#690: Survey of Harassment in VR: Cultural Dynamics vs Tech Solutions

jessica-outlawOn April 4th, Jessica Outlaw released a survey of 600 regular virtual reality users about harassment experiences in VR, which was funded by Pluto VR.

I had a discussion with Outlaw and Lola MacIsaac on the day that this survey was released talking about the results. We explored the limitations of purely technological solutions, the tensions between idealized, long-term solutions at global scale versus more pragmatic, short-term solutions on a local scale, centralized solutions versus decentralized solutions, explicit technological architectures versus implicit cultural norms, and whether or not virtual reality could be a testing ground for emerging restorative justice or truth and reconciliation models.


My thinking on this issue has evolved quite a bit since I had this conversation with Outlaw and MacIsaac. At the time of this conversation I was primarily focused on the global and idealized long-term solutions thinking about the scale of billions of users, then how would blocking work over a time scale of thirty years where VR/AR realities start to blur into “real” realities.

The Cleaners documentary shows the behind-the-scenes process of how social networks outsource content moderation in order to enforce the terms of service, and it featured many political artists and activists who had been censored for violating the terms of service. Facebook doesn’t have much due process in their bans without much transparency for the reasons and no appeals process.

The mechanism of blocking or banning people can serve a short-term function of creating a better user experience, but once a communication network reaches the scale of Facebook with billions of users then bans start to take on a more charged political context within a media ecosystem that’s being monopolized by a handful of centralized companies. In this context, then restorative justice and truth & reconciliation models start to address some of these issues that come up at the scale of fostering global societies over long periods of time.

lola-macisaacBut MacIsaac was voicing the more pragmatic, short-term realities of tools and solutions that need to be available for the level of harassment that’s already happening now. Online harassment isn’t a philosophical issue, but a real reality that needs pragmatic solutions for helping protect users from abusive and sociopathic users.

This is what makes Outlaw’s survey so relevant is that she documents anecdotes of harassment that are already happening online today. She found that 49% of females and 36% of males reported that they’ve experienced some form of sexual harassment within VR.

The reality is that the sociopathic behavior of online trolls is often beyond the capacity of what an anonymous restorative justice could currently handle, and that exiling abusive bad actors through bans and blocking is the best course of action. I don’t articulate this perspective in the context of this discussion from April, and I really appreciate MacIsaac for voicing this perspective.

Also at the time of this conversation, I was really focused on the limits of technological architectures for solving problems of cultural and human dynamics. There was a lot of talk about purely technological fixes to harassment and abuse, and I saw that any purely technological approach was going to be limited. I’ve since interviewed Wendy Hamamura, who cited Lawrence Lessig’s four regulators to society as being technology, culture, markets, and law.

Now I believe that any solution needs to have some combination of technological, cultural, economic, and legal elements in order to create a holistic solutions to the issues of online harassment. Purely technological solutions may solve some of the symptoms of online harassment and abuse, but they won’t get to the core of the problem. There has to be interpersonal and cultural solutions as well, and in this interview Outlaw cites The Elements of Culture, which lists many different aspects that make up a vibrant community culture including:

  • Artifacts
  • Stories, histories, myths, legends, jokes
  • Rituals, rites, ceremonies, celebrations
  • Heroes
  • Symbols and symbolic action
  • Beliefs, assumptions and mental models
  • Attitudes
  • Rules, norms, ethical codes, values

Outlaw collaborated with a sociologist in her research who pointed out that successful communities will start to naturally produce these elements of culture, which creates a set of cultural norms and taboos that educates and informs new community members about the implicit rules and the code of conduct for that community.

Outlaw advocates for social VR companies to think about how to cultivate some of these cultural elements that implicitly reinforces a culture against harassment. It’s not possible to technologically implement a culture, and so this is a hard problem to figure out how to cultivate these cultural behaviors within a community through the individual actions and behaviors of members.

Should social VR spaces need to have explicit orientations or initiations similar to how college universities will provide introductory tours for new students? What are the best practices for cultivating a culture? These are some of the open questions that I hope to explore more for either what’s already happening in social VR spaces, or what sociologists suggest as some of the best practices for cultivating vibrant virtual cultures.

From a legal perspective, many social VR spaces have explicit codes of conduct, but they still need to be either implicitly enforced by the community or explicitly through roaming content moderators. The problem of harassment requires these types of emergent rules and local legal standards that are either codified within the technological architecture or enforced by the community.

The problem of bullying and harassment is also a human problem where technology reflects and amplifies what is already happening in the dominant culture, and so it’s not reasonable to expect that there will be a purely technological solution. Any viable solution needs to take a holistic approach of finding the right combination of technological, cultural, legal, and economic dimensions.

This conversation with Outlaw and MacIsaac explores some of the complicated dynamics that are involved in the issue of online harassment, but we certainly doesn’t result in any silver bullet solutions. Upon listening to this conversation again, I’m humbled by how much that we actually don’t know how to fix and address the issue. Outlaw’s VR Harassment survey is a good first step that outlines what’s happening today, and there are many vibrant social VR communities who are experimenting with a variety of different approaches to the problem. I’ll be attending Oculus Connect 5, and I’m looking forward to continuing this conversation there.

This is a listener-supported podcast through the Voices of VR Patreon.

Music: Fatality

Support Voices of VR

Music: Fatality & Summer Trip

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR podcast. So on April 4th, 2018, Jessica Outlaw, an independent researcher, collaborated with PlutoVR to do this research study into virtual harassment, a social experience of 600 plus regular VR users. So she did this survey where she talked to about 70% of them were males, 27% of them are females, with about 3% being gender variant. So what she found was that there was this prevalence of harassment, including 36% of the males and 49% of the females experiencing some degree of sexual harassment, 18% of the males, 11% of the females experiencing some sort of violent comments or threats, 28% of the males, 17% of the females experiencing different levels of homophobic or racist comments within virtual reality experiences. She has lots of different quotes and examples and anecdotes from all these different people and it's kind of the first quantitative and qualitative study looking at harassment in virtual environments. So actually on the day that it was released I sent out a tweet and there was a discussion that had a lot of different people from different social VR companies that were trying to brainstorm and talk about different engineering and architectural solutions to be able to solve some of the issues of harassment. And what ended up happening is I had this woman reach out to me, Lola McIsaac, and we ended up in a conversation with each other, but also pulled in Jessica Outlaw, the creator of this research paper, and we had this wide-ranging discussion about harassment in virtual reality. Now, upon listening to this, I can say that my thoughts and views on this topic have evolved quite a bit from the time that I had this conversation. And one thing that I will say is that in this conversation, I was taking a very sort of idealized approach of looking at the global large-scale solutions. and that there's a very grounded, pragmatic, small-scale, like, what is the reality right now? And I think that is what a lot of what both Lola and Jessica were trying to bring down, which is like, here's what's happening on the ground right now, what do we actually do with it? I think part of my perspective at that time that I had this conversation was really looking at, you know, how does this stuff really scale out to the entire world? We have Facebook that has over two billion users, and so, their terms of service are in some ways serving as this governmental system by which there's not a lot of due process, not a lot of accountability for people who may be on the other side of, you know, getting banned from these systems. I'm thinking particularly of a documentary called The Cleaners, which really goes into, like, people who are artists and who have had their free speech suppressed because they violated the terms of service. And these terms of service can be qualitatively and subjectively interpreted and they were trying to be provocative in some of their political statements and they were essentially being censored. And since then I've talked to different people like from the ACLU talking about like how the big issue is that what we really need is a plurality of all of these different companies that have many different systems and that we can't just have like one or two companies that are basically controlling everything because when you have that then you have this kind of monopoly power and the downfalls of the centralization then put you into the situation where there's these larger issues of being banned and extricated from these networks. It's kind of like having a part of your life be exiled from something that, as virtual reality and real reality start to blend together, what are the implications of running society when you have exiled people who aren't able to participate in that? So I was really thinking about like these ideas and concepts of restorative justice at the scale of Facebook and at the scale of what happens to these systems, not only in the short term, but how do you sort of update and maintain these systems over the next 50 years? Now, that's like one perspective. Now, the other completely valid perspective that upon listening to this conversation that I had back in April, I think Lola and Jessica were trying to also think about like, what are the ways that we can actually find ways to protect the people who are facing these different levels of abuse? And I think, you know, that's a real issue. And there are people who are going to be sociopathic, who have no empathy, and are going to be just this vicious online trolls that actually need to be exiled, and that there may not be a way to sort of, you know, reintegrate these people into these groups, and that they actually need to be extricated from their participation. Now, the question is, you know, what is the process by which, you know, they are recovering and coming back from that exile? What does that truth and reconciliation processes look like? I think at a cultural level, these are different questions that we are trying to figure out. But in some ways, these online spaces and virtual reality give us the opportunity to be able to kind of prototype some of these different systems. And so how do we actually handle that? The other thing that I'll just say before diving in is that I've had a lot of conversations talking about the interplay between technology, culture, laws, and markets. And so there are going to be the different rules that are essentially the laws of the land that are implemented into the architecture of the code. And that there are going to be ways that you can do this combination of technologically mediated rules that are implemented within these environments. But that at some point, I think the part that I was really trying to bring forth in this conversation here is that the technology and those rules are only going to take you so far. But at the end of the day, a culture is generated from a collection of individuals. a big open question for startups, for small communities, for anybody that is having a culture of people around them is how do you cultivate that culture? How do you generate it? How do you actually take something that is something at a collective scale and implement it at an individual scale so that you have these cultural aspects of a society that are also trying to mediate these different interactions online and with each other. And I think that's a really hard problem, but it's something that Jessica Outlaw had been collaborating with different sociologists, and she really brings in that perspective as well. So with all that, this conversation happened on April 4th, 2018, and it was with Lola McIsaac, as well as with Jessica Outlaw. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:06:11.729] Lola MacIsaac: A really exciting thing happened today, I think. I know a little bit about your study. I don't know what Kent knows, but I know that you've done your qualitative research and this is your move into quantitative research. Very sensibly, you picked only the people who can interact with BR, so there were necessary variables that you had to scratch, but that's all right. You got what I think is the only user experience survey on harassment in a kind of controlled environment?

[00:06:49.284] Jessica Outlaw: Yeah, I mean I think admittedly like one of the limitations of the study is that it's a lot of industry insiders who I recruited via social media. There's a huge opportunity if somebody wants to build a list of like Rift owners and Vive owners and PSVR owners, to be able to, like, send studies to those people. I mean, I think I would have paid to have access to that at some point, because recruitment was one of the hardest things about running this study, to be honest. It was really hard to find 600 people who actually met my criteria. If you wanted to do research among people who owned coffee machines, you can go out and buy access to those types of people. You can say, I want people who own Mr. Coffee coffee machines. I want them to be like, in this demographic, I want them to live in this state. So there's just no segmentation like that available. And so I did look into trying to buy access to consumers, but it just doesn't exist. There's no such lists of like Rift owners or Vive owners that research companies own right now. But, you know, that's how I got to 600. I tried to actually get to a thousand, but that just did not happen.

[00:08:06.018] Lola MacIsaac: I think it's a pretty good turnout and Kent retweeted the study and got a little discussion going on his Twitter.

[00:08:17.625] Kent Bye: Yeah, thanks, Kent. Yeah, I think it was a lot of interesting points. And, you know, I think that for me, I think that there's this interesting combination of a technology and culture and that, you know, not one of the other is going to be a full solution, but it's going to have to be some combination of cultural evolution along with technological implementation. But that one or the other isn't enough. I think you need some combination of both. So. But also this mix between public and private, I think is the other conclusion that I got from that, which is the, you know, I don't know if it was necessarily reflected in the, in the study, but that there's a difference between a public context and like, you know, walking down the street versus a private context where you have your friends. And I think that's the other antidote is that you just have people who are inviting people in their private spaces. and you have friend networks and then you basically use social networks to be able to have the equivalent of what we have now, which is people that are hanging out at home with their peer groups and safe private spaces versus going to go hang out and bump into random people in public where you have more serendipity, but more risk when it comes to the types of interactions that you're going to have.

[00:09:29.395] Jessica Outlaw: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, I think something that's really coming up for me is like, you know, what would I do if I was like the CEO of a large social VR platform looking at all these results? And I think the number one thing that I would, I mean, well, it's hard to say what the number one thing is, but I mean, the things about privacy are pretty obvious. But I think what's less obvious is like, how do you encourage people to make friends with one another? And I think that's not the emphasis in any of the large social VR platforms that I can think about.

[00:10:03.999] Kent Bye: Yeah, I tend to think of this on two spectrum. The one extreme spectrum is the open web, which is like a decentralized self-sovereign identity where when you start to try to architect these types of things, you start to get into tricky situations of social scores and other things that are only relevant in specific small contexts, but they're not universal. Like I may have a reputation in VR, but that doesn't mean that I have a good reputation in say, like basketball, for example. So social reputation is contextual to different cultural groupings. So whenever you try to add numbers and quantify that, it becomes tricky. So I think that there's the centralized social VR, which is what we've seen all of. And then there's the decentralized other extreme, which is the open web and self-sovereign identity. And how do you actually allow people to maintain their own control over that. So I think it's worth actually pointing out that our view of this topic right now is from a very centralized perspective. And so when we start to talk about blocking and these things, well, that's great, but how do you block somebody on the open web? You have to realize that these architectural decisions, the fundamental basis of them are the tension between centralization and decentralization. Facebook now at this point has 2 billion users. And it's a little untenable for one company to be in charge of moderating the terms of service of what is considered acceptable and not acceptable for two sevenths of the world's population. So you start to have to get into these other trickier governance models and stuff. And also like what's the model of like. if somebody makes one error or one mistake and you banish them for life, is that the kind of society that we want to create? And so there's punitive justice there, which is that you have opted to extract this person from your digital realm. But in terms of scaling that out to all of humanity, what are the models of restorative justice by which if somebody is actually going to like have a truth and reconciliation and forgiveness and healing and like

[00:12:10.823] Lola MacIsaac: like the wild west of VR right now. It's like there are no social rules, there are no social norms, so what you have to do is them or go by mob rule. And I think what's interesting, what happened today, Kent, is you mentioned the study on your retweet, you having a very good reputation in VR, you managed to get a lot of engineers talking about possible solutions.

[00:12:38.680] Kent Bye: Yeah, yeah. And I think that, again, I'll like emphasize that I believe that those engineering solutions are always going to be limited. There is always going to be a limitation for what you try to fix with technology, what is fundamentally a cultural problem. And the cultural problem is that people are traumatized and they get traumatized and then they go out and traumatize other people. that's the heart of it. The trolls that are doing trolling, they've been traumatized, and they want to be seen and heard, and they're like acting out by treating other people's emotions as if they're a video game. And I think you can come up with any sort of architecture you want, but until you address that core issue of trauma, and people actually empathizing with each other. It's that empathy that you can't architect through technology. I don't believe you can. It's a cultural education that you have to teach people that there's always going to be a balance of in a conversation of giving and receiving.

[00:13:37.027] Lola MacIsaac: There are social contexts in which people are not harassed, harass people and a place of work or it is very much looked down upon and very much an issue. People don't harass each other when there are witnesses present.

[00:13:54.337] Jessica Outlaw: Oh, actually, there was actually a ton of men in my study who reported witnessing harassment occurring.

[00:14:01.824] Kent Bye: Yeah, I think Like the context is everything here. When you're at work, you're in a private context. You have to figure out how to work together. There's certain solutions when it comes to actually creating those private contexts that where you can work stuff out. Or like if you actually have to work with this person, you can't just be like, you know what, I'm going to like work at this location, but I'm, I'm going to decide to block Jessica because I'm like, I don't like something that she did. Now I'm going to banish her for my entire existence. And. Whenever she tries to say something, she's going to be invisible. It's like, yeah, that's not feasible if you're trying to actually work at the same location. So these solutions of blocking are okay within small situations, but they don't scale. They're not scalable. I mean, they're only scalable within private contexts. So I think you can't over-engineer it. I think you can provide the tools and you need to provide the tools. But again, it's a cultural issue.

[00:14:56.177] Lola MacIsaac: I don't think it has ever been of much use. address the needs of the victimizer. I believe people know, but I do think it is useful to know that in certain social contexts, when there is some kind of surveillance, some kind of accountability, people often don't abuse women and create those contexts in VR.

[00:15:25.705] Kent Bye: I think this is a really important point that you're making, which is that how do you ensure that the victims have a good experience as well? I think being able to block people is certainly centering in the victim's experience. And there's limits to that. You can do that in small private contexts, but anytime that you block somebody, you're blocking an IP. And if that person really wants to keep harassing you, they can spoof their IP. How do you tie that to an individual who is dedicated to bringing terror to people? Like maybe there will be like invite only private contexts where people are interacting, where they really create those safe spaces and it's invite only. So you have to opt in to communicate rather than block people. But again, this gets back to the fundamental like public versus private context. I think you can have those private contexts and maybe the solution ultimately is going to be like people just hang out with each other privately. And that if you want to go out into the wild west of the public VR, you are assuming a certain amount of risk. And like you can maybe temporarily block people or just get people out of your space. But like at the end of the day, if people still want to bring harm to other people through harassment, they're still going to do that. I don't think there's going to be a technological fix to something that's a fundamental human behavior. So there's other cultural models of how do we deal with that. And depending on the context, like if you have a social VR space you have more control over you know trying to foster a culture that is trying to be a little bit more self-policing or create an environment where it's not cool to do it or it's not satisfying or there's other outlets for these trolls to be able to have that type of like you know maybe there's like the 4chan of VR where if people really want to screw with each other, they can just go to this social VR place where they can just do whatever they want and people are consenting to it. But it's the lack of consent of those interactions that I think is key.

[00:17:24.006] Lola MacIsaac: But here's one issue. The lack of consent has never bothered people from 4chan. If they choose a victim and they decide to rally, this could happen. And it happens. It happens in VR and real world harassment happens.

[00:17:43.869] Kent Bye: So what are you proposing?

[00:17:46.891] Lola MacIsaac: I'm proposing that we stop looking at our representations on the internet as something other than ourselves and start looking at our representations on the internet in VR and start expecting the same types of legal protections we have in the real world as we do online.

[00:18:07.564] Kent Bye: How do you trace identity?

[00:18:09.968] Lola MacIsaac: Oh, I see what you're saying. How do you figure out who is doing the harassing?

[00:18:13.253] Kent Bye: Yeah.

[00:18:14.415] Lola MacIsaac: Oh, I see. Is your contention that the first problem that we need to solve tracing identity?

[00:18:22.509] Kent Bye: Well, I mean, there's ways of acting anonymously online.

[00:18:27.013] Lola MacIsaac: And so that means you're not deserving of the right. That's my question.

[00:18:31.478] Kent Bye: Well, I'm saying that, like, this is the challenge of like, if I decided that you have harassed me to a point in real life, and I want to protect myself from you, I can go get a restraining order against you and do that with the local law enforcement. And that is through the local laws where you can't come into a certain amount of distance from me. But that's enforceable because it has a centralized point of control and it's connected to your identity. There is no centralized control on the Internet and there's no centralized way of figuring out identity. So there's not an equivalent of how to do that online.

[00:19:07.241] Lola MacIsaac: Well, that's kind of a horse cart before the horse. Yes.

[00:19:11.025] Kent Bye: Identify that there is something that needs a protection and then we have to go about protecting it I'm saying that online digital culture is different than real life because there is no centralized control and there is no universal way of figuring out identity But there is universal human rights Yeah, that's true. But there's a matter of enforcement here. You can make up whatever law you want But if you can't enforce it, it's gonna be meaningless You can write all these things down and codify it, but there's no world government that's going to enforce it because there's different jurisdictions for different parts of the world. If somebody is harassing you and they live in China, then what's the jurisdiction there. I see. These are the issues that like, there's no universal world government and there's no universal, like a way to connect someone's digital representations of what their actions are online to their identity. And that that's the challenge.

[00:20:06.113] Lola MacIsaac: If. It was a universal human right to have protection over what you consider yourself as data online, have the protection of the Human Rights Committee.

[00:20:19.235] Kent Bye: So are you talking about the United Nations? Like, who is mediating who is controlling these human rights? What is that organization?

[00:20:26.781] Lola MacIsaac: Well, yes, the United Nations.

[00:20:29.128] Kent Bye: Okay, so what does the United Nations, what kind of jurisdiction do they have?

[00:20:32.390] Jessica Outlaw: Okay, I'm gonna jump in, because you've gone really, really deep into a rabbit hole, and it's actually been really interesting to follow how quickly you went to that extreme, because I actually think there's much easier solutions available, because there's so much about how do you make people feel like members of a group, I worked with a sociologist on this project and my last project. And we were talking about social VR in the context of what makes people feel like they're members of a group and that they want to contribute. And how do you actually build up the culture that you want? And she's a sociologist. And she brought in a list of seven things. And she's like, oh, if you have all seven things, this is how you're going to build your culture. The seven things are you have to have stories and myths. You have to have heroes. So who are you celebrating? Who are you giving your attention to? You have to have rituals. You have to have ceremony. You have to have language. You have to have symbols. And you have to have jokes. And really, each one of those things is something that's much easier to control. And you can create these spaces where I can create my own VR destination and I can decide exactly who are going to be the heroes there, what stories are going to be told, what type of language and labels are things going to have. And that actually creates a form of social control. And no longer does it have to be me top-down saying, this is how you will act when you are here. Instead, I create the jokes that everyone tells, and the jokes actually inform people on how to behave.

[00:22:22.064] Kent Bye: Nice.

[00:22:23.005] Jessica Outlaw: Yeah, that's amazing. Way better.

[00:22:27.488] Kent Bye: That's what I mean. That's a cultural solution, though. That's not a technological one. That's the stories and myths, heroes, rituals, ceremony symbols, language, jokes, all those things have to do with culture. And I think that like you can do technological implementations and the problem with the discussions I was having online is that all the engineers are trying to engineer their way out of it when in actuality it's these stories, myths, heroes, rituals, ceremonies, symbols, language, and jokes that are going to be the thing that is going to actually create that culture and that cohesion. But I would argue that you have to have private context for that. You can't create a universal version of that. We just haven't been able to do that yet. We haven't seen it on the open web. You can do these centralized private worlds and doing those things to be able to actually enforce that. I think the challenge is like, once you get past the Dunbar number, how do you enforce that? Or how do you like really maintain that? You know, can you really facilitate that as a creator of one of these without having some sort of indoctrination or initiation into the culture? How is it that you teach people this, especially if you are growing and growing and having people come into that? I think that's the challenge of like, how do you actually scale that out?

[00:23:48.341] Jessica Outlaw: Right. You know, I think back to, like, the very first week of when I went to college, and you did go through an orientation, and it was a way to socialize you to the culture. Like, for me, I went through certain things, like, many of the seven things on that list I went through, and at the end of it, I was like, oh, this is what it means to be a student at this college. These are the stories we tell. These are the jokes we tell. This is what we think is funny. you know, we walked through the doors of the library and that was like a huge symbolic thing at my university. And so I think the thing is, is that companies need to embrace that they should be running orientations for new people like once a week or once a day to socialize that. And I think that it's a ton of work and I suspect that's why no one is doing it.

[00:24:40.377] Kent Bye: Well, it's also, we don't have a lot of good examples of this in our day-to-day culture. I mean, we have things like Burning Man, where that's a ritual that happens once a year. People kind of get initiated into knowing what those are. There's like, and there's festivals that people have, or there's workshops, or there's different retreats people can go on. And there's like sports rituals that people have and the stories around that. So, There are examples of how we have stories, myths, heroes, rituals, ceremonies, symbols, language, and jokes that have evolved from different parts of our culture, but I would argue that those things haven't been codified in a way that as you're starting to generate something new, How do you build that in? Do you have to be initiated into this VR experience, for example? Or is there a process by which the co-production of the collective myths and stories of a world, does that come from the people that are creating it? I think VR chat is probably the closest in terms of the people live streaming, creating different videos, but it's not a cohesive vision, that's for sure. And it's got all sorts of different problems. I don't have any good examples of a culture online that's really implemented all of these seven things. I don't know if there's like paradigmatic examples that you can think of that be like, hey, let's study these groups and see what they've done and be able to copy that.

[00:26:13.189] Jessica Outlaw: I mean, I bet you could find like niches that have done it. I don't think I couldn't say all of Second Life did this, but I think there's probably groups within Second Life that accomplished it.

[00:26:23.691] Kent Bye: Yeah.

[00:26:24.688] Jessica Outlaw: So I think that the world is going to be really, really fragmented. I certainly don't have a solution to, like, the open web thing. I totally agree with what you're saying about having a restorative justice approach. And I think there should be a lot of transparency about, like, if you do transgress boundaries, what happens? Because I think that it's really important for everyone to know what happens and, like, see follow through.

[00:26:47.805] Lola MacIsaac: How could you implement a restorative justice approach?

[00:26:52.525] Jessica Outlaw: I mean, I think, oh, go ahead, Kent.

[00:26:54.627] Kent Bye: I was just going to say that. So my sense is that in the 60s, we started to have the emergence of a lot of women's rights, racial rights, gay rights, environmental rights.

[00:27:07.506] Jessica Outlaw: anti-war movement.

[00:27:09.047] Kent Bye: Yeah, a lot of liberation movements that there's a lot of things that catalyzed in the 60s and that we're kind of like 50 years into this new epoch of liberation movements. And I feel like we're kind of at a turning point where it's going to take another 50 years for us to get to where we need to be. So if you look at that as like this long scale of where we've been since the 60s, where we're at now and where we need to be by like 2045, like it gives you a little bit of a context as to like what just happened this past year with the Me Too campaign which was a huge shift. I mean the fact that women's stories about abuse and sexual harassment are now actually being heard and considered as being real and valid is a drastic shift that it's almost like an overnight cultural shift, but it didn't happen overnight. It happened since the 60s with the feminist movement and people talking about these things in it. It was like small movements that kind of crossed the chasm. So as it crosses the chasm, now all of a sudden you have these two polarities. At one end, you have people who only believe what is real as the facts and the objective truth of what can be documented. And then at the other extreme is like the truth of the experience that somebody had, but they can't prove it. And for millennia, we haven't believed those direct experiences of women, but all of a sudden now we're hearing them after the Me Too campaign and social media. We're getting an objective amount of people saying, hey, we've had this experience and you've been ignoring it. Well, it's like, things need to shift. And you have things like both Bill Cosby and Weinstein, where there's like women after women telling the same story. So we're at the point now where we're finally listening to the stories. We're saying your direct experience is important. I want to hear it. Now, here's the thing.

[00:28:50.433] Lola MacIsaac: How do you combine that to a... It wasn't a fast incline, Kent. What's that? It wasn't a slow incline. It wasn't gradual. It was very gradual for years. And then with social media, the ways we communicate, women got to communicate with each other over vast distances. This is new. This is exciting.

[00:29:14.446] Jessica Outlaw: That's funny. I attribute it so much to the last election. I actually think if Hillary Clinton had been elected, I don't think we would be where we're at right now.

[00:29:25.030] Kent Bye: Yeah, I think it's a Hegelian dialectic of thesis and antithesis. In a certain way, it's this polar extreme, which is bring out all these other things that have been ignored. But what I would say is that if you look to South Africa and the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions that they had there, you had all these different abuses that happened that were documented to a certain extent where people were going to go to jail. And they had an opportunity to actually listen to the stories of the victims that they harmed. and they had to then make an apology where they, in essence, had to own the harm that they did. And they had to, like, really empathize. And if they were able to do that, then they had to reduce the sentence. So you have what I would say is this dual criminal justice system. One is which there's the objective facts and what is in relation to the state. And then there's a whole other dimension, which is the integrity of the community and whether or not you as a participant in the community, if you're able to restore balance to the entire community, which requires you to own the harm that you did and to figure out what you can do for reparations. And that's more of a cultural issue rather than an issue that the state is up to. So I think that there's a split of justice that we're having, which is that we're starting to just see the very first taste of what that restorative justice looks like. But there's no clue for how to actually integrate it into the criminal justice system. And in fact, I would argue that the criminal justice system actually prevents this deeper healing from happening sometimes because once it becomes you having to potentially go to jail over this, then it kind of shuts down your ability to actually be authentically true about owning the harm that was done. Because anytime you own the harm that was done, you could go to jail or lose all this money. So the fact that money and the state is introduced into issues that are really of the community and these people interpersonally, like social media backlashes and the shaming that's happening is one first step of that, but it's not the final step. And like, I think in another 50 years, we're going to find a way to how to blend these two, like existing criminal justice, along with like this more restorative justice, which is like, how do you actually do a good apology? How do you own the harm done? How do you ask for forgiveness? And how do you like eventually build in the path of healing on the harm that you did? for listening and empathizing to the truth of the experiences, and then not just ostracize people into becoming felons or criminals, and then they're now outside of the system. But restorative justice means that in order to be restored in the community, you need to have everybody participating as a member. And so the challenge is how do you deal with those bad actors? How do you deal with the trauma that they've had and then get them to be able to actually like open their hearts and actually be in relationship to other people? And I think that's part of the reason why I think the blocking mentality is a little bit of like a retributive justice, which is a good in the short term, but in the long term, it doesn't get to this larger restorative justice vision that we need to get to in the next 50 years. Like it's a good stop gap for what we need right now. but you have to also architect for like in 2045, that person you blocked back in 2014, how do you deal with it? And I think that that's the challenge is this restorative justice model mixed with something that is a model.

[00:32:43.129] Lola MacIsaac: Here's something that is problematic. You're putting a lot of responsibility on the victim at a certain point and for right now and even in the future, there has to be disengage from harmful conduct.

[00:32:59.976] Jessica Outlaw: Well, I think, Lola, I'm just going to interject. Sorry, you're talking to two Portland hippies right now who are both huge fans of restorative justice. But restorative justice is not designed to... Oh, sorry. Did you want to say something?

[00:33:14.144] Lola MacIsaac: I did. My understanding of restorative justice is from the local community leaders. I might be a little bit off, but my basic understanding of it is it's about the victim.

[00:33:31.760] Kent Bye: It's everybody. It's not just, it's everybody. Restorative justice is trying to look at the entire community. It comes from more of a philosophy that we're all fundamentally interconnected. Like, I think we have to start with centering this in the victim's experience. And that's what, if you look at the truth and reconciliation commissions that happened in South Africa, they did that. that doesn't mean that you're prioritizing the perpetrator over the victim. Like, I think you do need to focus on the victim first, but at the end of the day, you can't just ostracize the perpetrators because then you're, in some ways, continuing the cycle of violence.

[00:34:09.733] Jessica Outlaw: Right. I definitely see restorative justice as offloading the work to the community and really forcing the community to reckon with the victim and the perpetrator. in an ideal system?

[00:34:23.532] Lola MacIsaac: Ideally, but without the power of disengaging, let's say, an individual is opening themselves to attacks.

[00:34:34.240] Jessica Outlaw: Well, it sounds like Kent and I are not going to convince you about this today.

[00:34:39.144] Kent Bye: Lola, have you ever had an experience of a truth and reconciliation process? Have you ever had a direct embodied experience of one? Sorry? Have you ever had a direct experience of a truth and reconciliation process?

[00:34:51.490] Lola MacIsaac: My learning is from the leaders of the community. I have never been in one myself. Recently Dalhousie University used the restorative justice process to come to terms with the harassment of the women in Dalhousie University over a period of time. They concluded there did not need to be any retribution. The argument of a lot of people in Nova Scotia is that restorative justice works not from a position of those in power. It empowers those who would not otherwise have a voice. So you have to look at class. You have to look at race. You have to look at all of those things to correctly use restorative justice.

[00:35:36.463] Jessica Outlaw: Lola, I just want to say I have all these idealized visions of what living in Canada is like and you're destroying all of them. I'm so sad right now. I'm sorry.

[00:35:46.538] Kent Bye: Well, I think that, so, I think you can take the issue of restorative justice and get it to a very simple, like, somebody hurt you, and they owned that harm that they did, and they apologized, and they really heard the harm that they did, and then you're basically able to move on from there. A good apology is not easy. I think that, like, if anything, that's where, as a culture, we need to figure out how to own the harm that we've done and how to apologize to each other. And to scale that out to like cultural issues of class and capitalism and racism and sexism, like we're talking about intergenerational trauma that is so embedded into our culture that that is a huge open question for how we even begin to do that. We don't have any good examples of how that's done or what works. So I think you have to start with something very small. And most of these truth and reconciliation processes have been in small group contexts where maybe there's a shared trust amongst those people. As soon as you start to expand out into all of public interactions and dealing with stuff, it starts to get really much more difficult. But what I would say is that as we're architecting these systems, we have to design for both the small and the large. And we have to think about these other issues. And that's kind of what I'm looking at, like philosophically, you know, like the truth and reconciliation mindset. Like, do we want to build a technological infrastructure that does not allow for truth and reconciliation? And I'd say, no, that may work for you and your little small website that has like a hundred users. But once you scale out to like the scale of Facebook, which is now 2 billion users, then you start to get into all sorts of other various issues where the technological algorithms you put in dictate, you know, massive amount of like people's consciousness. And so it's really important to think about when you're banning people and ostracizing people and it becomes like these deeper issues of free speech and free expression. It's this tension between centralization and decentralization. But we have to look at these at small scale, the truth and reconciliation processes as designers and experiential designers and architects how to actually design the systems that both protect people in the short term and small scales, but also have this vision for the next 50 years of how we actually architect a society where we can have an opening for truth and reconciliation processes, which are fundamentally cultural.

[00:38:10.673] Jessica Outlaw: Right. And I think like, I think we should also just acknowledge what the state in which we are is right now, where a lot of people are telling me like, they're surprised by my findings. Or like last year, especially before the Me Too movement started, a ton of men in the VR industry told me that they thought like, if they could just import the social norms that we have in our day to day life, that that's exactly what social VR needs. And so I think that, like, you know, we're getting into kind of a heady discussion about, like, an idealized system, but I kind of just want to ground us in, like, the state of the industry right now, and the fact that, like, no one has done this research before, and some people might be, like, understanding the extent to which, you know, virtual harassment is already happening. and just say, like, it's actually pretty surprising that, you know, no one has done this research before and that I'm the first person to do it. And I only did it because I was actually funded by a Seattle VR company named Pluto, who I think is relatively forward-thinking in this space. So I think there's a huge discrepancy between, like, where do we want to go? What is our ideal vision? What are our obstacles from getting there? And, like, being like, oh, where are we right now? Wow.

[00:39:31.343] Kent Bye: Yeah, I think that, you know, the most striking thing to me about your survey and report, Jessica, was to read the people who were justifying that it wasn't harassment because it was just pixels, grow up, stop being a kid, you know, like this basically denial of the experience that people were having. And I think it gets to a philosophical shift as to just because you have a virtual and digital representation of yourself, somehow that isn't real. And I think that it gets into the difference philosophically of reductive materialism versus something that is transcendental idealism or panpsychism or something that is centering the human experience as being fundamental and primary. So I think that even though it is a virtual representation and it is just pixels and you have an extension of yourself that's being projected out into this virtual world, you do have this sense of a virtual embodiment and that you are having an experience that your body virtually is your body and that you do have these transgressions that do feel like harassment and abuse. And there's a fundamental philosophical shift between people who don't believe that it's abuse and that it's just fun. And because it's digital, you can do whatever you want versus the people who say, oh, hey, actually, this is a representation of myself. And this is my experience. And this is just like being in real life. And so you should be abiding by all of the other regular rules of society. And what you're doing could be considered illegal. So it's a bit of a wild west right now because there's no like legal precedent for that. But philosophically, I would say that it's the difference between reductive materialism who people would say, well, this isn't real. So it's okay to do this versus people who say, no, actually, my experience is primary and this is totally real. This is harassment.

[00:41:16.134] Jessica Outlaw: Yeah. Yeah. Kent, I really appreciate the feedback. I'd like to also tell you one thing that a respondent told me to do. in response to me asking about just like the open-ended harassment questions. Someone told me to go suck a dick. which didn't make it into the final presentation, but I think it's like a perfect illustration of what you're just talking about, where it's just like the perfect illustration of boys will be boys, it's just pixels on a screen, learn to use your muting and blocking features. And so I think like... Or if you don't like it, just take the headset off, which was another response I got. Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. But anyway. But I think it's just so blatantly, this is my opinion, I'm staking it out, and this is my territory. It felt like a very territorial response. And so for me, I just perceived it as a good illustration of, again, the state of the industry today.

[00:42:17.546] Lola MacIsaac: how internet progressed. It was a reflection of the exact same harassment. Early adopters were the people who could afford the technology. They already had a culture. They staked a spot for themselves, and then that culture continued on until the point where it was almost universally adopted in North America. Look at VR. The exact same culture is being replicated. The people who can afford it are staking out their claim to the culture.

[00:42:48.258] Kent Bye: But I think there's also a deeper issue here, which is that the technology is just a mirror of what is already happening and maybe even an amplifier. So it just makes it more explicit so that all of this abuse and harassment already exists in real world and that when you go into virtual spaces, you can objectively document it. And I think that there's a challenge here, which is that people see the technology as the problem. I keep coming back to this, which is that it's always some combination of the technology being more of a reflection of the culture, and that there is cultural issues here, and that there's fundamental philosophical issues here of what people consider to be reality. if someone doesn't see that your virtual representation as being quote unquote real, then they're going to be able to justify to themselves that they can do just about whatever they want and they could grope you and get in your personal space and say whatever they want because it's not real. Because it's sort of like you're on this virtual space where there's new rules or different rules than what it is in reality. And there are different rules. And like, then there's other people who are like, my experience is just the same. If you were to do this to me in real life, it would feel the exact same. And so I think there's the deeper philosophical assumptions and metaphysical assumptions about what is reality that you're getting at the core of there. But you're also, the technology is just reflecting. It's a mirror for what's happening. And I think there's a tendency to want to try to use the technology to architect our way out of something that's fundamentally a cultural problem. And I think, again, you have to do both. All the things that Jessica said in order to have an in-group of the stories, the myths, the heroes, the rituals, ceremonies, symbols, language and jokes, none of that is technologically invented. All of that comes from people. So in order to create these cohesive spaces, you can create those protections and those controls. And that's great. But at the end of the day, how do you foster and cultivate these cultures that are really creating the space that people want to be in?

[00:44:43.402] Lola MacIsaac: I would argue that a safe space for those cultures to thrive would, in effect, jokes to be recreated. That's exactly what we're trying to do in our culture right now. I think we make a great divide between the Internet and the culture that we live in when we really don't have to. It's pretty much a portion of the culture we live in.

[00:45:07.108] Jessica Outlaw: Yeah, I would agree that online worlds are very much a reflection of existing dominant culture. There are obviously niches as well. But yeah, a lot of the beliefs and associations that we have in the real world we carry in to the virtual world. Like the example I always talk about is NASCAR perceived as being a low-class activity and sailing is perceived to be a high-class activity. And we're still building things like NASCAR and sailing into VR. We're not creating all new associations.

[00:45:37.527] Lola MacIsaac: Oh, I know. It's definitely, yeah, a reproduction. One of the reasons why I love VR is because I do live in nowhere, Cape Breton Island. And it's my access to the rest of the world that I will never be able to see on my own. But one thing I have noticed is that from my perspective, it is a bunch of people who have the access to the means and culture doing exactly that. And that's what I love about your study. It's an exam of what people feel when they're in there and not just the creators.

[00:46:15.925] Jessica Outlaw: Thank you. Thank you. That's very nice. Yeah, I think the other thing that I really hope people take away from the study is like the importance of friends and the desire to spend time with people that you know. And so I think if there was anything that I would prioritize. It would be, how do you make people more comfortable with, like, becoming friends with people they meet online? And what are the forums that would help shape that? I think that could be maybe just randomly assigning people to go on, like, 15-minute speed dates with people. Not that you're looking for a romantic partner, but that this whole idea that the more that you spend time with a person, often the more you just like them. And so I think there's this huge potential for people to make friends online. but I don't think the existing platforms are really welcoming to especially women and like really giving them inviting spaces. A lot of women from the first study that I ran last year, they asked to like hang out in small groups. They asked to hang out with people who had like similar goals that they did or wanted to do some activities that they wanted to do. They asked a lot for like, I want to visit a museum or I want to do like travel or I want to do a cultural thing. a cultural event and they really had a desire to experience it with other people that they knew. And so if I was a developer, I would be very focused on the question of like, how do I let people comfortably interact rather than just throwing everyone into like a huge plaza that's a complete free for all, which is how it can feel sometimes.

[00:48:00.092] Kent Bye: Yeah.

[00:48:01.475] Jessica Outlaw: Yeah. Because I'm sure we've all had experiences where we've met someone, they seem really cool, you meet them one or two more times, and then you're like, yeah, that person's totally my friend. So I think there's a huge potential of this. I think you could absolutely use the social science research around this. And in fact, I have a new white paper coming out based on the last two studies of the types of experiences that people are asking for. It's predominantly the things that women say that they want. They really want to use it for things that are useful. How can they use it to make their work easier? They really want to use it for cultural activities like the museums and the travel that I talked about. So anyways, I think there is this huge desire and there's a huge gap between the desire and what's available.

[00:48:51.790] Kent Bye: That's fascinating. Yeah. I have to probably head out here in a bit.

[00:48:55.831] Jessica Outlaw: Yeah. I also have to run. But yeah, please get in touch. Any questions come up.

[00:49:00.844] Kent Bye: so much yeah yeah my pleasure yeah thanks both you for your time yeah for sure and uh have a good rest of your day so that was Lola McIsaac as well as Jessica Outlaw and Jessica had just published the research paper on virtual harassment the social experience of 600 plus regular virtual reality users So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, well, upon listening to this interview, again, I really was listening and hearing what Lola was saying about trying to center the experience and the victims and that there are going to be instances that a truth and reconciliation process is just not going to be feasible. If people have their identity hidden, they're completely anonymous, they're trolls, they're just out to bring on vicious sociopathic behavior upon people, then there needs to be ways to actually handle that. And we need to also recognize that some of these people just need to be exiled, and they're beyond trying to integrate them into this idealized vision of restorative justice. I think that as a culture right now, American culture especially, and we have this concept of like you get sent to jail and when you come out, you're in some sense exiled from society, but you never really fully integrated back into society because you always are labeled as an ex-convict and that there's kind of like this ostracizing and exiling of people after they've gone through this criminal justice system. And I think that There are these other processes of restorative justice that are trying to figure out other ways that maybe need to be either in cooperation with the criminal justice system or something that's a completely separate process because sometimes they may be working against each other. But the question is, what is a process of reintegration, of having these deeper truth and reconciliation processes for people? So for online social VR experiences, I think, you know, some of this talk about restorative justice is more on the large scale and the more idealized vision about what type of culture that we want to create. And companies like Facebook, they need to be thinking about this because they are operating at the scale of like 2 billion people. And as we are trying to get 1 billion people in VR, then what are the processes by which you're going to be able to navigate all of this? One of the things that Phil Brosedale had said at the Decentralized Web Summit in this panel discussion that we had is that he found that people at Second Life only really maintained on average about 1.5 identities, which means that there's a lot of cognitive load that comes with trying to maintain many different social networks. And so maybe in the future, there's going to be this process by which that because the cognitive load of maintaining many different identities is going to be so high maybe we are going to only deal with a limited set of identities which means that it's going to be easier to identify people and to exile them or block them if we need to and then how do you you know run a culture when let's say you've blocked all these people then how do you actually like over the long term deal with a virtual reality where there's a big swath of population that over time that you're going to potentially at some point need to unblock them. I think that's a larger issue for thinking about in the long term of some of these different things that to me that I think we're just kind of exploring within this podcast. But there's a number of different trade-offs here between the idealized long-term solutions at a global scale versus the pragmatic short-term solutions at a local scale. There's the public versus private tension that I think we're bringing up a lot, which is when you go out into public spaces, then you assume a certain amount of risk, and that when you are in private spaces, then you can have more of an opting in into these environments rather than having to block people in the public context. I think another point that Lola was saying is that you need to have surveillance in order to have protection and I think well there's this trade-off between privacy and having everything that you're saying and doing be recorded and stored because then as I talked to Jennifer Granick of ACLU there's the third-party doctrine which means that anything that is recorded by a third party has no reasonable expectation to remain private which means that by default, everything that you're saying that's being recorded by a third party is essentially, you know, available for the government to subpoena and to be able to look at, and that's going to have these impacts of free speech that if everything that you're saying is going to be recorded in that way, then a tyrannical government could be able to have access to that as well, which I think just has this larger chilling effect of free speech online in general. And so how are the ways that you can actually create these environments without having to resort to this kind of Big Brother-like surveillance? At F8, Facebook was really promoting this idea that we're going to have moderation that's coming from artificial intelligence, which there's a lot of technical debt with artificial intelligence, a lot of problems with having to actually train the algorithms to be able to discern these different things. And so there still involves a lot of human-in-the-loop process of that AI. And how much do we really want to rely upon having our conversations be moderated by these AI overlords that Again, what is the due process by which you could really check in if there's these false positives? Now, all that said, I think that there's a lot of really important points that Lola was bringing up. And, you know, I kind of regret in a lot of ways, different points where she was getting cut off to really articulate the full vision of what about the people who are getting abused and how you have ways of protecting them. And, you know, in some ways, if you try to go have a truth and reconciliation process with somebody who's completely sociopathic, then it's just going to traumatize that victim even more. And so you have to account for that as well. So I think that was some really important points that she was bringing up there. But also that, you know, this differentiation between your virtual representation and do you have the same legal protections? I think there are some interesting legal implications there. And again, I would go back to like, you know, what is the legal jurisdiction for these virtual environments? If you have people that are living in all these different countries, then what rules are really applying to these kind of virtual worlds? In some ways, they're kind of like this international waters. And so what are the international human rights that come to interacting with people in these virtual environments? And I think that is a big open question that nobody has really answered. But I think it's an important point that there are some dimensions of laws that could be either implemented within the context of the code or be enforced in some ways. And maybe in the future, we will be getting to the point, like Lola is saying, where our virtual representations of ourselves have just as much legal standing as our physical representations of ourselves. And finally there was a elements of culture that Jessica outlaw was outlining and her work with this sociologist and I'm looking forward to diving into more of the sociological aspects for how you actually cultivate a culture because There are going to be things that you can technological engineers and engineer. There's different rules that you can implement within that there's different market economies that you can put into these systems, but I The big open question that I have is how do you actually cultivate a culture around these different communities? Whereas a culture is generated by all the individual participants in there and there's constantly new people coming in. And so how do you get people to keep this same cohesive culture even as it is changing over time? And I think the Dunbar number is that number of 150 people and I think it's simple to do that when it's less than 150 people and then once you start to get larger than that then it gets really crazy for how you actually Implement cultures at these large scales, but looking at the elements of culture there's the artifacts and stories and histories and myths and jokes and legends and and rituals, and rites, and ceremonies, and celebrations, and heroes, and symbols, and symbolic actions, and beliefs, assumptions, mental models, attitudes, rules, norms, ethical codes, and values. And so all of these are things that are embedded within each individual, but they collectively add up into culture What are the heroes that people are really exalting within the community that are really pointing to these are the types of values that we want to uphold? Or if you are breaking those values and those norms, there's different jokes or there's different ways to have these social norms and these social taboos to enforce these rules in more of an implicit way rather than resorting to explicit methods. Figuring out how to add up all these elements of culture and how to really foster these thriving and vibrant communities that are healthy, but have this consistency amongst all these different dimensions of those elements of culture, I think that is a larger open question for how to actually do that. I think there's this sense that technology is going to be only so limited to be able to kind of fix all these problems. And we want to, in some ways, deputize these technology companies to be able to fix all of these cultural and human problems when At the end of the day, some of these problems are just like problems of what it means to be human. And the technology can only go so far. And it starts to have to go into these different interpersonal dimensions of how we relate to each other one-on-one, but also how it's embedded within these cultures. And at the end of the day, I think that if VR is going to be successful, it's these types of elements of culture that I think are going to have to be figured out. And there's going to be trade-offs between the pragmatic, small-scale, short-term solutions that work now versus the more idealized, long-term solutions that work at the global scale, as well as the public versus the private context, as well as centralized versus decentralized systems, where there's an ability to have the centralized control versus what do you do in these completely decentralized ecosystems. So, that's all that I have for today, and I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast, and if you enjoy the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, leave a review on iTunes, and consider becoming a member to the Patreon. This is a listener-supported podcast, and so I do rely upon your donations in order to continue to bring you this type of coverage. So, you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. Thanks for listening.

More from this show