Looking Forward Before We Can’t Look Away: Future-mapping in 2030 with the Social-Spatial Matrix
March 31, 2020
In our previous article, we spoke to the necessity for foresight in spatial computing; how, if we don’t attempt to anticipate the impact that XR technologies will have on our world, we’ll end up in something like a virtual wild west. While an 1847 Alexander Graham Bell or a 2004 Mark Zuckerberg might not have been able to imagine the consequences of their teletechnologies, as product builders in 2020 we need to be able to imagine ours. Through the Social-Spatial Matrix—a 2X2 matrix composed of the two levers at play that shape telecommunication experiences—we can plot out where current XR experiences lie, and then analyze where they might be in the future depending on how certain signals, and trends manifest.
“Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.”Malcolm X
Possible futures are often mapped out in order to contrast how things might be, if signals and trends were to unfold in one way or another. However, this type of mapping is blind to the obvious: our collective future has, and will always be defined through it’s pluralities. For instance, a future with economic growth will also include economic decline, a future with improved access to education will also include barriers, etc. With the Social-Spatial Matrix, we can envision four possible futures that live alongside one another, influenced by trends that are currently giving shape to our lives.
In order to understand this plurality, we can think about our social experiences with telecommunications today. We have platforms like Twitter, which are representative of global social groups: an expansive network that is curated based on individual preferences and connections. Within Facebook we have Weird Facebook, a local community network, which allows for organic communities to thrive by association in a private, and secret way. Our world will never become a place where global social groups reign, despite whatever Orwellian-Black-Mirror future that is being painted for us. We can rest assured that our human nature will always appropriate the networks that are offered to us from the powers-that-be, from the social networks that were used in the Arab Springs movement, or the ad-hoc networks used by the Zapatista movement in Mexico . We will always have a choice in how we decide to make teletechnologies work for us, and what future we will be a part of. No matter what we choose, however, the future will be a blended one: the physical and the digital will soon be so intertwined that we can’t simply close our laptops, or power off; in these futures, we’ll be on at all times.
“We are all migrants, all of us: We move through space and time”Mohsin Hamid
The four quadrants within the Social-Spatial Matrix represent a framework to map all of our current socio-technological experiences. By mapping the current state of spatial computing, we can imagine how our collective futures will evolve with the proliferation of XR technologies, and other macro and micro trends/signals/drivers at play. These quadrants hold futures that are based on trends and technologies that exist concurrently with one another, and so these futures are entirely interdependent. The descriptions of the quadrants are not meant to act as true forecasts of what will occur, but summaries of present worlds and their future expressions. It is important to take note of the fact that futures within a quadrant will manifest differently depending on where it lies on each axis—these axis are spectrums. For example, Facebook resides further down the Real-Virtual axis than something like Facebook Marketplace, as Facebook interactions take place wholly virtually, whereas the company’s Marketplace requires an in-person connection. For the sake of simplicity, this article proposes each of the following quadrants as a unique present and future:
The Digital Well
(Real, and Local Community Networks)
Key attributes: Group Centric, Grass roots, tightly bound communities anchored in real space and the built environment.
(Virtual, and Local Community Networks)
Key attributes: Group Centric, Grass roots, tightly bound communities anchored in virtual space
The Glocalized Village
(Real, and Global Social Networks).
Key attributes: Peer-to-peer global social networks anchored in real space and the built environment
(Virtual, and Global Social Networks)
Key attributes: Self-centric, algorithmically optimized, Peer-to-Peer Global social networks anchored in virtual space
Through describing how these quadrants in the Social-Spatial Matrix exist today, as well as what they will look like in the future (the opportunities they hold, and their constraints) we can begin to imagine how spatial computing will shape and mold our world in the year 2030 (and perhaps, create more appropriate and meaningful products).
Signals: Current teletechnologies that reside within the Social-Spatial Matrix today
Drivers: The factors that cause change, on a macro or micro level
Trends: The directions of change caused by drivers
The term “metaverse” was first coined by Neil Stevenson in the science fiction novel Snow Crash. Stevenson’s metaverse is a place where people are represented through their avatars and interact with each other and in a three-dimensional virtual space. The very real groundwork for the actualization of this social metaverse has been laid over the last decade, with today’s social media platform experience. The platform experience provides people with a space where they can connect with an expansive network, but don’t, and instead connect with personally and algorithmically-suggested people and content. Signals like Facebook Horizon indicate that future Metaverses will simply be a natural progression in social media dominance over the years. We can imagine that the platform experience will continue to refine and become even more optimized, through the use of metadata aggregation, ever increasing data nets, and user profiling to enable enhanced micro-targeting. The Metaverses in 2030 will ring in the true “age of me”, with experiences that are so personal, and highly tailored, people won’t see any reason to leave (despite the pure explosion of echo chambers that occurs with this personalization).
As global social networks move entirely into the virtual arena, future Metaverses will enable people to feel present with everyone—from families to friends—across vast distances at any time. This will make the world feel much smaller and further eliminate geographical barriers, but paradoxically will also make the world feel much larger, through the rapid expansion of new worlds and new possibilities. Global Metaverses of the future will allow for new remote working opportunities and also allow us to form and maintain interpersonal relations over vast distances. This true sense of connection will be made possible by the aesthetic qualities of the 2030 Metaverses. Although people in these Metaverses will need to essentially reside in a cube in the sky—in order to allow for full virtual immersion—the high production value of the Metaverse (made possible by the Twitters and the ‘Grams), as well as technological enablers like 5g network connections, cloud-based processing, and pixel dense optical displays, will result in such a polished, high-fidelity XR experience that people will feel utterly present and immersed.
However, this reality won’t allow people to be truly expressive—to stay on-brand and polished, these Metaverses will have limits on user-generated content. Much like adding a “Frame” to one’s profile picture on Facebook today, or choosing a snapchat filter, assets available to the population of these Metaverses will be created and curated by the powers-that-be. The lack of freedom to express oneself, coupled with the potential to be everywhere and stay nowhere, will result in a network of loosely-knit (read: shallow!) peer-to-peer relationships, wherein the entire population is highly individualistic (read: self-centric!) and lacks a sense of community. Alas, the dopamine rushes that are associated with such a polished and entertainment-driven reality—and, naturally, the user value created by the network effect that we see today—will result in the 2030 Metaverse as the preferred virtual domain, for much of the world’s population.
Signals: (Current technologies) Facebook Horizon · Minecraft · Fortnight · No Man’s Sky
Drivers: The network effect · Technological advancements with respect to immersion (e.g., stand-alone headsets, eye-tracking, increased field of view, controller-free hand tracking, mid-air haptic feedback, 5g Internet, Wi-Fi 6 [802.11ax]) · Cheaper XR applications
Trends: Individually-networked society · Erosion of the nuclear family · Decline of the fashion and cosmetic industries · Morphology shifts in human structure and form
The Digital Well
In the pre-industrial village, the water well was the centre of a community; a place where information was shared and friendships were forged. In this village we were familiar with our neighbours which provided us with local support networks (this is of particular importance to people who might otherwise be isolated, e.g., those with different levels of mobility, etc.). These networks however, were snapped in two, via the onset of industrialization and the automobile industry—the combination of which paved the way (literally) for the urban sprawl that led to suburban bedroom communities. While churches and community centres have continued to be a source of networked support for many, a sense of community also appeared through factories and offices around the water cooler.
In the last thirty years we’ve gone through another major shift in community, one that continues to cause global change today: Networked Individualism. This term was identified by sociologist Barry Wellman, and it “represents the shift of the classical model of social arrangements formed around hierarchical bureaucracies or social groups that are tightly-knit, like households and work groups, to connected individuals, using the means provided by the evolution of Information and communications technology.”1
With the internet came new possibilities for both communication and community, at a truly global scale. We no longer have to chat proximally around the water cooler, but can instead identify our own personal networks via the roar of the internet.
There is already resistance to this latest shift, which we can see today in the form of The Digital Well. We can see these Digital Wells manifested as ad-hoc interventions, anchored geographically throughout our built environments. To name a few: Dead man’s drop, when a USB drive is embedded in a brick wall, allowing for informal local data exchanges, or Bunz Trading Zone, a grassroots group in Toronto that facilitates local barter and trade (and has its own currency). When we bind the digital to the physical, organic local communities can form once again. Local community networks with a digital presence are powerful: Bridgefy connected Hong Kong protestors via a Bluetooth mesh network, allowing them to stay organized and safe.
In 2030, the Digital Well will reign true, serving the same purpose as it’s past versions: to leverage the built environment as a way to organically foster a sense of community between people who may be complete strangers but share common interests, ideologies, etc. In 2030, we will see a continued desire for local community networks, for ties and authenticity outside of the easy personalization that algorithms provide.
The Digital Well will rebirth small protestant churches which have struggled to keep their pews filled, quiet community centres that have been abandoned in favour of their more elaborate virtual counterparts, vacant storefronts, and even empty libraries. Much like today’s social-media averse, the future will be made of individuals who will be increasingly driven by the need to connect locally. This will be driven by various drivers including: the rejection of consumer culture, algorithmic persuasion and in support of political movements. For people who will feel particularly socially-isolated in spaces like the Metaverse (like the elderly or children, their profiles not robust enough to provide true personalization, or differently-abled people, or those on the lower income spectrum), the 2030 Digital Well will offer much-needed community-driven support. The Digital Well will be organic, and freeing: it will be uncensored and open, a world in which people interact outside of any algorithmic curation. People will express themselves, oppose each other, and ultimately learn from new ways of living.
The Digital Well will also be constrained by it’s serendipitous and in some cases ephemeral nature. Without curation and personalization, it will be harder to find compatibility—in work, and in love—and because of this drawback, the population of the Digital Well will be that much lower. As it will be purely community-driven, there will be fewer resources, and so less power, and ultimately less stability. The Well will be raw and dangerous; a world in which parental controls will not (and will never) exist and where lack of censorship and oversight provide opportunities for criminal elements and cyber security threats to exploit.
Signals: Bridgefy · Not Far From The Tree · USB Dead Drops · Kowloon Walled City · Firechat · The Arab Spring Uprising · The Zapitista Movement · Burning man · the Interior Design movement of “Casual Collisions”* · Critical mass cycling demonstrations
Drivers: Authoritarian regimes · Grass roots movements · Protests movements
Trends: The adaptation and exploitation of neutral platforms · Use of local networks as a form of political resistance, Interventions in public space
*Casual collisions: Not always centered around teletechnologies, but a movement towards designing serendipitous moments particularly at tech companies so that employees are forced to interact with one another (e.g., narrower hallways, long lunch tables, open floor offices, switch-floor elevators at Bloomberg and Facebook, tracked lunch lines to maintain length and interactions)
The Glocalized Village
The term glocalized is used to describe products or services that are created on a global scale, but then finessed, and adjusted to be more relevant to consumers of a particular local market. Think McDonalds hamburgers with a drizzle of maple syrup for the Canadian market, salsa verde for the Mexican market, etc. Local stereotypes are played out in an almost obnoxious way, but still: these mass experiences are grounded in a physical and specific environment.
The Glocalized Village occurs when digital experiences that are provided by global social networks become grounded in the physical, built environment. From choosing a kilometer radius on Tinder to scope out new potential partners, to buying and selling from only those in your immediate area on Facebook Marketplace, the 2020 Glocalized Village is a mere shadow of what may come.
In the future, the Glocalized Village will help people to traverse perfectly crafted spaces for them; all that will remain of your city is what is recommended to you, from coffee shops where you’ll undoubtedly run into your favorite friends, from events where you’ll happen to network with just the right person. And, as the Glocalized Village will be made up of a global social network, the algorithmic chances of you running into your favorite friends, and just the right person, are not only high—they’re certain. People will hang out with like; those whom they share cultural-backgrounds, or socio-economic classes with. The 2030 Glocalized Village will “remove” those who aren’t a match with us from our realities entirely (think being blocked on Facebook, but blocked from your vision, or appearing as diminished reality [DR*]). Our individual views of the real world will become personalized, and one person’s experience of it will differ from the next.
This personalization will be both self-curated and algorithmically curated. People will tend to rely on the tech-giants, much like the Metaverse, to curate and target their lives from them; although this time, via physical representations. People will live on pure dopamine highs, constantly, with their perfect lives and the resources to get them there at their fingertips at all times.
The Glocalized Village will be an enticing place for many—save for those on the periphery of the ‘norm’, or who prefer that which is not exactly data-processing-possible. While finding one’s “perfect match” via algorithms can be acceptable for some, others appreciate love is one of the intangibles. There are poetic moments in life that teach us things outside of a taste profile; where our opinions and ideologies are thrown into question and we’re able to stretch as humans. In particular, the aging population will struggle to adapt in the Glocal Village. From dating parameters set against their favour, to less and less frequent recommendations of where to go—and who they “need” to bump into, once retired—the elderly in the 2030 Glocal Village will experience an empty world.
*Diminished Reality or DR: Technology that allows for people to remove or diminish the visibility of people or objects in view
Signals: Pokemon Go, Facebook Marketplace, Nextdoor, Tinder, Google Maps,
Drivers: Response to decentralized community, Network effect driving increased value to social networks and platforms
Trends: Dating app culture, Location based gaming, Local reviews and ratings, Mobile AR gaming
Autonomous Islands are defined today as groups united around a particular inclination or fascination that grows organically, tethered together only by a strings of code. Throughout history, subcultures have grown out of the formal structures that govern our lives. The Darknet is a prime example of this: a parallel network to the Internet used by criminals, journalists and privacy-advocates alike to anonymously communicate with their peers. They are networks within networks. In some cases, employing new encryption technologies like onion networks and blockchain ledgers, in other cases they simply exploit existing social networks privacy settings and use platform features in novel ways. It’s in these spaces where privacy is paramount, identity is fluid, and everything is ephemeral. Signals like today’s Weird Facebook and niche forums transform into an expansive underground network that will arise via the aid of virtual expression.
In 2030, Autonomous Islands will be the evolution of counterculture in all of it’s obscure, offbeat, and unbridled glory. Distinctive cultural groups will grow in response (and retaliation) to the tracked, and censored ways of living. These groups will offer an alternative to the algorithmically optimized and deeply personalized experiences of the 2030 Metaverses, instead offering people the chance to dive deeply to explore different facets of their identity. Rather than algorithmically-charged echo chambers, people in autonomous islands will meet others across a mix of social class and belief systems, however will share commonalities and mutual inclinations towards the niche, the fringe.
While the algorithmically driven global social networks often result in friend networks that are peer-to-peer, and shallow in nature, Autonomous Islands are places where organic, multi-node relationships form between members. Within them, in-groups with cultural bonds are bound together through shared interests, experiences or ideologies.
The 2030 Autonomous Islands will seem inaccessible to some—much like today’s Weird Twitter, where if you don’t get it, you’ll never get it—and will also be seen as a threat to the powers-that-be (any independent group, particularly ones that a prone to “extremist” beliefs, or ones that can be easily monetized and usually are). In the future of these autonomous milieus, aliases will be a must-have in order to evade surveillance and be free to be one’s authentic and unregulated self.
People in the 2030 Autonomous Islands will exploit the virtual environment around them in expressions unparalleled creativity. In comparison to the structured “creative” offerings and scheduled activities of the Metaverse, Autonomous Islands will be uncensored and unconstrained, often leading to a pastiche aesthetic and a wacky sense of absurdism. Uniquely beautiful virtual worlds will be created and sustained by autonomous groups, and within these groups people will form tightly knit relationships based on their interest in the ‘best of’ a particular topic. The sense of community will be strong in the 2030 AUTIS, and because of this, the Autonomous Islands will be the place to be for those who seek genuine, algorithm-free kinship.
Signals: The Dark Net, Weird Facebook, Weird Twitter, Open SIM, Dot Soul, Decentraland
Drivers: Censorship, Cultural hegemony, Postmodernism, Queer Culture
Trends: The implementation of encryption technologies such as blockchain, Co-opting and subversion of popular social media platforms
Our powered-on futures will be group-centric and peer-to-peer, grass roots, and algorithmically optimized, anchored in real space and virtual space, composed of tightly bound communities and global social networks. It will be all of these things, on a sliding scale, much like today. And, no matter what space you’re considering, be in the Metaverses, an Autonomous Island, the Glocalized Village or the Digital Well, our collective XR-riddled futures will each imply dire ethical consequences, by the nature of these technologies extending our realities.
What happens when we can use teletechnologies to pursue information in a completely untethered way? What happens when we can use them to connect boundlessly with those who are just like us – and no longer have to interact with those who aren’t? The Social-Spatial matrix attempts to explore what will happen in these powered-on futures, so we can understand the future before it (virtually) smacks us in the face. Are we building products that will help to support the rigid creativity of the Metaverse? Are we designing to augment the dangerous freedom of AUTIS? Are we building for the curated and personalized experience of the Glocalized Village? Or will our XR products empower the small communities of the Digital Well? The matrix helps us, as product builders, think about the impact that our products will have in the future, and think more consciously about the nature of the products we put out into the world, no matter where they lie on the real to digital spectrum.
Stay tuned for part four of the series, where we use the Social-Spatial Matrix to create design fictions; worlds in which each quadrant will be spelled out in a narrative format so you can more easily examine these future spaces.
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