Still Trying to Ignore the Metaverse

Perhaps surprisingly, I don’t particularly like technology. And certainly not technology for technology’s sake. My brother was always the one who picked up every new gadget to see what it did. I tended to shrug and go back to reading a book. I still do. 

That said.. Like most people, I enjoy technologies that improve my world in some way. I’m fond of technologies that become invisible infrastructure in my life. Technologies that just work without me noticing – like the toilet. When it comes to digital tech, I’m grateful for systems that make me smile. Not the ones that make me vomit. Literally.

Wagner James Au has been trying to get me to engage with virtual reality since we first met in the mid-aughts. You name the iteration, he’s been excited about it. Each time, he tries to convince me that this particular instantiation is cooler, more accessible, more appealing. Each time, I politely explain that I have zero interest in any aspect of this. Still, I like James. And I appreciate his enthusiasm. There’s part of me that wishes I would sparkle that way at the site of a new piece of tech. 

The funny thing is that James knows why I have zero interest in engaging on things related to virtual reality. In fact, it’s precisely because my first research project was an attempt to unpack my hatred of virtual reality that he keeps pushing me to jump into the fray. But I haven’t done work in this area in 25 years. So it cracked me up to no end that James decided to feature my antagonism towards the metaverse in his new book, “Making a Metaverse That Matters.”  He thinks that I owe it to all who are excited about this tech to talk more about this early work. So let me share the way that he told my story and offer some additional context and flare to it just for fun. 

In “Making a Metaverse That Matters,” James opens one section referencing an essay I wrote a decade ago when Facebook obtained Oculus. The essay was provocatively titled “Is the Oculus Rift Sexist?” This was an intentionally provocative essay. But I really meant it with this question. I wanted to know: was Oculus fundamentally designed in a way that was prejudiced based on sex and, therefore, was it going to be an inherently discriminatory piece of tech? My question wasn’t coming out of nowhere. It was something that had plagued me since my first encounter with a VRM system as an undergraduate student. As James quotes from my essay: 

Ecstatic at seeing a real-life instantiation of the Metaverse, the virtual world imagined in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, I donned a set of goggles and jumped inside.

And then I promptly vomited.

(Side note: I hadn’t remembered that I complained about the Metaverse-ness of Oculus back before Meta was Meta so I laughed re-reading this. Also, as an additional side note: it never ceases to amaze me that tech bros want to build worlds created in dystopian novels and expect a different outcome. As a reminder, this is actually the definition of insanity.)

I first encountered VR because my beloved undergraduate advisor – Andy van Dam – had invested in building a new fangled immersive virtual reality system called a CAVE. I was excited for him so I checked it out. My reaction to my first experience with this piece of tech was not joy, but nausea. I told Andy his system was stupid. (If memory serves, I was far more crass in my language.) I also told him the system discriminated against women. He told me to prove it.

At that point in my career, I still wanted to understand tech that I loathed. And I wanted to prove my accusation to Andy. So I started to ask why this piece of tech that made so many men I knew so happy made me so miserable. I tracked down military reports about gender bias in simulator sickness, much of which dated back to the 1960s. I ended up spending time at a gender clinic where people who were on hormone replacement therapy regimens participated in scientific studies about things like spatial rotation. This led me to run a series of psych experiments where my data suggested that people’s ability to be able to navigate 3D VR seems to be correlated with the dominance of certain sex hormones in their system. Folks with high levels of estrogen and low levels of testosterone – many of whom would identify as women – were more likely to get nauseous navigating VR than those who have high levels of testosterone streaming through their body. What was even stranger was that changes to hormonal levels appeared to shape how people respond to these environments. 

(Side note: When I was conducting this work 25 years ago, the language people used to discuss gender was quite different than today. Many of my informants actively hated the term “transgender” and were adamant that I use the word “transsexual” and clearly identify them as male-to-female or female-to-male in my study. In today’s parlance, this latter language is viewed as deeply problematic while transgender is widespread.  Because my older work uses the emic language of the day, I regularly get nastygrams accusing me of transphobia.)

I did this work as an undergraduate but never published it because much work was needed for it to be publishable. But I always hoped that someone would pick up the baton and keep on going. In fact, that’s what motivated me to write the Oculus essay in the first place. And I will always be grateful to Thomas Stoffregen and his team who confirmed that I was not crazy with my early findings – and continued on to do fantastic work. That said, as James notes, it’s depressing how little work has been done in this area ever since. Truth is, I haven’t been tracking it, but I’m not surprised to hear that. I walked away from this world because I had no desire to embrace a technology that wants me to come in a different hormonal arrangement. 

But James is more outraged on my behalf, in no small part I suspect because he does see the joy in this technology and I think he wants me to find it as well. I had to smile when he highlighted the sexist realities of a business culture of tech-for-tech sake. 

[Meta] paid $2 billion for a piece of consumer-facing technology that reputable research suggests tends to make half the population literally vomit.

Then spent tens of billions more to bring it to market anyway.

Then Silicon Valley followed suit, investing tens of billions still further, an entire industry sprung up around it, nearly all of it ignoring evidence that the whole enterprise was built on sand. Usually it seems impossible to calculate the opportunity cost of unconscious gender bias, but in this specific case, the price tag approaches $100 billion.

I know I should be indignant. It is indeed seriously depressing to think about all of the technology that is created out there with little regard for people and practices. It’s exhausting to go through hype cycles of how yet another new technology built based on a dystopian novel is rolling out regardless of the harms or bias that it might trigger. It’s painful to think about how much capital is spent chasing pyramid schemes and illusions rather than solving actual problems. It’s also really depressing to realize that findings that I uncovered 25 years ago were validated by better scholars but were never addressed by industry. But this is not my problem. 

I have no interest in the Metaverse. I am not sitting around dreaming of wearing gobsmackingly expensive ski glasses. Although I’m not a fan of the various aches and pains in my body, I don’t think my life will be better in avatar form. I really really really don’t get why this is a piece of tech that excites people. But I know that there are a lot of people out there like James who want an inclusive and joyful Metaverse to exist. If you’re one of those people, do check out his book. His message is a good one: let’s collectively work towards a version of virtual reality that gives more people joy than pain. 

As for me, even the act of putting one toe into the water to support an old friend was enough for me to remind myself that I don’t have to like or study every new technology there is. And so, with all gratitude to James, I’m going to happily return to my attempt to ignore the Metaverse. Perhaps someone out there who is excited by the technology will want to build on earlier work and address the systemic bias issues. That would be great. But this tech isn’t for me, at least. not in its current form. And so it goes, so it goes.

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