Marginalized people often suffer the most harm from unintended consequences of new technologies. For example, the algorithms that automatically make decisions about who gets to see what content or how images are interpreted suffer from racial and gender biases. People who have multiple marginalized identities, such as being Black and disabled, are even more at risk than those with a single marginalized identity.
This is why when Mark Zuckerberg laid out his vision for the metaverse – a network of virtual environments in which many people can interact with one another and digital objects – and said that it will touch every product the company builds, I was scared. As a researcher who studies the intersections of race, technology and democracy – and as a Black woman – I believe it is important to carefully consider the values that are being encoded into this next-generation internet.
Problems are already surfacing. Avatars, the graphical personas people can create or buy to represent themselves in virtual environments, are being priced differently based on the perceived race of the avatar, and racist and sexist harassment is cropping up in today’s pre-metaverse immersive environments.
Ensuring that this next iteration of the internet is inclusive and works for everyone will require that people from marginalized communities take the lead in shaping it. It will also require regulation with teeth to keep Big Tech accountable to the public interest. Without these, the metaverse risks inheriting the problems of today’s social media, if not becoming something worse.