Imagine a future where VR technologies connect people in ways human communication cannot. This is the age of the metaverse, and whether big or small, built for single players or communities, based around live-action games or social networks, each will blur the line between the virtual and physical world, blur it so fundamentally that it won’t matter which software you are using: for all intents and purposes, you’ll be living inside a new kind of world.
For all the possibilities the metaverse might lead us to, we must acknowledge the dangers. One cannot help but imagine Orwell’s reaction to an elevator pitch about such technological advances. What would he say about the idea that a powerful company could create a virtual world and not only monitor your activities within it, but also glean insights from your facial expressions and vital signs transmitted via wearable technology?
A Potted History of Virtual Reality
The first virtual reality headset was developed in the 1960s by cinematographer Morton Heilig. His device, called the Sensorama, was capable of stimulating a user’s senses of sight, sound, smell, and touch. Two decades later, computer-generated VR began to be used by the military for training purposes; the first VR game was developed in 1987, and the first commercially-available VR headset was pioneered by Sega in 1991.
The 1990s saw a rapid expansion in the use of VR technology, with a preponderance of virtual reality arcades opening up across the globe. The technology began to be deployed for entertainment as well as military and educational purposes, and by the close of the decade, the first massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) debuted, paving the way for today’s popular virtual worlds like Second Life and World of Warcraft.
With the release of Oculus Rift’s consumer virtual reality headset in 2016, VR has enjoyed something of a renaissance. Today there are a wide variety of devices available on the market, ranging from high-end systems like the Oculus Quest 2 and Pivo 4 to more affordable options like Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR.
But the reappearance of VR devices isn’t just tied to gaming; it’s inextricably linked to the evolution of the metaverse, an interconnected virtual realm where we can work, play, and socialize with others in a variety of ways. Skeptics, though, are already concerned that the metaverse could be used to optimize advertising, assert control, and fundamentally manipulate our sense of free will…
Metaverse Mind Control
Complaints levelled at the metaverse generally follow a similar track: “It’s social media on steroids!” Like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, metaverse technologies could certainly be used to harm people emotionally and mentally, worsening problems like anxiety, addiction, depression and agoraphobia. They could also be used to exploit vulnerable parties financially. At the extreme end of the spectrum, they could promote addiction and cause users to lose their grasp of reality.
Generally speaking, though, similar criticisms could be made of the internet and smart tech more generally. Children of the Digital Age are already addicted to their smartphones: go take a ride on the subway and try making eye contact with a stranger, if you want proof. But the critics say that interactive metaverse systems pose more inherent dangers due to their potential for cognitive engineering and unprecedented surveillance.
First-person sensory experiences will be the norm in the metaverse: the user will be at the center of things, no longer an outsider parsing information on a screen but an intrepid explorer interacting with hyperrealistic content populating their spatial zone. This very fact suggests that creators of such a worlds would wield enormous influence, with the ability to analyze our real-time behaviors (including physical reactions) and infer results to push us in a certain direction.
We could, in short, be made into the perfect customer. Or the most compliant citizen. It makes the Chinese Social Credit System look like a children’s tea-party. Or so the critics might argue…
It’s certainly true that metaverses could evolve in this iniquitous fashion, and some agenda-driven centralized platforms will undoubtedly be geared towards maximum control: selling us products, disseminating propaganda, etc. But an ideological battlefront will surely emerge between these venues and decentralized alternatives, the sort governed by DAOs and teeming with organic, user-generated content.
On the face of it, the metaverse presents a great many risks, not least to our freedom of thought, privacy and autonomy. At this stage of the game, though, the focus should be on promoting ethical builders who are mapping a metaverse future that we can all get behind. A world that’s frictionless, secure, private by default and unbeholden to corporate control.