The Metaverse illusion
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The Metaverse illusion

Philip Lee

Like all digital technologies, the Metaverse ought to be a public good and, therefore, of direct benefit to society. A system that interweaves multiple sources of information across different platforms should be useful, affordable, accessible, and egalitarian.

Yet the history of communication technologies demonstrates that ownership and control by corporate entities (in the name of service but disguising profit-making) and by governments (in the name of security but disguising surveillance) ends up being profoundly undemocratic. The logic of the Metaverse is no different.

In principle, the Metaverse is a great leveller: everyone can enter it and take part. In practice, it will require access to technologies and infrastructures that are relatively costly and which today more than half the world lacks. In principle, it can be used in education (teaching institutes), healthcare (medical consultations), social services (safe spaces in which to address psychological needs), universal libraries in the world’s many languages, etc.

Yet even a cursory review of these domains raises decades-old (think NWICO, CRIS, and WSIS)1 questions of accessibility, affordability, and control. Who is manoeuvring behind the scenes? Will data be commodified? Will data be misused with a consequential negative impact on lives?

Another concern is equally worrying: restricting people to digital boxes on the pretence that they have greater freedom. According to David Baszucki, founder and CEO of Roblox, the online game platform and game creation system:

“For an eight-year-old, Roblox will be an engaging alternative to a local playground on a rainy day. A middle or high school student can tour ancient Rome, join a mission to Mars, or learn a foreign language with students halfway around the world. Aspiring young designers were recently able to attend the exclusive Fashion Awards 2021 at London’s iconic Royal Albert Hall virtually on Roblox. A mom of two teenage daughters, housebound during the Covid crisis, used our platform to spend time ‘snowboarding’ with them. Businesses may choose to have fully virtual workplaces, with avatars engaging in the same watercooler conversations and brainstorming sessions they’d have at the office, but from anywhere.”2

We know already that immersion in such technologies brings significant dangers. Underlining concerns about the potential adverse impacts of social media, the coroner’s inquest into the suicide of British teenager Molly Russell (reported in The Guardian, 1 October 2022) recorded that she “died from an act of self-harm while suffering from depression and the negative effects of online content”. The coroner heard that Molly had viewed large amounts of material related to suicide, depression, self-harm, and anxiety on Instagram and Pinterest before she died in November 2017.

Harmful content on the Internet is the subject of intense scrutiny, debate, and new legislation. The Metaverse will have to face similar challenges to accountability and ethical responsibility as it entices people with artificial social milieus – sports arenas, nightclubs, shopping malls, healthcare centres, and religious spaces – as if they were real, trustworthy, meaningful, and life-affirming. The problem lies in the “as if”.

Reality vs. unreality

In a book first published in 1911, the German philosopher Hans Vaihinger (1852-1933) elaborated the concept of “as if”. He argued that human beings are uniquely able to look at the world “as if” something were true, while simultaneously keeping open the possibility of its falsehood (hypothesis), while not entirely believing it (religion), or while not believing it at all (fiction). By viewing the world through the lens of such “useful fictions”, people learn to shape and accept it according to their social and moral beliefs:

“I wanted to give a complete enumeration of all the methods in which we operate intentionally with consciously false ideas, or rather judgements. I wanted to reveal the secret life of these extraordinary methods. I wanted to give a complete theory, anatomy and physiology so to speak, or rather a biology of ‘as if’.”3

Vaihinger offered examples from mathematics, mechanics, physics, chemistry, ethics and the philosophy of religion. He sought to demonstrate that the world of the “unreal” as experienced through the senses had become as significant as the world of the real or actual as verifiable by science. Vaihinger focused in particular on “fictions”, referring specifically to newspapers, novels, and early cinema. He died, however, before radio became firmly established and he could not have known what television would bring, nor computers and “virtual reality”, let alone the Metaverse.

To a large extent, today’s societies live firmly in a culture of “as if”. We vote as if it made a difference to policies dictated by global politics and economics; as if internecine conflict and environmental damage might cease; as if truth and peace might prosper. We can only be doing so because by thinking “as if”, changes might actually happen. Similarly, we live in a mass-mediated world of as if. We read newspapers and watch television news as if they were accurate representations of reality. We watch films and soap operas as if the people and situations were real and not contrived. We surf the Internet as if it were more than an “insubstantial pageant” of bits and bytes.

It is essentially the argument of as if that Umberto Eco explores in “Travels in Hyperreality”.4 Why do people rush to see waxwork museums, or the “authentic duplicates” of Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” museums, or the “masterpiece of bricolage” that is William Randolph Hearst’s Californian castle, or the “wild Xanadu” of the Ringling dynasty’s Venice-in-Florida palazzo Ca’ d’Zan? What is the endless attraction for adults (as well as children) of Disneyland and Disney World? Why will people pay to listen to an impersonation of Elvis Presley, but not of Glenn Gould? Why are people fascinated by fakes?

Eco suggests that modern society has conflated the real and the unreal, the authentic and the inauthentic, so that we can no longer separate them. If this is correct, it has profound implications, not least for our ability to distinguish – let alone choose – between ethical and unethical acts. It also suggests a deep malaise, a disenchantment with the old order of meanings and virtues, a shift away from “We are giving you the reproduction so that you will want the original” to “We are giving you the reproduction so you will no longer feel any need for the original”.5

In the same way, the Metaverse seems to be predicated on impersonating and replacing the real – whether it be artefact or lived experience – via an “authentic duplicate”. We are being persuaded to believe in the fiction rather than the reality. At least two aspects are alarming. The first is the potential hijacking of data by owners of digital platforms in what has become known as “surveillance capitalism”:

“Despite giving away many services for free, internet companies are able to generate substantial profits through personalized advertising. Selling advertising is the largest source of revenue for many internet companies that offer free services. They use the data they collect about you to customize and deliver targeted advertising messages. The data Google has about your viewing habits on YouTube for example are used to embed targeted advertising directly into the video clips that you watch, as well as promoting featured content. In Android smartphones, Google and app developers use in-app advertising to cash out on your personal data. The data gathered about your usage of installed apps and other behaviors on the internet is sold to businesses interested in selling services to you, according to the secret profile they have of you.”6

The Metaverse will fall foul of the same pressures. The second aspect is more sinister. Young users will be deceived by claims of authenticity and truth-telling and – worse still – be drawn into scenarios portraying or glamorising inappropriate social behaviour and violence – often of a graphic nature.

In 2013, the US not-for-profit Common Sense Media (CSM) published a summary report reviewing scientific research about violence in the media and its possible effects on aggressive behaviour.7 The report identified six broad areas of concern: television content, video game content, social media and other online content, music content, movie content, and advertising violent media to children. Published in the aftermath of the 2012 Aurora, Colorado, and Sandy Hook, Connecticut, shootings, the report paid particular attention to the role that violent media might have played in those tragic incidents. However:

“Most researchers… reject the idea that any single factor can ‘cause’ an otherwise nonviolent individual to become violent, particularly when it comes to violence on the scale of a massacre. Rather, they speak in terms of a variety of factors that increase the risk that an individual will behave violently.”8

At the same time, the report cautioned that cross-media studies – controlled for age, gender, and several other variables but not for exposure to family violence – indicate that children who constantly watch violent movies and TV or who play violent video games imitate aggressive scripts, condone violence, believe the world is a hostile place, become emotionally desensitized to violence, and lose empathy for victims.

Recognizing that multiple factors (called moderators or interaction effects) influence whether and to what extent violent media affect viewers, the report points to “reciprocal” relationships in which those with aggressive tendencies seek out more violent media content, leading over time to a “cycle of influence” or “downward spiral”. It concludes that longitudinal studies have shown that there are “reasons to be concerned that viewing (or playing) violent content increases the chance that a child will engage in violent behaviour in later life – especially if the child is aggressive to begin with and especially if other risk factors are present.”9

It is unlikely that the psychological impact of sustained immersion in the extended unreality of the Metaverse is on the radar of its proponents. It is critical, therefore, for experts to intervene at an early stage of the Metaverse’s deployment to monitor its design and content and to find appropriate and effective ways of regulating and sanctioning its constructs. However, it may already be too late.

In a focused study of US teens’ use of social media carried out by the Pew Research Center, researchers found that TikTok has established itself as one of the top online platforms, while the share of teens who use Facebook has fallen sharply:

“YouTube tops the 2022 teen online landscape among the platforms covered in the Center’s new survey, as it is used by 95% of teens. TikTok is next on the list of platforms that were asked about in this survey (67%), followed by Instagram and Snapchat, which are both used by about six-in-ten teens. After those platforms come Facebook with 32% and smaller shares who use Twitter, Twitch, WhatsApp, Reddit and Tumblr.”10

On the plus side, it can be argued that social media can be lifesavers for teens who feel isolated or marginalized. During the Covid-19 pandemic, for example, they helped teens in particular to feel more connected and less solitary. But the impact of social media on youth can also be significantly detrimental to mental health, studies indicating that social media and teen depression are closely linked. In “What TikTok does to your mental health: ‘It’s embarrassing we know so little’” (The Guardian, 30 October 2022), Kari Paul points out:

“In the few years since its launch, TikTok has already altered the face of the social media landscape, attracting more than 1 billion users and leading competitors to replicate some of its most unique features. The impact of that explosive growth and the ‘TikTok-ification’ of the internet at large on social media users remains little understood, experts warn, exacerbating concerns about the impact of social media on our habits and mental health.”

Scientists have noted that teen social media overuse creates a stimulation pattern similar to those created by other addictive behaviours. The brain responds to social media in the way it responds to other “rewards”: with a release of dopamine that is triggered by multiple likes, shares, and positive comments from their peers.

The Metaverse is intent on unifying and overriding all these social media apps in a one-stop, infinitely adaptable, addictive platform from which, like a digital black hole, there will be no escape. That, at least, is its aim: providing the illusion of relationship and community in an artificial and sterile digital world.

The Pew Research Center has published its own study of the hype and hope surrounding the likely evolution of a truly immersive and egalitarian Metaverse. The report includes expert opinions and views on potential positive and negative aspects from entrepreneurs, professionals and policy people based in government bodies, non-profits and foundations, technology businesses and think tanks, as well as interested academics and technology innovators.

Suffice to say that the jury is still out (and will likely remain so for a long time to come) on the overall shape and impact of what may be more than one version of the Metaverse. But the wealth of positive and negative opinions indicates that all is not as rosy in the Metaverse garden as its developers would have us believe. The Pew report includes a pertinent warning from Sonia Livingstone, professor of social psychology at the London School of Economics and special adviser to the UK House of Lords’ Select Committee on Communications:

“The experience of recent decades has taught us that digital innovations – now including the metaverse – are increasingly refined and effective for a sizable proportion of the population, sufficient to drive business and ensure continued innovation and improvement. At the same time, we know that the outcomes for a substantial minority will be problematic – exclusionary, discriminatory, hostile, exploitative and even dangerous. The metaverse is already set to be a highly polarized ‘place’. Some are developing creative forms of expression, looking forward to new forms of participation, and new ways of doing business. All will find their data exploited in the process, and dimensions of life that were once public will become monetized, and in some ways, mainstreamed and degraded. All will experience a digital world in which the casualties – to the public sphere, to our private lives, and to a minority of ‘vulnerable groups’ – will be disregarded in the rush to privilege the already-privileged, and any protest at what is lost, or what’s going wrong, will be ignored as ‘collateral damage’.”11

Notes

1. New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO); Communication Rights in the Information Society (CRIS) Campaign; World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).

2. Harvard Business Review (March-April 2022).

3. Vaihinger, Hans (1924). The Philosophy of “As if”, translated by C. K. Ogden. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul (p. xli).

4. Eco, Umbert (1986). “Travels in Hyperreality” in Faith in Fakes. London: Secker & Warburg.

5. Eco, op. cit. (p. 19).

6. Welekwe, Amakiri (2020). “What is surveillance capitalism and how can it affect you?” comparitech, 21 July.

7. CSM (2013). Media and Violence: An Analysis of Current Research. Common Sense Media.

8. CSM, op. cit. (p. 11).

9. CSM, op. cit. (p. 17).

10. Pew Research Center (2022). Teens. Social Media and Technology 2022 (p. 3).

11. Pew Research Center (2022). The Metaverse in 2040 (pp. 19-20).

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