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Yes to the metaverse! But why?

April 5, 2022

Microsoft's Chief Exec Satya Nadella has laid it out for us, when he said that the Metaverse means bringing together the physical and digital worlds. An article on 101 Blockchains dispelled the idea that the metaverse is a single place, or that it can only be accessed via virtual reality, saying "The metaverse is not just any single virtual world you experience with VR. On the contrary, it will be a shared and persistent virtual world complementing the real world."

The physical embedded in the digital and the digital in the physical, accessible via laptops, smartphones, AR glasses and VR headsets to name a few. No matter how simply we parse the idea, it never seems to really sink in, but perhaps this is because the person writing this article grew up with a remote control connected to a VCR by an actual cable. Things have changed so quickly.

And yet, isn't it deeply intriguing? What might a day in this new reality look like? You have a chat with the 3D hologram of your relative on the other side of the planet, then stick on your Mesh Hololens for that morning meeting with the team, where you are actually "in" the meeting room in your company's metaverse office. Yes, you still need a job, because how else will you afford your new digital avatar with those fresh NFT Nike sneakers? Yes...virtual sneakers. Remember to take them off as you enter your virtual house.

That cable-connected VCR remote is seeming increasingly remote. Welcome to a new world where we pay with digital cryptocurrencies for things we cannot touch, but which nevertheless exist. A new world where a machinist in Edmonton, Canada can work remotely on a physical production line in Rimini, Italy. A world where Lil Miquela can have 6 million social media followers and an illustrious modelling career with Calvin Klein and Prada, and even a music single release, despite only existing in the virtual world.

Does this world fill you with dread and foreboding, or excitement and anticipation? Or is it too much to just take in? The thing is, that there are very real and valid concerns about the metaverse.

No to the metaverse

But isn't the title of the article a bit misleading? Well, to be fair, most things as complex and nuanced as the metaverse will never really be 100% good or bad for anyone. There are upsides and downsides, and we need to explore some of the reasons why some might look at this new space and get the shivers.

First off is mental health. It's not science fiction to suggest that as the digital and virtual worlds merge, some individuals may have difficulty in distinguishing between their physical and virtual identity. When us remote control cable folks were kids, we watched the karate kid movie and imagined ourselves as Daniel; ready to stroll out into the street and challenge the neighbourhood bully to a showdown. Two steps into that street and our illusions soon melted away, because we were only immersed in that reality in a moment of suspended connection with our own world. The metaverse is a more persistent, multisensorial immersion, which simulates and sometimes even augments what we might do in the physical world.

We learned during the pandemic how much isolation affected us, and how Teams meetings just didn't cut it for many of us craving real human interaction. The metaverse will offer opportunities for virtual work and study to be more immersive, but at what cost? The Hill put it very well in saying that "Even if the metaverse is collaborative in the sense that there can be multiple user participants within a three-dimensional platform, we would have even less reason to physically interact. The implications would likely be even fewer in-person common meals, public ceremonies, celebrations, parties and so forth. The further removed from reality we become, the more emotional numbness and distance we feel. The less interactive. The less human. The highs are lower and the lows are higher. "

Statista found that nearly half of survey respondents were worried about becoming addicted to a simulated reality, as a form of escapism. As basic social media, email communication and cloud storage have all brought new challenges to society, it is fair to assume that the metaverse will be no different, yet we have not done so well in supporting, for example, teenagers to become more resilient to body image anxiety, so why would we do any better with this? Time will surely tell.

Privacy is also an issue. As Brittan Heller and Avi-Bar Zeev wrote "Imagine five years from now, you’re walking down a street wearing your own mixed reality glasses. A virtual car drives by — it’s no coincidence that it’s the exact model you’ve been saving for". You are approached by avatars with no way of knowing that they are actually an advertisement. This ominous article in the Washington Post warned that VR headsets collect way more data about us than our phones, and "creepy companies" will love that, and that our bodies could be "a new data source".

Legal concerns like harassment and bullying, stalking and stealing others' intellectual property are all openly and often discussed in communities of law practice. The law is just catching up to cyber hate speech now, and will have to move far more quickly to offer protective frameworks in the metaverse.

Yes to the metaverse, with a few caveats

The opportunities in the metaverse do not negate the concerns, and vice versa. The fact is that this is all unfolding right now, and it is happening whether we really like it or not. We can engage or opt out. We can get active and try to influence the shape of policy and regulation, or we can embrace its wild and unpredictable beginnings.

We cannot keep flying and driving around the world for conferences, meetings, site visits and all the rest of it. Fossil fuels are destroying our world, and we need to cut down drastically. Only 1% of the world actually travel by air, but an aspirational global population emerging from poverty will surely want their turn, and we must have more sustainable approaches in place.

Electric cars have not yet reached a tipping point, and planes are not about to fly on hydrogen fuel cells any time soon, so we need to change behaviours. The metaverse helps us vastly reduce business travel, for everything from study groups to onboarding sessions, job interviews and open days. As electricity grids increasingly divest from fossil fuels to power our servers and devices more sustainably, we can turn attention to making those devices themselves more sustainable, not least by getting rid of planned obsolescence and bringing in right to repair. The metaverse can facilitate this whole shift, imperfect though it is.

In the metaverse, everyone can be a content creator, entrepreneur, innovator, reinvent themselves, create opportunities, educate themselves on their terms and bypass the traditional gatekeepers to opportunity. If marginalized communities are actively involved in creating this new world, and leading the design, we reduce the risk of encoding this world of privilege and prejudice into the new digital future. Of course, that means that we need to do better at supporting these communities to actually access these spaces in the first place.

As social media examines the racism of its current algorithms, we know that what we create is a reflection of who we are, and there is a danger there. Imagine the opportunity to make the digital world equitable for everyone while the physical world continues to struggle with such a shift in perspective. Could the equity of the new world reflect back into the old and illuminate it? Though the current internet is far from anti-racist, the opportunity to change this is too good to pass up.

Education can be greatly enhanced in the metaverse. A whole new slew of career paths opening up, and the ability to innovate within those roles as the technology unfurls. This means new opportunities for institutions to prepare learners for this future, though not if they ignore it, which so many currently do. If institutions want to remain relevant, and they most certainly can, it is time to embrace the fact that the future is already here, and to focus on supporting us to develop the skills and knowledge we need to navigate it.

We are finding our own way through all of this, and though we are concerned about so many things in this new world, it is after all the creation of people who inhabit the current world, and so light and shadow are to be expected. The question is, which world is easier to change and make fairer in opportunity? That is why we can't help but feel positive about the metaverse, and we will continue to explore it within our very real and present community.

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