The promise of the metaverse – or virtual worlds – for Africa

Consider this. I am from Africa, and I want to attend a conference, gain knowledge from peers in an area of my interest. Let’s set aside the massive costs and bureaucracy to get there, for the moment. I get there, and I am completely out of my depth. (I am white and a fluent English speaker with only a slight accent. But this was still a problem for me. So this is a very real example.)

For starters, I can’t understand what people are saying. Their accents are different to what I have learnt to understand from youtube and movies. They speak too fast and I can’t pause the stream, I don’t have subtitles. I don’t have any social context to the diverse group of strangers around me. Social context is the foundational skill I need here. I cannot take in information before I can understand the social context.

I cannot process that information and contextualise it into knowledge, because I am struggling with the social context. I just don’t have the mental resources to do all of this. And I certainly do not have the resources to interpret that knowledge and ask well thought through questions back to the participants. So I do not get value from being here, and I can’t add value, either.

My trip was a waste, and worse, I am thought of as a stupid backward African because I could not participate.

OK, now consider hybrid meetings, a huge improvement already, thanks to the global pandemic. I still miss the social context, and I have no access to hallway tracks – so I am not ready to dive in at an in-person conference. But I can watch the presentation, I can pause, set it on a slower speed, I can watch the subtitles, if it is a good conference, and if it is an excellent conference, like DebConf, I can watch the talks afterwards. I can ask questions in a text pad accompanying the talk. I don’t have to repeat the question because they don’t understand my accent and get a ‘uuuhh…’ non-answer as response. I can get guidance from fellow participants to shape the question, I get feedback and make new connections. While I miss the social context, it is not as critical, and I can gain information, and to an extent, depending on the design of the particular conference, I can contextualise that into knowledge and build on that, slowly but surely. I might stand a better chance if I get to an in-person conference, but it is likely to still be quite overwhelming.

Now consider a virtual meeting. I can wander around and look at what groups of people cluster, and listen to what they chat about, I can get an idea of the clans, the social groupings. I can walk past and get snippets of conversation. I can get an idea of what the hallway track consist of. I can hear people’s voices and take my time understanding the accents. I can see how people behave and what is considered good etiquette. I can get the social context. It’s not the real thing, but once I do get to an in-person gathering, I can hit the ground running. I know how to behave, how to speak to be understood. I can now jump to absorbing information, contextualising that into knowledge and gain insight by asking well-constructed questions.

This is why I am working on the metaverse.

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