See You in the Metaverse

Meet me in the metaverse
Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images
Baratunde Thurston
March 31, 2022

I spent last week in Austin at the first South by Southwest festival to occur in-person since 2019. I’ll admit that I had missed the frenetic energy of the weeklong multimedia event, which has become a part of my annual routine. I started attending SXSW in 2006 and have attended almost every year since. In 2016, in fact, I was inducted into the SXSW Hall of Fame, so I’m a certified fanboy. This year, I drank all the agave-based spirits, ate all the permutations of meat on tacos, rode all the electric scooters, and got a taste of a high-tech future that we increasingly recognize doesn’t simply happen but must be consciously shaped. 

There were three unmistakable themes that animated this year’s event. And they explicate, more than anything else, that future that we are collectively building. 


The Pace of Change Is Accelerating
(And Our Memories are More Important than Ever)

I’ve heard this mantra for more than 20 years, to the point where it becomes hollow pablum, but I really feel the truth of it when I immerse myself in future-oriented gatherings like SXSW. Austin, itself, provides a dramatic example of this point. As a nearly-annual visitor to this city since 2006, I’ve had the benefit of a 16-year timelapse perspective on its changes. 

First, I noticed the traffic. So much more of it. I guess all the people who fled L.A. for Austin also brought their cars. Then the skyline started to fill in. There’s all the signs of high-velocity development, including the ubiquity of cranes and work crews, fancy coffee shops, and visibly unhoused and displaced people. During my visit to a barbershop in East Austin, I learned about the positive and negative effects of what tends to be swept under the rug as “gentrification.” My barber, an Austin native, said that he appreciated the booming business opportunities. But he also said that he had no prospects for being able to afford a house for his wife and two young children. 

All that was on my mind as I followed the official SXSW programming, listening to a series of futurists describe a fast-approaching future that already feels like our recent past. Amy Webb, the C.E.O. of the Future Today Institute, is someone who’s future insights I’ve long respected. At the conference, she presented some terrifying possibilities for what we can expect. She dropped phrases nonchalantly like, “We can now recognize people by their heart print,” meaning forget facial recognition or fingerprints —we have the technology to recognize the unique signature of someone’s heartbeat from hundreds of feet away. Game over for opting out of the surveillance economy. Her research also uncovered that A.I.-generated faces are trusted more than real human faces, so brace yourself for synthetic customer service agents, salespeople, and politicians. And if you’re tired of juggling multiple logins and social media accounts, just wait until you have to manage more fully-fledged, hyper-realistic but distinct avatars on non-interoperable metaverse platforms. 

In an unexpected challenge to the narratives of the future, I took some time to learn about the history of Black people in Austin in a session run by the creator of Black Austin Tours. Dr. Javier Wallace taught us that the Matthew McConaughey-voiced video celebrating the glory of the Texas statehouse fails to mention the people who built it were Black Americans, exploited by convict-leasing programs; that the expansion of Austin ever eastward comes at the expense of Black communities who had been corralled there by racist housing policies; and that the lack of visibility of Black Austinites on “Lady Bird Lake” is due to a multigenerational history of people being beaten for swimming in those waters. 

Dr. Wallace encouraged us visitors to ask a set of questions about any space we’re inhabiting to see if there’s an opportunity to disrupt the prevailing narrative. What people were here before me? And: Who made it possible for me to enjoy this space? Also: What are the local lives of Black people there?And also: Am I supporting Black businesses? Am I hiring Black tour guides and vendors? 

His speech was about the physical erasure of Black people and our stories from its present, but his approach is valuable in almost any space, including our emerging digital ones. We could expand his focus to include many communities who haven’t been centered in our narratives of ourselves and our future. What stories about our future prevail, and how might they be disrupted? 


Counter-Narratives Are Gaining Power
(And They Can Be Life-Affirming)

Our stories of technology tend to be narrowly focused on positive financial returns, the assumed value of speed and efficiency, and a limited view of the types of people who are empowered to use technology to define the world for everyone. In a number of places, however, I encountered different narratives about what future is actually possible and worth building. It was a welcome evolution past the simplistic and naive “technology equals progress” mantra of the late aughts, as well as the justified yet paralyzing recent era of cynicism and disgust about tech’s many downsides. 

For the first time, I saw a technology session about the metaverse that centered the experiences of indigenous people. So many of us have been taught that Native Americans only exist in history, but there they were, right on stage in front of me, talking about immersive reality and creating hybrid future worlds that could deepen our connection to nature and the existing world. We often think of our maps as set, but of course history offers a far more dynamic view. One panelist, Christine Luckasavitch, is executive director of Native Land Digital, a non-profit whose most public project is the Native Lands app (available at native-lands.ca), which shows maps of indigenous lands underlying the regions we mostly know by other names. Luckasavitch talked about the evolution of such maps and the ongoing conversations with indigenous nations that led to updates and corrections to the project. 

In another session, titled “In Praise of Friction,” I heard M.I.T. research scientist and senior lecturer Dr. Renée Gosline share her work on the effects of algorithms on trust and how we can reinsert inefficiency and friction back into our world in ways that are more recognizably human. If you think about it, faster isn’t always better. Food, sex, contemplation, time with loved ones: these are just a few things we would prefer to experience deeply and savor rather than race through with maximum efficiency. Our blanket deference to the machines is coming to an end! Hooray for nuance and sanity! 

I wasn’t surprised to learn that music sold on vinyl has reached its highest sales level in a generation; ditto compact discs. Slow-down counter-narratives are gaining steam, but the one that hit me the hardest was an augmented reality experience called Breonna’s Garden. It was created by self-described “wisdom technologist” and artist Lady Phe0nix in collaboration with several tech companies and the family of Breonna Taylor. The garden uses augmented reality to construct a sacred space designed to remember her life. Most of us know Breonna’s name because of the actions of the Louisville Kentucky police who raided her home in the summer of 2020 and shot her dead. This garden tells a fuller story and offers a chance for people to share audio messages of hope for her family, or honor loved ones of their own. You can use an iOS device to drop this garden into any space and see Breonna, hear from her younger sister, Ju’Niyah Palmer, and scores of others who knew or were moved by her. I’ve visited the garden twice and was moved to tears both times, once after my return from Austin. 

On that visit, I encountered the voice memo of a previous visitor. (They are triggered by walking into flowers in the garden.) This visitor was a Black woman, like Breonna, and also an emergency medical technician pursuing a career in nursing. She shared her burden of being underestimated, insulted, and disrespected. She shared her pain at what Breonna’s loss meant to her. And what I immediately thought of was Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings. So many of my Black female friends had to avert their eyes at the disrespect and diminishment Jackson faced. They were too familiar with her self-control, her careful breathing, her calmness in the face of insult. Jackson could never fly off the handle like Brett Kavanaugh. And I wondered if Judge Jackson went to a Breonna’s Garden of her own, in her mind, as she calmly withstood the fake indignation of pro-insurrectionist senators.  

Seeing the creators of Breonna’s Garden onstage all at once in Austin was also powerful. That stage represented a high water mark for the types of worlds we can build when we bring many types of voices to the table. What they built wasn’t just a memorial, but a life-affirming tribute to the creative possibilities of technology when imbued with deep humanity. 


Web3 Is Going to Be Huge
(Whatever It Is)

I was scooting down Cesar Chavez Street to rehydrate at my hotel when I saw a line wrapped around a warehouse emblazoned on the side with the word “Doodles.” I knew Doodles was an N.F.T. (non fungible token) project and that the creators had hosted a panel I missed. I had read about them doing a collaboration with the paint company Behr at SXSW. A friend from college told me it was one of the hottest tickets, and on a text thread with some crypto researcher friends, one had told me the only way to get into the event was with a Doodle token. But I didn’t actually know what Doodles was, or that it was one of the top 10 most highly-valued N.F.T. projects. Not yet, at least. I texted my research friends back. “No problem. Lemme see if I can get one real quick. I’m in my hotel room.” What I discovered real quick was that the lowest-price Doodle available was going for about 10 ETH, or $32,000.

Time for Plan B. My research friend had already been to the event and offered to meet me in my hotel lobby to give me her wristband. She was a skilled raver back in the ‘90s and very good at repurposing wristbands. After successfully lifting her credential, I scooted on over to the Doodle warehouse and entered another world. Did this count as a hack of the blockchain? Line-drawn figures puking out pastel-colored rainbows filled the space. There was Doodle coffee to drink, Doodle noodles to eat, and Doodle merch to buy. I purchased a $1 Doodles button for the chance to win, I think, an actual Doodle? I don’t really know. 

It was all really strange, and everyone there seemed to know why they were there, except me. At the very back of the space was a giant LED wall where people were digitally spray-painting. If you actually owned a Doodle, you could connect it to the LED wall and it would animate and fly across the screen. 

My Doodles enthusiast college friend texted me: “Still want to go?” I told her I was already in and found it odd. “Odd? Not at all,” she responded. “Magical. It’s because you don’t own a Doodle.” Facts. My one dollar Doodle button notwithstanding. No one at the Doodles party was explaining what a Doodle was, so as an outsider, I just didn’t get it.

Later that week, however, another friend helped it all make sense for me. I’d known this person only from the internet until SXSW. That’s one of the great joys of SXSW from its early days: meeting your online friends I.R.L. This friend had become a big N.F.T. and web3 enthusiast, and she told me to meet her and some friends at Umami Burger. I pointed my rideshare app at the address and was deposited in a remote and sketchy parking lot in front of an unbranded trailer. This did not look like any Umami Burger I’d ever seen. As I walked around and looked more closely, I counted three trailers offering a total of more than 15 different restaurants, everything from wings to burgers to convenience store fare. I was standing in the middle of a small fleet of ghost kitchens, a phenomenon I’d only read about. The only people showing up were delivery app drivers—and me, looking lost. Ghost kitchens are where food will come from in the future, we’re told, and so this was the perfect scene in which to understand why N.F.T. communities have exploded. 

My friend and her crew arrived, and she started breaking down what she’s noticed and often loved about the N.F.T. world. First, she’s seen a lot of artists find real ways to get paid for their work without the traditional gatekeeper blessings required. It’s something I’ve seen happen in other eras of the internet for at least 20 years but never as fast as what’s happening now. Second, she’s noticed a sense of excitement and belonging by people who traditionally don’t belong to any kind of social club. Imagine (or remember in my case), being nerdy, a little awkward, and not the type of person who gets invited to things like parties. Then imagine you get to go to a party, and you’re truly welcome there. People celebrate your presence. The party is filled with people like you who are into the things you are into. Your chat room has manifested in 3D space! I get the excitement, and it’s what excited my friend most about the N.F.T. world. 

She loves the “community.” I had her pause here because I have limited patience for definitional abuse, especially the word “community.” People in tech frequently abuse the word “community” the way politicians abuse the word “movement.” A temporary crowd organized around a fleeting election is not a movement, and a bunch of people coexisting on the same platform is not a community. But my friend said the collaboration required to make an N.F.T. project successful—financially successful—created these enduring community connections. “When everyone wants the value to go up, that creates a strong connection.” 

Ah yes, the WAGMI (we’re all gonna make it) motto that is the rallying cry of the crypto fandom. I think true communities exist when people have a strong connection to a shared interest as well as to each other, when they work directly together to advance the interests of the whole. By this definition, there are indeed real communities emerging around N.F.T.s, but I still worry that the core shared interest isn’t art or creativity. It’s the shared interest of an investor who wants the stock price to go up. Is that healthy or sustainable? Is that desirable? What happens when the valuation line goes down instead? Does the community die? 

A shadowy ghost kitchen parking lot at midnight proved insufficient to handle the strain of such weighty questions, but I’m still wrestling with them and searching for web3 communities worth joining or supporting. I’m thrilled by the idea of collaborative governance—the digital cooperative, essentially— where members determine the path of a project, and the financial upside is shared by the many. It turns out that Doodles is experimenting with this in many ways with token holders able to vote on everything from how to use the money raised by sales of the N.F.T.s to approval of derivative art collections inspired by the originals, choices that have traditionally been made by small groups of company executives. Meanwhile, my own search continues. One blockchain-based organization I’ve joined is called DreamDAO, the outgrowth of a group called CivicsUnplugged with whom I’ve partnered on my How To Citizen podcast work. The goal of DreamDAO is to proactively envision and build a future where web3 is used to create positive social impact and where folks from Gen Z take the driver’s seat in creating that change. I’m sure there are more.

Still, I loved being in Austin at SXSW because I was physically in Austin at SXSW. I’d forgotten what I missed about in-person gatherings and the unplanned turns they can take after so much planned time in virtual spaces over the past two years. Literally bumping into people reminded me that I missed people in their material form. Hooray for physicality; it’s not dead yet.

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