The Metaverse: Should We Be Escaping Reality or Fixing It?
Like all technology, the Metaverse can be used for good or evil. We can hide in it or learn how to heal and help our vulnerable real-world children and families.
I just watched Mark Zuckerberg, billionaire boy wonder of Facebook, taking me on a video tour of his proposed Metaverse and I was both fascinated and mortified. Yes, the concept is fascinating. But its social implications are deeply troubling. A somewhat vacant-eyed Mark was magically transported into a virtual world – like a scene out of the film Ready Player One – where real humans or humans disguised as robots (or other avatars) were meeting around a room. While Mark joined the party in his slick promotional sales pitch, all I could imagine was how many billions of hours and dollars would be spent in the Metaverse. Since I tend to see both worst case and best case scenarios with everything, I will start with the worst case scenario as humans put on their visors and disappear in a million different adventures.
We are already only a few steps from disappearing into a metaverse, without Mark Z. spending a dime. We already have virtual concerts, virtual dating, people buying virtual wardrobes and gamers making a living off their virtual adventures designed in virtual offices. We are a society addicted to escapist movies so we know the Metaverse will suck in hordes of viewers who seek to immerse themselves in the next Star Wars, Star Trek or Marvel superhero world. Today millions already visit, and almost live in, virtual, game-based worlds, where players can gather, consume, fight and explore from the safety and comfort of their gaming chairs. The bottom line is that we are a society at the precipice of disconnecting with itself. Not unlike the internet, the Metaverse will create the illusion of connecting while making us more isolated than ever.
Moderation in the Metaverse?
I’m all in favor of escapist entertainment in moderation, but the Metaverse could easily become so addictive and inviting that many will lose the capacity to connect to others for altruistic endeavors like fixing hunger, homelessness, lack of healthcare and surviving with work that doesn’t pay a living wage. In our world of many colliding crises, we have far too many challenges to address, requiring real-world humans solving real-world problems.
There’s also the huge problem that so much of Facebook and other social and mass media is inundated with fake news, misleading half-truths about political groups or officials and extremist content that promotes racism, classism, sexism and discrimation of all kinds. The Metaverse will be filled with messaging from corporations and those armed with half-truths, intent on dividing us politically.
The Metaverse environment will house individuals represented by mysterious avatars, with their real identities kept secret. This means knowing whom to trust will become very difficult. In my worst case scenario, the Metaverse will also be promoting products and services in an unending quest to get you to consume, all while avoiding the local community work required to create a caring society.
A (virtual) glass half full?
Then there’s a best case scenario within the Metaverse. While 99% of content within the virtual world will be designed to sell things people don’t need, and help people escape their real world (and possibly troubled and traumatized) realities, hopefully 1% can be designed to empower people to become altruistic and focus their selfless caring on addressing hunger, homelessness, untreated mental health challenges, and a woefully unprepared health care system and public education system.
A Metaverse for altruists can invite experts in addressing health disparities to come together from across the globe to identify solutions. In virtual retreat centers, Swedish health policy experts can meet with health equity advocates in Albuquerque to design health care for all. Food equity experts in Costa Rica can collaborate with food bank leaders in Las Cruces to improve food security programs. The Metaverse can, if altruists control even a sliver of the content, provide an environment that offers the best aspects of a university that include promoting learning, questioning, critical thinking and turning research into real world solutions.
Hiding vs Helping
We are a national culture that has made escapism into the highest art form with 24/7 access to booze, drugs, consumerism, hooking up, binge watching, immersive gaming and conspiracy theory pushing. The harsh reality is that we live in a deeply troubling time in the United States with epidemic rates of childhood trauma, social adversity, descrimination and income disparities. (Mark Z, Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos really have more individual annual income than some developing countries. That just can’t be right in any universe). Unless we are vigilant, social services will be attacked and dwindle, turning each state into a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality, where we blame children for being born into vastly under-resourced families and communities.
Like all technology, the Metaverse can be used for good or evil. We can hide in it or learn how to heal and help. We can create virtual classrooms where local change agents learn how to ensure every family can access the vital services for surviving and thriving. Or we can turn off our brain and float the days away on Planet Xenon with virtual companions purring into our ear, “Everything’s fine.” As the Metaverse beckons us to enter, I can only hope that we discover new tools for fixing our harsh reality and not simply develop new ways to hide from it. We require a universe of heroes battling greed, apathy and fear, not a Metaverse filled with virtual billionaires dancing on a spaceship to Saturn.