The metaverse is supposed to create shared space and experiences. But if we don’t prioritise human wellbeing in its development, it risks pushing us further apart. Here’s why.
You might have heard the term ‘metaverse’ a lot in the past two weeks. Even though it was first coined back in 1992 — in a sci-fi novel — it wasn’t all that well known until late October, when Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s re-brand as ‘Meta’ and pivot towards focusing on the metaverse.
Many tech experts believe the metaverse will be the next major shift in the evolution of the internet and, indeed, our lives. Imagine a series of interconnected, persistent digital spaces combining virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality to offer limitless, immersive experiences for play, learning, creativity, and social connection. Sounds great, right?
We could attend a concert by our favourite musical artist from inside our own home, and feel as if we were right there in the arena. We could learn endlessly about the world around us, fed with digital information about whatever plant, animal, building or artwork we were looking at in real life. We could transform the way that medical professionals are trained with interactive 3D holograms of the human body. Or we could chat to a friend on the other side of the world as if we were sitting on their sofa.
Applications like these are the dream. But there are many possible dark sides to the metaverse, too. Here are just a few quick examples.
- Cybercriminals will be given infinite opportunities to exploit others, particularly if we start purchasing digital-only objects — like clothes or art — with real money, in digital wallets.
- Platforms for hate speech, abuse, exclusion and aggression will be rendered even more unpleasant than their current 2D incarnations which we consume passively on screens.
- The collection of data about us and consequent loss of privacy will be extended in time and breadth to potentially cover everything that we do, every minute of every day.
- The more time we spend ‘teleporting’ around the metaverse through our headsets or glasses, the less we have to go anywhere in the real world — reducing our mobility and damaging our physical health.
However, even if we can get beyond these risks — which only represent a handful of the issues raised — then we’re still left with a fundamental contradiction in the metaverse.
One stated aim of the metaverse for those leading its development is to bring people together in ‘shared spaces’. Yet, if ‘personalised content’ (such as targeted advertising, tailored search results, and other selectively-presented information) is one of its core features (as tech companies have stated it will be) then the outcome could be the exact opposite of shared space — increasingly divergent reality. How might that look?
- Imagine you’ve been watching some videos around a conspiracy theory for which there is limited evidence. When you go to a place associated with that issue, your metaverse interface tells you more information about that theory, rather than an alternative viewpoint or explanation. Misinformation bleeds into physical space, and our filter bubbles become permanent.
- Or, let’s say you’ve been googling ‘weight loss’. Algorithms running the metaverse therefore decide that the most effective way to sell you something is to advertise it to you with a thin person in the image — such as on a ‘tailored’ billboard in the street — reinforcing your implicit belief that a lower BMI is desirable, because now you’re seeing it in the physical world, not just on your phone screen.
We need to consider the potential impacts of a personalised metaverse very carefully. If we are immersed in it all day, every day, everywhere we go, the mental health and wellbeing impacts on us could be extremely significant.
The contradiction between shared and fragmented space in the metaverse is part of a bigger question which has not yet been fully asked, let alone answered: what do we even want the metaverse to look like? Who will set its rules and establish its code of ethics? Whose super-ego will govern our behaviour in it?
A consortium — XRA — has established itself to think about this, but it’s mainly made up of big tech companies (Google, Microsoft, Facebook), which are fundamentally profit-driven organisations. And several of them don’t have a great track record of prioritising human wellbeing with their existing products.
Social media, for example, sprang from the minds of people trying to help us communicate, but was quickly weaponised by companies trying to make money by keeping us hooked online. As the tech raced ahead and platforms were rolled out, the potential harms they could cause were at best an afterthought, and an obstacle to the success of their business model.
Let’s not make the same mistake with the metaverse. Let’s design it from the ground up, with humans at its centre, and digital wellbeing at its core. And let’s start doing this right now, before it’s too late.