Is This The Real Life, Or Is This Just Fantasy?
Philanthropy, Civil Society & The Metaverse
If you pay attention to the news you’ve probably noticed an explosion of mentions of “the Metaverse” recently, particularly in light of Facebook’s announcement that it is going all-in on the idea, to the extent that the company has now changed its name to “Meta” . The basic idea behind the metaverse concept is that of a vast digital correlate of our world, some of which might be overlaid on our experience via augmented reality devices, but most of which would exist as a separate digital universe: one that we could access through virtual reality interfaces (and other means) and thus interact with each other, and with a vast range of digital objects and AI systems, in the form of avatars. The notion that this could really happen is clearly new, but the underlying idea will be familiar to many people from books like Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (which is usually cited as the original source for the term “metaverse” ), or from films like The Matrix and Ready, Player One. The key difference now is that tech industry boosters appear to have decided that these books and films should be interpreted as how-to guides rather than dystopian satires, which is somewhat surprising to many people including me -but then maybe that’s why I’m not a billionaire tech entrepreneur…
Depending on your point of view, the metaverse has become big right now either because it represents a powerful vision for the next big step in the evolution of the internet; or because Mark Zuckerberg really needs a sufficiently shiny object to keep talking about in the hope that it might distract attention from all the deeply damaging whistleblowing revelations about Facebook coming out at the moment. (Sorry - i can’t bring myself to call it “Meta” so I’m going to stick with Facebook). I tend to believe there is a pretty healthy dose of the latter, but let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that it’s at least partly the former and there is more to the metaverse idea than just providing Facebook with a dead cat strategy. (It would certainly be an expensive sideshow if that is the case, given the stories of Facebook’s big push to create 10,000 new jobs in the company’s European operations to build its metaverse).
So if the metaverse isn’t total moonshine, what might this mean for philanthropy and civil society? You might think this seems needlessly speculative at this point, but given that wealth from the tech industry (and the ideas and ideologies it brings along with it) form an increasingly large part of the basis of elite philanthropy worldwide, and given that civil society organisations (like the rest of society) are heavily dependent on the digital infrastructure provided by a small number of platforms and tech providers, I think it is important to take note of big tech trends of this kind and to think through their ramifications from a civil society perspective. And it the case of the metaverse, even if you don’t believe that Facebook is going to realise its vision successfully at the moment (which I’m pretty sceptical about tbh), the underlying idea seems to have sufficient cache that we should assume someone will make a version of it work at some point, and thus it is worth taking seriously.
New Ways of Giving & Fundraising
Let’s think first about the nuts and bolts of what the metaverse might mean for our ability to give or to fundraise. Now, it could obviously affect where people give, by providing a shared virtual environment within which people could donate or hold fundraising events. This would be a logical extension of the existing growth of fundraising within the esports and gaming community, where online events have become big charitable money spinners in recent years. It might also affect why people are driven to give, by building on the use of VR fundraising tools at gala events, in which organisations like Charity:Water have used specially made VR experiences to give potential donors an immersive insight into the issues they are tackling, which have proven successful at eliciting emotional responses and accompanying donations. One can imagine a scenario, for instance, in which participants at a virtual concert held for charity (which presumably would be able to have vastly more attendees than a physical event) were all given an individual immersive experience at some point during the concert to remind them of the cause and encourage them to donate. It would be like a turbo-charged version of the tear-jerking films that intersperse the comedy on Red Nose Day, only presumably more compelling (and perhaps not as easy to ignore… although that raises ethical questions that we shall return to in a moment).
Since the metaverse would be an entirely digital construct, digital fundraising tools (including immersive ones) would of course no longer be limited to use at specific events or gatherings, but could potentially be used anywhere. This could have a huge impact on who is giving, if it converted current non-givers into givers by offering them opportunities to give that were compelling and fit within the normal grain of their lives. It could also affect how people give, as these new fundraising tools could even be used as the basis for context-specific asks personalised for each user. For example, you might be watching a story on the news about a particular medical condition and might be prompted with the option of an immersive experience made by a charity that supports people with the condition (or just with a more straightforward opportunity to give minus the immersive experience). Or, to take a slightly more dystopian (but unfortunately likely IMHO) scenario, you might find yourself getting unsolicited immersive experiences from individuals seeking help and funding. This isn’t too much of a stretch, given the rapid growth of direct individual appeals for money to cover things like medical treatment through crowdfunding platforms like GoFundMe, or appealing via social media for payment through payment apps like VenMo or CashApp. Now, assuming these immersive appeals still required consent within the metaverse, one could presumably just ignore them as you would an appeal on Facebook’s current platform and they would act as little more than an annoyance. But what if it was possible to impose an immersive experience on someone without their consent? In this case, could our experience in the metaverse be plagued by occasional unrequested, and potentially harrowing, immersive experiences designed to elicit donations?
This brings to light some of the ethical questions we might face around giving and fundraising in a shared virtual environment. How do we ensure that someone has consented to undergoing an immersive experience? How do we ensure that any such consent is properly informed? Would charities have a responsibility to ensure that they were not giving people immersive experiences of things that they might find traumatic or unpleasant, or would discomfort be an important part of the success of this kind of fundraising? (This is obviously related to existing debates about the use of violent or negative imagery in fundraising to elicit shock, but would potentially be amplified when talking about immersive experiences). And if a potential supporter did suffer trauma or longer term stress as a result of an immersive fundraising experience, where would accountability lie?
Finally, the metaverse would certainly affect what we give in a fairly fundamental way. A fully digital virtual universe would require ways for people to transact easily with each other regardless of where they are in the world, and also a means to ascribe value to digital assets in a meaningful way. This might (finally) provide a genuine use case for cryptocurrency; though whether that would be any of the existing cryptos or a new native one remains to be seen. It would also mean that non fungible tokens (NFTs) had a real purpose- rather than just enabling people to sell receipts for 8-bit drawings of flying cat toasters for silly amounts of money — because the ability to designate unique digital objects and ascribe them scarcity value would be genuinely useful in the Metaverse. I have written a lot (some might say too much) about philanthropy, cryptocurrency, NFTs, blockchains etc in the past, so I won’t get bogged down in too much detail here (although you can read a lot of that stuff here if you are interested, or just check out this blog about CryptoKitties that I did in 2018 and which I still maintain is the most prescient thing I’ve ever managed to write). The short version is that I think there is something interesting for philanthropy about the idea of unique digital objects, and also the idea of “programmable money” that you can imbue with non-financial attributes or make subject to automated conditions through the use of smart contracts. However any version in which we are talking about a new native cryptocurrency built by Facebook for their own metaverse platform (presumably “ZuckBucks”?) sets off massive alarm bells in terms of how much additional power it would put in the hands of the company and its owners.
If Facebook succeeded in making their metaverse the de facto evolution of the internet, this would obviously raise huge questions in terms of the extent to which we would all be dependent on the infrastructure they had built. This would not be an entirely new problem for CSOs (at least in nature, if not in scale): many digital civil society experts have already raised concerns about ‘platform dependency’ in civil society and the degree to which groups and organisations have come to rely on digital tools and platforms like Facebook for their existence. It often seems as though there is a slightly naive assumption that platforms are a form of digital public space (an assumption, in fairness, that the platforms themselves clearly want to promote); but this is misguided. They are privately owned spaces controlled by a small number of giant technology companies with almost unprecedented amounts of power. Occasionally we see CSOs end up on the wrong side of this power, as when there are examples of orgs finding their ability to fundraise on Facebook removed without any warning or explanation, or when organisations working on contentious rights issues find their work censored or their ability to operate curtailed because a platform is trying to achieve powerful governmental allies on the other side of the issue.
It is clear that platform dependency is already a problem for many CSOs, and Facebook has not yet done much to suggest that it has the best interests of civil society at heart, so the idea that its platform could become not just a slightly naff social media tool where your annoying relatives post memes and conspiracy theories but the portal through which you access an entire separate digital existence should really give some cause for concern.
Filtered Experience & Tailored Choices
Whilst the risk of losing access is one part of the problem with platform dependency, another is that even while we are on the platform our experience is being filtered and our choices being tailored for us in ways we do not understand. Many of us are already aware that opaque algorithms dictate a large chunk of our online experience by determining what shows up in our social media feeds or what recommendations are presented to us. At the moment that is at least limited (to some extent) to our use of platforms or apps that we have chosen to go to, and we have the option of fact-checking information against other sources or comparing our online experience with offline reality. Imagine, however, those same problems occurring, but in the context of a platform that had the power to shape all aspects of our online experience because it had become the gatekeeper for access to the digital space that we all use. It’s not good, is it?
When it comes to user experience, presumably it would be in the platform’s interest to keep us happy. So would the nasty edges be taken off in order to keep us happy? Would that mean that we were protected from information or imagery that might upset us or make us feel something? (And thus momentarily interrupt us from being happy little economic units, churning out productive trails of data, which would obviously NOT be a good thing from the platform’s point of view). For civil society organisations this might present a real problem, given that those same sharp edges are often the things that make us aware of injustice and social problems, and thus compel us to take action through giving, volunteering or campaigning. We have already seen an early version of this kind of filtering taking place: it was reported earlier this year that adtech algorithms are penalising and downranking news stories about the work of civil society organisations because they contain words that have been singled out as ‘undesirable’ by advertisers, such as “refugee” or “famine”. Again, if we imagine a similar story in the context of an all-encompassing metaverse, it is not hard to see how much worse it could be. Say for example, that you were interacting with the metaverse via augmented reality and walking through an area in which there were a large number of homeless people: what if the platform was aware of this and aware that it would cause you to be upset (possibly upset enough to reach into your pocket to give some money), so it took you on a more circuitous route to avoid the interaction? Or deliberately engaged you in some overlaid immersive experience to distract you for long enough not to get upset? Now, you might well point out that in actual fact the karmic reward (or “warm glow”) that came from giving to the homeless person would arguably be more beneficial to you in the long run. However recognising this requires a relatively sophisticated understanding of the psychology and economics of altruism, and I’m not sure that’s something we can assume that the people building these platforms will have.
The alternative possibility is that rather than trying to soften our experiences, platforms go in the opposite direction and deliberately provide us with information and experiences that it knows will annoy us (albeit annoy us in ‘the right way’). We already know that in the online “attention economy”, where platforms and companies battle over the increasingly scarce slivers of our attention, there are clear incentives to push division and extreme points of view because that is what keeps people clicking. In the metaverse version, would we have to be similarly riled to keep us engaged? That is certainly the concern of many critics, whose immediate (and entirely understandable) reaction to Facebook’s jaunty announcements about its metaverse plans has been to point out that it has yet to deal with its existing platform’s problematic tendency to stoke division through targeted misinformation and extreme content, so there is little reason to believe that things will be any better if we hand over the facebook the keys to a new gateway to our entire online experience. From the point of view of CSOs the challenge will be to figure out how they can cut through in any new online environment to get the attention of donors and supporters without simply adopting tools and techniques that they know to be problematic or harmful. (For a bit more on civil society and the attention economy, see this earlier piece I did for Charity Digital News).
One of the ways in which the internet is often argued to have strengthened civil society is by making it easier to form groups and communities, because the new communication and coordination capabilities of the web have overcome traditional limitations on group membership and structure so that it is now possible to sustain large communities that are global in nature and based around shared identity or purpose rather than merely geographic proximity. According to advocates of the metaverse, a core part of the power of this new iteration is going to come from the fact that the 3D virtual environment will be able to reinsert a sense of place and location back into our online interactions and thus strengthen them further. So could the metaverse be an even more powerful tool for building community?
I think the answer to this might be yes, in principle (although, if Facebook’s cringeworthy launch video for its metaverse efforts is anything to go by, there is still a long way to go before avatar-based virtual interactions are anything other than skull-crushingly awkward and unnatural). However, we should also note that just being able to form communities more easily is not necessarily a good thing. Alexis de Tocqueville lauded America’s tendency towards forming voluntary associations and groups as perhaps the thing that typified the strength of its democracy, and his idea that voluntary association is an inherent social good that represents a “nursery of democracy” has remained an idea with a powerful sway ever since. But others have noted that not all groups are necessarily equal, and that the idea that association and group formation per se are good for our society and democracy may be rather naive. In recent years, for instance, whilst the internet and social media have made possible the rise and success of global movements like Black Lives Matter and MeToo, they have also been the substrate in which the drive to association has metastasized into conspiracy theories and hate groups like QAnon and led to a shocking act of insurrection in the US. So just making it easier to form groups may not necessarily be a good thing.
The other problem, apart from undesirable actors forming genuine but problematic groups, is that the easier group formation becomes, the more possible it becomes to form fake groups with little effort. One of the long-standing challenges faced by civil society groups taking on corporate or political interests is the risk of “astro-turfing” — where governments or companies create credible-sounding civil society organisations of their own. Traditionally, astroturfing would focus on creating groups that argued the opposite of whatever the CSOs were saying, to give the impression of grassroots support for the government or corporate side of things, but it no longer needs to be this binary. In an age of information proliferation and diminishing attention, and when group formation has become so easy, a favoured tactic of many astroturfers is simply to flood the space by creating as many different apparent groups as possible, arguing multiple different sides of an issue. It doesn’t even matter if all these groups are arguing things that are in the protagonist’s interests (in fact it is better if they don’t): all that matters is that you fill people’s timelines with so much conflicting information that they become overwhelmed and switch off. The danger for civil society (as I argued at some length in this piece for Stanford’s Digital impact blog), is that this has a corrosive effect on trust and authenticity in the online environment; and given that these are vital sources of power and legitimacy for CSOs that should be a real worry. If the metaverse is to make group formation even easier, and potentially further blur the lines between what is authentic and what isn’t, that is further cause for concern.
We’ve obviously been getting quite negative in the last few points, so let’s try to come back to a little bit more positivity for just a second (then we’ll get back to a bit more criticism before the end so don’t worry). If the metaverse was consciously designed with equity in mind (and I’m aware that is an “if” large enough to be seen from space) could it actually act as a leveller by removing some of the inequalities or the barriers in the real world? For those with visual or hearing impairments, for instance, might it be possible to compensate for those in the interface used to access the metaverse and thus enable them to operate on an entirely level playing field once in the virtual space? More broadly, if everyone is represented by an avatar that masks their offline appearance, would that eventually make prejudice or discrimination based on race, gender etc less common?
Before I get accused of having drunk the metaverse Kool Aid, I should say that whilst I think these are interesting questions to be posed over the longer term (of the sort that fiction which deals with virtual worlds often considers), I can’t really see it over the shorter term. The adoption of the metaverse would have to be pretty rapid and its cultural impact pretty vast for it to have a meaningful impact on deep-seated issues of prejudice and inequality. More fundamentally, the question would be whether our our experiences in the metaverse had an impact on our views and behaviour outside it in the real world. If they did, then arguably the metaverse could play a part in creating a more fair society by re-engineering our online experience in a way that eroded prejudices and inequalities offline. However, if our metaverse experience (even if positive) had no impact on our offline reality, then this might arguably be even worse; as it would act as a distraction from the need to address fundamental societal challenges and inequalities in the real world.
A place to experiment
One other intriguing and (sort of) positive point to make about the metaverse is the potential it might offer for experimentation. At the moment, one of the key roles for philanthropy is to foster innovation by testing new approaches and interventions to see what might work as approaches to addressing social and environmental problems. But if we are increasingly looking at a world in which almost all objects and people have “digital twins”, would it be possible to test hypothesis or interventions in this digital space prior to their deployment in the real world? Since this would avoid experimenting on real people or communities, it could bypass some of the ethical concerns about real-world social innovation that currently exist. One could also run multiple simulations at the same time, to give a sort of “Monte Carlo Method philanthropy”, where you would merely try as many possible approaches or interventions as possible and see which proved to be most effective overall. Of course, if you were subsequently planning on deploying your interventions in the real world, success would entirely depend on the accuracy of your models and the correlation of the metaverse with the reality. If however, the interventions themselves were to be deployed within the metaverse, then perhaps the simulations could be seen as a much more accurate guide. (For a bit more on this, see this previous blog I did on the idea of the ‘ambient internet’ or this article I did for Catalyst about the impact of AI on charities).
This is obviously quite far off at this point, and it doesn’t take much effort to see where ethical issues and concerns might arise around the idea of social experimentation within virtual environments. However, the idea of reducing “wasted effort” in philanthropy by provably identifying the most effective interventions before ploughing resources into them seems as though it would be very appealing for some philanthropists, for whom maximising efficiency and impact remains the holy grail. So you can bet your bottom dollar that someone will try to do it at some point, and hence it is the sort of thing that it is worth thinking through.
Technosolutionism and Distracting From Actual Problems
The final point to make about the relevance of the metaverse to civil society, and perhaps the most fundamental one, is that it seems like it might just be a big distraction from much more important things. At a time when we are facing massive (perhaps even existential) challenges to our society and our planet in the form of the climate crisis, global inequality, the erosion of democratic norms etc, do we really need to be investing quite so much effort into building a souped-up version of The Sims that incorporates productivity tools? I remain to be convinced.
Of course, tech boosters will maintain that it is important because we can’t let small short-term matters like catastrophic climate breakdown distract us from the need to ensure that the relentless pace of technological advance continues at all costs. And furthermore (and more problematic), they will almost certainly argue that the metaverse is not actually a distraction from the big challenges of the day, but in fact a key tool for addressing them. This would be entirely in-keeping with the general trend towards techno-solutionism, in which no problem is seen as too difficult to be solved by the simple application of more and better technology. This permeates philanthropy, too, as philanthropists have always been somewhat prone to let the way in which they have made their fortunes shape their views about how best to address societal problems (e.g. the early C20th industrial barons liked to create large managerial organisations that could systematize and rationalize the distribution of money to causes, whilst early C21st banking philanthropists liked to employ clever financial engineering in their desire to “leverage” their giving). Tech philanthropists are perhaps even more guilty of this than any other breed, because not only do they believe that the ways in which they have made their money make them fantastically clever in a commercial sense; they usually believe that the platforms and products they have developed have a huge positive effect on society. So it is unsurprising that when they come to philanthropy, they reach for the same tools. Given that Mark Zukckerberg generally talks about Facebook in terms of the role it has played in “connecting people worldwide” (rather than, say, in terms of it being a giant hoover for capturing personal data in order to monetize that through advertising), I would strongly suspect that he sees his vision for the metaverse in exactly the same terms that he sees his philanthropic ambitions, and sees little distinction (if any) between the two. Indeed it was reported that the domain “meta.org”, which links to Facebook’s rebranded identity, was previously held by the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative (the philanthropic vehicle that Zuckerberg founded with his wife Priscilla Chan) and attached to a different project that subsequently folded and then handed the domain to Facebook, in an entirely innocuous and not-at-all-shady-looking series of events.
There is a rich tradition in philanthropy of people coming up with Utopian visions and grandiose plans for planned communities. One can think of the model workers villages popular among philanthropically-minded industrialists of the last C19th and early C20th- places like Port Sunlight, Saltaire, Bournville or New Earswick. Or one might think of planned overseas colonies, like the one founded in the US in the late C18th by General James Oglethorpe and others to resettle the inhabitants of debtors prisons (which eventually became the state of Georgia), or the dream that Salvation Army founder “General” William Booth for founding a series of overseas colonies for what he saw as the problematic poor of England. In many ways the idea of the metaverse as a philanthropic enterprise would be a continuation of this tradition (albeit perhaps in a more all-encompassing way than has ever been done before), so we should not be surprised if it ends up being presented in this way. However, the lesson from most of the previous examples of philanthropic planned communities is that even when well-intentioned, if the founder is given too much power to shape the nature of the community it is almost always done in paternalistic or problematic ways that exemplify ideological views about the nature of poverty or how people should live their lives. And in Mark Zuckerberg’s case, given that he seems to interpret what most people would see as clear cut-dystopias as something to aspire to, we should probably have justifiable causes for concern about his judgment and be wary of handing the keys over to him so that he can build his brave new world.
So what now then?
It is still entirely unclear whether the metaverse is something that will ever come to fruition. The mocking response of the internet to Facebook’s launch announcement may have given Mark Zuckerberg cause to think again; but then again it may simply strengthen his resolve to make this happen (he doesn’t strike me as someone who is dissuaded easily tbh, even when palpably wrong). Or it may turn out that the whole thing was just an elaborate sideshow in an attempt to distract attention from Facebook’s much more real problems with ongoing revelations about its business practices and its knowledge of the harms its platform has done to young people and to the health of democracy.
But then again, Facebook are not the only ones working on making the metaverse a reality (they have just been loudest about it). Plenty of others believe in the fundamental concept, albeit they might be pursuing it in a more collaborative, open source way. And like anything else to do with emerging tech, if you step back from the specifics of who is doing what right now, and focus instead on the affordances (i.e. the things the technology makes possible) then it is easier to see how trends might play out, even if none of the currently-touted examples last the distance. Given (as I argued right at the beginning of this piece) that developments in technology have a material impact on philanthropy because so much wealth now comes from the tech world, and our reliance on technological tools means that all civil society is now, in effect, digital civil society, we should at the very least think through the implications of the metaverse idea (without getting caught up in any unwarranted hype).