Building an Equitable, Inclusive and Safe Metaverse: Nina Jane Patel
This is the first article in the series Digital Democracies: Voices, Practices, Stories, Futures, where Donna Close and Prof Helen Kennedy are in conversation with women working in the immersive technology space.
The series aims to offer diverse perspectives and amplify underrepresented voices, hearing from women who are working on the frontline of the metaverse as it’s being developed.
Donna Close: Hi Nina, can you tell us a little bit about you and your work?
Nina Jane Patel: I am the co-founder of a Metaverse company called Kabuni, which aims to be a safe metaverse for children to explore, learn, and grow. I am also a Movement Psychotherapist and a doctoral research fellow at the University of Reading. Prior to co-founding Kabuni in 2018, I had a long history in the arts and culture sector in Canada working with some of the country’s leading dance companies.
My career has been at the intersection of arts, culture, wellness and technology and how people as bodies, and as potentially damaged people, interact in those four mediums. I’m interested in how we can integrate those aspects of our lives for the benefit of one another and how we can create spaces virtually and physically that generates healthy interactions to promote healthy, happy human beings.
Prof Helen Kennedy: What for you would you say are the key problems with the current direction of travel in the development of the Metaverse?
Nina Jane Patel: As technology advances around the Metaverse — AR, VR, MR, XR — we need to understand more about mind/ body disconnection and to understand that our actions in these spaces have implications for the people that we are sharing those spaces with.
The lines between real life and virtual life are blurring more and more. The question is ‘Is virtual reality real or not real’ and we could extend that to ‘Is it fantasy? Is it fictional or non-fictional?’ We need to decide because if someone’s acting out their violent fantasies in virtual space and I’m not up for it then I’m not consenting and that’s going to do some damage.
Part of that is also understanding who is designing the technologies that we choose to integrate into our lives. They are generating a system that that’s not going to work for many of us, including women, and certainly they are not prioritising the safety of children, both psychologically and physiologically.
An equitable future of what our Metaverse will look like requires all of us to contribute to it. It’s time to speak up: even if we don’t have the answers, we should just start asking the questions.
Prof Helen Kennedy: How can we influence the way that the Metaverse is being designed?
Nina Jane Patel: My response is to try and create an alternative with my co-founders but I recognise that not everyone is in a place where they can do this.
I would like to see more parents and caregivers being involved. As parents we can be inclined to bury our heads in the sand and by doing this we are allowing big tech companies to take charge, make decisions and build things that our children are going to be integrating to their lives quite heavily with impacts and implications of that.
There are people doing really good work: coalitions, collectives, small independent groups, policy makers and government bodies building some foundations in terms of data management, safety, privacy and best practices when it comes to children and technology on all platforms. Data is key: by putting that data back into our hands we can understand it and we could begin to manage our health around it, our children’s health around it and use it as a tool and not as a consumptive device that we feel out of control using.
Donna Close: What’s preventing us from creating more inclusive spaces?
Nina Jane Patel: Firstly, is awareness: Statistically .001% of [of the population] has entered a virtual reality 3 dimensional space. Secondly, technophobia plays a role. Price is also a barrier. Many of the artists that I’ve known who’ve integrated technology into their art practice, their creative process or their performance have straddled the line between creative artists and technologists. They have become techie so they don’t have to hire the developer to code. They take on some massive learning and do it themselves.
Another barrier for artists is that there’s not really an audience yet to make it worthwhile for the huge work in translation that needs to take place. The aesthetic is not transferable, so we’re redefining those alongside the creative process. Of course, this means we need to redefine the training models too.
Prof Helen Kennedy: How can we improve technical and critical understanding of young people about these technologies?
Nina Jane Patel: My passion is for the importance of arts and culture at the intersection of wellness and the betterment of society. It seemed perfect and beautiful to incorporate that into education. The education system hasn’t changed for over 100 years and we need to begin to nurture a growth mindset that supports lifelong learning rather than just memorising facts for an exam.
It is a passion project that is becoming more and more of a reality everyday as we have more students integrate or engage with us. It’s about understanding how education can be delivered, how teachers can integrate it [technology] and how it enhances student experiences. It’s not just thinking of them as students who need to get X marks to get into X university but providing them with those tools so they’re prepared for what technology is going to be, how it’s going to influence their jobs, their work, their career and also using it safely as a medium for self-expression, for creativity, for sports, for whatever it is they want to be when they grow up to be the world’s next leaders.
Through this we need to hold strong to values and integrity and pass that on to our children so that they instil this in any kind of creation process that they generate in terms of tech, in terms of coding, in terms of hardware, software — these values become part of the DNA of their creations.
Donna Close: What skills, practices and approaches do we need to adopt in order to be able to co-create physical and digital spaces of shared humanity?
Nina Jane Patel: Virtual spaces, digital spaces, physical spaces, environmental spaces seem to belong to us and yet they don’t. They’re given to us and we are privileged to be able to experience them.
That’s one of the conversations that happens really beautifully in Canada around the indigenous culture and how their values system actually could offer us more long-term solutions than the Western value system.
These digital worlds and virtual worlds are rooted in nature, in the universe and in spiritual connections. There is so much intersection. The drive for commercial products that we see in the system now is holding us back from integrating value systems that could generate a future that’s more sustainable on many levels. The current tech industry values the quick and fast and the disposable. It’s full of short-term thinking that won’t really serve us in the long term.
There are ways to incorporate sustainable thinking and values-driven holistic viewpoints into the technologies that we’re generating. We just have to give ourselves a little more time, and to do that with care and due diligence. We should hold strong to that as individuals and consumers spending our dollars or pounds wisely as much as we can. And speaking up when things don’t work for us is the very beginning of that. One of the things that holds us back right now about our futures is this feeling that we’re just one person. How do we make a difference? But accumulatively, it does make a difference and that goes across the board of all the kind of sustainable future strategies.
Prof Helen Kennedy: You have had horrendous experiences on-line and then experienced even worse behaviour when you shared your story. What advice would you give to people to have the courage to make a stand and how can we support others going through this?
Nina Jane Patel: I’m really actively trying to expand the conversation and shift the paradigm of how we have to got to where we are in terms of the current state of the Internet which is the basis for the future Metaverse. We have prioritised anonymity over accountability and we have to ask ourselves right now is that how we want to build our future?
I swing towards one side of that: I would rather people own their digital identity as dear and precious as they hold their physical identity. We should be held accountable for our actions in virtual worlds and physical worlds, as though they were one. And the reverse too — that we are praised for our good actions in the virtual world as well as the physical world.
What’s interesting in sharing my story is how quickly I had negative responses to my having this in the media and how fast and furious these comments were. This is my first experience of direct online harassment. The first response I received from my story being published was a death threat. Other responses questioned the validity of my experience and the impact it had on me. If we want people to have open and honest conversations then we have to give weight to the fact that these actions have consequences for the individual, and not to victim-blame or trivialise the situation.
We have this virtual world where awful things are allowed to happen, and they’re rewarded. The builders of these environments, the platforms, the AI monitoring, all allow it. You know there isn’t anything in the Metaverse right now that is criminal or illegal. We are at the beginnings of holding some people accountable for their actions in the digital space but it is slow.
We have to take a zero-tolerance approach especially when we’re putting our children in virtual environments amongst behaviours that are damaging. And yes, it’s hard work, it’s not going to be easy and it’s never going to end, but the work has to be done. You have a role as a human being on this planet, hopefully to shape the future for a better place, to leave it better than when you arrived — just hold on to that.
It’s not as easy as it sounds. I have a sticky on my laptop that says ‘LOVE’ and I think, as cheesy as it, as excruciating as it is, I try and send out as much as I love as I can through the information, through the care, through this service, through the company, through my research. I think that’s what it’s about. I think as artists it’s what we do. We’re trying to share hard parts of ourselves that we want to show love and we want to be loved, and essentially that’s what we’re all here for. I think giving the opportunity for those people who are grounded in hate to have their voices louder is going to be the demise of a healthy, happy society.
Donna Close: Can you share with us and our readers your story, your vision of the future?
Nina Jane Patel: One of the things I’d like to see us as women do in this new Wild West is to is to stand equally in the new frontier. We need to highlight our stories of strength and solidarity, overcoming misogyny and all forms of violence and hate in in this new frontier and just vocalise when we see it.
My vision of the future is grounded in a healthy future in which we are happy and healthy in our organic physical biological world, grounded in our presence here and now, here with our planet, with the people in our rooms and fully present. My vision of the future is that we are balanced, ealthy and happy in our real lives that when we enter the Metaverse, we are healthy and happy there as well. We get to meet amazing people from all over the world, have conversations, get to learn and grow, have access to information, access to new tools that we can use as creative expression. And then we take off whatever hardware technology it is that allowed us to cross into that environment and then say, hey this life is great too.
Donna Close: Awesome vision. One final question — What one thing would you change to make democracy and inclusion in public material and virtual spaces of reality, not fantasy. If you could change one thing right now, what would that be?
Nina Jane Patel: If I can’t change the entire paradigm in which our current platforms have been built on, then we at least need to own our data. We need to be able to have access to it and we need to have solidarity in that demand.
Donna Close: Thanks Nina. Our next conversation will be with Verity McIntosh, keep an eye out next week when it will be released.
At its heart this project is interrogating the concept of placemaking and asking what role can art and technology play in reinvigorating our public spaces for the future. How can culture and technology alchemise to make a positive and lasting impact on our public spaces?
Digital Democracies brings together three of the UK’s leading commissioning agencies and festivals:
Festivals-led, the project combines expertise across art in the public realm, digital innovation, social impact and place-based partnerships with global industry networks and national audiences.
“Bringing together expertise in outdoor art, digital innovation, social impact and place-based partnerships, we’re really excited about this project. Digital Democracies will ensure that audiences across the UK can benefit from innovative digital art in the public realm – working with artists to explore and share their own sense of place, identify and society.
“Festivals are incredibly well placed to lead the development of this exciting area of work. The experience of outdoor democratic spaces, audience diversity, place-based partnerships, and collaborative working are part of their DNA.”
– Donna Close, Associate Director of Threshold Studios