This is based on my notes taken on Day 2 of the EU’s citizen’s assembly on Virtual Worlds. These have been polished, but are not easy to draw conclusions or a story from, partly because I have tried not to leave anything out, and the participants were not looking to bring their stories and thoughts together. These notes do not tell a story and this article is quite long for me. I hope it has something interesting for you; it talks of the technology, a little bit of economics, social engagement and control and even a little about the changing nature of personality.

I am concerned at the framing of the assembly as “virtual worlds”  rather than future of the internet, and unlike the CoFoE, my syndicate group seemed quiet on the issues of surveillance although not on the issues of manipulation and fake news. On reading these notes, in which I have inserted my opinion you will see that I am equally concerned that we cannot really forecast the risks and benefits much beyond 12 months.  The concluding statement by one of the citizens, was a demand for fairness, an equality of arms.

The session started with an ice breaker, then looked at what good might come from virtual worlds, and then what bad might come from it.

For the ice breaker they were asked what they were proud of about their country, sadly, I can’t think of anything. It might have been beaches, but not these days and I have seen the beaches in much of western Europe. London’s cultural diversity is still fun but with the exit of many Europeans and the difficulty of importing food, the restaurant scene will decline. I like the Union flag!

The moderator’s tried to steer people towards risks and benefits today! The panel came up with the following,

  1. The datenkraken’s desire for eyeballs leads to manipulation; to which I add that this is the tool by which fake news gains traction.
  2. Some look forward to AI enhanced translation; how close are we with DeepL which I tried to get to translate the audio feeds from the conference, until I was shown the audio feed language selector. It captured it well, but the interface is not designed for real time use.
  3. One person (with whom I agree) observed that the bite sized delivery of social media trains a lack of attention, boredom and an inability to consume longer form content. I characterise this as preferring bullets to essays, and twitter to blogs.

We then considered chapter 3 of the info pack published by the Commission to help the assembly’s deliberations.

I have picked up on the conflict between the rights of people and the rights of corporations. The document lists the EU’s rights and principles, which I think, understates, the fundamental rights of information and privacy.

  1. Putting people and their rights at the centre of the digital transformation
  2. Supporting solidarity and inclusion
  3. Ensuring freedom of choice online
  4. Fostering participation in the digital public space
  5. Increasing safety, security, and empowerment of individuals
  6. Promoting the sustainability of the digital future

We then spent what I thought was too much time looking at the Reality – Virtuality continuum; I had not heard of this before. I am unsure how helpful this was, as it may have closed off lines of enquiry, but from this session, the following questions were asked,

  1. What is the climate change dimension of building the virtual worlds? It’s huge, we were worried about this while I was at Sun Microsystems (1997 -2009) calculating that data centres consumed as much as air transport. It’ll be interesting to see how this is answered. However, there is a cost-benefit trade to be calculated; for each virtual world space, transport costs to real world meetings will be reduced.
  2. One correspondent asked when will we do our exercise? I suspect that Peloton and its competitors have an answer for that.
  3. A question was asked on how regulators can either keep up or get ahead of the markets.
  4. The ability of the EU to exercise leadership in the science was questioned, although the questioner posed a market solution. Perhaps this is another dimension to the proposition that Europe can turn money into ideas, but not the other way round and part of the answer must be Horizon Europe and even NESSI. (Can I insert a plea that both parties accelerate the UK’s re-entry into Horizon as both sides would benefit from the UK’s universities rebooting their participation.)

After lunch, the panel members were asked via a picture to envisage the landscape in 20 years’ time. Predicting 2050, is hard, I wrote a 10 year review/forecast in 2015 [or on Medium] and I found it hard to make predictions; the commission seem less interested in hardware or system architectures, except for googles/headsets and would seem to be expecting a revolution in in software. Or are they? The syndicate group had great difficulty in imagining much more than “virtual light’s” glasses as an output device.  I feel that without the development of new metaphors, it will be hard to imagine new uses of virtual reality. And we should remember from the pandemic that we are learning the limits of video conferencing as people report zoom/teams fatigue.

One correspondent proposed that ubiquitous virtual worlds would herald the end of loneliness. Not sure how that will happen. another proposed that virtual worlds will always be different from reality, particularly for social relations.

Some argued that virtual worlds must have a practical application for citizens other than leisure, however, the Entertainment industry is one of the technology innovators for the internet, and it seems that Netflix takes 15% of the internet bandwidth, I repeat,  it’s hard to envisage a 20 year change without imagining a change in metaphors. I remember attempting to see, for about 60 seconds, if a game like Doom could act as the user interface to business applications but could never make it work. We know that some of the wargame games, such as Call of Duty are/were used for serious military training and VR can be used to train and help design certain processes such as a building evacuation/design and road design. I also spent some time trying to imagine a data centre management solution with a 3D virtual interface, possibly a model of the computer hall, with colour coding showing activity, heat, and the power draw but the abstract representation of a dashboard always seemed more informative. While working at Sun, I experimented with both 2nd Life and Sun’s Project Wonderland [or on Medium]; and in this article, I show two screen shots, with in one case, someone giving a powerpoint (or open office) presentation in a virtual world. (It emphasises my point that we need new metaphors, we don’t need a virtual world to share slide shows. I also attended an EU conference based on the then current funded IT projects in 2008. My notes are on my blog [or on Medium] and the section on the future of the internet, which would have been a better title for the citizen’s assembly, is of most relevance to this discussion, although the whole article gives some insight into what European innovators thought was coming.

In 2015, I tried to write a futurology article, which I never published because I felt that the changes over the previous 10 years had been of miniaturisation and performance with the most important software innovation being in-list based search. As I thought about the article and the next 10 years, I wondered whether internet speed had increased in the eight years since I wrote it. The answer would seem to be yes, BT are offering 80 megabits per second over copper, and 900 megabits per second over fibre today, but have we actually developed the collaboration vehicles. Have wikis become ubiquitous document sharing tools? Are we using tagging and graphs to identify experts (see this about expert finder tools [and on Medium]) and their bodies of work. I think the answers are maybe and no. In fact, finding experts remains hard as most seek to exaggerate themselves, and diminish their competitors. No-one in the room seemed to recognise the issue that how to find expertise and authority [and on Medium] are separate things.

Another thought I had, about the changing nature of the internet, was inspired a year or two ago as I walked past some Santander cycle stands. When originally conceived the stands were on the Internet and connected by cable. Today it’s the bikes that are connected to the platform using Wi-Fi; the network now consists of disconnected mobile things, which includes people with their phones. The internet of computers is long dead, it all depends on how long the Internet of people can sustain itself. My bike example, and the ubiquity of phones is turning the internet into one of things, but one funded by the device owners.

Others raised hopes of health applications. It’d be good to see what they might be thinking of. I was reminded that my thermometer can connect to my computer and thus the internet, but my oximeter couldn’t and we used whatsapp i.e. short free form text messages to share the results both with a human and a list server.

I wonder if, as I consider virtual worlds, whether I am too committed to 2nd Life/NWN metaphors to imagine anything different. It’s not as if I haven’t tried but I am of the view that much of what was proposed is merely using the information we have today, displayed using a different output device ie. Goggles. Another issue here is about information packaging, formatting and combining. I was reminded of my time working at DB where, a vast amount of time was spent, copying data from one system to another because the IT programmer time to do it automatically had never been made available and today when watching streaming content, looking for actors or writers on Wikipedia to get more facts about them or to see if I have recognised the actors correctly from other works.

One correspondent asked if you could virtually ski and what was the point? it would be cheap to point out that there’s very little snow in Europe this year and that virtual skiing maybe all you can get particularly if you use an augmented reality by making the ski’s internet attached; it would one hopes make falling over less painful.

One correspondent said they liked reading, which made me question whether the cost of reading has fallen or not. I remember when trying to get a copy of an out-of-date SharePoint manual that the cost was only pennies short of the current version price and wondering how that worked and that academic books can be extraordinary expensive despite the fact that the taxpayer has often paid for them twice before. Free public libraries are dying, or finding new purposes, provoked by people’s reticence to travel even short distances.

The issue of the digital divide, on cost and knowledge was raised. The latter reinforced in my view, by the amount of self administration skills needed to be on the internet.

One correspondent asked, if finding information is so easy will we stop thinking and creating? Some of course have never started. People will still be taking decisions and can choose to use the available information or ignore it, possibly because they are lazy, possibly because they are untrained.

There was little acknowledgement that the datenkraken and even retail stores create information from people’s spores and from combining them and comparing them.

Have the commission bitten off more so they can chew? Is virtual worlds a topic that is too late? It’s clear to me that we are all having difficulty in imagining new uses; we can return to training and possibly applications that need to understand the science of what they’re dealing with. Perhaps fashion design would be an appropriate application.

After lunch, the group sought to address fears.

The first contributor raised the obvious ones, the fear of AI & Robots, and the failure to implement a  just transition. They also argued it was necessary to oppose control and oppression. Another raised the issues of state (and private sector) surveillance and China’s Social Credit system [or on Medium] which also influences people’s romantic relationships. From my article, I quote,

… a series of regulatory decisions in the USA seem to be paving the way to something similar [to China’s social credit scoring], a powerful illustration that the argument that surveillance is OK if it’s private sector is horrendously false.

 It was also pointed out that it is easier to be abusive on the ‘net because of anonymity and the distancing that the ‘net puts on communication.

The rest of the afternoon was very disjoint.

  1. There was a fear that as we digitised our memories through photos in particular, they become vulnerable to loss; but they are not on our devices, not on our phones and without digital cameras, we wouldn’t have the photos.
  2. There was a call to keep real money. In my view that’s gone, is this a call for strong regulation of the savings industry?
  3. The group returned to the potential loss of intimacy, which reminded me of the time I was living apart from my wife, and we got to the point where we used the available technology to watch things together on the BBC and so spent time together. bUt the group wondered if we’ll lose the ability to communicate with people. In the real world we perceive and understand through all five senses, perhaps, that’s why we French kiss; but today we can’t touch, smell or taste in the virtual world and we need to remember that human communication is 98% non verbal! Maybe that’s why  we will need to jack in.
  4. Privacy and trust were re-visited with fears being expressed at the growing capability of AI while recognising that AI and Virtual Worlds are different things.
  5. They went down a rat-hole on learning facts, while there may a reduced need to learn facts, one will always need to be evaluate evidence and use methods of analysis. I wish I had learned my multiplication tables, although not enough to sit down and do it. People, if only, collectively, will need to stay ahead of the general intellect and we need to teach our children to do so to.
  6. There was a fear that the homogenous nature of the internet will pose a threat to minority cultures, as the internet adopts a homogenous approach to people. This is something the EU could help with both through regulation and investment.
  7. Finally a plea to democratise the expertise in making, creating and running the internet and/or future virtual worlds. I ask if this would this require changes to the copyright laws since software can be copyrights, and does it require the promotion of open source?

In the sessions there’s been an emphasis on safety over privacy.

Yesterday, I had wondered how many young people were in the panel; today in Group 6, there are a couple who in the smaller committee room, managed to say more. Some of it hopeful and some of it sceptical.

And a question of how to regulate, I think the institutions know but the private sector lobbying is very powerful; come back Neelie.

There was a demand for fairness, an equality of arms.

I have referred to the following article on my blog, these are dated between 2008 & 2017; I was nearly an expert once,

  1. How to find expertise and authority [and on Medium]
  2. Knowing me, knowing you, 2007 [or on Medium]
  3. More VNC lite 2008
  4. Beyond concalls  2008 [or on Medium]
  5. The future of the internet 2008 [or on Medium]
  6. A 10 year review/forecast 2015 [or on Medium]
  7. On China’s social credit system 2017 [or on Medium]
Virtual Worlds, Day 2
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