“The Metaverse” Needs Ethics

Towards Ensuring Ethical Outcomes in a Decentralized World

Photo by Michael & Diane Weidner on Unsplash

The Metaverse needs a strong set of ethical principles to succeed. Granted, most of us live our lives without formally considering ethics. We might have enjoyed the “The Good Place” TV series. But whether we think about them or not, the principles we subscribe to will largely determine how things turn out. Efforts without clear guiding principles tend to fail, because ethics is all about thinking through the real and lasting consequences of our choices.

We’ve created an organization to help those building “The Metaverse” (also known as Spatial Computing, XR, and Web3) be more ethical together.

Consider Manifest Destiny — the push in the 1800s by U.S. politicians and business magnates to entice more “pioneers” to “go west, young man.” We romanticized colonizing this supposedly all new, virgin territory for the sake of patriotism, freedom and gold. Today, a similar idea might be called Metaverse Destiny, fueled by science fiction, libertarianism, and virtual gold.

In the 1800s, without a sense of ethics, we devastated the Indigenous populations who stewarded the land, replacing millennia of culture with decades of lawlessness, hunger, greed, and death among the early settlers.

Today, it’s a similar story — except for the particular people being trampled and the world left behind. Despite our democratic values turning once again toward plutocracy and re-centralization, there’s a confidence that: “This time it’ll be different. Ignore the flaws. Fight the critics!”

It’s as if we’ve learned nothing from history.

Alas, that was me too — thirty years ago, fresh, naive — when the term Metaverse was new and I was practically born for this work. We’ve learned a lot in the 30 years since then — and in the 200+ since Manifest Destiny. But too few are listening, or at the very least are only providing lip service.

When I say “it needs ethics,” I don’t mean that the people building these things are unethical. I know thousands of professionals working in this space. Perhaps 90% or more share the same ethical concerns I do. But the path forward is dominated by a few very powerful land barons, newspaper magnates, and railroad tycoons equivalents of today.

The value of a common ethical framework in decentralized and largely unregulated systems (such as these “Wild West” scenarios) is already proven.

We also have a long history in which doctors and scientists have tragically conducted inhumane experiments and provided bogus or even harmful treatments to their patients whether in the name of progress or ignorance or profit. Way back in ancient Greece the Hippocratic Oath normalized what it meant to put patients first and “do no harm.” This oath hasn’t stopped all unethical activity, of course. U.S. Insurance companies don’t seem to abide.

But today, doctors are generally held to a higher standard. Doctors don’t all have a common employer in the U.S., but various medical boards can review their conduct and even revoke licenses. Giant pharmaceuticals routinely employ Institutional Review Boards (IRBs, as FDA formally requires) using external unbiased experts to promote ethical and efficacious outcomes.

Normalization of what is proper and improper, right and wrong — and why, begins with a set of ethical principles, as the medical oath prescribes, widely accepted and put into daily practice.

Wouldn’t it be great if we had something similar for Spatial Computing, even before we manifest every problem and solution of The Metaverse? What if investors expected every CEO and company to adhere to similar principles? What if understanding and internalizing ethics was required for everyone entering the field and was routinely reenforced by thought leaders?

I expect that we’d find that even the few relatively clueless or unethical actors out there would be more careful — in effect more ethical — when the majority of their field routinely talks about and reenforces some code of ethics.

Think of it like herd immunity. It doesn’t require everyone — just a critical mass of 70%, 80%, 90% to come together and adopt something relatively straightforward, where social forces and later politics do the rest.

What’s Been Done

There have been a number of excellent collaborative efforts to create a set of ethical principles for XR. Academic articles have helped raise awareness and to contextualize the debate. Standards-setting bodies like the IEEE have produced a set of white papers (for: medicine, social, education, privacy, identity contexts) with more coming out soon. The XR Safety Initiative has also done a great job publicizing concerns and best practices for XR. Various industry groups have also come together to try to meet this pressing need. And groups like Black In XR are addressing the marginalization of black talent through increased visibility and support.

Kent Bye in particular has worked across many groups to keep beating the drum, reporting on the state of ethics for XR and the need for continued investigation. He’s done a number of in-depth interviews with experts that are required listening for anyone looking for a deeper understanding.

Jaron Lanier has also notably helped raise awareness of valid concerns with unethical uses of the same technology he previously helped popularize.

What Else Can We do?

I polled Twitter twice over the last year or so, wondering about the needed for a new group for professionals in the field of XR dedicated directly to the development and adoption of ethical principles.

A whopping 90% of respondents said “Yes!” including 10% who worried that they couldn’t join for whatever reasons. Coming up on a year later, we’re readying the XR Guild to meet this challenge head-on.

We don’t plan to get consensus on a single standard of ethics across all companies. First, we’re not a standards body. Second, they don’t agree on much up front. But we do hope to get enough support among individual professionals in XR (hence the “guild”) to help normalize and socialize the role of ethical consideration in product development circles. We expect this will still benefit the companies we all work with and for.

We hope to see active membership from within XR companies ranks and elsewhere, such that we can, over time, increase the ethical dialog and improve overall outcomes for everyone, including the companies themselves.

What the XR Guild will do:

  • Support professionals and a set of ethical principles for XR
  • Publish papers and make videos about best and worst practices in XR
  • Network among peers, share jobs leads, and mentor each other

What it won’t do:

  • Union-like activities, including collective bargaining, strikes, etc…
  • Broker, establish or license technical standards
  • Lobby for/against specific political regulations or candidates

We’ve evolved these concepts through considerable internal debate, seeking a good diversity of perspectives along the way. We undoubtedly need more diverse ideas and inputs as we progress farther. We know this group can’t be all things to all people. But it’s hopefully the right thing at the right time to do the greatest possible good.

We are gearing up to formally launch the XR Guild in June 2022. There’s still a lot of work to do. So if you’re very motivated, come join our Discord early and see how you can help out. If you just want to keep up with us for now, we update substack monthly.

And here’s a handy FAQ for those with questions.

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XR Pioneer (30+ years), co-founded projects at Microsoft (HoloLens), Apple, Amazon, Keyhole (Google Earth), Linden Lab (Second Life), Disney (VR), XR Guild

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Avi Bar-Zeev

Avi Bar-Zeev

XR Pioneer (30+ years), co-founded projects at Microsoft (HoloLens), Apple, Amazon, Keyhole (Google Earth), Linden Lab (Second Life), Disney (VR), XR Guild

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