Trust and the Metaverse

Dark digital abstract

Almost three decades ago, Neal Stephenson introduced us to the metaverse in his ground-breaking novel Snow Crash. Sometimes reality (even virtual) takes time to catch up with our imagination. Recently, newsfeeds, tweets and discussions abound as innovators, venture capitalists, pioneers and personalities discuss new metaverse capabilities and products. Through the noise, we seek to find the signal. We seek to discover what is real, what is fiction, and what needs to be considered as we attempt to understand, build and thrive in the rapidly emerging world called the metaverse.

At the School for Advanced Digital Technology we think about innovation from two perspectives: The Innovation of Things and the Innovation of Ways. We do this because of the inescapable fact that the systems and organizations of the world (“Ways”) have to adapt to the “Things” we invent. And too often they do not. This imbalance leads to serious issues — like inequality, data privacy breaches, injustice, waste, friction and abuses — all of which wear on our social fabric. There have been too many examples lately.

We believe that there is a thread connecting these two views of innovation together. Our thesis is that the precondition for successful change and advancement of the human condition — no matter how small or large — is trust. Trust in the claims of promised outcomes, trust in the people driving the change, and trust in the representation of the consequences of doing and not doing something.

Trust creates velocity — and exponential trust can change the “ways” of the world. But when technology’s advancement is exponential while human progress is linear, we have a recipe for the social and economic fabric to tear.

There has been much talk of trust over the years. Again, looking back decades to the introduction of Web 1.0 we see that it was an idealistic time. Promises of progress and trust relied on the network and connections made. However, our trust was misplaced. We had no way to tell who was on the network, their intentions or even if they were who they said they were.

With Web 2.0 the commerce engine took charge. Huge frictionless ways of engaging in the business of our world emerged. The smartest people and organizations began to ask us — again — to trust them. But again we’ve been let down and our trust has been misplaced. We are starting to see it all around us, aren’t we? We have begun to distrust governance in our democracies, our economic system in the form of extractive capitalism and closer to this discussion in the giants of our Innovation-of-Things world — Facebook (now Meta), Google (“Don’t be Evil”) and Amazon, among others. We have the tools (“Things”) in the form of a connected digital planet, but we have stalled in our progress and velocity to deliver solutions to the big problems facing the planet. Is this a failure of humanity? A failure of technology? Both? Is this instead a critical moment to become better digital citizens? If so, what must be foundational? Trust.

We seek to trust. But there’s no way to verify that trust. And trust without verification introduces risk to all of us. We are stuck.

That brings us to the metaverse and Web 3.0 (if you haven’t had a chance to dig into the background and details about Web 3.0 and the underlying context of all the momentum and “froth” in the space, a good place to start is with Chris Dixon — one of the partners at Andreessen Horowitz. Some of his and others’ work and explanations can be found here). While early, if Web 3.0 had a motto, it might be “trust but verify.”

Either as an extraordinary coincidence or as an inevitable outcome of the progress of the underlying technologies of our world, Web 3.0 is being built (among other building blocks) primarily on the digital and scalable embodiment of trust and verification.

Those leading this change are saying, “the analog, centralized version of institutional trust is messed up, so let’s find a way to abstract the problem away and globally scale it.” The pragmatists argue, “since we really can’t rely on centralized control and humans at the centre, we are taking them out of the equation. Let’s let the math (crypto) take over. And by doing so, we can be more transparent. We can confidently share and know that records made are valid, have not been tampered with and are legitimate.”

If you dig into the building blocks of crypto networks at the core of Web 3.0, the foundation is profoundly altruistic — by creating decentralized, non-institutionalized trust mechanisms you build the structure from the bottom up instead of top down. By using math to transition from mutability to immutability, you remove human fallibility (and deceit) from the equation.

The potential is there although it is very early days. We can create scale and velocity based on a new model of trust and verification. The baton is being passed whether willingly or not.

As with all innovations of this magnitude, we need to look at it with our “Things” and “Ways” lens. The metaverse is many things (NFTs, DAO, blockchain, etc.), but more importantly at its core, it represents new Ways in which we will populate, engage and live in a world that could fix the rot of trust in the way we engage with ourselves and our institutions. As we watch billions of dollars of capital and enormous human capital invested we are asking — at this very beginning — is the metaverse a “way” to solve our challenges, or is it simply a way to amuse ourselves and to enrich the individuals and companies moving quickly to populate it?

Our Role

This is why at the School for Advanced Digital Technology we have invested in the backbone of the underlying fabric of trust. We’re embracing, promoting and building around Digital Intelligence (DQ) — the world’s first and only digital standard for digital literacy, skills and readiness. DQ outlines the implications and responsibilities of being a digital citizen, creator and competitor. With DQ as our foundation, we can all find a way to thrive in Web 3.0 and the metaverse. DQ will find its way into the courses and programs of SAIT. It is also why we are partnering with the organizations leading Digital Trust for Places and Routines (DTPR) that help citizens understand the reach of digital infrastructure, data capture and surveillance as they traverse public spaces. We all need to be empowered and have agency as we encounter and engage with the metaverse. Without such literacy, skills, empowerment and agency — how can there be trust?

At the School for Advanced Digital Technology, we are studying and distilling the requirements of this new computing and societal paradigm. We will deliver new programs and new forms of credentials (blockchain based micro-credentials, for example) to help lead the transition. Moving forward, we will put forth new concepts in how we organize to deliver and fund new education models and skills. We’re also working to introduce experiments and experiences, and bring forward expertise in our collaborative learning laboratory. As a community we can and will explore how extended reality (XR), data, IoT and other innovations advance our collective interests.

We are just at the beginning of this journey. We insist that we start by examining how the new technology can help us reinvigorate a new culture of trust — be it digitally encoded or in the backbone of face-to-face human connections and conversations.

In that way, our students will be able to understand how to build the “Things” of this new paradigm through new skills and credentials. But more importantly, they will learn the “Ways” of a new trust-based, verifiable, distributed metaverse focused on solving the urgent problems of our day.

About the authors: Jim Gibson and Lee Ackerman

Jim Gibson, Chief Catalyst @ SAIT School for Advanced Digital Technology

Cutting to the chase and credentials, Gibson co-founded Rainforest Alberta in 2016 to advance innovation in the province. Most recently, he started Thin Air Labs, which funds early-stage, entrepreneur-led technology ventures and networks.

With a Management Consultant designation (CMC) along with an MBA in Entrepreneurial Studies and Finance and a Bachelor of Commerce in Accounting and Computer Science, Gibson understands the business side of innovation and technology advances.

A passionate and serial entrepreneur, Gibson has spent three decades anticipating, adapting and advancing technology trends and challenges. His mantra — “building what’s next” — keeps him curious about the challenges and opportunities ahead. He has come to appreciate that some of the best technologies, innovations and breakthroughs will come from places in our global economy where we least expect.

Lee Ackerman, Director, Digital Strategy @ SAIT’s School for Advanced Digital Technology

Lee is a Digital leader and a Learning strategist. By bringing together both Digital and Learning expertise, he is playing a key role in building the school’s programming, framing its strategy and igniting Digital Citizenship conversations.

Lee brings a wealth of digital experience, having spent the last 20 years creating, transforming, learning, exploring, inventing, sharing and educating. His e xperience and impact with major technology and consulting firms such as IBM and Deloitte are complemented by start-up and boutique consulting endeavors.

Lee has built digital solutions and seen first-hand the challenges of getting from idea to impact . Building on these foundations, Lee has advised and guided organizations across North America, Europe and Asia in planning and executing their digital strategies and transformations. His thoughtfulness, insights and experiences are evident in his books, patents and conference presentations. Lee holds a Master’s in Educational Technology and has an inexhaustible passion for learning and all things digital.