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Foundation Metaverse Europe Position Paper on Positive Futures from the Metaverse by Dr. Isabella Hermann (Original in German, automatically translated version)

Positive Narratives for a democratic Metaverse

Narratives are established stories and tales that have meaning for a cultural group because they transmit certain emotions and values. Narratives shape our thoughts and actions. Science fiction conveys narratives that connect the present with possible futures. The genre does not provide an instruction manual for the future, but stories that take place in future worlds with new technologies. The new technologies go hand in hand with social, political and cultural changes that map our present fears and hopes as well as the imaginable negative and positive visions of the future. For example, the fact that Mark Zuckerberg, a self-confessed science fiction fan, borrowed his company name “Meta” and his vision of the “Metaverse” from the dystopian novel “Snow Crash” is quite revealing: in the work written by Neil Stephenson in 1992, democratic structures have crumbled, corporations rule the world more badly than good, and those who have the opportunity flee from the dreary and brutal reality into the no less brutalised virtual world of the Metaverse. But science fiction is not a prediction. Zuckerberg’s vision is based on current parameters depending on his entrepreneurial perspective, but the future is open and not determined. This means that we can imagine different futures and shape them positively. The decisive factor is therefore which narrative we want to follow for the current developments and that we shape our actions accordingly. Here I would like to contrast two science fiction narratives: Cyberpunk and Solarpunk.

Snow Crash falls into the science fiction sub-genre of “cyberpunk”. “Cyber” stands for all conceivable digital technologies, from artificial intelligence to virtual worlds (cyberspace) to computer-brain interfaces; “punk” stands for criticism of the establishment. The style of cyberpunk was mainly influenced by films such as Blade Runner (1982) or William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer (1984), further popularised by the Ghost in the Shell mangas and the Matrix franchise up to the computer game Cyberpunk 2077, released in 2020. Characteristic of cyberpunk are dark settings, often set in shabby megacities. The economic interests of large tech corporations have taken the place of public welfare-oriented politics. The people in cyberpunk are physically and mentally optimised by technology, navigate digital worlds, and use technology and hacks to rebel against the overpowering structures without really being able to change anything. The cyberpunk narrative can be summed up as “high-tech, but low life”. Despite advanced inventions and technology, life is still precarious and depressing: data is addictive and dependent, access is commercialised and centralised, technology is used to oppress others. Societies are divided between rich and poor, powerless and powerful, unskilled and tech-savvy, unfree and free.

A cyberpunk narrative corresponds precisely to the idea of centralised and commercialised metaverse platforms provided by only a few companies. They provide all the necessary apps and tools and can monitor and track all transactions and movements. Lock-in effects make it difficult for users to switch to other possible providers, as everything comes from practically one source, benefitting from positive network effects. The business models are based on the resale of user data to advertisers or on the reuse for other profitable purposes, as we already know from the Meta’s platform Facebook many other companies. Thus, access, operation and algorithms are designed in such a way that people produce as much data as possible. The core element is to control and capture the attention of users, which is becoming more and more effective through increasing immersion, i.e. experiencing the digital world like the real world. This is not just about users producing more data on the platform, but also about tapping more data from new user states through new technical means. In such a world, people are no longer citizens, but only products. If we take the negative effects that are already known from existing social media platforms – fake news and filter bubbles, hate speech and polarisation, distortions and discrimination, surveillance and targeted advertising and offers – and apply them to a new level of increasing immersion in the metaverse, an increasingly strong division of society seems inevitable.

Cyberpunk tells stories of social division, while solarpunk depicts optimistic futures in which technology is used for the common good and strengthens social cohesion. The name of this young science fiction-based movement, only about ten years old, is composed of “solar”, which stands for all forms of sustainable energy production, and again “punk”. However, going beyond cyberpunk, this is not to be understood as mere criticism of the system, but as an actual transformation of structures and conditions. Solarpunk is to be regarded as a label for values of a sustainable, just and positive future. The bright tech futures and welcoming urban environments are based on a strong sense of community and collaboration. The Solarpunk narrative can be summarised as “Not or, but AND”. What is meant by this is that we need technical AND social progress to jointly create a new understanding of a human-nature-technology relationship. Thus, systems are decentralised and de-commercialised, access is interoperable, data is shared, technology enables liberation and empowerment – and energy production works in a sustainable, efficient and environmentally friendly way.

So where are the possibilities for an “AND”? How can a metaverse with technological progress AND public benefit be realised?

A European idea with technical standards, interoperable platforms and regulation that protects citizens while enabling innovation could correspond to a solarpunk narrative.

But beyond large-scale and necessary political procedures, which must now be initiated by various actors, all providers and operators of metaverse platforms can work actively on a positive, democratic metaverse. After all, there is already a multitude of metaverse applications in the most diverse areas, from maintenance support for industrial machines to collaborative work environments to various educational offers, which are continuously being developed further.

In this way, the metaverse opens up the opportunity for all actors who want to set up or operate a metaverse platform to try out and create their own spaces of a democratic understanding of values with co-determination and participation. Everyone can make their own goals transparent, define responsibilities and thus ensure trust. In the sense of a democratic and collaborative process, forms of participation can be found that offer opportunities to hear different voices and thus lead to more diversity and inclusion. For example, we can imagine that the Metaverse also offers opportunities for the active participation of people with physical and mental disabilities in particular. In these sensitive areas, a connection between technical expertise and social competence as well as an exchange with the people affected themselves is essential. These prerequisites also allow for a confident handling of the metaverse as a socio-technical system. Because technology, whether in development or in application, does not stand alone, but is always embedded in the dynamic interaction between technology and the social context.

Cyberpunk criticises commercialised structures and sees counterculture and hacks as the only way to empower oneself. Solarpunk obviously expresses the desire not only to criticise dystopian structures but to change them for the better with the help of technology. In this context, the two science fiction genres are not about real and mutually exclusive futures, but about narrative spaces of possibility in which we can place our beliefs and align our actions. We must name what undermines European values and democracy.

  • But if we want to shape the future, we should not only show what we do not want. We should also show what futures are worth striving for and what visions of the European future that are oriented towards the common good look like.
  • Here, the Foundation Metaverse Europe will bring together experts, stakeholders and cultural practitioners in a dialogue to create explicitly positive future scenarios for different time horizons.

The scenarios of futures we would like to live in can then serve on the one hand as a starting point for “backcasting”, i.e. working backwards from the desired outcome to describe events leading to the desirable future, and in this way identify necessary policy measures. On the other hand, science fiction stories can be written based on the positive future scenarios, which make the future worlds emotionally tangible.

  • In this sense, we are moving from a problem-centred to a solution-centred approach, which not only aims to prevent threats to democracy, but can even promote and improve democracy.

Therefore, the Foundation Metaverse Europe also aims to tell new stories and create positive narratives for the metaverse, to provide space for inspiration, and for action. Stories of desirable futures do not realise themselves through storytelling, but they provide a strong basis when they go hand in hand with concrete action in politics and business.

On the core topic of positive images of the future with Dr. Isabella Hermann

Isabella Hermann is an independent analyst and speaker in the area of science fiction. For her, the fascination of the genre lies in the fact that it connects our modern, technified world with our primeval hopes and fears as well as with current social trends. In this way, science fiction serves as a mirror of our present and a metaphor for the future.

As a political scientist holding a doctorate in International Relations, she explores in particular the question of how the genre reflects new technologies, socio-political value systems and global politics. Topics here include climate change and the Anthropocene as well as space travel and Mars colonization – and above all digitalisation, artificial intelligence and virtual worlds.

Isabella Hermann is also Artistic Director of the Berlin Sci-Fi Filmfest. ost recently, she worked as scientific coordinator of an interdisciplinary research project on AI and human responsibility at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities and as programme director of the Present Futures Forum at the Technical University Berlin. She has been a member of the board of the Stiftung Zukunft Berlin since December 2021.

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