,” a place where you can purchase digital lots of land, trade non-fungible tokens, and co-produce an immersive digital infrastructure.

Now, through the vector of the pandemic, what might have until recently seem far-fetched may come together in a confluence of technology, history, and power to take hold as a pathway for our techno-social futures.

Whatever you may feel about this idea of the metaverse, and whatever its from or scale, it will in large part be image-makers that will design our experience of these new spaces. The question then turns to how we direct emergent technological capacities in a way that grasps what is at stake:

  • What might it mean for our particular and universal sense-making orientations? What counts for equivalent moral concern in the creation shared language of visual communication?

  • Via visual communication, how do we shape the ethics of virtual reality? Given all that we know about the power of data collection and the aestheticizing of digital spaces, what role do we play in their acceleration or resistance?

  • Where are the boundaries of public and private in the computational infrastructures and emergent governance architectures that we design? What will be the kinds of interdisciplinary design practices that we need as we focus our critical lenses on virtual infrastructures?