Towards a Litter-Free Metaverse!

by Chris Hoffman

It’s always interesting to me how best practices and principles of one kind actually support other best practices and principles, as if there is some kind of goodness feedback loop out there. Consider for example the fascinating case of litter in the metaverse.

I recently attended an excellent conference, GatherVerse 2022. The focus of the GatherVerse community is on designing and nurturing a human-first metaverse, an intentional effort to inject ethical design and governance principles into this emerging technology space so that the metaverse is available to all and so that participants, developers, and companies are thinking about the potential harm that can come from their metaverses. The connections to the ethics theme in UC Berkeley’s XR Community of Practice are clear. As we know, technologies are not neutral. They are culturally shaped social constructs and practices that have complex and often unexpected or unanticipated consequences at the level of the individual as well as globally. Of particular interest to me, there was significant discussion at GatherVerse about the role of education in the complex evolution of XR technologies: Numerous speakers emphasized that higher education practitioners need to take a proactive human-first stance while others warned us about the potential for uneven access to content and experiences within higher education.[1]

The following week I attended a presentation by Paula MacDowell who is an Assistant Professor at the University of Saskatchewan in Educational Technology & Design and XR for Teaching & Learning. She brings a background in educating students about environmental sustainability into her work on academic technologies such as XR. Paula had also attended GatherVerse, and asked us to think about a “life-first” perspective for immersive technologies.[2] Such a view would not minimize the importance of human-first principles but asks us to consider equally our planet and our environment, both the “real” or physical world as well as the evolving virtual spaces of the metaverses. She asked a provocative question: How can we avoid waste in the metaverse?

As an archaeologist and research data management specialist, I wondered, just what does that mean? What is waste in the metaverse?

First, we need to acknowledge that XR technologies do have real-world consequences for our environment. When you consider the mining of rare materials needed for devices, the enormous challenges related to e-waste and the obstacles confronting recycling, and the environmental consequences of data centers, the impacts on our environment, as well as on the people who live in those environments, are enormous. Unfortunately, the direct consequences of these impacts are unevenly felt, with those less privileged feeling the results more directly.[3]

What about within the metaverse itself? What is waste and how do we think about it? At one level, I would argue that working towards a litter-free metaverse can model the kinds of behavior we want to see in the real world. Symbols are already important in the metaverse, and they will become more powerful as metaverses evolve and more people spend time in them. Perhaps we need trash cans, recycling centers, and garbage trucks in the metaverse, even if they’re not really doing anything. Or maybe those symbols can be used to communicate something, such as a measure of the “health” of a metaverse space, experience, or asset. We don’t yet know how to define the health of an asset in the metaverse, but I can imagine that an overflowing trash can will send a very different message than a sparkling clean recycling bin.

But I really want to take this concept of waste in the metaverse to its next logical level, and connect it to one of the themes in our XR Community of Practice. Let’s assume and acknowledge that there will be a need to “clean up” the metaverse from time to time. After all, if you think about a virtual space that you will use frequently and which is very immersive, do you really want it to be as messy as the last wiki you visited on the internet? It’s easy to imagine that metaverses will see a proliferation of experiences and assets that are amazing now, but in a couple of years (or even months) they will be outdated. They might not even work given evolving hardware and software, not to mention the chaos of service offerings from different vendors and companies. How will we know when something in the metaverse has reached the end of its logical life, and what do we want to do about it, if anything? Is it OK for metaverse assets and experiences to just proliferate and grow stale, the way they do now on the internet or do we want to instill the metaverse with some principles, practices, roles, and capabilities to avoid this situation?

Here are some musings about what this might look like.

This conversation about managing XR waste reminds me of similar discussions around research data and digital asset management systems. In those spaces, we recognize the need for intentional curation practices, and I’d look to our library colleagues for content management practices. What if we labeled our assets with retention periods and even stated end-of-life expectations for experiences and assets?

Similarly, can we promote the development of preservation repositories built for the metaverse, and standards and tools that can help facilitate the migration of decaying content into these repositories? Or perhaps we need to develop criteria for intentionally deleting assets and experiences that are no longer relevant or current. Do we need a Metaverse Archive that archives these digital experiences?

Needless to say, if we extend these metaphors to the real world, we’ve created a whole economy, roles, and sets of technologies to support the removal of waste in our real environment. Consider recycling. So many amazing digital assets (e.g., 3D models) are being developed for immersive experiences. As experiences are retired, their assets could be migrated to a recycling center where others could find new (hopefully appropriate) contexts for reuse. Should assets be tagged (like the “organ donor” sticker on my drivers license) so they can be harvested into recycling and reuse centers?

What kinds of services will be needed in the metaverse to help all of us keep the virtual world litter-free? Could those garbage cans actually be functional in some way? Could we pay some company to collect metaverse garbage?

No doubt there will be purely technological approaches and solutions. Already, experiences that are no longer popular or do not work become unavailable or hard to find in app stores. In addition, I suspect that we can apply some of the principles for tiered storage models to these challenges: Rarely used content could age into different storage or metaverse tiers. It would still be there and could be recalled, but it would not be taking up expensive metaverse real estate. Keep in mind that these lower-tier assets and experiences could only be discoverable and recoverable if they have good metadata associated with them.

This all leads me to consider an important question: Who decides what is waste? Is my definition of a “stale” metaverse experience the same as yours? Many of these questions will be familiar to those of us who have worked in libraries and museums. While museums and libraries were once seen (or saw themselves) as experts responsible for making these curation decisions, they now are involved in community-based negotiations to inform curation practices and decisions. There is so much at stake here, and I have no doubt that this will play out in the metaverse as well. We need to develop a community-based framework for decisions about the metaverse, one that is human-first and life-first.

Finally, I’ll end this set of musings on a less positive note. There’s a lot we can learn by looking at the history of the internet, and we’ve all experienced the consequences of the lack of content curation in the internet. However, there is another key dimension that needs further inspection. Most of the metaverses available right now follow a members-only model. You need an account and you need to have signed a click-through agreement about your data and privacy. You probably need a specific piece of hardware. While the prices for headsets are dropping, these are closed environments operated by for-profit companies. How different from the founding ideals and technologies of the internet! What does this say about equity and access? This brings me back to one of my first questions. Can best practices and principles for keeping the metaverse free from litter (or at least tidy) support equity, accessibility, and other ethical issues? I think the connections between a tidy metaverse and the sustainability-oriented life-first goals articulated by Paula MacDowell are very evident. How will this address the human-first goals articulated by the GatherVerse community? I think they will, but I’m not sure how. By analogy, I’m inspired by the documented findings that improving accessibility in digital technologies (web sites, for example) helps everyone. It turns out most people like captions and transcripts for educational videos. I’m certain we’ll find that best practices and principles for a human-first and life-first metaverse will reinforce and be reinforced by good practices for keeping litter out of the metaverse. While some of these will emerge organically, a proactive and intentional approach will foster the kind of metaverse that at least I would like to see.

[1] XR Ethics Manifesto; XR Ethics: An XR Ethics Manifesto IEEE workgroup (Whitepaper on education)

[2] MacDowell, Paula, and Stephen Petrina. "Philosophy of technology for children and youth II." STEM in Education 2020 proceedings (2020): 1-6.

[3] For an anthropological perspective on this problem see the 2022 publication from MIT, “The Cloud Is Material: On the Environmental Impacts of Computation and Data Storage”, and an article in the MIT Press Reader about this work.

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