Getting to the Metaverse ⊗ Cities that aren’t surveillance states ⊗ This secretive company might end privacy ⊗ Rebirth of indie bookstores — No.110

This week → The Metaverse: what it is, where to find it, who will build it, and Fortnite ⊗ The case for … cities that aren’t dystopian surveillance states ⊗ The secretive company that might end privacy as we know it ⊗ Lessons for retailers from the rebirth of indie bookstores ⊗ Artificial morality

A year ago → Model Metropolis.

Read the Sentiers newsletter on technology in society, signals of change, and prospective futures.

The Metaverse: What It Is, Where to Find it, Who Will Build It, and Fortnite

Excellent analysis by Matthew Ball on the potential shape, components and players of a possible Metaverse. Appropriately, he starts by putting all of it in context, reminding us of the memex-hypertext-web evolution, which took decades to come to fruition. In the same way, we can now see some moves, products, and businesses which could be signs or eventual pieces of a Metaverse but the actual thing is still a ways off. He then identifies “core attributes” of what an MV would look like, and what it is not. He also looks at “concurrency infrastructure”, perhaps the part we are furthest from having, as well as the “on-ramp” experiences available today. The most interesting early player is definitely the Epic / Unreal / Fortnite stack and Ball provides quite a bit of detail on what they are doing and their vision.

Idle thought: Reading this I started to wonder if a way to look at the web, XR, and the idea of a Metaverse, wouldn’t be in terms of synchronicity. Largely, the web is asynchronous, you can go to the same site at any time and see the same thing. The Metaverse, like Fortnite, would be synchronous, events happen at a certain data and time, people are online together at the same time, etc. XR could perhaps be seen as synchronous+ since the experience would be dependent on the time within the universe / game and on being somewhere in the “real world” at that time. (I know, not all XR would be like that, not all web is asynchronous, etc.)

Although the full vision for the Metaverse remains hard to define, seemingly fantastical, and decades away, the pieces have started to feel very real. And as always with this sort of change, its arc is as long and unpredictable as its end state is lucrative. […]

[I]n its full vision, the Metaverse becomes the gateway to most digital experiences, a key component of all physical ones, and the next great labor platform. […]

We don’t know exactly what the Metaverse will need, let alone which existing standards will transfer over, how, to what effects, when, or through which applications and groups. As a result, it’s important to consider how the Metaverse emerges, not just around which technological standard. […]

In fact, Fortnite’s Creative Mode, already feels like a proto-Metaverse. Here, a player loads their avatar — one specific to them and which is used in all Fortnite-related experiences — and lands in a game-like lobby and can choose from thousands of “doors” (i.e. space-time rifts) that send them to one of thousands of different worlds with up to 99 other players. […]

And in truth, it’s most likely the Metaverse emerges from a network of different platforms, bodies, and technologies working together (however reluctantly) and embracing interoperability. The Internet today is a product of a relatively messy process in which the open (mostly academic) internet developed in parallel with closed (mostly consumer-oriented) services that often looked to “rebuild” or “reset” open standards and protocols.

The case for … cities that aren’t dystopian surveillance states

Almost twenty issues ago I featured 18 big thinkers take a critical look at the Sidewalk Labs plan, which included a piece by Cory Doctorow. This one is quite similar but longer so he makes his point in more details with more examples. Essentially, instead of a smart city we could have smarter things in cities, and we could be the sensors instead of being the sensed. Somewhat akin to AI on the edge, where the computing is done on-phone instead of being sent to a server; here each person would keep their personal data local to their phone, getting external data pushed to them and sharing only as needed and according to their own preferences, not for companies hoovering all the data they can.

The problem is that the smart city, as presently conceived, is a largely privatised affair designed as a public-private partnership to extract as much value as possible from its residents while providing the instrumentation and infrastructure to control any civil unrest that such an arrangement might provoke. […]

This device knows everywhere you go, it knows what you buy, it knows whom you talk to and how long and maybe even what about. In other words, it is extremely similar to the device you’re carrying around right now – with the vital difference that it keeps what it learns about you private. […]

Such a city depends on a responsive, legitimate government, and on devices that are open and transparent, freely auditable and secured through widespread scrutiny of their inner workings. It is a city and a technology and a government oriented around its people, designed to treat people “as an end in themselves and not as a means to something else”.

The Secretive Company That Might End Privacy as We Know It

It’s already widely circulated so I didn’t put this piece by Kashmir Hill at the very top but in terms of things you need to worry about as a citizen, the app she investigated is a frightening example of what is becoming possible and what happens when there are few legal guard-rails and techno solutionists / determinists get involved (see the second highlight). I wonder when Amazon will buy this and integrate it with Ring? ?

You take a picture of a person, upload it and get to see public photos of that person, along with links to where those photos appeared. The system — whose backbone is a database of more than three billion images that Clearview claims to have scraped from Facebook, YouTube, Venmo and millions of other websites — goes far beyond anything ever constructed by the United States government or Silicon Valley giants. […]

The computer code underlying its app, analyzed by The New York Times, includes programming language to pair it with augmented-reality glasses; users would potentially be able to identify every person they saw. The tool could identify activists at a protest or an attractive stranger on the subway, revealing not just their names but where they lived, what they did and whom they knew. […]

“I’ve come to the conclusion that because information constantly increases, there’s never going to be privacy,” Mr. Scalzo said. “Laws have to determine what’s legal, but you can’t ban technology. Sure, that might lead to a dystopian future or something, but you can’t ban it.” […]

[M]y photo returned numerous results, dating back a decade, including photos of myself that I had never seen before. When I used my hand to cover my nose and the bottom of my face, the app still returned seven correct matches for me.

Lessons for Retailers from the Rebirth of Indie Bookstores

Short take on a recent white paper by Ryan Raffaelli, a professor in the Organizational Behavior Unit at Harvard Business School; Reinventing Retail: The Novel Resurgence of Independent Bookstores (pdf). He has looked at indie bookstores in the US, Swiss watchmakers and pencil makers, and studies a phenomenon he calls “technology reemergence.” Also have a look for his 3Cs of resurgence: Community, Curation, and Convening. (There also a pretty good 6min video doc at the bottom.)

Something miraculous started happening in 2009, however. After falling for decades, the number of independent bookstores started to rise, climbing 49 percent in the next decade to nearly 2,500 stores nationwide. […]

“As a field researcher, I am bit like an anthropologist for business, I embed myself into an industry for multiple years to understand the nuances of what’s happening, and I try to uncover unexpected patterns that can be difficult to predict using traditional statistical models.” […]

“It’s almost like a social movement,” says Raffaelli, who says indie bookstores are “anchors of authenticity in an ever-increasing digital and disconnected world.”

Artificial Morality

Short essay by Bruce Sterling on the growing number of “lists of moral principles for the creators of Artificial Intelligence,” which he collects.

Technological proliferation is not a list of principles. It is a deep, multivalent historical process with many radically different stakeholders over many different time-scales. People who invent technology never get to set the rules for what is done with it. A “non-evil” Google, built by two Stanford dropouts, is just not the same entity as modern Alphabet’s global multinational network, with its extensive planetary holdings in clouds, transmission cables, operating systems, and device manufacturing. […]

The practitioners of AI are not up-front about the genuine allure of their enterprise, which is all about the old-school Steve-Jobsian charisma of denting the universe while becoming insanely great. Nobody does AI for our moral betterment; everybody does it to feel transcendent.

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Header image: Interior Views of the Central Social Institution in Prague, Czechoslovakia, 1937.