Where is there such a misbegotten world? Well, in the much hyped "metaverse" - already spawned into a quasi reality - as Facebook guru Mark Zuckerberg renamed his creation "Meta". He plans to make 'Meta' as indispensable to billions as he has Facebook, if not more. Is this good? It can't be if it divorces pandemic-stressed humans even further from reality. As columnist JoAnna Novak (We’re Longing for the One Thing the Metaverse Can’t Give Us ) from the NY Times warned:
"Through virtual and augmented reality (also Ray-Ban Stories smart glasses), Meta’s technology aims to change how we live, how we connect with friends and family. (Imagine teleporting hologram-you to concerts or Thanksgiving dinners.) Except for all its patter about bringing people together, Meta advances a fundamental human disconnection: It removes our bodies from the equation.
Is this hyperbolic? No! Losing touch with oneself and others means becoming more unreal, and therein lies the danger of full blown psychosis. Articles about touch hunger and touch starvation since Covid began already reveal just how vital real tactile connection is. It is also conceivable that the increasingly unhinged behavior we are seeing is tied to this 'touch famine' - everything from fights with attendants on planes, to the increased crime rates now in urban areas.
There is also a dopey, naive assumption that entering this "metaverse" will just be hunky dory -- no problems! As one mom in a related NY Times piece expressed her own fears of kids merely stuck inside - glued to screens during the pandemic:
"My children do not know how to read a room, observe the set of a jaw or assess the determination of a glare. They wave at strangers and are apt to start up conversations, assuming that the other person bears them good will. "
Imagine how much less able these kids would be in a virtual world, trying to assess the "set of jaws" of avatars-(or their "staring glares") in a metaverse. It would be as if such kids were left to fend for themselves amidst a virtual jungle of totally disguised threats rivaling those in the outside, real world.
These threats posed as malignant or innocuous- looking avatars are not to be scoffed at. Prof. Julia Shaw ('Evil: The Science Behind Humanity's Dark Side') has shown this clearly (pp. 112- 114) in terms of how bots -as well as avatars, presumably - can "change their algorithms" and learn to manipulate their environments in destructive ways. AI might enable a less benign person to devise an avatar resembling a demon, marauding across a virtual landscape, e.g.
And preying on innocents, for example. Acknowledging this, Prof. Shaw insists we need "new rules in place - even laws- that decide who is accountable". Even asking: "Can we hold technology legally accountable?" Well, in truth, I don't believe we are there yet. But details like this ought to be nailed down and the sooner the better! For example, as Prof. Shaw asks: "Is it really a crime if that which is doing the crime is not a human?" Say if the avatar is actually a bot-driven entity in the guise of Satan, e.g.
And it attacks an innocent avatar, albeit also bot -driven, named "Kendra" (from the "Messiah Game"), e.g.
Can it be held accountable? Can the technology be held accountable? What if your kid's avatar in 'Meta' encounters a welcoming "Kendra" - innocent as she is - but an algorithm trigger suddenly shape-shifts "Kendra" into the "Satan" form -which grabs your kid's avatar? Prof. Shaw rightly argues such actions put evil into a novel and more frightening context we need to urgently address. Again, how do we regard any kind of virtual act especially one involving an attack of one avatar on another? Is it real, or merely imaginary?
For now- and on a more tranquil, less horrific note- let me reference 'Second Life' -actually a version of the metaverse that has existed before - and failed. Anyone recall it? Some, in fact a lot, of what's been circulating in the hype-prone media about the metaverse, could be ripped straight from the tech headlines in the late 2000s. Indeed, much of what's been currently claimed as "new" - by the likes of Zuckerberg and others- was already in use for 2nd Life. That included: working in virtual offices, investing in virtual real estate, playing virtual games and - wait for it! - participating in digital currency transactions and buying digital art (think NFTs or non-fungible tokens in today's parlance.)
Everyone at the time, as I recall, declared it "isn't a passing fad" like Pong, even as it became one. There simply was too much real world stuff going on to get lost in some unreal virtual world. Today things are radically different because too many brains (psyches?) are already enmeshed in an inner reality thanks to the pandemic - which has discouraged outside interactions. At the same time the rise of AI (artificial intelligence) has made giant leaps with 'smart' machines and devices everywhere- even your smart TV watching you, and "Alexa" ready to deliver answers in the wink of an eye. But these same AI systems that add convenience to daily life can add mounds of malevolence to an insulated virtual world.
Thus, on the one hand a kid might behold a virtual Ariane Grande staging a concert on his Fortnite app.But on the other, a demonic entity - avatar such as previously described and which assaults the Ariane avatar. If you are a virtual witness to said attack, how would you describe it? Will there even be a virtual cop to whom you can report the "crime"? How about an instant administrator of the virtual world site? If you are asked for evidence what do you say?
The potential for such avatar mischief has a growing cadre of techies looking at ways to impose standards - including for use of avatars- on the construction of any future metaverse. The idea would be to reflect standards such as now applicable on the web, and the internet itself. There is also the potential to undercut the external use of algorithms to jack up conflict such as we beheld with Facebook, e.g.
In this case, we have the concept underlying "Web3", i.e. the new metaverse can be built with open source code and a similar kind of blockchain--based system undergirding cryptocurrencies like bitcoin. With such technologies it may well be feasible to use a global system of computers that can operate both a metaverse and all the applications people may wish to build atop them. The very openness- and use of open source code- would be attractive to legions of users - precisely because it would enable them to route around the gatekeepers who might dictate what they put in the metaverse. Or leave out! Especially the algorithms that feed advert $$$ and generate never-ending conflict in the current iteration of the net. Hell, even Zuckerberg, in a Zoom conference four weeks ago, praised the virtues of a metaverse built with open standards, interoperability, and with new "democratic" forms of governance, i.e. not created by one gargantuan company.
Another aspect that could prevent a totally insular, more dangerous virtual reality to dominate is the potential for a shared, mixed reality, i.e. blending a virtual world accessed through VR headsets with an augmented reality (AR)accessed via phones and future AR headsets. The shared (AR/VR) mixed reality would be made possible using something like Facebook's Oculus 2 headsets. Those devices feature "front facing" cameras so enable a view of the outside world to "pass through" allowing players in a game, for example, to be outside - and inside VR.
Of course, once the pandemic ends - and with it the lockdowns and social distancing etc. - it is possible that people will be so desperate to return to real world, outdoor living that VR or VR/AR mixed realities will cease to hold them in thrall. This applies especially to young teens already captive to Instagram. Instagram, in particular, is a hub of youth anxiety and mental health problems. The company’s own research indicates that the app exacerbates body image issues for nearly a third of teenage girls experiencing them, according to a recent . Equally troubling is that Facebook appears to have been proceeding with 'Meta' apps without fully and properly consulting child safety experts.
On the other hand, if an AR/VR mixed reality emerges to dilute virtual addiction levels, who knows the extent of benefits that may accrue? If that materializes then this new metaverse may turn out to be largely a world of hype like Second Life turned out to be. Merely another palsied effort to suck everyone out of the real world and into the addictive virtual one. If that indeed turns out to be the case then it means the latest incarnation (in 'Meta') can't win against the stiff competition from the 3-dimensional domain of recreation, socialization known as real life. People will then be back to confronting the known prosaic evils and outside threats - as opposed to internal VR manifestations powered by AI and leading to more unhealthy fixation and addiction.