AR Will Spark the Next Big Tech Platform—Call It Mirrorworld

By Kevin Kelly

Like the web and social media before it, the mirror­world will unfold and grow, producing unintended problems and unexpected benefits. Start with the business model. Will we try to jump-start the platform with the shortcut of advertising? Probably. I am old enough to remember the internet before it allowed commercial activity, and it was just too broke to grow. A commercial-free mirrorworld would be infeasible and undesirable. However, if the only business model is selling our attention, then we’ll have a nightmare—because, in this world, our attention can be tracked and directed with much greater resolution, which subjects it to easy exploitation.

On a macro scale, the mirrorworld will exhibit the crucial characteristic of increasing returns. The more people use it, the better it gets. The better it gets, the more people will use it, and so on. That self-reinforcing circuit is the prime logic of platforms, and it’s why platforms—like the web and social media—grow so fast and so vast. But this dynamic is also known as winner-take-all; this is why one or two parties come to dominate platforms. We are just now trying to figure out how to deal with these natural monopolies, these strange new beasts like Facebook and Google and WeChat, which have the characteristics of governments as well as corporations. To muddy the view further, all these platforms are messy mixtures of centralization and decentralization.

In the long term, the mirrorworld can only sustain itself as a utility; like other utilities such as water, electricity, or broadband, we’ll have to pay a regular recurring fee—a subscription. We will be happy to do that when (and if) we believe we get real value from this virtual place.

The emergence of the mirrorworld will affect us all at a deeply personal level. We know there will be severe physiological and psychological effects of dwelling in dual worlds; we’ve already learned that from our experience living in cyberspace and virtual realities. But we don’t know what these effects will be, much less how to prepare for them or avoid them. We don’t even know the exact cognitive mechanism that makes the illusion of AR work in the first place.

We reflexively recoil at the specter of such big data. We can imagine so many ways it might hurt us.

The great paradox is that the only way to understand how AR works is to build AR and test ourselves in it. It’s weirdly recursive: The technology itself is the microscope needed to inspect the effects of the technology.

Some people get very upset with the idea that new technologies will create new harms and that we willingly surrender ourselves to these risks when we could adopt the precautionary principle: Don’t permit the new unless it is proven safe. But that principle is unworkable, because the old technologies we are in the process of replacing are even less safe. More than 1 million humans die on the roads each year, but we clamp down on robot drivers when they kill one person. We freak out over the unsavory influence of social media on our politics, while TV’s partisan influence on elections is far, far greater than Facebook’s. The mirrorworld will certainly be subject to this double standard of stricter norms.

Many of the risks of the mirrorworld are easy to imagine, because they are the same ones we see on current platforms. For instance, we’ll need mechanisms in the mirrorworld to prevent fakes, stop illicit deletions, spot rogue insertions, remove spam, and reject insecure parts. Ideally, we can do this in a way that is open to all participants, without having to involve a Big Brother overseer like a dominant corporation.

Blockchain has been looking for a job, and ensuring the integrity of an open mirrorworld might be what it was born to do. There are enthusiastic people working on that possibility right now. Unfortunately, it is not too difficult to imagine scenarios where the mirrorworld is extensively centralized, perhaps by a government. We still have a choice about this.

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Without exception, every researcher in this field that I’ve spoken to has been acutely aware of these divergent paths and claims to be working toward a decentralized model—for many reasons, including the chief one that a decentralized and open platform will be richer and more robust. Clay Bavor, vice president of AR and VR at Google, says, “We want an open service that gets better each time someone uses it, like the web.”