At this year’s CogX Festival, tech experts, entrepreneurs, activists, academics and artists explored the changing nature of identity and how AI, the metaverse and transformational technologies are impacting what this means for society now and in the future. Read on for a roundup of the key themes impacting individual identity from this year’s CogX Festival.

The Emotional Connection

As highlighted in our recent report, New Realities: Into the Metaverse and Beyond, technology has the power to facilitate and deepen emotional connections. At this year’s event, CogX panellists delved into this theme, discussing how technology is impacting the formation of digital and real-life identities and how that in turn fosters deeper relationships in virtual worlds and beyond.

According to speakers at a panel titled, Where is my mind? The metaverse & mental health, the metaverse should complement real life, not replace it, helping people to develop closer relationships by exploring different parts of their identities. The metaverse, they said, can help further self-expression and community bonds. However, panellists did caution that too much dissonance between real-life and online identity can be detrimental to mental health. It’s crucial therefore that metaverse builders allow these identities to intertwine and reinforce each other rather than being disparate.

Technology is also helping to facilitate non-human emotional connections, like those between a person and their pet. In her talk Empowering Creativity 3.0, Susan Cummings, CEO of Tiny Rebel Games and co-founder of Petaverse Network, showcased her new Open Standard based Petaverse, a place where users can create pet avatars that can travel between worlds in the metaverse. The pets will grow and change over the years becoming a valued part of the family (like an IRL pet). The emotional bond formed between human and digital pet will deepen as they travel between worlds and platforms together with pets becoming another creative outlet for their owner’s personality.

Diverse Expression in the Metaverse

The metaverse is a place of unbounded creativity, where users can explore their identities in new ways. But, as discussed in the panel, Diversity and storytelling in the metaverse: how to build a better reality, without building in diverse representation this will fall flat for real world marginalized populations.

Danielle Braithwaite, an artist who primarily works with sound and video games, spoke of the digital sanctuary they created for the queer BIPOC community: the Black Trans Archive. Traditionally, pieces of archival history for this community have been very negative; for example, Mary Jones, one of the first Black Trans women to show up in historical archives in the US, is depicted as a “Man-Monster” in an illustration published in New York in 1836. Braithwaite uses this to highlight how the nature of what and how we digitally archive influences cultural perceptions. Representation online needs to be equal, as Women of the World CEO and founder Jude Kelly pointed out: “People say if you can’t see it, you can’t be it, but really, if you can’t see it, you can’t have human rights”. Building in diverse representation in the metaverse is critical to a fairer, more equitable world in the future.

At the same talk, a discussion about visualizing disabilities in the metaverse elicited varied viewpoints but ultimately all agreed it was up to the individual. Panellist Paula Sello, the CEO and founder of tech fashion house Auroboros, described how she chose to represent her own invisible disability which affects her lymphatic system, saying: “I included my lymphatic system coming out of my avatar and being something that's really empowering and beautiful. I don't know if everyone relates to this, because everyone has their own experience with disability, but there's this quote from a Marvel film which is “Mutant and Proud” - I loved that.”

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Press image from CogX: lymphatic system avatars.

Protecting Your identity

To freely express their identities, people need safe digital spaces. However, as some speakers suggested many aspects of the internet are still “virtually lawless”, so the fight is on to protect users’ identities, especially for those who belong to marginalised groups.

At the Tackling scalability, interoperability and the open metaverse panel, speakers explained that privacy and safety on the web are not always aligned. Because of this, metaverse developers should not be the only ones in control of moderation, they argued, proposing a multistakeholder, decentralised approach to regulation. In Decentralised social media: The next big theme in crypto, the idea of content moderation by the communities themselves was also put forth, perhaps even the use of a DAO (Decentralized Autonomous Organization) created specifically for the purpose.

However, panellists at a session entitled The new normal: Emerging online harms facing women, claimed that moderation is too late when it comes to protecting users’ identities, especially those from marginalized populations. Advances in AI-powered technology mean it’s now easier than ever to manufacture and manipulate images and film. This is intensifying the sexual objectification of women via deepfakes and synthetic pornographic content which is being weaponized to humiliate, harass and abuse.

Nima Elmi, Head of Public Policy at Bumble, spoke of “safety by design”. When building new platforms, this preventative approach integrates conversations about user safety throughout all design and development stages. By highlighting potential risks, developers can put measures in place to protect their users’ identities from harm.

Advances in technology as well as the opportunities provided by the metaverse are provoking deeper reflection and exploration of our own identities and how they manifest in virtual-first environments. Brands should look to prioritise representation, inclusion and creative self-expression in order to make their users feel not only safe, but welcome in their digital spaces.

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