With the rapid development of seemingly limitless modern technology, the question of can something be made is less relevant today than the question of should it be made. One piece of new technology that has recently fallen into this category is known as the metaverse. You may have heard of this term from the tech company Meta (formerly called Facebook) and their ambitious plans for future products. But the metaverse’s implications are more far-reaching than that.
The term metaverse refers to a three-dimensional virtual reality that people can project themselves into to act independently of their physical selves. So far, this explanation does not sound too different from the internet and some video games in which you might maneuver your character. However, the key difference is that the metaverse is three-dimensional, so you would be completely immersed in a computer-generated world, separate from reality. While this technology has not yet been fully realized, its development is in progress. As a technology that could potentially alter society, as the internet has, the metaverse deserves careful consideration of both its positive and negative consequences before being implemented in any form.
Creating a virtual space separate from our own physical reality may provide some unexpectedly beneficial outcomes. As with cars, trains, planes and the internet before it, the metaverse can make the world even smaller by increasing interactions and eliminating physical distance — as in, you could virtually do things you would not normally do. Perhaps you could go skydiving, or climb Mount Everest. With minimal commitment, you could go anywhere, buy anything or talk to anyone at any time, without leaving your house, or even your bed, yet still experience all these things as if they were real.
Other than entertainment and communication, this elimination of physical space could also benefit healthcare and education. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has already been an increase in virtual healthcare. The metaverse could take that one step further, as you could be in a virtual room with your healthcare provider if you are unable to travel to them directly or if you have only a small ailment. Additionally, this virtual reality could make a model of your body for doctors to examine, investigate and explain your condition. This feature could help with diagnoses and surgical planning.
Similar to health care, education could benefit from the three-dimensional virtual space that the metaverse offers. Difficult concepts in school, especially scientific ones, could be demonstrated in a safe, simulated environment. This would be particularly helpful for abstract concepts that we cannot see plainly with our own eyes, such as electricity, magnetism or even chemical reactions on the atomic level. In regions where resources for experiments are not available or practical, the metaverse could also substitute. These benefits would extend to the humanities as well. The metaverse could simulate social experiments without the need for or risk of involving participants, or it could recreate ancient societies for students to explore within their classrooms.
Public interest is not the only thing that could benefit from the metaverse. Private interests in financial gain could also thrive. Creating, buying and selling goods, both physical and virtual, could contribute to the economy and increase some individuals’ wealth. It is in these private interests that we can begin to see the drawbacks of the metaverse’s creation.
Besides these private individuals, large corporations and smaller private businesses could profit and gain influence through the metaverse like never before. By interacting in the metaverse, immense amounts of data would be collected about you — perhaps even more so than your actions on the internet. From facial expressions and mannerisms to appearances and locations, the entirety of your virtual self’s actions would be recorded.
Now, who would get to access and use that data? Let us not forget that the metaverse is being created and marketed by corporations like Meta, whose purpose for existing is to turn a profit. All of your data are likely to be bought and sold for commercial interests, as it has been through the internet, or perhaps even left open for anyone to access. This vast data accumulation raises serious questions about the notion of privacy and ownership over one’s self — concepts that may be further endangered by the metaverse.
Consider for a moment that some form of privacy law is enacted for the metaverse. This still may not suffice, for the question of enforcement remains. Who would be responsible to uphold laws and general safety in the metaverse? Should it be the corporation that owns the technology, the government of the country where the user resides or the government of the country whose cyberspace the user’s virtual self is in? The issue of law and enforcement is further complicated by user interactions. There have been numerous hostile comments and harassment incidents on the internet, which would carry over to the metaverse and be magnified by the three-dimensional virtual experience. Should these incidents be regulated, policed and punished? And if so, by whom? These questions need to be answered to create a metaverse that is relatively safe and fair, and yet, these same questions still have not been comprehensively answered for the internet.
The implications of the metaverse extend beyond its virtual borders. The metaverse will require technology that will have to be purchased and assumedly supported by the internet. This aspect could make it an expensive endeavour — one that may create unequal access to the metaverse based on wealth and urbanization. Creating and running the metaverse may also have implications for the environment, as an immense amount of energy will be needed to keep the virtual reality running. Adding to the issue of practicality, the prolonged effects of people using the metaverse are also not known, and may not be elucidated before it is too late, similar to the psychological effects of social media.
Perhaps the most distressing characteristic of the metaverse is that it competes with and blurs the lines of reality. Inside of a virtual world, anything you want goes. Being secluded in your own reality may alter how you feel and perceive things. It could also amplify the confirmation bias of opinions that we already see on the internet, both politically and socially. Isolating individuals in these types of preferential, virtual environments may create a denial of physical reality that, if left unchecked, could intensify social issues by further preventing us from accepting reality and relating to each other.
Although the metaverse contains some wondrous possibilities in terms of health care, education and entertainment, it also holds potentially disastrous consequences. From the lack of privacy and questions about law enforcement to the alteration of reality itself, the metaverse is not a toy to be taken lightly. As a society, we have learned much from our experience with the internet, and hopefully with that knowledge we can utilize the metaverse in a safe and just way, or perhaps not at all.