We need to do more here.
One of my “pandemic hobbies” was rediscovering my love of reading. Over the past two years, I’ve absorbed countless stories - almost entirely non-fiction essays and narratives about queer culture, sexuality, transgender experiences, feminism, anarchy, economics, and existential philosophy - through beautifully crafted words on pages. My audio processing challenges make me hopeless with audio books, so I’ve amassed a collection of paperback books that are crammed onto a small, built-in white bookshelf in my living room at my house in the DC suburbs. My partner and I are thinking about starting a co-operative co-living/work space outside of NYC, so we might be moving soon. The books will come with us.
I’ve been fortunate to have been exposed to radical, alternate living configurations and social support structures since I was young. My older sister has her doctorate in a field that studies the intersection of queer sexuality and disability, and I’ve gotten to learn more about her by way of these books that I’ve been reading, some of which mention her space in Richmond from the 2000’s - Queer Paradise - and her directly. If you want to question your assumptions about anarchy and the world we live in across multiple axes all in one go, I highly recommend the book ‘Queering Anarchy’.
The idea of building community spaces that exist to support our most authentic, vulnerable selves is one that sticks with me, and is something that I see missing in many commercialized attempts at metaverse-building. And that makes sense - look at the demographic of the people who are building most of our “metaverses” today.
The word “feminism” is one that I have a bit of trouble with these days, because it is challenging - at least for me, at this stage - to comprehend what it entails without falling back to our inherent, gendered identity system. I identify as non-binary, so thinking about what feminism and masculinity means through the lens of personal identity, and figuring out how to put that into my work, is an experiment rife with disruption and reinvention.
But let’s talk about feminism, and why I think the metaverse - whatever your defintion of that is - needs more of it.
According to Google’s (okay, Oxford’s) definition, feminism is: the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes. I think that, given what we know to be true about gender as a social construct separate from the concept of reproductive organs, this definition is need of an update. I prefer Wikipedia’s definition: “Feminism is a range of social movements and ideologies that aim to define and establish the political, economic, personal, and social equality of the sexes”. Though, what does the concept of feminism look like in a digital world where sex is non-existent? Sure, we can build gendered identities in metaverse applications (if we so choose), but gender != biological sex, so I think we need a new definition.
My definition of radical feminism in the metaverse exists alongside intersectionality - we’ll again use Wikipedia’s definition here: “Intersectionality is an analytical framework for understanding how aspects of a person’s social and political identities combine to create different modes of discrimination and privilege.” Indeed, I’d argue that feminism cannot truly advance without intersectionality, but also recognize that any attempts to fully and completely define equity within and across demographic groups is going to be incomplete.
So let’s talk about radical, intersectional feminism in the metaverse.
Whenever we construct technology, those applications and experiences inherit our biases and our mental models of the world. And for far too long, the domain of the metaverse has been one where it is primarily male, often white, and generally lacking in diversity. I remember having to explain to my partner at one point what ‘blocking’ someone did on Discord - those who are not within a marginalized group rarely understand the threat, fear, and danger that it presents. Within the immersive technology space, there is still a massive diversity gap: in those who hold power, leadership roles, and influence within the industry; in how Black and Brown skin is represented in rendering and lighting simulations; in economic privilege that is necessary to gain access to expensive hardware - a HoloLens 2 costs more than half of the average annual income in India. Today, most of our representations of a ‘metaverse’ - both in science fiction and our current digital zeitgeist - are poorly-imagined copies of the technological dystopia that is the present socioeconomic status of the United States of America. We can do better.
Within the conceptual and analytical frameworks of both feminism and intersectionality is hope - hope for a better world, of a world that we create such that everyone has equitable resources and access to opportunity. It is a hope that stems from centuries of adversity, toxic masculinity, and religious fundamentalism. These experiences - experiences that has more radically and inequitably impacted women of color - is largely incomprehensible to Silicon Valley’s wealthy elite who seek the maintainence of the status quo through artifical scarcity systems whose worth inflates based on Elon Musk’s Twitter feed. Why recreate such an unequal economic framework in a digital world? Our metaverse could instantiate a post-scarcity protopia, were we so motivated.
Unfortunately today, too few are motivated to build a world in such a way - at least, the people in power fail to demonstrate it. Personally, I’d call myself a metaverse anarchist. While the term ‘anarchy’ often evokes a sense of chaos due to a lack of authority, I find the term to be one that encourages collectivism. And the collective community that I hope to build is one where our metaverses are radical, feminine, and intersectional. One where - to borrow a principle from Kim Crayton’s ‘Profit without Oppression’ - digital trust and safety tools are built to prioritize the most vulnerable. One where everyone, regardless of race or gender or ethnicity or religion - can build a virtual body that they feel represented by. One where anarchy does not imply chaos, but instead communitarianism that provides a digital, distributed social structure externalized from dated and broken economic systems that continue to benefit those who already hold wealth.
It is perhaps idealistic, but I think that it’s time to have better ideals than the ones that we are currently holding for our definitions of the “metaverse”. Otherwise, to build the metaverse is irresponsible.