Exploring the Internet’s Next Frontier
An analysis of the Metaverse, and its potential multipronged impact on life as we know it.
“The hype, skepticism, and bewilderment associated with the Internet — concerns about new forms of crime, adjustments in social mores, and redefinition of business practices — mirror the hopes, fears, and misunderstandings inspired by the telegraph. Indeed, they are only to be expected. They are the direct consequences of human nature, rather than technology.”
— Excerpt from The Victorian Internet, by Tom Standage
The question of whether the Metaverse is irrevocably good or bad; seedy or well-intended; isn’t for any single person to decide. Instead, I would invite would-be lovers and haters to an open-ended discussion not of business merit, but of the human condition, and how this condition can change the fundamental application of an augmented reality in a consumerist society.
Before we dive in, a preface…
The Metaverse was inevitable. Is it new? Technically no, as the platform is in itself a consolidation and gamification of social media, entertainment, and virtual payment-processing that already exists. It is, however, the next natural step as we transition from digital to an even deeper integration of our collective consciousness, interests, and technology. With the inception of the Metaverse will come many potentially wonderful things: New asset classes through which to invest in art in media, more engaging ways to communicate remotely, entire industries that exist exclusively in these virtual spaces, and the most democratized creative ecosystem ever, to subtly name a few.
History, however, demonstrates clearly that intent and application often differ with innovative technologies; most notably in how the economic upside of technology can supplant the concern for impact in other, less monetarily driven ways. Ironically, look no further than Facebook, now Meta, when it first started nearly 15 years ago. Though virtual worlds as legitimate, mainstream products are early in the rollout process, there must be a consideration for the uncharted territory that is the Metaverse, as the difference in the application here could fundamentally change our culture, our psychological makeup, our legal infrastructure, and the way we do business.
This analysis isn’t focused on scrutinizing Metaverse for what-ifs. The goal, rather, is to ask the right questions and to reach a more conclusive starting point for understanding the social, economic, and psychological impacts on the end-user (also, who is the end-user?). Join me as I explore the newest player in a long line of innovative creations built upon the ambiguity and freedom of the internet’s “wild west” era.
Questions of Impact #1: A Social Context
The inception of the Metaverse could revolutionize the nature of digital collaboration and communication, effectively creating space for an untapped level of interconnection. In this summary of Meta’s purpose, Mark Zuckerberg made it clear that this revolutionary and wildly innovative development also has implications in the workplace (given that remote work is here to stay).
As with all ventures, the larger players (Unity Software, Nvidia, Meta) in this virtual game appear to be rather bullish on the product as a whole. Given the financial upside of tapping into and taking ownership of a trillion-dollar market, I understand the overlaying optimism. I also have no desire to judge the unknowable motivations of the corporations or institutions that are highly vested in the success of the Metaverse.
With this innovation, however, always comes sacrifices that take on many forms. The post-industrial shift from utilitarian “good” as the best action for the most people to utilitarian good meaning doing the most good for shareholders (profit prioritization), which “trickles down” to people as a whole is more prevalent than ever. Newer technologies no longer serve the purpose of necessity or even relative want in this country. Instead, it appears that technological progress is predicated on the ability to quickly monetize and sell it as a consumer product. Through this lens, the best question to lay the framework for my analysis is this:
Why do we need it?
What is the social or societal implication in a world where a large chunk of our population exists exclusively online? Where the peaks and valleys of existence as human beings can be supplanted by a legal, audiovisual form of escapism that is already theorized to be addictive?
What are the pros and cons of deeply entrenched digital communication and collaboration in an era where issues like Zoom fatigue, social disconnection in a remote workplace, and an unhealthy intermixing of remote work and home life are already topics of discussion?
What about our relationships? Will this increase the rate at which people are unfaithful to their partners or feel disconnected from their families because of the added layer of potent visual stimulation? Especially in a culture that has only become more accepting of integrating one’s life with the internet to a point of synonymity?
We’ve already seen (especially in 2020 and 2021) examples of how technology can be used to target certain demographics that may historically be more receptive to information that supports their implicit biases as well. Biases that could have been written off as fringe thinking a decade ago, and now exist as millions-strong groups that are each willing to act in the interest of their perceived truths; to the point of violence, in some cases.
What happens to those groups in a digital realm that feels even more real than the one they already exist in? What is the potential downside of a world where entire economies and societies can exist free of intervention from the physical world? Where the thin veil between truth and fiction is much less notable than it is in a world where simply clicking “Home” can remove you from your immersion?
These questions, though somewhat pessimistic at the surface level, come to mind here because of how the unaddressed downsides of a product like a Metaverse could impact our society as a whole. Consumerism, though an arguably necessary aspect of the American economy, has its consequences. And much like the potential for the Metaverse to bring about an era of prosperity as we’ve never seen, there also lies the potential for consequences that dwarf the previous ones for ignoring how it could alter the zeitgeist for what constitutes “living”.
Point of Impact #2: The Psychological Context
Between documentaries like The Social Dilemma and studies analyzing the impact of social media on mental health, there is plenty of information alleging the addictive nature of things like video games, social media, and media as a whole is harmful if consumed in excess. What happens when we consolidate them all as a one-stop-shop for reverie and dopamine highs?
John Henry, a successful entrepreneur in the tech space, described Meta as a furtherance of Facebook’s greatest conquest thus far: Researching and understanding human behavior. Zuckerberg himself described the Metaverse as a platform with the continued mission of connecting people, but no business can exist without the pursuit of monetary gain. While this pursuit is not inherently negative or predatory, the lack of coverage around the extent to which the Metaverse will continue the now-controversial mission of Facebook’s live case study of the human psyche is what inspired the forthcoming ethical questions.
The very existence of a virtual world implies an extended, more immersive experience of the digital world, so what actually makes the Metaverse different from a less-avoidable version of Slack for employees, or Instagram for everyday people? Will there be systems in place to limit the stimulatory, overwhelming nature of such an immersive experience?
The self-concept of the average young person has already been negatively impacted by social media, where the window between truth and fiction in how one projects their image is becoming more opaque. Imagine a world where not only can you project the idea of a better self, but can curate and create a physical, “ideal” form of yourself. What happens to a young, developing mind when they can project an older, better looking, successful, “perfect” version of themselves in a virtual world?
When should the impact of social media on our collective psyche be taken into account? It took us years to truly address and acknowledge the impact of legal opioids on rural communities—will the psychological impact of the Metaverse be the same? To be clear, I’m not falsely conflating a legitimate opioid crisis with the prospect of living a second life online. I’m merely building from what we already understand about media and addiction, and trying to get to the bottom of how Meta’s initial experiment of shaping human behavior for the sake of developing near-perfect buyer personas will be different and more protective than what exists now.
Point of Impact #3: A Political & Legal Context
New technology has partially been able to expand so exponentially because there is a great deal of legal and political ambiguity there. It’s a strange topic because it raises the question of when the influence of private industry becomes so large that its designation shifts from “incorporated” to “nation-state”. Though this is legally and politically untrue, some folks may argue that entities like Meta already serve as a form of government; a government, by the way, with more constituents than most other governing bodies that exist to date (plus a more intimate perspective on them at an individual level).
Sure, we have cyber laws and a slew of regulatory enforcements as far as an incorporated business goes, but the grey area of determining intent in a digital setting and distinctly determining what constitutes legal harm when nothing is “real” and where VPNs are more popular than ever is what makes something like the Metaverse challenging to analyze, as the legal version of justified behavior differs greatly from the ethical version.
Does our current legal structure support the presence of a virtual world? Does legal precedent even exist to appropriately govern a virtual life? If not, who should be responsible for enacting new laws for this world? Can we trust experts in the space to advise on legislation without bias toward their own product? The primary challenge that I (with my limited understanding) envision here is the issue of determining the differences between the avatar’s actions and the individual’s.
What factors determine whether an avatar that conducts business or owns assets in the Metaverse can be treated as a legal individual, just as a corporation is? Or, what if a group of individuals share a single avatar? After all, an avatar isn’t actually you; it's a line of code acting on your behalf, and thus, could be tried as an individual since the blockchain makes it that much harder to know the where, what, and when of an online persona. Not to mention the added layer that almost everything in the Metaverse will be sellable, meaning even the avatar could be considered to be digital art or some other asset class. For these reasons, the avatar can’t automatically be presumed to be a carbon copy of whoever operates behind it, so it’s only natural to be curious about how this issue will manifest as our lives in the virtual world supplant our physical lives.
Additionally, through which pretext will the Metaverse be regulated? A social media platform, VR gaming company, real estate company, art brokerage, or a media company? This distinction matters, because I recently learned in a Q&A with Matt Murray of the Wall Street Journal that social media companies aren’t legally designated as news media companies, despite nearly 1/3 of Americans receiving their news via Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. I’d surmise that leaves the door wide open for a great deal of unadulterated influence in DC, where pundits could legally color outside of the ethical lines (misinformation, omittance, enabling) to reach their base.
What are the potential political ramifications? We saw what an over-committal to algorithmic curations of content did to polarize public discourse. What happens when that feels even more real than it already does? When instead of chat rooms, you can sit in an actual room with people who echo your grievances to the point of feeling that much more justified in whatever you all choose to do next, regardless of tortious or criminal harm?
A Caveat to These Questions
The primary, and perhaps most important thing to remember here is I could be totally wrong. My questions could be off base; the historical contexts may have been incorrectly applied; I may be missing important factors; or, maybe the Metaverse actually does exactly what it is intended to do.
In my experience, however, the best decisions are made when all sides of an issue are considered. I learned this especially from my legal studies and data courses, where scrutiny didn’t equate to negative criticism. The trouble with Meta and the Metaverse isn’t at all the robustness of the technology itself, as the existence of technology on its face doesn’t automatically infer the intent behind how it is applied.
Rather, my primary concern is with the fact that this virtual world has primarily been advertised for what it ideally could be for a subset of people, despite the fact that the ongoing theme in our society has been that any potential issue that goes unaddressed will surely show itself in a much uglier form down the line. An ugliness that transcends political parties, bottom lines, and personal beliefs; further highlighting the need to mitigate excessive consumption.
I can’t possibly have all the answers here, but I can’t reiterate enough that the overall goal is to ask good questions with the hope that individuals can either provide answers or will know how to better frame these questions.
So far, I’ve seen a lot of articles and posts about Meta’s potential market cap, Metaverse investment vehicles, Facebook’s controversies, and Mark Zuckerberg himself, but I wanted to focus on the patrons; the end-users of this product. After all, whatever consequences we experience here — big or small — will be felt by all of us, no matter the extent to which we hoped for the best or participated in the application of this technology.
And with that, I leave you with these final thoughts:
Technology has been a wonderful gift to humanity. The internet especially has paved an unforeseeable path to interconnectedness, sub-cultural ascension, and public discourse. The Metaverse invites us to dig deeper than ever before, but what is the potential cost of seamless, mesmeric accessibility — of the ability to entrench oneself in all that subjectively sounds, looks, and feels good at all times?
Furthermore, are there better ways to leverage these pocket-sized supercomputers? If Tiidenberg’s thoughts on our words becoming our realities is even a partly accurate, does encapsulating one’s psyche or worldview in a virtual bubble contrived of that which caters to said perspective sound healthy in the long term? It is worth a higher market cap or a lively NFT market? Under Tiidenberg’s logic that what we say becomes a lens through which we see the world around us, what happens when our bubbles are heavily focused on physical vanity, material accomplishment, or ego-driven assaults on antithetical beliefs?
Is there ever a valid argument within US culture that says the idea of being a free nation isn’t worth the tradeoff of statistically probable pitfalls that correlate with exposing an undereducated, underpaid, overworked, sedimentary, and underrepresented population to the quickest, easiest, and potentially least productive way to escape from those proverbial shackles?
When is enough, enough? At what point in the development of new or innovative technology do we deem a thing as existing for its own sake rather than for a verifiable greater good?
I suppose we won’t know until we get there. I, for one, am looking forward to the ride, as the only way through is to meet it head on.
- CNETTV. “Everything Facebook Revealed about the Metaverse in 11 Minutes.” YouTube, YouTube, 28 Oct. 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gElfIo6uw4g.
- Speights, K., 2021. 3 Stocks to Buy With a $30 Trillion Metaverse Market on the Way | The Motley Fool. [online] The Motley Fool. Available at: <https://www.fool.com/investing/2021/12/06/3-stocks-to-buy-with-a-30-trillion-metaverse-marke/> [Accessed 20 December 2021].
- Turel, Ofir, et al. “Delay Discounting Mediates the Association between Posterior Insular Cortex Volume and Social Media Addiction Symptoms — Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience.” SpringerLink, Springer US, 25 Apr. 2018, https://link.springer.com/article/10.3758/s13415-018-0597-1.
- “The Social Dilemma.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 16 Dec. 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Social_Dilemma.
- “Does Time Spent Using Social Media … — BYU ScholarsArchive.” Does Time Spent Using Social Media Impact Mental Health?: An Eight Year Longitudinal Study, Brigham Young University , https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5103&context=facpub.
- “Your favorite selfie filter could be contributing to a mental health crisis.”, The filters made available to users and invisible to viewers are creating an unrealistic portrait of what people look like. NBC News, https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/your-favorite-selfie-filter-could-be-contributing-mental-health-crisis-ncna837376
- “Whistle-Blower Unites Democrats and Republicans in Calling for Regulation of Facebook”, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/live/2021/10/05/technology/facebook-whistleblower-frances-haugen
- Markham, Annette N., and Katrin Tiidenberg. Metaphors of Internet: Ways of Being in the Age of Ubiquity. Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 2020.
- “Why Facebook Changed Their Name to Meta (Not What You Think).” YouTube, YouTube, 16 Nov. 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OA5aUqZlCr4.