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Motivations for the Metaverse

There are endless motivations for building a metaverse. I won’t speculate on the business use cases; I’m not an analyst. Instead, today, I’m going to speak to my personal motivations for building metaverse technologies, and share a bit about how my history has put me where I am today to do a specific type of work that I don’t fully yet understand. But in the spirit of the past only being the future with the lights on, today I’ll write this personal character arc out in an attempt to find the connection I’ve been so focused on engineering.

I struggle to understand where my self - and consciousness - begins and ends. When we consider our reality as a function of self-identity, community (other people), and environment, there are endless permutations of the ways that each of those influence the other two in various capacities. I know - through my relationships with other people - that my “self” can influence their behavior. I can modify the environment that I’m in to varying degrees - perhaps by decorating my house, or desk - and I can contribute to larger, harder-to-quantify things like “industry” or “zeitgeist”. If I am an entrepreneur, I can influence the economy. If I am an educator, I can influence the minds of students. So therefore, the hypothesis of the self extending outside of just the self seems quite concrete. The entire field of policy is predicated on this - influencing and creating policy is about shifting behaviors and structures at scale. This influence seems to make sense at a macro scale.

On a micro level, though, this becomes more nebulous. We can’t universally apply the systems that govern behaviors at large scales to small ones. We instead need a series of frameworks that unify the influences, and for someone who experiences fairly signficant “all or nothing” thought patterns, journeying to find that nuance has been a personal struggle and one that I continue to explore daily. How do I reconcile the idea that I can influence a single individual (for example, my partner and I deciding where to move) while also separating out that they have an equal pull on me? That they exist not as an extension of my own mind, but as an individual with as fully fleshed out consciousness and sense of being as I have? I’m still searching for satisfactory answers to this, and to be quite honest, the urgency feels accelerated as I have recently made some fairly significant mistakes in this regard.

I wrote a few days ago about the concept of the metaverse as a mindset. And, indeed, it seems as though this is the only logical explanation that I can come up with for myself as to why I’ve been so drawn to building it over the course of my lifetime. As a young child, I felt like an alien who didn’t understand the planet I had been placed on. I loved Star Wars for the rich universe that it presented: the idea that I simply hadn’t found my community in a vast expanse of planets that could welcome me. I developed a fascination with Anakin Skywalker - someone who felt deeply empathetic for so many, never fully understood or cherished for his gifts, and ultimately who fell victim to his own fear and self-loathing - as being one of the only examples that I had of someone who seemed to experience the world as intensely as I did. Certainly, if there were actual humans in my life who did, I didn’t know them, and they didn’t see me.

So I escaped into my own mind. I constantly re-invented myself, based on who I was around and what I saw in the world. I was constantly trying to evaluate unseen social rules, and follow them - but often failed. My curiosity was not rewarded; my need for constant stimulation was not met unless I told my own stories about what I was experiencing. The world around me felt as harsh and unforgiving as Hoth, or Tattooine - and I never felt safe. How could I, when I struggled to maintain a connection to any kind of reality?

When I discovered World of Warcraft, something within me changed. I had always loved video games, because there was - finally! - a way that I could live in a world that had rules, and goals that I could understand, and the agency that I desired. And here was a video game with rules that gave me a community, and friends with whom I was sharing a vision and mission with. World of Warcraft was my foray into a new world of simulating the structures I was profoundly unable to reconcile in my actual life. I was a warrior with a mission to fight the evil that I saw in the world with people who saw me for who I was - a flawed human with broken relationships but a good heart - but also who held a soft spot in her heart for the tragic anti-hero that I saw in Arthas Menithal. After all - that archetype - the one shared by Sigfried in Soul Calibur and my beloved Anakin - was still the one that most resonated with me.

I do want to stop here and reassure you, reader, that there is a profound difference between myself and Anakin, Arthas, and Sigfried, and that is the fact that I was born female and socialized as a “girl”, which means that I have few violent tendencies. In contrast to these gentlemen, when my heart gets broken, I do not turn into a genocidal necromancer but instead just write a lot of poetry and turn to my work, which brings me back to the topic at hand.

When I talk about the metaverse - and I have been doing so now for about seven years - I am not talking about a particular platform or application. I’m not talking about a specific set of standards or technologies. When I talk about the metaverse, I am talking about the vision of agency, and being able to create digital simulations and systems that enable anyone to build the version(s) of reality that they want for a given purpose. What would it be like, if you could step inside the story of my mind over the past two months? I could tell you that I was in an SSRI-induced hypomanic state that caused a lot of mood swings, but that statement doesn’t give you the actual idea of what it felt like to be me for those weeks. And frankly, you might not want to, but I’d like to at least have the ability to make a quick little immersive experience that puts you in my shoes for a five-minute version of that, so that you understand me better.

This brings me back to those original three concepts: self-identity, community, and environment. When we attempt to build metaverses, we are looking at how to most authentically or idealistically represent those three things in a digital space. What a presumptious belief, that we can create such a thing, when humankind has so much yet to learn about our physical world? But that is, reader, the very paradox that we find ourselves in. Building the metaverse is a dance. It is a dance where those who want to understand the physical world that they exist in, and the nature of Being, have a set of engineering and design skills available to them and they attempt to recreate what they observe. In doing so, they learn a bit more about their own Being, and then they can apply that to the next iteration of their digital worlds.

When I first started working on metaverse technology, I was most interested in the tools that enabled people to create the digital environment that they were in. While at High Fidelity, I made countless spaces, including one very personal one - a physical manifestation of my mind. At the time, the space that best represented the way that I wanted to exist in the world was in a high-tech hot air balloon that floated over a desert at twilight under an expansive sky filled with stars. I could host small groups of friends to listen to music, but the environment was otherwise designed to provide a quiet, safe haven where my thoughts became the primary content that filled it.

Then, when I was at Mozilla Hubs, I was most interested in studying community, and the social dynamics of the metaverse. This came through in both how I interacted with my team (who I love and still miss dearly), and in the way that the technology was used. I learned how critical the community was in bringing purpose to projects, and how much value that I placed in being able to authentically - and without fear - interact with others in virtual spaces. Hubs gave me a safety online that I have yet to replicate elsewhere.

Today, interestingly, at AWS and working on Open 3D Engine, I am most interested in the self-identity portion of the metaverse. Perhaps it can only be that one can fully start to explore their own nature of being when they have understood the interplay between that, their environment, and the others within it. Perhaps it is because of how many different technologies that I’ve worked on serving the purpose of that goal: to connect the world and ourselves to others, such that we can then understand how to design our own role within it. Perhaps it’s because I’ve spent more time at home over the past two years than I have previously, and the nature of a COVID world is one that necessitates I become more acquainted with my identity.

And so, my motivation of the metaverse. I’m motivated by many parts of my experiences that have taught me about building large-scaled social spaces: they should be web-based and distributed, which I learned from Dr. Osman Balci, and they should enhance our social structures, as I learned from Dr. James Ivory - two professors who left an outsized impact on me from my time at Virginia Tech. They should be creative and dynamic, which I learned from Philip Rosedale, Kat Harris, and Estelle Tse; they should be impactful, which I learned from Kai Frazier, Nonny De la Pena, Jessica Outlaw, and Kent Bye; they should be open, which I learned from Lars Bergstrom, Blair MacIntyre and Trevor Flowers; they should be intentionally designed, which I learned from John Kennedy, Suzanne Leibrick, and my friend Bobby.

But most of all, they should be collaborative, which I am reminded of every day by my partner, Zach, and our friend Drew - two individuals who epitomize the interplay between technology and the impact that well-designed social technology can have in strengthening our relationships to become the best versions of ourselves and bring that to the world around us.

That is my motivation for the metaverse.