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In the past 6 months I’ve learnt a new word. Metaverse.
This was not a word that I was familiar with but it has grown in popularity in the past months and it was brought into particular focus when Facebook announced they would be renaming their company to Meta. If you, like me, until recently were not familiar with what the Metaverse is allow me to try and explain. Though it would be fair to say the term is still being defined and well, it’s kind of only here in small parts at the moment.
What Exactly Is The Metaverse?
Put simply, the Metaverse is famed to be the next iteration of the internet. It involves harnessing technologies such as virtual reality, augmented reality and the underlying technology behind cryptocurrencies to develop an immersive, connected and decentralised virtual reality for people to work, live and find entertainment. Virtual social worlds that take us a step beyond current social media platforms.
The term is definitely somewhat amorphis and many a journalist seems to want to simply use the term Metaverse to describe anything future tech orientated.
I personally find the new technology involved fascinating but we have some thinking to do before such dreams can be realised.
Thinking It Through
At the moment there is a lot of speculation and there are not a lot of concrete examples of the metaverse. The technologies which would ultimately be needed to see the dream realised are very much still in their infancy. However this does give us a good point to start thinking through some of the implications of what is being proposed. Some dismiss it as something of science fiction but we should definitely pay attention when we see the amount of money big tech companies are throwing at the project. The idea of a virtual reality world raises a lot of ethical and social concerns that will need thought through carefully.
Social Media On Steriods
As I’ve researched what is being proposed and looked at the early offerings it has become clear that what is being offered is effectively a more immersive social media platform. This is precisely why Facebook is one of the organisations leading the charge. As such when I look forward to the world of the Metaverse, where people can socialise virtually, work in virtual offices and play virtual games afterwards, I have some concerns.
In recent years (years after their development I should mention) the impact of social media, both positive and negative have come to light. Whilst I think it is often unfair to level all the criticism at the feet of the social media companies, their products have reshaped our lives in many ways. Of course there are positives: it is easier than ever to stay loosely connected with many more people, it has at times given a voice to the hurting and over looked. Not to mention we can now share our latte art with the world. I would expect some of these positives to also be true in the Metaverse.
On the flip side, social media has led to an increase in cyber bullying, young people with a destroyed self image and trained us into endless distraction. That is without mentioning the tribalism, political meddling and worse behaviours that these platforms have enabled. Again I expect the Metaverse to have all these same problems, only worse.
In such an immersive experience I would expect these problems all to be more pervasive, more emotional and potentially much more dangerous. My hypothesis is that the Metaverse will have the same pros and cons as social media today, only exaggerated further.
Whilst social media companies are always reminding us that they exist to connect people, I think it is also important to recognise that their widespread usage has paralleled a world wrestling with huge mental health concerns and many people feeling more alone than ever. Whilst social media does connect us, it also has the potential to give us a false sense of connection. That is why even the most popular influencers consistently reveal their utter loneliness.
In a future where physical glasses and virtual reality headsets become the norm I simply can’t see how that can be good for our sense of disconnection? Another physical barrier to overcome.
Sitting on your phone at the dinner table disconnects you, but what happens if your not even in the room!
Power to the People?
One of the deep concerns at the moment when it comes to technology is the amount of personal data that is both collected and held about us. Every finger press and every article we hover over, ever like and every swipe. Together our actions paint a picture (however limited) of who we are and subsequently the best way in which to sell us products. A number of tech firms have got themselves in hot water over the data they collect and even the data they occasionally leak.
What the Metaverse purports to offer is a different way. The technology behind cryptocurrencies offer a decentralised way in which to store data which will also allow data ownership to become much clearer. So in theory, all our data in the metaverse will be clearly owned by us, not by Mark Zuckerberg. This does sound like a step forward. However I am left wondering what clever ways they will find to market to us if such a clean line is drawn? The project will need funded somehow.
In a fully immersive experience I suspect the opportunities to sell to us will be immense. Everything in the world can be sponsored or sold or subtly displayed to us in hopes we will purchase it. Maybe I’m wrong… time will tell. Maybe we won’t be the product this time?
Related to the data issue I mentioned above is the desire for our actions to remain anonymous. Whilst on most current social media platforms you are supposed to be a real person to get an account, in the metaverse you can be whoever you want.
In a virtual world you get to show up exactly as you would like. Maybe you’ve always wanted to be a cat, or a wrestler or simply stay aged 22 forever.
This is a step beyond the world of Instagram filters to make our photos look good, or simply the fact we can curate our social posts to show how “perfect” our lives are (missing out all the challenges). Beyond all that we will be able to create a new us.
Now if that doesn’t add to the society wide identity issues that are at play these days – I don’t know what will.
Dressing up for a fancy dress party is one thing. Working, socialising and having fun in your costume may cross the line! What happens when we live a life disconnected from who we truly are? I’m sure any therapists reading this could offer us some ideas!
If you listen to some commentators you would get the picture that this virtual world will be a picturesque utopia. Yet the path to get there seems somewhat vague and wishful.
There is currently no agreed standard for defining this new world, though that could come, but I suspect we may end up with many Metaverses not one. Yes there could be some cross compatibility but I also suspect for the companies willing to fund these ventures there will be no real incentive to work together. We could so easily face a race to build the best virtual world.
In the same way that social media has been used to split people into smaller factions and foster tribalism I see the Metaverse going the same way. The problem probably isn’t the platform per se, but the platforms do enable this disfunction on a global scale.
Our world is struggling to come to terms with the way the global economy works already. Think international tax laws, copyright etc etc. I’m not sure there will be agreed upon policies for “policing” a virtual reality any more than there are in our physical reality. I’m not sure anyone envies the role of social media companies who have to become the arbitrators of truth. In a virtual world I’m not sure how you censor peoples behaviours, protect young people and prevent the creation of dark underworlds. I’m not sure anyone knows how to do that. This area needs a lot of thought.
I find myself both excited about the latest technology but also cautious. I think the most important thing we can do is have the conversations early. So often with technology we find ourselves talking about the big issues 5 years after they become mainstream. The fact we can already see some issues down the road surely means we need to take it slow.
I’ll certainly be watching with interest as things develop.
What are your thoughts on the Metaverse?
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