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International Women's Day: Metaverse needs to be made safer for women, with an urgency

The author writes that there is a pressing need to reconsider the design of the immersive world, and that her own experience of sexual assault in Metaverse is just the tip of the iceberg in the digital space.

February 22, 2022 / 12:50 PM IST
The Metaverse has powerful effects because it can provoke a response to virtual experiences similar to a response to actual experiences. (Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels)

The Metaverse has powerful effects because it can provoke a response to virtual experiences similar to a response to actual experiences. (Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels)

International Women's Day (March 8) is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women around the world. As I write this article in preparation, I reflect on women’s integration of technology into daily life and how technology impacts our lives from the moment we wake up, to the moment we turn off our mobile phones at night.

I’m curious to know your thoughts…..

Are women free from verbal and sexual harassment online?

Are women safe in our digital environments?

Are women’s voices being heard?

Is there gender equity and representation?

Why are misogyny, hate, bullying permitted in digital spaces?

Are women empowered by technological advancements economically and socially?

Why is every big tech i.e. FAANG  (or should it be MAANG) led by men?

Do women have equal career opportunities in technology?

Are female founders in the tech sector supported to the same level that men are?

This year, 2022, is the first ever we are talking about the safety of women in the Metaverse. We cannot miss this opportunity to make change.  We must learn from history.

Read also: Metaverse, an 'exciting phenomenon', says TCS' Krishnan Ramanujan

What is the Metaverse?

Do you remember 1995? ‘“Double-u, double u, double u, dot~~wait, what?”  Fast forward to 2022 and the evolution of the internet - “What is the M-e-t-a-v-e-r-s-e~~ wait, what?”

The invention of the internet has given humanity so much. There's been two phases of the internet thus far; Web 1.0 and Web 2.0.

Web 1.0 was the concept of desktop computing which exponentially grew at a global scale becoming ubiquitous around the globe. Following this was the rise of the web browser and the creation of search engines.  Then there was the introduction of banner advertising and ecommerce checkout, that truly monetized the internet. 

Web 2.0 moved us into the invention and adoption of the smartphone. Followed by the rise of subscription models, the rise of the scale platform, the beginning of social networks and streaming media, but it was all primarily rooted around the rise of mobile computing.  Web 3.0 is next.

Web 3.0 will continue to provide innovative solutions and a big part of this includes the Metaverse. The Metaverse is comprised of new technologies, like pieces of a puzzle--the smaller pieces include blockchain enabled assets such as Cryptocurrencies, (ie. Bitcoin, Ethereum, etc.) Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs), Decentralised Finances (DeFi), Decentralised Autonomous Organisation (DAOs).  All of these assets have the potential to provide solutions to some of the global challenges we face.

The difference between the internet and the Metaverse is that the latter is fully immersive and embodied.  We will engage with each within the Metaverse with a full sense of presence in 360 degree virtual environments.  The Metaverse has powerful effects because it can provoke a response to virtual experiences similar to a response to actual experiences. Psychological presence is the sense of “being there,” occurring when users temporarily suspend the sense that an experience is mediated by technology and, instead, feel as if they are having a real experience. While other media technologies can create psychological presence, none is quite on the same scale.

The non-negotiable, this time round, is ignoring the dark side. Over the past twenty plus years we have integrated the internet into our daily lives. Business models have been designed around us - all consuming, manipulating our attention, buying our data for free, harvesting our behaviour, treating us like lab rats waiting for us to chew off our tails only to sell us “new and improved” tails.  Come on ladies, we’re better than that.

Furthermore, harassment in digital spaces has been a problem since day one — rife with hate, violence, aggression, misogyny and racism. My experience of verbal and sexual harassment in which 3 male avatars groped and essentially sexually assualted my avatar in the metaverse is the tip of the iceberg in the digital space.  The comments on my post were a plethora of opinions — “don’t choose a female avatar, it’s a simple fix.”, “don’t be stupid, it wasn’t real”, “a pathetic cry for attention”, “avatars don’t have lower bodies to assault”,“you’ve obviously never played fortnite”.  When media/news reporters highlighted my story even more, it escalated and I received death threats, abusive comments on social media and via email. It appears that calling attention to sexual harassment has upset some people. I’ll spare you the details, but clearly, there are many who believe misogyny is their god-given right.  This is scary.

Read also: Hiranandani lines up Rs 3,500-cr investment for Metaverse

Scary because currently, Meta, Microsoft, TikTok, Roblox, Minecraft, Fortnite, and other gaming players (also known as the current state of the Metaverse), are busy building systems and ecosystems that permit hatred and violent behaviour. Creating virtual spaces for people to interact - anonymity is the priority; accountability is impossible. 

We need to act now, with urgency and determination, to shape immersive technology for the future of our entire society - but especially for women and future generations.

I believe it is irresponsible to design social virtual environments without considerations of boundaries that prioritise safety.

As a woman, as a mother, as an ally for upholding human rights I’m not interested in participating in another world built for us but leaves us damaged or another world where women’s bodies (virtual or physical) are objectified for society to judge, harass and assault.

Let me affirm, I am 100% pro-metaverse.  I believe it offers us a beautiful, powerful, impactful positive future that can enhance our lives in ways we cannot even imagine. But there must be a balance - utopian advocates of the metaverse imagine an all-consuming oasis of decentralised, anonymous, interoperable games to act out our freakish fantasies. 

I, very differently,  believe that the metaverse must be balanced, with psychological, physiological established boundaries that prioritise safety - and that is where the beauty lies.  While I advocate for the life enhancing benefits of the Metaverse, I am committed to an equitable Metaverse used as a tool for elevating our organic lives, tapping into the metaverse, connecting with people, and engaging in exciting worlds.

Now is the time for women’s voices to be heard, to lead and set the agenda to embrace technology.  We need female leaders in policy making, tech development, engineering and the industry needs to listen. 

Every year, on International Women’s Day, the aim is to support women, highlight the many inspirational women role models around the world, bring together allies, as well as strengthen our solidarity as leaders in innovation and gender inclusion.

It’s time to shake the system to shape the future.  It needs to happen soon, it will create a domino effect globally.   Who will that leader be? Maybe it’s you….

Nina Jane Patel