Learning surveillance and the metaverse: Do you mind being watched? | Guest column

Ever wondered what helps us learn, the mind or the body?

In his book, “It Didn’t Start with You,” author Mark Wolynn traces the continuance of generational trauma to human genes, arguing how unresolved trauma can be transferred generationally through the body.

If that is the case, then one wonders if the body plays a critical role in memory-making and learning. However, the French philosopher René Descartes, famous for his mediations on the unthinking body vs. the thinking mind (mind-body dualism), that heavily influenced the educational system, would thoroughly disagree. But Descartes is dead, and his ideas of the mind-body division have undergone significant opposition and critique.

One such opposition to this bias in favor of the mind’s superiority over the body can be found in the metaverse’s attempts to create immersive learning spaces through a centering of the learner’s body — both physical and virtual.

It is no wonder that several companies like Faceshift, Meta, Philips, High Fidelity, etc., have been investing in making our experiences in VR increasingly physical. Unlike traditional classrooms, which mostly focus on engaging the learner’s mind, the metaverse has been trying to implement immersive learning experiences by engaging the mind through the body of the learner. This mind-body balance is a marked improvement in how we approach learning and training.

But as laudable as this move away from a mentalistic learning model it is, one wonders if this obsession with the learner’s body/embodied learning could necessitate the institutionalization of compulsory tracking mechanisms to assess learning. One may argue that tracking has become a part of our everyday life with cameras everywhere, chip implants, etc., so the tracking of a learner’s behavior or progress in the metaverse is no exception. But could this form of learning surveillance empower the metaverse to shape us behaviorally, like other cultural institutions (politics, religion, and education)?

Body in the metaverse

The learner’s body in the metaverse appears in the form of an avatar. While the menu of avatars to choose from is finite, the learner can pick from a variety of hairstyles, skin tones, clothing, etc. that best represents her. Some learning and training programs also make tailored requests based on learner demographics.

For example, Wavemakers — a learning program hosted on the metaverse for historically under-represented students in Canada — requested its hosting platform, Virbela, to create avatars for students from indigenous communities to make the learning environment relatable to its users.

In her interview with me, Krista Pawley, the co-founder of Wavemakers, also pointed out how their learners, in the metaverse, could choose a female/male/gender-neutral body, and students with disabilities could select or opt-out of adaptive devices based on their preferences. The ability to inhabit the body of a chosen avatar that can move around in the metaverse environment, gives the learner a sense of autonomy and agency similar to a real-world experience.

The pursuit of realism in VR has also led several companies to invest time and resources in creating presence through more life-like avatars. Faceshift has mapped human faces to arrive at 51 “unique labels” or nuanced facial expressions common to human faces; High Fidelity and Microsoft Kinect have invested in tracking and rendering of real-life human body movements in VR environments; and Meta and Phillips’ are busy perfecting the ability to capture tactile sensations like human touch in the hyperreal world.

At present, the experience offered by several metaverse platforms, especially those that require goggling in, is so realistic that the companies like Meta have had to introduce features that prevent groping or other forms of physical harassment in the metaverse. The virtual body demands a form of psychological and sometimes physiological involvement that is hard to overlook. It is no surprise that several users have reported injuring themselves while being immersed in the VR habitat. In the world of VR, the body of the user is sacred — the more real, the better the experience offered.

But too much of anything can become a cause for concern, much like the Cartesian preoccupation with the mind at the cost of the body. In the context of learning and training, the metaverse’s preoccupation with the learner’s body/embodied learning can lead to an obligatory tracking mechanism that is justified for its role in helping learners succeed.

Body under surveillance

Surveillance refers to the act of tracking by keeping watch. CCTV cameras are the most obvious examples of surveillance — in the presence of these, you know you are being watched but are uncertain of who is watching you. As noted by different surveillance theorists (Foucault to Zuboff), the reasons behind surveillance can be varied—some invisible entity wants to protect itself/create a safe environment for you/exercise power over you/modify your behavior/know you better, etc. The metaverse wants to know its users better in order to create an effective immersive experience.

To do this, VR labs, corporations invested in VR technology, metaverse architects need to study the user scientifically through constant observation.

Stanford Professor Jeremy Bailenson, credited with running the university’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, and taking his in-person class to the metaverse in 2021, notes in his book “Experience on Demand” that the most important aspect of VR technology is tracking. Tracking involves monitoring both the physical and the virtual body of the user. This may entail monitoring gestures, eye movements, interactions, communication patterns, etc., to gauge user engagement and evaluate user behavior/experience/performance.

One example of body tracking provided in Bailenson’s book is that of an experiment conducted by him and Dr. Joshua Bostick in their lab to raise awareness of the bodily sufferings that animal’s go through in factory farms. The experiment involved 50 college students who were put into a cow simulator where “every millimeter that their arms and legs moved was tracked and transformed into their cow’s gait” (104). The experience was so embodied and immersive that the participants could feel virtual touch, so “When the subject saw his cow avatar getting poked by cattle prod, he felt that poke in his actual side” (104).

This exercise in empathy-creation would not be possible without real-time body tracking. Simultaneously, the psychological effects of this experiment could also be mapped through the data derived during tracking and post simulation. But while Bailenson’s lab used tracking to create empathy in a group of students, tracking or bodily surveillance can also be used for other purposes — like predicting test scores (Bailenson) or others.

This brings me to the question of assessing learning post instruction: what role can bodily surveillance play in measuring the learning progress of a student or employee undergoing a workplace training in the metaverse?

On being asked about learning assessment mechanisms tailored to fit the metaverse, the co-founder of Virbela, Dr. Alex Howland, told me how many VR platforms, including Virbela, do not offer any novel way to assess learning. While there are ways for learners to communicate their learnings in this space, engage in group activities, and receive real-time feedback, most examinations take place outside the metaverse in the form of pre/post tests, engagement surveys, etc.

The future of learning and training in the metaverse, as per Dr. Howland, could negate the need for in-person examinations altogether — as tracking learner behavior/bodily movements, and tweaking the training to fit the learning objectives and the needs of the learner, could lead to the behavior becoming the final assessment. The future of learning assessment in the metaverse can be summed up best in these words by Bailenson, “Every year I ask students in my Virtual People class a question. Would you rather have your grade based on a few high-pressure hours taking a final exam — the traditional method — or on an analysis of your digital footprint, a continuous measure of learning and engagement formed from the analysis of literally millions of data points spanning hours per week for months at a time? So far, I’ve found very few takers for the new way.”

Most humans are uncomfortable with the idea of being watched. It gives the watcher a certain amount of power over the one who is watched. The most powerful institutions — religion, science, politics, etc. — have thrived on this power. God is watching you, the State is watching you, the therapist is observing you, you are watching others on social media — the metaverse is no exception.

If the purpose behind surveillance is noble, then there is less cause for concern. However, as learning technologies evolve, it becomes important for us to reinstate our personal boundaries both as learners and as people who think critically.

Dr. Jayendrina Singha Ray’s research interests include postcolonial studies, spatial literary studies, British literature, and rhetoric and composition. Prior to teaching in the U.S., she worked as an editor with Routledge and taught English at colleges in India. She is a resident of Kirkland.