Diversity in the Metaverse
Karen Baker, thought leader on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Founder and President, Boathouse Group, Inc, joins Patrick Cozzi (Cesium) and Marc Petit (Epic Games) to discuss design justice principles in the Metaverse.
Today on Building the Open Metaverse
I love innovation and new technology coming about. As designers, we just hold a lot of power, and so if we start to be more conscious of the things that we design, then I think we can lead this a little better.
Welcome to Building the Open Metaverse, where technology experts discuss how the community is building the open metaverse together. Hosted by Patrick Cozzi of Cesium and Marc Petit from Epic Games.
My name is Marc Petit. I’m from Epic Games, and my co-host is Patrick Cozzi from Cesium. Hi, Patrick. How are you today?
Hi, Marc. I'm doing well. Actually was in Las Vegas last week at the CES conference, talking to a lot of folks about the metaverse. It made me very happy because a big theme was folks talking about the ecosystem, and us all working together, us all doing integration, and creating a big ecosystem for the benefit of everybody. And as usual, very excited for our episode today.
Today we're going to talk about the metaverse, it’s called the open metaverse, but we're going to talk about an aspect that is interesting. It's design. It's very early days for the metaverse and those experiences; I think it's important to start having discussions on how diversity and inclusion can impact the design right now.
So, we're super excited to welcome Karen Baker to our show. Karen is a thought leader on how tech professionals can implement experience equitably in the metaverse. Karen, it's great to have you. Welcome to the show.
Thanks for having me, Marc and Patrick. Glad to be here.
We love to start off each episode asking our guests about their journey. In particular, we'd love to hear about your journey, your work with diversity, equity, and inclusion, especially in how that's working with the metaverse right now.
It's interesting. Even when I thought about this, I was like, sometimes you wonder how you got to a certain place within your journey, and it brought me back. When I was 19 years old at Howard University, I interned with a bunch of civil rights attorneys who later went on to be federal judges. And it made me think about, that's what was the foundation of me working in diversity, equity, and inclusion. I was with them for two years being trained, looking at discrimination and fair employment practices in the workplace. We were very focused here in the nation's capital.
Fast forward, I came back into that place again around 2020 when I went to get a Master's in Social Practice with a focus in public policy. And at that time too, it was like, "Why is this work coming back to me?" It wasn't just what was happening in 2020, it was just something that kept calling me to be back into looking at diversity, equity, and inclusion. So, it's led me to now and this conversation.
So you founded your own company?
Yeah, I did. Well, I founded my own company. I had my own company for 27 years, and I found in probably the last 10 years of my company I was doing a lot of social impact work, dealing with organizations that were focused on various communities, from small businesses to the Black and brown community to Indigenous communities and how they were impacting them with their dollars, with their work, with their mission and their vision.
And so, a lot of that, again, if you work in that space, your mind starts to shift. How you move starts to shift. And I think that's what started to happen to me definitely later in my career. Like I said, it was like a 360 of revisiting a time when I was 19 years old where I was trained by what I see as the best in the legal system around this particular subject matter.
Karen, before we talk about your article on the metaverse, you mentioned design justice. Can you explain to us and to our audience, what is design justice?
Design justice goes back to how I got to the metaverse. There was an article that came out by a candidate, she's a PhD candidate at University of Illinois, and she wrote an op-ed that I'm a Black woman and the metaverse scares me. And I was like, "Why is it scaring her?" I wanted to know more, so I read the article, and it was very insightful. She's studying race and technology under her PhD, and she mentioned design justice. I was like, in all my years in design thinking, I think this is the first time that I've heard the term design justice.
So I went looking it up, found this website, and I was like, "Okay, this is actually a practice. This is an approach that a group in pedagogy as well as those in the workplace, corporate workplace, are looking to use this practice, taking design and social justice and combining them together." They started around 2015 actually formulating what design justice could be. 2020, sped it up, created the Design Justice Network, which I'm a member of.
The purpose of design justice is really looking at marginalized communities having a seat at the table in design, not coming to them after you've designed it, but letting them have full practice, purpose, understanding, and driving what you design from that lens.
This is fascinating. I mean, you wrote an article back ... I think it was September, 2022, in the Harvard Business Review, called Designing an Inclusive Metaverse. I think it was a very impactful article, and I'm going to quote one of the sentences. I think it's very interesting to set the landscape is, you wrote, "One particular promise of the metaverse is that it offers an opportunity to remedy some of the mistakes of Web 2.0".
I'm going to stop the quote there because that's one thing we are very convinced and very motivated by is that new platform, new technology is an opportunity and, I think, remedy some of the mistakes and perfect expression. And I'll finish the quote, "In particular, the failure of social media platforms to safeguard and protect marginalized and underrepresented people from hateful behavior online."
I think that's such an important aspect of the metaverse.
Yeah, and I think even with the article about it, the article “I’m a Black woman and it scares me,” was her point. Am I going to be experiencing the same things that we were definitely experiencing between 2020 and 2022?
What I will applaud is the World Economic Forum has already brought together multiple large brands in order to discuss the governance of the metaverse as it impacts diversity and inclusion. That's specifically what it's about.
I do applaud the early beginnings of wanting to have the conversation instead of waiting until we're years and decades in, to be at such a height where you can't control it, and then wanting to then have a conversation where people don't want to listen to what you have to say.
So, my hope is that conversations like this one can spark people to say, "Let's talk early about why people would be afraid, what would make them not want to be part of it, or just to not leave them out of the conversation that this is actually happening." That's something that I really hope will be better with Web 3.0 and the metaverse.
Many people in our audience are actually involved in making technology and design decisions in building the metaverse. What kind of ideas would you give them to actually start building the principles of design justice into their work and their practice?
I think that the first start is listening, being able to understand what exactly is missing. It's then also having a seat at the table when we talk about marginalized and underrepresented communities within the developer and creator world of technology. Even just design, period, but specifically that. Who's at the table? Who's there able to add to the conversation? Particularly we all know that when people talk about innovation, the diversity of thought, diversity of experience and lived experience brings about innovation. So, being able to have that seat at the table is one.
I think, then, the other is listening, which requires empathy. You have to be willing to tune in to someone else's experiences and be able to adapt that in some particular way.
The judgment is going to have to leave the room. Now, that may be difficult for people, but that's a great way to bring a facilitator, someone who understands how to do so. And then the other thing is being able to look at other models, I think, that have started it or done it well and what it means, I think, the basis of what social justice actually does and what it is about, in order to bring that level of design justice into the conversation.
This notion of the judgment needs to leave the room. This is hard because some of the biases are so deeply ingrained-
Yes, they are, Marc.
... into our culture or into our behaviors. I got the privilege of taking some training, and I was shocked about how much I needed those trainings and this guidance.
Yeah. Well, it's interesting, because even the company that I'm with, we've embarked on ... we had training before and we're continuing the training. I mean, we made a decision that we didn't want to check the box. As a marketing company who uses AI tools, we're like, "We can't do that." And I'm big on, I'm not going to be called out for talking about something and internally not doing it myself.
The thing about it is that when you talk about equity versus being equal and people really understanding what that means, you're going to need someone else in the conversation with you, because just like you said, regardless of culture and ethnicity, everybody brings something to the table with even their own culture of not even understanding things that are going on.
You're going to need that guidance and being able to say, "We really want to have a diverse population of thought and skill and experience in what we design and we develop."
One area of DEI I want to talk a little bit about is access, and some of these are talked about a lot. Maybe some of these are not covered as much, but actually, wanted to start on access with respect to pricing. I mean, do you see pricing as a barrier to entry for the metaverse?
Yeah, it's interesting, because the conversations around pricing and accessibility have really come around affordability, Patrick.
Right now, people have access to the internet. They have access to being able to get on some level of Wi-Fi. As you all know more than I would know, that how high speed it is, is important for being part of the metaverse. And so, right now what has been the topic of conversation is the affordability of internet access for particularly communities of color being able to get onto the metaverse.
They are actually not able to pay for the internet in order to be able to access the information and technology that is advancing before their eyes. That's the thing that has to be weighed into accessibility is affordability.
I guess this poses the problem of devices. I mean, specific immersive devices tend to be very expensive.
How important is the mobile platform? You think mobile has reached that level where it's accessible, just from a price perspective?
I think that's probably the area that's better. I mean, if you look at any data, you'll see that if you even talk about again, communities of color, they more likely have the mobile, and less likely to have the internet connection within their home. So, I think that that is something that allows even more accessibility than you talk about a desktop computer sitting within communities of color's homes and being able to do that.
I mean, it came out a lot during the pandemic when it was assumed that when we turn around and had to all go inside that everyone was going to be able to have access to the internet, and they were not. I think that the mobile advances a little, it gives more accessibility, but it still has the call to being in places where towers are not as accessible, everything goes down where you're going to need Wi-Fi in order for your phone to function more. Those things still have to be thought through.
What about folks that are potentially disabled? Do you think that we're doing a good job designing for them?
That seems to be coming about a lot sooner.
I sat in on a group that was talking about the metaverse and quite a few people within the room would be considered disabled persons, and they were noting that there were more things coming that were allowing them to participate in regards to the height of how things were so that they could be able to do that. The adjusting of the body wear was actually changing as well, too.
There were quite a few people on this call that were saying that there's improvements being made so that they, again, didn't feel like they weren't being included in the conversation when you talk about diversity and accessibility and inclusion. Even integration, being integrated into the thought of how the metaverse is actually designed. So yeah, there's a lot of different improvements that are coming and things that will be accessible from a technology standpoint.
Karen, it's great the topics we covered so far on access. Is there anything else you want to talk about with respect to access?
Overall, what is required is really active listening, and I mentioned this before.
I think for me even being in this space, I'm sitting within spaces so that I can hear the conversation of those who are using the metaverse, and those who are intrigued by it, those who know nothing about it, to hear where the gaps are, where people feel that they don't have the information, so that we can have the conversation about accessibility. So those who have the opportunity to drive the change, be the disruptor, create inclusion and design or do good design, can actually be able to do that.
I think that's the big thing again about accessibility. I'm not a believer of designing in the silos, just feeling “I know this is what people want and need, and I'm sure that when I put it out it's going to be great.” I think that has to be something that people have to rethink, and as a designer, I think designers just hold a lot of power.
There's another interesting aspect. I mean, the metaverse is very experiential, ultimately likely very immersive. It's this idea of designing to create that sense of belonging, because you're going to be putting yourself in a world.
How do we ensure that the designs that we put out, the actions that we put out, actually create that sense of belonging for everybody even though people have different needs and different yardsticks?
Yeah, that's a great question, Marc.
For me, this is where design thinking can come into the conversation because part of that design thinking, and I've been trained and that's what one of my master's degrees is in, is that you spend the time in observation and conversation with the community that you're designing for.
So, if we talk about ethnography, this is the time in which you're in the field, listening, probing, creating frameworks. This gives you the opportunity to talk about and design a lived experience so that you can come into an immersive space and really look and say, "Oh, they listened. This, I'm familiar with. This, I know. This feels like I belong here." Because we talked about that a little bit too, Marc, the whole thing of belonging.
In order for you to celebrate me, you have to know me. I think that's the important thing is understanding design from different methodologies that are going to give you the ability to design better. I think that's one principle; a practice that comes in is design thinking, and that's one that I use quite often.
There are a few themes there, be at the table, active listening, design thinking. Is that really as simple as that, just to be very curious and engage a wide variety of stakeholders at the design phase?
No, it's not just as simple as that. It's a good point, because I think again, the first thing is people got to be open. They got to be ready to say, "We are ready to make a difference and make a change." Because everybody can be listening to the conversation we're having right now and say, "That's too much work." Right? You really have to be willing to do the work.
I think in any DEI conversation, any industry, you're going to have to be willing to do the work, and it's ongoing work, because as you start to grow, more cultures come in, more people's lived experiences come in, you create a company or an opportunity, a product or a service that is more global, then you’ve got more that you have to learn.
I think it's a continuous process, but I think the first thing is you’ve got to be open. You’ve got to be willing to say, "Okay, we're ready to embark on this journey and be able to do the work in order to embark on this journey." I can't say that everybody is, but I think that that's what is going to be required.
Otherwise, you're going to shut down because it's an extensive process. It's not, we get up, try these five things, okay, it didn't work, and so we move on. It's an extensive process and it's going to be trial and error too.
I wanted to ask you about another big topic around safety. You mentioned in your article, and maybe Web 2 didn't meet that as much as we'd like to. Are there any lessons learned there that we can apply to the metaverse?
I think that the governance is going to be big. It's something to allow people to feel that they're going into a space that there's some type of safety. I know people initially think governance and they think, "Oh, Lord, some policing type of situation where we can't be creative." That's not what we're saying. But if anybody took the time to pay attention to the way that ... Let's just talk about social media performed between 2020 and 2022, you know that there's some type of safety and privacy that needs to be put in place.
We even know within late '22 with the change of guard at Twitter what happened very quickly. I mean, it took an hour and the changes that went about, and I know particularly the African American community was livid with some of the things that were taking place on that platform.
It's like if you don't do it, then there's no way that you can expect human behavior to turn around and not do what it's already done.
So, there has to be some level of safety that people feel in taking place, because otherwise it's going to be a place where people say, "I'm just not going to take part." It's not going to be about cost and pricing. It's going to be about, it's not a place that I feel good, that I feel safe in this space, that I feel that I'm represented in this space. I feel like I belong in this space.
Part of safety is moderation, and it's a really complex topic, because think about a platform like Roblox. It's 250 million MAUs, I mean, monthly active users. It's actually unthinkable to be able to police.
We had some conversation on this podcast where there are a couple of avenues. One avenue is empowering the community with tools so that there is a level ... Just like we try to be civil in real life, how do we rebuild that sense of civility and create the tools on the online platform? That's one avenue.
The other avenue is AI, and I wonder if you have opinions on either of those avenues to try to help with moderation and get this very, very complex issue under control.
Yeah, you're right. I mean, I just really think the effort has to be there so that people feel that there's some effort being put in, that it's just like, this is what it's going to be and you all have to deal with it in that way.
I do agree AI, and being in the space of AI in the last year, I know we've made a conscious decision at Boathouse to be aware of the safety and privacy, even just from the clients that we have, and how we use AI in that way. So, I think that from what I know, AI is a great way to do it.
I think the other one is just giving people some level of comfort in what you provide so that they'll stay on the platform, they'll try the platforms. Because I love innovation and new technology coming about. For me, it's not like, "Oh no, let's not do it." Absolutely, let's try it. And I think again, as designers, we just hold a lot of power, and creators. And so if we start to be more conscious of the things that we design, then I think we can lead this a little better.
Talking about AI, one of the common issues is that it's easy to carry or increase the bias that we have in real life in AI because of what we use to train those AI. Is that a topic that you have been led to think about to work on?
No, and it's a good point to put in my head, thank you, Marc, to really start to think about that space as well too, to see where it goes.
Because I remember when I was first coming to Boathouse, a friend of mine, he was like, "I was just not comfortable when I heard that you were going into a space of AI." And I was like, "Why?" He said, "I just didn't want to know whether you were going to have to experience or deal with the whole bias and belonging and diversity and whether it was a safe space for you to have to keep challenging in that way." Which was interesting for him to come to me to say he was more afraid for me to actually delve into the AI technology.
It's something that I've slowly gotten into. I think more than anything, like I said, the way we use it has been less of that. We've only gotten recently into the scanning and looking at it from a marketing advertising standpoint, and we are really in a beta form of it all. So, that is still very new to me.
When you think about the work you do with clients, is there a thing that stands out in your mind as being a widely interesting or widely successful endeavor? If you can talk about this, of course.
Few clients are really asking us, let me say that. They are more fascinated when we bring the conversation of anything of AI to the table, and what can it do?
I think some people get overwhelmed by the fact that, are you bringing them more data that they're going to have to be focused on, and is that how you're going to start to drive the conversation about what you asked them to do strategically? And so, there's some hesitance with some.
I have found thus far we have to take baby steps with someone of introducing a little bit of the show and tell of what it looks like and what it can do, and asking them, "Can we try it out?" really, like I said, in a beta form to be able to discover what this tool can bring to them in the most positive way.
I've found that some people are kind of inching along. I don't want to be submerged in more data and be driven by a technology telling me what to do. So, that is some of the feedback that you do hear as well too. Then others are excited because it's all flashy and new, so they're like, "Okay, I've never seen this before and I actually got information that I couldn't get otherwise," and they want more.
Karen, we covered a lot of important topics today, and you're so inspiring and so articulate. Is there anything that we didn't cover that you want to talk about?
That's a good question. I think the biggest thing, I think going back a little bit to design justice, because I think I didn't mention it, is that within a design justice approach and practice, there are 10 principles there that people can go and look at and understand, what is the purpose and why it came about.
The other thing is that it also creates, they call them e-zines, to allow you to understand how to apply them.
It goes back to what we were talking about before, even with the design justice and moving into the workplace. You need to know how to use it, because you can read the 10 principles all day every day and know them by heart, but how do you actually move that into the workplace? How do we move that into technology? How do we move that even into higher education as a conversation around curricula?
They have really done a good job of saying, "This is our examples of real-time practice and how you can actually apply it," depending upon the industry that you have as well.
One of the principles applied to digital transformation, which I use quite a bit, and how you go into a space and actually try to apply digital transformation from a design justice standpoint, which is some of what we are talking about as well too.
I think the tools are there, is my point. To allow people, I think that you just have to be willing to say, "I'm going to reach out and figure out what this is, and how do I apply this into my workplace and make sure that we can actually do better?" Whichever goal or objective that you have at that time.
Karen, we love to wrap up the podcast by asking if you want to give a shout-out to an individual or an organization.
Well, first, let me give a shout-out to my son, because when he found out that anyone on this call worked with Epic Games, he just lost it. "What are they like? What are they doing?" He was so excited because he is a gamer, so that is the first shout-out as well.
The other shout-out really is to Boathouse, because these opportunities to be able to just move through this space and be who I am and talk about this subject matter freely, it can be unusual for most. You don't always work in a space that you're able to actually do that.
Then I think the Design Justice Network for providing this type of approach and practice that did not exist before in design, and actually allow people to push forward in their thinking, and then give those who've already been doing social impact work or design the opportunity to have a support system in a community that they can build with. So yeah, that's my shout-outs.
Well, thank you, and I'll remind everybody about your Harvard Business Review article, Designing an Inclusive Metaverse. I think it's a very, as I said, impactful and important one. I think the one thing I wrote down when I read this article was "Assess the Diversity at your Table."
I don't think a bunch of white guys can figure it out on their own and I think it's something that we tend to forget, and I think it's a very good starting point.
Karen Baker, you are the president of Boathouse over there in D.C. It was a pleasure to have you today and to talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion, and to talk about the metaverse.
Thank you very much.
No, thank you, Marc and Patrick, this is amazing. Thank you.
And thank you to our audiences. Thank you to everybody who listens to us. We love to hear your feedback, so don't hesitate. Hit us on social. Let us know what you think. Let us know what you want us to talk about, and we'll see you for the next episode.