Critical Spatial Practice for the Metaverse
I’ve been thinking a lot about critical spatial practice and how it relates to product design. Jane Rendell first coined the term in 2003, consolidating previous work by Michel de Certeau and Henri Lefebvre with the central tenet that self-reflection and social transformation can reshape the built environment and in turn, us.
But in a world where so much of the “space” we take up is digital, it’s worth pondering how critical spatial practice might apply to apps and online platforms, those virtual public spaces we inhabit on a daily basis.
In my line of work, I loosely call that public space “crypto”, “web3” or “the metaverse”. In truth, I view the latter more as a linguistic down payment on the future than an accurate depiction of the clusters of apps, dapps, Discord channels and Telegram chats that make it up in its current form.
If, indeed, we are hurtling towards a world of tokenized-everything, then presumably everything must be owned. Everything must be labelled, too, and must bear pre-defined rules for all future relationships. And then everything must be packaged. We must have wallets for our assets, galleries for our NFTs, profiles for our identities, and virtual lands to call our own.
As someone who works on the consumer-facing end of decentralized finance, I’m hyper aware of how product design defines the narrative we tell about the future of finance. I often get frustrated by how that narrative is less-than-ideal. And increasingly, I sense that narrative ignores the female lens.
And so, just as architects and urban planners have asked, “To whom does the city belong?”, we must begin to ask, “To whom does the metaverse belong?”
A place to start
In 2018, Jane Rendell wrote a seminal essay titled “Only resist: a feminist approach to critical spatial practice”. In it, she offers five qualities that characterize a feminist approach to critical spatial practice. These are collectivity, subjectivity, alterity, performativity and materiality.
Rather than sink us into a theoretical debate about what feminist design is, we shift the focus to how feminist design shows up, learning to see the reflections of critical spatial practice that are useful across architecture, urban planning, product design and community building.
In what follows, I consider whether there is a set of particular qualities that might characterise a specifically feminist approach to critical spatial practice. I suggest that collectivity, subjectivity, alterity, performativity and materiality highlight modes of operation that feature strongly in a predominantly feminist mode of critical spatial practice. It strikes me that this is the task for a feminist critical spatial practice in the second and third decades of the 21st century.
“Access is not a concession but the gorgeous norm” – muf
Rendell points to the way in which design occurs as a key determinant of its success, where “the design process is not an activity that leads to the making of a product, but is rather the location of the work itself”. Think of how many DAO communities are “the product itself”, or how the value of generative art lies in its inherent meme-ability. Web3 is all about networks – how to create them, how to organize them, how to manage them, and how to create emergent value through them.
Note: I’m curious whether collectivity can be built into traditionally individual experiences. In tech, personal finance is commonly sold as an isolated experience. Use this app, become financially savvy, make money. There are a few examples like Tribevest, Ellevest and PoolTogether where collectivity is built into the product experience in varying degrees.
This quality is most analogous to empathy – it says that one’s lived experience matters . Crypto tends to make big assumptions about who its end user is – and could be – and this is unfortunately reflected in demographically homogeneous teams.
In DeFi, we’re only just starting to see subjectivity creep into “products”. Think of projects like World of Women and Boss Beauties which aim to increase the number of women participating in web3, or Cryptocookout which is making a push to buy up black crypto punks.
There’s huge demand for crypto spaces that appeal to explicitly defined groups, many of whom feel left out of the narratives we buy into about “who uses crypto”.
This quality focuses “on the other, and on an understanding of those practices which aim to change, transform or alter [the self]”. This quality can be most challenging because of the nasency of crypto, where builders and designers often create products aimed at people like them. The “other” we are yet to cater well to is the non-technical user who doesn’t care whether they’re on Polygon or Arbitrum, but wants a place to transact with ease, where “transact” can mean anything from placing a trade, publishing an article on Mirror or claiming an NFT.
Performativity refers to the power of language to effect change in the world, serving not just as a useful description but as an explicit type of social action. Here I think of the role that Crypto Twitter, governance forums and platforms like Mirror and Substack play in shaping the cultural narrative of web3. Ideas are getting passed into projects at an impressive rate, like when an anonymous community member proposed a new type of DeFi index on Twitter and four weeks later, the Degen Index was launched.
This one is the most interesting, and often most out of reach. Physical convergences between the metaverse and the physical world already exist – NFT artists inserting microchips into their bloodstream, collectibles that grant access to physical events, pizzaDAO attempting to build the world’s first “decentralized pizza franchise”, and the many real-world communities that exist alongside our online spaces. Here, materiality is best seen as medium.
Critical spatial practice is interesting because it challenges us to think about how we are shaped by the spaces we create. The “we” is not just an ingroup or an ambiguous set of end users, but anyone who may come in contact with what we build. In some ways, it’s recognizing that design is a many-to-many gift we rarely get to call our own.