The metaverse is an idea on which many companies, creatives, thinkers and programmers are working right now. It is a future perspective of a three-dimensional virtual Internet with a focus on activities and experiences. It is basically a new phase of the Internet, just as social media was before. At the same time, the following applies here too: do the benefits actually outweigh the drawbacks?
The metaverse as ‘reality’
A quick refresher: the metaverse is a concept, a future online network of interconnected, virtual, three-dimensional worlds. Sometimes this can take place entirely in ‘virtual reality’, and at other times in connection with the existing, ‘non-virtual’ world. In the latter case, the user wears augmented reality glasses, for example.
The world of the metaverse will be permanent, synchronous and in real time. In the future, you will be able to meet, collaborate, relax, play games, shop and consume there. The metaverse also offers the possibility of personally building, creating and participating in a virtual economy. This is done with cryptocurrencies, NFTs and social tokens. Social tokens are a type of digital coin that you can use as a fan in interactions with a club, community or celebrity.
Visitors to the metaverse will be able to develop their activities cross-platform. This means that platforms will no longer be separated from each other. Instead, you will be able to move directly from one platform to another, ideally with the same internet identity, your own digital stuff and all your other user data.
As with any technological development, however, the metaverse has a dark side. We should definitely not close our eyes to this fact. It is better to face these risks early on so that we can prevent them from becoming reality. We could now all build a version of the metaverse that actually adds value to our world. This is a joint responsibility and certainly not one that we should leave exclusively to the big technology companies.
Big Tech is hunting for our data
Speaking of big technology companies, this brings us right to the first point. Anyone who follows the developments surrounding the metaverse to any extent will know that ‘Big Tech’, with its commercial intentions, is eagerly waiting at the gate of the metaverse. Big tech companies see all manner of new revenue models.
The risk is that the problems that already exist in today’s Internet, and which emerged out of commercial motives, will be exacerbated in the metaverse. Examples include data theft, invasion of privacy, the influencing of behaviour based on commercial objectives, surveillance and espionage, violation of autonomy and polarisation. After all, Big Tech has not even been able to solve these problems in the current Internet.
It may sound somewhat exaggerated, but I do not believe that I am wrong. Just look at Mark Zuckerberg’s keynote presentation on the metaverse. You cannot help but gain the impression that Facebook wants to collect even more data. What is your location? What are you doing there? How do you dress? What are you looking at? For how long? Do your pupils dilate or contract (with all the information this provides about emotions)?
At this point, our lives still largely take place in the physical world, probably much to the chagrin of tech companies worldwide. Indeed, as long as we are not connected to the Internet, there will be no data to harvest (and no profits to be made). The metaverse gives them the opportunity to suck up an even bigger part of our physical experience.
The Web3 development could be one of the solutions here. Indeed, the Web3 trend is about the decentralised Internet, based on blockchain and crypto technology. In Web3, everyone manages their own data, without intermediaries, banks or governments.
If Web3 functions as intended in the future, it will empower creatives, programmers, content creators and users. This will reduce the power of mega corporations such as Google, Facebook and Amazon which are dominating the current version of the Internet. Read my article about Web3 here.
This may be difficult for the outsider to grasp because a get-rich-quick atmosphere has dominated Web3 and NFTs for a long period of time, with the news being very much focused on prices and financial speculation. Underneath it all, however, very interesting core principles of transparency, trust, privacy and autonomy are evident.
The metaverse is likely to be entered by a digital form of ourselves, our online representation: the avatar. This is our 3D version but with additional options. You will be able to design everything yourself: long hair, short hair, young, old, man, woman, extremely muscular or Martian. It will give you the opportunity to experiment with a different look, a different identity and an entirely different behaviour than exists in ‘real life’. This could be a good aspect.
The risk of spending time daily as an avatar in the digital world, however, is that we would focus our attention even more outside the physical body than is already the case. You may know the feeling after spending too much time on your smartphone: that your head has been sucked into the screen, as it were, seemingly disconnected from your physical body. It is only when you put away your smartphone that you notice that you are cold or that your back hurts. Our bodies also tell us how we are actually doing and what the status is of our physical and mental health. It is good to stay in touch with this aspect in order to maintain our well-being and prevent problems.
If we stay immersed in a virtual world for prolonged periods of time, in which we live with a different appearance, our brain will also be tricked into thinking that we look different. This might create even more distance from our physical bodies.
Of course, the rise of social media has made us well aware of how the perception of our physical selves can be affected. Our digital online representation is generally fairly disconnected from our actual physical appearance. Our selfies, manipulated by colour and face filters, reflect an idealised image of reality.
Imagine we spend two hours a day in the metaverse in the future. To what extent will this increase the distance between body and head even more? Will it reduce the ability to feel how we are doing? What will it do to the perception of our own bodies? And to the way in which we perceive others?
Not only will spending time in the metaverse disconnect us from our own bodies, but it could also gradually disconnect us from encounters in the physical world. Indeed, in the future, it will be very easy to engage in social interaction in the metaverse, simply from your living room, in special metaverse spaces or anywhere in the world. Sometimes this is a huge advantage, for example when there is a long distance between people.
However, the downside is that we may have less interaction and contact in the physical world. We would spend less time sitting next to each other, looking each other in the eye, shaking hands, laughing with each other, sitting around a campfire and getting to know each other as human beings. I believe that physical encounters create a strong mutual connection and a collective sense of responsibility towards society. This is why, as far as I am concerned, interaction via the metaverse cannot and must not be a substitute for physical human contact.
Addiction and escapism
The virtual world is probably going to be a super-enticing place in which to spend long periods of time. A visually impressive one with all sorts of possibilities that we cannot even imagine at this point. Entertainment at its best. With our senses stimulated in a delightful way.
In addition, what is unpleasant in the real world can be filtered out in the metaverse. No litter in the streets, no unsightly buildings or rundown derelict areas. No homeless people, hooligans, lateral thinkers, vaccine refusers or other ‘difficult’ people. A world as in the popular film The Truman Show: every hedge trimmed tight, every lawn raked, and radiantly smiling, beautiful people. The virtual metaverse is perfect for escapism. Perfect for escaping the unpleasant, fickle world full of nasty feelings. You put on your VR goggles and you are in a nicer place. Entertainment addiction repackaged.
Sadly, we are living in a world full of real, tangible problems. Corona, poverty, climate change, crime, corruption, child abuse, exploitation, war and hunger. Should there be a worldwide focus on a future fantasy world, when the real world is crying out for practical solutions? This is something to reflect on.
Now is the time to ask critical questions about the added value of the metaverse. What applications will it provide for us as a society? Is it not a step closer to a vulgar world of consumerism, entertainment and advertising? A ‘black hole of consumption’, as a journalist from The Atlantic put it? Will the metaverse magnify what is already broken in the world? The lack of connection with ourselves, our fellow humans and the physical world of mother nature?
In my view, the question as to the added value of the metaverse should be answered with common sense and some historical awareness. We should not get stuck in ideological wishful thinking, as we did at the start of the static Internet, the social Internet and cryptocurrencies. Words such as equality, freedom, democratisation, connection and transparency sometimes proved a smokescreen, as a result of which the commercial motives of Big Tech were largely overlooked and noticed too late. We should therefore not be naive about Big Tech’s keen desire to dominate this new world as well.
As far as I am concerned, all people should benefit from the metaverse, and not just a small club of tech companies and their shareholders.
When the metaverse finally arrives, let its foundation hold up a mirror to us. A mirror in which we look at the current world and see what is wrong, but above all what is right and what we therefore wish to keep. Because if the improvement of our common physical world is the leading principle in the development of metaverse, it might still be a good idea. We will see.