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Dear Metaverse Skeptic
Highvibe Network deep dive, Part III
This essay is for the metaverse skeptics.
In particular, those who doubt its applicability for things like mental health, personal development, and overall wellness.
If you’re new to this series, we’re exploring these topics via a deep dive into Highvibe Network: a startup using Web3 and immersive tech to enhance the human experience and bring these use cases to life.
Upon reading Part I (A Conscious Approach to Web3) and Part II (The Tao of the Metaverse), most people have been inspired by HVNs vision and aligned with its mission. However, as is natural with all things metaverse, these ideas give some people pause.
Within this cohort, a consistent set of deeper questions and concerns tends to arise, such as the utility of the metaverse for things like mindfulness and wellness, concerns with Web3's usability, and the likelihood of adoption from their target users.
This essay addresses each of these areas in depth, relying on real world examples to (hopefully) expand your spectrum of perceived possibility and imbue a sense of optimism.
No preamble this time. Let’s jump right in.
Can the metaverse really address mental health and elevate the human experience?
Of all the deeper questions that surface around HVN’s mission, this is the first and most common.
The skeptic's first reaction is something along the lines of... "How the heck can the metaverse support mental health? Won't it just take us away from our humanity and from each other?”
This is often followed up with something like…
“And what about the real problems we're facing in the real world? Won’t this virtual world just be a distraction?”
All fair questions, especially considering the mainstream media's portrayal of the space.
I tend to tackle these concerns in three ways. First, I explain how augmented reality can reconnect us with our external world. Next, I discuss how immersive tech can rewire our neural pathways to heal internal afflictions. And lastly, as it relates to problems in the real world, I touch on how we could use Web3 to heal the planet through 'regenerative finance'.
We'll start with the elusive tech to which I've dedicated the majority of my career: augmented reality.
Augmented reality for deeper connection
When people panic about the metaverse creating more disconnection, I can't help but chuckle.
If you’re in this camp, I rhetorically ask: “Tell me about your relationship with that rectangle in your pocket. Is that not already your greatest source of disconnection?" Most people agree...
We seem to forget that smartphones are a version 1.0 metaverse device. A device through which many people are already living in a pseudo-metaverse; solely dating in virtual spaces (Bumble, Hinge), playing in virtual worlds (Fortnite), shopping in virtual stores (Amazon.com), and communicating in virtual rooms (Zoom, Slack, etc).
But these devices lack the ideal user experience. Flat screens force us to break eye contact, disrupting the flow of conversation and diluting our awareness. Tapping and scrolling forces an unnatural hunch and cricks in the neck. This is a far cry from how we've evolved to communicate, create shared context, tell stories, and form relationships.
We need something more human. Something more natural and representative of how we’ve evolved to interact and consume information in the natural, 3D world.
My point being... should we really be so pessimistic to assume our V2 and V3 devices will be a regression? Or is it more likely that human ingenuity and design prevails?
Considering humanity’s track record of innovation, I believe it's much more likely that we learn and iterate our way towards a more natural and human computing experience. Something that finally satisfies Steve Job’s vision of a ‘bicycle for the mind’.
If you’re willing to step outside of the constraints of a V1 product, and have faith in such a form factor upgrade, that's the first step towards relinquishing your fear.
Based upon the current trajectory of wearables… this upgrade will likely be a sleek, slender pair of AR glasses. These won’t be something you wear all-day long (although, some most certainly will). But rather, they’ll be used to enhance and enrich particular moments throughout the day.
It's these 'moments’ that will be the more impactful and lucrative version of ‘the metaverse’; one that blends immersive experiences more naturally and contextually within our day-to-day activities, rather than forcing people to escape and become completely immersed (i.e. virtual reality).
Futurist and modern-day philosopher, Jason Silva, has a quote I love using to explain the power of augmented reality. He says these new interfaces will, "inject our perceptual systems with super powers and increased agency, in any environment, and any situation."
This could be increased agency as a storyteller in the classroom, as a parent sharing a memory, a doctor during surgery, a front-line worker doing maintenance, or a designer creating the perfect home.
At the highest layer of abstraction, AR is the ultimate tool for communicating any kind of idea; augmenting language with visuals and digital information to improve knowledge transfer and cement understanding.
Perhaps we should think of AR as ‘Language+’. In other words, what Terrence McKenna calls, ‘the embodiment of language’.
If you want a glimpse into the early days of metaverse ideation, and the convergence of immersive tech with peak, psychedelic experience, this video is a must watch. It's of Terrance McKenna giving a talk at a German 'cyberspace' meetup.
It's McKenna at his finest, waxing poetic about communication in cyberspace and virtual reality.
He says something along the lines of, "Imagine if we could see what people actually meant when they spoke. It would be a form of telepathy. What kind of impact would this have on the world?"
This question is even more pronounced today, amidst a backdrop of extreme social polarity, with both sides of all issues continuously talking past each other.
McKenna goes on to describe language in a simple but eye-opening way. He reflects on how primitive language really is.
He says, "Language today is just small mouth noises, moving through space. Mere acoustical signals that require the consulting of a learned dictionary. This is not a very wide band form of communication. But with virtual/augmented realities, we'll have a true mirror of the mind. A form of telepathy that could dissolve boundaries, disagreement, conflict, and a lack of empathy in the world."
Of course, we shouldn't discredit the power of language. Language is arguably our most powerful technology to date. We created it in the presence of perhaps our second most important discovery/technology: fire. The combination of the two brought our ancestors into communion, circling around a campfire to connect, tell stories, teach, make plans, and merge minds. The outcome was the application of humanity’s most powerful inner tech: our imagination.
I think augmented reality will be humanity's next generation camp fire. A technology to create shared context, enhance the stories we tell, and enliven the lessons we teach, all while keeping us in flow through maintained eye contact, mutual wonder, and shared digital experience.
Human imagination has gotten us pretty far to date. But now with AR/Language+, and this next gen campfire… the limits of imagination will be removed, our misconceptions about the other will dissipate, and our ability to translate imagination into action will become limitless.
Immersive tech for wellness and peak experiences
Wellness can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. In this context, we'll focus on mental wellness, which usually translates to overall happiness and life satisfaction.
Like many, I've had my own bouts with mental wellness. My mind requires investment in certain types of activities or habits to stave off ruts and mild states of depression. The most common are: (1) play (sports, video games, nights out on the town), (2) learning (a new recipe, an educational book, a new skill), and (3) activities that induce a 'peak experience' (e.g. piano, fly fishing, writing, anything experience in which the ‘self’ dissipates, time stops, and we drop into states of flow. Moments in which we feel tapped into something that is ‘other’… some sort of greater whole, a greater purpose/calling. This could even include the more transcendent, mystical experiences achieved through various forms of ceremony or prayer).
While certainly not an exhaustive list of tools to combat mental health, I think these three pillars stand to benefit immensely from immersive tech as it matures. I'll hit on each with brevity.
While some parents hate to admit it, video games have become the dominant form of entertainment for today's youth. Despite video games yielding studied and measured benefits (e.g. problem solving, creativity, achievement, resourcefulness, etc), parents have a lingering gripe: video games keep kids stuck inside, constrained by versions of Roblox/Fortnite on a box in their room.
Tomorrow, kids will be able to experience all the joys and benefits of these games, but enhanced by the outdoors and face-to-face interaction with their friends. They'll build their virtual forts in real-world parks and forests, making new friends and building in-person social skills and street smarts along the way.
Primitive versions of mobile AR have already produced case studies of these effects in action. My favorite is about a kid with Asperger’s, named Ian Thayer. Ian struggled mightily to make friends and socialize. He avoided eye contact and rarely went outside. But through PokemonGo, Ian made friends for the first time, building a community and growing into a leadership role within. His parents said they've never seen him happier and more confident.
To me, this story just scratches the surface of what's possible for the future of play, for both children and adults alike.
I think education is the most exciting use case for AR/VR. Matthew Ball has a great go-to example. If you're my age, you most certainly remember watching the Magic School Bus as a kid.
Who could forget the excitement when the 3rd grade teacher would bust out the VHS tape, dim the lights, and surprise the class with movie time! That wacky teacher, Ms. Frizzle, whisking the kids away in her magical school bus. It would shrink to the size of a molecule to explore the human body, or turn into a submarine to explore the depths of the ocean, or somehow survive the elements inside a smoldering volcano.
With AR/VR, you can actually be inside that school bus, flying through the body, blasting into space, or swimming through the ocean. I don't know about you, if this is how I was able to learn... I'd likely have paid a bit more attention, and gotten much better grades....
Within the 'learning bucket', I also include empathy: a form of deep, intimate learning/understanding of another person's experience.
The lack of empathy in the world today is certainly one of our greatest strains on mental wellness.
Living life through a screen, the news inundates us with human catastrophe. But it's just that. News. Information flickering across a screen. It's quickly overlooked by the next social media post or incoming text. As a result, empathy for what is actually happening to people across the world is fleeting, and collective actions towards resolution don't stand a chance.
We explored in Part I the potential for VR to create empathy, and ultimately, action, further fueled by rewards for action via smart contracts and tokens:
"VR experiences could put people in the shoes of a Syrian refugee trying to console terrified children, a Russian soldier being forced to the front lines against their will, or an African farmer impacted by climate change with a starving family. Smart contracts could be designed to distribute micropayments in tokens to reward people who consume, or ongoing royalties back to the creators of the VR experience as it spreads and view counts increase. At last, perhaps this type of media can have economic tailwinds, and businesses for creating 'shared understanding' and empathy could thrive."
It's all too easy these days to fall into a rut. To wallow in the depths of self-pity, comparison, and judgment (of both yourself and others). Our sense of purpose and confidence shrivels, and with it, our willingness to face our fears and connect with those around us.
On the mental health front, VR could become the ultimate tool for shaking us out of our doldrums, and jolting our imaginations with possibilities for a better, more purposeful life.
The transportive nature of VR will produce positive effects similar to traveling to a completely new country or culture. These immersive experiences (physical or virtual) reprogram us, filling us up with both wonder, empathy, and gratitude. The most powerful of which are ‘peak’ experiences that induce states of awe, understanding, and ultimately, transcendence. These types of experiences have been scientifically proven to combat melancholy and even the worst cases of depression and anxiety.
A simple example is using VR to elicit physiological effects, such as the 'Horizon Effect'. Studies have shown that staring out at a horizon, say, while bobbing on a surfboard in the ocean, has a measurable calming effect on the sympathetic nervous system. This is one reason surfers are so addicted to the calming effects of their craft. A startup called Healium has locked on to this exact use case, providing similar VR experiences for meditation and mindfulness, accompanied by a biometric device to measure your response and levels of stress or calm.
Another, more abstract example, is using VR for reminders of everything that exceeds us. Perhaps to experience the vastness of space, the mystery of black holes, and colossal power of stars, only to realize we are just specks of dust in the cosmos, made of the stars themselves. That we are merely, as Carl Sagan said, “a way for the cosmos to know itself”. Such experiences would remind us of our smallness, and in turn, the smallness of our individual problems.
A less abstract example is the famous ‘overview effect’ that astronauts express when viewing the earth from space, creating a sense of unity and a bewilderment in our division.
What if the Metaverse could be littered with metaphorical 'overview effects'? On-demand experiences that would allow us to feel a connection to the grandness of the universe or the miracle of our own consciousness?
What if, with the click of a button, experiences with similar benefits could be remixed, and perhaps customized to your needs and preferences? What if, when that need arises, we could use AR/VR to easily jump in and out of completely immersive experiences that nourish the mind, reduce stress, and balance out your nervous system? Virtual ‘places’ rich with human connection, peak experiences, and perhaps your own tech empowered healer to guide you along the way?
This is the future Highvibe aims to create.
‘Planetary wellness’ via Regenerative Finance
Alongside creators focused on human wellness and peak experiences, Highvibe is also attracting creators/entrepreneurs focused on the 'wellness' of the planet.
Towards this end, two trends are emerging within Web3 called Proof of Good and ReFi (regenerative finance). Both are rooted in the theory of regenerative economics; a study of systems that could restore and maintain the planet's physical resources that are essential for human well-being.
Proof of Good and ReFi are closely intertwined, and both topics require an entire essay to do them justice. But I'll do my best to summarize. If you want to go deeper on the topic, this article by John Ellison is a must read.
Proof of Good is the idea of using blockchain and smart contracts to validate the occurrence of real-world activities that are good for the planet.
Leyline is a good example of this in action. With their 'Proof of Good' protocol, users can earn Good Points for performing 'good deeds' on their platform, e.g. donations, volunteer work, etc. As an example, some of their top use cases are 'on-chain blood donations' and the option to donate online computer processing power to scientific organizations or communities in need. Good Points can then be used to mint NFTs and earn crypto prizes. They also organize fundraising charity events, selling these NFTs as acts of 'altruism', recorded on a public Proof of Good Ledger.
This is just one step towards improving the incentives, transparency, and transactions around 'doing good'. Regenerative Finance (ReFi) takes things to a much deeper and fundamental level.
ReFi attempts to redesign the story of money; rethinking why it exists, how it's valued, and how/why it's obtained. For its money that seems to be at the root of the planet's greatest challenges, e.g. climate change, rainforest preservation, oil drilling.
The core idea is to create money backed by things that are good for the planet. Things like clean bodies of water, healthy forests, proof of increased biodiversity. This is in contrast to today's dominant money systems; paper backed by debt, backed by paper derivatives of more debt.
As Packy McCormack states in this awesome essay on Celo and ReFi, "Whatever backs money, people make more of. When money was backed by cattle, people bred more cattle. When it was backed by gold, people mined more gold. So why not back money with more of the things that we want to see in the world: clean bodies of water, strong forests, biodiversity?
But how the heck could money be backed by such things?
Web3 might hold the answer in its ability to tokenize natural assets (rainforests, biodiversity regions, bodies of water, etc). People have tried to do similar things before, but there hasn't been a sound way to digitize physical/natural assets, and then track and distribute them in a transparent and reliable way.
Take the rainforest example. Like gold, this is a finite and valuable asset. However, unlike gold, rainforests can't be melted into bars, stored in a vault, and easily tracked. But, as Packy points out, we're now seeing breakthroughs in something called dMRV (digital monitoring, reporting, and verification). dMRV relies on satellites, remote sensors, AI, and communities like the Open Forest Protocol (OFP) to monitor the health of individual trees and living organisms.
As John Ellison says, this data can then be used to "create cryptocurrencies that incentivize ecosystem preservation and restoration at mass scale. We can now create transparent, programmable and digital representations of physical objects and even living beings—we can now create planet-positive money."
While ReFi is not the initial focus for HVN, its community and founders have it on their roadmap. In the interim, HVN has designed a way to fund regenerative practices through an ‘impact treasury’. This treasury is native to LionDAO, founded and led today by the HVN team themselves. Like many DAOs, membership is granted through NFT ownership. Each is embedded with a royalty based split (powered by a smart contract). Every time there is a secondary sale, 25% of the transaction is split off and goes to the impact fund. From there, the community can decide on the causes they wish to donate. HVN plans to also enable microtransactions within its economy, allowing people to tip/donate on a very minimal level to causes they care about.
Another common concern is that Web3’s user experience (UX) is too complex. Especially for the layman.
Yes, the learning curve today can be daunting. Many creators see and hear the promise, but they’re left scratching their heads on how to build, manage, and extract real utility from things like NFTs, tokens, and DAOs.
Web3 is very much in the 'command line' era of computing. HVN is not ignorant to this fact. To counteract, they’ve designed every UX element to abstract away the complexity and provide an extremely intuitive user interface and workflow.
HVN also puts a major emphasis on teaching the layman how to fish, both by example (with their own DAO and NFT projects) and through Web3 'onboarding' content.
This focus on user enablement isn't just a line in a pitch deck. It's being put to the truest of tests with people and communities who may have the steepest learning curve of all; ancient tribes in South America and remote villages in Africa.
Web3 for inclusion and opportunity: onboarding remote & disconnected communities
In Part I, I portrayed an imagined future scenario, in which the Yawanawa Tribe from Brazil uses HVN to create and sell NFTs. This was not just a figment of my imagination. It’s a real project blossoming within the HVN ecosystem, led by Uma Sai DAO.
Uma Sai actually has two projects ongoing, one with the Yawanawa and another with remote tribes and villages in Africa. Through a hands-on consultative approach, Uma Sai is using HVN tools to help these tribes create wallets, record their music, and digitize their art.
Upon initial consideration, it might seem unlikely that such tribes would ever embrace Web3 tech. These people have avoided technology with intent. Why would they change now?
First, their younger generations are simply more exposed to the digital world. They're becoming aware of the possibilities and starting to understand what tech can do for their people.
While they remain wary of the perils of screen time and doom scrolls, they see the opportunity to preserve their tribes' cultures, and its survival through digitization and improved economic means. All while preserving their way of life and keeping a necessary distance from the pitfalls of the modern/Western 'system'.
Second, these people take immense pride in their culture and its wisdom, and they're enthused by the idea of more easily sharing their message and learnings with the world. But the traditional path to do so is stacked against them, fraught with bureaucracy, middlemen, and the risk of being exploited. Documentaries, books, articles, media of all types... it all goes through 3rd party after 3rd party, and there is no direct connection to their audience, no direct flow of money, and no direct control of their IP, neither its distribution nor its rights. Web3 protocols and tokenization provides the IP ownership and direct audience connection they need to feel empowered and in control of their message and economic destiny.
It’s also an opportunity for impoverished tribes to participate in an entirely new digital economy. Particularly those on the fringes of modern society. While their indigenous roots remain, they’re mindset and sense of presence in the modern world has evolved.
To date, these communities have had nothing substantial to contribute to the traditional, GDP guzzling economy; very little crop exports, no vehicle imports, limited manufacturing capabilities, and little to no tourism. Their wealth, which is hard to quantify in the traditional economy, has been held in their rich tradition of music, art, and stories.
For the first time, by digitizing their cultural artefacts, these communities are able to own their IP and contribute to the 'metaverse GDP', creating new revenue streams to lift them out of poverty. This lift off could be further fueled by access to more potent and inclusive forms of education, using the metaverse to dissolve physical, financial, and political constraints of an Ivy League level education.
This removal of constraints extends to a more fundamental level of society’s operating system: ownership. Particularly, ownership of valuable assets and property (e.g. a house, a car, land, a business, etc).
Buying and owning physical assets/property is out of reach for most people on the planet today. And for most of those who think they 'own assets'... well, not quite. They belong to a bank (via a loan).
But digital assets and property? That’s becoming a different story. Younger generations are starting to value digital goods more than physical, and older generations are waking up to the frictionless benefits of digital property. The traditional constraints to owning, buying, and selling just don’t exist. There’s no bank and archaic system of identity and ‘credit worthiness’ standing in your way. There’s a 24/7, global market, bringing levels of liquidity that does not exist for physical goods. And there are baked-in rails for value transfer and exchange.
Combine this with the ability for a community to pool resources and split ownership, opening up access to assets that would otherwise be out of reach? Suddenly, we start to see a world in which people are no longer locked out of ‘the system’. It’s a world in which wealth gaps start to close, and more people have levels of freedom, influence, and control that’s been historically reserved for a rather fortunate few.
To be sure, there are many hurdles standing in the way of these grand visions.
This includes the maturity of 3D technology and AR/VR headsets with high fidelity, immersive experiences that could yield things like intimate connection, transcendent experiences, and states of flow.
As for Web3 and ReFi, while these assets are in development, they lack consistent liquidity and face prickly political ramifications. It will also take a long period of time to complete a deep societal re-programming of what money is/means.
Despite these headwinds, we should ground our optimism and hope in the fact that for the first time ever, the tools and building blocks now exist to make such grand visions a reality.
While many of these ideas aren't new, what's changed is that they're no longer technically infeasible. They just require humans with inhuman levels of motivation, resilience, and vision. Fortunately for us, humanity is riddled with such talent, and this Web3 movement is pulling these folks out of the woodwork, from every corner of the globe. Highvibe Network and its team is just one resounding example.
As for Web3 and its lingering (typical bear market) skepticism.... A lot of smart people are poking legitimate (present day) holes in Web3, labeling blockchains as inefficient and expensive, tokens as overly volatile and speculative, and DAOs as disorganized and chaotic. They say that to overtake Web2, the product and UX needs to be at least 10x better.
I view this Web2 vs Web3 perspective as naive. It ignores how tech evolves into the next generation of products. This is not about Web3 'surpassing' or beating Web2. The past is going to be intermingled with the future for a long time, and depending on the use case, we'll likely always see the best of both within a single application.
This skepticism also ignores the impact of where these changes are occurring in 'stack', of both technology and society; it's occurring at the absolute lowest layers.
At the foundational layer of both the 'humanity & technology' stack, we're creating a technical and psychological shift in what value is, how value is manifested, and how value is transferred. And considering what value is, a human construct that has evolved and hardened over thousands of years, of course this process is going to be messy, volatile, long, and hard.
But more importantly, when innovating at this layer, we don't need 10x improvements. As Holyn eloquently states in this short must read article, we just need a 3% improvement at this foundational layer. Doing so leads to magnified benefits downstream, yielding those needed 10x-100x improvements, and in turn shifting how coordination can occur, how truth can be established, and how value can be created & moved.
I don't think it's useful to try and predict the future; the world is too complex and the outcomes too unpredictably emergent.
Instead, let's decide if the underlying ideas are useful. Blockchains, NFTs, DAOs, DeFI, tokens; these are all super interesting and useful constructs that can be used to build new and useful things. Especially in a digitally native world.
So whether you're a new user, developer, or entrepreneur; don't focus on predicting. It's much more interesting to just stay curious, experiment, and build; one line of code, one smart contract, and one DAO governance proposal at a time.