Stepping Into the Metaverse with Courtney Cogburn and Jeremy Bailenson

October 6, 2022

The next frontier of the internet is the metaverse. That's why Mark Zuckerberg changed the name of his company from Facebook to Meta, and just sold $10 billion in corporate bonds to raise money for metaverse-related projects.

How might we learn from our experience with social media, and anticipate the harms of the metaverse before they arise? What would it look like to design a humane metaverse — that respects our attention, improves our well-being, and strengthens our democracy?

This week on Your Undivided Attention, we talk with two pioneers who are thinking critically about the development of the metaverse. Professor Jeremy Bailenson is the Founding Director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, where he studies how virtual experiences lead to changes in perceptions of self and others. Dr. Courtney Cogburn is an Associate Professor at Columbia's School of Social Work, where she examines associations between racism and stress-related disease. Jeremy and Courtney collaborated on 1000 Cut Journey, a virtual reality experience about systemic racism.


  • Courtney says that the average US adult consumes 9 hours of media per day, but the actual number in 2022 is closer to 13 hours. 
  • Finally, Aza mentions the "pockets of 4.6 billion people" — implying that there are 4.6 billion smartphone users. The global number of social media users is 4.7 billion, and the number of smartphone users is actually 6.6 billion.


Dr. Courtney D. Cogburn is an associate professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work and faculty of the Columbia Population Research Center and Data Science Institute where she co-chairs the Computational Social Science Working Group. She employs a transdisciplinary approach to improve the characterization and measurement of racism, and in examining the role of racism in the production of racial inequities in health. Dr. Cogburn’s work also explores media as a social stressor that contributes to racial inequities in health. She also works at the intersection of emerging technology and social justice. She is the lead creator of 1000 Cut Journey, an immersive virtual reality experience of racism that premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, and is also the co-founder of the Justice Equity and Technology Studio at Columbia. Dr. Cogburn is a member of the American Medical Association’s External Equity & Innovation Advisory Group, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Health Equity Collective, and also serves as the Chief Equity Officer and Knowledge Transfer Director of the Learning the Earth with Artificial Intelligence and Physics (LEAP), an NSF Science and Technology Center (STC). Dr. Cogburn completed postdoctoral training at Harvard University in the RWJF Health & Society Scholar Program and at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. She received her Ph.D. in Education and Psychology and an MSW from the University of Michigan and completed her BA in Psychology at the University of Virginia.

Jeremy Bailenson is founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, Thomas More Storke Professor in the Department of Communication, Professor (by courtesy) of Education, Professor (by courtesy) Program in Symbolic Systems, a Senior Fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment, and a Faculty Leader at Stanford’s Center for Longevity. He earned a B.A. cum laude from the University of Michigan in 1994 and a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from Northwestern University in 1999. He spent four years at the University of California, Santa Barbara as a Post-Doctoral Fellow and then an Assistant Research Professor.

Bailenson studies the psychology of Virtual and Augmented Reality, in particular how virtual experiences lead to changes in perceptions of self and others. His lab builds and studies systems that allow people to meet in virtual space, and explores the changes in the nature of social interaction. His most recent research focuses on how virtual experiences can transform education, environmental conservation, empathy, and health. He is the recipient of the Dean’s Award for Distinguished Teaching at Stanford. In 2020, IEEE recognized his work with “The Virtual/Augmented Reality Technical Achievement Award”.

He has published more than 200 academic papers, spanning the fields of communication, computer science, education, environmental science, law, linguistics, marketing, medicine, political science, and psychology. His work has been continuously funded by the National Science Foundation for over 20 years.

Bailenson consults pro bono on Virtual Reality policy for government agencies including the State Department, the US Senate, Congress, the California Supreme Court, the Federal Communication Committee, the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force, the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, the National Research Council, and the National Institutes of Health.

His first book Infinite Reality, co-authored with Jim Blascovich, emerged as an Amazon Best-seller eight years after its initial publication, and was quoted by the U.S. Supreme Court. His new book, Experience on Demand, was reviewed by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Nature, and The Times of London, and was an Amazon Best-seller.

He has written opinion pieces for Harvard Business Review, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, PBS NewsHour, Wired, National Geographic, Slate, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Chronicle of Higher Education, and has produced or directed six Virtual Reality documentary experiences which were official selections at the Tribeca Film Festival. His lab’s research has been exhibited publicly at museums and aquariums, including a permanent installation at the San Jose Tech Museum.

Episode Highlights

Major Takeaways

  • Virtual reality is a simulated experience that is interacted with in a seemingly real way through the use of special equipment, such as a helmet with a screen inside or gloves fitted with sensors. A metaverse is a network of virtual worlds focused on social connection. The metaverse is a hypothetical iteration of the internet as a single, immersive virtual world.
  • Jeremy Bailenson developed the D.I.C.E framework to specify the circumstances in which virtual reality should be used — in circumstances that would have these characteristics in the real world:

                    1. Dangerous

                  2. Impossible

                     3. Counterproductive

                     4. Expensive and rare

  • We can think of virtual reality and the metaverse as being on a continuum from persuasive technologies to transformative experiences. 
  • Virtual reality experiences are often associated with the potential to cultivate empathy. But as Courtney Cogburn notes, that's a limited view of what VR is capable of. She's particularly interested in using the medium to help people understand society and analyze structural problems. As Tristan notes in the episode, imagine a VR room for Congress, whereby Congresspeople were crafting policies based on direct virtual experiences with the implications of those policies. 
  • The key question to ask when designing a virtual experience is: what's the goal? What should the virtual experience elicit from its participants? The answer to this question should drive the design process.
  • In the words of technology philosopher Langdon Winner, "by far the greatest latitude of choice exists the very first time a particular instrument, system, or technique is introduced." Courtney Cogburn describes the metaverse as a blank slate. Now is the time to affect its development.
  • According to Courtney, the most important factor that will affect the development of the metaverse is who is at the design table. That's why she advocates for diversity at the virtual reality design table. Otherwise, as she paraphrases Princeton sociologist Ruha Benjamin saying, 'we'll be living in someone else's imagination.'

Take Action

Share These Ideas