[Metaverse Masterclass] The Cult of Ownership

The advent of immersive digital worlds give us an unprecedented opportunity to rethink the relationship between people and property. Let’s take advantage of it before it’s too late.

Ownership

We rarely, if ever, pause to think about concepts as abstract as ownership. Indeed, the idea of ownership is woven into the very fabric of modern society thanks to capitalism. When you actually reflect on it, however, you realize that ownership is a pretty strange notion.

Ownership is social

In fact, ownership of both land and bitcoin is a socially enforced construct.

Presentation

But there’s an important way in which these two types of asset differ. Tangible artifacts such as land need no presentation layer. Digital assets, on the other hand, are meaningless and, indeed, invisible without a presentation layer. You can only claim, and see, and spend the bitcoin you own because you have a wallet application that talks to the Bitcoin network on your behalf, interpreting things like cryptographic keys and presenting them to you as legible things like transactions and balances.

Fungible and nonfungible assets

The concepts of ownership and presentation get very interesting in the world of digital assets. The first and most common form of digital asset is the fungible asset, which includes bitcoin: like a dollar, every bitcoin is the same as every other bitcoin, so they are totally fungible.5

Reimagining

What attracted me to blockchain was the once-in-a-century opportunity that it presents to reimagine so many aspects of our society: how we communicate and collaborate, how we relate to one another, how we form institutions and bonds of trust, etc.. In the same way, blockchain presents us with an equally rare opportunity to totally reimagine basic social concepts like art, community — and, yes, ownership. It is of course natural that we should start by attempting to import already-familiar ideas and analogues. Some of them may even stick! Decades later, we still have a “recycle bin” sitting on our “desktop”: great, useful examples of skeuomorphism. Some less useful analogues, however, should be jettisoned while we still have the chance.

It’s about the experience, dummy

The point is that we should be innovating on the experience, and that means innovating on the presentation layer, not on the ownership of arbitrary blobs of cryptographic data. The average person cares a lot more about experience and self-expression than they do about some abstract notion of self-sovereign ownership. There’s a reason that well-designed, centralized games like Fortnite have hundreds of millions of active players while the most popular dapps have many orders of magnitude less.

  1. Whether or not the legal system of this or that jurisdiction might provide some protection if this key is stolen is a thorny question and will differ from place to place and case to case. This is what makes up the last 1%.
  2. This works well enough where property rights are clearly delineated, and enforced, and where one can rely on the rule of law. It doesn’t work so well where these things are not the case. Witness jurisdictions where people hold land without explicit title, or where all land is owned by the state and can be requisitioned for state purposes at any time. The concept of ownership is much fuzzier in such situations.
  3. One of my favorite examples of creative presentation of everyday data is the Foursquare Time Machine.
  4. This is an oversimplification and isn’t completely true in practice for digital assets like bitcoin — read more about crypto’s “fungibility problem.” Fungibility and privacy go hand in hand, and true fungibility is a goal of privacy-preserving platforms like Zcash.
  5. To be fair, in addition to these intrinsic properties, land does have a set of extrinsic properties that are the product of a social presentation layer, so to speak: things like zoning, taxation, air rights, etc.. Here, the presentation layer is the set of formal and informal laws and norms that apply to the land’s ownership, use, and disposition.

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Metaverse Summit

Metaverse Summit

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Metaverse Summit is set to explore and build the decentralized and fertile future of metaverse together. www.Metaverse-summit.org