Getting Ahead of the Virtual Wild West

Getting Ahead of the Virtual Wild West

co-authored with Lisanne Binhammer

The necessity for foresight in spatial computing

We’ve come a long way since the days of sending ye ol’ smoke signals to connect with one another across vast distances. From carrier pigeons to movable type, telegrams to radio waves, telecommunications have fundamentally changed our society—socially, culturally, and politically. With the internet, we’ve made leaps and bounds in being able to interface with those near and far, whether it’s shooting a Slack message to a colleague at work or organizing a protest overseas. With each telecommunication milestone, we’ve unleashed consequences—both desirable and undesirable, anticipated and not. We’ve seen the Gutenberg printing press introduce criticisms and alternative interpretations to Catholicism, and social media giving rise to the Arab Spring.

And now we stand on the edge of another mighty shift in telecommunications: spatial computing. This significant technological advancement means that soon we will no longer feel bound by the physical spaces that have previously restricted our ability to connect and share. Soon, we will be able to be wherever we want, with whomever we want—and even create spaces that suit our every whim. As was recently announced at the Oculus Connect Keynote, Facebook Horizon plans to give us this sort of social VR world—one where we can explore, create and connect beyond what we thought possible.

These are exciting times. Unimaginable times, really, for an 1847 Alexander Graham Bell—or even a 2004 Mark Zuckerberg. But these are also unstable times, with political turmoil as a result of rampant misinformation and the threat of rampant unemployment due to advances in automation.

These unstable times make this exactly the time when we need to stop, think, and understand the possible, plausible, and probable applications and potential misuses of spatial computing. We need to be proactive, not reactive to technological shifts as they happen.

In order to unpack the future of spatial computing, we need to understand the levers that shape telecommunication experiences. This first lever is social; throughout history, telecommunications have allowed for two different types of social networks to flourish. These networks are either global—think universal, large structures that are regulated, like Canada Post or Twitter—or local community networks—networks that reside within global social networks.


The distinction between local and global social networks is not unlike the makeup of sociological ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ social groups. Secondary groups are defined by formal and institutional relationships, where the emotional ties are weaker; and primary groups are defined by their intimate and lasting relationships1.

To help differentiate these two network types it helps to unpack them and understand how they relate to each other. Global social networks are similar to offline social networks. We all have primary social groups that we speak to and see on a regular basis. These often include friends, acquaintances, peers and coworkers. Global social networks are expansive networks, individually curated to revolve around a group of people you’ve already met and have an existing connection with, this would be your ‘Friend List’ so to speak. These networks are highly personal and unique. They are often loosely knit, and focused centrally on the central hub.

Local community networks form out of groups of people from all different backgrounds and demographics. People join online communities for many different reasons – often seeking an in-group connection with others who share a preference for similar interests or lifestyles. Where global social networks can be highly curated, Local Community Networks are not individually curated beyond the decision to partake in them. They closer reflect real-world communities where the network is made primarily through locality, such as in a neighbourhood, religious group, educational institution or workplace. In our contemporary networked society, this locality extends beyond geographic spatial locality and into the new spatial realities we are building. There are many benefits of community networks including the tightly knit and interconnected nature of their relationships which can help to foster interpersonal support and a sense of belonging. A spectrum exists between global social networks and local community networks, from those that are truly all-encompassing, to ones that are hidden out of sight and on the periphery.

“Apple recognized what the earliest users of the printing press did: people have a profound desire to form sub-communities around like-minded people, traditional powers be damned…" Jeremy Arnold, Quora
“Just as the formation of newspapers allowed people to identify and communicate with those who shared like religious and political values, smartphones allow us to easily find and connect with people who’ll co-explore facets of identity that our structured environments often ignore or repress…” Jeremy Arnold, Quora
“Facebook didn’t build these groups. We built them in spite of Facebook. We built them because of what Facebook had become… they are affinity groups — either geographically or culturally — and when a group gets too big, or too broad, it’ll divide itself into something that feels more intimate” Anne Helen Peterson, BuzzFeed News
“Before the internet, people worked harder to find affinity groups, but they still found them — even if it meant placing ads in esoteric trade magazines and becoming pen pals, or showing up for Toastmasters, or quilting club, or genealogy class all by yourself.” Anne Helen Peterson, BuzzFeed News

The second lever at play is spatial. Space is relationally defined; it acquires meaning and sense only when related to other concepts2. Acclaimed French philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefebvre asserts that there are three types of space, the first being ‘first space’ or spatial practice, how we come to define space physically through our movements within it; ‘second space’ or representations of space, which refers to how we define space conceptually through inventing new spaces—maps, plans, models, and designs; and lastly, ‘third space’ or representational space, when space is defined through overlays on our environment—colourful flags hung from balconies, or murals painted derelict buildings—that imbue the space with symbolic meaning.

Spatial Practice, Representations of space, vs. Representational space
Spatial Practice, Representations of space, vs. Representational space

Lefebvre attested that the lines between these types of spatial understanding are not set in stone. With technological advancements in telecommunications, these types of spaces have become less and less distinct and are now a spectrum that defines spaces—one that moves from the real (first space) to the virtual (second space), with augmented spaces (third space) giving meaning to everything in between.

Thinking about spatial computing through this spectrum is key in understanding that the tech community’s AR versus VR battle is rather pointless. If you browse any tech publishing platform today it’s clear that the community is choosing tribes and placing bets as to which Extended Reality (XR) technology will succeed. From the fervent AR-enthusiasts (the dedicated Pokemon Go-ers, and even Tim Cook’s passionate cries) to those sitting on the edge of their seats waiting for the VR “just-around-the-corner” era (brought on in large part by the scrappy kickstarter Palmer Lucky’s 2012 launch of the DK1 Oculus Rift, which introduced feasibility and affordability in VR headsets). However, pitting AR against VR only reinforces the belief that these are distinctive ways of understanding space, when really, augmentation places the use of space on a spectrum between the two extremes.


Thinking about spatial computing through this spectrum is key in understanding that the tech community’s AR versus VR battle is rather pointless. If you browse any tech publishing platform today it’s clear that the community is choosing tribes and placing bets as to which Extended Reality (XR) technology will succeed. From the fervent AR-enthusiasts (the dedicated Pokemon Go-ers, and even Tim Cook’s passionate cries) to those sitting on the edge of their seats waiting for the VR “just-around-the-corner” era (brought on in large part by the scrappy kickstarter Palmer Lucky’s 2012 launch of the DK1 Oculus Rift, which introduced feasibility and affordability in VR headsets). However, pitting AR against VR only reinforces the belief that these are distinctive ways of understanding space, when really, augmentation places the use of space on a spectrum between the two extremes.


These two levers—social and spatial—create a matrix wherein applications of telecommunication technologies can be mapped. Once we start to map out these applications, we can better understand our collective futures, and identify any opportunities to shift, or reach for those futures. This “Social-Spatial” Matrix is a tool that product builders need to start understanding, and using now as it relates to what they are building. We can’t wait for spatial computing to unfold around us. We need to be proactive about how we are designing and implementing reconstructions of our very reality—lest we end up in a virtual wild west.

Possible futures are often mapped out in order to contrast how things might be, if signals and trends were to unfold in one way or another. However, this type of mapping is blind to the obvious: our collective future has, and will always be defined through it’s pluralities. For instance, a future with economic growth will also include economic decline, a future with improved access to education will also include barriers, etc. With the Social-Spatial Matrix, we can envision four possible futures that live alongside one another, influenced by trends that are currently giving shape to our lives.

In order to understand this plurality, we can think about our social experiences with telecommunications today. We have platforms like Twitter, which are representative of global social groups: an expansive network that is curated based on individual preferences and connections. Within Facebook we have Weird Facebook, a local community network, which allows for organic communities to thrive by association in a private, and secret way. Our world will never become a place where global social groups reign, despite whatever Orwellian-Black-Mirror future that is being painted for us. We can rest assured that our human nature will always appropriate the networks that are offered to us from the powers-that-be, from the social networks that were used in the Arab Springs movement, or the ad-hoc networks used by the Zapatista movement in Mexico . We will always have a choice in how we decide to make teletechnologies work for us, and what future we will be a part of. No matter what we choose, however, the future will be a blended one: the physical and the digital will soon be so intertwined that we can’t simply close our laptops, or power off; in these futures, we’ll be on at all times.

“We are all migrants, all of us: We move through space and time” Mohsin Hamid

Current products mapped to the Social-Spatial Matrix


The Quadrants

The four quadrants within the Social-Spatial Matrix represent a framework to map all of our current socio-technological experiences. By mapping the current state of spatial computing, we can imagine how our collective futures will evolve with the proliferation of XR technologies, and other macro and micro trends/signals/drivers at play. These quadrants hold futures that are based on trends and technologies that exist concurrently with one another, and so these futures are entirely interdependent. The descriptions of the quadrants are not meant to act as true forecasts of what will occur, but summaries of present worlds and their future expressions. It is important to take note of the fact that futures within a quadrant will manifest differently depending on where it lies on each axis—these axis are spectrums. For example, Facebook resides further down the Real-Virtual axis than something like Facebook Marketplace, as Facebook interactions take place wholly virtually, whereas the company’s Marketplace requires an in-person connection. For the sake of simplicity, this article proposes each of the following quadrants as a unique present and future:

The Digital Well Real–grounded in physical space, and Local Community Networks

Key attributes: Group Centric, Grassroots, tightly bound communities anchored in real space and the built environment.

Autonomous Islands Virtual, and Local Community Networks Key attributes: Group Centric, Grassroots, tightly bound communities anchored in virtual space

The Glocalized Village Real–grounded in physical space, and Global Social Networks Key attributes: Peer-to-peer global social networks anchored in real space and the built environment

The Metaverse Virtual, and Global Social Networks

Key attributes: Self-centric, algorithmically optimized, Peer-to-Peer Global social networks anchored in virtual space

Through describing how these quadrants in the Social-Spatial Matrix exist today, as well as what they will look like in the future (the opportunities they hold, and their constraints) we can begin to imagine how spatial computing will shape and mold our world in the year 2030 (and perhaps, create more appropriate and meaningful products)

The Metaverse


The term “metaverse” was first coined by Neil Stevenson in the science fiction novel Snow Crash. Stevenson’s metaverse is a place where people are represented through their avatars and interact with each other and in a three-dimensional virtual space. The very real groundwork for the actualization of this social metaverse has been laid over the last decade, with today’s social media platform experience. The platform experience provides people with a space where they can connect with an expansive network, but don’t, and instead connect with personally and algorithmically-suggested people and content. Signals like Facebook Horizon indicate that future Metaverses will simply be a natural progression in social media dominance over the years. We can imagine that the platform experience will continue to refine and become even more optimized, through the use of metadata aggregation, ever increasing data nets,  and user profiling to enable enhanced micro-targeting. The Metaverses in 2030 will ring in the true “age of me”, with experiences that are so personal, and highly tailored, people won’t see any reason to leave (despite the pure explosion of echo chambers that occurs with this personalization).

As global social networks move entirely into the virtual arena, future Metaverses will enable people to feel present with everyone—from families to friends—across vast distances at any time. This will make the world feel much smaller and further eliminate geographical barriers, but paradoxically will also make the world feel much larger, through the rapid expansion of new worlds and new possibilities. Global Metaverses of the future will allow for new remote working opportunities and also allow us to form and maintain interpersonal relations over vast distances. This true sense of connection will be made possible by the aesthetic qualities of the 2030 Metaverses. Although people in these Metaverses will need to essentially reside in a cube in the sky—in order to allow for full virtual immersion—the high production value of the Metaverse (made possible by the Twitters and the ‘Grams), as well as technological enablers like 5g network connections, cloud-based processing, and pixel dense optical displays, will result in such a polished, high-fidelity XR experience that people will feel utterly present and immersed.

Building in Facebook Horizon
Building in Facebook Horizon

However, this reality won’t allow people to be truly expressive—to stay on-brand and polished, these Metaverses will have limits on user-generated content. Much like adding a “Frame” to one’s profile picture on Facebook today, or choosing a snapchat filter, assets available to the population of these Metaverses will be created and curated by the powers-that-be. The lack of freedom to express oneself, coupled with the potential to be everywhere and stay nowhere, will result in a network of loosely-knit (read: shallow!) peer-to-peer relationships, wherein the entire population is highly individualistic (read: self-centric!) and lacks a sense of community. Alas, the dopamine rushes that are associated with such a polished and entertainment-driven reality—and, naturally, the user value created by the network effect that we see today—will result in the 2030 Metaverse as the preferred virtual domain, for much of the world’s population.

Signals: (Current technologies) Facebook Horizon ·  Minecraft ·  Fortnight ·  No Man’s Sky

Drivers: The network effect · Technological advancements with respect to immersion (e.g., stand-alone headsets, eye-tracking, increased field of view, controller-free hand tracking, mid-air haptic feedback, 5g Internet, Wi-Fi 6 [802.11ax]) · Cheaper XR applications

Trends: Individually-networked society · Erosion of the nuclear family · Decline of the fashion and cosmetic industries · Morphology shifts in human structure and form

The Digital Well


In the pre-industrial village, the water well was the centre of a community; a place where information was shared and friendships were forged. In this village we were familiar with our neighbours which provided us with local support networks (this is of particular importance to people who might otherwise be isolated, e.g., those with different levels of mobility, etc.). These networks however, were snapped in two, via the onset of industrialization and the automobile industry—the combination of which paved the way (literally) for the urban sprawl that led to suburban bedroom communities. While churches and community centres have continued to be a source of networked support for many, a sense of community also appeared through factories and offices around the water cooler.

In the last thirty years, we’ve gone through another major shift in community, one that continues to cause global change today: Networked Individualism. This term was identified by sociologist Barry Wellman, and it “represents the shift of the classical model of social arrangements formed around hierarchical bureaucracies or social groups that are tightly-knit, like households and workgroups, to connected individuals, using the means provided by the evolution of Information and communications technology.”1

With the internet came new possibilities for both communication and community, at a truly global scale. We no longer have to chat proximally around the water cooler, but can instead identify our own personal networks via the roar of the internet.

There is already resistance to this latest shift, which we can see today in the form of The Digital Well. We can see these Digital Wells manifested as ad-hoc interventions, anchored geographically throughout our built environments. To name a few: Dead man’s drop, when a USB drive is embedded in a brick wall, allowing for informal local data exchanges, or Bunz Trading Zone, a grassroots group in Toronto that facilitates local barter and trade (and has its own currency). When we bind the digital to the physical, organic local communities can form once again. Local community networks with a digital presence are powerful: Bridgefy connected Hong Kong protestors via a Bluetooth mesh network, allowing them to stay organized and safe.

Stickers that mark areas as designated exchange points within the city.
Stickers that mark areas as designated exchange points within the city.

In 2030, the Digital Well will reign true, serving the same purpose as its past versions: to leverage the built environment as a way to organically foster a sense of community between people who may be complete strangers but share common interests, ideologies, etc. In 2030, we will see a continued desire for local community networks, for ties and authenticity outside of the easy personalization that algorithms provide.

The Digital Well will rebirth small protestant churches which have struggled to keep their pews filled, quiet community centres that have been abandoned in favour of their more elaborate virtual counterparts, vacant storefronts, and even empty libraries. Much like today’s social-media averse, the future will be made of individuals who will be increasingly driven by the need to connect locally. This will be driven by various drivers including the rejection of consumer culture, algorithmic persuasion and in support of political movements. For people who will feel particularly socially isolated in spaces like the Metaverse (like the elderly or children, their profiles not robust enough to provide true personalization, or differently-abled people, or those on the lower-income spectrum), the 2030 Digital Well will offer much-needed community-driven support. The Digital Well will be organic, and free: it will be uncensored and open, a world in which people interact outside of any algorithmic curation. People will express themselves, oppose each other, and ultimately learn from new ways of living.

With Bridgefy, Hong Kong protestors can communicate locally without the fear of traceability from the authorities
With Bridgefy, Hong Kong protestors can communicate locally without the fear of traceability from the authorities

The Digital Well will also be constrained by its serendipitous and in some cases ephemeral nature. Without curation and personalization, it will be harder to find compatibility—in work, and in love—and because of this drawback, the population of the Digital Well will be that much lower. As it will be purely community-driven, there will be fewer resources, and so less power, and ultimately less stability. The Well will be raw and dangerous; a world in which parental controls will not (and will never) exist and where lack of censorship and oversight provide opportunities for criminal elements and cyber security threats to exploit.

Signals: Bridgefy · Not Far From The Tree · USB Dead Drops · Kowloon Walled City · Firechat · The Arab Spring Uprising · The Zapatista Movement · Burning man · the Interior Design movement of “Casual Collisions”* · Critical mass cycling demonstrations

Drivers: Authoritarian regimes · Grassroots movements · Protests movements

Trends: The adaptation and exploitation of neutral platforms · Use of local networks as a form of political resistance, Interventions in public space

* Casual collisions: Not always centred around teletechnologies, but a movement towards designing serendipitous moments particularly at tech companies so that employees are forced to interact with one another (e.g., narrower hallways, long lunch tables, open floor offices, switch-floor elevators at Bloomberg and Facebook, tracked lunch lines to maintain length and interactions)

The Glocalized Village


The term glocalized is used to describe products or services that are created on a global scale, but then finessed, and adjusted to be more relevant to consumers of a particular local market. Think McDonalds hamburgers with a drizzle of maple syrup for the Canadian market, salsa verde for the Mexican market, etc. Local stereotypes are played out in an almost obnoxious way, but still: these mass experiences are grounded in a physical and specific environment.

The Glocalized Village occurs when digital experiences that are provided by global social networks become grounded in the physical, built environment. From choosing a kilometre radius on Tinder to scope out new potential partners to buying and selling from only those in your immediate area on Facebook Marketplace, the 2020 Glocalized Village is a mere shadow of what may come.

In the future, the Glocalized Village will help people to traverse perfectly crafted spaces for them; all that will remain of your city is what is recommended to you, from coffee shops where you’ll undoubtedly run into your favourite friends, from events where you’ll happen to network with just the right person. And, as the Glocalized Village will be made up of a global social network, the algorithmic chances of you running into your favourite friends, and just the right person, are not only high—they’re certain. People will hang out with like; those whom they share cultural backgrounds, or socio-economic class. The 2030 Glocalized Village will “remove” those who aren’t a match with us from our realities entirely (think being blocked on Facebook, but blocked from your vision, or appearing as diminished reality [DR*]). Our individual views of the real world will become personalized, and one person’s experience of it will differ from the next.


This personalization will be both self-curated and algorithmically curated. People will tend to rely on the tech-giants, much like the Metaverse, to curate and target their lives from them; although this time, via physical representations. People will live on pure dopamine highs, constantly, with their perfect lives and the resources to get them there at their fingertips at all times.

The Glocalized Village will be an enticing place for many—save for those on the periphery of the ‘norm’, or who prefer that which is not exactly data-processing-possible. While finding one’s “perfect match” via algorithms can be acceptable for some, others appreciate love is one of the intangibles. There are poetic moments in life that teach us things outside of a taste profile; where our opinions and ideologies are thrown into question and we’re able to stretch as humans. In particular, the aging population will struggle to adapt in the Glocal Village. From dating parameters set against their favour, to less and less frequent recommendations of where to go—and who they “need” to bump into, once retired—the elderly in the 2030 Glocal Village will experience an empty world.

*Diminished Reality or DR: Technology that allows for people to remove or diminish the visibility of people or objects in view

Signals: Pokemon Go, Facebook Marketplace, Nextdoor, Tinder, Google Maps,

Drivers: Response to decentralized community, Network effect driving increased value to social networks and platforms

Trends: Dating app culture, Location-based gaming, Local reviews and ratings, Mobile AR gaming

Autonomous Islands


Autonomous Islands are defined today as groups united around a particular inclination or fascination that grows organically, tethered together only by a strings of code. Throughout history, subcultures have grown out of the formal structures that govern our lives. The Darknet is a prime example of this: a parallel network to the Internet used by criminals, journalists and privacy-advocates alike to anonymously communicate with their peers. They are networks within networks. In some cases, employing new encryption technologies like onion networks and blockchain ledgers, in other cases they simply exploit existing social networks privacy settings and use platform features in novel ways. It’s in these spaces where privacy is paramount, identity is fluid, and everything is ephemeral. Signals like today’s Weird Facebook and niche forums transform into an expansive underground network that will arise via the aid of virtual expression.

In 2030, Autonomous Islands will be the evolution of counterculture in all of it’s obscure, offbeat, and unbridled glory. Distinctive cultural groups will grow in response (and retaliation) to the tracked, and censored ways of living. These groups will offer an alternative to the algorithmically optimized and deeply personalized experiences of the 2030 Metaverses, instead offering people the chance to dive deeply to explore different facets of their identity. Rather than algorithmically-charged echo chambers, people in autonomous islands will meet others across a mix of social class and belief systems, however will share commonalities and mutual inclinations towards the niche, the fringe.

While the algorithmically driven global social networks often result in friend networks that are peer-to-peer, and shallow in nature, Autonomous Islands are places where organic, multi-node relationships form between members. Within them, in-groups with cultural bonds are bound together through shared interests, experiences or ideologies.

The 2030 Autonomous Islands will seem inaccessible to some—much like today’s Weird Twitter, where if you don’t get it, you’ll never get it—and will also be seen as a threat to the powers-that-be (any independent group, particularly ones that a prone to “extremist” beliefs, or ones that can be easily monetized and usually are). In the future of these autonomous milieus, aliases will be a must-have in order to evade surveillance and be free to be one’s authentic and unregulated self.

June Bride – A weird Twitter alias and netizen
June Bride – A weird Twitter alias and netizen

People in the 2030 Autonomous Islands will exploit the virtual environment around them in expressions unparalleled creativity. In comparison to the structured “creative” offerings and scheduled activities of the Metaverse, Autonomous Islands will be uncensored and unconstrained, often leading to a pastiche aesthetic and a wacky sense of absurdism. Uniquely beautiful virtual worlds will be created and sustained by autonomous groups, and within these groups people will form tightly knit relationships based on their interest in the ‘best of’ a particular topic. The sense of community will be strong in the 2030 AUTIS, and because of this, the Autonomous Islands will be the place to be for those who seek genuine, algorithm-free kinship.

Signals: The Dark Net, Weird Facebook, Weird Twitter, Open SIM, Dot Soul, Decentraland

Drivers: Censorship, Cultural hegemony, Postmodernism, Queer Culture

Trends: The implementation of encryption technologies such as blockchain, Co-opting and subversion of popular social media platforms


Our powered-on futures will be group-centric and peer-to-peer, grass roots, and algorithmically optimized, anchored in real space and virtual space, composed of tightly bound communities and global social networks. It will be all of these things, on a sliding scale, much like today. And, no matter what space you’re considering, be in the Metaverses, an Autonomous Island, the Glocalized Village or the Digital Well, our collective XR-riddled futures will each imply dire ethical consequences, by the nature of these technologies extending our realities.

What happens when we can use teletechnologies to pursue information in a completely untethered way? What happens when we can use them to connect boundlessly with those who are just like us – and no longer have to interact with those who aren’t? The Social-Spatial matrix attempts to explore what will happen in these powered-on futures, so we can understand the future before it (virtually) smacks us in the face. Are we building products that will help to support the rigid creativity of the Metaverse? Are we designing to augment the dangerous freedom of AUTIS? Are we building for the curated and personalized experience of the Glocalized Village? Or will our XR products empower the small communities of the Digital Well? The matrix helps us, as product builders, think about the impact that our products will have in the future, and think more consciously about the nature of the products we put out into the world, no matter where they lie on the real to digital spectrum.


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