The other day I had my first dream about the metaverse. Some friends and family were going to play a game, much like laser tag, that incorporated virtual elements into our physical space. I was new to the game, though, and when I asked a friend how to play, he rudely told me to look it up and watch the instructions in a video instead of expecting him to explain it. I suppose it made sense in that world to get my information from the virtual screen on the wall rather than actually talking to the person standing beside me.
Back when smart phones became popular, we shook our heads at the shameful irony of two people sitting together looking at their phones and ignoring one another. Now that sight is commonplace. And, like smart phones and the internet, the burgeoning metaverse is likely to change our habits in big ways. With all the talk about this new hybrid physical/virtual space, there’s a whole spectrum of reactions to it: the most optimistic see it as a way to save the world, while more critical observers view it as a new opportunity for sexual harassment and an unhealthy threat to genuine human connection. All of these points (and many others) are right: the metaverse has the potential to transform our lives in both amazing and horrifying ways.
How do you imagine the metaverse? There are certainly plenty of ideas in mind from the people who are building it. Maybe if we, the consumers, figure out from the start what we want from it, we can take a more active part in deciding how it will impact us.
The Visions of Leading Metaverse Builders
The biggest metaverse news in the general public has been Facebook’s changing of its umbrella name to Meta, clearly looking to be the leader in creating the new virtual space. (The name Facebook continues as Meta’s main social media app, along with WhatsApp and Instagram.) CEO Mark Zuckerberg has a very distinct vision in mind for the metaverse. He wants to create a new, immersive social hangout that makes people feel like they’re in the same physical space when they’re not. Actually, the Meta vision is an attempt to create an even better world than the one we know, since it won’t necessarily be hampered by things like gravity or reality. Those attending a gathering can show up in the form of a robot and watch fish fly through the sky.
In terms of immersive experiences, the metaverse is also a longstanding imagination of the video game and virtual reality industries. Video games like Roblox and Minecraft introduce kids to world-building, and adult gamers get an immersive experience in Fortnite. In the gaming realm, the metaverse is perhaps the next natural step as its experiences have become increasingly realistic.
Microsoft’s plans are the bridge between the use of this new space for gaming and for work applications. With Minecraft and its recent acquisition of the video game company Activision Blizzard, Microsoft is paying attention to potential in this sphere. But it will have some work to do cleaning up (or distancing from) the bad reputation that Activision carries with it for misconduct allegations. Where the metaverse’s potential really shines is in the other part of Microsoft’s focus—what can be called the “enterprise metaverse,” or the place where companies put it to use for innovation and new kinds of productivity.
Best and Worst Potentials
In those work scenarios, the metaverse can allow for some helpful applications never before possible. The ability to create and use digital twins opens up new possibilities for research and project preparation. Digital replicas of vehicles, for example, can be used for design, assembly planning, and safety tests. Using digital twins in place of unnecessary physical items can potentially reduce global carbon dioxide emissions by 20%, and when they are applied to sustainability projects, they really can help save the world. There are all sorts of ways this technology can revolutionize medical research and practice as well.
To my mind, these kinds of beneficial work applications make gaming and virtual socializing look embarrassingly superficial in comparison. Zuckerberg may act like he’s trying to bring people together, but critics are right to wonder whether Meta’s space will actually lead to alienation and depression—like its social media platforms have been reported to do, particularly for young people (which make up its biggest target audience). Will we really feel more connected looking at each other as avatars in an illusory space? I imagine that entertainment in the metaverse will be an amplification of what gaming and social media already are now: a fun way to engage occasionally for those who know how to limit it, and an addictive and damaging habit for those who are more vulnerable to its novelty and escape.
It’s worth looking at the driving motives behind metaverse development too. As with any new technology, profits are part of the impetus. When that’s paired with an aim to truly better the world or improve people’s lives, it’s not necessarily a problem. But how about selling expensive virtual “merch” and property to show off at metaverse meetups? Don’t we have more important ways to direct our attention and money here in the real world?
In worst case scenarios, the metaverse could make our lives pretty sad—or downright scary. Too much distance from the natural world and the physicality of our bodies is likely to cause increased anxiety and poor health. Individuals could spend their days fumbling around under headsets instead of interacting with their households or physical communities. Predators may assume a false sense of freedom to unleash their violent or sexually aggressive instincts—and those heightened instincts could spill back out into life outside the metaverse. And perhaps, once technology advances further, excessive time in virtualized spaces could eventually cause confusion and a new manner of mental illness.
Protecting Privacy and Creating Healthy Boundaries
Today, many parents set a “screen time” limit for their kids, acknowledging that too much of it isn’t beneficial for their children’s health and wellbeing. With the metaverse that will be fuzzier, since there won’t always be such a clear screen separating users from the dopamine highs and crashes of what they’re interacting with. Instead, we will have to work harder to create our boundaries. Both on individual and parental levels, we’ll need to be clear about what we want out of the metaverse and what we don’t want. Asking the same questions at the organizational and societal levels is a good idea as well. Like with artificial intelligence and internet practices, we need to have clear privacy measures in place and develop a standardized code of ethics. As this emerging future begins to unfold, let’s make sure we’re dreaming up and supporting a world we really want to live in.
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