#1012: Decentralized Metaverse combining VR + Blockchain: Towards an Economy of the Imagination with Boost VC’s Adam Draper

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Adam Draper is the founder of Boost VC, which a technology accelerator that has funded over 70 VR companies and over 100 crypto companies since 2012. He’s been in a really unique position to understand how blockchain technologies and the more immersive virtual and augmented reality technologies are both approaching an inflection point. But he also sees that these two technologies are on a convergence path towards creating a decentralized metaverse. I had a chance to catch up with Draper to talk about how virtual reality needs to be a foundational aspect of talking about how it enables a more immersive and embodied experience of whatever the metaverse ends up evolving into. We also debate many different deeper philosophical and ethical aspects of the crypto world that I had some personal reservations about.

Draper has been very bullish in investing in VR companies during the most recent winter of VC investments, and he wanted to come onto the Voices of VR podcast to announce to the broader VR community that he wants to hear about whatever outlandish idea you have about what you’d like to build within XR. He’d like to continue to be on the frontiers of funding and supporting the types of projects he refers to as Sci-Fi Technology ideas to really push the limits of what’s possible with immersive technologies.

We also had a lot of discussions and debates about the role of cryptocurrencies, NFTs, and decentralized finance when it comes to the confluence of other exponential technologies including VR, AR, AI, IoT, wearable computing, and the crypto worlds of blockchain, Decentralized Finance (DeFi), and web3. I entered into the conversation with a lot of skepticism of whether the DeFi worlds of cryptocurrencies and traders NFTs were going to disrupt the financial industry that results in a some sort of financial revolution that creates more equitable culture.

There certainly been a lot of hype about the potential of DeFi, but with the ecological impacts of crypto combined with a focus on personal wealth generation through pump-and-dump scams then I haven’t personally been putting a lot of faith that it would somehow shift some of the underlying wealth inequalities of our culture coming purely from a shift towards a more DeFi tech architecture. I do hold the possibility that this tech can help enable a massive shift and create new ways of empowering and sustaining artists working the open web and allow us to escape some of the ills of surveillance capitalism. But at the same time I do believe that it will require some fundamental shifts in consciousness and the underlying worldview that is more aware of the dynamics of relationality and being in right relationship with the Earth and the larger ecosystem of humanity. For more on why ecological thinking and relationality is a big emphasis for me, then be sure to check out my conversation with Alfred North Whitehead scholar and Process Philosopher Matt Segall.

I entered into my conversation with Draper with some skepticism around some of his unbridled hope and optimism for the potential of cyptocurrencies, and I’m leaving with some more hope and optimism but still a lot of skepticism. There’s still a lot of underlying philosophical and ethical challenges that come with what Draper has coined as the “Tragedy of Scale” that has come from social media apps like Facebook and Twitter. But Draper also emphasized that in order to come up with viable alternatives to the giant big tech companies running so much of our lives, that the market incentives that can come from cryptocurrencies will potentially enable a type of collective action that unlocks whole new realms of opportunities and options that were never there before.

One of the points that Draper made was that we’re still in a transitional skeuomorphic phase of cryptocurrency where folks like Decentraland are selling virtual plots of land. He says that the intent of this is to teach people what it means to have ownership of digital objects that are leveraging the embodied metaphors of owning actual land, but then expanding into new realms of possibilities for digital ownership that transcend the limitations of space in the virtual realm.

After attending the Internet Archive’s Decentralized Web Summit 2018 and Decentralized Camp 2019, then I found a lot of potential for creating alternative infrastructure for what’s generally referred to as web3 that according to Nadar Dabit has the following characteristics: Verifiable, Trustless, Self-governing, Permissionless, Distributed and robust, Stateful, and has Native built-in payments. The Internet Archive’s Brewster Kahle told me at DWeb Summit 2018 that they had launched a part of their website onto a decentralized web infrastructure in order to fight governmental censorship in specific countries.

But even though there’s always been a lot of hope and optimism for these decentralized architectures, one of the inventors of the Internet Vint Cerf told me at the DWeb Summit 2018 that he’s a lot more skeptical that a decentralized version of the web could reach the scale of a service like Google in a way that’s both economically sustainable, reliant, and performant. The economies of scale of centralized systems are just way too efficient, fast, reliable, and affordable to catalyze moving to a decentralized architecture that’s still technologically immature, slower, more unreliable, and a lot more expensive. It takes a lot of passion, dreaming, and vision to commit to building out alternative architectures since it’s not very practical or pragmatic by any other measure other than the more resilience and freedom in oppressed societies with lots of state-backed censorship.

One of the things Draper told me that it could be that one of the missing pieces is having a viable cryptocurrency market and ecosystem that can invest and creative viable incentives for people to do some of the foundational hard work to make the full potential and vision of web3 a reality. So while folks may look at NFTs as a toy today, Draper argues that it’s building up a type of knowledge and networked capacity to be able to leverage in the future.

In order to really tap into the full potential of our decentralized future, Draper pointed out how we needed a company like Coinbase to be steadfast enough to create a bridge for ordinary consumers to be able to get onboarded into the realm of cryptocurrency. Once there’s a critical mass of people, then new affordances are made possible.

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One of the conceptual frames that came up again and again at the Decentralized Web Summit 2018 was Lawrence Lessig’s “Pathetic Dot Theory.” It’s a terrible name in my opinion as it’s more of a techno-economic theory of socio-political control where any sufficiently difficult collective problem is some combination of cultural norms, laws, market dynamics, and the underlying architecture of technology and it’s code. Here’s my interview with the Internet Archive’s Wendy Hanamura, who describes how she used Lessig’s theory to curate and program the Decentralized Web Summit 2018.

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In the photo above, I like to re-imagine Lessig’s theory as more of a set of mereologically nested contexts where at the highest level is the culture, which drives the governance and laws, which in turn governs the market dynamics, which then allows underlying tech architecture to code to help. This emphasizes the fact that culture will ultimately drive the laws, market dynamics, and whatever technology can exist within the bounds of that culture. It’s may be tempting to take a technological determinist approach in believing that a change in underlying technology will automatically yield entirely new cultures. While it’s true that there are feedback loops up and down the levels of nested contexts, at the end of the day the types of futures that we create will come down to the need to have more fundamental shifts in consciousness and our worldviews to be more in right relationship to other people and the world around us.

What cryptocurrencies and DeFi enables an underlying tech infrastructure that enables new levels of trust enabling people to exchange value. Or the way that Draper says it, “Web3 replaces third party trust with mathematical proof and verifies that things happened.” By enabling new underlying technological foundations for creating anonymous identities, brands, and businesses without having to rely upon state-sanctioned modes of identity means that we’re moving into a world where 1000 Satoshi Nakamotos can bloom, as Draper phrased it.

When all of these decentralized technologies of the blockchain, web3, and DeFi aspects of cryptocurrencies and NFTs are combined with virtual reality, WebXR, and the infrastructure of the Internet and the open web, then it’s leading towards an interoperable future of what many refer to as the Metaverse. Draper’s argument is that you really need all of these DeFi parts of the blockchain in order to create the right incentive structures and fund and sustain whatever the metaverse evolves into.

Talking to Draper emphasized to me that we shouldn’t come up with value judgments about a technology in the absence of looking at the broader culture of people who are using it. Draper addressed some of my skepticism and cynicism around some the more noisy, scam-riddled, multi-level marketing, and pyramid scheme machinations of crypto traders trying to make a fast buck. He’s personally differentiating himself from that culture into one that is investing in a vision of the future that is empowering people with more freedom of expression and sovereignty.

But yet for me, there’s still a ton of open questions around ecological sustainability, and how to deal with other ethical and moral aspects of our networked reality including money laundering, child pornography, spam, human trafficking, disinformation, piracy, terrorism, online harassment and bullying, hate speech & dangerous speech leading to incitements of violence and genocide, human rights violations, and all sorts of other things that have been enabled on unmoderated and unfiltered networks on the web. These are all open questions and challenges that have yet to be fully figured out on the centralized web, and many of these issues are arguably even more difficult to solve technologically on the Decentralized Web and web3 tech stack. Many of these were also points of discussion at the Decentralized Web Summit 2018 and Camp in 2019.

But that all said, we’re still at a very early transitional skeuomorphic phase of technology development both with crypto and XR porting over applications and functionality that exists in previous centralized and 2D contexts and ported them over into decentralized and immersive contexts. And if we really are going to fully live into Draper’s ultimate potential of an economy that’s based more on imagination, then there’s still many of ecological, technological, economic, legal, sociological, and political hurdles that still need to be figured out so that it’s a technology that’s not only in right relationship to the world around us, but also to each other.

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Music: Fatality